ECOTOPIA: An Elitist Liberal Utopia?

by Niklas Lollo, PhD student at UC Berkeley,

Since 1972, Ecotopia has inspired many to envision, and perhaps even foster, a more ecological society. In Ernest Callenbach’s novel, we are transported to a contemporary America, albeit an America that has been torn in two through civil war. This time the war wasn’t over slavery, but rather ecological principles and the divide wasn’t North-South but pitted the Pacific Northwest versus the rest. But in Ecotopia (the book), the war is 20 years or so behind us, and Ecotopia (the Pacific Northwest nation-state) has been effectively cloistered from the rest of America. So much so that Americans have only received scattered, selective, and dodgy information about what Ecotopia is truly like.

And that is where our protagonist steps in – a reporter from America has been allowed access to Ecotopia to write about what life is really like, perhaps in a step to foster better relations between the two countries or at least greater understanding. Ecotopia (the book) is a series of his diary entries and news reports.

The reporter expects to travel into a barren, destitute landscape, with infrastructure crumbling and poverty abounding. And yet, what he finds is what has inspired so many readers of this novel. Starting in the Sierra-Nevada near present-day Truckee, California, he travels on a high-speed train all the way to San Francisco as cars are only selectively permitted in Ecotopia. As his journey continues, his view of Ecotopia transforms from scepticism and mistrust towards a gradual realization of Ecotopia’s many redeeming qualities. He finds renewable energy and advancing computing technology in wide use, people happily making do with less material goods, and very little plastic. To the delight of Degrowthers, he finds the (largely female) government focused on happiness and welfare, rather than taxes and material growth.

It is not hard to see why Ecotopia has inspired so many ecological activists. Indeed, many of its proposed reforms have been realized (without the civil strife).The book was prescient about the advance of renewable fuels and computing technology. And yet, other visions, like car-free streets and female heads of state, have remained futuristic ideals. Alas, we already knew that technological advances have far out-paced social reforms and we need not Ecotopia as a yardstick.

But this division is what’s crucially important about Ecotopia, and why it has found such a devoted readership through the years. Ecotopia is mainly a techno-eco-romp, perhaps fitting as it was written near the heart of Silicon Valley. Yet, author Ernest Callenbach is not ignorant of socio-political concerns. Ecotopia, the nation-state, is only able to secede from the USA through utilization of common geopolitical strategies: namely, the military and an ever-present threat of mutually assured destruction from nuclear weapons.

What’s more, Ecotopia manages its domestic politics in a few interesting ways. The first is that most of the nation-state’s leaders are mostly female. Remember, this book is coincidental with white, liberal feminism of the 1970s. The second is the recognition that males, supposedly rooted in anthropological research, need to exercise aggression from time to time. This violent demand is realized through ritualistic battles that involve bloodshed and occasionally death. A third facet is a separation of “races.” In particular, Oakland is now named “Soul City,” because that’s where the black people live. Reading Ecotopia with the backdrop of the contemporary Bay Area, where issues such as racial segregation and gentrification exist as plagues, does make painful the narrative a bit. Beyond readers’ pain, it also perpetuates a problematic social theory that advocates racial segregation, especially virulent in our current era of white nationalism, racism, and fascism.

Thus, Ecotopia is not a modern utopia, and while it attempts to use social science to deal with socio-political realities, the book does seem to fall flat on its face. It presents a particularly white, liberal fantasy of ecological harmony and social segregation. At the very least, it does not treat social and environmental realities as entirely separate. Through another reading, it entirely misses the boat on which social realities drive environmental outcomes, ignoring racism and colonialism. It lacks critical self-reflection into how wealth has historically and is currently generated, through the exploitation of labour, care, the colonies, and the environment.

And yet, it is an important vision to read for academics and for activists. Indeed, the reader should reflect on the merits of the book – why it has inspired so many – even if one ends up in disagreement. Ecotopia, in its heart, represents is a fairly dominant position in green politics, one of retreat from the world, from the history of oppression, and the construction of elitist liberal utopias.

In one view, this vision is woefully inadequate and the major “stumbling block” (cite: for transformation. Another might imagine it as open to systemic socio-environmental change. I leave that for each person to judge. But we should always strive to keep it within its particular spatial and temporal context, not to judge it harshly as it tried its best in its time and place. (Though it is very debatable whether it couldn’t have included a richer socio-political dimension.)

In addition to socio-environmental sustainability, Degrowth at its core is about political justice with an ideal of discursive, deliberative democracy. Therefore, it would be best to see Ecotopia as not a stumbling block, but another voice in the debate. In addition, we should also view Ecotopia as a partial vision, one realized through engagement with others (see the bits about feminism and anthropology), but perhaps not enough. Ecotopia is what happens when one person runs the show: they do their best, but it inevitably is exclusive of views and falls short. Rather than think we know it all, we Degrowthers should remain open to others and other points-of-view always.





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