A/N: You will need to have read Ecotopia for this essay to make much sense.
An Unexpected Prophecy
Ecotopia: the Ecological Community Of Tomorrow Offering People Inescapable Adventure. Come and visit the country of your dreams. You'll never want to leave again. In Ernest Callenbach's novel Ecotopia, the country of the same name is portrayed as a perfect country where everyone is happy and social issues are nonexistent. Most readers, however, doubt this. When they examine the fictional country, they see a preposterous ideal with problems abound. In this seemingly peaceful society, a whole lot of crazy is going on; everything contradicts itself. Not only does the government say they have nuclear weapons ready to be deployed at any point under the major cities in the United States (48), but they also have a fully trained citizen army. This training appears to start in schools where children are running about with weapons, learning how to properly shoot animals for food. When they graduate, they probably receive a diploma along with a full set of hunting knives, a handmade hickory longbow with a draw weight of 250lbs, and an official license to kill. It is not a huge leap to transfer this knowledge of hunting over to using the same weapons to harm your fellow human when arguments ensue over petty issues (23), such as who gets the last piece of pie. But more than crazy, Ecotopia could easily have an evil agenda hiding behind this front of peace. When Weston was planning on leaving the country, they changed his mind with a soothing, albeit forceful, steam bath retreat (179). For something as simple as wanting out of the country, it is not a huge leap to imagine how the government is controlling the thoughts of the general citizenry. The people seem to be perfectly content in their country despite all its oddities. While the smog over the country due to the previous pollution has now disappeared, a more sinister gas now lingers to keep the people placid. With such effective mind controlling powers, it is no wonder that everyone is content to walk about in rags (10) and live in plastic homes squirted out into a mold (133). The citizens probably all share the same taste in hippie music, flavor of homemade ice cream, and government-mandated sex position.
But is this really that crazy when you compare it to contemporary America? Our congress, made mainly of old white men, is trying to make laws about rape and abortion when they are on the wrong side of the argument. In our country, it is considered a basic right to own a gun. Everyone has a right to be able to take a life. But saving a life, being able to live; that is a privilege. Healthcare costs have run so high that the people who need the care the most are condemned to wait in hellishly long lines for unpersonal care that only temporarily patches the hurt and does nothing to fix the source of the problem itself. Despite the obvious need for it, minimum wage is too low to fulfil its purpose and allow someone to support a family. But companies are fighting any change because then their profits will drop and the top 1% will have a little less money to spend on their day trip to low earth orbit. When we consider all of this, Ecotopia suddenly does not seem as ridiculous and paradoxical.
What our class failed to grasp is the truly prophetic nature of the novel. Too much time is spent focusing on the conspiracy theories of the proposed country set forth in the book, and not enough time looking at the solutions Callenbach has proposed to his contemporary and our current problems. Callenbach has correctly predicted environmental and societal issues that have occurred since the publication of this book such as the fear of global warming and nuclear disasters. He used the country of Ecotopia to present future Americans with ways to avoid these problems, or solutions like creative engineering if we failed to notice his warnings. Readers of Ecotopia need to look beyond the shallow interpretation of the novel and look instead at the world-changing implications Callenbach set forth.
One of the key values of Ecotopia is that of decentralization. Weston notices many instances of decentralization, but the most obvious is the dispersal of city populations. Mini cities have been built up around the central city and all of the cities are connected by train lines. Because of the fast and reliable trains, people are also moving back out to the farms and choosing the country life over the bustle of the city. This plan is an elegant proposed solution to our problem of overcrowding. We inhabit a huge country and a large percentage is the wide open country. If people spread out into the surrounding areas and were connected by rail to the city, we wouldn't have such an issue. Home life could feel more relaxed. Outside of the city there would be less pollution due to factories and other sources of emission so the air would be cleaner and people would be healthier. Not only did Callenbach foresee this rising complication in society, he also predicted the future of public transportation. Through Weston, he tells us that these trains fly across the countryside at 225 miles per hour (11) and while this sounds incredible and fantastic, our technology has reached the point where this is possible. The Shanghai Maglev Train regularly reaches 268 miles per hour during its route on a mag lev rail similar to the one Callenbach describes. While it is expensive to implement, it has been proven to be feasible. With a system of such trains in the US, it would be the most efficient form of transportation. Cars would naturally become less used, which would cut down on pollution and would open the job market to people who live farther away from their work.
Pollution is another thing Callenbach had great foresight on. In the 1970s when he was writing this book, pollution was not as evident as it has become and global warming wasn't even a crazy theory yet. In fact, the general population was concerned about global cooling based on the recent trends. Yet in Ecotopia, they have tackled this problem. Cars are used sparingly, waste is responsibly taken care of, and nuclear power plants are only temporary (112). Forced to live with it temporarily, the government was wary of the danger and kept the remaining plants far away from civilization and expanded the existing precautions to extend the hot water discharge pipes into the sea. Because of this, Ecotopia would never have the problem Japan encountered when their cooling cores melted and made the area unsafe. This is impressive precautions for a country living in a world where nuclear disasters weren't well known. Up to the point of writing this book, the biggest nuclear disaster rates only as a 5 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, a scale that wasn't created until 1990. Fukushima and Chernobyl, level 7, could not have been imagined at the point but Callenbach was already putting forth solutions. On top of that, the city lights all turn off at a prescribed time to eliminate light pollution. The great starry sky is visible once more and people can be humbled by the sight of the Milky Way Galaxy slowly moving over their heads. Animals, humans included, can return to more natural sleep patterns. Furthermore, companies in Ecotopia hold no say over the amount of harmful pollution they are allowed to spew out over the city.
In fact, companies in Ecotopia are completely separate from the government. The government is in charge of them, not the other way around. This is a big warning the American people should have observed. Currently, when it comes to electing a president or another government official, what their stand on different policies is not as important as what companies support the politician . Through PACs (Political Action Committees) and SuperPACs, companies are being treated like incredibly rich people. They are the unwanted nobles in our democracy. With their enormous amount of money, politicians are scrambling to please the corporate giants in congress and are avoiding the passing of important laws that could hurt the profits of those same businesses. After all, it was the support of the big companies that provided them money for political campaigns, promoted them to their employees, and ultimately got them elected. This wouldn't stand in Ecotopia. The journalists would fight back through extensive muckraking, the people would shun the companies after reading the articles, and the company would fail. The people simply wouldn't put up with a company having that much power. In the United States, the current fear is that individual people will no longer have enough power in government. Our democracy was designed to be a government of the people for the people, but if we do not take heed and follow the idea put forth in Ecotopia, we may become a government by the human puppets for the companies.
Ecotopia is much more than a lackadaisical country where everyone is high and nothing gets done. It is a forward looking country that foresaw and avoided many of our current problems in America. Not only do they not have to deal with infuriating automated voice recordings, they also have cut down significantly on pollution, have solved the looming problem of overpopulation, and do not have to worry about a repeat of the nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. The clear cause of this avoidance is that Ernest Callenbach is a humble prophet. Coming in all different forms, prophets are often ignored and thought of as crazy for their visions of the future. They try to warn people and prevent the terrible things that could happen, but they are usually dismissed as lunatics. Sometimes for good reason. Callenbach is a clear example of this. Ecotopia, although very crazy country and backwards in some things, is his vision for what America will become in the future, extrapolated from his present and fueled by his prophetic mind. If he wrote Ecotopia while bound by the views of yesterday, the book would be outdated by now. Yet, he expanded his vision and saw into the future, even the future as far ahead as 2013. People can usually be excused for not understanding prophecies. Typically portents are delivered in riddles, poems, or the worst: cryptic poems scratched into a stone wall in a dead language. But Callenbach is different. He delivered his warning of the future in a simple book, in English. A book that correctly predicted bullet trains running at speeds over 225 miles per hour, camera phones, and interactive programs, the likes of which can be found on our modern computers. No fancy riddles or confusing poetry, just plain and straightforward language.
And it is in this uncomplicated manner that we read about our future. Unless we take heed of the dangers Callenbach warns us about, this dystopian country will become our future. Life in the countryside sounds wonderful until you remember that Ecotopians have to hunt for their own food and don't have TV dinners to microwave when they are lazy or unsuccessful. Education is rarely for the purpose of attending a graduate school and attaining the dream job you always wanted. You are more likely to be filed into the system and put into a job that best serves the nation. And if not that, your education has been preparing you to participate in the ritual war games. More violent then football and crazier than bull fighting, this is what America will look like in the future if we don't pay attention to the warnings in Ecotopia. An inescapable adventure indeed.
Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. Berkeley, CA: Banyan Tree : Distributed by Bookpeople, 1975. Print.
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