Posts Tagged ‘Ecotopia’

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia Emerging

October 21, 2021

         One of the problems with many utopian novels is that they are very good at showing us a much better, an ideal world even, but not so good at leading the reader there: how does one get from the horrendous present to the wonderful future? Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) portrays a secessionist state on the West Coast of America, running along green/ecological principles; it’s set in the late 1990s, as I recall. And in the prequel here, he sets out to show how it all came about. This book has sat on my shelves for many years; I’ve read it before, but forgotten from whom I must have borrowed it and failed to return it, as it does not bear any of my library accession information…mea culpa.

Although there are characters who are well-developed and to whom the reader may warm, it does strike me first and foremost as a didactic novel: there’s an awful lot of 1980s ecological information spliced into the narrative at almost every turn, reflecting the concerns of all those years ago: dangers of nuclear power, chemical pollution, power of big oil and car corporations. The only thing missing from our present-day world is global heating and climate change. I found myself wondering, well, if the situation was that dire back then – and having lived through those years, yes it was – why didn’t anything actually get done about it all?

Callenbach is under no illusions about the opposition that there would be to any threat to the integrity of the United States. And in the back of my mind there’s the thought that, depending on what happens when that country tries to have its next presidential election, the threat to the unity of the nation may actually never been greater than it currently is…

So here’s a novel firmly rooted in its time and place – 1980s USA – and yet in some ways never more relevant than it is now. An idealist environmentalist party may perhaps have been a plausible prospect back then; forty much more cynical years later, it sadly feels much less so. Its political programme still makes eminent sense today, but the odds are far more strongly stacked against success.

Arguments for degrowth are carefully presented and evidenced, but depend on a large enough audience willing to pay attention for long enough to take in, process and accept those arguments, and this seems far less likely in the reduced attention-spans of the current social media era: divide et impera has never been more fully implemented. Seeing the car as the ultimate enemy was logical in the US of the 1980s, and it was possible to consider rejigging transportation, workplaces and living spaces to accommodate alternative ways of being and doing; now we are told to think that electric cars will be the solution to everything…

I’ve written elsewhere about my discovery of ecology over half a century ago, as a schoolboy, though reading Gordon Rattray Taylor’s 1970 polemic The Doomsday Book. Now there’s an awful lot more sound and fury about what we have done to the planet, but still precious little effective action, I fear. The culprit is capitalism, pure and simple: money still has to be made so that the rich can accumulate it; governments are in hock to business and we are told it’s up to us as individuals to save the planet. Quick, buy that bamboo toothbrush…

Callenbach’s two novels are an addition to dreams, prompts to think about the future, instances of the ‘what if?’ that good science fiction can do. But why hasn’t anything happened?

Dreams of utopia – part 2

August 26, 2020

81Ry5hSi3tL._AC_UY218_     I don’t pretend to have reviewed even a small number of all the different texts, or approaches taken, but I do note some similarities: the major issue that needs to be addressed in approaching a better world is the ever-present one of inequality – and it’s not always suggested that the answer is egalitarian communism. Rather it seems that the question of shortages of material or other goods is considered, with a view to removing such shortages by providing those in need with what they lack. In a world of plenty (like ours) this is basic fairness…

Writers nowadays do seem to be much more aware of the difficulties involved in getting there; it’s of little use presenting the reader with a vision of a perfect world, without a hint of how one might move towards it if we decided we really like the idea. So Le Guin’s presentation of the world Anarres (in The Dispossessed) and Callenbach’s Ecotopia – set in California – devote considerable time to how a transition was successfully effected. Not that we should regard these as road maps: we’re talking about works of fiction, after all, but an extension of the mental exercise that is the vision of the utopia in the first place.

Capitalism doesn’t work/isn’t a mechanism or system for getting there, so any utopia means replacing the current system, and herein lies the greatest difficulty: that the entitled, the rich and the powerful will do anything to stay at the top of the pile, including slaughter on a massive scale if necessary, and we should be under no illusions about that. Does this, ethically, draw a line under attempts to change things, or can there be another way? Here is a question that, in my reading, few writers have thoroughly explored.

Divide and conquer: as people have become a little better educated and aware and more politicised, those in power have focused on dividing people to retain and entrench control. This is my personal take on things from half a century or more of observing politics and world history. If you can convince – for example – women, that women’s issues are the most important, or people of other races, that racial issues are the most important, then you divide the potential opposition into smaller and potentially more fragmented groups, whereas things get much more dangerous for the elite if everyone unites and co-operates, in an understanding that the system itself is at the root of the problem. Then, once the system has been changed, addressing all the other issues becomes easier…perhaps. This, of course, is what Marx not only suggested, but perhaps demonstrated in a – fortunately for the powerful – almost unreadable lengthy tome. You need to find a different way of running the world politically and economically, and then seek to address all the other very real and demanding issues next. And the elites, the powerful, will do whatever they can to blur that message, to discredit it, to distract those who suffer, from it. They need to!

The closest any writer has got to addressing – in terms of getting her readers to realise and think about – these issues is, for me, the late Ursula Le Guin in her masterful novel The Dispossessed. She contrasts the rich, glitzy, successful capitalist planet Urras with the anarcho-syndicalist and poor separatist moon Anarres, which is attempting to explore different ways of being and organising. It’s effectively done through the standard utopian trope of having a visitor from one world visit another, and the utopia coming across as preferable by comparison. But Le Guin’s masterstroke is to do this in reverse: Shevek is an anarchist, from the utopian world Anarres which we are meant to admire, and becomes the naive visitor to be seduced by the bright lights of the capitalist paradise his forebears rejected some eight centuries previously. And he is tried, tempted, tested; we think he and his world emerge from the comparison as preferable, but oh the struggle, the constant hard work and alertness demanded to sustain the utopia (which is far from plentiful, far from perfect, but does at least offer equality of a sort). Le Guin leaves us under no illusion that human nature itself, perhaps perverted as it has been over millennia but whatever, craves the promise of stuff, power, wealth: there is a jackdaw primitiveness in us that craves the shiny-shiny… which is what got us and keeps us where we are today…

Dreams of utopia – part 1

August 25, 2020

41CQ2tBHymL._AC_UY218_     I’ve written about utopias (and dystopias) before, in a number of places, and if you’re sufficiently interested you can track down the posts. I’ve been thinking again, in the current incredibly dire and grim state of the world, about our likelihood of ever getting anywhere near one before the planet hawks us up and spits us out for good…

There have been religious utopias, economic utopias, feminist utopias, political utopias, rural utopias, ecological utopias. Writers have visualised happiness for an elite, for the many, for most or even for all, and with or without slaves. They have imagined utopias on this planet and on other, imaginary worlds.

A quest for an ideal or perfect world or society presupposed imperfection of and or dissatisfaction with the current one – a permanent given – and a picture of something better; more thoughtful writers also attempt the really difficult bit, which is to explain how we get/got there, and this always raises another question: why don’t we do it?

I find myself going back in time, to ancient days, when society first settled, became agrarian and was able to accumulate surpluses of food. At this point it seems to have been possible for more powerful individuals to take over and arrogate the surpluses to themselves, and thus to also control the labour that produced food, goods and surpluses. Here we have inequality emerging, and we have to think about whether this was inevitable or necessary. Yet, once it happened it will almost instantly have become a permanent feature of our world and its organisation, for what person or group, having seen what it is possible to do with power and more stuff than others, would not strive to keep things that way? And so it has gone on…

When did this start? In my imagination, I see an equality in the builders of something like Stonehenge, for example, which seems to have been constructed to answer to primitive spiritual needs of a society. But even then, in that lost past, was there not a privileged and powerful priestly class to insist on its construction, and make it happen? And when we come to consider the Pharaohs and their pyramids, it’s clearer that a ruling class used enforced labour to create monuments to themselves.

For me the crux is the point where the inequality emerges, where the lower classes are unable – for whatever reason – to resist or counter its emergence and consolidation. N centuries later, inequality is everywhere rampant, entrenched, and condemns countless millions to misery and impoverishment.

71J-9IfLqQL._AC_UY218_     Utopian visions, nowadays certainly, take issue with inequality and see equality of wealth and opportunity, sharing and co-operation rather than competition as the way to ensure maximum happiness or contentment for the greatest number. And we live in a society which has now shown that it can create sufficient abundance for their to be enough for everyone were it shared out more fairly (not even equally). Nobody needs the wealth of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos; they could never spend even a part of it.

Utopias usually imagine a world where warfare is part of the past. A rational consideration demonstrates that war is an obscene waste of money and resources (I refer you to this astonishing graphic if you want concrete evidence) without even thinking about the ethical issue of killing other human beings. Weapons are an ideal capitalist consumer good, for, used as directed, they immediately need replacing with more. And the idea that people make their livelihoods from inventing and constructing ever more horrendous devices for killing and maiming their fellow humans is too sick to think about.

Utopias have imagined technology as capable of providing plenty, a life of comfort and ease for all. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (or Life in the Year 2000) was published in 1887 and combines production and socialist distribution to imagine a marvellous future for humanity. More recently, writers have been aware of technology, production and pollution coming together as more of a threat: I offer Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging, as examples of how continuing on our current track is not such a good idea. And he was writing 40 years ago, before the horrific state of plastic pollution or the enormous threat presented by climate change and global heating became so obvious…

71FUig5zsTL._AC_UY218_     Some recent utopias (and dystopias) have looked to sexual politics as an issue that needs to be addressed. Charlottle Perkins Gilman created a women-only world in Herland a century or more ago. In the 1970s Suzy McKee Charnas first visualised a dystopia from a woman’s viewpoint (Walk to the End of the World) and then proceeded to construct a response (Motherlines). And Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is a particularly good example of the genre from this perspective, as is Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction generally.

There have been utopias which have looked backwards in a different way, taking refuge in a quieter agrarian past, a rural idyll. William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, and Austin Tappan Wright’s magnificent Islandia are all different examples of how this has been done. To be continued…

On intelligence

February 17, 2019

I know I’m not the only person deeply concerned by the growing evidence that human activity is irreversibly altering the planet’s climate, and not in a good way. Similarly, the growing evidence of the extinction of species, particularly of insects, is very worrying. Fairly well on in years myself, I perhaps have little to worry about in my lifetime, but I have children and grandchildren, as well as having friends and acquaintances among those who I used to teach not that long ago, and who in theory have the best part of a lifetime ahead of them: the future may not be very kind to them.

In my thinking about what is wrong with the world, I reached the conclusion long ago that a combination of greed and scarcity was at the root of most of our problems: greed on the part of relatively few, and scarcity, or many different kinds, for far more of the planet’s inhabitants, short of food, water, shelter, freedom, affection…

I’ve read widely in the literature of utopias, and have encountered many visions of how humans might do it all differently. Some of these visions are more attractive than others, but what the writers have in common is daring to dream of humanity living more harmoniously, as a species and with the rest of creation. Unfortunately – or inevitably? – the writers mostly fail to tell how we get there, and that’s the biggest problem. The visitor from our world to the utopia represents us and our collective failings, and is wowed by the alternative future s/he encounters. About thirty-five years ago, Ernest Callenbach, in two novels, Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, attempted to show how the California of his own time gradually separated itself and seceded from the United States, and founded a nation based on true ecological principles. I remember thinking what a brave and wild idea it was, and almost plausible too, way back then when I read it. It hasn’t happened.

So here is the real issue: there are many possible maps out there. We can have the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the rural idyll of William MorrisNews From Nowhere or W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, we can have the feminist utopias of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time – if someone can show us how we get there.

Back in the real world, the forces of wealth and greed are firmly embedded, and are not about to give up without a struggle. Logically, one might argue that nobody needs an income of, say, more than £100k per year; anything in excess could be taxed away at 99%. Nobody needs more than a single residence, or a single vehicle. The Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world will never spend all those shedloads of money, but they aren’t going to give them up either. And don’t kid yourself about their being philanthropic: they still retain power and control.

When the Bolsheviks seized power after the Russian revolution, they eliminated the wealthy and the aristocracy and commandeered their assets: that was one way of tackling the forces of wealth and power decisively. And yet, we see that ultimately what happened was that one wealthy and powerful group was replaced by another… and so it goes on. However hard I try to visualise the transition to a better world, I cannot see beyond the powerful digging in their heels and using their power and wealth brutally to hang on to it, at horrendous cost to everyone else, or else another group replacing them. Can you visualise anything different?

Is there something deeply rooted in the human psyche which drives us to seek power over our fellows and to accumulate surplus just in case we ever go short? And can we never forego this desire, or educate ourselves out of it? Is there time? We live on a very bountiful planet, capable of supporting large numbers in comfort and sufficiency. Digging more deeply, when, in the millennia of our development and progress as a species, was the tipping point? Clearly, hunting and foraging was not enough: we craved more and had the brainpower to pursue more, with the results we see today. Are we a highly intelligent species that is unable to use that intelligence in our own best interests? So many questions, so little time.

My father used to say, ‘you can’t learn everything from books!’ He was right: sixty years of reading have not shown me the answers to the questions above. I would be very interested to know if any of my readers can cast any light on them for me…

On responsibility

January 24, 2019

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that I’m a thinker and not a doer by nature; from this blog you can see I read and reflect and write a lot. I’ve been considering this in the light of what I perceive to be the parlous state of the world at the moment, and wonder what my contribution has been.

From my teenage years, I’ve been aware of the state of the planet and the effects of pollution on it, after reading The Doomsday Book by Gordon Rattray Taylor, an eye-opening moment. This led me to explore the realm of speculative fiction, in which writers consider what ifs, both in term so what may happen if things get worse, and what we may do to improve things. So the fiction of John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, for instance, is balanced by the more positive imaginings of Ursula Le Guin and Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia), and I spent several years researching into science fiction with a social slant in my younger years.

I’ve worked for food co-ops and housing co-ops, as radical alternatives to the usual ways of feeding and housing ourselves, and learned much from those experiences; I’ve been vegetarian for over 40 years, converted others, spread the message about responsible eating. I have done my best to recycle, and not to over-consume (I’ll polish my halo now).

As a career, I taught, in secondary schools, and think that I always did my best to have students read and discuss texts of all kinds that would make them think about the world they were going to live in and the choices they would make. I was radical without preaching, and enjoyed playing devil’s advocate, as many of my former students would recognise. This was a difficult but enjoyable line to tread, and one I feel I had no choice about; only once did a parent challenge me about my political views in nearly 30 years.

Politically I have supported organisations which espoused issues I felt strongly about – CND, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Soil Association; I can’t remember ever having been a member of a political party, which I know some may think is a fault. I have always voted: I believe this is a civic duty, and anyone who doesn’t vote has no right to complain about the outcome of an election. I have never voted Conservative, and could not. I have never supported tax-cutting, privatisation, selling-off national assets. But obviously we have benefited (?) financially, in crude terms of having more money in our pockets…

At one level, I can tell myself I’ve done OK there: smug, white, middle-class, keep your head down. But. When it came down to choosing a career, I chose something safe – teaching – rather than anything which challenged the current order, though it was a career of service, which I think is important. When it came to having a home and family, I went down the conventional paths; we have a decent home in a decent town, and decent pensions. I drive a car, but do not fly. So I’m not completely blameless in terms of environmental footprint.

And yet this is clearly not enough, either for me, or for my generation: during the time of our stewardship and responsibility for the planet through our political and economic decisions, things have gone from bad to worse. We haven’t been responsible for events like the two world wars, but we have surely benefited from warmongering policies followed by our governments and allies, and the continuing exploitation of other countries by our companies and businesses.

Now that I’m retired, I feel as if the baton has passed to younger generations, who I hope will have more clarity of vision and courage than ours, which has benefited from the sixty-plus years of peace since 1945 and the welfare state put in place after it. I’m not happy with where my generation has left things, and often ask myself: could I – should I – have done more?

Return to Utopia

February 2, 2016

I’ve written about utopias at various times, in relation to specific books I’ve read, and more generally, too; I’ve been doing some more thinking recently. Utopias have changed over time: originally they were static worlds, because perfect, and if something is perfect, then any change is per se a deterioration. But stasis has its own dangers, too – that way entropy lies. So, more recently there has been more of a sense of a utopia as a work in progress, with at least some projects or activities allowing the dynamism that we recognise as a human attribute to flourish. In Yefremov’s Andromeda, for instance, it’s contact with alien civilisation that’s the great excitement of the moment. Huxley’s Brave New World – which is a utopia – is fixated on maintaining stasis at all costs, but this seems to matter less as the realisation grows that the inhabitants may be happy, but are not human…

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is a highly organised and regulated socialist utopia in the United States (!); this apparent contradiction got me thinking about the balance between individuals and groups. Because a utopia is a perfect society (or working towards that state) it seems to me that the role and fulfilment of the individual of necessity has to take a subordinate place to the functioning of the society as a whole, and this is an idea that does not sit easily with us in the West at our particular stage of (capitalist) development. An individual utopia just does not seem to be a possibility (at least, I have yet to encounter one in fiction). And utopia is therefore compulsory for all its inhabitants – you cannot just opt out, for there is nothing to opt out to, if you see what I mean; furthermore, if it is a state of (near) perfection, then its members presumably accept that compulsion and consequent limitations on their freedom as individuals. This brings us back to that hoary old chestnut, freedom from versus freedom to…

Inhabitants of Anarres, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, seem used to being organised by each other in an anarchist state, accepting rotated allocations to society’s more demanding and less pleasant tasks; it’s possible to imagine that humans might behave like that one day, but how do we get there, from where we are now? Transitions to utopia are often the least successful part of an author’s imagining. And what happens to misfits, the awkward ones, those who don’t or won’t or can’t fit? Huxley exiles them to islands; Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time, has her utopia execute criminals who can’t be reformed…

So, a utopia inevitably for us, posits a tension between what is best for individuals and best for the group. And, if the entire world is not part of the utopia, but only part of it is, such as in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, or Austin Tappan Wright’s monumental Islandia, then the utopia is constantly looking over its metaphorical shoulder to see what the outsider threats might be.

The original, utopian hedonism of the 1960s was naive and its intentions soon subverted by the system which cashed in on rampant individualism in every way possible: if society is a mass of individuals all in pursuit of their own particular happiness or fulfilment, then there are myriad opportunities to sell stuff to each one of them… and that is what happened, on a grand scale, and is still happening: the idea that we might first consider what might be good for the bigger whole – all of society – has become alien territory, and utopia has receded.

I think that is why, to me at least, utopia remains and always will be the stuff of dreams: there are too many of us humans, all programmed to have so many different wants and needs; even if we could share resources out so that everyone had enough – and there is enough to be able to do this – I still can’t see us thereafter agreeing to sublimate ourselves to a greater good. Maybe I’m just having a bad day…

Utopia

July 23, 2014

I’ve been thinking about utopias for a few days, partly in preparation for a possible writing project in the autumn, partly because utopia is a genre to which I regularly return.

When teaching, I occasionally found myself asking a class what they would do if they became world dictator; I would usually throw in a few off-the-wall ideas of my own. It struck me that this is what an utopian vision is, in essence: a writer creates and describes her or his idea of a perfect world – it’s often deathly dull and boring, because it lacks the dynamics imperfection creates in our own, really-existing world.

Why do they do it? Obviously it’s an act of the imagination, wishful thinking, magical thinking in the face of the awfulness of the world we live in. How we get from here to there is almost always where the sticking point is; I have come to see that as an actual impossibility, rather than any of the societies and worlds described in fiction. A world of wars, of inequality, of racism is replaced by one of peace, harmony, equality. And we would all like to live there. Or not.

Democracy is clearly a flawed concept, in our multinational and highly complex world, but of all the options it is the least worst, it seems. But many utopias are based on coercion of some kind, perhaps not physical, but emotional or even chemical, and we need to ask ourselves whether the inhabitants are happy, or sometimes, are they human.

Let’s consider a few examples. An attempt at a taxonomy might slot them into categories such as religious, political, ecological, feminist… Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World is an interesting place to start: is it a utopia or a dystopia (see next post)? Everyone has their allotted place, there is unlimited sex and drugs, even misfits and people who want to be unhappy are catered for. The society was imagined as a response to the chaos of the early twentieth century; Michel Houellebecq in Atomised points out that we now have the technological capacity to realise Brave New World if we choose to. And the people are happy. Yet, in my classes when I taught the novel, although some students decided they would be perfectly happy to live there, we also ended up deciding that the inhabitants of Brave New World were not human as we understood it.

Ursula LeGuin imagines an anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed. It’s one of the best I know. And it’s also grim, constant hard work, and when faced with the temptations a more unequal society can tempt you with, sometimes people opt out. But it’s very good for getting one thinking about the real issues involved in striving for perfection. Ivan Yefremov jumps hundred of years into a future where the whole world in now the Soviet Union: Andromeda portrays a utopia which might perhaps be liveable in – but how would we ever get there? Ernest Callenbach imagined an ecological utopia springing up in 1980s California in Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging; he tries to suggest how people got there, but looking back on the novels, this aspect seems naive in the extreme: the system would not allow it, full stop.

I must return to Austin Tappan Wright‘s monumental 1940s utopia Islandia which I love. As I recall, his focus is also on how one sustains a perfect society against an imperfect and therefore attractive outside world.

Various feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s imagined utopias. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, much earlier, had created Herland, a society without men, as did Suzy McKee Charnas in Motherlines; Marge Piercy creates an attractive feminist utopia in Woman On The Edge Of Time, in which women and men do manage to co-exist on a rather different basis, but then we learn that they execute misfits… a measure of how difficult it is to deal with those who do not want to be part of your perfect world.

There are lot more which I haven’t mentioned: the ur-text, More’s Utopia from 1516, W H Hudson‘s strange and haunting A Crystal Age, and the satirical Erewhon, by Samuel Butler… it is a fascinating genre, which pushes us to reflect on our own world and its imperfections, and ought to make more of us realise that a good life, a good world has to be striven for, and is very hard work. it’s probably called heaven, probably a figment of our imagination, and when you reach a certain age, you choose to cultivate your garden instead.

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