Is "Portlandia" the new "Ecotopia"?
February 17, 2013 - David McConkey
When my kids introduced me to the delightful TV program Portlandia,
I had an immediate sense of déjà vu.
But, first, what about Portlandia? It is a spoof about hipsters trying to live a more environmental and co-operative lifestyle.
If you haven’t yet ventured into Portlandia, listen to the program’s theme song The Dream of the 90s. (Then try to get the tune out of your head!)
The dream of the 1990s? That was when folks were "singing about saving the planet” and were “content to be unambitious.” A dream of “an alternative universe.” Like if Al Gore had won the presidency in 2000 and “the Bush administration never happened.”
And, according to the song and the show, “there’s a place where that idea still exists as a reality.”
That place? Portland, Oregon.
My déjà vu was about my generation and the dream of the 1970s. That earlier dream was also of an alternative society where people were more in tune with each other and the Earth. And that dream was eloquently depicted in 1975 by writer Ernest Callenbach.
That earlier work of fiction was not a TV show, but a novel. And the place was not just the city of Portland, but the whole region around it: the states of Oregon, Washington, and the northern part of California.
The dream of the 70s came to life on the pages of Ecotopia.
After laughing at a couple of episodes of Portlandia, I went into my basement and searched my book shelves. Yes! There was my worn and yellowed copy of Ecotopia, which had accompanied our family through many years and through many moves.
I turned again to the novel, and re-read it. It is as absorbing now as it was when I first read it in the 1970s. Some parts, I found, have even more resonance today.
Ecotopia made a bit of splash when it first came out. But I am not the only person who had largely forgotten about the book in the intervening years.
Ernest Callenbach was a member of the simple living / Whole Earth Catalog movement. Checking Wikipedia, I notice that he died in 2012 at the age of 83. I don’t even recall seeing his death in the news.
In the novel Ecotopia, the northwest part of the U.S. has broken away in 1980 to form the independent country of Ecotopia. All relations have been severed. The two nations have developed along different lines.
The novel takes place in 1999. William Weston, a newspaper reporter from New York City, is sent to Ecotopia to report back to Americans on what has been happening in the new nation.
The format of the book is Weston’s reporting during his six-week stay in Ecotopia. His writings alternate between his newspaper dispatches back to the States and the entries in his private diary.
In Weston’s accounts, a picture emerges of how a radical ecological society might be formed. Amidst the turmoil of economic upheaval and the independence of a nation, the people of Ecotopia forge a new way of life.
Among their first measures: reducing the workweek to just 20 hours. Among other initiatives, bold efforts to create a transportation system without cars, grow food completely naturally, and reuse and recycle all materials and resources.
Ecotopia will never be regarded as fine literature or as being in the same league as the books 1984 or Brave New World. Yet, a reading of the book remains a thought provoking and enjoyable diversion.
Callenbach had the difficult tasks of both anticipating the future, and envisioning an alternative to it. With the hindsight of today, we can see that he had both hits and misses.
Most important, the basic premise of the book now strikes us as extremely odd. Weston packs up his typewriter to travel to a region of North America totally cut off from the U.S.? Of course, the technology and the sensibility of the Internet would make that impossible now – or even in 1999 when the story supposedly took place.
And at other times, like in his comments about gender roles and race relations, Callenbach seems not forward-looking, but quite old-fashioned. Even our regular society has moved beyond where the author dared to imagine that Ecotopia might be able to advance.
In a number of ways, however, Callenbach is right on target about not only how an ecological utopia might develop, but also how our own society has evolved.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can reflect on a number of fascinating “what if . . .” scenarios.
Like, what would be the status today of the issue of climate change? What if North America (or even part of it) had begun decades ago to pioneer systems that used much less carbon fuels? What if the research, the experimentation, and – especially – the change in lifestyles, had begun in 1980?
As it turned out, Callenbach was writing on the cusp of some other big changes that were to take place in American society.
One was the huge shift in North American eating habits and activity levels. Ecotopia bypassed the explosion in artificial foods and sedentary lifestyles that have profoundly transformed Americans in recent decades.
Weston reports that Ecotopians eat well; “the food is plentiful, wholesome, and recognizable.” As well, “Ecotopians are used to walking everywhere; carrying heavy burdens like backpacks and groceries for long distances.”
The reporter was struck with the contrast with his homeland. “The fat and broken-down people we are accustomed to seeing on our city streets are absent here,” reports Weston, “and even oldsters seem surprisingly fit and hearty.”
Another “what if . . .” revolves around drugs and crime. Instead of intensifying the War on Drugs in the 1980s, as the U.S. did, Ecotopia chose a radically different path. The use of drugs was legalized; the use of marijuana was actively encouraged.
Other “victimless” crimes such as prostitution and gambling were also legalized. And those who had been imprisoned for such crimes from earlier times were freed.
Although violent crimes were still punished with prison time, the nature of prison was changed in Ecotopia. While serving their time, prisoners were allowed to go out during the day and get jobs and participate in regular society.
“In the American system, prisons are only training schools for the inmates’ next crimes,” Weston notes. Whereas, in Ecotopia, “relatively humane policies actually give inmates the time and opportunity to develop non-criminal modes of life in realistic life circumstances.”
Callenbach speculates extensively about the personal and social aspects of the new society. For example, can people really live in a peaceful way, where co-operation is the norm and even professional sports teams have withered away? Wouldn’t there be a need for some sort of outlet?
The answer is rather surprising: the Ecotopians have created Ritual War Games. Armed with real spears, young men engage in contests of actual combat. There, Weston observes, men have the chance to “charge and flee, to test comradeship, to put their beautiful resources of speed and strength to use, to let their adrenalin flow, to be brave, and to be fearful.”
Weston is informed by the Ecotopians that there are about 50 deaths annually from these matches. But they felt this was a small price to pay. For one thing, Ecotopians were more resolved not to go to real war, because “they knew the utter destruction that would result.” Also, the number of their dead was far lower than other societies have, for example, from car crashes and actual wars. (And, we can add now, resulting from the War on Drugs.)
(Another question from today's perspective: is that need being met by today's video games?)
Weston arrives in Ecotopia deeply skeptical of the breakaway country. But the longer he is there, the more he becomes involved with the society and the more he appreciates its merits. He is eased into the new lifestyle by being welcomed by a group of friendly journalists. And also by falling in love with an intriguing woman.
As the back cover of the book says, Weston’s “confusion of values intensifies and reaches a startling climax.”
If you would like to know more, you will just have to read the book yourself!
As for Portlandia, some episodes and clips can be seen right now on TV and the Net. Past seasons are also available.
We can be thankful for the creativity of artists who give us works like Portlandia and Ecotopia. Hopefully, the vision of a better society can continue to be nurtured by thoughtful discussion, and – probably more importantly – by laughter!
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