Historians are fond of writing that Americans have rarely indulged themselves in either ideological or utopian thinking. While the nation’s past has been etched from time to time by both ideologues and utopians, the overwhelming approach, it is said, has been pragmatic — tending to ordinary problems with hardheaded solutions. But these are not ordinary times. Grave problems are deepening or proliferating without much counterattack by solutions. Think back ten years, for instance, and see how many of the problems that received front page attention then are even diminished now. Inflation? Unemployment? Poverty? Crime? Corruption? Health Care? Pollution? Consumer Fraud? Waste? Energy? Occupational Diseases? Tax Inequities?
MAYBE WE ought to start developing a more comprehensive sensitivity to where we are as a-society, where we are heading and, most importantly, where we would like to be going. Otherwise we could be losing ground fast on a treadmill that has us looking at specific abuses instead of systemic breakdowns.
Some of this feeling may be at work with the growing interest around San Francisco’s Bay area in a book that came out early last year called ECOTOPIA by Ernest Callenbach (Banyan Tree Books, 1517 Francisco, Berkeley, Cal. 94793. $2,75). Without the spur of ads or flashy promotions, people are talking to each other about the book — a sure sign that it has struck some kind of chord.
Ecotopia is not science fiction; it is political fiction in the year 1999. The land of Ecotopia is what once was northern California, Oregon and Washington. It seems that in 1980, the people of this region declared their independence from the United States. The U.S. didn’t take this secession kindly.
An almost total, self-imposed isolation of Ecotopia followed. There were no travel or communications with the U.S. and the secessionists liked it just that way.
Enter crack investigative reporter, Will Weston. The 36-year-old international affairs writer for a New York newspaper was admitted to Ecotopia via Reno for a six week assignment through arrangements at the highest diplomatic level. What follows are his accounts of Ecotopian society mixed with his romance with an Ecotopian woman who reflects the diverse norms of this “new society.”
ECOTOPIA, OF COURSE, has come close to abolishing pollution, except for cigarettes. Everything is recycled. Wood is widely used and trees are widely planted. There is wonderful, safe, free mass transit. Pickup bicycles lie around the streets to be used freely.
There is a 20-hour Workweek and workers partly own their factories and farms. It is a -stable-state” society focused on the quality of living rather than the quantity of things. After secession, the GNP dropped but people were better off.
Solar energy powers the society. Large organizations from government to industry to the media have been replaced by informal, decentralized and accessible units. The arts are deprofessionalized to avoid the gap between artists and beholders. Ritual war games are played as a sublimation of aggressive real war. Education is not exclusively class room rote but immersion in life skills and experience for the children. As for health care, well, you get the idea by now.
Reporter Weston is not without his questions, his skepticism and his revulsion against the war game ritual, though he later participates. But slowly the tone, the pace and the intensely happiness-oriented society gets to him though he has difficulty articulating it beyond an emotional catharsis. He finally sends his editor a final dispatch. Weston is staying in Ecotopia and not coming home.
AS FICTION, the book is not without raw edges and naiveté though its detail is noteworthy. The book’s impact, however, is the breadth of perspective that envelops the reader. None of the happy conditions in Ecotopia are beyond the technical or resource reach of our society. The people seem freer as they withdraw from an all-consuming life of derived means without purpose brought about by brutal technologies, hierarchical bureaucracies and overspecialization of human beings.
Societies cannot escape getting down to basics; they can only avoid doing so at a frightful eventual price. That is a lesson of history which remains immune to obsolescence.