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Millennial Reviews XXVIII: Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach (1975)


By Ernest Callenbach 

13 Feb, 2000

Millennial Reviews


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Ernest Callenbach
Bantam Books, 1975
213 pages

Synopsis: It’s 1999, almost twenty years since the USA’s Pacific Northwest split off from the USA, beginning a period of noncommunication between Ecotopia [as the PNW calls itself] and the USA which makes the current situation between Cuba and the USA look like a torrid love affair. Journalist William Weston is one of the first Americans to venture into Ecotopia since the secession, ostensibly to report on conditions there but also on a covert mission from the US President to feel out the possibility of readmitting the split away states into the Union.

Weston has trouble getting into Ecotopia, due to restrictions on gasoline powered vehicles and the reluctance of border-state Americans to cross over into Ecotopia. Apparently, it doesn’t occur to him to go up to Canada and down in a boat or via a train.

The Ecotopians turn out to be as lecture prone as a Canadian on speed presented with a busload of American tourists. This is handy, as it lets Callenbach insert long lectures about the structure of Ecotopia and moralise about the evils of the USA [which is still bogged down in South East Asia and also in Brazil, to the tune of 5000 war deaths a year].

As he ventures from lecture to lecture, Weston meets and interacts with a variety of Ecotopians, some of whom, a very small minority no doubt, oppose the current state of affairs. The visit right after from the not-secret-police, really who warm him not to communicate the dissidents’ message to the US President is no doubt merely a courtesy visit.

[There are some odd moments where people do what are obviously threatening actions and Weston reacts as though they are attempts at friendship all through this book]

He meets and gradually falls in love with Merissa, an Ecotopian woman. There is conflict between him and Merissa’s brother Ben, who distrusts Weston. As the book progresses, he is of course more and more seduced into thinking the Ecotopian way of life is better than the American one.

He participates in a wargame with real pointy sticks and ends up with a minor gut wound. Merissa sees this as a positive sign that he is assimilating into Ecotopian culture.

Speaking of assimilation, he doesn’t meet many black people: the black community is mostly isolationist and live separate but equal lives apart from the whites. We are assured that this was their idea. The blacks have a bit of a land shortage, but this is being worked on and will involve a lot of population movement. I quote from page 126:

The political and economic problems are monstrous, of course, but such things were carried out in Eastern Europe after WWII.”

Which I suppose goes nicely with the alienation of property owners and wealthy capitalists from their property, which is compared to similar forced sales by the Japanese during WWII. Oddly enough, very few people fled Ecotopia after it left the Union: The population, even after all of Ecotopia ZPG ad NPG measures, is still 14 million, down from a high of 15 million.

Along the way, it is revealed and later proven that US tried to retake Ecotopia in 82, losing 7,000 helicopters to the gallant militias of Ecotopias. Luckily, their dispersed militias are ever so much better than the hide-bound feather bedding US armed forces that the Ecotopians can deter the Americans with a military budget about the same size as Canada’s circa 1980. The atom bombs they may or may not have mined major US cities with help too.

During his visit, disturbing signs of something very bad happening arrive in the signs of fallout drifting in from abroad.

Eventually Weston gets his interview with the Ecotopian President, Vera Allwen, a person with the personal presence of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-Tung.” He is disappointed to find out there is no hope of reconciliation, that instead the Ecotopians hope all of North America balkanises. This drives him into a deep depression, so he is kidnapped and removed to a pleasant location. Eventually, he comes to love Big Brother realises through the loving care of his kidnappers that he wants to stay in Ecotopia.

The great thing about books like this, from the author’s POV, is that the naïf wandering through the scenery asks questions like Oh, do explain to me the benefits of a subsidised rail system” and not How is it, given that the prevailing winds blow from west to east, that airborne pollution from the rest of the US is a bad enough problem that it gets mentioned several times?” and the naïf can be relied on to admire the handwoven clothes everyone wears without wondering who makes it all. Although since they’ve re-introduced child labour and everyone only works a 20-hour week, they may have the spare man-years needed.

It’s rather lucky for the Ecotopians that Callenbach set his little utopia in one of the most pleasant places in North America with rich farmland and a weenie climate. Imagine for a moment the Ecotopians, with their allegedly low-impact ecology friendly economy, set in NWT, Yukon and Nunavut.

There’s an interesting bit that suggests Callenbach doesn’t think to do the math: he mentions that one solar power array covers 30 square miles. Assuming that Ecotopia gets around 500 watts/m^2 during the day, that is a potential peak power generation of almost 40 gigawatts, and it is implied that it is one of several.

There’s also some interesting gender politics: the women run the state, more or less. They also run reproduction. Callenbach mentions pointedly that all of the contraception is under women’s control, no male pill used in Ecotopia at all and one assumes no condoms. I guess STDs respect the Ecotopians politics, because the cultural norm is more promiscuous than ours and they don’t appear to do any screening against STDs in partners.

As I mentioned in another group, if you’ve got any kind of brain chemistry imbalance, you may be SOL as the pharmacies don’t stock certain medicines for philosophical reasons. If you are a geezer, prepare to die young: they don’t do the kind of heroic measure we do, in part because they can’t afford to and partly because they think death is natural.

The Ecotopians have gone to a lot of trouble to downsize their GNP by 30%. Luckily, the long term dislocations you’d expect never appeared due to the 20 hour week and the fact that Ecotopians seem to have the knack of inventing just the right doodads: they don’t have cars but they do have 300 km/hr maglev trains which can built and maintained by their kind of economy.

They are losing their roads, though. I wonder how they deal with house fires? Bit of a bugger if the firetruck de-axles itself before it gets to the blaze consuming Market Street. No doubt the next San Francisco Fire should be interesting.

On the topic of maintenance: A‑bombs need it. Wonder how Ecotopia gets their nuclear techies in and out of the USA?

Unlike Looking Backward , Ecotopia assumes that small enterprises are more efficient than large ones. I am not clear how Callenbach explains the growth of large businesses. There’s a lot of touchy-feely crap about employee run companies and the inherent nastiness of large companies which I expect influenced Robinson’s Pacific Edge , PE making me think of an Ecotopia which had written by someone who could actually write [1]. Still, Callenbach at his worst is much better than either Bellamy in Looking Backward [There were moments which reminded me of LB, though] or Reynolds in Equality: From the Year 2000. He’s no Ken MacLeod but I’d take Ecotopia over a prolonged mauling by a dog in excess of 30 kilograms any day [It’d have to be whole pack to get me to reread Ecotopia Emerging again, though]

As per usual, Not Our 2000. APU, thank God: losing the PNW would do the world economy no end of harm. No Silicon Valley, for one thing. I don’t have Callenbach’s faith his Ecotopia would work in the absence of an author able to wave conflicts away with There was long discussion and then everyone agreed with the consensus’.

They have picture phones [Every 2000 but ours seems to] and ‑almost- a web. Distributed on-demand printing for sure. Bad manners. Interesting ideas on therapy [Note to friends: kidnap me and I will ‑not- assume it is for friendly purposes]. Old variants in penal theory and schooling. I wonder if Callenbach ever looked at the actual record of militias fighting real armies? All in all, good dumb fun for tree huggers [2].

Two things I forgot: the entire tax supply in Ecotopia seems to come from taxing companies. Not quite sure how that works but it is very hard to make large amounts of money there. This is a feature, not a bug: they want to keep income in a narrow range.

The scientists who decide on whether or not products or behaviors should be allowed are neither paid for by the state or by private companies. Hmmm. Research done in their spare time between the day job and sewing all those homespun clothes? Bet the system selects for ideologs. Bet that’s seen as a feature and not a bug as well.

1: Robinson has edited a collection called Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias , which has a dire little story” by Callenbach. The rest of the collection is pretty good, though.

2: There is a brief scene of literal tree hugging, actually. These people ‑really- like trees. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.