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A Virtual Ecotopia

Like many, my first thought on seeing the electoral map of November 2nd was a blue state secession. The blue left coast hanging there off of Canada looked just like Ecotopia to me.

For a certain brand of idealist coming of age in the 1970s, Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia was required reading. This unpretentious novel is a travelogue through the imaginary nation of Ecotopia: the three west coast states that secede from the Union in 1980 to create a sustainable, cooperative culture while spurning militarism, pollution and male domination.

In Ecotopia, there are no private automobiles. Pavement is torn up to grow food in the middle of cities. Power comes from the sun and the thrills of consumerism are replaced by home-made music, art and games. Forests are protected and the air and water are clean. Cooperation and community subsume competition and alienation. It's not a perfect society, but it is sane and sustainable. About the opposite of the red hell we are mired in today.

Actual political secession on the part of the blue states is not realistic, but in the days and weeks following the electoral debacle, many environmentalists have called for a turn to state and local politics to achieve environmental goals.

There are real gains to be made at the state level. Frustrated by lack of federal action on global warming, some states have already taken bold steps. Increasingly a coalition of states that includes California, New York and half a dozen or more northeastern states have created their own policies to regulate CO2 emissions.

Many states have also taken action on renewable energy, passing renewable energy portfolio standards that require a certain percentage of energy use in the state to come from renewable sources. These states are offering subsidies to companies and homeowners for installing power sources like wind generators and photovoltaics.

States can also regulate all sorts of pollution, though they may be challenged on the basis of trade laws like NAFTA for taking potential profits from foreign corporations.

Environmentalists have fought hard for federal protection for roadless wild lands, but the Bush administration is almost certain to turn the issue over to the states. Blue states can be successfully lobbied to keep their roadless areas and wild forests intact. It is sad to think of what will happen to wild lands in red states like Alaska and Utah.

So our setback, while huge and unprecedented, is no excuse for giving up. There is plenty of territory for action yet. Perhaps the biggest territory is the territory of the mind. Again, like many others of my stripe, I have had to ask myself how it is that an Ecotopian vision that is so attractive to me has no meaning for many Americans. In answering that question for myself, I go back to the 1970s again, to the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

The gas lines and skyrocketing prices should have been a wakeup call alerting us to the vulnerability of our industrial economy to the limits of natural resources, and for many they were. But too many Americans responded not with rationality but with primate anger at the Arab states that had jerked our chain by cutting off the flow of oil. Back then, before the Republican embrace of multiculturalism suppressed it, it was still common to hear racial epithets and slurs. There was much angry talk of "sand niggers" and "ragheads."

Many Americans felt then and still feel today that cheap fuel is their birthright. Jimmy Carter asked us to put on a sweater instead of cranking the thermostat and we gave him the boot. Ronald Reagan took the solar panels down off the White House roof and we have not had a serious national conversation about energy since.

There's a poll I'd like to take that would ask this question: "If the only way for America to maintain its economic dominance were to seize the oil fields of Iraq and Iran, would it be worth the cost in human life and America's reputation to do so?"

If you could get them to answer it honestly, I would bet that most Bush voters would say yes. In fact, I would bet that what most Bush voters are really terrified of is not being blown up in a shopping mall but losing the privilege to drive to the shopping mall and gorge on cheap imported goods.

Their fears are well founded, because the end of our consuming way of life is inevitable and most people know it on a gut level even if it never penetrates their consciousness. For someone with those fears, what could be more reassuring than Dick Cheney telling them that conservation is a mere "personal virtue" and not a civic requirement?

Giving Bush another four years will not prevent the inevitable. In fact, it may hasten the American collapse. Despite the neo-cons' best efforts, regime change is on the way. Inevitably, inexorably, the regime of big oil must succumb. It is only a matter of when and how.

Red America, led by Bush-Cheney, is only too happy to put off the day of reckoning, but it will be their last four years to live the dream, if they even get four whole years. According to senior energy analyst Charles T. Maxwell, the current oil price rise is the warning wave. The big blast will come around 2010 when oil tops $70 a barrel or more. The smart move would be to raise gas taxes now and use the money to invest in renewable energy, but it is not going to happen with this administration. So it's back to the virtual Ecotopia.

As usual, California is taking the lead. In September, the state approved a strict new fuel economy standard for cars, which will reduce CO2 emissions (by increasing fuel economy) by 30 percent over the next decade. Canada announced last week that it is raising fuel economy standards by 25 percent by the end of the decade. Add Canada to California and the seven northeastern states that are likely to adopt California's regulations and you have a geographic region that encompasses nearly one-third of the cars and trucks sold in North America. The map of high fuel economy standards starts to look like the blue state map plus Canada that circulated the Internet immediately after November 3rd. The blue territory was labeled the United States of Canada; the red state heartland was called the United States of Texas.

Individual US states are also joining up with Canada and the European Union to cap and trade greenhouse gas emissions. Led by the Governor of New York, George Pataki, nine northeastern and mid-Atlantic states are taking part. They hope to introduce a plan this spring to trade emission allowances, essentially bypassing the federal government to participate in the Kyoto agreement for reducing carbon dioxide.

One of the environmental success stories of this election was Colorado's approval of a renewable portfolio standard requiring 10 percent of the state's power to come from renewable sources by 2015. Power companies will also have to offer customers a nice rebate for solar electricity that could pay a third or more of the cost of installing solar power in their homes.

Many states now have such programs. If you have the dough, you can create your own virtual Ecotopia right now. Go to www.dsireusa.org to find out what rebates and tax incentives your state has. Go to www.seia.com to get a referral for a contractor to install it for you. Do-it-yourselfers, your home is www.homepower.org. If you want to hook up your efforts with those of others, take a look at www.fatspaniel.com. This company is aggregating energy output data from solar and wind installations by city or region. You can be part of a virtual solar power plant.

If you don't have the big bucks, buy a little solar panel and play around with it. Teach your kids about solar. They may grow up to be solar power installers. One of my favorite energy education sites is www.energyquest.ca.gov. The National Renewable Energy Lab, www.nrel.gov, also has lots of educational resources for kids and adults.

Photovoltaic power won't answer every energy need, but it is a very nifty technology. In five years, a solar module produces the energy it took to make it and it lasts, if well made, darn near forever. Some of the first modules produced 40 years ago are still going strong.

A little solar power can go a long way. The difference between having no power at all and having some power is huge. There is an amazing housing project in Portland, Oregon called Dignity Village (www.outofthedoorways.org/). Homeless people have constructed low tech houses for themselves out of mud and straw that are quite nice. Soon, some of these houses will have solar electricity, something these folks never had when they were living under bridges and in doorways.

The most important Ecotopian principle is making conservation a moral imperative. You know, that granola hippie thing of simple living, reducing, reusing and recycling. Believe it or not there are people who never stopped trying. Type "sustainable" or "biomimicry" into any search engine to find them.

If we virtual Ecotopians do our job well, we will build the basis for a new sustainable civilization. Our thousand points of light, burning like the blue flames of highly efficient combustion, will shine for Red America on the day when the oil bubble bursts and the consumer dream lies shredded in tatters and it becomes clear that Ecotopia is not a fantasy but a vision.

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Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon.

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