A Book Review - Ecotopia
After writing a small thought about civilization down my friend gave me a recommendation to pick up the book Ecotopia. Counter to 1984, this book is supposed to be utopian novel, so I was interested in reading it. Since -topian novels always seem to spark interesting thoughts or ideas, I decided that I'd write this post down as I read it.
After reading around 75 pages or so I could hardly contain myself anymore. The main character of this story, Weston, is an asshole.
Weston is an emotionally crippled American journalist who can't fathom the notion of an independent woman. From reading, my guess's is that Ecotopia and America split from each other around the 70's or 80's. The leaders of the ecotopian party were women, or as Weston refers to them: "Those damned women". He's nationalistic, curious, prideful, and completely inept at relationships.
My first taste of not liking the character was on pg 10:
"And their manners are even more unsettling. On the streeets there are electrical moments when woman stare me directory in the eyes"
Which immediately made me think of Norah Vincent's commentary on eye contact. Where she describes holding the gaze to be a show of dominance and looking away to be submissive. It turned me off from his character that he seemed... offended by the notion that a woman might hold his gaze. His continued commentary on wanting to have sex and being confused by his flirting not working on Ecotopian women was cringe-worthy. Even when he has relations with Marissa, a lumberjack, the polygamous nature of Ecotopian society rends him with jealously and anger since she doesn't belong solely to him. Considering his loose relationship with Francine back in America, it seems hypocritical of him to get so worked up about events such as Marissa's lover in the lumber camp and the warrior after watching the Ritual War Games.
Another stereotype of American's is shown, the lack of ability to stay still, the need to have business, and the way that Weston reacts to silence:
"The drabness of the countryside was increased by its evident isolation. The roads were narrow and winding, with trees dangerously close to the pavement. No traffic at all seemed to be moving on them. There wasn't a billboard in sight, and not a gas station or telephone booth. It would not be reassuring to be caught in such a region after dark."
The Ecotopians he meet often laugh at his detachment to where his food comes from. When he views a hunting party bring back a deer, he is aghast and startled when one of the hunters smeers blood on his cheek and laughs. His repulsion to this, and many other instances of 'getting closer to nature' adequately displays the way that many people treat their packaged food. It reminded me of a show I saw recently, there was someone asking for meat, and when shown a butcher's shop, was completely disturbed that it wasn't the usual supermarket variety that they were accustomed to.
With 19 years between the time of the secession of Ecotopia from America, a lot has changed. Cars are abolished, favoring bicycles and magnetic trains for inter-urban travel. The distributed cities are small tribes of communes working together and living in relative peace. Each citizen doing their part (within a maximum 20 hour enforced work week) to work, which they do in Ecotopian fashion (read leisurely), always. Despite the decentralized nature of the villages, they are all connected via TV stations that display completely transparent government councils which Ecotopians can call into to ask questions about. A utopia indeed, and a notion I imagine would not work with a population over a few tens of thousands.
For different parts of government there are ministries, the first that Weston visits being the Ministry of Food. Which, unlikely as is, ends up with him learning more about waste and sewage than it does actual agriculture. The notions of balance and stable state are introduced at this point into the book. Which are further elaborated on during his talks and his meeting with the lumberjacks in charge of cutting lumber down. Literal tree huggers make up some of these lumberjacks. And Weston scoffs at their 'near spiritual connection' to the trees. All the while begrudingly admitting that the system does in fact seem to be producing results: a healthy and happy topsoil as once of them.
And this is a common theme for Weston's internal monologues. He begins with his hard-headed American forthrightness that the savagery practiced by the Ethiopians is absurd. Then slowly conceeds some points to them when shown the related statistics, which, according to the Ecotopians, take all the societal costs into place, not just ones pertaining to the industry which is being developed in some way.
While not explicitely stated, the concept of for the greater good is heavily felt throughout the speech and thoughts of the Ecotopian citizens. To a near religious degree, each of them contends that de-evolving their society to one closer in line to that of the Native American Indians is the path to sustained life for humanity. Balancing nature and humanity, with humanity as the care takers of the environment, the ultimate goal in order for all to exist within their stable state. And this doctrine is pushed into them from the basemost level. Their education system teachs skills for survival as well as types and differences in flora and fauna, involving hiking trips lasting days with their communities. Constructive criticism enables complaints at restaurants to be met with ridiculously cheerful results. And the people get along so well it reminds me of the 'Bright and Shiny' cult from Bubble Boy. The education system is so well done that Weston states that 6 year olds cite off most of the indigenous plants and their uses with ease. Weston is left looking like the uneducated American that he is when asked what his favorite tree is, and his response is: "Christmas Tree".
In addition to the greater good and the education system, the scientific community is comprised of study groups and "optimistic estimations" to account for the various factors in each product that hits the market. If a product does not meet the expected standards for health and consumption, heavy social stigma towards the product via the Televisions scattered throughout towns makes the raw market forces hammer the producer. Resulting in the discontinuation of the product or delegation to specialty stores if one needs it. In fact, according to the reports given to Weston by the Assistant Minister of Food, the soda producers, not the consumers, are responsible for degradation of health and dental issues that plagued Ecotopian areas before the secession.
This blame placed upon the System, rather than those who consume it, feels prevalent throughout the book. It seems ironic that this is the case considering the preaching of change at the individual and human level to rebalance nature.
This blame also feels transmitted into penalties and anger at America. It isn't until Weston learns about the importing and exporting of goods within Ecotopia that he realizes that America has been cut off. Ecotopia imports from Japan as well as European countries, however they have closed borders and trade with America until Weston is allowed to come over. While reading, I couldn't help but think that the author has a large distate for American society as is and would rather be rid of it. While upholding Ecotopia as a utopia, he simultaneously scorns his imagined pollution torn America as a champion of the overworked and corrupt -- which produces citizens who seem distraught and barbaric to the more natural society of Ecotopia.
Perhaps what is confusing the most to Weston is the dependence on the community that has become the base of all Ecotopian life. While his America consists of the family unit, privacy, and independence from one another, Ecotopia consists of the tribal commune, transparency in all relationships (including sexual), and dependence on each other and transitively, to the system in which they live.
Despite this dependence on the ecosystem and their cult-like zeal at maintaining it, the people of the nation are, apparently, fiercely independent. Able to survive on their own, craft, and create a living for themselves within each niche of their communities. Population control has been solved, with rates declining (to cheers), by the solution of women having absolutely control over their bodies and abortion clinics being prevalent in all urban areas. This .3% decrease in annual population is critiqued by Weston in one chapter. Making note how America's population had increased by 3 million during the same time as Ecotopia's falling 17,000 through the two decades. 1
This absolute control over themselves seems transmitted to the system of government present within Ecotopia. Within the chapter about the war games, Weston discovers that only men participate in the bloody sport. Seen as a way to release their brutal and primal urges. In contrast, women primarily study and are elected into politics, community organizing, and the other areas they, within ecotopia, excel in. Later on, Weston contradicts his established narrative of female moral supremacy when he notes that violent crime is commited primarily by elderly and women within the society, and this is blamed on their lack of participation in the war games. The entire political process, as described by Weston, is based entirely on emotions of those involved. And despite the need to satisfy and accomadate all parties, at each meeting the unwritten agenda is apparently met. His description is so devoid of anything familiar to any governing institution that I've seen and expressed as so accommodating to all voices spoken that it sounds completely fantastical and difficult in practice.
That is not to say that a feminine government system wouldn't work of course!2 However the only explanation offered in why it does is that of the underlying principal to re-establish a balance with nature that underpins all of Ecotopian society, to me it didn't feel likely that so many people could express themselves and all be accomodated, and my feelings were validated by the chapter on race which showed a segregated and race-broken society instead of the multi-cultural honeypot that is America.3 In my opinion, a sad development to an otherwise decent system; and a sad world view from the author that the races cannot live harmoniously. Despite the political meetings being based heavily on emotion, it seems the people's acceptance of what the government decree is based on statistics. As Weston observes, each citizen can cite off statistics at the drop of a hat. They are deeply informed and educated on what the nation's thinktanks produce through research. Truly a utopian thought, as expecting people to look at data themselves and be able to recite it, at an entire population level, is naive. While this is a utopian book, I couldn't help but think of an Orwellian state in which the facts are controlled being little better than this on the surface. However, due to the transparency and openness described, I'd think that this could work in the unique circumstances around the founding of the nation.
The demolition of the state and capitalistic values happened via intense reform throughout various industries. First through applied consumer pressure, and when that failed, through radical economic policies which left many corporations unable to function due to the costs of implementation. This, combined with consolidation of resources by the then still-forming government resulted in anarchic control of factories by their employees, which later then shifted more towards a communist style where partnership, ownership, and employment at a factory all meant the same things. Combined with decentralized apartheid mini-nations. Ecotopia is an almagation of various systems. Only in a novel could all of these different idealogies exist in the state of harmony described.
"Victimless Crime", such as smoking marijuana, drug use, and other similar crimes were decriminalized, while "Gentlemen Crimes" 4 such as collusion, corruption, or things remenescent of American buerocratic corporations are treated more severely. Though within the chapter on race, it is noted that being arrested is more like having an escort, as you still continue to work each day, you're just under house arrest when not at work. The penalty of being ripped from the social collective is seen as harsh enough on the individual to curb the criminal's wrongdoings, and the ability to participate in work thought to allow integration into normal society upon release without issue. 5
In his chapters on education and science, his notice of project based learning, privatized schooling, and the way that research and teacher are divided provides more introspection. His mind comparing the computer driven, highly individualized learning programs of America to the nature and skill oriented education. Perhaps one of the most interesting distinctions here was the concept of Age of Biology versus Age of Physics. Which sums up the educational priorities in a nutshell. Weston's continued softening tone and removal of skepticism shows as he wonders what it'd be like if his children had been brought up Ecotopian.
Unsurprisingly, the shift in tone of Weston's musings are vapidly obvious. Even without his internal monologues noticing these shifts, the very pattern of his words and thoughts change the longer he stays. The most obvious of these is how his treatment of women change as his relationship with Marissa grows, how his mind shifts more onto his feelings and the world around him rather than his work, and lastly, by the way he refers to aspects of Ecotopian society. The first time he watches The War Games he is horrified, trying to understand each team, and noting them as winner and loser, having no allegiance to either. By the end of the book he slips up and says our team when the lumberjacks are off to the games, and falls even harder into it when he participates in the games themselves; ending up with a spear in the side in the process.
During his healing process at the hands of the nurse Linda, his inner musings turn towards his culture and the differences between that and the one he is reporting on. Their effect on him and his treatment of those around him, specifically women, changes drastically thoughout his meager 7 weeks stay in the foreign land. 6 When this time period is mentioned I found myself surprised, since he does a lot of reporting on the subject and travels often to speak with interviewees. Within 7 weeks he makes the haphazard decision to become Marissa's mate, leave his home country, and at the end of the book we're left with one of the more jarring passages as he struggles to accept his desire to abandon America.
After his visit with the Ecotopian President, he realizes that the original goals given to him by the United States are trees with little chance of fruit besides improved diplomatic relations. His purpose lost, he spends days depressed and sulking in his room. Only to be 'captured' by a few Ecotopians who bring him to a lodge where he eventually, and unsurprisingly, declares his love of the country and desire to stay there. His last great American nail, uprooted by the near cultlike kindness and comforts of the people around him.
Upon reflection of parts of the book, I felt like Weston's change in personality fell exclusively in line with one particular trope. You know the one, where the bumbling husband who can't do anything right is chatised by his wife and eventually, only through her coaxing and care, is able to come to the right solution. This is entwined in nearly every interaction with Marissa that Weston has, then once again when he is with Linda, and once again when he is with the President. While he talks to the other men in the groups he frequents, besides the Helicopter war story, nothing comes to mind where he learned and changed part of himself that wasn't done to him by a woman. Even his final decision to leave America, headed by the cunning and politically savvy male president, for Ecotopia's woman led nation comes off as a final kick to his acceptance of the female supremacy. The only reason I feel these thoughts came to me was reflecting on what Norah Vincent wrote in her chapter about the Monks, where she happily describes that reforming men to free themselves of an oppressive patriarchical system is perhaps the final step for feminism. Considering the war games allowance of male brutality, acceptance of sexual polygamous relations with 0 repercussions, and ecotopian men's willingness to cry and discuss their emotions, it seems her dreams of masculine men with an acceptance of more feminized moral values has come true within Ecotopia.
That however, is just a trope, and one which is not inherently bad. Weston describes interactions between the sexes as "equalitarian" (was egalitarian not a word when this book was written?). And while the various offices of government and the other areas may not be (Weston at one point does mention that a few men do hold high positions even in heavily women dominated political parties), the people of Ecotopia themselves seem to be living in an equal and happy regime.
Ecotopia is a small book, and for a novel that size it does a huge 180 on the main characters goals, thought process, and choices by the end. While it's not surprising anyone that he chooses to live there, it still felt like everything in Ecotopia was a product of fantasy and completely devoid of any reality. I suppose that's why it's a Utopian book though. After finishing and reflecting, it became clear the obvious parallels between my own story and this one. There exists two nations, one seen as savages and backwards, the other as technologically advanced and always advancing at any cost. Within the book, the United States is the advancing society, with their dry-drip shirts, advance medicine, computerized learning systems and vast scientific superiority, Ecotopia: the savages. While I did really dislike the main character (and his reformation didn't fair much better personality wise in my opinion) it was still a good book overall, and I'm curious about some of the technology mentioned and how much could be true or is just a pipe dream.
For example, how likely is it that stable state type ecological processes could be achieved? What about reformations of sewage disposal in order to create natural fertilizer? Would the restructuring of power plants and advancements described in energy technology enable wild game and other rejuvenating effects to occur as they did? Would it take longer than the 20 years of secession if it did? Is it possible to create the geo-thermal steam powered generators that were described near the end of the book? The fields of solar panels? Could the destruction of corrupt and destructive corporate bureaucracies through immense restrictions and taxation result in leaps towards more sustainable and greener technology? There are many ideas incorporated into Ecotopias vision, some obviously political, some more technological, how many could we learn from and implement? How many would we want to? Would it take an actual secession to do so? The list of questions in order to achieve a peaceful distributed and community driven society is long, but what is to stop us from trying?
I'm quite curious if any research of this nature has been done? Would complete choice and freedom over abortion result in a decline in teenage and unwanted pregnancy? Back to paragraph
And this is by no means saying that a masculine dominated society is any better. Back to paragraph
Not that multiculturalism isn't without its own issues either Back to paragraph
I cringed at seeing a crime gendered to be honest. Back to paragraph
This is one of the biggest things that reminds me of a cult. Back to paragraph
I found it interesting how he has sex with Linda due to his love for her caring for him during is treatment, and how this reflects a change in his values towards sex, bringing it inline moreso with Ecotopian values. Back to paragraph