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  • Maria Burbach

Urbanizing Utopia

With this entry, 21-year old Maria from Munich answered our open Call for Submissions in which we encouraged our readers to reflect on their “Vision of Utopia”. Do you have anything to share with us? Go to our website’s Call For Submissions tab and share your thoughts with the world.



- PAST -

I’m six years old and my older brother and I religiously watch the 2006 BBC documentary series Planet Earth at least every other week. Like all children, we love animals and are amazed by the world’s beauty, diversity and vastness: Nature seems to be overflowing with life. David Attenborough’s voice transports us to realms which are almost fairytale-like to our young minds: bustling jungles, deep oceans, endless deserts, snowy mountains, and mysterious caves. In my play time, I try to imitate what I’m seeing on screen in the confined space of my childhood bedroom. I build entire universes with my Schleich animals and eventually, they take on a life of their own - every figure has a name, certain characteristics, a family, friends, and a job. To young me, this is the perfect society: Everyone cares for each other and contributes something to the community. Young animals go to school, sick animals are treated by my proclaimed animal doctors, and fights are solved peacefully. Of course, the lions are related to the lions, and the cheetahs are related to the cheetahs - but these ‘blood relations’ only matter insofar as they shape the animals’ daily family lives. Overall, everyone is part of a big, harmonious community.


Sadly, unlike my makeshift world, David Attenborough’s ‘fairytale’ documentary depicts a world that’s not so perfect after all. True to its genre, there’s a villain lurking right around the corner: humanity. My eyes glued to the TV screen, I spend my weekends following the doomed fate of emaciated polar bears - stranded on ice caps, awaiting their inevitable death. Thanks to my favorite Brit, I’m familiar with the concept of global warming. I am still too young to understand, however, that this seemingly harmless term not only affects the poor polar bears but also my own life on a large scale.


In the microcosm I have created, there is no room for global warming. While I am deep in thoughts playing with my animals, I subconsciously create my own perfect little environment. Of course, in my six-year-old mind, there is nothing utopian about my made-up city - although it comes pretty close to my later understanding of a utopia. The city just is. That is not to say that I’m mindless nor that I’m a prodigy. I’m not trying to compete with Hobbes, Rousseau, or Locke on how to create an ideal society - as a matter of fact, I have never heard of these names at this age. But like most children, I already have a very good, yet subliminal understanding of justice and fairness. From a more objective perspective, my community is certainly not perfect. I have set it up as a monarchy, with a queen as the ‘head of state’. She is a very kind and compassionate queen - an aristocrat, nonetheless. At least it already feels natural to me to see women in positions of power - even though, so far, I have never heard of feminism either.



- PRESENT -

I’m 21 years old and David Attenborough still narrates wildlife documentaries bearing testimony of the anthropogenic destruction of our Earth. I no longer play with Schleich animals and unfortunately, my favorite Brit and childhood hero has adopted a - diplomatically speaking - problematic stance of what the best way is to combat global warming. According to him, some sort of utopian living that mitigates the consequences of the climate crisis can be magically achieved if we only stop population growth. There is no talk of toppling the very power systems that structure our current world order - which have arguably led to humanity screwing itself over big time. Attenborough’s ‘solution’ conveniently shifts the responsibility onto those who have contributed the least to global warming but are already among the ones who suffer from it the most. His stance highlights how, nowadays, neocolonial policies and market-oriented assumptions still prevail and, consequently, prevent any meaningful action to tackle the climate crisis.


Accordingly, my outlook on the future is rather grim and I have started thinking about how our society can be organized differently. Because I have lived in cities of varying sizes my entire life, my thought experiments almost always automatically drift towards some sort of urban utopia. More often than not, they show some resemblance to the Star Trek franchise - another series that was very present in my earlier life. But although more than half of today's population lives in urban areas, most cities are pretty far from the utopian vision I’d admired in sci-fi movies growing up. In the summer, the city turns into a concrete jungle where not dreams, but rather nightmares are made of - the already above lying temperatures are amplified by the almost mockingly shimmering, reflective surfaces of the office buildings lining parking lot after parking lot. When the city gets hit by a once-in-a-century rainfall event every other year, there are not enough green spaces and seepage areas to absorb the excess water, causing entire streets, buildings, and neighborhoods to flood.


Sure, to 21-year-old me, the city can definitely feel like a utopia from time to time: What’s not to love about the anonymity of blending in with the crowd while still somehow feeling like the main character of my own little coming of age movie? Simultaneously, I know that much of my freedom and my living standards are largely owed to the fact that many people lack the privileges I enjoy because of my skin color, social class, and nationality. The attempt to sustain unlimited growth with limited resources must come at the expense of someone. The city turns into a dystopia the instance someone can no longer pay their rent and loses the roof over their head because their building is being remodeled into an overpriced loft for young professionals.


I admit that my insights are by no means revolutionary. Of course, everyone should be equal. Of course, we should save the planet. However, I have a growing feeling that there is no widespread understanding of how drastically our current world order needs to change if we want to arrive at these pretty straightforward ideals. There seems to be a disconnect between the general consensus that we must transform our way of living to a sustainable one and the specific actions needed to realize that transformation. Not that I would be the one to have these concrete solutions. But although my Schleich animals have been safely tucked away in my childhood bedroom for ages, I can’t shake the feeling that I was onto something playing with them all those years ago. Nevertheless, while I contemplate why this imaginary society is still so appealing to me, David Attenborough and I and everyone else keep on living and functioning in a system that slowly destroys the planet from within.



- FUTURE -

I’m dead, as is David Attenborough. As part of the latest obsession with everything vintage, my great-great-grandchildren have discovered DVDs for themselves. They are in awe when they find the Planet Earth series - David's accent is as charming as ever - and they can barely believe that their ancestors were capable of pushing the Earth to a near collapse. Fortunately, humanity got its act together just in time.


The lives of my descendants look very different from everything the now-dead me used to know in her lifetime. Because globalization and the goal of infinite economic growth have become impossible to uphold - or rather, because people have finally realized that they were unattainable in the first place - humanity has been forced to rethink its way of living. Society no longer bears the inherently discriminatory, exploitative, and ultimately undesirable signature of capitalism but has instead been reorganized into non-hierarchical, self-sustaining ultra- communes: today’s cities. They have been set up based on three principles which have been around for decades but had been first introduced to 21-year-old me by Teju Adisa-Farrar: decentralization, decolonization, and decommodification.


In practice, these rather abstract concepts translate to a society in which a high living standard doesn’t rely on the further oppression of historically marginalized groups but is ensured by localized networks which provide food and public goods, such as education and health care. The modern city rejects the centralization of power and any notion of hierarchical governing structures. That is not to say that the city is a lawless, chaotic place – it just means that patriarchal and colonial power structures are not only finally understood to be outdated and simply wrong, but also no longer manifested in society’s institutions. There has been a shift in how people and things are valued. They have traded places if you will: People are finally seen as having an innate worth and are no longer primarily judged by their productivity. Objects, on the other hand, are not an end in themselves but are rather possessed to serve a specific function to humans. This understanding has not only shifted how people treat each other, but also how they treat the Earth. It has helped today’s civilization to save important resources and use them in such a way that the planet no longer suffers at the hands of humans.


To some, this communal way of living may sound like some hippie dream - or like anarchy. Even though I am at this point already dead and don’t get much say on this anymore, I would beg to differ: To me, this version of the city sounds pretty utopian. People are no longer systematically and institutionally marginalized because of their skin color, gender, social class, ability, or sexuality. Our Earth had time to recover, and its ecosystems are no longer at the brink of their collapse. The city is utopian because it can pragmatically realize the vision of a localized community while giving everyone the largest extent of personal freedom possible. It’s utopian because it actually allows its inhabitants to lead a life which doesn’t rely on the exploitation of the planet and its peoples.


Unfortunately, David and I are not there to witness how the status quo of the 21st century has become obsolete, and that today’s civilization is anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, and - finally - ecologically sustainable. But fortunately, at least someone is there to witness it - because humanity managed to save itself.


Here comes the plot twist though: David and I are not dead just yet and this utopia already partially exists today, even if only on the smallest of scales. There are shared living arrangements, communal gardens open to the public, non-profit institutions that work for the collective good, and cities that are not only green but also working on becoming self-sustaining. Although my utopia is - by definition - fictional, it luckily doesn’t have to be impossible.


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