This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Ecotopia, a modest book on the secession of the Pacific Northwest and creation of an isolated, environmentally attuned nation that became an underground classic. Its author, Ernest Callenbach, coined the term Ecotopia and is credited with the first systemic description of an ecologically sustainable society. Callenbach lives in Berkeley, writing on ecological and futurist matters. Geov Parrish spoke with him in early February.
GP: What makes this region different? Why did you pick the Pacific Northwest to secede from the United States and chart a different course?
EC: Well, it’s partly just because I live here. If you’re going to write a novel about a place, you’d better have a fair amount of knowledge about what the place is like and what the people who inhabit it are like.
But I think the larger reason is that Ecotopia is a kind of bioregion. At the time I was writing Ecotopia the term “bioregion” had not yet been invented, although it followed very soon after. But we now see that the Cascadia bioregion, as the zoologists and botanists now call it, stretches north from the Tehachapi Mountains in Southern California all the way up through British Columbia and into the Alaskan panhandle. And this is an area that’s defined by a fairly uniform climate, the animals are pretty much consistent throughout, as well as the plants. So there’s a certain geographical unity to the area. And my contention, as well as that of a lot of professional geographers, is that in the long run the characteristics of your bioregion help to determine what you might call your regional character. If you contrast Ecotopians with people who live in hot, dry, arid climates of the Southwest, or climates of, say, Quebec, we see that people are somewhat different in these regions. They like different things and they have different possibilities open to them about building and getting around and raising food and a whole panoply of other things.
Globalization is making us homogenous all over the world, but there’s a limit to that, especially when globalization collapses under its own weight. I think it’s going to do so, because it’s really a sort of tissue of monstrous subsidies that nation-states are still able to give to corporations. When that can’t be done any more, then I think regionalism will reassert itself. And Ecotopia will be one of those regions.
GP: What are some areas in which that regionalism might assert itself in the next 30 years?
EC: Well, I think in city design all over the world, there are new things happening. Planners have pretty well gotten the picture that you can’t build enough freeways to maintain the auto transit system in the long run. We’re going to have to do something else. So cities in the Northwest, Portland and Vancouver and Seattle, and San Francisco for that matter, are all busy trying to do two things.
One is to build more coherent networks of public transit, and the other is to emphasize neighborhood characteristics. I think Portland is probably the city that has accomplished this the most, at least on this continent. Maybe Toronto. That’s one thing that’s happening.
People who are interested in the public welfare over a long period are pretty discouraged with what’s going on nationally in our political life. And so they are turning toward local defense of natural areas to the extent we still have them, which is considerable when you compare this country to others. They are beginning to think of doing things which are within arm’s reach. So you have watershed councils, where people who live within a watershed begin to unite — and these are often very disparate people. There’s a very well-developed watershed council near here where you have ranchers, not only cattle ranchers, but you also have farmers who grow tree crops, fruit crops and so on, sportsmen, fishermen, bicyclists, people who like to kayak, conservationists, students, local businessmen in small towns who don’t want to see their small towns gobbled up by distant malls. And they’re beginning to say, “Look, we live here. We need to take care of this place. We need to share the work of doing it and we need to agree on some sorts of core values that we can all work within.” This is happening all over the country, it’s not just happening here in the Northwest, although perhaps we have more of it out here.
It’s easy to exaggerate the difference between us and the rest of the country. We need to seize on the common urge to take care of our place and see whether we can’t get through this current bad period.
GP: What are the impediments to achieving Ecotopia?
EC: Well, there are two major impediments. One is that we are living under a system of very corrupt government. I don’t think there’s any possibility of mincing words. The American governing system has become colossally corrupt. That’s true not only on state levels but also on the national level. So many of our representatives are in the pockets of corporate entities of one kind or another that it has become very, very difficult to do anything that is in the interest of the great mass of the American people.
We have to think sooner or later of a system of publicly financed elections, where people can still run by money they’ve raised from corporations and other large sources, but if they want to, they can run on public funds. This has been tried now in Arizona and Maine for two electoral cycles. More than half of the candidates from both parties are now, as they say, running clean. This means that if you get elected, you no longer have to look over your shoulder all the time to see whether your backers are going to rein you in if you vote for something public-spirited. There have been attacks on this, of course, in both states. But so far the systems have survived constitutional challenges and they seem to be working very well. There’s a considerable movement in that direction here in California.
Necessity number two, which is not altogether separate, is that we have to rethink what corporations are. When corporations are in charge of all basic aspects of a nation’s life, terrible things happen. We are witnessing these terrible things around us day by day. I’ve just been reading a wonderful book by Thom Hartmann, who is going back to figure out how corporations were first given the rights of persons. Corporations are licensed by states, at least formally, and what the states give the states could also modify or take away. As they did initially. We have to somehow rein in corporate power that is now ruling the land. Without that, we’re not going to be able to accomplish much, either ecologically, environmentally, or socially.
Electoral reform and corporate reform are the two twin pillars of a decent future for America.
The idea of Ecotopia as a separate country, I wrote as a metaphor, so that people could think, “Well, supposing we were in charge of this area out here, what would we do to take care of it? How could we live decently, how could we help each other be happy?”
When you think of a nation of 280 million people, it’s pretty hard to think those thoughts. There’s not much possibility for steering. But small countries have the possibility to steer. And it may be that the United States, like the former Soviet Union, or perhaps even China or India one of these days, will have to be broken down into smaller and more efficiently governable entities.
It’s likely that most of these overgrown nation-states are not really workable in the long term. At least not workable as democracies. One of the things that I couldn’t foresee at the time of Ecotopia is the existence of very fast widespread communications through the Internet. It makes it possible for people in regions to know a lot more about what’s going on without having to be dependent upon a largely corporatized press. And that’s very exciting, because it means if you are a devolutionist in Wales, you can be in contact with people in Brittany and anywhere around the world and lay common plans and learn from each other.
That’s going to be a big theme in the remainder of the century.
GP: What are you reading these days? What kind of ideas are exciting you?
EC: Well, I read a tremendous number of periodicals. I don’t read much fiction, oddly enough. I never have. I wish I had more time to do it, but the reading time that I have, a lot of it is on the Internet now. Trying to keep up with what’s going on in the Middle East and so on. And one has to be less and less dependant on newspapers. I find now that when something hits the New York Times I knew about it two days ago through some of the stuff on the Internet. You can get addicted to it, of course, it can eat up your life and I try not to spend too much time on the computer.
The big question that I’m really trying to think about, I’m trying to shape an article about it, would be called something like “Going Down With the Empire.” There are quite a lot of people in the world that think the American empire has overreached itself and is hollowing out.
In the period of World War II and right after that, the American working class was allowed to thrive in a way that it had never been allowed to before, perhaps because they needed to be bought off in order to put their collective shoulders behind the war effort. But we now see a very concerted effort to destroy not only unions, but also pension plans, and everything else that has supported what you might call the working middle class in some comfort. The Republicans and the other right wing people have realized that now is their time to strike and destroy all this, as they call it, “welfare state” that allows people to live decent lives even though they’re quite modest working folks.
This is going to propel us more in the direction of a Latin American country where you have a large number of very very poor and quite desperate people eking out an income, and a small upper middle class and an even smaller upper class, who live, by any historical standards, obscenely well. And a political structure that is, thanks to corporate control of the media, surprisingly stable. How long this can go on before people get — the old Marxist term was immiserated — how immiserated can people get before they take to the streets and throw the whole thing into the river? I don’t know. It may be quite a while. We’re still a very fat country where there’s a lot of juice to be wrung out and put into rich peoples’ pockets.
It’s tempting to exaggerate the evils of politicians, even George Bush. Probably had Kerry been put in, he would do half of the bad things that Bush is going to do. Because presidents are forced to do things. He would have inherited a totally oil-dependent economy. The reason he was so wishy-washy about the war is because he’s a bright guy and he realizes that America cannot give up control of the Middle East oil fields. No way. And there are a lot of other things that any American president would do which are counter to the welfare of the general American people. But sooner or later the American people are going to have to take responsibility into their own hands again of forming a government such as they would rather have.
GP: How do we start?
EC: Well, by learning what’s going on. If we can get a sufficiently clear idea of what is happening to the American empire and why we are having these wars on the periphery all the time, if we get an idea of how the interests of the American population are being sacrificed to the interests of multinational corporations who don’t care whether they are doing business here of in China. I just read something where the head of Cisco, which is this giant information technology company, says “We are laying plans to become a Chinese company.” Well, that should stop people in their tracks, because that means that the American population is sacrificable, that the nation is an institution on the way out. Once we get a fix on what is going on, I think you will find a lot of people are going to rise up and be counted and say, “No. We don’t want that.”
Most of the Democrats, like Kerry, don’t have a very good feel for how ordinary people live or think. It’s no accident that more than half of American voters do not vote. It’s because they don’t see that there’s any real alternative.
We’re entering a period where local politicians, who have to be a little bit more responsible to their constituents than national politicians, I think are going to be feeling a lot of heat. And that could lead to some very interesting things. Now, California, and probably the same is true of Washington, sends a lot more money to Washington than we get back in terms of services from the federal government.
GP: That’s true of most states.
EC: And I think that’s something that people gradually will get a fix on. That this is not fair, and American people like to see things reasonably fair. That’s going to be a long term lever that we can use.
Aside from that, I think wherever people see some avenue, and people are very varied in their tastes and talents and desires, wherever people see an avenue that they can do something to improve their local situation, whether it’s their neighborhood or their town or their state or the valley that they live in, we can get that kind of intensity out of commitment to place. Schoolkids are getting in on this in a big way, at least in California, there are a lot of teachers who have the kids out prowling around trying to repair creeks.
GP: That’s true here, too.
EC: I imagine it is pretty much everywhere in the country. Kids who have gone through that kind of program know a lot about nature, they understand in their bones something about the contradictions between heavy development and some kind of sustainability. They know the word sustainability. When I wrote Ecotopia I’m not even sure he word “sustainability” existed, in the sense that we use it now. It was just coming into view, and I think that you can describe Ecotopia as the first attempt to portray a sustainable future society. The idea of being able to have natural cycles that continue indefinitely, round and round, stable state cycles, and that the idea is to think in very long terms and to work with nature rather than against nature. This is a big philosophical overturn, because we’re coming out of 200 years where we were assuming that we were in charge. Anything we wanted to do to nature badly enough, we could. We’re now beginning to understand that that’s not really the way it is.
GP: What gives you hope?
EC: Well, I think we often overrate the intelligence of the human species. A lot of the time we act out of other things than intelligence. But when you look at things like the California energy crisis, when Enron and its friends were gouging Californians and running energy prices through the ceiling, Californians started turning off the lights. And Dick Cheney made fun of conservation as a “personal choice but not a policy question.” Well, when Californians started exercising personal choice it cut down their energy use by something like 20 percent. It was staggering. The same thing happens when you have a drought or some other emergency like that.
People will pay attention if there’s something really sensible being said to them. And I think that in the long run we need to get past these awful empty political slogans of freedom and blah blah blah, and get down to questions of how we are living, and what we are doing to ourselves and each other and to the natural world. And when we begin to talk in those terms, I think most people have the capacity to be interested and to think about it, and, we hope, move on it.
We need to develop a much more concrete politics. A politics about how we are living now, and what we like about it, and what we don’t like about it. The dominant idea behind consumer society is that you will be happier if you have more. Now we know for a fact that’s not true. They’ve been taking public opinion surveys for decades now, and they all show that beyond some level of obvious misery, increased money and possessions do not make people happier. In the great range of human income and consumption, the amount of goods you have is really not that significant. A lot of other things, your relationships, your community, and so on, those are the things that really make people happy. Our consumption of goods has tripled since 1960 or thereabouts. But are we three times happier? Nope. We’re just about exactly as happy as we were then.
So this has to get through our thick skulls somehow, that what makes for a good life is not goods. We have to learn what is enough for us. If enough of us can do that, it will change the nature of our society. And our prospects for survival will greatly improve.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange. He can be reached by email at [email protected] — please indicate whether your comments may be used on WorkingForChange in an upcoming “letters” column.