In 2005 Dylan Evans was working in England, in the field of robotics. In the September of that year he visited Mexico to give a series of work-related talks. During the trip he had the idea of creating what later became ‘the Utopia experiment’, a simulation of what might happen in the event of civilisation collapsing. His vision was to set up a small community from scratch, to investigate the possibility of survival without access to modern conveniences.
His idea eventually came to fruition in the Scottish highlands, with accommodation in the form of yurts, and an old barn serving as a kitchen and diningroom. Through his website he recruited volunteers who were interested in spending a few weeks or months working with him, aiming for self-sufficiency and freedom from dependence on modern technology. From the very beginning it was his intention that the experiment would last for 18 months, before being wound up.
Having become increasingly disenchanted with his work in artificial intelligence it seemed no great hardship to give up his job, and he was committed enough to sell his cottage in the Cotswolds to fund the Utopia experiment. In the summer of 2006 he moved himself and a few of his belongings, including his cat, Socrates, to Scotland, with a view to setting up the community that would be his home for the next year and a half. Along with his first volunteer, Adam, he erected two yurts as sleeping accommodation and began to prepare some ground for cultivating crops. As time went on, more volunteers joined the community, some staying for only a few days at a time, others for longer periods.
Some months into the experiment, despite all the hard work and determination, self-sufficiency was proving far harder to attain than Dylan had anticipated. Frequent trips were still being made to a supermarket to stock up on the many things the community was unable, or unwilling, to obtain by other means.
As time went on the volunteers began to discuss, with increasing conviction, the inevitability of society’s collapse. The more they talked about this the more Dylan came to realise that he no longer believed in the experiment or his reasons for doing it. The community was in danger of becoming something like a cult and, as its founder, he was regarded as the one in charge. He found himself retreating from the others, avoiding their company and unable to answer their questions. After eventually agreeing to see a doctor about his behaviour he was admitted to a mental hospital, where he stayed for several weeks. During that time he struggled to cope with simple tasks and, although he felt afraid and vulnerable, he realised he was better off there than back in the community where he felt permanently distressed and unable to function.
Following a partial recovery, he returned to the Utopia experiment and informed his colleagues that the project was going to end. This announcement did not go down well with the volunteers, who took the suggestion as a sign that Dylan was still too unwell to make sense. Their refusal to accept his decision left him with no alternative but to abandon the community and leave them to carry on without him. Early one morning, he left without telling anyone he was going, and got himself down to the south of England, where he stayed with a friend. His full recovery took several months, but by early 2008 he was ready to re-enter the world of employment and secured a university job in Ireland.
I was expecting this book to be more or less a biography of the Utopia experiment, and it does fulfil that brief, but it’s also something of a metaphysical study. Throughout the book Dylan refers to a variety of philosophical works that influenced him and discusses the merits of different ideologies. His own opinions changed drastically across the course of the experiment, and the book is just as much about him as it is about his project. He had never seen himself as a leader, wanting instead to integrate into the community like any of the volunteers, but this proved his downfall. He failed to realise that the community needed a hierarchy of some sort, and that it would be impossible for everyone to occupy the same status. The more he shied away from his position, the less able he was to communicate with anyone and the more demoralised the volunteers became because of the lack of leadership. In the end, it was easier for the others when he wasn’t around. The community continued to thrive after he left it and renamed itself The Phoenix Experiment, inspired by its rise from the ashes of the original project.
It took Dylan six years after leaving the community to complete the book about it, and as I read the closing pages it struck me that he was still in the process of analysing and understanding what had happened to him. The Utopia experiment was an unexpected drain on his mental strength and physical energy, as well as his finances. It drove him beyond his limits and into an abyss he might not have been able to scramble out of. And yet, the book ends on a positive note. As Dylan says, one of the frequently cited regrets of those close to death is that they didn’t follow their dreams. Having undertaken the Utopia experiment, he has no fears of dying with such regrets. Going through this experience has given him the courage of his convictions and, he says, if a similarly ambitious idea takes hold of him in the future he knows he has what it takes to give it a go.