A different optimistic future is pictured by Ernest Callenbach in his two books Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging. He describes the Northern California and the Pacific Northwest region seceding from the United States and establishing its own ecologically balanced way of life as a separate country. Some technological discoveries plus ecological commonsense lead to a humane mode of life, though not the high-energy, high-consuming society predicted by the mega-technologists. In his novels the rest of the United States sinks into ecological disasters that highlight the wisdom of the changes made in Ecotopia. One key is the successful generation of electricity without using oil. Another is the abandonment of the private automobile and the substitution of electric busses on the local level and maglev trains for long-distances. Callenbach also relies on a variety of changes in gender relations, community governance, and consumption.
That ecotopian vision may seem attractive, but there is a technical difficulty. As described in Ecotopia, there don’t seem to be sufficiently dense sources of energy to power the transportation networks. Local renewable power generation can handle many domestic needs, but not a wide network of frequent electric buses and trains. (In the second novel, Ecotopia Emerging, new technologies for solar and wave power are gestured at. But since such technologies don’t exist, we don’t know if they could provide sufficient energy.) The ecotopian vision depends on connection as well as decentralization, but given the technologies available today the proposed transport system would likely demand nuclear power. Callenbach was writing to encourage changes in ecological attitudes and social patterns; he was not trying to forecast technical details.
In the scenario that follows, my interviewer talks with someone living in a ecotopian former suburb, though without all the familial and social changes Callenbach envisioned. Ecological attitudes have changed, and overall energy use is reduced, enough for domestic needs, the Internet and slow transportation, but not for frequent travel by electric vehicles and trains.
I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me, considering that it's been years since I was last out here.
There is plenty of time; I'm not in a hurry, and I appreciate your making the trip again. We haven't had many reporters coming from so far away.
It wasn’t an easy trip, given all the disruptions and shortages. But I thought you had solved the oil crisis; I’m surprised by how much time it takes to get around now that I’m here.
We saw the crisis coming and took steps years ago to free ourselves from depending on oil. But that slowed down transportation. We have a sketchy network of weekly electric busses.
But then people can't move around so much.
That’s true, so we use the Internet. People walk a lot, too, and you’ll find some horse about.
Most of us think that's a bonus. Less temptation to zip about and more time for local work and people. For wide, quick contacts we have the computer networks.
You have enough power to keep the Internet going.
We use electricity more efficiently in our houses and offices. Our server farms may be the most energy intensive thing we do. That is important because it helps cut down on travel while it enables good communication and planning for people coordinating our small businesses and governments.
Where does your electricity come from?
From all sorts of sources. We have some large solar power farms, and lots of small domestic solar to cut down the demand from individual homes. Then localities have a mix of wind, and hydro, some biofuels, and some biogas from waste. We tap geothermal sources for power where we can, and some towns have shared geothermal heating for groups of buildings. We have been experimenting with power from ocean waves and temperature differentials along the coast.
So you've given up the old suburban pattern of life with all its driving about?
It had to mutate into something like a cross between a suburb and a small town.
That sounds like the worst of both worlds; the anomie of the suburb and the social constriction of small town life. That's what I left behind when I moved to the city.
Physically and spatially suburbs have to become more like old-fashioned small towns. But socially we keep them flexible and more fluid. We want to make sure that there is plenty of social mobility and lots of connections beyond the local neighborhood, but we don't need everyone to have a personal car. For local travel we have walking, bikes, horses. For longer travel, occasional electric busses, and boats on the rivers.
Are you saying that a more ecologically sane life demands small farms and small towns?
Not at all. Cities are very ecological if they are done right. We do have more farmers than before, but they aren't living in a romantic dream. We want connections and diversity.
All your food is locally grown?
Almost all, and quite efficiently, too. We've tried to cut down on long distance shipping of resources that can be grown locally, like lumber and food.
But you still need to ship foodstuffs, and things like computers, raw materials, and manufactured goods?
Yes, but there’s less shipping than before, because there’s less consumption overall. We try to make things that last. For things like electronics and raw materials that have to be transported, the rivers carry a lot of freight, then the goods are distributed slowly to other towns. We maintain some of the old highways. In the winter transport slows way down because of snow on the mountains.
But don’t you still need to import and export goods from far away, especially your electronic devices?
It’s true we don’t have all the minerals and raw materials to make computer circuits, but we do have some chip fabs and we’re doing more local manufacturing and assembling. It’s more expensive but more secure. And speed of transport is less important for raw materials from overseas.
Who maintains the roads?
A mix of shipping companies, local volunteers, and local governments. Towns contribute to keep their roads open. And as you might expect, the slow transport encourages migration out of hard to reach districts.
So you end up with cities surrounded by suburbs and farms?
More and more. Remote districts are populated by people who want the isolation and don’t mind the slow travel. Our long distance connections are mostly wireless – we’ve reallocated spectrum to favor the Net.
Who coordinates all this?
We have many small interlocking local governing bodies, so there's a lot of debate. Each small neighborhood sends representatives to a township meeting. This covers an area that includes several of the old suburbs. Then there are regional meetings, and some central policy coordination.
Have you been involved in those meetings?
Yes; there are pretty intense debates. But it doesn’t feel like the old isolated suburbs with rival governments.
This area doesn't look much like an old suburb any more.
No, though many of the old houses are still here. People mix productive businesses in with the housing. So there are a lot of small factories and sheds and other working buildings along with with the houses now. There are almost no lawns because people are encouraged to grow food on the open spaces. If we are going to use water on suburban land we want it to be productive. So there aren't the long vistas across lines of suburban lawns.
This cuts the old suburban separation of land uses.
That helps reduce travel, too.
Have any of the old suburbs been abandoned?
Some of the more outlying suburbs have almost no people now because folks have moved into the city where there are more apartments than there used to be. Most people outside the cities have taken up farming to some degree. The separation of agricultural and residential spaces is not as definite as it used to be.
Where do you . . .
You keep asking about spatial patterns. Our biggest change isn't in space; it's in attitudes and habits.
What do you mean?
When we make decisions we’ve stopped shifting costs onto others or onto the future. We're working a stricter ecological accounting. It's more than recycling and freeing ourselves from oil. Plans and projects get evaluated on their total effect on society and the ecology.
You can't get that accounting perfect; you don't know enough about all the consequences of your actions.
That's true, though we can forecast much more accurately than before. But the real change isn't in figuring the consequences; it's what we do with the results of our analyses. We making a turn away from consumption towards interaction. We're trying to look at ourselves as partners, not users, with one another and with nature.
You mean the end of consumerism?
Sort of, but it's not just a matter of buying fewer products. The key is to change how we use products and how we make them. There’s more craftwork; we reserve mass production for basic necessities. As one of our founders said “‘Sustainability’ can be as powerful and emotionally appealing a metaphor as growth. We will have to accept that we can have growth only qualitatively, not quantitatively. Life can get better, indefinitely, but not through the production and acquisition of more material goods. We need to prize technology that is not only mechanically ingenious but ecologically and humanly appropriate. Miniaturization and de-materialization in the design of manufactured goods can help greatly in reducing our ecological impacts. These efforts, however, need to be coupled with new values that emphasize less materialistic, object-focused living. Extensive research shows that happiness is not correlated with income, above a modest level. We need to remember that the deepest satisfactions come from relationships, family, community, and nature.”
The quotation is from a talk by Ernest Callenbach.
So overall you didn’t suffer as much as people expected when oil became so scarce?
We saw it coming and made early changes, so we’ve come through well. In the beginning, though, before the crisis hit everywhere, and before all our changes were implemented, the preventive policies made things difficult for many people when we cut oil use way back.
People seem fairly content, at least to judge from those I've talked to.
By and large we feel we've made the right steps and are happy that our situation is better than elsewhere. But it’s a constant balancing act.
(Continue to Scenarios: Energy Issues)