A Child of Dystopia Reads Ecotopia

Ecotopia: The Novel of Your Future
by Ernest Callenbach
181 pages, Bantam New Age Book, 1975

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Growing up in Northern California during the Reagan era I was what we then called a “Peace Punk.” My friends and I spent weekends protesting, getting strange haircuts, drinking too much – and worrying. After all, there seemed a lot to worry about: nuclear holocaust, acid rain, falling rainforests. I became an activist to channel my fears, and that eventually led to a career in the environmental movement.

At garage sales in those days, copies of Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia were strewn about like abandoned tie-dyed T-shirts or moldy macramé projects – detritus from a bygone era. We didn’t have any use for any of it; we mocked the ideals of our elders. We believed the hippies had sold out to suburban oblivion and/or Wall Street riches.

So it wasn’t until 30 years later, during a road trip through the Pacific Northwest, that I finally picked up a pocketbook copy of Ecotopia and dug in. The book was a pleasant surprise. It turns out that Callenbach got a lot right in his fabulous, future-trip fantasia.

In Ecotopia’s parallel universe, 1980 is the year Northern California, Oregon, and Washington secede from the United States. The book begins 20 years later when Will Weston becomes the first US journalist allowed to report on the strange country.

After independence, capital flight from Ecotopia causes massive economic dislocation. In response, 20-hour workweeks ensure nearly full employment. Workers take possession of their former workplaces and set about building a “stable-state” nation. A local journalist explains to Weston, “Our system meanders on its peaceful way, while yours [the USA] has convulsions. I think of ours like a meadow in the sun.”

Most of the book’s Americans have “tried to ignore what has been happening in Ecotopia – in the hope it will prove to be mere foolishness and go away.” But Ecotopia gains international allies and a shocking plan for self-defense that keeps the US at bay. The place also has: a woman president in the capital city of San Francisco, consensus-based local councils that decide policy, and cities shrunk into collections of neighborhoods. Automobiles and gas stations are erased from the landscape. Can you imagine it, man?

Although the book isn’t a great romance or thriller (or even top-notch science fiction) I felt great affinity for the details of the world Callenbach predicted. Even better, I was impressed by how many of his ideas came to pass.

For example, Ecotopia accurately predicted that West Coast scientific institutes would be studying algae, biofuel, solar, and ocean-generated power. It has young people shopping at “antiquariums” in search of “campy artifacts,” and video conferencing being used widely to reduce travel. Farmers’ markets in San Francisco and Portland are the new town square. Solar power-plant dedications are shown on TV news, and recycling and composting are routine. Sexual equality in mating rituals and the workplace is the norm. Waterfronts are restored as urban amenities. Brash self-sufficiency is hip – like today’s real life organic CSAs, urban poultry and beekeeping, clothing swaps, and bike-repair classes taught at collectives.

On a few things, Callenbach was a bit overly optimistic – but his dreams are just over the horizon. High-speed rail in California will break ground in 2012. Bike sharing is on the verge of coming to San Francisco. Some parking lots are being replaced with restaurants, shops, and public space. Marijuana is almost legal.

Other aspects of Ecotopia are unlikely anytime soon. While Ecotopia bans use of the private automobile for travel, we remain car-dependent. Composting toilets and methane collection are still considered fringe ideas. Urban lands have not largely returned to “grassland, forests, orchards, or gardens.” Nor do we have green power generated by the sea.

His imagined “Soul Town” (Oakland), which may have seemed plausible in 1975, does not exist. African-American elites today do not speak Swahili and they do not make 10 percent more than Whites as a form of economic justice. The city does retain the predicted influence on music and culture. But sadly, economic disparity and violence still haunt Oakland with no relief in sight.

Still, the accuracy of much of Callenbach’s visions left me hopeful. I found many of Ecotopia’s “radical” ideas to be common sense. As a Bay Area Gen X environmentalist, organic food nut, and a car-free do-it-yourselfer, I was stunned to discover that I had internalized many Ecotopian values long before I even read the book. That seems like measurable progress for which Mr. Callenbach can take some credit.

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