Book review: Entropia, by Samuel Alexander

Entropia-CoverSamuel Alexander‘s new book is an unusual one. It is set in 2099, a fictional account of a small community cut off from the rest of the world and forced to adopt a self-sufficient and sustainable way of life. Founded as an experiment in living on a small island off New Zealand, the collapse of the global economy leaves the people of Entropia isolated. They have to work out how to feed themselves, provide energy, housing and a decent living, working with whatever is to hand.

They succeed in creating what is essentially a microcosm of a steady state economy, and the narrator looks back from the end of the century and describes their way of life. These detailed descriptions are the main feature of the book, the fictional setting being a vehicle to explore what a simple way of life might look like. There are practical sections on food and material goods, and philosophical and political questions too. Participatory democracy and artistic self-actualisation are just as important here are technical definitions of sustainability – this is about human flourishing in the broadest sense.

In this imagined future, industrial capitalism goes by the shorthand of ‘Empire’. Residents of Entropia read its history and puzzle over the vast accumulation of debt, the tolerance of inequality, and the cavalier attitude to waste that characterised consumer societies. Instead, life for them is based around material sufficiency. The economy is geared towards providing basic needs, with people pursuing the good life through qualitative means such as education, leisure and artistic endeavour. Life on the island is thus a buzzing creative bohemia, based around voluntary simplicity and anarchist principles of self-governance.

I quite liked the society that the book describes, but as I read on I found a growing cloud overshadowing the prospect – namely, what about everybody else? What’s going on in the rest of the world, while these 1,700 people live happily on their island? If Entropia is basically just a lifeboat for a lucky few, while the rest of humanity goes to pot out there in the real world, then the book is just a survivalist fantasy, escapism for steady-staters. Fortunately, the end of the book resolves that particular question with a late plot development that throws everything open again, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone.

Samuel Alexander is a founder of the Simplicity Institute, a group who I think are making some of the most interesting contributions to the postgrowth debate at the moment. In particular, their work has focused on the ‘sufficiency economy’, which has ‘enough, for everyone, forever‘ as its goal. Entropia is, at heart, an exploration of that core idea, with plenty of observations along the way on topics ranging from nature deficit disorder to the citizen’s income. As you might expect, it reads more like a roving Thoreau-style essay than a novel.

It should also go without saying that, like any book in the utopian tradition, you could pick all kinds of holes in it. I found myself raising a skeptical eyebrow on a number of occasions, but to deconstruct it is to miss the point. This isn’t a blueprint for sustainability, or a manifesto for simpler living. It’s a thought experiment, a wondering, an exercise in ‘what if?’.

There is no shortage of critique of industrial capitalism, and not nearly so much by way of alternative vision. Entropia bucks that trend, offering possibilities, questions, a snapshot of what things could be if we chose differently.

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