Ecotopia Emerging. By Ernest Callenbach. Bantam, $3.50
September 8, 1981        

Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975) was perhaps the finest utopian novel since News from Nowhere. Its sequel is not quite up to the same mark. Ecotopia Emerging is merely excellent and invaluable.

Ecotopia introduced a new country, the American Northwest (Washington, Oregon, northern California) in 1999, nearly two decades after its secession from the U.S. A series of dispatches by the first American journalist allowed into Ecotopia since secession portrayed a society that had realized classical libertarian ideals as well as the most advanced, ecologically responsible technology, and had attained a biologically and socially "stable state" while the rest of the mainland slid into economic chaos, political repression and environmental disaster.

Ecotopia Emerging tells how we might get there from here. It constructs a scenario in which many of the promising ideas of the last few decades--ideas about participatory democracy, direct action, decentralization, sexual equality, ecology and alternative energy sources--enter current history and inspire social movements. Alternating short narrative segments with historical meditations, news reports, intelligence memos and political speeches, the novel achieves an almost cinematic effect.

The main strands of the story are: the development of a simple and efficient photovoltaic cell by a California high-school student, under the shadow of desperate oil and power companies and harassing FBI agents; the spread in the Northwest of a mass, grassroots, decentralized party, the Survivalist Party, at first advocating mainly ecological sanity and energy self-sufficiency, but soon espousing economic decentralization, workers' control, local autonomy and the end of weapons production; and a sharpening conflict through the early '80s between the Survivalist Northwest and an increasingly bankrupt, militarized and repressive U.S., climaxing in secession at a moment when American troops are tied down by insurgencies in Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

Along the way a nuclear meltdown in Washington results in the recall of that state's pro-nuclear governor. The Oregon legislature imposes a heavy tax or car ownership, overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The town of Bolinas, Calif., where the new do-it-yourself photovoltaic cell is invented, tries to unhook from utility power lines and eventually faces an invasion by the Nation Guard. A group of terminally persons bomb chemical and pesticide plants, damaging only property and coming forward immediately afterward for trial, in order to call attention to the environmental roots of the cancer epidemic.

The book's political center of gravity is the progress of the Survivalist Party. A bunch of friends--mostly Bay Area professional--are galvanized by the continuing corporate and governmental assault on common sense, public safety and the environment. From a loosely-knit study group, they become an action group, cooperating with local struggles, forming a network of community, labor, religious and academic people, issuing reports and back round papers, speaking in neighborhoods and over cable TV.

Some of their organizing tactics reflect lessons learned from the experience of the New Left. Public meetings are kept small, conducted in a circle, facilitated but not dominated by the chair and open to the expression of feeling. There are also startling innovations. For example, a Survivalist engineer designs a two-way cable TV channel, so that immediately after a Survivalist speech or statement is broadcast, a "town meeting" can take place. As popular participation grows and the Northwest is menaced by a national government in thrall to the energy, auto and defense industries, the party be comes a mass movement.

The novel's two main characters--the teenage inventor of the new photovoltaic cell and the leader of the Survivalist Party-- are women, and most of the important and interesting actions in the book are initiated or led by women. Better still, there's no fuss made over this.

Most utopian fictions are comfortably vague about the details of transition from present misery to future bliss. Ecotopia Emerging risks specificity, and largely succeeds. But not entirely. There are a couple of distracting improbabilities. Nothing is said about the financial basis of the Survivalist Party. A decent respect for the sensibilities of all those of us who have watched political projects languish and finally expire for lack of money should have prompted Callenbach to tie up this thread. Second is a plot thread involving black mail. A few enterprising Ecotopians build small nuclear explosives and plant them in New York and Washington, D.C., to forestall a possible American invasion. Or at least they manage to convince the FBI that they've done this. (The paranoid Bureau may not be hard to bluff.) I find it difficult to believe that any American president would hesitate to sacrifice New York and Washington, D.C., in order to crush a fractious independent region.

Callenbach's literary gifts are uneven. Characterization is sometimes flat, dialogue occasionally trite. The novel tells a number of love stories, some romantic, some filial, and there are awkward moments. Yet such is the sweetness and generosity of Callenbach's egalitarian, feminist sensibility that the affections in the novel finally seem extraordinarily moving.

Many people have praised Rudolf Bahro's achievement in (to use Raymond Williams' words) "thinking through, in unusually sustained detail, the process of transformation of conditions and needs." This is precisely what Callenbach has done, in even more vivid and sustained detail. A few outstanding syntheses have appeared in America in recent years: Michael Walzer's Radical Principles, Paul Mattick's Marx and Keynes, and Noam Chomsky's Towards a New Cold War. In imaginative resource and liberatory potential, the Ecotopia books rank among them.