“A New Self”: The Radical Imagination of Ernest Callenbach’s ‘Ecotopia’

Michael Grasso / August 4, 2020

Ecotopia (The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston)
By Ernest Callenbach
Banyan Tree Books, 1975

Visualizing a better world has never been more important, or more difficult. The promise of utopia—or at least a world that places its values on health, happiness, and lovingkindness—has been an object of pursuit for philosophers, theologians, and regular folks since the dawn of human civilization. In the early 1970s, thinkers in the West faced the same existential problems that are tearing the world apart in 2020: environmental calamity, geopolitical chaos, racists and reactionaries in power tearing their societies asunder. While the revolutionary counterculture of the 1960s was in a position of retreat against the revanchist forces of reaction during much of the 1970s, plenty of thinkers, writers, and activists were still hard at work imagining a society that would resist and reject the mechanized death-impulse of the West, one that would try to thoroughly reimagine Western lives and lifestyles in the face of energy crises and rampant pollution.

In 1975, writer, film scholar, and University of California Berkeley Press editor Ernest Callenbach envisioned a new nation, born of separatist revolution on America’s West Coast, called Ecotopia. Synthesizing the many threads of cutting-edge ecological and social reformist discourse around him in his time and place—sustainability and recycling, re-wilding and re-forestation, anti-consumerism, educational reform, the elimination of the automobile, and countless other seemingly “pie-in-the-sky” reforms and revolutions—Callenbach created a believable imaginary society born of the contradictory Western (in both senses of the word) cross-currents of self-reliance and community living, all motivated by a societally-fundamental goal of doing the least harm to the Earth possible. Callenbach’s modest book—originally self-published under the aegis of “Banyan Tree Books”—would become an underground classic and end up influencing multiple generations of environmentalists and futurists. Ecotopia also offers to readers in 2020 a world that is simultaneously intimately familiar and deeply alien, one where social, ecological, and technological advances that the West now takes for granted (widespread recycling, renewable energy, video-telephony alleviating the need for travel) jostle shoulders with ones that are only dreamed of in our late capitalist dystopia (a twenty-hour work week, universally socialized necessities of life like food, housing, and health care, and an end to consumerist capitalism).

Like many other explorations of utopias, from Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626) to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), the conceit behind Ecotopia is that the book presents a record of an outsider encountering and being bewildered by an alien society for which they have very few bases of comparison. Our protagonist in Ecotopia, William Weston, is an American journalist (and apparent agent of American geopolitical interests) who is one of the first Americans to visit the breakaway nation of Ecotopia since its secession from the U.S. nearly twenty years previous. The narrative cannily switches between Weston’s private diary and his published pieces for the “Times-Post,” charting his initially-sober exploration of Ecotopia as he delves deeper into how the revolution has changed Ecotopians on a personal level.

Ecotopia seems to exist, even before its titular revolution, in a slightly alternate history that allows the stage to be set for the breaking away of most of three American states. France is seemingly a Communist republic (perhaps after the convulsions of 1968?) and the tendency towards devolution and the ethnically-based collapse of the nation state that occurred at the end of the Cold War has seemingly happened a decade or two early (Callenbach mentions that the success of Quebec separatism was an inspiration to the Ecotopians). Weston is clearly primarily on a diplomatic/espionage mission, despite his journalistic bona fides—his visit was in the planning stages for over a year at the highest levels of the U.S. government, including meetings with the American president himself. There is unrest in the remaining United States, thanks to rampant pollution, further separatist movements “in the Great Lakes region and the Southeast,” and, probably most direly for the American regime, “Ecotopian ideas are seeping over the border more dangerously” and there is “unrest… generated by Ecotopian ideas among our youth.”

Weston begins his journey through Ecotopia as a chauvinistic American, dubious about Ecotopian progress as compared to America’s industrial might and even a bit credulous of bizarre rumors of human sacrifice and sexual license. But ultimately Weston is a journalist; Callenbach’s canny decision to split the book between Weston’s dispatches for publication and his private diary allows the reader to watch Weston’s reactions to the alienness of Ecotopia change over time. And Callenbach has a real eye for the kinds of things that would immediately hit an American visitor’s own eyes: the alien details of everyday Ecotopian life. On the high-speed maglev train from the border town of Reno to the Ecotopian capital of San Francisco, Weston first notices the differences in material culture in Ecotopia: cushions and beanbags instead of hard-surfaced chairs and benches on Ecotopian transport and in homes; the patchwork motley assemblage of Ecotopian clothes, most of which are homemade; the eerily prescient vision of separate recycling bins for metal, glass, and paper.

Callenbach cares deeply about the minutiae of how such a society would work (one of his primary inspirations to create Ecotopia was an article he’d researched on the failures of contemporary sewage processing), and he treats us to paragraph upon paragraph on the dirty details how Ecotopia actually works: treatises on steady-state sewage processing, Ecotopian forestry and logging, the breakdown of industrialized agriculture into a localized and organic food-cultivation, and the science-fiction advances of Ecotopian biodegradable plastics and extruded structures, all made from plant matter. And it’s not just tangible material goods that get this unceasingly detailed treatment: Callenbach also has Weston observe the minutiae of Ecotopian tax policy and localized politics, the Ecotopian legal system’s focus on punishing citizens who burden the community with poisonous externalities, and Ecotopian economic policy (the inheritance of private—not personal—property is prohibited).

It’s only when Weston sinks a little deeper in Ecotopian society that we the readers begin to grasp the even more stunning social and philosophical revolution that’s taken place in this new world. The citizenry is united in professing to Weston how much better their quality of life is; one of the revolution’s very first proclamations was the establishment of a twenty-hour work week. The American obsession with production and economic growth was deemed anti-social. In one of Weston’s early dispatches to America, the psycho-emotional motivation behind the Ecotopian revolution is clear:

What was at stake [in the revolution], informed Ecotopians insist, was nothing less than the revision of the Protestant work ethic upon which America has been built. The consequences were plainly severe… 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 had believed. Instead, humans were meant to take their 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 they dominated their fellow creatures on the earth, but to the extent they lived in balance with them.

ecotopia paperback softcover cover 1977The Ecotopians are much more cagey about whether their society is “socialist” or not; certainly, the seizure of corporate capital in the first months of the Ecotopian revolution qualifies as classically socialist (“the forced consolidation of the basic retail network constituted by Sears, Penneys, Safeway, and a few other chains,” Weston notes), but Ecotopia is more properly classified as a mixed economy, as a private market and currency backed by a central bank does still exist. But it’s clear that at its base, Ecotopia is an essentially syndicalist-socialist state, with self-determination regarding labor being its organizing principle. Small groups of people numbering in the few dozens spontaneously form communes, farms, factories, educational foundations, and research facilities based on their common interests and goals. In addition, work assignments change depending on need and demand; students spend more time in university trying out different occupations, and every Ecotopian inevitably ends up owing service to their society outside their own job. The nuclear family has been largely upended by the Ecotopian revolution, with Ecotopian children raised by their “village.” On the larger scale, Ecotopian living communities are smaller and more self-contained. Along with the nuclear family, the commuter suburb has been destroyed in favor of self-sufficient “ring towns” surrounding larger urban conurbations, all linked by low-pollution high-speed trains. These basic changes in living structures have, within a generation, altered the Ecotopian psyche deeply. There is a greater openness to experience and to emotion, a greater sense of the interconnectedness of all Ecotopians.

Weston’s biggest culture shock during his first few days is just how publicly Ecotopians laugh, love, cry, fight, and criticize each other, all while presenting very little of the simmering resentments and lingering neuroses seen in America. American consumer culture has been completely rejected, and that is clear in the changes to Ecotopian mass media: small newspapers and news organizations of all political stripes flourish, and television (brought to Ecotopian households via hard-wired cable and not over-the-air broadcasting, another of Callenbach’s startling predictions come true) is profoundly participatory, with advertising heavily regulated and consumer products made without the needless variety (and deleterious environmental effects) seen in the States. There is also a profound instilled sense of social responsibility among the Ecotopians. In Weston’s examination of logging and forestry policy, he notes that any individual wanting a large amount of lumber (for building a home, for example) must undertake a couple of months of forest service, cutting down the trees needed and replanting new ones. Weston grudgingly accepts that “it may make people have a better attitude toward lumber resources.”

In his examination of the politics of Ecotopia, Weston, as an individualistic American, notes this tension between responsibility, individual desire, and group dynamics, which rears its head everywhere in Ecotopia from economic policy to psychosocial roles. Even while Ecotopian society is profoundly localized and quasi-libertarian, a definite state exists, with clear economic and military responsibilities. And yet it’s clear that this state would not exist but for the clear consent of the governed and their mutual defense of the Ecotopian way of life. In its early years as a breakaway republic, Ecotopia fought a secret “Helicopter War” against the United States that Ecotopia handily won. How did this tiny nation manage to fight off the largest military in the world? The same way the Viet Cong did in Southeast Asia (and, startlingly, in much the way that the Afghan people would repel the later Soviet invasion a few years after the publication of Ecotopia): with individual members of Ecotopian guerrilla militias destroying high-tech American weapons of war with well-placed rockets, sabotage, and other innovative strategies targeting American weaknesses. Granted, not all of these technologically-advanced weapons were developed in Ecotopia; it’s clear that the material support of both Russia and France helped the new nation achieve this victory. Callenbach also describes a slightly more unrealistic nuclear gambit exercised by Ecotopia, telling America that they had secreted nuclear devices in major American cities and would detonate them upon any further attempt at invasion. But the lesson of Ecotopia is the same as anti-American revolutions in Cuba and Vietnam in the 20th century: with a little societal solidarity, outside support, and innovative methods of waging war, David can beat Goliath.

Over the course of Ecotopia, Callenbach shows us Weston’s slow acceptance of even the most alien aspects of Ecotopian culture. In gender relations, Weston demonstrates a quiet chauvinism about the ruling revolutionary party of Ecotopia, the Survivalists, which originally grew out of pre-revolutionary West Coast feminist-environmentalist politics. It’s clear that Callenbach invests the Ecotopian revolution at its foundation with a distinctly 1970s second-wave feminist flavor. Weston, a roving reporter used to participating in exotic conquests on his various overseas trips, finds himself disarmed by the sexual autonomy and confidence of liberated Ecotopian women. Weston falls in love with a forester, Marissa Brightcloud, who comes to represent to Weston everything about Ecotopia that he finds initially alien and even detestable (after one of their first encounters, Weston sees Marissa giving a word of thanks to a tree and remarks, “this incredible woman is a goddamn druid or something—a tree-worshipper!”), but eventually profoundly liberating. As their affair matures, Weston “realize[s] the relation (sic) with Marissa is changing my whole idea of what men and women are like together.” As Weston tries to comprehend these shifted gender relations, he observes (and eventually participates in and is wounded in) Ecotopia’s ritual war games, its anthropologist-designed method of channeling and diffusing the violent testosterone-fueled impulses of young men into a small-scale series of formalized (and ritual-drug-aided) skirmishes.

It’s in moments like the war games where the dated elements of Callenbach’s novel begin to be seen. For Ecotopia (much as with a good deal of the white counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s), ham-handedly emulating what is perceived as a monolithic “Native American culture” is considered a key to creating a more ecologically just society (Marissa’s surname is an example of this tendency, which Weston coolly appraises as “a self-adopted, Indian-inspired name—many Ecotopians use them”). Weston also notes that the Ecotopian’s respect for their tools, food, and inanimate objects also has an animistic tinge to it. But it’s not just in these broad white stereotypes of the diversity of various indigenous American histories and cultures where Callenbach fails to imagine a non-white ecology. He also shows Weston slightly shocked at the racial segregation and nationalism present in the Bay Area’s various ethnic communities. Black and Chinese urban populations have largely rejected working within Ecotopian systems, taking advantage of Ecotopian community-based social organization to create their own enclaves, which white Ecotopians believe may eventually break away completely to form their own sovereign nations. (Even more cringeworthy is Callenbach’s decision to use the section on the “Soul City” enclave as a method to expound upon Ecotopian crime and punishment.) Weston, in a high-handed “egalitarian” American manner, calls this system “apartheid,” although it’s really more akin to Black separatist and nationalist traditions long-represented and respected in our own timeline’s history. But this treatment of race is a rare but striking sour note in Callenbach’s imagination of a better world. One sees the author struggling to untie the Gordian knot of the legacy of American racism to visualize a better, more peaceful and unified ecological utopia; given the miraculous social revolutions that are taken as a given throughout the novel, this elision of race is odd and off-putting to contemporary eyes.

As mentioned, Weston falls in love with Marissa and then eventually Ecotopia itself. His dispatches about Ecotopia sent back home grow less snide and judgmental and more accepting and fascinated. In the final chapters of the book, Weston gets his long-awaited interview (and diplomatic mission) with Survivalist Party leader and Ecotopian president Vera Allwen. During the meeting,  Weston finds his skills of persuasion leaving him; in Allwen he has met a towering personality with whom he is “mysteriously outclassed.” “She is powerful as a person, not as a bureaucrat or the head of an institution. Difficult to express. (Have heard that some of the old-time communist leaders, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-tung, had this quality too.)” Allwen outright rejects any overture at reunification with the United States. “You cannot be serious,” she says in response to this proposal, firmly, twice in a row. Weston leaves the meeting dejected and soon develops a strange illness that seems at least half-psychosomatic (perhaps triggered by Allwen’s relentless psychological probing).

Trying to decide whether to stay in Ecotopia longer to tarry with Marissa or return home to his sometime wife and children, Weston is soon confronted with a group of mysterious Ecotopians who essentially abduct him. All throughout the novel there have been hints that Weston is being followed by the secret police; a meeting with a group of Ecotopian capitalist dissidents early in the novel leads to an explicit warning from some presumed members of state security. But these Ecotopian agents do not take him to some dungeon or black site; instead, they lead him to a mountain retreat full of regular foreign guests enjoying the hot springs. It’s very reminiscent of Esalen, and even more so as Weston’s captors begin to lovingly interrogate him, subjecting him to long soaks in hot-tubs, sweat lodges, and, it seems from the description of his continuing physical ailments, psychedelic drugs. Weston says to himself that he’ll leave for the border city of Los Angeles (still in the U.S. proper), and dons his American “uniform” of suit and tie, but as he looks in the mirror, he says, “The ugly American me was almost sickening—I really thought I might have to throw up.” In the midst of what sounds like a sensory deprivation tank within one of the deep hot tubs, Weston has a sudden “conversion” moment. “I am going to stay in Ecotopia!” he shouts. He has won the victory over his American self. His captors embrace him, love-bombing him as Marissa suddenly appears from where she was hidden on the grounds, ready to accept the newest liberated Ecotopian citizen to their society.

During this final chapter I couldn’t help but think of all the strains of the human potential movement abroad in California at the time of the writing of Ecotopia and how many of them ended up being used for sinister purposes by the rising technocratic consensus, unscrupulous cultic charlatans, and even by the U.S. government and military. What may have seemed to the 1970s readers of Ecotopia as a liberatory experience rife with self-actualization and a rejection of American “squareness” looks, with the benefit of hindsight, like a training manual for social control in our current age of a hippie-derived technocratic power structure that seems to have systematically quantified and manipulated all our emotional responses for the purposes of further solidifying capitalism. One could argue that the Ecotopians’ weapons of defense and war—cobbled together as a mix of both primitive ecologically-friendly defenses as well as innovative biological and social systems of control—are their way of defending their hard-won state and that these reservations are merely around means instead of ends. If the CIA and U.S. military relentlessly used psychological warfare both at home and abroad to solidify American hegemony, what is wrong with turning those same weapons back against them for the benefit of a new republic dedicated to opposing American and corporate imperialism?

But to our contemporary eyes, it’s this slightly ambiguous ending and all the other profoundly ironic moments within the narrative that make Ecotopia so interesting a document. As mentioned earlier, Ecotopia in some small way successfully predicts what the future will look like, for both good and ill. Ironically, after reading it, I find myself interested in a sequel that would take Ecotopia twenty years into the future, to match up with our own year 2020. Would Ecotopian ideals conquer America and lead to a worldwide acceptance of Ecotopian steady-state living? Or would America decide again to try to take back its breakaway republic by force, this time using more brute force than in the Helicopter War? Or would America, facing the implicit rebuke of Ecotopia’s success, fall apart into a series of squabbling balkanized republics? The world of Ecotopia in a lot of ways is an achievable paradise, but one wonders if, given two or three decades, it would end up looking more like our own timeline’s collapsing America than an egalitarian ecological paradise.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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