Ecotopia by Callenbach, Ernest, 1979

Ecotopia by Callenbach, Ernest - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I have definately not lived my life in accordance with good environmental principles. Not that I'm a complete slob, though. I may drive a big pick up truck and take long showers, but I do throw my Coke cans into the trash, and I have those twisty fluorescent bulbs in all but a few of my house's lights. In short, I could do more. Probably much much more. Ernest Callenbach's Utopian novel of the near future has a few ideas for each of us. It manages to tell a good story and send a pretty decent, if somewhat one-sided message at the same time. This is one of the earlier SF books that I encountered back in the very late 1970's. I bought it on a lark at first, as the cover and the blurbs on the cover definately sounded preachy, but every time I read this novel, I manage to power through it in one sitting, and that's saying something for me. Ecotopia is the story of a new, young nation carved out of the Pacific Northwest that is politically at odds with the United States and which is dedicated to managing the environment and producing a healthy and happy communal lifestyle. For the 1970's, when it was published, its quite a radical book and makes radical proposals. Sitting here in 2007 I spotted quite a few of Callenbach's ideas that had been put into common practice, such as three-bin recycling stations, alternative fuels and organic farming. Three out of five stars.

Ecotopia is basically an organized treatise in narrative form on how to reform public policy with regards to the ecological health of our environment and the physical and mental health of the citizenry. The titular nation was formed in the Pacific Northwest when Washington State, Oregon and Northern California all the way down past Monterrey seceded from the union. The was some conflict after the succession, but that is definately not the point of the novel. What is the point is that by massive social and scientific engineering the Ecotopians managed to create a "stable-state" government that served the more left brained needs of the population. Its told from the point of view of an American newspaper reporter who is sent by his paper and the U.S. government to report (and spy) on the Ecotopians. In the 20 years since succession he is the first U.S. citizen to visit the new nation, although European and Asian nations do seem to have good relations with Ecotopia. In that sense the book is more of a travelogue and cultural-exchange piece than an espionage tale. The narrator enters Ecotopia with serious misgivings about his personal safety, based solely on the rumors and tall-tales about the Ecotopian proclivities rumored about in the United States. But soon enough he finds he is enjoying his stay, and in the end decides to stay there and make a new life for himself.

The most shocking aspects of Ecotopia as a nation are the massive social changes that they implemented after the revolution, all in the name of conservation and sustainability. There are far too many changes to go into any detail here, though. But suffice it to say, Callenbach put quite a bit of though into how to reorganize a very tech and agricultural heavy section of our nation in a way that takes advantage of the good and eliminates the bad with as little social upheaval as possible. This included a complete rebuilding of the waste removal system, a general banning of autos and the construction of mag-lev trains to all points near and far, and the invention of an entire new category of biodegradable and natural product plastics. These massive projects also served as employment programs, which were necessary after all the wealth fled the new nation that was pretty clearly on its way to a form of communal ownership. But the changes only started there. Callenbach proposes an entire new approach to the issues of food production, ownership, employment, sport, sexuality, psychological health, timber management, provision of medical services and research and development in the area of medicine, communication, political organization, housing, urban planning, natural resource management, agriculture, animal husbandry, parkland management, population management, taxation, infrastructure funding, and on and on and on. You name it, Callenbach at least mentioned it, though he did frequently go into enough detail to at least make readers think.

In my opinion a lot of Callenbach's ideas make good ecological sense, but our population would really never stand for much of it. He acknowledges that a massive waste collection system for fertilizer and banning of pesticides will probably wind up costing more that it can produce, but posits that they are necessary to achieve long term ecological stability. Coupled with micro-cities, an undeveloped point-to-point transportation system, and regional specialization, which are all other ideas he promotes, the cost per unit or measure will go even higher, meaning that in order to be sustainable the market would have to be subsidized, probably heavily. More over, Callenbach ignores the effect of black market activity on the economy. For example, in the agricultural and game management industries, things such as pilferage, spoilage, energy cost fluctuations and most importantly, poaching, are never addressed. In the context of the environment as a whole, poaching in a communally-owned system is a huge problem that can have enormous deleterious effects. In a system where everyone has the same rights to exploit resources as the person next to him, who will stop your neighbor from taking a resource that you have cared for and invested in? Nobody, that's who. Callenbach ignores this most basic argument against communal ownership, or any form of non-private ownership, and instead just assumes that some sort of psychological make over of the people will handle this problem. And while Callenbach does allow some business control of assets, he also posits that everyone who works for a business automatically becomes a partner, rather than an employee. Not only will this completely eliminate anything but microscopic growth, but it also rewards sweat equity with residual ownership rights, which likely would completely stifle invention, especially in science-heavy endeavors. Callenbach also completely ignores how the "stable-state" system effects on micro economics and most importantly on family finance. As in, the idea that such as system could even have an effect on something other than the macro-economy is not even mentioned. Most catastrophically, Callenbach proposes that surpluses of any kind can only be lent to the central bank, giving the government complete control of the investment and savings economy. I won't even address the problems with this notion. Suffice it to say, it is completely unworkable and would probably start more wars and promote capitalism more than anything in our history.

Despite all of this, Callenbach does have some interesting ideas that are worth discussing. Some are ideas that probably will (and should) go nowhere such as a VAT instead of income taxation, central wage control, drug decriminalization and acceptance of Ebonics (Callenbach is from Oakland). Others warrant serious thought, such as retooling of the entire synthetics and chemical industries, coal fire plant decommission, increased social stigma and criminal punishments for pollution, geothermal, solar, nuclear and wind power infrastructure construction, the total outlawing of the use of scientists or scientific opinion in the marketing of products (along with a strong regulation of advertising in general), complete and universal recycling accomplished by manufacturing products for that and not marketability, subsidy of biology-centric secondary education, a reassessment of the value of youth and the elderly, and many many others.

Callenbach's ideas really do present as a puzzle that needs to be put together for an entire picture of a transformed way of life. I think that the biggest problem with his ideas is the big picture-type stuff. That is to say, implementing all his changes will not be possible, but some are workable right now. If you find that the following quote resonates with you at all, consider reading this book:

It is widely believed among Americans that the Ecotopians have become a shiftless and lazy people. This was the natural conclusion after Independence, when the Ecotopians adopted a 20-hour work week. Yet even so no one in America, I think, has yet fully grasped the immense break this represented with our way of life -- and even now it is astonishing that the Ecotopian legislature, in the first flush of power, was able to carry through such a revolutionary measure.

What was at stake, informed Ecotopians insist, was nothing less than the revision of the Protestant work ethic upon which America had been built. The consequences were plainly severe. In economic terms, Ecotopia was forced to isolate its economy from the competition of harder-working peoples. Serious dislocations plagued their industries for years. There was a drop in Gross National Product by more than a third. But the profoundest implications of the decreased work week were philosophical and ecological: Mankind, the Ecotopians assumed, was not meant for production, as the 19th and early 20th centuries 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. This would mean sacrifice of present consumption, but it would ensure future survival -- which became an almost religious objective, perhaps akin to earlier doctrines of "salvation." People were to be happy not to the extent that they dominated their fellow creatures on the earth, but to the extent that they lived in balance with them.

I think that quote very admirably sums up this book. It is very typical Utopian piece in that it at the very beginning assumes that utopia is possible. It presents the triangle of important themes of the work, which are salvation, survival and transformation/rebirth, and sets out the revision of the economy as the single most important aspect of attaining all three. It also hints at the motif of paternalism which runs strongly through this work, and touches on the massive changes that are necessary to accomplish the stated goal. This work obviously presents social ideas from the far left side of the spectrum. But even if you are offended by such, I think that this book is worth the time it will take to find and read.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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