Friday, 1 October 2010

The Village Utopia

I have a thought experiment for you, to help you think about what a model society would look like, and whether your model society would work. It's also an excuse to have free reign designing things in your mind, which I always enjoy.

Imagine a small village in the foothills. It could be Montana, or British Columbia, or Scotland, or Burundi. The country or continent is irrelevant. What is important is that this village has enough natural resources to support a comfortable, if simple, life in the village with minimal or no outside contact. For all intents and purposes, this village has sovereign autonomy; either it is legally recognized as a separate nation, like the Vatican, or it is wholly unpoliced by the national government. Either way, the municipal government has complete control over this community. Further, the village is largely isolated; the distance between it in the nearest neighbours is prohibitively great, or the terrain is prohibitively intraversable to make travel easy.

For minor and unimportant reasons, everyone in the village wants to move away within a year. There is nothing wrong with the resources; there is no disease; there is no threat of invasion or war; there is no climate crisis or malevolent weather system. Perhaps there are schisms in the community, or maybe everyone has been struck by pathological wanderlust, or maybe the municipal government has lost everyone's trust and no one feels like they can at this point make a better go of it. It doesn't matter. Every single person wants to move out, even though there is nothing wrong with the village.

And here's the fun part: the mayor has decided to give sovereignty of the village to you, on the condition that you use the village to design the perfect village utopia.

The people in the village who run the administrative stuff (post officers, treasurers, garbage people, repair people, civil engineers, grounds staff, peace officers, and whoever else you might need) are going to be around for a year, so they can train their replacements if need be. Other than that you can populate this village with whoever you like. Or, more accurately, you can populate the village with whoever would be willing to live in the village as you design it. You can have a screening process, if you will, and because you have sovereignty, there is no one to say you can't disallow people from joining your utopia. Further, we can posit some sort of simple exportable resource, a lucrative one, so that you can import whatever technologies you desire. (OK, so your village is supposed to be isolated. Let's say there is a teleporter in the village that can only teleport non-living materials.) All of your food is produced by the village itself in the surrounding area.

Let's say that your village has a population of between 200 and 5000 people. You can pick which.

My question is, how would you design your village? You have sovereignty, and everyone in your village, because they can join freely and will only join informedly, will go along with whatever rules you set up at the outset. This means you have complete control over a willing populace... at least, in as far as you stick to your initial rules.

If you want, then, you could have a communist agrarian nudist colony, or a free-market free-love society, or a 1950s nostalgia community, or a scientific outpost maintained by indentured serfs, or a reconstructed Viking fort. How would you design what, in your opinion, would be the perfect village to live in?

What sorts of technologies would you allow?
What kind of laws would you have?
Would you institute a representative democracy, or some other form of government?
Who would live there? Is there a specific demographic of people you would have living here?
What ideals would your community be built around?
How would you approach issues of property ownership, taxation, welfare, and other economic matters?
What activities/spaces would you use for in community-building?
If you are into civil planning, how would you organize the physical space of the village?
What sort of housing/family structures would your citizens live in? (Nuclear family, extended family, communal living halls, cloistered cells...)
Would there be a specific religion, areligion, or political philosophy necessarily shared by all people?
How would you use police? Please remember that, although you can pick who lives here, and everyone lives here willingly, these are still real people living in your village. Some of them may commit crimes.
What sorts of cultural artifacts would be predominate in your village? (ie. Chinese cuisine, Greco-Roman theatre, surfer-bum fashion, country-western music...) Or would you be more cosmopolitan?
What sorts of urban cosmetic features would you have? (ie. solid gold statues of Aphrodite in the main square, Dutch windmills, old Mississippi homesteads, mango trees growing up out of the sidewalk... think civil design and architecture)

OK, that's enough questions. Design your village. Once you're done, come back for the rest of the activity.

Hopefully you now have your little model utopian society mapped out. If you want to write up a description on your own blog and link to that post in the comments section, I would greatly appreciate it. In the meantime, are you ready for the rest of the activity? Good. Let's do some experiments.

Imagine four generations have passed. You are deceased, but the little village you have put in place is still trucking. So are all of its social norms, laws, community codes, and so forth. Further, there has been almost no immigration or emigration. What this means is that the original settlers, those who elected to join the village, are dead, and the people now living there were born there, and due to the relative isolation of the village, moving out isn't a viable option. So my first question is, what would it be like to live there if you did not choose to live there? What would it be like to live there if you do not want to live there? Would it be possible for someone to be born in this society who was not welcome there, and what would it be like to be them?

Back to the present. You know that nice exportable resource which generates enough income to get you whatever technology you want? It's gone, or it's no longer valuable. What happens to your village when your only way to afford imports is gone?

A change in climate decreases the quantity and quality of your foodstuffs. It is much more difficult to produce enough for your village to eat, though it would be possible to produce enough if the majority of the village worked on agriculture or other necessary industry for regular worker hours. Would you reallocate all of your citizens to agriculture, or would you require that most of your citizens work harder so that a few citizens can continue working at whatever "non-essential" jobs you wanted them to work at (ie. research, theology, science, art)? Or were you strictly subsistence in the first place?

A flood nearby has required some of your nearest neighbours to flee to your village for refuge. They are radically different from the sorts of people who live in your village, and they have entirely different social norms and beliefs which they are between hesitant and unwilling to give up. How do you receive these refugees?

And my last question, I think, is most interesting: Would you, as you are today, be welcome in the village you designed? Would you be able to adhere to its customs and laws? Or would you only be able to live in your village if you were a different person than you are now?

I'd like to hear your answers to these questions, too.


Amy said...

Ouch! My brain hurts. It's too early on a Saturday AM for this much work. LOL

I have bookmarked this post though and will show it to my husband because he is actually trying to design a utopian community IRL.

yolanda said...


i'll take (to start): communitarian/distributionist with hints of socialist (some may think it slightly communist but only by david harvey's very very broad/loose definition), largely agrarian, pacifist (starting to sound amish)...
with influence from the garden city and arts and crafts movements including william morris,former tanzanian president mwalimu (teacher) nyerere, as well as today's ecocity and permaculture enthusiasts, and the "deep economy" model
but before continuing

i have three questions, which are:
1) are youth allowed to board abroad for higher education if my community is too small to support a university? (ex: a candidate for priesthood going to study at a grand seminaire, or to be novices at a religious order not yet established in the community, a doctor going to a medical school, etc)

2) can i purchase art that is technically part of permanent collections elsewhere in the world and not actually for sale?

3) can people be medically evacuated elsewhere for treatment if my community is too small to support complex medical interventions?

Christian H said...

Good questions.

I would say to your first, incoming citizens will include novices, doctors, etc. Subsequent generations will not leave the village. (I am imposing this contraint only for the sake of the experiment itself. I wonder how much isolation is necessary for a utopian village.)

To your second, yes, you could buy existing artworks.

To your third, I don't think so. Again, a degree of isolation is what I have in mind.

As you ask these questions, though, it really brings out (for me) the degree to which isolation may be as prohibitive to a small utopia as it is enabling.

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