"Ecotopia" Trashes 40-Hour Workweek
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Northern California, Oregon and Washington, secede from the U.S. as Ecotopia.
Ernest Callenbach takes a different tack and offers hope in the sail ahead. Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston presents a blueprint, not of a utopia, the Berkeley writer stressed, but of a humanistic society striving for balance as a part of the natural world. Some of his ideas, such as recycling and picturephones, seeped into the consciousness of Americans and, eventually, became normal everyday experiences in the Americas and elsewhere. He called his novel “politics fiction” as opposed to science fiction.
“It is so hard to imagine anything fundamentally different from what we have now. But without these alternate visions, we get stuck on dead center. And we’d better get ready. We need to know where we’d like to go,” said Callenbach, as his 1975 underground classic “with a blurb from (environmentalist) Ralph Nader” was being reissued 33 years after its first publication, reported The New York Times (December 12, 2008).
Ecotopia, a nation comprising Northern California, Oregon and Washington, seceded from the United States in 1980. Nineteen years later, the government allows the first American entry. William Weston gets a six-week assignment from the New York Times-Post to cover the country. He writes about it in columns for his newspaper and about his personal life in his diary for himself.
“Ecotopia still poses a nagging challenge to the underlying national philosophy of America: ever-continuing progress, the fruits of industrialization for all, a rising Gross National Product.”
William Weston travels by jet to Reno, Nevada. Because the government prohibits international flights from crossing its territory due to air and noise pollution, the journalist then takes an “expensive train ride to the train station at the north end of Lake Tahoe”.
Weston’s train ride is his introduction to a way of life unimaginable to him:
“You feel virtually no movement at all. Since it operates by magnetic suspension and propulsion, there is no rumble of wheels or whine or vibration. . . . The train seems literally to be flying along the ground, though it is actually a few inches above a trough-shaped guideway. . . . While the Germans and Japanese had pioneered in magnetic-suspension systems with linear motors, Boeing, (the aerospace company), began production on the system only a year after Independence. . . . Trains normally travel about 360 kilometers per hour on the level. Use of the metric system is universal in Ecotopia (225 miles per hour). ”
“Market Street, once a mighty boulevard striking through the city to the waterfront, has become a mall planted with thousands of trees. "
When he arrives in San Francisco, he finds a quiet city, yet full of people:
“Market Street, once a mighty boulevard striking through the city to the waterfront, has become a mall planted with thousands of trees. The ‘street’ itself, on which electric taxis, (free battery-driven) minibuses, and delivery carts purr along, has shrunk to a two-lane affair. The remaining space, which is huge, is occupied by bicycle lanes, fountains, sculptures, kiosks, and absurd little gardens surrounded by benches. . . .
“The bucolic atmosphere of the new San Francisco can perhaps best be seen in the fact that, down Market Street and some other streets, creeks now run. These had earlier, at great expense, been put into huge culverts underground, as is usual in cities. The Ecotopians spent even more to bring them up to ground level again. So now on this major boulevard you may see a charming series of little falls, with water gurgling and splashing, and channels lined with rocks, trees, bamboos, ferns. There even seem to be minnows in the water – though how they are kept safe from marauding children and cats, I cannot guess. . . .
“Ecotopians setting out to go more than a block or two usually pick up one of the white-painted Provo bicycles that lie about the streets by the hundreds and are available free to all. Dispersed by the movements of citizens during the day and evening, they are returned by night crews. . . . When I remarked to a friendly pedestrian that this system must be a joy to thieves and vandals, he denied it heatedly. He then put a case, which may not be totally far-fetched, that it is cheaper to lose a few bicycles than to provide more taxis or minibuses.”
So, Weston, a cynical newsman, also brings with him his cultural assumptions, “marauding children”, free bicycles “a joy to thieves and vandal”. As his journey continues, he flip-flops from suspicion to excitement to anger and, lastly, settles into physical illness as he reckons with the sense of this new nation.
There are no cars, no streetlights and no synthetics (“Too much electric power and water are acquired in the production of synthetics – and also they can’t be recycled”.).
Hunters unloaded a deer from a minibus and suspended their kill on a long stick hoisted on their shoulders. “A large hunting dog padded along with them—first pet I’ve seen in Ecotopia, where animals are evidently left as wild as possible, and people seem to feel no need of them as company.”
Accounting for Social Costs
Before the reporter leaves the city, he meets with the Assistant Minister of Food, who educates him about sewage, recycling and social costs: “All food wastes, sewage and garbage were to be turned into organic fertilizer and applied to the land, where it would again enter into the food production cycle. . . .”
“Naturally, this smug account roused all my skepticism, and I questioned him about the economic drawbacks of such a system. My questions, however, met a flat denial.”
“On the contrary,” he replied, “our system is considerably cheaper than yours, if we add in all the costs. Many of your costs are ignored, or passed on through subterfuge to posterity or the general public. We on the other hand must acknowledge all costs. Otherwise we could not hope to achieve the stable-state life systems which are our fundamental ecological and political goal. If, for instance, we had continued your practice of “free” disposal of wastes in watercourses, sooner or later somebody else would have had to calculate (and bear) the costs of the resulting dead rivers and lakes. We prefer to do it ourselves. It is obviously not easy to quantify certain of these costs. But we have been able to approximate them in workable political terms – especially since our country is relatively sensible in scale.
“. . . Probably our greatest economies were obtained simply by stopping production of many processed and packaged foods. These had either been outlawed on health grounds or put on Bad Practice Lists.”
“This sounded like a loophole that might house a large and rather totalitarian rat. “What are these lists and how are they enforced,” I asked.
“Actually, they’re not enforced at all. They’re a mechanism of moral persuasion, you might say. They’re issued by study groups from consumer co-ops. Usually, when a product goes onto such a list, demand for it drops sharply. The company making it then ordinarily has to stop production, or finds it possible to sell only in specialized stores. . .
“In Ecotopia, you will find many many things happening without government authorization. But the study committees do operate with scientific advice, of the most sophisticated and independent type imaginable. Scientists in Ecotopia are forbidden to accept payments or favors from either state or private enterprises for any consultation or advice they offer. They speak, therefore, on the same uncorrupted footing of any citizen. Thus we avoid the unfortunate situation where all your oil experts are in the pay of the oil companies, all the agricultural experts in the pay of agribusiness, and so on.”
“The Ecotopians inherited a system of oil- and gas-fired power plants (which they closed within a few years) and a number of atomic-fission plants. They believe that ultimately fission cannot be tolerated because of radioactive byproducts and heat pollution, but they have been willing to live temporarily with the fission plants located in remote and little-inhabited areas – though they have redoubled engineering precautions against nuclear explosions and extended hot water discharge pipes more than a mile to sea. (With what I am beginning to realize is typical Ecotopia ingenuity, the seacoast plant discharges are carried in huge pipes made of rigid (biodegradable) plastic which is extruded with air bubbles in it so that it is slightly buoyant. Thus it tends to float, and is anchored in place just below keel depth by cables to the ocean floor.)
“Ecotopian thinking has moved uniformly toward power sources which, like solar energy, earth heat, tides, and wind, can be tapped indefinitely without affecting even the local biosphere.”
Lack of Class Differentiation
Not only is the new nation smaller, it is also subdivided into tinier entities for living and for governance. So, Weston does not encounter any cultlike figures, who lead for the sake of self-aggrandizement. Ecotopia also lacks classes and the means for creating and differentiating class. College degrees are an example.
In keeping with Ecotopia’s notions of decentralization, universities, where “student unrest seems to be even more chronic . . . than in ours”, were broken up into separate colleges. And the student body, at most, has shrunk considerably.
“People seem to attend university because they like the intellectual life there, not for practical or ulterior motives. Ecotopian society is oriented toward experience and activity rather than credentials, licenses, and requirements. The mere possession of a degree confers little status, and Ecotopia has none of our scrambling for Ph.Ds. (There are, as far as I can tell, no jobs in Ecotopia for which a degree is an absolute prerequisite.)”
Socially, Ecotopians are living at a slower speed than their neighbors.
“It’s as if they have lost the sense of anonymity which enables us to live together in large numbers. You can’t, therefore, approach an Ecotopian functionary as we do. The Ecotopian at the train ticket window simply wouldn’t tolerate being spoken to in my usual way – he asked me what I thought he was, a ticket-dispensing machine? In fact, he won’t give you the ticket unless you deal with him as a real person, and he insists on dealing with you – asking questions, making remarks to which he expects a sincere reaction, and shouting if he doesn’t get it.”
Ecotopians discarded the 40-hour workweek. However, Weston observes that it is difficult to distinguish between work and play among Ecotopians.
“It is widely believed among Americans that the Ecotopians have become shiftless and lazy people. This was the natural conclusion drawn after Independence when the Ecotopians adopted a 20-hour workweek. Yet even so, no one in America, I think, has yet grasped the immense break this represented with our way of life. . . .
“What was at stake . . . was nothing less than the revision of the Protestant work ethic upon which America has been built. The consequences were plainly severe. In economic terms, Ecotopia was forced to isolate its economy from the competition of hard-working people. Serious dislocation plagued their industries for years. There was a drop in Gross National Product by more than one-third. But the profoundest implications of the decreased workweek were philosophical and ecological: mankind, the Ecotopians assumed, was not meant for production, as the 19th and 20th centuries had believed. Instead, humans were meant to take their modest place in a seamless, stable-state web of living organisms, disturbing that web as little as possible. This would mean sacrifice of present consumption, but it would ensure future survival which became an almost religious objective, perhaps akin to earlier doctrines of ‘salvation’. People were to be happy not to the extent they dominated their fellow creatures on the earth, but to the extent they lived in balance with them.”
“…Economic disaster was not identical with survival disaster . . . a financial panic could be turned to advantage if the new nation could be organized to devote its real resources of energy, knowledge, skills and materials to the basic necessities of survival.”
Graduation of the open-environment Pinel School (1962-1978) near Martinez, California. Callenbach based Ecotopia's Crick School on Pinel, where his own son went to school. (Photo by Melanie Hoffman)
“Wood is a major factor in the topsy-turvy Ecotopian economy, as the source not only of lumber and paper but also of some of the remarkable plastics that Ecotopian scientists have developed. Ecotopians in the city and country alike take a deep and lasting interest in wood. They love to smell it, feel it, carve it, polish it. . . . To ensure a stable long-term supply of wood, the Ecotopians early reforested enormous areas that had been cut over by logging companies before Independence. They also planted trees on many hundreds and thousands of acres that had once been cleared for orchards or fields, but had gone wild or lay unused because of the exodus of people from the country into the cities.
“. . . They do no clear-cutting at all, and then forests contain not only mixed ages but also mixed species of trees. . . . sophisticated rationale for attitudes that can almost be called tree worship ( I have seen fierce totem poles outside dwellings, for instance.)
“Certainly, the Ecotopian lumber industry has one practice that must seem barbarian to its customers: the unlucky person or group wishing to build a timber structure must first arrange to go out to a forest camp and do ‘forest service’ – a period of labor during which, according to the theory, they are supposed to contribute enough to the growth of new trees to replace the wood they are about to consume.”
Families are composed of five to 20 people, some related and some not, who live together. Gender roles are equal. There is no baseball, basketball, or American football, “just oddball individual sports” like skiing, especially cross-country, hiking, camping, fishing, hunting. However, Ecotopia has a physical contest that the United States does not -- ritual war games, which are never described in the Sports Pages of newspapers and are considered “horrific” by “civilized countries”. Two groups of about 25 young men on each side fight each other with spears, “giving open civic expression to the physical competitiveness that seemed to be inherent in man’s biological programming and otherwise, came out in perverse forms, like war”. In one year, there was a death toll of 50 as compared with U.S. death toll of 75,000 on highways and 5,000 in war. (Ecotopia’s military is the size of Canada’s and the nation expects it to wither away.)
“It appears, by the way, that women never participate in war games . . . and that Ecotopians prefer to focus women’s competitiveness in other ways: through contests for political leadership (the nation’s president is a woman), through organizing work – at which women are believed to excel – and through rivalry over men to father their children.”
Schools for children resemble farms.
“That’s because we’ve crossed over into the age of biology. Your school system is still physics-dominated. That’s the reason for all the prison atmosphere. You can’t allow things to grow there,” a teacher at Crick School responded to Weston’s observation.
Classes are held outdoors or in temporary wooden buildings. Students spend about one hour in classwork each day. They also work two hours in school gardens that grow food for the school, or in school factories that can make birdhouses and flats for seedlings.
“The system is intended to teach children that work is a normal part of every person’s life, and to inculcate Ecotopian ideas about how workplaces are controlled: there are no ‘bosses’ in the shop, and the children seem to discuss and agree among themselves about how the work is to be done. . . . As I watched them do for a half hour or so, the children need to use concepts in geometry and physics, do complex calculations, and bring to bear considerable skills in carpentry. They marshal the necessary information with a verve that is altogether different from the way our children absorb prepackaged formal learning.”
A California mixed evergreen forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains
“Many Ecotopians are sentimental about Indians and there’s some sense in which they envy the Indians their lost natural place in the American wilderness. Indeed, this is probably a major Ecotopian myth . . . What matters most is the aspiration to live in balance with nature, “walk lightly on the land”, treat the earth as mother. No surprise that to such a morality most industrial processes, work schedules, and products are suspect! Who would use an earth-mover on his own mother?”
Weston says: “But it means giving up any notions of progress. You just want to get to that stable point and stay there, like a lump.”
Bert Luckman, a New York native who had gone through a Maoist phase before getting into the secessionist movement at the University of California at Berkeley, responds:
“It may sound that way, but in practice there’s no stable point. We’re always striving to approximate it, but we never get there. And you know how much we disagree on exactly what is to be done—we only agree on the root essentials, everyone else is in dispute. . . . We can afford to be (quarrelsome) because of that root agreement. Besides, that’s half the fun of relating to each other—trying to work through different perspectives, seeing how other people feel about things.”
There are some who decided against living in Ecotopia: “After a long and bitter political struggle, the black areas (and also Chinatown in San Francisco) were officially designated as city-states in Ecotopia. . . .
“This admission that the races cannot live in harmony is surely one of the most disheartening developments in all of Ecotopia, and it clouds the future of our nation as well.”
“There is talk currently of formalizing the Spanish-speaking and Japanese communities of San Francisco. . . . Jewish, American Indian, and other minorities all contain militants who desire a greater autonomy for their peoples.”
Before It Seceded
“Of course, the region that comprises Ecotopia had natural advantages that made the transition easier. Its states had more doctors per capita, a higher educational level, a higher percentage of skilled workers, a greater number of engineers and other technicians than most other parts of the Union. Its major cities, except for Seattle, were broadly based manufacturing and trade complexes that produced virtually all the necessities of life. Its universities were excellent, and its resources for scientific research included a number of top-notch facilities in the United States. Its temperate climate encouraged an outdoor style of life, and made fuel shortages caused by ecological policies an annoyance rather than a matter of life and death that they would have been in the severe eastern winters. The people were unusually well-versed in nature and conservation lore, and experienced in camping and survival skills.
“We cannot, however, ignore the political context in which the transition took place. By 1980, there had been almost a quarter century of military action in Indochina. American involvement in Southeast Asia was in its fifteenth year. . . . The burden of military outlays . . . the persistent inflation and recession of the seventies had caused widespread misery and undermined American’s confidence in economic progress. . . . After the abortive antipollution efforts of the early seventies, the toll of death and destruction had resumed its climb. Energy crises had bred economic disruption and price gouging. And chronic Washington scandals had greatly reduced faith in central government.”
“Things were clearly not getting any better – so people really were ready for change. They were literally sick of bad air, chemicalized food, lunatic advertising.
“They turned to politics because it was finally the only route to self-preservation.”