Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia

Oh 1970s, how on earth did you manage such naivety - and in so many areas - in the midst of such political complexity, scientific advances, and artistic experimentation?

I've meant for years to read Ernest Callenbach's epochal novel Ecotopia, and I've finally made the time for it. The back cover blurb's emphasis on the narrator's "relationship with a sexually forthright Ecotopian woman" wasn't a good sign, especially with the blurb's closing words of "startling climax" punning openly about the sex and the narrative structure, and definitely its politics are dated. Gender essentialism has come back into a certain fashion, though in a limited way and presumably among limited demographics, but it's rarely defended openly, and racial essentialism feels now like something your least predictable great-uncle might espouse while half-cut, and for no good reason, at a wedding reception.

Race isn't particularly important to the book, so maybe one could simply overlook it, but gender is crucial. I'll have to think harder about how Callenbach uses sex and sexuality in the novel, before I could say something particularly cogent about it, but I will simply note here that Ecotopia seems to enable, if not to be based on, some of the standard gender essentialist elements to environmentalism, the ones that mean ecofeminism needs to counterbalance mainstream environmentalism just as thoroughly as it does consumer society. Chicks aren't just there for the dudes, in environmentalism or anywhere else. It's not good enough to specify that women in Ecotopia (the fictional place) have much more power of sexual choice than they do in the real world (or the fictionalized America), or even that they've got more political power than men do. I'm not sure what WOULD be good enough, mind you, but this isn't it.

I was trying to make excuses for it all, or at least to stick my fingers in my ears long enough to make it through the novel, but I gave up when it turned out that the nurses often have sex with patients for therapeutic reasons. Oy.

Basic plot: during the early 70s oil crisis, a secessionist movement managed to carve out a new country consisting of Washington, Oregon, and northern California, and over the last few decades they've developed a steady-state economy without any diplomatic relations with the rest of America. A reporter for the New York Times-Post named William Weston gets an unofficial mission from the US President to explore relations with the new nation of Ecotopia, under the guise of a series of newspaper columns, and he becomes the first American to enter Ecotopia openly since secession. The book's written in alternating form across about a six-week period, with a newspaper story followed immediately by diary entries about the same experiences.

I'm giving nothing away if I mention there's plenty of sex (though not explicit), regular references to marijuana consumption, and lengthy disquisitions on the dubiousness of Ecotopia's steady-state economy and community-driven social structure (all of which we're meant to see through). The Ecotopian experiment could only have happened on the United States' west coast in the 1970s, because of its climate and terrain, and because of the oil crisis, and frankly I'm convinced that only at that time and in that place could the book possibly have been written this way.

It's a fascinating thought experiment, to imagine a nation with such different principles but the same basic roots, and I'm always ready to give time to someone imagining a better way for us to live sustainably and ethically. Ecotopia should keep being read, and widely. It's a cool book, with lots of valuable ideas, but wow, does it ever need updating. Wow.

Up, Cascadia! Arise! Or, I don't know, something actually stirring.


Chris Clarke said…
I know Chick Callenbach a little, and I like him, but yeah.

The one that sticks out in my memory is the throwaway line mid-book describing how parts of Oakland and other large cities are essentially Bantustans in which the natives are tolerantly allowed their Cadillacs.
richard said…
Right! The black communities within Ecotopia are really startling, even more so than the stereotypically aggressive (economically speaking) Asian communities. The politics might be a little different if he wrote it now, I imagine - you think?

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