Micro utopias for an inclusive future
19 July 2022
When Gijsbert Huijink, a Dutch national living in Banyoles, in the Catalan province of Girona, set out to install solar panels in his home he stumbled upon a legal labyrinth that criminalized energy self-consumption. “If I wanted to connect to the grid to recharge my batteries and supply my excess, I had to pay a fortune,” Gijsbert Huijink said in an interview.1 Huijink then hatched a plan to exact sweet collective revenge: he founded Som Energia,2 Spain’s first power cooperative. With the help of his wife, his university students, and some friends, Gijsbert laid the foundations to effect a change in the Spanish energy market. Som Energia has since grown from an initial 150 contracts in 2010 to 125,589 in March 2021,3 and it is currently the fastest growing energy cooperative in Europe. Hundreds of city governments have hired its services and dozens of new energy cooperatives are replicating the model.
Som Energia has a characteristic that sets it apart from most environmentalist efforts. It is not a project that merely reacts: it proposes. It does not focus on protesting, but on action. It does not stop at defending certain ideals, but puts those ideals into practice. It goes beyond criticizing an economic model based on fossil fuels: it sets a new model in motion. It does not just denounce the injustice of certain regulations, but goes on to experiment with new forms of democracy. It does not focus on the individual: it aims for sustainability with community and networked solutions.
Som Energia was one of the thirty-two initiatives that participated in the first edition of the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award and the Atlas of Utopias, the unique coopetition4 launched by the Transnational Institute (TNI) in 2018. Having completed a total of three editions,5 it perfectly embodies the spirit that infuses all those initiatives. The award-winning projects6 are a refreshing mosaic of “real utopias”. Pragmatic, adaptable utopias in progress. Simple utopias that satisfy simple desires, as Rutger Bregman notes in his book Utopias for Realists.7 “Real utopias.”8
What features do the Atlas of Utopias initiatives share?9 What horizons do they open up?
The end of the future
Ever since 1516, when Thomas More described an island with a perfect political, social, and legal system in his book Utopia, that word has inspired pages and pages of writing. As of that moment, humanity began to project its desires onto the future. The mythology that explained the past—foundational myths, legends—was channeled toward the future, creating utopia. The most exalted version came with Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope, published in the 1950s, which combined the modern myths of utopia with revolution and the arts.10 Utopia was on the horizon. And it served to keep us walking.11
However, when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history in 1992,12 a claustrophobic present governed by the global economy emerged. According to that author, the collapse of communist governments confirmed liberal democracy as the only possible alternative. The future began to fall short of the expectations of so many utopian centuries. The future lost its inspiring glow. Possible horizons became blurred. The grandiose dreams of modernity unraveled, perhaps precisely because they were overly ambitious. Utopia fizzled out. As Franco “Bifo” Berardi notes in After the Future,13 technology has emerged as a despotic deity that cancels the future, turning time into an unlimited generation of identical fragments.
The Atlas of Utopias is an invigorating breath of fresh air in a world that has lost its great utopia. And it is tangible proof that “real utopias” are underway. We no longer have a Utopia with a capital U, but dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of networked micro utopias.14 Micro utopias where humans come together to weave territories. Concrete micro utopias that activate what Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa calls “affinity communities.”15 Communities that recreate and reproduce themselves as they go about doing. When the people of San Pedro Magisterio, a neighborhood in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, organized to build and operate a wastewater treatment plant, they strengthened the community management of the water cycle and the neighborhood itself. The installation of a wastewater treatment plant in the neighborhood was made possible by Fundación Abril, with the support of several organizations.16 The process became a tool for teaching (with sessions in schools), political action, and social unity. Territory-based community water management exceeds the paradigm of what is considered public. The finalists of every edition of the Transformative Cities Award, which feeds the Atlas of Utopias, are utopias situated at the territory level and in communities, and they are anchored in what is the most conducive sphere for putting these micro utopias into practice: the local sphere.
From “asking as we walk” to “learning by doing”
“Asking as we walk” (Caminando preguntamos) was one of the most widely known catchphrases of the Neo-Zapatista movement that erupted in southern Mexico in the 1990s. “Asking as we walk” opens the game up to others, inviting them to join the struggle. Dialogue is a process, not a substance: an unfolding, not a synthesis. The Zapatista movement does not talk, it listens. It does not respond, it asks. It recognizes particularities and proposes a place for all of them. It strives for a polyphonic dialogue built from many dialogues.17 In the Zapatista listening process, a common fabric emerges, a plurality of voices, a subject that is very different from the Western exclusive ‘we’. From the communities of affinity, from the communities of territorial practices, emanates an open and inclusive subject, in which every person teaches and learns. Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui18 takes up the Aymara word jiwasa, a fourth person pronoun that acts as an inclusive ‘we’. The pronoun jiwasa differs from the pronoun nayanaka, which is the exclusive ‘we’. When someone hears jiwasa they hear an invitation to join in, to belong. The San Pedro Magisterio cooperative would not have been possible without the jiwasa, or without the ayni, the practice of community reciprocity.
The Dhaka Water Board Union Cooperative,19 another of the initiatives participating in the coopetition,20 offers a major lesson: the knowledge held by a company’s workers is more useful for its management than the knowledge any experts can provide. When the World Bank recommended privatizing the state-owned company Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (WASA), in Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka, a group of workers said no. They then managed to organize their work in the form of a cooperative. Bringing their decades of experience into the effort, the workers applied a different method, which involved consulting the affected communities in the water system managed by the company, thus improving its efficiency.
The territorial nature of the local sphere and the new ways of doing, such as the feminization of politics and networking,21 alter how utopia interferes with reality. Cooperative and community practices do not subordinate their action to great ideals. Rather, it is the other way around: values emanate from their action. Barcelona en Comú,22 another of the coopetition finalists, embodies this spirit that places practice and common solutions to concrete problems at the center. The social movement behind Barcelona en Comú’s operation creates inclusive networks of persons and ecosystems of practices, not closed ideological networks. Networks and spaces open to coexistence, in which anyone can contribute to a problem’s solution. This is the case of CasaNat in Porto Alegre, Brazil, one of the 2020 winners of the People’s Choice Award.23 CasaNat is a center that fights hunger, the pandemic, and repression by the Bolsonaro government. A space for social organization and education in thinking about the city, which strengthens communities and acts as a hub for the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.24 A micro-utopia that serves as a space for exchanging, learning, and resisting.
In her book No Is Not Enough, the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein unpacks the importance of creating and affirming a new world. Reacting against a system is not enough. “No is not enough. It must be a yes and there must be confidence in that yes. It is necessary to propose an alternative that generates trust. We have to begin by designing real alternatives that are not only credible, but inspiring and exciting.”25 The propositional demand raised by Klein echoes one of the most mythical sayings by Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”26 A world is combated with a world. A vision, with another vision. Unlike utopia, networked micro utopias make a new system visible, a new world woven with mutual recognition mechanisms and habits.
The Irish ecovillage Cloughjordan, a finalist in the 2020 edition of the Transformative Cities Award, moves in the direction of Naomi Klein’s holistic yes. And it enunciates a complete world. It does not merely denounce the unchecked and unsustainable growth of cities, but implements a transition model based on communities and local consumption. Thanks to the low-carbon design of its fifty-five houses, a carbon-neutral district heating system, a community farm, a green enterprise center, and a planned reed-bed treatment plant, Cloughjordan has the lowest ecological footprint in Ireland. The world of the ecovillage is interconnected and multiplied through numerous educational activities.
While the viability of the new system lies in the yes and the assertion of a world, there are cases in which an action is no yes at the same time. Some of the initiatives of the Atlas of Utopias share the uncommon characteristic of creative resistance. When an action manages to be both yes (creation) and no (resistance), the micro utopia maximizes the visibility of the transformative power of the new model. The experience of the beedi (cigar) industry women workers in the Indian city of Solapur reveals how resistance against speculation and substandard housing can result in shaping a world. After years of struggling and forming cooperatives, the cigar industry women eventually founded the RAY Nagar Cooperative Housing Federation,27 the largest housing cooperative in Asia. In 2015, local governments agreed to build 30,000 affordable houses for beedi and textile workers in the marginal neighborhood of Kumbhari. The project includes outdoor spaces, as well as land to establish community services, schools, and hospitals. The state and federal governments contributed with the laying of power lines, the construction of an electrical substation, and the installation of water tanks. Kumbhari has experienced a rebirth with the new public services and the opening of new shops. The Kranti Chowk produce market is one of the most thriving markets in Solapur.
Exceeding the principle of hope
In his unique way, philosopher Bertrand Russell rejected a categorical definition of utopia when he said, “It is not a finished utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.”28 After the collapse of the grand narrative of modern utopia, the great potential of the utopian goal lies not so much in realizing and describing a closed reality that is to come, but in making it possible for the world to be necessarily populated by multiple worlds, as the neo-Zapatista movement has been insisting for decades. A world that can be inhabited by hope. Perhaps that explains why Ernst Bloch focused so much on studying the hope that persists even in horrific situations, thanks to what he calls “wishful images”. Images that serve as prototypes to cross borders. Images charged with emotions. Positive emotions that,2 while they may not lead to actions as urgent as those prompted by negative emotions, eventually open up and broaden the repertoire of thoughts and actions.
“Wishful images” are what emanates from the Atlas of Utopias initiatives, images that, in a way, make a new world desirable. Whether it is children participating in a river cleanup in Cochabamba or a group of cigar workers taking a public bus to work in their Solapur factory, these “wishful images” push the horizon of the possible. They excite. And they expand, connecting the networked micro utopias set in motion by the most diverse communities. Naomi Klein’s yes is not viable if it is merely a theoretical model. The no is not enough. But neither is a yes that springs from theory. The yes has to be inhabited by political and civic practices, by narratives, by imaginaries, by new symbols, by shared values, by emotions, by new shared meanings, by world visions, by alternative economic systems. The welcoming spaces for a coming together, an open we (the jiwasa of the Aymaras), the unifying slogans (the “We are the 99%” of Occupy Wall Street), and the shared positive emotions, these all exceed Bloch’s principle of hope. Collective action multiplies hope toward a future that can be inhabited in common. And because it is controlled by communities, there is less uncertainty about that future.
Which is why—Andrea de la Serna writes in her article Un común por venir29—we should no longer pin our hopes for the revolution on a future horizon; we should instead concentrate on generating the conditions that can give us the horizon we want. In order to climb over the wall of the end of history and catch a glimmer of hope, humanity must restore its confidence in the strengths of the present. When a detour, however small, appears, we need to seize and boost it, feed it, make it breath. We need to organize gatherings, take care of ourselves as a community, create “wishful images” everywhere.
Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a poet and founder of the Icelandic Pirate Party, highlights the importance of enunciating a future populated by images and visions of hope: “When people are forced to choose between fear and hope, they usually choose hope. The future is not going to be a single vision, but a collage of visions. We need to think inclusively about the future.”31