At the beginning of the month we took our survey offline. We received almost 700 responses, with a preponderance from the Pacific Northwest. The results of this survey, about which we will be posting in the coming weeks, should provide an engaging and provocative look at spirituality, environmentalism, and their interplay here in the Northwest and beyond. We appreciate your interest: keep checking back for our next round of discussion and analysis.
In their inaugural issue of 2009, The Oregonian has published a piece on Ecotopia Revisited! Coupled with the publicity we’ve recieved in the USA Today and our advertisement on Beliefnet.com, this article is really helping us recruit a large number of respondents for our survey. I encourage you to share these links with your friends, family, students, and associates.
Oregonian writer Nancy Haught presents a thoughtful consideration of our research, helping explain its value for understanding contemporary society, especially here in the Pacific Northwest. Check out the article!
Exciting news: Lewis and Clark College’s very own Tom Krattenmaker has an op-ed piece in the USA Today this morning! His thoughtful consideration of the role of apocalypticism in American environmental culture provides some excellent journalistic exposure for the Ecotopia Revisited research project. Coincidentally, there was an article in the New York Times on Sunday about the lasting impact of Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia; quite appropriately, the piece was titled “The Novel that Predicted Portland.”
We’ve taken this as an opportunity to publicize our survey to a wider audience, by taking out an ad on the beliefnet.com website and sending invitations to a variety of national email listservs. We’re hoping to gather a substantial number of responses and we’d love your help in spreading the word.
We’ve set up a page with some information about the project and links to the survey:
You can also go directly to the survey itself:
Ecotopia Revisited is a multi-methodological effort: that is, we want to ask our key questions in a variety of different ways. Now that we’re finished with the data collection, we would like to provide a basic explanation of our methods as well as some initial findings.
Between July and October we passed out questionnaires at the communities we visited, including the annual meeting of the Northwest Intentional Communities Association. One hundred and forty persons completed the survey, providing us with demographic information and information about a variety of issues concerning nature, spirituality, and political and social ideals. Our survey asked about how strongly respondents identified themselves with certain descriptors (e.g. “environmentalist,” “rational,” etc.) and with certain places (e.g. “the United States,” “your watershed,” etc.). The survey was also structured around several scales, which use respondents’ answers to a series of inter-related propositions to measure their feelings about a broader concept; for instance, about the degree to which they share the ecological values espoused in Callenbach’s Ecotopia. We developed six scales—measures of basic concepts or attitudes—for this questionnaire:
- Transcendent Sacredness: Is nature sacred because of a creator God?
- Immanent Sacredness: Is nature sacred in and of itself?
- Ecotopia: Do the key themes of Ecotopia ring true?
- Dystopia: Does the future portend terrible possibilities?
- Seeking: Is one’s spirituality a kind of “quest”?
- Dwelling: Is one’s spirituality rooted in “tradition”?
Over this same period of time we conducted 24 focus group interviews at 14 different communities across the state of Oregon. We used a computer program to “code” the videotaped interviews, tagging the video files with a set of labels in order to create a searchable database that renders visible the commonalities and divergences among our many hours of interview footage. Without belaboring our coding system, we paid close attention to spatial scales (global, regional, and local), valuation (positive and negative), temporal scales (past, present, and future), thematic domain (science, religion, nature, society, politics, economics, etc.), and to common keywords. This allows us to instantly find, for example, all those places in our interviews where discussions of global issues coincided with worries about the problems the future will bring. Using these analytical tools as the basis for our initial interpretations, we can revisit each of the questions with which this research project began.
What are the continuities and departures between Pacific Northwesterners living inside and outside of intentional communities?
- Across the scales used in this study—with one notable exception—there was remarkable similarity between the responses of residents of intentional communities and others. Both groups demonstrated roughly equivalent tendencies towards “ecotopianism,” “dystopianism,” “seeking,” and “dwelling.”
- One statistically significant difference was that residents of intentional communities were somewhat more likely to ascribe to the view that the source of the “sacredness of nature” could be described as “immanent,” rather than “transcendent.”
- Both groups were also equally likely to describe themselves as “environmentalist,” as “rational,” and as “spiritual.”
- There was also a small degree of difference in the willingness of respondents to apply the labels “politically conservative” and “morally conservative” to themselves; these terms resonated somewhat more strongly with those not living in intentional communities.
- Our statistical analysis of the interviews indicates that Oregonians living in intentional communities are more likely to associate discussions of the environment with negative appraisals of the future (“ecopocalypticism”).
At what scales of place do their dreams and nightmares take root?
- One of the most intriguing features of our initial findings regards the different kinds of conversations that our interviews prompted about global, regional, and local issues. In short, there was a strong current of pessimism at the national and global scales and an increasing optimism at the regional and local scales. In other words, the fears and anxieties expressed by contemporary Oregonians are much more strongly focused on national and global issues; and conversely, their hopes and dreams are more attentive to regional and local issues. This speaks directly to the questions of empowerment and disempowerment on which so many of our interviews turned.
- Our pilot survey (the version we used to test out the phrasing of questions) was administered online to respondents all over the United States and even internationally. The results suggest that many of the attitudes and ideas typically cited as characteristic of “Ecotopia” are widely shared across geographic regions, thus questioning whether the Pacific Northwest is culturally, religiously, or environmentally distinctive.
What do our hopes and fears tell us about ourselves?
- This question continues to shape our thinking about Ecotopia Revisited and continues to guide the direction our analysis and follow-up research takes.
- We hope to continue to develop a better understanding of these questions by extending our survey to a national audience. Are the anxieties and fears, hopes and dreams that shaped the our interviews and that prompted the kinds of responses we received to our survey questions shared by Americans living in other parts of the country?
Over the next couple of weeks we will be posting some further analysis of our interviews and surveys. We hope that you will take the time to read through this blog to get a sense of our approach to the questions around which this research project is structured. Please feel free to post comments: we look forward to hearing from you!
Looking back on four months of interesting conversations, beautiful places and diverse communities, we remain curious about the very things that prompted our research in the first place. Although we are starting to see some noteworthy patterns, our project is by no means finalized. In fact, we would like to remain open to the possibility of conducting additional follow-up interviews, akin to those we did after each focus group. Please email me if this is something you would be willing to do.
Only a few days ago, Americans chose to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States, underscoring the degree to which “change,” “hope” and “progress” animate the present national discourse. Media coverage of both the Democratic primaries and the National contest has attributed much of Obama’s success to his ability to articulate a coherent and compelling “vision” for the country. Though the vision presented by his campaign conjoins the desire to end the war in Iraq, rebuild our infrastructures, and renew our credibility abroad, the widely hailed “vision of the future” lauded by pundits and voters alike is more an image than a policy platform. What exactly is coherent about a “vision”? For projects like Ecotopia Revisited, this question can be rephrased theoretically: how might social scientists account for the meaning and role of a national political “vision”? Praise for Obama’s “vision” is nominally directed towards his policy positions, but such praise supposedly (though ambiguously) captures a loftier characteristic of his capacity for leadership, a strategic rather than a tactical dimension of his politics. What is this unarticulated element of modern politics that lies beyond policy?
Allow this researcher a quick thought experiment: suppose that when the word “vision” is applied to the Obama presidency, it carries not a specific content, but rather an openness to possibility itself. Perhaps we can reread the endgame of the electoral season less as the validation of a particular set of policy prescriptions (e.g. as a combination of health care reform, an economic stimulus package, and funding for renewable energy infrastructure) than as a public endorsement for the basic kinds of possibilities that the Obama Administration represents (i.e. radical transformation rather than reformism, the politics of reconciliation rather than old-fashion bipartisanship, etc.). If this is the case, than it seems reasonable to suggest that the emphasis placed on “vision” in this election points to a cultural moment that rests on “hope.” The Obama campaign’s message resonated with Americans, perhaps, because it recognized that many Americans make their decisions (about lifestyle, politics, or friendships) based on faith, a faith not in something specific, but in possibilities, optimism (or pessimism), and potential. Theologically speaking, this difference resembles the difference between “belief” and “faith.” Belief signifies a tenet that religious adherents either affirm or deny, whereas faith signifies a disposition that makes possible belief and disbelief. Such a fanciful line of analysis suggests that on November 4th, Americans took a leap of faith, hoping that the vision described to them over the last year and a half of campaigning promises something authentically different than the status quo.
What does this suggest for Ecotopia Revisited? To begin with, it suggests that we might hear different responses about what the future holds were we to conduct new, post-election interviews. More to the point, however, this rumination of the ambiguity of political “visions of the future” underscores a well-travelled difference between two kinds of utopias: blueprint utopias and process utopias. The former is a type of literary utopia in which the necessary “ingredients” of an ideal society are listed and explained in systematic order, with Thomas More offering the prototypical example. The latter type of literary utopia, the processual, rejects the idea that utopia is an assemblage of certain social, political, or environmental content, but rather advocates an open-ended process that moves towards perfectibility. In sum, the salience of “vision” in the 2008 electoral cycle seems to indicate that the utopian dreams at the core of contemporary American political discourse is more process-oriented that it is blueprint-oriented. Much like the American choice of Obama as a leader who promises to “help move the country in the right direction,” the open possibility of the future guides many of our respondents’ thinking about local, regional, and global issues. When words like “vision” seep into our discourse, we do well to notice the subtle emphasis on form over content, hope over practicality, and possibility over actuality.
We finished conducting interviews for Ecotopia Revisited early in October, which means that we are presently working on analysis and interpretation. We are gathering all the survey data we collected into a single source and listening again to all of our interviews. It is also time to ask around for ideas about how to put everything we’ve heard in context. In order to accomplish this complex task, we are inviting a panel of social scientists to help us better understand the conversations we’ve had with a variety of different Oregonian communities. These scholars—whose expertise ranges from spirituality to history, from folklore to the Pacific Northwest—constitute quite a distinguished group.
Ecotopia Revisited Expert Committee:
- Marion Goldman (Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Oregon) is a scholar of gender and society, with longstanding research interest spirituality and intentional communities in the American West (i.e. Esalen and Rajneeshpuram).
- Jim Kopp (Director, Aubrey R. Watzek Library, Lewis & Clark College) has a forthcoming book, Eden Within Eden, which explores the history of utopian and intentional communities in the state of Oregon.
- Patricia O’Connell Killen (Provost and Professor, Department of Religion, Pacific Lutheran University) teaches American religions and specializes in the Pacific Northwest. She edited Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone, which offers a comprehensive survey of the religious traditions and innovations that define the region’s religious landscape.
- Michael Osborne (Professor, Department of History, UC Santa Barbara) is an environmental historian with an expertise in medical science and colonialism. Professor Osborne heads the steering committee for Ecotopia Revisited.
- William Robbins (Emeritus Distinguished Professor, Department of History, Oregon State University) is a preeminent historian of the Pacific Northwest, and has published extensively on the social and environmental history of the region.
- Mark Shibley (Associate Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, Southern Oregon University) is a social scientific scholar of contemporary spirituality movements in the Pacific Northwest. He teaches courses in both sociology and environmental studies.
- Daniel Wojcik (Director, Folklore Program, University of Oregon) has a research focus that blends folklore, popular spirituality, and apocalypticism in contemporary American culture. His recent publications cover a range of topics from pilgrimage to millenarianism to UFO cults.
As the fundamental question guiding our research efforts, this suggestive question connects utopian and dystopian ideas with the tangible messiness of the actuality of our everyday world. Do our dreams and fears describe an interior landscape, a topography of the contemporary human psyche? Or do such anxieties and anticipations reflect the world around us, mirroring the problems and promises that confront us? The answer, of course, is both. Our utopias and dystopias offer an imaginative response to the complexities of late-modern life and map out possible futures for us to explore. The emphasis placed here on “mapping” should come as no surprise: the hopes and fears that shape these imaginary landscapes are themselves situated within the larger terrain of human environments. It makes good sense to interpret contemporary American expressions of hope and fear as ways of charting possible courses through the joys and difficulties of human existence in a petroleum-fueled era of consumerism and virtuality. This approach, however, easily falls prey to the argument that “the map is not the territory,” in other words, that utopian and dystopian sentiments are a representational reflection of where we stand and not, in fact, the place we actually stand.
Thus, in Ecotopia Revisited, we complement the assertion that our dreams and fears tell us about where we think we are with a firm commitment to the view that hopes and dreams have a profound ability to remake the world in which we live. Just as the actual complexities of contemporary life shape the terrain of our imagination, so too do the landscapes of our imagination shape the world we live in today and its future.
Better understanding the co-creation of our imaginary landscapes—both utopian and dystopian—and the actual landscapes of daily life (physical, social, political, and environmental) is an important element of our research effort. Emphasis on questions of global, regional, and local scales helps us look carefully at the ways modern Americans (a.k.a. Oregonians) survey the terrain around and before them.
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.