Book Review Vintage Edition: Ecotopia, The Dispossessed, and FEASTA’s Theory of Change

Each year FEASTA reviews and updates its Theory of Change, an organization-wide strategy that we hope will help create a fairer economy that supports social development and environmental protection.  FEASTA takes a systemic view, and is looking beyond one or two policies tacked on to the existing structure.  As the protest sign says, “System Change Not Climate Change.”

Easier said than done.  What does it mean to say we need a complete overhaul, or the end of capitalism?  Is it an impossible utopia?  I recently read two books from the 1970s, which seem to shed some light on the issue, or at least provide insight into utopian thinking from about 50 years ago.

Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach was written in 1975, coincidentally the year I was born.  To put that in context, the famous Limits to Growth report (still referenced in regular conversation among my sustainability friends) came out in 1972.  Ecotopia takes place in the far future: 1999.  The US had a “national divorce” in 1980, where the West Coast States broke off from the rest of the USA more or less because they wanted to worship redwood trees (I am from Northern California, and I mean it in a positive way).  However, it seems Los Angeles stayed with the rest of the country.  It is not explained if they requested entry to Ecotopia and were denied, or if the pavement, strip malls, and lack of redwoods disqualified them from joining.  Callenbach lived in Berkeley and perhaps this reveals a Northern California sentiment similar to the rivalry between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers or Warriors versus Lakers in basketball, but I digress.

Another book, The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin, came out in 1974.  Sister planets revolve around each other, and the societies on them may as well be yin and yang.  A revolution had occurred 200 years earlier where anti-capitalists left the home planet and colonized the drier and less hospitable moon.  The hero from the moon is named Shevek, and he and his society take a Marie Kondo approach to everything (hence the title of the book).  He makes a taboo-busting trip back to the home planet with just the clothes on his back (and not even a towel, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would require).

As Shevek’s society is described, I wondered if LeGuin had listened to John Lennon’s Imagine and thought, “I could write a book about that, but it would have to be science fiction.”  No property, no bosses, no corporations (what would David Korten think?).  Only worker owned cooperatives, sometimes called  Federatives or Syndicates, and worker owned, like Mondragon which Kim Stanley Robinson also references in his books.

LeGuin also mentioned the downsides of suppressing individuality.  Shevek is a brilliant physicist on the brink of his breakthrough, similarly to when physicists were searching for the Theory of Everything in the 70s.  Shevek does not want to regress to the mean.  He has something unique and specialized to offer, but the collectivist society does not value that, calling it “egoism.”  So Shevek has to leave his home planet to go to the academic institution where he can get the support he needs to finish his theory.  It is a recognizably capitalist economy that includes money, which Shevek disdains.  The closest we in 2023 can get to that is re-entering society after a week at Burning Man.

The initial abundance of the home world is attractive to Shevek, since he has been living so frugally his whole life.  But he is overwhelmed and nauseous after a visit to the commercial district with its nightmare street where they sell things that they didn’t even make onsite!  Propertarianism!  Shevek has a panic attack.  The closest we can get to that in 2023 is to read the magazine Adbusters and participate in Buy Nothing Day once a year.

Compared to Ecotopia and The Dispossessed, how are things looking here in 2023?  Cynical populist/authoritarian politicians are getting elected to vote “no” on everything or to destroy the “administrative state.”  But some politicians are embracing an inclusive solutions approach such as Basic Income.  Hippie ideas from the 70s such as community gardens are no longer far-left niche ideas, at least in Blue States.  On the other hand, in Red States, “survival” means stocking up on bunkers and guns.

On Shevek’s world, the society is based on mutual aid and self-sacrifice for the common good, reminiscent of the Kibbutz Movement circa 1930-1970.  In the book, the nuclear family is also questioned, as when the kibbutz separated kids from parents, but that was controversial and went out of fashion.  However, in 2023 many people live in non-nuclear family arrangements, maybe society needs to provide more support for that, especially for younger generations who are marrying later and postponing or not having kids.  Fifty years later the Israeli kibbutz became more capitalist. And there is now greater awareness of how the original Zionist vision excluded Palestinians from that “utopia.”

Ecotopia feels recognizable for someone who grew up on the West Coast of the U.S.  I always had the feeling of being located at the end result of centuries of western expansion.  Watching the sun set from the Berkeley hills over the Golden Gate Bridge, you felt you were on the vanguard, you could think new thoughts, new ideas.  But again, the dark side of Manifest Destiny lurks, revealed to us in 2023 in the renewed push for Indigenous Rights and civil rights.

The next books I’ll be reading are the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov.  The setting there is a space-age version of the Fall of the Roman Empire.  When I was in college at Berkeley, watching that sun set, I read Rudolf Bahro’s Building the Green Movement, where he advocates for a plan to survive fall of the 20th century empire of global capitalism by following the example of the early Dark Ages and setting up modern day monasteries, a.k.a. ecovillages.

This fits in with FEASTA’s “home base” at the Ecovillage in Cloughjordan.  Could life rafts work?  We still need to cap all emissions.  The Earth is still one big life raft.  So we will continue advocating for big inclusive policies like switching to a well-being economy, and setting up a Cap & Share system that sends everyone climate dividends.  But on the days when those policies seem far off, moving to an ecovillage, or setting one up, seems like a pretty good idea.

Featured image: Photo by Lalit Gupta on Unsplash

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.