1 Oct 2008, 8:56am
interviews researcher perspective
by Meagan Nuss

Do People Always Spoil Utopia?

Population is one of the most common themes we hear in the interviews.  It readily comes up when we start to talk about dystopia, but it never seems very far from people’s minds throughout the whole discussion.  People are deeply concerned about the balance of population and resources.  At the global level, overpopulation as one of the strongest forces causing much of the world’s worst problems is considered a plain fact.  At the regional and local level, dramatic rise in population is a looming threat to the perceived relative utopias people enjoy here.  The fear is that this current utopia will fail when more people come to enjoy it too (whether because they are forced from their own homes, or because they are drawn voluntarily to the Pacific Northwest and particular localities within it).  Overpopulation is certainly a factor that can put a tremendous amount of pressure and strain on a system that was working well with its given resources, and if it happens too quickly, its affects can be devastating.  I’m interested, however, in the underlying assumption tied up in the idea of there being a tipping point where more people equals a downward spiral into dystopia – or at least enough disruption that an ideal community loses the things which made it ideal.  For example, one man described Seattle as his utopia for twenty years; another ten years later everyone else moved there, and he had to get out.  The city had turned into a dystopia for him – too much noise, traffic, pollution, and so on.

It’s one thing to say one might just prefer a smaller town to a city.  But what is it about utopias needing to be well-kept secrets from the rest of the world?  Are successful utopias always undiscovered, where perhaps there can be some people, but not many?  As Jim Kopp writes about in Eden Within Eden (forthcoming), when early pioneers came west and found places that invoked names like Paradise, Eden, Enterprise, and Eureka, they were looking upon vast tracts of beautiful land untouched (as far as they knew) by humans.  I wonder if those pioneers imagined development like industry, agriculture, and large communities of people when they looked upon the new land, or whether instead they believed the “untainted” nature of the place to be essential to their notion of utopia.  Did they expect it to remain as ideal as they found it, when more people came out to join them?  Or does this go back to classical ideas of Eden as involving pristine nature and the absence of man?  In the case of the latter, you can see the stubbornness of a “me only” attitude – only me, and a few others, can live here and occupy utopia.  If you come, it will be ruined, and we’ll all have to move on to the next place.  Utopia can only stay in balance with so many people, and, well, we were here first.

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