Ecotopia

In Traditions I (the first of two ethnology core courses for anthrogeeks), we read an edited volume called Reinventing Anthropology, which had a number of radical-at-the-time (and still arguably radical– in some circles) articles written in the 1970s, largely at/from Berkeley. One that really grabbed me was “The Life and Culture of Eco-Topia” by E.N. Anderson.

In it, Anderson both details a concept of an ‘ecotopian’ society, as well as poses a call-to-action for anthropologists to address pressing environmental issues. He argues that environmental concerns such as pollution and scarcity of resources are in fact facets of social and economic oppression, both favorite topics of anthropologists. In 1972, these were new, radical ideas! It was just two years after the first Earth Day, and in the midst of the Viet Nam conflict and associated civil unrest, student protests, and educational reforms. He was bold, claiming that it was the duty of anthropologists to take up environmental oppression as a facet of social oppression, and not ‘just’ adopting social oppression (which even now continues to be a more common cause).

Three years later, also at Berkeley, a UCal Press editor and UChicago film grad named Ernest Callenbach wrote the novel Ecotopia: The Notes and Reports of William Weston. Despite initial difficulty in getting it published, it eventually became a best-seller.

The premise of the book is the visit of journalist William Weston to the country Ecotopia (in fact the states of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California). Weston is the first American to visit Ecotopia since its Independence from the United States 20 years prior.

Callenbach describes in great detail the layout of Ecotopian cities, the structure of their societies and interpersonal relationships, and their quotidian comings and goings. The book could almost be called ethnographic, in the same way that other fictional works (such as Vargas Llosa’s El hablador and Rojas González’s Lola Casanova) use a familiar primary character (ie: the ethnographer) to explore and explain an unfamiliar group of people. In this case, however, the group of people is also fictional (not so in the two novels cited above) and the ethnographic ‘data’ all just a product of the author’s imagination.

The book is still so entertaining to read, 30+ years later, because Callenbach addresses ideas which could still be called novel and radical. Then again, some of his ideas are in fact just crazy. Really, really crazy. I’ll take issue with them below. I promise.

William Weston, the narrator and ‘ethnographer’ (if we’re going with that framework), happens to be a chauvinistic pig. At least at the beginning of the story. Divorced, he essentially abandoned his two kids and is just looking for some chick to fawn over the big important newsman (and then to sleep with him). He spends his first several days in Ecotopia trying to pick up women on the street, and is increasingly frustrated. But we’ll get back to that.

Ecotopian cities, Weston finds, are designed with pedestrians in mind. The wide streets of San Francisco have been turned into pedestrian malls, with ample bike lanes and free trolleys for trips longer than a couple of blocks. Furthermore, cities are steadily being decentralized into small communities linked by light (and pollution-free) electric rail lines.

Wait a minute, you might say. Electricity is NOT pollution- free. Ah, but in Ecotopia it is. Ecotopians have managed to improve the efficiency of solar and geothermal energy options, as well as eliminate the environmental impact caused by hydroelectric (by suspending a wheel above a river, rather than building a dam). Hence, pollution-free electricity.

Consumerism is dead. At least, people only purchase generic necessities, even going so far as to dye their own clothing. People grow much of their own food, and hunt for deer and other animals right on the outskirts of town. Trees are worshiped (almost) and much ritual surrounds the harvesting of wood.

Artists are able to pursue their craft without fear of starvation, everyone is guaranteed a minimum income level (while some people do make more money in skilled trades such as medicine…)

Most importantly, people are laid-back, un-stressed, playful, and completely comfortable cavorting with each other. He reiterates this quite frequently.  In fact, the reader starts to wonder if this guy is seriously repressed.

And then the reader realizes that he must be seriously repressed. I started counting how many times sex is mentioned, seemingly out-of-context, but then I gave up.  C’mon, the main character’s medical nurse has sex with him as part of the ‘healing process’?! Seriously?!

I suppose the author would argue that it is I, in fact, that is repressed, because I’m not comfortable with how often he talks about a ‘natural human activity’? Am I right?

Sure. That’s the major problem with our society. Okay.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps if we allowed our hormones free reign and did just what they’re telling us to do, we’d be much happier people, our society would function more smoothly, and men and women would be on truly equal footing.

I think the author is overestimating just how ‘oppressed’ women are, and that’s where his wishful thinking comes in.

So, in conclusion, I could have done with a lot more ‘science fiction’ imagining how this society came about, rather than the characters’ sex lives. But if you can read around that, the book is really pretty fascinating.  The author brings up some important philosophical ideas that still aren’t widely appreciated 30 years after the book was published.

The End.

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