Ecotopia

Election Day at last. Thought it would never come. At day’s end we’ll know (won’t we?) if the present remains safe for occupancy. 

If not, Ernest Callenbach’s alternative future may be our lifeboat. Or at least a welcome distraction. Ironic that we would begin Ecotopia today. It was ahead of its time in 1975, and it still is. That’t the beauty of utopian fiction, it shines like the beckoning green light across the way, giving us a destination to row for and a sense of possibility too often suppressed by the weight of day-to-day facticity. 
“It is so hard to imagine anything fundamentally different from what we have now,” Callenbach said, “but without these alternate visions, we get stuck on dead center.” With them, maybe we can move forward. We can re-inspire ourselves at least, as Callenbach has inspired successors in the genre like Kim Stanley Robinson. (Still hoping someone in class picks up and reports on Pacific Edge.)

Ecotopia is about how Washington, Oregon, and Northern California seceded from the union in 1979 in the midst of a terrible economic crisis, creating an environmentally sound, stable-state, eco-sustainable country… a land that banned the internal combustion engine and the car culture that went with it, turned in oil for solar power (and other inventive forms of alternative energy), recycled everything, grew its food locally and cleanly, and in the process created clean skies, rivers, and forests (as well as a host of new relationships, political, social, and sexual) remains amazingly lively, and somehow almost imaginable — an approximation, that is, of the country we don’t have but should or even could have.
Callenbach’s imagination was prodigious. Back in 1975, he conjured up something like C-SPAN and something like the cell phone, among many ingenious inventions on the page. Ecotopia remains a thoroughly winning book and a remarkable feat of the imagination, even if, in the present American context, the author also dreamed of certain things that do now seem painfully utopian, like a society with relative income equality. Tom Engelhardt

Sixties-era Berkeley was his “Ecotopia” incubator, with its socio-economic experimentation, its co-ops and communes, and its pioneer “recognition that the earth could not possibly sustain an ever-increasing population or an ever-expanding economy.” 

Callenbach was a social libertarian and “free-love” enthusiast but also a pragmatist, set on solving the most urgently earthy and practical problems. He was also a feminist and a limits-to-growth guy, and no friend of the 2d amendment. He was an early promoter of walkable and bikable public spaces, an urban renewalist, a participatory sportsman, and a Whole Earth DIYer.

He left us a note, an Epistle to the Ecotopians that encouraged our embrace of catalytic decay to hasten the eco-revolution. How much closer are we about to find ourselves to that? How resolutely will we persist in sustaining the hope he told us we must treasure even, especially, as conditions decline?

Hope. Children exude hope, even under the most terrible conditions, and that must inspire us as our conditions get worse. Hopeful patients recover better. Hopeful test candidates score better. Hopeful builders construct better buildings. Hopeful parents produce secure and resilient children. In groups, an atmosphere of hope is essential to shared successful effort: “Yes, we can!” is not an empty slogan, but a mantra for people who intend to do something together — whether it is rescuing victims of hurricanes, rebuilding flood-damaged buildings on higher ground, helping wounded people through first aid, or inventing new social structures (perhaps one in which only people are “persons,” not corporations). We cannot know what threats we will face. But ingenuity against adversity is one of our species’ built-in resources. We cope, and faith in our coping capacity is perhaps our biggest resource of all.

On this day in particular it’s important to recall Callenbach’s reply to the High School  students who told him they wanted to live in a society like the one he’d imagined. They could, he replied, if they and others of their generation were committed to it. “If you don’t save us, nobody will,” he said.
5:50 am/6:19, 57/67/49, 4:42

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