Ecotopia Summary

Ernest Callenbach


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Ecotopia Summary

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Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach, is a work of political fiction which describes what the author imagines would happen if parts of the American northwest (Northern California, Oregon, and Washington) were to secede from the Union and form a separate nation, called Ecotopia, founded on eco-friendly ideals. The novel takes place in 1999, 20 years following the formation of Ecotopia, and consists of reports and diary entries of an American journalist for the fictional New York Times-Post William Weston, the first American invited to visit and report on Ecotopia. Weston’s visit to Ecotopia is aimed at shining a light on the veil of secrecy that has concealed Ecotopia from the United States since Ecotopia’s split in 1980. The sense of mistrust at the time of Weston’s trip to Ecotopia is so great that many Americans warn Weston to stay home as will be in danger of being eaten by Ecotopians, many of whom practice cannibalism according to popular suspicion.

After spending some time in Ecotopia, Weston determines that many things that Americans feared about Ecotopians, such as that they practice cannibalism, were pure fantasy. Weston also describes some of the more laudable practices of Ecotopia. Some of the distinctive features of Ecotopia reported by Weston include a nationwide embrace of practices that aim to combat pollution and urban and suburban sprawl. Citizens of Ecotopia share a common commitment to buying local produce and other necessities, reducing their energy consumption, and recycling all disposable goods. Personal automobiles of the sort Americans are accustomed to up to today have been given up by citizens of Ecotopia in favor of wider options for public transportation, such as publicly shared bicycles available throughout the streets of Ecotopia.

According to Weston’s reports, Ecotopia also enjoys certain advantages over the United States as a result of making politics a more local affair with a larger percentage of the population participating in the establishment and enforcement of policies that bear on education and the distribution of foods and drugs. Ecotopia also is more advanced than the United States, Weston reports, in terms of how it produces and consumes energy, having devised a way to convert waste products into fertilizer. It has also made more progress in terms of social equality; by the time of Weston’s visit Ecotopia has a female president.

However, not everything Weston finds in Ecotopia would be universally seen as praiseworthy. Ecotopia also exemplifies a number of ideals that would be considered unduly permissive, even by today’s standards, including social acceptance of drug use and polygamous romantic relationships.

The nation of Ecotopia also has its fair share of more controversial practices and arrangements. For example, Ecotopians acknowledge some unsavory aspects of human history – such as racial hostilities and human aggression more generally — as reflecting immutable components of human nature. Concerning racial hostilities, Ecotopians adopt a policy of segregation, with most blacks confined to the less prosperous Soul City, an independent city-state with its own political and legal system separate from the rest of Ecotopia. Such segregation reflects the Ecotopian’s assumption that certain races simply cannot be integrated peacefully. Ecotopian attitudes towards human aggression reflect similar assumptions. For Ecotopians, aggression is a universal human impulses, one which must be discharged through aggressive behavior. Ecotopians discharge these impulses by participating in war games involving citizens’ launching spears at each other.

The book concludes with Weston embracing the culture of Ecotopia, even falling in love with an Ecotopian woman and deciding to stay in Ecotopia permanently.

Ecotopia’s fame as a novel, most critics agree, is not due to its telling a very compelling or exciting story. Critics have observed that Ecotopia contains little in the way of narrative tension or dramatic conflict. Instead, interest in Ecotopia stems largely from the possible social and political arrangements it describes. Reflecting on the possibilities described in Ecotopia, one is soon confronted with a number of questions. Could a society like Ecotopia really exist? For example, could there really be a nation that was founded on principles of environmentalism and social liberalism? Could there be a locally founded agency responsible for setting and enforcing educational policies or policies concerning the distribution and accessibility of food and drugs? Or are such issues too far reaching to be left in the hands of ordinary citizens. Second, could such a society exist within the United States or other currently established government? Or would establishing an arrangement of the sort described in Ecotopia also involve establishing an entirely new nation? Finally, having asked whether and where an arrangement of the sort described in Ecotopia could be possible, we are left with the remaining question of whether such an arrangement would be desirable? In particular, would we really want to live in a society where racial tensions and human aggression have been accepted as ineradicable facts of life that we as a society need to learn to live with? Ecotopia prompts us to reflect on such questions.