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  • Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman
  • Bill Metcalf
Rutger Bregman. Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There. Trans. Elizabeth Manton. Amsterdam: Correspondent, 2016. 247 pp. Cloth, $16.62; e-book, $13.83, isbn 978-90-825-2030-9.

Utopia for Realists emerged from a Netherlands-based, Web discussion site called The Correspondent. This group, launched in 2013, styles itself as a "member-funded journalism platform for independent voices." This book [End Page 685] reflects both the advantages and disadvantages of its origins. The advantages are that such groups can quickly publish popular items online and perhaps attract enough readers to convince publishers to present the material as books. The disadvantage for scholars is that such online publications usually have not been peer-reviewed or carefully edited.

Bregman starts off with the thesis, more effectively made by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that most people in the world are better fed, safer, richer, and healthier than people have ever been—that the vast majority of people today live in a manner that centuries ago would have seemed fantastically utopian and only two to three generations back would have been possible only for a miniscule elite. While Pinker asserted that this should show us how well we are doing and that we ought to shun pessimism, Bregman takes the argument a step further and believes that this realization should allow us to achieve "utopia."

This work was written in Dutch and then translated into English by Elizabeth Manton, and one or the other has given the text a glib tone. Perhaps I would not have responded this way were I reviewing it for a popular magazine rather than for a scholarly journal such as Utopian Studies. Poor editing has left this book with annoying grammatical and spelling errors such as "History is not a science that serves ups handy, bite-size lessons for daily life" (118).

Under the enigmatic subheading "The Return of Utopia" (so was there an earlier utopia?), Bregman catches our attention with "Let's start with a little history lesson: In the past, everything was worse. For roughly 99% of the world's history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly" (13). Equally catchy is his claim that "we are living in an age of Biblical prophecies come true. What would have seemed miraculous in the Middle Ages is now commonplace: the blind restored to sight, cripples who can walk, and the dead returned to life" (16).

Bregman, like many pop intellectuals, presents what he considers to be hard data derived from myriad sources, some no doubt the result of excellent research and some, equally with no doubt, derived from shoddy research. But it is very hard for the reader to discern—or even to have faith that Bregman tried to discern and discriminate.

One irritating feature is how Bregman describes change, such as "In Western Europe, the murder rate is 40 times lower, on average, than what it was in the Middle Ages" (16). How can it be "40 times lower"? Does he [End Page 686] mean that it is now 2.5 percent (one-fortieth) of what it was? If so, then why not tell us? "Since 1980, the price of 1 watt of solar energy has plummeted 99%" (17). Does he mean that the price is now 1 percent of what it was in 1980? That should not surprise anyone, since solar electricity generation was then in its infancy. The same question can be raised about his claims that "polio has all but disappeared, claiming 99% fewer victims in 2013 than in 1988" (18), and that "between 1994 and 2014, the number of people with Internet access worldwide leaped from 0.4% to 40.4%" (17). By "number" does he mean proportion? And 0.4 and 40.4 percent of what? In 1994 the vast majority of people in the world had not even heard of the Internet. Worse yet, most of these "factoids" are either unreferenced or cited only to other Internet sites.

Bregman asserts that "the real crisis of our times, of my generation, is...