3 Dec 2008, 5:42pm
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Some concluding thoughts on Ecotopia Revisited

I had the privilege of opening this blog series, and will now offer a few brief thoughts as our research nears its conclusion.  I’d also recommend you view some attached presentations Evan and I made to our Ecotopia Revisited expert committee, including a background on the project and summaries of our surveys and interviews.

First and foremost, a huge thanks to Amber, Evan, and Meagan for their hard work and great ideas all summer and fall: it has been such a pleasure working with each of you, and I’m excited with what we have learned together.  Second, another huge thanks to the communities and individuals throughout Oregon who participated in our interviews: we have come through this experience all the wiser from having spent time with you.  The insights I share below are the result of the collaborative efforts of our research team and the input of our fellow Oregonians.

  • One very provocative result Evan mentioned in his recent blog involved the similar values we found among members of intentional communities vs. other communities in Oregon.  (A pretest of our survey actually revealed broadly similar values among respondents throughout the United States; we hope to look into this further.)  This result is surprising: in terms of values, at least, you can apparently find Ecotopianism throughout a variety of communities in (and outside of) Oregon.  Of course, there is always a degree of self-selection among research participants, but our invitation and interview procedures were designed to include a wide swath of perspectives.  One certain implication: Ecotopianism is alive and well in the early 21st century.  Whether this is a good thing or not, whether Ecotopia is our hope for the future or a hopelessly outdated vestige from our recent past, is open to interpretation, and I plan to write about the implications of this and related findings in future.
  • Another important result Evan mentioned is the connection between spatial scale and our dream and nightmare worlds.  It boils down to this: “think globally, act locally” has increasingly become “think dystopically globally, act utopically locally.” Evan covers this finding well, but again the result bears greater interpretive scrutiny: how empowering is it to focus on action at ever smaller scales?  how efficacious is this mode of action, at local (and especially larger) scales?  In the three-plus decades since publication of Ecotopia, the magnitude of—and arguably our awareness of—global political, ecological, and social crisis has grown.  Has this sent us more and more toward envisioning better worlds at smaller and smaller scales, effectively giving up on global possibilities?  We’ll all need to think, and talk, about this profound connection between scale and utopia/dystopia much further.

There are lots of other surprising results we are gradually uncovering as our analysis proceeds. But Evan’s blog concludes with a framing question I asked toward the outset of our research project, and I’d like to end by repeating the paragraph in which this question was embedded, originally presented in my initial blog:

Most utopian and dystopian discourse points outward to the worlds it describes—in the ecological realm, for instance, the dream of a sustainable society and the nightmare of global warming typically emphasize how to achieve sustainability, how to stop global warming.  Yet the key question we ask in Ecotopia Revisited is: what do our contemporary utopias and dystopias tell us about ourselves?  There can be no lasting resolution of the questions these utopias and dystopias raise unless we attend both to the outer and inner worlds they connect, the worlds we inhabit and the worlds we imagine.  These worlds of object and subject, reality and desire, are ultimately inextricable, yet what this project offers is a corrective to the tendency to only point outward as we consider our ecological dreams and nightmares, ultimately contributing toward the self-understanding late-modern societies require to move forward as they justifiably flee nightmare worlds and pursue more ideal worlds in which to live well.

It is my hope that, in whatever small way, the contribution of Oregon communities via Ecotopia Revisited will indeed help us move toward worlds in which we may all live well.

18 Sep 2008, 5:06pm
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An Overview: Why, What, Who, and When

To understand our motivation for Ecotopia Revisited, consider the omnipresence of utopic and dystopic discourse in late-modern American society, bearing witness to dreams and nightmares extending across multiple scales of time and space. Consider also the entanglement of this discourse in nature and spirituality, evidenced by the starring role played by nature in our ideal and nightmare worlds, and by the clear if complex parallels between utopia and paradise, dystopia and apocalypse.

Most utopian and dystopian discourse points outward to the worlds it describes—in the ecological realm, for instance, the dream of a sustainable society or the nightmare of global warming.  Yet the key question we ask in Ecotopia Revisited is: what do our contemporary utopias and dystopias tell us about ourselves?  There can be no lasting resolution of the questions these utopias and dystopias raise unless we attend both to the outer and inner worlds they connect, the worlds we inhabit and the worlds we imagine.  These worlds of object and subject, reality and desire, are ultimately inextricable, yet what this project offers is a corrective to the tendency to point only outward as we consider our ecological dreams and nightmares.  Perhaps Ecotopia Revisited can ultimately contribute toward the self-understanding we need to move forward as we justifiably flee nightmare worlds and pursue more ideal worlds in which to live well.

As its title implies, Ecotopia Revisited focuses on a particular location: Ecotopia, the fictitious setting of Ernest Callenbach’s mid-1970s novel.  There are good reasons for attending to the U.S. Pacific Northwest: cultural notions of sacred nature flourish in this region known for its unparalleled landscapes and unchurched population.  Given funding and time limitations we will limit our inquiry to the state of Oregon, which has hosted a number of utopian experiments over time.

In order to learn more about the contemporary utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares of Oregonians as representative Ecotopians, we have selected urban, suburban, and rural communities across the state that exemplify different contemporary notions of utopia. These include intentional communities, destination resorts, and communities such as Portland that enjoy something of a utopian reputation.  Though we doubt that all residents of these communities necessarily consider them to be utopian, there is a profound desire by others for utopias of these sorts: witness for example the amount of money people are willing to spend to participate in workshops in intentional communities, or to vacation in tourist resorts.  If anything, utopias and produced and consumed, and we suspect that Oregon intentional communities, destination resorts, and other contemporary utopias offer a good first glimpse into how utopic production and consumption works in modern Ecotopia.

There is another reason for our focus on located communities: the topia of utopia, dystopia, and Ecotopia means place, and residents of these communities dwell in multiple scales of place, from their community to the world.  We are interested in how their dreams and nightmares connect to practice, and at what scales of place: does, for instance, “think globally, act locally” adequately capture the late-modern imagination of the places we inhabit, or are local utopias arguably a retreat from global dystopias?  Late modernity has evidenced contrary place-making tendencies as a result of contradictory forces such as globalization and privatization: what do inhabitants of different communities throughout Oregon think of the worlds they inhabit? At what scales of place do their dreams and nightmares take root?  In short, by examining utopias and dystopias we bridge contemporary spiritualities with their attendant geographies.

We are conducting group interviews in roughly a dozen communities during summer and early fall 2008, supplemented by a background survey of participants and other community members, and followup individual interviews with selected participants.  The interviews are being administered by  my researchers, Evan Berry (postdoctoral fellow at Lewis & Clark) and Meagan Nuss and Amber Shasky (both recent graduates of our Environmental Studies Program), all of whom have made significant contributions to this project from its inception.

Our project also involves an advisory expert committee of scholars, who will meet with us in mid-November at Lewis & Clark to discuss our research results and consider options for joint publication. Expert committee members include:

  • Marion Goldman (Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Oregon)
  • Jim Kopp (Director, Aubrey R. Watzek Library, Lewis & Clark College)
  • Patricia O’Connell Killen (Provost and Professor, Department of Religion, Pacific Lutheran University)
  • Michael  Osborne (Professor, Department of History, UC Santa Barbara)
  • William Robbins (Emeritus Distinguished Professor, Department of History, Oregon State University)
  • Mark Shibley (Associate Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, Southern Oregon University)
  • Daniel Wojcik  (Director, Folklore Program, University of Oregon)

Evan, Meagan, and Amber will share in this blog some firsthand impressions of their research experiences, as well as larger reflections on the implications of our Ecotopia  Revisited project.  I’ll check back in later myself once we start making sense of our research data: I expect some very interesting and provocative results.  Stay tuned.