Ecotopia. Bask in the fantasy. It’s a vision – albeit a sadly fading one – for what could be.

Written by Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia, continues a long and proud tradition of Western literature tracing itself back to Plato’s Republic (which I read not too long ago). It’s sit in a Northern California/Pacific Northwest which as succeeded from the Union. For twenty years, this new/ mysterious nation has remained totally isolated from the US. The basic plot is a typical “American” reporter sent on long-term assignment to Ecotopia.

He sees and experiences much and eventually chooses to stay.

Basically, San Fransisco to Seattle manage to secede through a combination of grassroots democracy, a major US financial/economic crisis, and a mysterious threat of somehow mining New York and Washington DC with nuclear bombs. It’s a bit far fetched, but at the same time really not that far-fetched.

And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of Callenbach’s book. It’s out there. But at the same time it’s not. It makes so much sense. Yes, some of the things seem to be a hangover from the sixties, and yes, the amount of social change in twenty years has been terribly exaggerated; it seems to me that it would take a good two generations to reach the point that Callenbach seems to think is achievable in the ‘90s.

But the majority of it makes complete sense. A twenty hour work week. Loads of small enterprises. Bikes and high-speed trains everywhere. Trees abound. The boundaries between work and play have blurred almost to the point of disappearing altogether, but in a good, collective ownership way, not in a “your-boss-can-call-you-at-any-time-because-you-work-from-home” sort of way.

Ecotopia explores the idea of steady-state economics and the sort of society it would create. More fundamentally, it’s a depiction of society with very different goals and values. They are good values too. Steady-state economics is the idea of a healthy economy which does not grow. It recycles itself. This might seem rather benign at first, but when you dig deep into it, you are looking at an economic program with profound social change.

Think of it like this. Our nation’s and effectively then, our society’s mission is GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth. Thus expansion is a cornerstone, not just of economics and governmental policy, but a profoundly ingrained assumption and statement about our values and beliefs. These values and beliefs are based on some wild and hasty assumptions. GDP growth only manages to work because it is the only state of economic affairs where, as the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”; thus politicians and leaders often have no choice but to push the economic gas pedal.

But more than that, it assumes an expanding, almost limitless human population. It depends on unlimited – and therefore cheap – natural resources to exploit. It also anticipates fantastic technologies to emerge which can feed these people and in some way ape or replace the natural resources. These assumptions/beliefs point to others, such as the idea of technological progress and a 40+ hour work week. It assumes that the more stuff you have the better. A good life is effectively measured in our society by how much you own, i. e. TVs, cars, and houses.

But when you change the goals and you stop confusing the ends with the means and realize that the means itself is the end, things really change. Thus sustainability in economics and society has profound implications.

And I think we need to get started. I’m ready. It’s well over due if you ask me.



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