Way ahead of its time, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia describes a fictional community living in near perfect balance with the natural environment and themselves. Written in 1975, Callenbach uses this fictional community as a foil in order to address the many imbalances and tyrannies present in modern Westernised economy as well as in intra and interpersonal relationships. Although it has been decades since its debut, Ecotopia’s dreary sketch of society’s maladies still holds true today to a large degree.
As an ardent fan of Ecotopia, as well as an advocate for environmental sustainability, I find in this treasure trove of a book a multitude of issues I can discuss. Callenbach’s meticulous didactic leaves almost nothing out: he addresses factory farming and agriculture, economic production practices, gender relations, the matters of the self, xenophobia, the military, community and loneliness, the education system as well as the concept of family to name most of them.
For the sake of attempted, subjective brevity, I will be focusing on those I believe are the most urgent topics wanting discussion and attention. These are namely interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships as well as our dissociation from the natural environment (what is ‘natural’).
Ecotopia’s protagonist, William Weston, travels alone as a journalist to the dark, mysterious state of Ecotopia, 20 years after its secession from the United States. Ecotopia consists of the states California, Washington and Oregon. Because of their dramatic, violent breaks with the ways the US economy is run, the Ecotopians are feared as unpredictable, extremist and dangerous. (Note: Callenbach’s deceptively off-handed description of the Ecotopians from outsiders’ point of view serves as biting commentary on xenophobia and violence– psychological, verbal or otherwise– and how these attitudes are conveniently (read: lazily) justified on the basis that thus labeled people groups have different beliefs and systems.)
Upon arrival, Weston receives one culture shock after another, from the Ecotopians’ furniture to their political system. One of the main things that really stand out to him are how comfortable Ecotopians are with themselves and each other. Ecotopians do not associate sex with power or shame, have adopted a 20-hour work-week, enjoy emotional displays and physical comfort. All of these things are normalised, instead of being considered excessive, shameful or taboo. These topics may seem unrelated, but they all tie in to the radicalised, positive relationship with the self. “Mankind, Ecotopians assumed, was not meant for production, as the 19th and early 20th centuries had believed. Instead, humans were meant to take their modest place in a seamless, stable-state web of living organisms, disturbing that web as little as possible.” (Callenbach 47). Ecotopians expect to be treated like human beings, not just functions, whether that function is a ticket seller, a waitress or a news agent. The Ecotopians have restored humanity to itself, instead of delegating it to being but a cog in the economic machine. The removal of the stigma of excess from the physical body allows Ecotopians to not be split– into work and recreation, mind and flesh. Taking Ecotopians as the foil and basis for Callenbach’s social commentary, Westernised economy is in contrast at once abnormal and dehumanising. People are expected to go to work but leave their emotions at home, are expected to reproduce, but are shamed when they admit finding pleasure in the act of doing so.
Weston finds love with an Ecotopian woman, Marissa Brightcloud. She is a leader at her workplace and has a reputation of being extremely hardworking. At the same time, Weston is unnerved by her; she has an animalistic side, does not bother with outward appearances, and is able to be completely in the moment, work responsibilities put aside. With her, Weston feels less anxious and more relaxed than he has ever been: “it’s as if the whole American psychodrama of mutual suspicion between the sexes, demands and countermands and our desperate working at sex like a problem to be solved, has left my head.”(Callenbach 59). Their focus on accepting every part of the self extends to the sexes. Men and women are free from gender stereotypes. Women are allowed to be feminine and hard-headed at the same time. Men can be both masculine and tender. The Ecotopian embracing of the whole being not only restores the imbalance within the self, but between the genders. The dysfunction, the disunity within himself that Weston has carried with him from America is, with Marissa, fixed.
Another culture shock Weston receives from the Ecotopian culture is that of their symbiosis with their natural environment. Ecotopians aim for a system that produces at little waste as possible. Most vehicles are banned, plastic is completely unheard of and their sewage and agricultural system work together to create an almost indefinitely sustainable system. They have gotten rid of factory farms (they source their meat from either farms mimicking natural conditions or from hunting), and have created a stable-state system. At first, when Ecotopia’s Assistant Minister informs Weston that Ecotopia’s systems are a lot less harmful and more sustainable than America’s, Weston is critical, labelling the Ecotopian economy “primitive” and “extremist”. However, as he is given a detailed breakdown of the research Ecotopians have put into their system, he finds that their data is not only hard-nosed but legitimate.
Weston’s almost knee-jerk reaction in brushing off Ecotopia’s claims is laced with metafiction. Certainly, there will be readers of Ecotopia (and perhaps this post) who will disparage preaching on environmental sustainability: It is easy to label those who call for radical change with terms aimed to delegitimise the need for such change. It is more difficult to accept the dire state our natural environment is in and then make the necessary changes and sacrifices to preserve it.
Ecotopia’s sustainable systems once again expose our destructive ones. Factory farming is not only horrifically cruel, it produces unhealthy meat, creates toxic waterways and airways (especially to the detriment of those unfortunate enough to live within their vicinity), and is ultimately unsustainable (as any small amount of research will convince even a casual reader.) Its dehumanising practices threaten humanity in more ways than just one. Landfills are filling up at an alarming rate and plastic is basically the devil. Sustaining the natural environment is not about a “hippie” or “countercultural” lifestyle. It is, in Callenbach’s words, survival.
It is interesting to note how many of Callenbach’s warnings and prescriptions have materialised today. “Zero-Waste” is becoming an increasingly popular lifestyle, veganism is catching on and more and more people are preaching about the negative impacts of plastic. Also his “invention” of a “picturephone” has come to pass with features like Skype and FaceTime on smartphones, an unheard-of software back in the 70s.
Both Ecotopia and this post are about the preservation of our natural environment. Yet, what is natural and what is not? Marissa is at once human and animalistic. The Ecotopians sprawl about on the floor like cats and feel most at home among trees and other plants. They make love openly and have violent war games to deliberately engage their primitive side in order to give it free expression and therefore manage it. These activities and preferences tap on what Westernised society dubs the “id”– the dark, subconscious part of our psyche commonly suppressed– and not only expresses but celebrates it.
“Human” (I’d use “man, but the Ecotopians would surely disapprove) and “Nature” are in our society, two separate things. We speak of “returning to nature”, “escaping into nature”, or “being one with nature”. We cannot return to something we are already are. We speak of nature as if it is an entity separate from us. Yet, Ecotopia challenges our notion of what is “Nature”. If the root word of “natural” is “nature”, then through our diction about “nature” we imply that humans are unnatural, or have become unnatural. Indeed, Callenbach seems to suggest strongly at this. He, as well as many other ecocritical writers, speak of the natural environment as a web, and urges that in order to build truly sustainable systems, we need to build them with the aim of incorporating humans into that web nondestructively. Literature such as Ecotopia makes it blatantly obvious that the current sociological and economic models view humans as apart from and superior to that web, and it is this erroneous belief that creates imbalance that threaten ecosystems worldwide.
The different, environmentally destructive practices that Callenbach outlines– land, sea and airborne vehicles, over-dependence on plastic, excessive waste, factory farming, xenophobia, misogyny– still persist till today. Change, of course, begins with education, then sacrifice. It may –no, will– be uncomfortable, perhaps even awful (at first). But such radical shifts in both mindsets, legislation and practices are vital should we want to preserve our natural environments and ultimately survive. After all, we are but a node in the web, not its head, not its tail. What we do for “nature” is, in the end, what we do to ourselves.