Environmentalism and independence: Ecotopia

24 Mins read

Imagine a world where a once great nation teeters on the brink of collapse, straining to hold together the patchwork quilt of ideologies that characterises its federal democracy. Once a shining example of pluralism, it is now a mere shadow if its former self.

Such a situation is not too hard to imagine these days, one which Earnest Callenbach predicted in his novel, Ecotopia. In it, Washington State, Oregon and Northern California secede from the United States to become their own single nation.

The quasi-utopian nation of Ecotopia grew while Callenbach was working as the editor of the famously progressive University of California Berkeley campus press, which is described by Callenbach’s close friend, colleague and former executive director of Heyday Books, Malcolm Margolin, as “a seedbed of innovation and radical thinking.”

Although the nation of Ecotopia does not exist in reality, the book was highly influential within the climate movement of the seventies and eighties, inspiring the creation of real activism in the north-west coast of the Americas, in the form of the Cascadian independence movement, which expanded beyond the political borders north to include the Canadian province of British Columbia.

The cascadia doug flag

The official flag of Cascadia, named the “Doug flag” after the Douglas fir it features [Wikimedia]

Brandon Letsinger is an open source advocate and bioregional organiser and has joined or started many of the largest organisations promoting the idea, including CascadiaNow! and the Cascadian Independence Project in 2004. He currently runs The Department of Bioregion, Cascadia Underground and Horizon Books, Seattle’s longest-running used bookstore.

“Even today, despite being out of print for many years, Ecotopia is a novel that continues to inspire generations. When we set up a Cascadia table at an event or a festival, it’s fun to see how many people, when asked how they first heard about Cascadia, say they read about it in Ecotopia. Some are high schoolers, having just read the book for the first time, and others, much older, talk about the role it had when they read it for the first time in the 1970s and 80s,” he told us.

“While many of the ideas in Ecotopia now seem quite trite – green transportation, recycling, composting programs, and renewable energy production – at the time they provided an alternative which was quite revolutionary. Something new, something untried, with a distinct vision away from the corruption of the United States and rooted in a new, healthy, bioregional identity,” said Brandon.

A map showing the boarders of Cascadia

The green area represents the border of the expansive bioregion version of Cascadia. [Wikimedia]

The interpretations of the Cascadia landmass vary depending on whether Cascadia is viewed as a nation defined by political borders, or a bioregion with borders determined by the environmental characteristics of the landscape, the latter including parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Alaska and the Canadian province of Alberta.

Although the likelihood of Cascadia gaining independence anytime soon is incredibly slim, the culture of the movement has firmly embedded itself in the region in other ways away from the realpolitik.

Cascadian imagery features heavily amongst the fans of Major League Soccer teams the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps. Their rivalry is known as the ‘Battle of Cascadia’.

The region was even represented at the 2016 and 2018 CONIFA World Cups – a tournament held for nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports-isolated territories, not eligible for FIFA competitions.

“[Callenbach] helped us all come together to envisage ways that we can make our bioregion a better place, remind people that all things now taken for granted were once radical notions and, finally, that only by working together and setting aside the artificial red/blue lines so prevalent in our society can we live the green dream – or as we like to call it, the Cascadian dream,” Brandon said.

The idea of Cascadian independence is also championed by many progressive environmentalist groups like Deep Green Resistance (DGR), who advocate for humans to have a much closer relationship with the environment they live within, as well as the dismantling of social structures which lead to humans oppressing both nature and each other.

“Historically so many members of DGR came out of the Cascadian movement. We are very strong on the idea that regional boundaries are about the land and not about the unjustified colonial boundaries. We see Cascadian independence as taking that cultural and social identification with the land and trying to turn it into a more political or organised body,” said Jonah Mix, a representative from DGR.

“I think everybody in DGR would be delighted if Cascadia became an independent nation but we wouldn’t want Cascadia to repeat the same mistakes as the past. We want to give people the tools to make the right choices.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“The Ecotopians are almost Dickensian: often strange enough, but not crazy-looking or sordid, as the hippies of the sixties were.”[/pullquote]The prevalence of Cascadian imagery and the people’s connection with local culture rooted in environmentalism is testament to the impact Ecotopia has had on the people living along the north-west coast.

Despite this prevalence, the political wing of the Cascadian independence movement has failed to gain much traction at all, winning only 248 votes combined for their two candidates in the 2017 British Columbia provincial election, their first formal representation in a national ballot.

However, it is safe to say that the idea of an “Ecotopia” in Cascadia sits in the back of many Oregonian, Washingtonian and British Columbian minds.  But do we know whether the fantasies of a relatively obscure author are attainable today, either socially and technologically?

Through the eyes of fictional journalist William Weston, Callenbach tells the story of a nation determined to reform the way humans interact with each other and their environment. By alternating between Weston’s personal diary entries and articles he sends back to the Times Post, Callenbach eloquently describes the technology and national mindset which has developed since the closing of Ecotopia’s borders to US citizens after gaining independence.

Even after publication in 1977, many of the devices and technological advances described in Ecotopia were not yet in existence. Notably his description of some parts of Ecotopian TV as “literal parts of the government structure – something like a council chamber with a PA system,” pre dates the launch of the American TV channel C-SPAN, which broadcasts live content from inside various US legislative bodies.

  • Portland Timbers fans showing Cascadia imagery
    Fans of the Portland Timbers [Flickr: Sharat Ganapati]

Another is his description of an on-demand book service where customers could choose any print media from a device which then prints and binds the book on the spot, a common method now used by publishers who sell to users online.

It’s impossible to say whether the imagination of Callenbach was the inspiration behind inventions like C-SPAN and on-the-spot printing, but it is impossible to deny the impact of science fiction on our technological trajectory as a species. The imaginations of writers like Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C.Clarke have famously inspired the next generation of scientists and inventors.

Philip Rosedale, the inventor of the online world Second Life, was inspired by the virtual worlds described in Neil Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash.

“My wife bought me the book and said, ‘You’re going to love this.’ You looked at that, and you said, ‘Well, we could actually do that. There’s not really a whole lot of reasons why we couldn’t do exactly what’s in that book’,” he told NPR.

Who are we to deny Callenbach’s contribution to imaginations of the people carving their way through the green technology field?

He describes a technologically advanced, carless nation, where people zoom around on high speed trains, electric cars and bicycles while recycling everything they use (including all plastics), all powered by sustainable energy sources.

These ideas in and of themselves are not ground-breaking, yet when the social fabric of Ecotopia is examined; the political structure, the national mindset, the mannerisms of Ecotopians, an interesting picture of a quirky yet lackadaisical society appears.

Standing high above the heads of Ecotopians are the extensive fir tree forests which the region is famous for, symbolised by the fir tree featuring front and centre on the Cascadia flag. Perhaps the most quirky aspect of Ecotopian life is their tendency to treat plants and trees as if they are their peers, even in the logging camps where the trees are harvested for their wood, a building material used extensively in Ecotopia.

[pullquote align=”right”]“At first I took it as a sign that our ways of life have not diverged so drastically after all. However closer investigation has revealed that, despite surface resemblances, the two countries use plastics in totally different ways.” [/pullquote]”I once saw a quite ordinary-looking young man, not visibly drugged, lean against a large oak and mutter ‘Brother Tree’!” reports a flabbergasted Weston.

Could these seemingly crazy Ecotopians be onto something? There is an increasing amount of research to suggest that tress are able to communicate and share resources with their counterparts over staggering distances.

Ecologist Suzanne Simard from the University of British Columbia is one of the driving forces in this field of expertise, helping to prove that plants and trees in forests are able to communicate and share resources with each other using extensive networks of underground fungi.

This research led to the discovery of the ‘mother tree’, where the largest trees in a forest act as central hubs for growth around them, supplying water and nutrients through the network of fungi to their plant companions, regardless of their species.

“These plants are really not individuals in the sense that Darwin thought they were individuals, competing for survival of the fittest; they’re interacting with each other, trying to help each other to survive,” said Simard.

The extent of the communication is unknown, however, if Simard’s theories on forests resembling a single living entity rather than a collection of individuals is correct, then we may want to be careful about what we say in front of our deciduous friends when we call the tree surgeon. Give it five years and you might find a mysterious root growing up through your floorboards.

One of the main technological factors that allow Ecotopians to be so smug about their self named ‘stable state’ system, is their ability to recycle all materials they use which have been produced post-independence. All plastics made by Ecotopian industry are derived from biological sources rather than fossil fuels and must be compostable by ordinary citizens for use as fertiliser.

[pullquote align=”right”]“I once saw a quite ordinary-looking young man, not visibly drugged, lean against a large oak and mutter ‘Brother Tree’!”[/pullquote]In order to do this Ecotopian scientists developed two types of plastics which can be used for different things. The first are plastics which start to ‘die’ around a month after their production. These plastics are mostly used for food wrapping and other temporary coverings.

The second is a more durable form of plastic that was designed to replace the use of non-recyclable metals like aluminium and copper.  These are mostly used for “minibus bodies, ‘extruded houses’, coins, bottles and mechanical objects of many kinds.  They are sturdy plastics, virtually decay proof, unless they encounter soil.

According to Weston, Ecotopian scientists have developed a type of ‘keyhole’ technology which can only be ‘opened’ by microorganisms commonly found in soil; once unlocked by these microorganisms, the plastic quickly starts to decay.

Most Ecotopians place these types of plastic in specially designed ‘biovats’ where the environment for these microorganisms is ideal to decompose them faster, turning them into nutrient-rich compost. However, to Weston’s surprise it is also common for Ecotopians to stamp this plastic into the ground with the knowledge that it will be gone within a month.

Conveniently for Callenbach, the technology behind these chemical advances have “remained a secret” to foreign nationals.

When asked whether this compostable plastic ‘keyhole’ technology was currently in use, Professor Mark Miodownik from the department of Material Science at University College London confirmed that “biodegradable plastics work this way already, although the humidity and temperature also important.

“Environmental conditions affecting compostability include temperature, moisture level, pH, oxygen, and the microorganisms present. Duration of exposure under these conditions is a significant factor also,” Miodownik added.

“Currently further research is needed to understand how compostable plastics work in both industrial and home composting environments in order to determine their viability as an alternative to conventional plastics”, according to the ‘Big Compost Experiment’, run by Professor Miodownik.

While bioplastics were first invented in 1926 by French researcher, Maurice Lemoigne, the use of natural materials in the making of bioplastics does not automatically mean a material is compostable.

As reported by Phys.Org, researchers at the University of Tel Aviv recently published a study proving that bioplastics which are advertised as being environmentally friendly still damage the environment, especially in our oceans.

“Bioplastics are made of natural materials and, in that sense, they are more beneficial environmentally speaking. But they may also contain toxins just like regular plastic dishes and they do not biodegrade quickly in the aquatic habitat,” says Professor Noa Shenkar, one of the team who carried out the experiment.

“In fact, the standard appearing on the label is dated. It doesn’t refer at all to different kinds of plastic additives and speaks of biodegrading within 180 days, but that is specifically under conditions available only in industrial composting settings.”

However, there are some companies which advertise their products as compostable rather than as biodegradable. World Centric, claim to produce compostable food packaging which breaks down leaving “little or no” toxins behind.

According to their website, their fibre plates, takeout containers, bowls, cups, trays and kitchen bags take up to a year to decompose in a home composting bin, and half that time in a commercial composting facility.

If the demeanour and temperament of Ecotopians as reported by Weston is not exaggerated, these slow decomposing times would be scoffed at by the emotionally liberal and slightly condescending citizens of Ecotopia. All of them seem ready to point out the apparent ignorance of the American journalist at any given opportunity.

Arguably what makes the situation in Ecotopia special is the ease of which its citizens can compost their plastics. ALL plastics. For World Centric’s PLA cold cups, clear containers, straws and heat resistant utensils it is not recommended for users to try decompose these products in their own compost heaps, and it still takes up to half a year to decompose them in a commercial facility.

In fairness to World Centric, they do not claim that their products are the solution to the world’s plastics problem. They simply state: “Since our mission is to reduce waste in people’s everyday lives, we encourage you to think hard before buying any single-use disposable products, even compostable ones, and always ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’.”

So, we aren’t quite in a position to say that we are at odds with the mind of Ernest Callenbach and Ecotopia when it comes to plastic technology.  It will be at least a few more years before we’re all casting our ketchup-stained utensils care-free into our gardens. But this doesn’t mean we haven’t matched or exceeded the expectations of Callenbach’s dreams in other areas.

[pullquote align=”right”]“The sentimentality of nature lead the Ecotopian’s to bring greenery into their trains, which are full of hanging ferns and small plants I could not identify. (My companions however reeled off their botanical names with assurance.)”[/pullquote]

Upon his arrival in Ecotopia, Weston describes a train which “looked more like a wingless airplane than a train.” Decorated with a noticeable lack of seating, “covered with thick spongy carpet and divided into compartments by knee high petitions. A few passengers sprawled on large bag-like leather cushions that lay scattered about.”

Darting smoothly all over Ecotopia these high speed trains travel at around 225mph (362 km/h) “suspended with magnetic suspension and propulsion”, allowing locals to comfortably pass joints and cups of tea around the cabin, while happily chatting away with people they have never met. This is stark contrast to the often silent and bumpy British trains we all know and still less, love.

After independence, each Ecotopian city took advantage of the huge Boeing airplane production facilities located in northern Washington in order to produce the new rail network. Which does raise questions about such a huge expense for such a new and relatively small society which has just taken part in a turbulent secession, and how they could afford such a thing.

As Weston discovered, Ecotopians love to gloat about their shiny new rail system: “One of them remarked that the cost of the entire roadbed from San Francisco to Seattle was about that of ten SSTs (super sonic transport, i.e. Concorde), and argued that the total social cost per person per mile on their trains was less than that for air transport at any distance under a thousand miles.”

Sound familiar? Callenbach was not the first to imagine a train suspended above ground using magnetic energy. In fact the idea was patented in 1907 by German inventor Alfred Zedhen and developed forty years later by British electrical engineer Professor Eric Laithwaite, who developed the first working model of the linear induction motor used to power Maglev (short for ‘magnetic levitation’) trains.

There are currently six operational Maglev lines operational around the world – one in Japan, two in South Korea and three in China. The fastest runs between Shanghai and Pudong international airport, travelling at speeds of up to 268mph (431 km/h), topping the Ecotopian transit system record. However, none of the lines currently in operation exceed the 30km distance of the Shanghai Maglev for one crucial reason. Cost.

The Shanghai maglev train

The Shanghai Maglev travelling from Shanghai city to Shanghai international airport [Flickr: Max Talbot-Minkin]

At a total of $1.2 billion (£910m), the Shanghai Maglev was the most expensive railway project in China, a price per kilometre expense far too high for many developed nations to prioritise. Japan’s $49 billion (£37.25bn) Chuo Shinkansen Maglev line project set to cover the 178 mile (286km) distance between Tokyo and Nagoya at speeds of 310mph (498 km/h), set to open in 2027, has currently been suspended by Japan’s government, citing concerns over Covid-19.

If the same costs were applied to the line from Seattle to San Francisco, the entire project would cost $222 billion (£169bn), the same amount as buying 480 Airbus A380 airplanes or 69.5 million Big Macs – a larger sum than the entire GDP of Portugal.

In theory, we do currently have the technology to implement a system like the one described in Ecotopia, and all it would take would be the reallocation of one third of the US armed forces budget, which currently stands at $648.8 billion dollars (£494bn). However, this technology would inevitably become cheaper if it became universally adopted, boding well for the Cascadians dreaming of Ecotopia.

Eco-energy sources could be considered by readers of Ecotopia as one of the least imaginative areas of Callenbach’s utopian vision. Powered by thermal, solar and nuclear fission plants, Ecotopia does not offer anything particularly radical in the field of renewable energy.

Their suspicion of nuclear fission is made apparent, understandably, considering the nuclear power industry’s far from spotless track record when it comes to reeking havoc on its surrounding environment.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Ecotopian’s thus take a childish delight in the windmills and rooftop wind-driven generators that are common in both cities and remote areas.”[/pullquote]Despite Ecotopia not boasting any type of new sustainable energy source unseen by American eyes, Weston reports on efforts by Ecotopian scientists to harness the photosynthetic properties of plants in order to create an unlimited and waste-free source of energy from the sun, removing the expensive production costs of solar panels. A feat that, if successful, would change the course of human history.

In 2010 the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) was created as an innovation hub by the US Department of Energy, solely for research into producing energy using only sunlight, carbon dioxide and water.

In 2018 researchers from JCAP and the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published a paper on a new method, a solar cell that could take in carbon dioxide and water and use the suns rays to turn them into electricity and hydrogen.

This method differs from the direct tapping of electricity from the plants described in Ecotopia, but the desired outcome is the same.

Forty-five years after the publication of Ecotopia, the US Department of Energy announced they would be setting aside $100 million (£76m) to fund research into artificial photosynthesis.

“Sunlight is our most basic energy source, and the ability to generate fuels directly from sunlight has the potential to transform our energy economy and vastly enhance US energy security. This effort will ensure that American scientists continue to lead in the highly challenging but extremely promising area of artificial photosynthesis research,” said Paul Dabbar, under-secretary for science.

Although we are still a long way from from powering our society with weeds, investment in this area of research is growing, with scientists finding new approaches to the problem and pushing the research forward. We may still find ourselves living in a world powered by plants rather than coal.

There is no point pondering the possibility of a society in which we can drastically shift the way we get to work and power our homes without asking whether the social and political fabric of Ecotopia is one which is workable in today’s society.

Ecotopia poses an alternative to the traditional schools of thought in political theory, using policies which could have been written by Marx himself, alongside others which would excite even the most ideologically pure economic libertarians.

Unlike the political systems we are used to; broadly speaking, the free market, trickle down economics-based, socially democratic systems rooted in government regulation of the markets or authoritarian regimes which vary between the two, Callenbach envisages an economy which is both heavily regulated while maintaining a de-centralised laissez-faire streak, all centred around the ‘stable state’ principles of environmental stewardship.

[pullquote align=”right”]“The Ecotopian government, faced with the necessity of feeding, housing and clothing its population, at first teetered between a cautious attempt to carry on enterprises on the old lines, and breaking through to new and uncharted methods.”[/pullquote]Soon after gaining independence, the new Ecotopian government enacted laws which radically changed the economic landscape of the country. Introducing a 20-hour work week, a moratorium on oil industry related activities, the forced consolidation of the retail network controlled by big chains, strict conservation laws which threatened the profits of the lumber industry, and the introduction of workers co-operatives.

These were similar to the workers’ unions that operated in the former communist state of Yugoslavia in the mid-20th century, where the companies were collectively run and managed by their employees.

The Netherlands is not a country which brings particularly exciting scenes to peoples minds, tulips, clogs and coffee shops are what probably stand out to most. Yet they are the closest example of a nation which has a working week resembling Ecotopia’s.

Although there is not a country on Earth with a maximum 20 hour working week policy, the Netherlands comes the closest with an average working week of just 27.5 hours. Despite being the 69th largest in the world with a modest population of just over 17 million, the Netherlands punches above its weight with its economy, placing at a very respectable 17th in the world when measured by Gross Domestic Product. It ranks 5th in the world for happiest population.

The NL Times reported that a Dutch marketing firm reduced its working week to four days, company co-founder and co-owner Gillian Robles said: “We see that people are getting a lot of energy from their extra day off. Productivity also seems to be rising, but we do not yet have insight into actual figures. Studies into four-day work weeks also show these results, so it seems to be accurate.”

Many factors play into these statistics but the length of a working week is definitely a major player in the productivity and happiness of a nation’s citizens. Sadly, without an example there is no way of knowing whether a 20 hour working week is the solution to the world’s problems or the beginning of economic armageddon.

[pullquote align=”right”]“They operate it however they wish, follow whatever educational philosophy they wish, and parents are free to send their children to [one] school or to another school as they wish”[/pullquote]At first glance you may come to the quick conclusion that Ecotopia is just a more radical version of one of our northern European neighbours. However, these policies are where the socialism ends. Within the ‘stable state’ Ecotopian system lies a belief in community autonomy closely linked to the idea of collective employee ownership, particularly in education.

Just like other workplaces, Ecotopian schools are owned and run by the teachers who work in them, extending to everything that happens within the school, including the curriculum. The only standardised testing takes place at the end of the pupil’s education, providing motivation for teachers not to stray too far from the mainstream, especially as parents are not required to send their children to their nearest school, creating a degree of competition among them.

Westin reports that Ecotopian children “spend at least two hours a day actually working,” either working in small factories producing things like wooden clocks and cabinets to sell, or tending to the school garden where the food for school meals is grown, using the money made from their production to decide what the school should buy for education purposes.

“The system is intended to teach children that work is a normal part of every person’s life, and to inculcate Ecotopian ideas about how work places should be controlled: there are no ‘bosses’ in the shop, and the children seem to discuss and agree amongst themselves how the work should be done,” reports Westin from Crick school in the mini-city of Reliez.

Almost all Ecotopian schools place great importance on practical teaching, with biology in particular playing a large part in the children’s education.

Callenbach based the Crick school on the Pinel alternative school in California which his own son attended for a time. Pinel was founded in 1962 by a group of teachers who were looking for a new and better way for educating children in a more well rounded fashion. Due to financial issues the school had to close in 1975.

“I arrived at Pinel in 1968 and immediately recognized it as home.  My parents made a good investment in sending me to the school, where I wanted to learn, and acquired many of the skills that have helped me get along in life. Pinel was the ground upon which my  imagination soared and my enduring artistic vision was formed.  I was a student there until 1975, and returned as a student teacher during my years at Maybeck High School,” says former student David Wilson.

Alternative schools like the Crick and Pinel are common around the world, from Steiner Schools in Europe to all kinds of teaching philosophies across the US. The closest school in teaching philosophy currently operating is Big Picture Learning in Provenance, Rhode Island, where students are paired with mentors who work in the subjects the students want to work in in the future.

Children in a Steiner school

Children learning in a Steiner School [Flickr: Etienne]

“The most important element of the education at a Big Picture Learning school is that students learn in the real world,” says Rodney Davis, communications director at Big Picture in an interview with Business Insider.

Each student is required to complete an internship in their chosen field with guidance from their mentor. “The projects are connected to the student’s interests and meet the needs of the mentors,” Davis says.

If someone was to incorporate the teaching philosophies of Pinel with that of Big Picture, in theory, an exact replica of Ecotopia’s Crick School would exist, but without a working example of such an institution, it is impossible to tell how a school like this would work in the present day.

As the book is very broad in scope, it is difficult to ascertain whether the mindset developed by Ecotopian citizens over their twenty years of independence would manifest itself in reality. Many parts of the book are devoted to describing the sometimes bizarre character traits developed by Ecotopians because of their alternate lifestyle, so it is impossible to know whether these aspects of Callenbach’s vision would come to fruition.

At best, these totally fictional, but educated predictions reveal a somewhat darker side to this quasi utopia, the social atmosphere of the 1970s perhaps feeding into a cynicism about the reality of a truly equal society free from structural racism and discrimination.

Using the widespread de-centralisation common in Ecotopian society, minority communities succeeded in effectively gaining independence from Ecotopia and being treated as their own independent city states, responsible for all areas of policy other than issues regarding foreign affairs.

“We’re still making up for lost time,” a black citizen of Ecotopia told Weston while reporting on the topic. With many black communities deciding to stick to some of the old pre-independence ways of living, leading to income being about 10% higher in black communities due to longer working hours and a thriving trade in luxury goods rarely found elsewhere in the country.

At the time of writing, the civil rights movement as we know it was still very much in motion. Callenbach was not writing with the knowledge and research available to us today, he would have had to base many of his ideas on the rhetoric of prominent civil rights activists such as Malcolm X, such as his speech at Michigan State university in 1963:

“We don’t go for segregation. We go for separation. Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy; you control your own politics; you control your own society; you control your own everything. You have yours and you control yours; we have ours and we control ours.

Malcolm X meets Martin Luther King

Malcolm X meets Martin Luther King for the first and last time. [Wikimedia]

“They don’t call Chinatown in New York City or on the West Coast a segregated community, yet it’s all Chinese. But the Chinese control it. Chinese voluntarily live there, they control it. They run it. They have their own schools. They control their own politics, control their own industry. And they don’t feel like they’re being made inferior because they have to live to themselves.

“They choose to live to themselves. They live there voluntarily. And they are doing for themselves in their community the same thing you do for yourself in your community. This makes them equal because they have what you have. But if they didn’t have what you have, then they’d be controlled from your side; even though they would be on their side, they’d be controlled from your side by you.”

The chapter named ‘Race in Ecotopia: Apartheid or equality?’ contains words and ideas that we would frown upon today, including outdated terminology used to describe the black community and lazy stereotype names for majority black cities, ‘Soul City’ being one of them.

If anything, this chapter is more of a reflection of how ideas of social justice and equality have evolved since the 1970s, or in some areas, not evolved at all.

In stark contrast to what could be considered a backwards take on multiculturalism, women in Ecotopia hold great power within politics and society. The ruling party, the Survivalists, the group largely responsible for orchestrating secession, was comprised of mostly women, including the President, Vera Allwen.

Female member of Rwanda parliament pose for a photo

Female Rwandan members of parliament post for a photo alongside President Kagame [Flickr: Paul Kagame]

“The initial growth and success of the Survivalists, I have been told by some long term members, came from a frank and vitalizing recognition of this fact, together with its corollary: that women have distinct interests which had been, despite some advances, unmet during the 200 years of American rule,” reported Weston.

“We had two centuries of it, and it wasn’t good enough,” explained a prominent Survivalist to Weston. The female dominated society conducts political meetings in a very different way to how we would organise debates in our own democracies. “A meeting has no formal agenda; instead it opens with a voicing of concerns by many participants,” Weston noted. Motions, votes and rules of order have been removed and replaced by a more fluid form of discourse, where a consensus is reached through assuaging the minority voices in the discussion, followed by a healing period before any formal decisions are ratified.

As it stands, there are only three countries in the world that have parliaments with female representation greater than 50%: Cuba, Rwanda and Bolivia. However, there are many examples of other areas where a female-led approach has reversed the terrible decisions made by their male counterparts.

The 2008 housing market crash left economies all over the world devastated, with the number of unemployed people rising over 37 million in the United States alone. Iceland was one of the first nations to fall in the domino effect that toppled the world economy due to reckless investments and lending by the overwhelmingly male dominated banking system. But it was a female-led approach from top that dug Iceland out of the hole created by the nation’s men.

As reported by the Guardian in 2009, Iceland’s Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir and two businesswomen, Halla Tómasdóttir and Kristin Petursdóttir, were at the spearhead of Iceland’s recovery.

They teamed up with pop star Björk to create a fund to stimulate the crumbling economy through investment in green energy. The two bankers decided to start Auður Capital with the philosophy of feminising the wealth management and private equity industries.

“Our Björk fund is to focus on sustainable growth. Iceland was the first in the world into the crisis, but we could be the first out, and women have a big role to play in that. It goes back to our Viking women. While the men were out there raping and pillaging, the women were running the show at home,” says Tómasdóttir.

“We have five core feminine values. First, risk awareness: we will not invest in things we don’t understand. Second, profit with principles: we like a wider definition so it is not just economic profit, but a positive social and environmental impact. Third, emotional capital. When we invest, we do an emotional due diligence – or check on the company – we look at the people, at whether the corporate culture is an asset or a liability. Fourth, straight talking. We believe the language of finance should be accessible, and not part of the alienating nature of banking culture. Fifth, independence. We would like to see women increasingly financially independent, because with that comes the greatest freedom to be who you want to be, but also unbiased advice.”

In our ever-changing world it seems we are slowly but surely learning from our masculine mistakes and finally embracing the feminine, perhaps within another decade we might see a nation which resembles the equality of Ecotopia’s political system, paired with the financial due diligence of Icelandic women.

It’s easy to assume, however wrongly, that all the forward thinking technology and political structures described in Ecotopia are stuff of fiction because of the utopian nature of the novel, but according to Callenbach’s close friend Malcolm Margolin in the book’s foreword, Ecotopia was written as a practical solution to the problems Callenbach saw around him rather than utopian idealistic pedestal of implausible solutions.

“It’s worth emphasising that the seed of Ecotopia was not a lofty desire to make a perfect world, but to solve a plumbing problem. Indeed, the core belief of Ecotopians is sustainability, and what (Callenbach) was putting forth was not the Shangri-la of eternal joy and fulfilment for all, but a model for sustainability. While altering what people do, he had the wits not to tamper with who we are.”

In fact, it would be hard to find another time in history as pertinent as the present day for considering whether a nation like Ecotopia could exist. Today, the President of the United States is is trying his hardest to undermine the democracy which elected him, the political union he runs is more divided than ever, a sentiment mirrored in Europe with the fallout of Brexit affecting both the UK and the EU.

Meanwhile calls for independence bring thousands to the streets in Catalonia, chances of a second independence referendum in Scotland grow larger by the day, the pro-independence Quebec nationalist party Bloc Québécois sits as the third largest party in the Canadian parliament despite only running in one province, and the Tigray people of northern Ethiopia stand ready to fight a bloody battle against their own government and bigger international powers.

Perhaps it is time to take a step back and ask ourselves whether it is time for change, might we find ourselves living in our own Ecotopia sooner than we thought?

As investigative journalist William Weston exclaimed: “I am going to stay in Ecotopia!”




Featured image is the cover of Ecotopia by Mark Harrison.
Edited by Betty Wales-Hulbert, Darnell Christie and Daniela Ferreira Teixeira.


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