Forty years ago Berkeley writer Ernest Callenbach self-published Ecotopia, a book about sex drugs, and sustainability, a kind of ecological hippie novel.
Callenbach imagined a future in which Northern California, Oregon, and Washington violently secede from the US to form a new country where cars are mostly banned in favor of bicycles, buses and trains, and everyone recycles.
Ecotopia has become a cult classic, selling nearly a million copies in nine languages, and this past weekend UC Santa Cruz hosted a conference on the book (and on the University’s own 50th anniversary).
Callenbach was a Berkeley resident and an editor UC Press. But he grew up on a chicken farm in Pennsylvania where if anything broke, it got fixed or recycled. And he was both entranced by the radical lifestyles of Berkeley in the 1970’s, and appalled at the waste in the booming consumer economy.
“This is how Ecotopia began. As a garbage problem,” recalls Malcolm Margolin, Callenbach’s friend and the publisher at Berkeley’s Heyday Press, which recently issued a 40th anniversary edition of the book.
“And out of that pragmatic technical concern, grew this whole book of other practices,” Margolin added.
The novel is made of columns and diary entries from New York City reporter Will Weston, the first American to enter Ecotopia after it seceded and closed its borders with the US.
Weston is slowly seduced by the country’s sustainable ethic and a woman he meets there. It’s hoaky, and more tract than novel. But as a report on an experiment in urban sustainability, Ecotopia is often quite prophetic.
Weston depicts San Francisco’s Market Street as a pedestrian mall studded with parklets (not so different from the Market Street of today), where bike sharing is common. Even the Los Angeles City Council recently approved major improvements to the city’s bike lanes. People belong to CSA’s and make a fetish of eating locally grown foods. And they recycle everything.
Which sounds familiar to anyone in a state where garbage trucks pick up three bins: one for recycling, one for green waste, and one for landfill.
“It was the beginning of recycling,” Margolin said of the mid-1970’s, “which you don’t feel now because it’s become an ordinary thing. But back then it was a wonderment.”
The book also depicts a rejuvenated San Francisco Bay, a leap of faith in 1975, when cities and factories were just beginning to treat their sewerage and runoff.
“And people from that time -- I was there -- remember when fires were burning here, garbage fires. The bay was continually being encroached on,” said Ken Brower, a writer, board member at Friends of The Earth, and son of the famed environmental activist David Brower.
The former dump is now one of Brower’s favorite spots for bird watching, And there are new efforts to reclaim bay salt ponds for birds and fish.
Still a Possibility?
In Callenbach’s Ecotopia, high speed trains link cities at 225 miles-an-hour.
That idea is still in the planning stages in California, but I rode an on time Amtrak train, up to Davis to talk to Science Fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who spoke at the UC Santa Cruz conference. Robinson has crafted his own fictional ecotopias, most notably in Pacific Edge, set in Orange County in 2065.
“Essentially the hippies of the 60’s were growing up,” Robinson said over coffee, “they were having kids, getting jobs. And the question became how do we live.”
But Robinson thinks boomer optimism has soured into millennial pessimism when it comes to climate change and the economy, as evidenced by the dystopian fictions of today, like the Hunger Games.
“Right now young people are feeling scared and pessimistic about their future prospects,” said Robinson. “And this is like a giant warning signal that society is going wrong and we have to pay attention.”
The book seems hopelessly romantic in its vision of an equitable worker-owned economy, and Ecotopia’s ban on cars seems an impossible dream for anyone stuck in the traffic gridlock common on California roads north and south.
Not a Perfect World
Associate Professor of Sociology Miriam Greenberg assigns Ecotopia for a class she teaches UC Santa Cruz, and helped conceive the conference this weekend.
She notes Ecotopia’s vision of a perfect world has some serious blind spots on race and gender.
“Black people in Ecotopia are not only segregated in (what Callenbach calls) Soul City,” Greenberg said, “they choose to self-segregate themselves.”
And Greenberg says the book offends many of women students with its depiction of gender roles.
“This is a world where women seem constantly available for men’s pleasure,” Greenberg said, “and this is conveniently because women are depicted as sexually uninhibited.”
But even some of the book’s sharpest critics say, don’t judge Callenbach by his biases, or by how much of Ecotopia came true.
Publisher Malcolm Margolin said that Ecotopia is worth re-reading because it gave the world a hopeful vision of the future, one still worth striving for.
“I think what we have to keep alive in the human imagination is this sense the world can be a better place.” Margolin said. “There’s this marvelous line in Ecotopia, where someone says, ‘we don’t strive to be perfect. We strive to be okay on the average.’ And I think we have to preserve that sense.”
A timeline of influential, ecological sci fi books that came before and after Ecotopia: