Elected candidate Barack Obama’s slogans aim to rally Americans around the idea of hope and change. T-shirts given to those who donate to the Obama campaign read: “One voice can change the world.” His central campaign slogan is: “Change we can believe in” or, just plain “Hope.” After arguably dystopic national and global affairs over the last eight years, and a mess of current economic and ecological issues, hope and change within the presidential election seem to be dreams that we can rely on to cure the dystopias of our nation and world.
In our interviews, when we asked Oregonians if they think regional or global situations will improve or get worse, they frequently answered, “it depends on leadership.” This suggests the ambiguity over who will be the next president of the United States of America; whatever happens in the future will be due, in a large part, to Barack Obama. While Barack Obama or John McCain weren’t mentioned frequently over the course of all our interviews, the role of leadership in the future was mentioned again and again. There are numerous factors that might cause people to factor in leadership as a key determinant of the future: the presidential campaigns were a considerable topic in the media over the last few months; the last eight years have in some peoples’ opinions been less than utopic; Barack Obama’s campaign has been relying on the imagery of hope to conjure up our utopic dreams and convince us change is something worth voting for; and possibly, people feel leadership is simply a powerful component of the direction our world heads. Undoubtedly, more than one of these factors has played a role in the leadership response. But with all the dystopias that Oregonians have mentioned concerning economics, politics, ecological integrity, and culture, it seems likely that they are hinting towards some sort of utopic vision for the future when they mention “leadership.” This especially seems to be the case when one considers that our utopias and dystopias are closely intertwined.
On the 2008 National Election Day, it seems not only that the new President was elected, but potential future scenarios of our nation and the world have been somewhat mapped out simply because new United States leadership has been chosen. With newly elected President Barack Obama, it may seem as if the dystopias that seemed so prevalent over the past eight years could finally be addressed. Likewise, it seems our utopias may be achieved on some level. Not only in the interviews, but in other contexts as well, have we heard 2008 referred to as a pivotal year. Since there is so much hope Oregonians have in addition to having nightmare scenarios, it seems that they relied on Barack Obama’s campaign for a sort of North Star in dystopic times. I imagine this is because Obama’s campaign put so much emphasis on hope and change. The utterance, “depending on leadership,” shows how much people think the future is contingent on imagining and working towards the concept of utopia, and how that vision of utopia plays a important role in politics.
Just as there are frequent discussions about population and one’s spiritual connections to the natural environment, the idea of conceptualizing reality – utopian and dystopian – comes up a lot during our interviews. One of the primary questions behind our research is “what do our dreams and fears tell us about ourselves?” Our utopian and dystopian dreams seem to map the reality we create for ourselves.
Our cognitive responses to dystopian thoughts – depression, anxiety, and rejection of dystopian dreams – seem to dictate our interpretation of the global situation. Some interviewees discuss their dislike of any messages with negative undertones because they believe negativity will inhibit solutions and engagement. Similarly, some believe if they worry too much, they will become incapacitated and unable to create positive change. When someone voices a certain dystopian nightmare, there is a type of coping mechanism or rejection of that negative reality generated by the human psyche. When one has previously considered a reality dominated by dystopian scenarios, they reject the term “worry” and reject negative undertones.
Are utopian dreams sometimes generated from a place where one is entirely preoccupied with worrying? Or do our dystopian dreams generate cognitive dissonance? In other words, are people looking for other things to justify their own lives in order to refute the ideas generating their nightmares? It is evident by this example that our dreams do paint our realities and that utopian and dystopian dreams are tightly interwoven. But why are some hesitant to accept negativity and worry where they once held dystopian thoughts?
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.
Part of our analysis for Ecotopia Revisited is to compare communities that some might consider a utopia on a rural-urban axis. We have visited intentional communities, tourist destinations, and communities that are sometimes described as utopian, in eastern, central, western, and coastal Oregon. Throughout these interviews, I have been reflecting on how Oregonians’ ideas are similar across these places. Although the following suggestions are still preliminary, I believe it is important to note the similarities of rural and urban Oregon.
There seem to be stereotypes of both eastern, more rural Oregon, and the western, more urban region of the state. The typical stereotype of western Oregon is that residents are more politically liberal, distant from open wilderness, and that the dense population in Portland, Salem, and Eugene has a strong sway in the statewide politics. Stereotypes about eastern Oregon usually are that it is politically conservative. For example, an article in the New York Times reads: “Oregon is well known for the sharp divide between its more liberal and populated west and its rural east.” However, our evaluation of Oregonians’ opinions regarding the global, regional, and local situations hint that western and eastern Oregon are more similar ideologically than some might believe.
Like there are similar threads of discussion between intentional and non-intentional communities, rural and urban Oregonians appear to discuss similar themes. In both places, residents touch on nature, spirituality, and community in similar ways. Oregonians discuss nature in a few different contexts – nature as regenerative for people who appreciate it, as aesthetically something to appreciate, and as something that needs to be preserved for it’s inherent qualities. Participants in our interviews touch on ecological sustainability when they discuss the future of the world, region, and local area. People in rural and urban areas also touch on spirituality by discussing their connectedness to religion, nature, community, and people. Finally, residents of both areas emphasize the importance of community and reliance on others.
While this commentary is still anecdotal, the parallel conversations had by rural and urban Oregonians don’t simply ascribe to the “liberal and populated west” and “rural east” label. These conversations, much of which relate to political topics, show that ideologically urban and rural Oregon are, perhaps, not so different.
Population is one of the most common themes we hear in the interviews. It readily comes up when we start to talk about dystopia, but it never seems very far from people’s minds throughout the whole discussion. People are deeply concerned about the balance of population and resources. At the global level, overpopulation as one of the strongest forces causing much of the world’s worst problems is considered a plain fact. At the regional and local level, dramatic rise in population is a looming threat to the perceived relative utopias people enjoy here. The fear is that this current utopia will fail when more people come to enjoy it too (whether because they are forced from their own homes, or because they are drawn voluntarily to the Pacific Northwest and particular localities within it). Overpopulation is certainly a factor that can put a tremendous amount of pressure and strain on a system that was working well with its given resources, and if it happens too quickly, its affects can be devastating. I’m interested, however, in the underlying assumption tied up in the idea of there being a tipping point where more people equals a downward spiral into dystopia – or at least enough disruption that an ideal community loses the things which made it ideal. For example, one man described Seattle as his utopia for twenty years; another ten years later everyone else moved there, and he had to get out. The city had turned into a dystopia for him – too much noise, traffic, pollution, and so on.
It’s one thing to say one might just prefer a smaller town to a city. But what is it about utopias needing to be well-kept secrets from the rest of the world? Are successful utopias always undiscovered, where perhaps there can be some people, but not many? As Jim Kopp writes about in Eden Within Eden (forthcoming), when early pioneers came west and found places that invoked names like Paradise, Eden, Enterprise, and Eureka, they were looking upon vast tracts of beautiful land untouched (as far as they knew) by humans. I wonder if those pioneers imagined development like industry, agriculture, and large communities of people when they looked upon the new land, or whether instead they believed the “untainted” nature of the place to be essential to their notion of utopia. Did they expect it to remain as ideal as they found it, when more people came out to join them? Or does this go back to classical ideas of Eden as involving pristine nature and the absence of man? In the case of the latter, you can see the stubbornness of a “me only” attitude – only me, and a few others, can live here and occupy utopia. If you come, it will be ruined, and we’ll all have to move on to the next place. Utopia can only stay in balance with so many people, and, well, we were here first.
Since I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for the past 22 years of my life, I have always had a strong connection with the regional landscape and people. The house that I grew up in faced the Olympic Mountains to the west, and Pope and Talbot-owned, second growth forest to the east. In this small Puget Sound community, there are beaches within a ten minute walk in any direction. Although I could not identify it as such when I was a child, the surrounding environment invoked what some might call a spiritual connection to the mountains, peninsula, and trees that cannot be described with words. So when Jim Proctor, my former professor, made a call for research assistants for the Ecotopia Revisited project, I immediately jumped on the idea of researching contemporary discourse involving nature and spirituality, and visions of utopia and dystopia, in the Pacific Northwest.
My personal experience in the Pacific Northwest, as well as my experience living in Portland, Oregon and attending Lewis & Clark College for four years, has left me with the impression that the region and its people are unique in some way, specifically relating to the residents’ ecological, future-oriented, and global-scale convictions. There is also the sense that Pacific Northwest residents perceive themselves as distinct from the rest of the United States, and that they recognize themselves as a more environmentally and politically aware, more spiritual group. So it has been a fascinating, great learning experience to talk with Oregonians about these convictions over the past few months.
While we have barely begun the bulk of our data analysis work, there are common threads of discourse that seem to connect communities across Oregon. In both intentional and non-intentional communities, ideas about what makes an ideal community or community relationships, about the community’s connection to the natural world and surrounding landscape, and about fears regarding the global situation seem to be hot topics of discussion. While our interview questions probe for ideas relating to global environmental and social conditions (we show two popular movie trailers to prompt discussion), the same topics are touched on throughout the state. Global warming, non-linearity of future conditions (things getting worse before they get better), spiritual connections to the natural world, distrust of current political situations, and community values that involve sharing and stewardship are discussed in the bulk of our interviews. Thus it seems that in Oregon, this type of conversation is a buzzing one.
For now, David Suzuki’s quote seems to sum up a lot of the discussions we have heard this summer: “We are the air, the water, the soil, the sun. What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves, because we are a part of the web of life.” Many of the participants in our interviews have found personal resonance with this quote. It seems this quote resonates because it links the natural environment back to human nature, because it touches on a more spiritual note, and because it exemplifies something that is the bare essence of life. While we haven’t yet performed all the quantitative or qualitative analysis necessary to complete this project, it seems that there are strong, common threads that weave together public discussion and convictions in the state of Oregon.
Our ventures into the utopian and dystopian landscapes of Oregon have been both academically and personally stimulating, not to mention challenging on a number of fronts. It is not surprising to for me to be reminded through these interviews just how much our dreams feed into our nightmares, and vice versa; it is equally no surprise, then, to be met with the difficulty of untangling the two, and to try to piece together a story of just how they play into each other. We have visited self-proclaimed intentional communities, cohousing communities, neighborhoods, and rural towns thus far. Each has created its own collective identity, some apparently more tightly knit than others. What is most interesting to me is how the individuals within these identities have found themselves there, and whether that has anything to do with a need to respond to some perception of the larger world. Jim mentioned the saying “think globally, act locally,” and as Jim suggested I’m not so sure that’s the most accurate way of capturing the kind of movement towards focused attention on the small and local. Maybe now “think globally” really means think of all the awful scenarios playing out on the world stage right now, and “act locally” really means finding one’s personal utopia where one is. It doesn’t sounds like such a bad idea.
Living in Portland, I’m privy to a lot of local activities that in some ways seek to be models for other cities and organizations to learn from. From progressive political leadership to a vibrant bicycling community, Portland is a great example of a unique and particular kind of city that draws people of a similar bent. In the same fashion, many of these communities we’ve been visiting have their own niche, their own specialties and culture, that tend to attract more people than other destinations might. You can go to these places and boast of them as excellent models, but another aspect of all that is that you don’t necessarily want to leave them. You have succeeded in blocking out, to some degree, the chaos of the outside world, by finding this little paradise of your own.In some ways that doesn’t sound like such an outlandish idea. And yet there’s something about admitting it that stirs a sense of guilt. I wonder about that guilt, because I’ve certainly felt it too. In the search for our own utopias, can we ever be truly happy when we find them? Is the guilt of our happiness relative to the rest of the world one of the forces that causes us to pick up and keep searching? The stories of the people we are speaking to continue to add new angles to these and other questions, and I’m excited to continue the journey of piecing them together.
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.
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.