19 Sep 2008, 12:47pm

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Halfway Across Ecotopia

In much of the scholarship on spirituality in modern America, the conceptual focus centers on the individual; spirituality is often used synonymously with self-transformation, personal experience, or the rejection of institutional doctrines in favor of individual practices. While these tendencies of contemporary society—the epitomized by a “therapy culture” of self-help books and life coaches—are clearly important to any understanding of modern “spirituality,” there are also more complex dimensions of this phenomenon that permeate contemporary social discourse. What might we add to our understanding of modern life if we were to ask not only how the broad range of beliefs, ideas and practices generally called spirituality make and remake the self, but were to also ask how these beliefs, ideas and practices make and remake communities and the collective life?

In my view, the Ecotopia Revisited research project asks about the meaning and salience of collective visions of the world yet to be. How can and how do people share their fears, hopes and dreams with one another? How does the collectivity of their imagination shape the worlds they make for themselves and for one another?

Over the next several months, my research colleagues and I will continue to develop and refine our thinking on these and other questions in postings on this blog. As of today, we have interviewed members of eight communities across the state of Oregon. With six more interviews scheduled in the coming weeks, my observations here remain conjectural, but a broader picture of what we have heard and seen has begun to come into clearer view. Here are a few of my initial ruminations:

1)     People’s hopes and fears are closely linked. In our interviews, we ask a number of questions about where they think “things are headed” locally, regionally, and globally. In talking about whether the problems that we face today are getting better or worse, many respondents answer “yes” (lightheartedly suggesting that they are getting both better and worse at the same time). More specifically, we have had a number of conversations that describe a vision of the future as getting much, much worse before some kind of radically transformative change foments a real and lasting solution to any number of problems that worry contemporary Oregonians (i.e. climate change, over-population, or suburban sprawl). In the wide-ranging public conversation about what the future will bring, the suggestion that genuine, large-scale collapse may be a necessary precursor to more hopeful visions of the future is a common theme.

2)     The line between personal choice and political engagement is often blurry, but most people are very thoughtful about the differences. How does one change the world? What is the relationship between the myriad of individual choices we make about how to live our lives and the impact those choices have on the world around us? This emphasis on interconnectedness is central concept in ecology, and forms a common thread through many of our interviews. An attention to the life of the individual is not necessarily a repudiation of the common good, and the variety of ways that participants in our study have expressed and explored this connection is rich and provocative.

3)     No one strays too far towards utopian fantasy, nor does anyone collapse under the weight of their anxiety about the future. We have now spoken with many dreamers and heard the anxieties of many people. Many of their hopes and fears are fantastical, but the size of their dreams and the magnitude of their fears has yet to come across as disconnected from a collective commitment to the present. The connotation of utopia as “no place,” and with it the frequent repudiation of political utopianism as delusional seems an unfair criticism of the ideas and dreams that participants in our interviews have shared with us.

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