Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)

Mark Steinberg is a professor in the department of history who works on histories of the city, revolution, emotion, violence, space, and utopia. He is also the coordinator of the “Global Utopias” project of the Center for Historical Interpretation.

Ecotopia by Ernest CallenbachSomehow, though I was born and raised in capital of the future Ecotopia (San Francisco) and living in the Ecotopian hotspot of Santa Cruz when this book came out in 1975, I never read this novel about the revolutionary secession of northern California, Oregon, and Washington from the United States and the creation of a deurbanized, deindustrialized, and ecologically “stable-state” society. Reading this book forty years later, for a discussion in the ongoing Global Utopias reading group (with people far more knowledgeable than me about the relevant histories of ecology, American environmentalism, and utopian fiction), I had the uncanny feeling, to the point of amusement, that it was about me and my friends back then, or at least our fantasies. The communalism, the spiritual wanderings in the woods, the insistence on open and strong emotions as a virtue, the physical touching among strangers and open and changing intimacies among friends, and the incredible optimism that weave through Ecotopia struck me as embarrassingly familiar. “So seventies,” I thought cynically. But something about it made be pull back from this knowing and cynical attitude.

In the last few years, I have been fairly serious reading about utopia—through the Global Utopias reading group and for a book I was completing on the Russian Revolution. In this reading, I have been especially moved and inspired by the complex, brilliant, and powerfully relevant writing by Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Fredric Jameson, Ruth Levitas, Davina Cooper, José Muñoz, and others. I began to work toward a version of their understanding of “utopia” not as a fantasy about an idealized place or time (the usual literary version) or a blueprint to be imposed on an unsuitable reality (as has often been said of the Soviet experiment), but a critical knowledge about reality and possibility: a radical negation of that which merely is in the name of what should be, a human impulse to “venture beyond” the “darkness of the lived moment” and discover an emerging “not-yet” (Bloch’s famous description), a story not about what is impossible but what is impossible to accept. As Bloch lyrically put this in his 1918 book Spirit of Utopia, utopia is to “summon what is not, build into the blue, build ourselves into the blue, and seek there the true, the real, where the merely factual disappears.” Because the merely factual is often a world of oppression, brutality, suffering, and catastrophe. As true in 2016 or 1975 as in 1918.

Ecotopia seems to fall back into the older mode of utopian fantasy. Worse, perhaps because it is so rooted in the 1970s (but also in the particular biases of the author), there is some strange and troubling blindness in this vision of a happy and sustainable future. Of course, it is in the nature of the utopian genre, as Jameson and others have noted, to be unable to truly think the new, for our imaginations are “held hostage” (Jameson’s phrase) by the reality that surrounds us. There is the troubling racial vision. Ecotopia is a white paradise, with blacks and Japanese in their own separate nationalist enclaves nurturing their “authentic” cultures. And the large and deeply rooted Chinese-American and Mexican-American communities of San Francisco are missing entirely! (Perhaps, in this imagined future, Trump became president and shipped all Mexicans out of the country? Or perhaps this ethnic cleansing was the result of the tech-boom driven gentrification that is now really destroying long-established ethnic and racial communities in San Francisco, once a very diverse working-class town). Ecotopians’ claims on native American traditions are also troubling. There is a lot of romantic embrace of the myth of the Indian as wise and noble primitive, but no actual native peoples present. And then there is his “feminism.” The government is run by women, but mostly the novel dwells on sexual freedom as the heart of women’s liberation, often a quite self-serving male stance in 1970s radical movements. The flip side of this gender trouble in the novel are the bloody macho “war games.” And then there are the schools: privatized (if teacher-owned) and pedagogically fact-obsessed, with learning measured by national examinations. This is also a one-party state ruled by the “Survivalist Party,” a term in the 1970s with lots of troubling baggage.

And yet, despite all this and my inclination to mock its seventiesness, I was drawn to the novel and sorry it ended (though its predictable and trite ending did not help). I admired the twenty-hour work week to ensure everyone has employment; the work ethic that values pleasure and process above output; the emotionally sustaining micro-communities where individuals are supported and private sorrows eased; the worker-ownership of all enterprises; the complete absence of automobiles. Perhaps the book reminded me that there is something beautiful (as Ecotopians would put it, perhaps with tears)—and necessary in the darkness of our lived moment (whether thinking of global climate change or local catastrophes in so many different communities)—in a way of being and knowing in the world that feels so naïve now: the embrace of communities, everyday life as an inseparable blending of labor and pleasure, a sustainable balance of humans and the rest of nature, and the lack of existential or political fear.

I am inclined to delete those last lines and conclude with something more philosophically and politically sophisticated and subtle. But I will honor the somewhat uncomfortable pleasure I had reading this book by letting the words stand.


About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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1 Response to Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)

  1. Steve Taylor says:

    This is great Mark, thanks! One of my favorite SF writers, Kim Stanley Robinson, was a Jameson student and he is still very much in the Ecotopia spirit.

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