Ecotopia: a future with a long past

IssueMarch - June 2002
Feature by David Pepper

Most radical thought and action about the environment could be described as “utopian”, since it envisages a radically different society with strongly sustainable development where the integrity of “natural” ecosystems is maintained.

Utopianism, popularly associated with a literary genre, is also a “state of mind” found in the constitutions, outlines or blueprints of any ideal republic. It always reflects existing social conflicts, and rejects existing society. The utopias of 1960s and `70s counterculture, including environmentalism and feminism, were reactions to apocalyptic visions of over-population, nuclear disaster, or Frankensteinian experiments gone wrong.

Underestimating capitalism?

Marx and Engels criticised utopian socialists for underestimating the huge forces within capitalism that would squash all radical subversive movements as soon as they threatened to be effective. And like these unrealistic utopians, some contemporary eco-anarchistic alternative communities think it possible to create in the midst of capitalist society a microcosm of an essentially non-capitalist society - which it is hoped might spread by example.

Marxists would say that this could only be done once non-capitalist economics were established, which would require a more revolutionary, confrontational approach. By the same token, social democratic (eg New Labour in Britain) attempts to create capitalism with “human and ecological faces” are also unrealistic, and destined to remain in that place called “nowhere”.

Ecologically benign societies

Modern utopianism was “invented” by Thomas More (Utopia, 1516), and became a social movement in the West in the nineteenth century. From then on, some people have striven to realise utopia here on earth. Environmentalists have been inspired by literary “ecotopias”, including Reich's (1970) Greening of America, Schumacher's (1973) Small is Beautiful, Le Guin's (1974) The Dispossessed, Goldsmith et al's (1972) Blueprint for Survival, van der Wyer's (1986) Wickwyn and, notably, Callenbach's Ecotopia (1978), and its “prequel”, Ecotopia Emerging, (1981).

Most of these insist that the key to an ecologically benign society is an inclusive democracy where the majority's will prevails over economic and social decision making. (Given freedom, they argue, people will avoid disharmony with nature; a rational thing to do.) And, like Capra's Turning Point (1982), many see “feminine” values as central to ecotopia.

Ecotopian visions often reflect nineteenth century socialist and anarchist utopianism. To environmentalists who see common ownership of land as a key issue (reflected in groups like Reclaim the Streets or The Land is Ours or the alternative communities movement), Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers are seminal figures [see Andrew Bradstock's article on p24]. Their approach foreshadowed an important green activist strategy: that of “prefiguring”` the desired society. This means rejecting any approach (eg involving violence, or social hierarchies) which would not feature in the ideal society itself. Robert Owen wanted the example of his early nineteenth-century paternalistic communities (of about 500-3000 people each, and without private property) to lead to a cooperative socialism embracing the earth.

Contemporary utopias

Charles Fourier (1772-1837), also influences anarchist-feminist, communalist radical environmentalism. His utopia featured “phalansteries”-communities of about 1700 people-as a basic social unit, with no state regulation. In them, creative talents were expanded, meals and child-care were communal, and “industrial armies” carried out important environmental projects.

Although capital, private property and wealth disparities remained, people were emotionally and sexually satisfied and spiritually rich. This theme of enhanced life quality, perhaps compensating for lower material standards, features strongly in the contemporary ecotopian visions of Schumacher and Goldsmith et al.

The commune and back-to-the-land radical environmentalism of the past 40 years echoes the many nineteenth-century alternative communities set up in Britain. Two strong influences here were Peter Kropotkin and William Morris.

Morris (“the first English Marxist”) set out, especially in News from Nowhere (1890), basic socialist ideas which were also “green”, including voluntary simplicity and fellowship, rejecting the “false” consumerist wants and sprawling, ugly, polluting mass developments of capital-ism in favour of “...the simple joys of the lovely earth”. But unlike some deep ecologists today, Morris didn't dislike all human changes to nature: he saw a place for machines in doing unpleasurable work (as does the modern ecotopian Andre Gorz).

Morris's vision was close to anarchism, and for Kropotkin anarchism would lead to true commune-ism: the free association of producers without class division, wage slavery or even money. His picture of an ideal communist landscape based on mutual aid, also written in the 1890s, is close in detail to later ecotopias-for example, the inclusive ecological democracy envisaged by Takis Fotopoulos and Murray Bookchin.

Ecotopian inspiration!

Other forms of ecotopianism like bioregionalism and deep ecology (expressed for instance in the Earth First! movement) tend towards idealism, and here two twentieth century utopians seem particularly influential: Teilhard de Chardin and Aldous Huxley. Teilhard's Phenomenon of Man (1947) is reflected in deep ecology's view of evolution towards a higher, Gaian, state of consciousness, forming an enlightened “noosphere” (a realm of thought) round the earth, as the key to ecological salvation. Callenbach's Ecotopia (1974) closely resembles Huxley's Island (1962). The latter was a curtain raiser to 1960s and `70s hippy and environmentalist rejection of consumer materialism, conformity, alienation and perceived dangers of globalisation and science allied to capitalism, such as large-scale development, nuclear war/power, pollution and waste and “overpopulation”. Huxley, who figured on the sleeve of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album, proposed remedies for these evils in Eastern mysticism, and the supposed liberating power of drugs and sexual freedom.

Ecotopia may not yet have arrived, but utopian visions are vital to the health of the green movement. They give constant inspiration, hope and direction to those engaged in what is still a long struggle.

Topics: Green, Utopias