Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

Few philosophies have a greater mutual suspicion and natural antipathy to each other than libertarianism and ecology. This is not surprising, since the former takes the human individual and the latter the nonhuman environment, as its sovereign concern. But since our state-plagued era has seen the degradation of both individual liberties and the quality of the environment, we ought to question the degree to which these exist in an inverse relationship. Libertarians who wish to learn how to accommodate ecological ideas could do no better than to begin with a short 1975 novel by Ernest Callenbach, not because the novel has any libertarian intent (it clearly doesn’t), but because the principle of political decentralization, which Callenbach sees as an ecological necessity, leads him unconsciously, almost blindly, in a libertarian direction.

Ecotopia was clearly born out of the political and economic turmoil of the 1970s. As the book describes it, “The persistent inflation and recession of the seventies had caused widespread misery and undermined Americans’ confidence in economic progress.… And chronic Washington scandals had greatly reduced faith in central government.” Of course there was also a war that dragged on and on despite widespread opposition. In other words, it was a time much like our own, which may be why there has been a renewal of interest in the book in the last few years. A New York Times article from 2008 called it “The Novel that Predicted Portland” for its advocacy of green lifestyles. Well, not quite, as we shall see.

While contemporary greens tend to advocate greater power for national and international governmental agencies to regulate on behalf of the environment, Callenbach’s book was informed by decentralist and anti-authoritarian ideas of the New Left. These led him to a solution that had long since been thought impossible in American politics: secession. Ecotopia is also the name of a new nation in the novel, consisting of what used to be Oregon, Washington, and northern California, which seceded from the United States in 1980.1 In 1999, Will Weston, a journalist from what remains of the United States, sets out to write a series of articles about Ecotopian life. These, alternating with Weston’s private diary entries, comprise the novel.

These days, secessionism tends to be almost exclusively associated with the political Right, but even now there are people on the Left like Kirkpatrick Sale, a Neo-Luddite and antiglobalization activist whose environmental ideas are similar to Callenbach’s, who advocate the principle of secession. At the time Ecotopia was written, such ideas were mainly associated with radicals in the Black Power and other ethnic movements. In addition to the Ecotopians, Callenbach has the black neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco form a mostly independent city-state within Ecotopia called “Soul City,” which issues its own laws and currency. Such a submovement demonstrates what libertarian advocates of secession have long argued, that once you acknowledge the legitimacy of a particular act of secession, you implicitly acknowledge all others (theoretically right down to the individual).   “After Independence,” Callenbach writes, “the principle of secession became a lively factor in Ecotopian political life. Thomas Jefferson and other American patriots were quoted in its defense.”

This is not to say, of course, that the politics of a secession movement are bound to be libertarian. The Declaration of Independence, by and large, was; the Confederate States of America, despite much of its rhetoric, was not. As for Ecotopia, it’s quite a mixed bag. Agriculture and large-scale industrial capital are nationalized. The government passes, in Weston’s words, “stringent conservation laws,” “confiscatory inheritance taxes,” and “draconian tariffs.” A central bank undertakes all investment, though Weston notes that this “appears to contradict many Ecotopian protestations of decentralization.”

Ernest Callenbach
Ernest Callenbach

However, the national government of Ecotopia is weak in comparison to local governments. There is no cult of the presidency. People are critical of government at all levels. Politics involves all citizens. Weston observes that since “many functions of government which for us are very costly (such as education) are organized, strangely enough, on free-market principles, it seems certain that the relative total tax burden is much lower than ours.” Prisons are small. Public drunkenness is no longer a crime, though violent offenses are punished more harshly than in the United States. Heroin and other hard drugs are legal, but unfortunately only as a government monopoly.

Even in areas in which we would expect an onerous legal burden, Ecotopia offers a surprising amount of freedom. Environmental standards on consumer goods are not enforced by a central regulatory body like the FDA or EPA, but by lists issued by scientific committees, which act as “a mechanism of moral persuasion.… Usually, when a product goes onto such a list, demand for it drops sharply. The company making it then ordinarily has to stop production, or finds it possible to sell only in specialized stores.” As with secession, Callenbach is unable to take this principle to its ultimate anarchic conclusion.

The media landscape is one of “almost anarchic decentralization,” and their technology in this area is quite sophisticated. This is not in spite, but because, of their ecological concerns. There are few private cars, but a great deal of business is done via “picturephones.” Callenbach is not able to foresee the internet, but he does see the end of dead-tree media. Newspapers are printed on-demand at kiosks, and there are a plethora of “miniaturized electronic devices, such as stereo sets no larger than a plate.”

Despite offering a variety of fascinating (and frightening) possibilities for social change, the reader is bound to find the narrative of Ecotopia a bit flat and tensionless. Its main conflict is Weston’s skepticism about the Ecotopian way of life. Such is the limitation, not only of Callenbach’s story, but of the utopian genre in general. This includes even confirmed classics such as Utopia, that gave the genre its name in the 16th century.

Stories, like history, are about human action, and the locus of all action is the individual. Like the “stable-state” of Ecotopia, all utopias take place at the end of history, when individual actions have little significance. One is reminded of the thought experiment of the “evenly rotating economy” proposed Austrian economists, in which (as Ludwig von Mises said), “Today does not differ from yesterday and tomorrow will not differ from today.” Ecotopia is not quite this bad.

Stabilization is Chaos: “Monetary policy all over the world has followed the advice of the stabilizers. It is high time that their influence, which has already done harm enough, should be overthrown.”
— F.A. Hayek, 1932

Ecotopia is the most plausible utopia I have encountered, because it does not seek the perfection of humans or of nature. “The system provides the stability,” one Ecotopian explains, “but we can be erratic within it. I mean we don’t try to be perfect, we just try to be okay on the average — which means adding a bunch of ups and downs.”  Still, the margin for being “erratic” is fairly small. Weston says of Ecotopia, “Individuals don’t perhaps stand out as sharply as we do.… Nobody is as essential (or as expendable) here as with us.” This could also be Callenbach talking about his novel in relation to other novels.

Interestingly, Weston observes that the idea of the “stable state,” which aims at the reduction of all growth to zero, presents a problem for the art of fiction:

Ecotopian novels … exude a curious feeling of security, almost like 19th-century English novels: a sense, probably derived here from the stable-state notion, that the world is a decent and satisfactory place which will sustain us despite some difficulties.

I don’t know to which novels he is referring specifically, but even the fairly closed society of the English country estate was able to produce such emotionally raw a fiction as Wuthering Heights. Perhaps we are always bound to dream of fictional worlds as an antidote to our own. Perhaps this is why, to a society rent by social, political, and economic disturbances, nothing could be more romantic than an evenly rotating economy.

  1. Interestingly, Quebec seceded from Canada in the early 1980s, and Weston hints that parts of the Soviet Union will soon break away. At the time, the first prediction must have seemed like a much safer bet than the second, though subsequent history proved the opposite to be the case. 

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About the Author

Ray Mangum

Studies literature at the University of Utah, and libertarian theory in his spare time. He tries to combine the two when he can.

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