Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston by Ernest Callenbach
Heyday Books, 2014
Originally published by Banyan Tree Books, 1975
Price I paid: Property and wheel taxes
Twenty years have passed since Northern California, Oregon, and Washington seceded from the United States to create a new nation, Ecotopia. Rumors abound of barbaric war games, tree worship, revolutionary politics, sexual extravagance. Now, this mysterious country admits its first American visitor: investigative reporter Will Weston, whose dispatches alternate between shock and admiration. But Ecotopia gradually unravels everything Weston knows to be true about government and human nature itself, forcing him to choose between two competing views of civilization.
I have to admit I didn’t find this one for myself.
A few weeks ago, Joachim Boaz over at Science Fiction Ruminations had one of his Recent Acquisitions posts, which are always a good resource for new works of interest or just some great cover art. Pretty much every one of the books he posted that day spoke to me in some way, but this one most of all. So I did what I love to do and went to my friends in the Interlibrary Loan department, who had a copy in my hands before the week was out. A big thank you to the library at Middle Tennessee State University, who sent it along.
When I first saw the summary of the book from the 1990 edition, which Joachim posted, my immediate thought was that this book was a diatribe against the radical ecological movement, or, more to the point, it was all about Those Damn Hippies. This is partly due to the tone of that edition’s cover synopsis, but more likely is due to my own cynicism.
I was expecting The Feminists, but about, like, trees and stuff.
The Shocking Tale of Greenpeace Taking Over America! You Won’t Believe We Were Allowed to Print It!
I wish I could say that this impression lasted until I got the book or somesuch, but I’d be lying. I was led to enlightenment almost immediately by both Joachim and Wikipedia. The truth turned out to be equally as fascinating, so here we are.
The book is presented as a series of newspaper articles written by a fellow named William Weston. Weston is the first American allowed into Ecotopia since its secession from the United States twenty years ago.
We don’t get an explicit time and date for this book, but it’s definitely just a few minutes into the future. There’s a character mentioned as having lived through World War II, so it can’t be that far ahead.
We get to read Weston’s articles about the various elements of Ecotopian society, but we also get to read his private thoughts via his journal. The book is split maybe 50/50 between the two.
There’s very little narrative to the book, and that’s okay. That’s not what its for. As it stands, the narrative can be summed up as
- Weston comes to Ecotopia expecting to hate it
- He changes his mind
The bulk of the novel consists of description, and it’s not bad at all. I can see that it might not suit everybody, but I liked it.
Ecotopia began when the Northern California, Oregon, and Washington seceded from the United States. There was a brief flare up of hostility, but in the end the fledgling nation won its independence by, apparently, placing atomic mines in major American cities. There is some speculation over whether this was a bluff or not. I fall on the side of bluff, because nuclear fallout doesn’t strike me as environmentally friendly.
So now it’s an environmental paradise, but it’s a lot more than that. There’s a lot about Ecotopia that appealed to me. There are parts that I was skeptical of. There are bits that disappointed me.
What Made Me 😊
I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.Pete Seeger, New York Times Magazine, 22 January 1995
Seeger said that twenty years after Ecotopia was first published, but you coulda fooled me. It’s the part of this book that I clung to most dearly, even more than the environmental aspects, which are inextricable to the theme of community anyway. The two go hand-in-hand. People live in tightly-packed-yet-decentralized communities because they give the Earth more room to grow trees and animals and so forth. It gives the world breathing room.
But it was the community aspect that stuck with me. People in Ecotopia genuinely care about one another and work together. It made me so happy to read and imagine being a part of.
The economy is still technically capitalist, but strictly regulated for both environmental, public, and worker benefits. All businesses and corporations are worker-owned. Medicine is socialized. There is a Universal Basic Income. Full-time employment is twenty hours a week.
I can imagine someone saying that any amount of capitalism is too much and will take over and ruin everything. I see their point, but that didn’t stop me from liking what I was reading.
On the environmental level, the Ecotopian government has outlawed most cars. In their place are electric trains and public bicycles. I can’t ride a bicycle so I’d be SOL, but it’s nice to think about.
What cars do exist are mostly modular parts that can be assembled at home. This is the case with most Ecotopian products. They are meant to be as simple as possible to repair at home. They run on either electricity or plant-based fuels.
Newspapers and many books are print-on-demand from vending machines. I like that a lot. I wonder if Ecotopia could have eventually come up with a form of e-reader? It seems to me the only piece of tech I use today that they would approve of, if only slightly.
What Made Me 🤔
A few things about Ecotopia that make it work are technologies that don’t exist for us, but conveniently do for the Ecotopians. Callenbach asserts that these technologies are feasible and right around the corner, if only the Owning Class were willing to fund them, and I’d like to think that’s true, but I just don’t know. Perhaps I could do some research and find out, and I just might.
Chief among the Techs That Make the Book Work are biodegradable, plant-based plastics. They come in two kinds: ones that break down after a short while, and ones that are longer-lasting but can be induced to break down at will. The former are used for things like food packaging. You can just throw the wrapper into the compost! The other is used for more semi-permanent uses, for instance, housing. Ecotopians have found a way to extrude entire homes out of biodegradable plastic.
Maybe this is in the realm of possibility? I’d like to think so. But moreover, the book asserts that Ecotopia has come up with these technologies within the twenty years since its secession. That’s wild.
I was shocked to read that schools in Ecotopia are privatised, and that there is a voucher system. To be fair, though, Ecotopian society once again comes to the rescue. The schools, like the other businesses, are employee-owned, which means the teachers. And since all of Ecotopia is linked by high-speed electric rail, parents and students really do have a choice in the matter. Schools actually have an incentive to be competitive. This is all very nice.
And then there’s the fact that everybody is apparently in perfect health, both physical and mental, because of both the environmental and social aspects of Ecotopia. While we do learn about hospitals a bit, there’s little to no mention of what is done for people with mental illnesses. What about people who, for whatever reason, are a danger to themselves or others? It’s never mentioned. I would imagine they’re handled humanely, but I’d like some confirmation of that, or at least that it was thought of.
An idealized “Native American” lifestyle is the source of a lot of Ecotopian values, and it comes across as “Noble Savage” in ways that made me uncomfortable.
Really though, some of the the biggest issues I had with this book came down the the writing and characterization of William Weston himself. Everything is from his point of view, and a lot of his point of view is just laughably stupid. Perhaps this is a difference in the times, perhaps I’m injecting too much of my own point of view into it, perhaps any number of things. But get this:
Other channels present films and various entertainment programs, but the commercials are awkwardly bunched entirely between shows…Not only does this destroy the rhythm that we’re used to on TV…And this is bad enough anyway, because they are limited to mere announcements, without impersonated housewives or other consumers, and virtually without adjectives.pg 39
I had a to trim a lot from that, because dude goes on for a solid half-page defending television advertising. Dude frikkin’ loves TV ads.
Really, it as at that point that William Weston lost me forever as a relatable character.
He consistently refers to the most believable aspects of Ecotopian life—stuff like having emotions—as “bizarre” while the magical eco-technologies are pretty matter-of-fact.
He continually goes on about how he’s supposed to be “objective” in his reporting, but he goes from outright hostile to fawning over the course of the book. Maybe the objectivity comes from it all balancing out?
(Noteworthy is that the Ecotopian media has no such pretensions toward objectivity. The rule is that media outlets—newspapers, TV channels, etc.—have to state their stances and biases up front.)
The other thing about Weston that I wasn’t thrilled with was his personal notebook sections. See, at one point Weston meets a woman named Marissa and they hit it off quite nicely. They spend a lot of time together and she’s really the main reason that he falls in love with Ecotopia as well. This is all well and good.
The problem is that these sections, taken by themselves, would be a novel about a middle-aged white man going through some ennui and then learning to live and love again by finding his “inspiration” in the form of a woman. It helps that this woman is “not like other girls I’ve slept with” because she’s “more real” and “full of energy” and “not conventionally attractive but still very sexy.” The novel could be called My Marissa Summer and the protagonist would be a professor who sleeps with a student or something.. I didn’t give a single crap for Weston’s sexual awakening.
She helps him throw off some toxic masculine stuff. She helps him get in touch with his emotions. He learns to cry. She’s an instrument for the betterment of our male character.
What Made Me ☹
So…where are all the non-white people?
In Ecotopia, the black minority has itself enforced a similar segregation [to Apartheid]—though of course it makes some difference that this was voluntary whereas that of the Africans was forced upon them by the whites. But this admission that the races cannot live in harmony is surely one of the most disheartening developments in all of Ecotopia, and it clouds the future of our nation as well.pg 101
If this section had been omitted entirely, I probably would never have thought about it. I would have just assumed that everybody got along no matter what their skin color and been happy with that. Ecotopia is a paradise, after all.
But no, all the black people live in a section of the country called “Soul City.”
It was 1975. This book was progressive in so many other ways. In Ecotopia, all sorts of sexual relationships are totally cool. There are open homosexual relationships. Open polysexual relationships. Women have utter sexual autonomy. It’s great.
But Callenbach just couldn’t get over the race thing. Maybe he did later. Maybe he reconsidered this assertion. There’s an essay at the end of the book that he wrote a few months before he died in 2012, but there’s no mention of it.
I wrote a lot more about the things that troubled me about this book than the things that I enjoyed about it, but I want to make it clear: I really enjoyed this book. I’m super happy I read it. It made me hopeful. I think a lot more people should read it.
Part of the problems are that the book is heavily of its time. And that’s okay, although I still don’t like the Soul City bit.
The whole point of the book is to get us to think. In a lot of ways it worked for me on that level. It also made me nod my head in agreement a bunch—mainly when it talked about the nature of work and the value of communities—but that’s no surprise. I don’t imagine a lot of people who would disagree with that political stance would be the ones to come to this book in the first place.
A lot of the writing about this book I’ve seen calls it “prophetic,” and I disagree with that statement. “So many of the issues he brings up are happening now!” they say. Well yeah, doofus, they were happening then, too. That’s the point. And the shame is that they’re still happening. Book’s almost 45 years old and we’ve only gone and gotten further from the world it’s trying to lead us toward.
That’s not Callenbach’s fault. He did a pretty good job. This is all on us.
Would I want to live in Ecotopia? I have mixed feelings on that. On the surface, there’s so much I would love to be a part of and contribute to. On the other hand, the new Pokémon comes out in November, so it would need to be sometime after that.
I’m a part of the problem.
Moreover, I’m just not confident I’d be at all useful to the Ecotopian enterprise. I’d probably be able to find work in a library, but all the other stuff? The self-reliance? I once sewed a button back onto a shirt. I can unclog a toilet maybe one out of three times.
This is the first book I’ve reviewed that made me disappointed in myself.
But a community where people work together? And genuinely love one another, the work they do, the land they live on? Golly, that’s a nice dream. Thank you for sharing that dream, Mr. Callenbach.