Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ecotopia - Ernest Callenbach

Last year I reviewed Rachal Carson's book Silent Spring. This work is very influential in environmental circles and although it clearly shows its age, it is in some ways still a relevant book. Where Silent Spring is a scientific work, Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach (1929 - 2012) is fiction. It nevertheless has a reputation of being very influential. The novel first appeared in 1975 and more than forty years later, it is still in print. Callenbach published a prequel titled Ecotopia Emerging in 1981, which didn't do nearly as well. Calling it a novel is probably a bit generous. My edition is 182 pages long. This includes an afterword and an essay by the author. The introduction by Malcolm Margolin is in roman numerals. It would probably be considered a novella by today's standards.

In the near future (as seen from 1974) the states Washington, Oregon and northern California has seceded from the union. After a brief war, a new nation is founded by the name of Ecotopia. Its policy is to create a sustainable society. A stable state as they like to put it. All ties with the United States are broken and for almost twenty years, nothing but disturbing rumours reach Washington. Now, for the first time since the founding of the new state, Will Weston, an American journalist is granted access to the country. His columns swing between disbelief and admiration. His private journal on the other hand show a man very much hit by a culture shock. Ecotopia profoundly alters his view on the world and before he knows it, he is faced with the most difficult decision in his career.

Callenbach was a staff of the University of California Press in Berkeley, California for many years. In the 1970s, Berkeley was a bubbling cauldron of social experiments and it is not surprising that such an environment produced a book like Ecotopia. While the novel is usually praised for its vision on sustainable living, the story goes much beyond just the environmental aspect. Reaching what Callenbach calls a steady state is not possible without a complete overhaul of the economic and social structures currently in place. The society he depicts has changed many of its core concepts such as family, community, government and ownership. It is a large version of what many of the communes in the 1970s were experimenting with.

The story is told entirely through the rather dry and thoroughly biased columns Weston sends back east, alternated with the more personal journal entries. There is quite a sharp contrast between the columns and the journal entries. While in the first he keeps the worst of his prejudice to himself and makes an attempt at being diplomatic and impartial, in the second his true opinion is related in more direct terms. The image that emerges from these pieces is that he is, to put it mildly, a bit of a prick. The plot is more or less based on the idea that is he is unwilling to face up to his own preconceptions and faces a serious personal crisis because of it.

In his columns Weston covers a variety of topics. From the exuberant cultural life of the Ecotopians to their peculiar government and from their unusual economics to their alternative educational system. In the columns he portrays  a society that would be completely unacceptable to the average American. I haven't looked into it too deeply but I would not be surprised if every concept Callenbach mentions was a real experiment at some point. Consumption, corporate ownership, energy generation and healthcare are all designed to support the steady state Ecotopians aim for. A free market capitalist would have nightmares about this level of government intervention and Weston, at least initially, agrees with that low opinion of Ecotopian society.

Callenbach combines a number of very interesting environmental and social theories into this novel. The major turn the Ecotopians make is letting go of the idea of perpetual growth. The idea is that the land can only produce so much sustainably, so that is what society can use. A decline in population is even considered desirable to reach this goal. Despite the common perception  that environmentally friendly living means returning to more primitive modes of existence, there is a lot of technology in this novel. It is very selectively applied however. A lot of it goes into public transport, energy production and development of biodegradable materials. Callenbach has managed to predict the available technology (which is set around the turn of the century) quite well. None of it sounds impossible.

From an environmental point of view there are two very obvious weaknesses in Callenbach's vision. The first is that an ecosystem is never completely stable. Some oscillate rather wildly, most are always in the process of changing into something else. That is not even taking into account outside influences on the system from places that do not practice ecological principles. Basing a complete, stable and mostly selfsustaining economy on that, in a society that is still very much in flux strikes me as nearly impossible. The second objection is simply that in many places on earth the human population has overshot the carrying capacity of the ecosystem by such ha huge margin that reaching the desired state would take generations. A simple revolution won't do. Callenbach seems to recognize these problems but doesn't address them in the novel.

That being said, there is something very appealing about the society shown in the novel. Despite what some would see as an insanely high level of government influence on every aspect of society, there is a freedom for the individual that is hard to match in any existing economy. The extreme differences in income we see in modern society is eliminated, women seem to be much more in control of their own bodies and even dominant in politics. Weston himself still shows a worrying level of sexism, another reason why he clashes with Ecotopia. I can see why people would want to give this a try.

Surprisingly, the issue of race is not dealt with in the novel. In fact, segregation is taken a step further by the creation of semi-independent black city states. Something similar appears to be going on with a group of Japanese. Many other groups are simply not mentioned in the novel at all. It also includes a few rather problematic references to Native Americans (the novel shows its age by calling them Indians) that reduce them to an inspiration for sustainable living based on the image of the noble savage. Ecotopia may have made progress but it is clearly not utopia yet.

In the essay included in the back of my copy titled Epistle to the Ecotopians, written in 2012 shortly before his death, Callenbach doesn't seem optimistic about the state of the world. He seems to think society is moving away from the conditions needed to bring his Ecotopia into being. Between the lines you get the idea that he thinks the window of opportunity seems to have passed. He may well be right in that assessment but even if his vision will not become reality, it may still serve as an inspiration to move towards a more sustainable society. I suspect the book will remain popular for some time to come.

Ecotopia is very much a novel of its time. I suspect that if it had been published as little as five years later it would have sunk like a stone. This is likely true for many successful novels though. As a novel I wouldn't rate it too highly. The characterization in particular is not very well done. His struggle is obvious from the beginning and not particularly well portrayed. The society Callenbach describes, despite the obvious problems with it, is a fascinating one though. I can see why people would want to try it. I can also see that with a world population of more than seven billion - that's 3 billion more than in 1975 - it would not stand much of a chance. So read it as a source of inspiration and you may well get something out of it. Look for a roadmap to Ecotopia and you'll be disappointed.

Book Details
Title: Ecotopia
Author: Ernest Callenbach
Publisher: Heyday
Pages: 182
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59714-293-9
First published: 1975

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