In the afterword to the 30th anniversary edition of his 1975 novel Ecotopia, author Ernest Callenbach writes, ‘Looking back, it seems clear that Ecotopia was the first attempt to portray a sustainable society, and that this, more than its modest literary merit, explains its durability.’ Sadly, there is no false humility in that statement.
By Pat Joseph
June 8-14, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian
Ecotopia is ostensibly about a secessionist Northwest–Northern California, Oregon and Washington–founded on ecological principles. In this independent land, cars are abolished, everybody recycles and sewage is turned to fertilizer. More fundamentally, Ecotopia is a ‘stable-state’ society, where old notions of economic progress are retired and ‘biological stasis’ becomes the ultimate goal. That sounds good, as far as it goes; however, the vision is weighed down by so much extraneous cultural baggage–Marxism, paganism, free love, ritual warfare, communal living, abortion on demand, legalized drugs, gamelan orchestras–that readers coming to Ecotopia for the first time will find both more and less than they bargained for.
The story is narrated by William Weston, a New York journalist, by way of his notebooks and–the first filed by an American reporter from inside the breakaway republic in 20 years. Weston’s stranger-in-a-strange-land observations are, by turns, ludicrously detailed (he dutifully reports that electric carving knives are unknown in Ecotopia) and impossibly obtuse. Few novels can survive that kind of thing; yet, somehow, Ecotopia has thrived, having now sold nearly a million copies in nine languages. Were it otherwise, there would be no sense in reissuing the book–nor, indeed, in reviewing it–except perhaps as a cultural artifact. But even today, the novel is assigned reading for college courses in political science and environmental studies. Callenbach boasts that his book was an inspiration to the founders of the German Green Party, and Judi Bari’s Mendocino chapter of Earth First! was named after it. Whatever else you might say about Ecotopia, it can’t be dismissed as a relic.
The novel stands in sharp contrast to another enduring eco-classic from 1975, Ed Abbey’s wildly successful (and also Earth First!-inspiring) The Monkey Wrench Gang. As a writer, Abbey was in another league, but his sensibilities were also a world apart. While the two books share a deep disdain of so-called progress, Abbey’s eco-saboteurs aimed to merely throw a wrench in the works of industrial civilization while Callenbach conjured a model society–a City on a Hill, so to speak–where humans could live in balance with nature. As Callenbach recently told the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘Then, as now, people didn’t have easy hope, and Ecotopia served as a beacon.’
Therein lies both its appeal and its fatal weakness, for while Callenbach dared, at least, to envision human history as something other than a forced march to oblivion, his characters, stuck as they are within the utopian framework, seem like little more than the self-satisfied minions of the newly dawned Aquarius. Abbey’s desert rats may be doomed, but at least they’re heroic. The citizens of Callenbach’s republic, by contrast, display an eerie sameness that makes all human interaction in the book seem unsettlingly artificial, as if the body-snatchers had already left behind only pod people.
This is not to say that the residents of this sovereignty don’t argue or act up. They do. Callenbach takes pains, in fact, to show us that the good people of Ecotopia are unrestrained in their emotions. One illustration of this involves a plate of cold eggs in a restaurant. When the indignant recipient of the tepid huevos raises a stink, the aggrieved customer and the offended cook square off in front of the other diners. The drama ends not in bitterness or violence, however, but in hugs and tears and ‘many little smiles all around.’ Ecotopians don’t so much interact as role-play; it’s life as group therapy. Speaking of roles, free love has a starring one in Callenbach’s vision. His lucky narrator enjoys wild romps in forest shrines, anonymous threesomes in tents, even sex with the lovely and obliging nurse who tends to him in the hospital. (As porn clichés go, the Naughty Nurse has to be right up there with the Lusty Librarian.)
As for the sticky issue of race, blacks have voluntarily segregated themselves. Oakland thus becomes Soul City, an Afro-centric enclave where businesses are ‘more naturally collectivist than in the white areas’ and which is a ‘heavy exporter of music and musicians, novels and movies and poetry.’ Natch. Native Americans are at once prominent and scarce in Ecotopia; that is, they exist only as part of the idealized, pre-Columbian past, as noble savages. As such, Ecotopians are free to play Indian: they happily adopt faux-native names and hunt with bow and arrow; they say things like, ‘You’d never catch an Indian wearing a watch.’
The evil of warfare has been ritualized as a way of dissipating its awful power and relegating it to the safe, if frightening, confines of ceremony. The scene, as Callenbach paints it, is unbridled neo-primitivism, complete with all the props: chanting, cauldrons filled with potions, face paint. All that’s missing from the Tarzan fantasy are grass skirts and bones protruding from the nose. The charade ends when Weston is ritually speared in the side–the wound that lands him in the sexual-healing ward.
Before he can return home to New York, Weston is abducted on the orders of the president of Ecotopia, Vera Allwen. His benevolent captors spirit him away to a hot springs. There, steaming in the baptismal waters, the last of his intellectual resistance–his ‘objective pseudo-think,’ as he disparages it in his journal–melts away, and at long last, he is reborn. The scene ends as things inevitably do in Ecotopia: with hugs and tears and everyone ‘obviously very pleased with themselves.’
Callenbach has called his book ‘politics fiction’ (as opposed to science fiction), but he’s wide of the mark there. Aside from the occasional whiff of authoritarianism, there are no politics to speak of here. How could there be? The Ecotopian worldview is of such a cultish consistency, after all, that politics are superfluous. Moreover, in this Rousseauian world, people are all basically good. Evil is in exile, banished to the old world beyond the borders. With no need of politics, neither are there politicians. Allwen, the president, is really more of a high priestess, the therapist-in-chief. Weston notes with some alarm that his long-awaited meeting with her is ‘almost like a psychiatric interview’ and later, after his conversion, reflects that she ‘must have seen what was going on in my mind when I didn’t know it myself.’ Yeah, almost like Jim Jones. What the ending of Ecotopia makes clear, finally, is that Callenbach’s story is a religious parable, a Pilgrim’s Progress for the deep-ecology set. It’s a cult classic in the fullest sense.
If Callenbach is embarrassed by any of this 30 years on, he gives no indication in the new afterword. ‘Being the author of Ecotopia,’ he writes from his home in Berkeley, ‘has been like being the parent of a talented child.’ Fair enough. Parents should be proud of their offspring. But the rest of us ought to be a little more objective.