Ecotopia – fiction by Ernest Callenbach

Ecotopia (excerpt) – “The Ecotopian Economy: Fruit of Crisis”

San Francisco, May 12. It is widely believed among Americans that the Ecotopians have become a shiftless and lazy people. This was the natural conclusion drawn after Independence, when the Ecotopians adopted a 20-hour work week. Yet even so no one in America, I think, has yet fully grasped the immense break this represented with our way of life – and even now it is astonishing that the Ecotopian legislature, in the first flush of power, was able to carry through such a revolutionary measure.

What was at stake, informed Ecotopians insist, 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 harder-working peoples. Serious dislocations plagued their industries for years. There was a drop in Gross National Product by more than a third. But the profoundest implications of the decreased work week were philosophical and ecological: mankind, the Ecotopians assumed, was not meant for production, as the 19th and early 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.

This philosophical change may have seemed innocent on the surface. Its grave implications were soon spelled out, however. Ecotopian economists, who included some of the most highly regarded in the American nation, were well aware that the standard of living could only be sustained and increased by relentless pressure on work hours and worker productivity. Workers might call this “speed-up,” yet without a slow but steady rise in labor output, capital could not be attracted or even held; financial collapse would quickly ensue.

The deadly novelty introduced into this accepted train of thought by a few Ecotopian militants was to spread the point of view that economic disaster was not identical with survival disaster for persons – and that, in particular, a financial disaster 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. If that were done, even a catastrophic decline in the GNP (which was, in their opinion, largely composed of wasteful activity anyway) might prove politically useful.

In short, financial chaos was to be not endured but deliberately engineered. With the ensuing flight of capital, most factories, farms and other productive facilities would fall into Ecotopian hands like ripe plums.

And in reality it took only a few crucial measures to set this dismal series of events in motion: the nationalization of agriculture; the announcement of an impending moratorium on oil-industry activities; the forced consolidation of the basic retail network constituted by Sears, Penneys, Safeway, and a few other chains; and the passage of stringent conservation laws that threatened the profits of the lumber interests.

These moves, of course, set off an enormous clamor in Washington. Lobbyists for the various interests affected tried to commit the federal government to intervene militarily. This was, however, several months after Independence. The Ecotopians had established and intensively trained a nationwide militia, and airlifted arms for it from France and Czechoslovakia. It was also believed that at the time of secession they had mined major Eastern cities with atomic weapons, which they had constructed in secret or seized from weapons research laboratories. Washington, therefore, although it initiated a ferocious campaign of economic and political pressure against the Ecotopians, and mined their harbors, finally decided against an invasion.

This news set in motion a wave of closures and forced sales of businesses – reminiscent, I was told, of what happened to the Japanese-Americans who were interned in World War II. Members of distinguished old San Francisco families were forced to bargain on most unfavorable terms with representatives of the new regime. Properties going back to Spanish land-grant claims were hastily disposed of. Huge corporations, used to dictating policy in city halls and statehouses, found themselves begging for compensation and squirming to explain that their properties were actually worth far more than their declared tax value.

Tens of thousands of employees were put out of work as a consequence, and the new government made two responses to this. One was to absorb the unemployed in construction of the train network and of the sewage and other recycling facilities necessary to establish stable-state life systems. Some were also put to work dismantling allegedly hazardous or unpleasant relics of the old order, like gas-stations. The other move was to adopt 20 hours as the basic work week – which, in effect, doubled the number of jobs but virtually halved individual income. (There were, for several years, rigid price controls on all basic foods and other absolute necessities.)

Naturally, the transition period that ensued was hectic – though many people also remember it as exciting. It is alleged by many who lived through those times that no one suffered seriously from lack of food, shelter, clothing, or medical treatment – though some discomfort was widespread, and there were gross dislocations in the automobile and related industries, in schools, and in some other social functions. Certainly many citizens were deprived of hard-earned comforts they had been used to: their cars, their prepared and luxury foods, their habitual new clothes and appliances, their many efficient service industries. These disruptions were especially severe on middle-aged people – though one now elderly man told me that he had been a boy in Warsaw during World War II, had lived on rats and potatoes, and found the Ecotopian experience relatively painless. To the young, the disruptions seem to have had a kind of wartime excitement – and indeed sacrifices may have been made more palatable by the fear of attack from the United States. It is said by some, however, that the orientation of the new government toward basic biological survival was a unifying and reassuring force. Panic food hoarding, it is said, was rare. (The generosity with food which is such a feature of Ecotopian life today may have arisen at that time.)

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 the topnotch 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 the matter of life or death 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. As Ecotopian militants see the situation, by 1980 there had been almost a quarter century of military action in Indochina. American involvement in Southeast Asia was in its fifteenth year. Cease-fires had come and gone. Evading Congressional fiscal controls, the U.S. administration had continued with attempts to find a “final solution” to Asian uprisings. The burden of military outlays to support an enormous arms establishment caused economic disruption even after the citizenry lost the power to control them. The persistent inflation and recession of the seventies had caused widespread misery and undermined Americans’ confidence in economic progress; wildcat strikes and seizures of plants by workers had required the almost constant mobilization of the National Guard. 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.

“All this,” one Ecotopian told me, “convinced us that if we wished to survive we had to take matters into our own hands.” I pointed out that this had always been the claim of conspiratorial revolutionaries, who presume to act in the name of the majority, but take care not to allow the majority to have any real power. “Well,” he replied, “things were clearly not getting any better – so people really were ready for change. They were literally sick of bad air, chemicalized foods, lunatic advertising. They turned to politics because it was finally the only route to self-preservation.”

“So,” I replied, “in order to follow an extremist ecological program, millions of people were willing to jeopardize their whole welfare, economic and social?”

“Their welfare wasn’t doing so well, at that point,” he said. “Something had to be done. And nobody else was doing it. Also” – he shrugged, and grinned – “we were very lucky.” This gallows humor, which reminds me of the Israelis or Viennese, is common in Ecotopia. Perhaps it helps explain how the whole thing happened.

Got a strange call on the hotel phone last night, from a gruff-sounding man who asked if he and a couple of friends could see me. He had his phone picture switched off to start, but after I said I’d be glad to talk to him, he turned it on. We met at a coffee-house he suggested, which turned out to have the atmosphere of a men’s club: dark wood panelling, newspapers on racks along the wall, beer, good coffee, pastries. They started out by saying how pleased they were to hear of my visit, and that they hoped relations between the two countries would now begin to improve.

This was news: no Ecotopians I’ve met so far have seemed to give much of a damn about relations with the U.S. one way or the other. I began to study my companions more closely. They were evidently businessmen of some kind – there is a way in which business people tend to assume proprietorship which seemed familiar. I began to see who they probably were: the Opposition!

The gruff one introduced us all. Then, rather gingerly, they began to explain their position: that, while many of the ecological reforms of the new government were of course necessary and desirable, others stifled their spirit of enterprise. “The economy, as you have seen by now, has been going downhill steadily. It’s terrible, what we have lost. Worse, we are on a collision course with the U.S.”

“How is that?” I asked.

“Let’s face it. We are a small nation on the periphery of a very large one. Persisting in this ecological craziness will sooner or later lead to an armed conflict, and we will be wiped out. We know what you did to Vietnam, what you’re doing now in Brazil. Our atomic mines might turn out to be a bluff. Then it could happen here too.”

“So what can you do?”

“We could take a softer line – make a few compromises. We’re excited by your coming because it could lead to resumption of normal relations between the two countries. From that, we could see the exchange of pilot plants, to show what happens when you let the managers manage – and gradually a growth of economic interdependence. In time, we could get our economy going again on modern lines.”

“Isn’t the Progressive Party working in that direction?”

There was a pause. “Yes, but they only put up a token struggle. They pay lip service to the idea of change, but when it comes to real changes, they drag their feet. They’re really almost as bad as the Survivalists. We’ve just about given up on them.”

“So what are you going to do?”

They shifted uneasily. “We have great hopes from your visit, first of all. We urge you to speak for the idea of normalization of relations, here and when you get back to Washington. We hope that will get things moving. But we also want you to know that we are prepared to fight for our ideas.”

I looked at them, startled. “Fight?”

They looked back, very solemnly, and then must have decided to take their big chance. “We have been led to believe that the U.S. government supports clandestine groups in countries with governments thought to be unfriendly. The time is coming when normal means of political action may no longer serve. Ecotopia has to be made to realize that it must change course. We are ready for anything. But we need help.”

“You aren’t afraid of being taken simply for American agents?”

“It’s a chance we’ll have to take. We would of course ask for materials that can’t be traced to U.S. sources.” It was my turn to pause. “You mean you are asking for explosives, guns?” They looked at me a little disappointed. “Of course. We will then be in a position to dramatize that the present course has unacceptable costs. There is only one way to do that.”

“Well,” I said, “you must realize I am a journalist, not a C.I.A. agent!” They smiled politely but skeptically. “However, I suppose I could pass on what you have told me to people who might be interested. How much popular support can you demonstrate for your proposed actions?”

“You know how people are – they go with what’s popular at the time, even when it’s against their own interests. But dramatic action will generate immense enthusiasm.”

“I looked them over. They are not a terribly convincing lot of prospective terrorists – but then probably that’s the way most any terrorists look. A couple of them are over 50, people who in the U.S. would be members of Rotary or country club – normal, productive citizens – but here find themselves misfits. A couple are young, hot-eyed, resentful, dangerous. –How they got that way, I have no idea, but they would probably be against the regime whatever it was or did. So far, I see no signs they would have any substantial social backing. All the same, I made notes of how they can be found. Coming out of the coffee-shop, we could have been businessmen who had just worked out a division of the territory….

© 1975 by Ernest Callenbach, available from both Heyday Books (with an author’s afterword) and Bantam

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