When I was in early high school I read this book called “Ecotopia” by Ernest Callenbach. It had been recommended to me by my dad during a period of time when my family was headed towards chaos. At the time the book was eye-opening for me bringing up all kinds of questions about environmentalism and how poorly people were treating the planet. It also contains some scenes where the main characters are making love and honestly I don’t think my mom would have let me read it if she had known. The scenes are not explicit but as a young, innocent high schooler it shaped the way I thought of relationships in a way that looking back as a parent myself now was not ideal.
The book sets the scene of a post split of the United States where the Pacific Northwest has parted ways with the rest of the United States in a war that happened many years prior to the time period of the book. The premise is that the Eco-Friendly Pacific Northwest was not excited about the direction the rest of the country was going with their chemical use, plastics and general lack of connection with the natural environment. The main character is a reporter named Will from the United States venturing into Ecotopia as the first American to be invited since the split to write a story on how the new country is doing and to report back. He is also encouraged to spy on the Ecotopian government and report back to the U. S. Embassy since the United States was upset about losing a large chunk of their country. Throughout the book Will delves into various aspects of Ecotopian life and finds a native woman named Marissa to be his lover. I will not give away the ending but William’s view of the people of Ecotopia changes over the course of his stay there.
Every time I read this book it gives me very seventies, male centered, Sci-Fi vibes along the authors such as Heinlein where the female characters are hard for the main character to understand, sexualized and secondary. Marissa’s character is better written but she is also seen as secondary for a long time by Will which is very much in line with the way the attitude of the United States is portrayed in this book so it works pretty well. It is a book of self-discovery for Will but I also did not feel like the ickiness of the seventies Sci-Fi vibe was resolved in the book so I am not sure if it was a clever writing style or an unintentional leaking of the author’s attitude towards women through.
The first time I read Ecotopia I was in awe of how they were able to change as a country to be more in touch with the land. Cars became a novelty and most people in Ecotopia take public transport with electric vehicles or walk everywhere. Of course, when the book came out, electric cars were not mainstream and were thought of as unsafe or not ideal. Now many people drive electric cars and that part of the book seems like it could be more of a reality than when I read this book for the first time.
I love the eco-centered life-style portrayed in the book and how much science to better people as a whole was emphasized. For instance, plastics in Ecotopia break down over a period of time and are made mostly out of corn. There is also a huge emphasis on fixing things rather than replacing them and the work week is vastly reduced. Leisure time is encouraged as well as more talking out of problems rather than ignoring them. I love these aspects of the book. People are treated as a whole and communities really look out for one another.
Other parts of the book however, seem very unrealistic now that I have the perspective of age. The one that stands out the most is the country of Ecotopia’s ability to completely switch their government and way of life in such a short period of time. Only 20 years have passed since the split and in the book, most of the Ecotopians are happy with this anti-consumption, hyper local, community based life. As a teenager I totally bought this but as an adult I thought about the mechanics of switching over everyone to a more commune like frame of mind where there isn’t any plastic of any kind and most items are hand made. I think about places like Eastern Washington where farming is the main source of income for a lot of people and how they heavily rely on chemical fertilizers to grow large quantities of crops. Many of the farms in Eastern Washington, Oregon and California have been in families for generations. Their roots are deep and although I am sure change could happen, 20 years is not that long for such a rapid shift in society to have occurred so seamlessly.
Another big issue I have with this book is the lack of perspective from people of color. Most of the characters are white in this book and although there is a brief mention that native people were given back their land and that some races chose to live in separate enclaves, largely the book is written from a white perspective with many of the changes they made such as the war rituals lean towards cultural appropriation. Whenever I read books I try to think about the time period in which they are written to keep some perspective about any prejudices that may crop up but with this book it was hard to not notice the discrimination. I had a huge issue with the author’s section on how each race had formed it’s own cities and this fit in with the utopian lifestyle of Ecotopia and with the fact that Native Americans were largely ignored, especially since many of the ideas about community and living as one with the land were taken from native teachings.
Overall I still like the concept of this book and it’s push towards a more ecofriendly, anti-consumption lifestyle. I would recommend it for adults to read with the lens of knowing that there are some issues with it but also taking from the good parts of the book. I will link the book below but I would however, try to find a copy at your library or to borrow from a friend. I will also link the book I am currently reading, A Brave New World, both here and down below. I will review that one next. Also check out my blog post below listing out the books I am reading through the end of 2023!