BOOK (1975)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am

by Ernest Callenbach

By the time you read this review, with luck the gushing BP hole in the Gulf of Mexico will have stopped spewing oil. Either way, the toxic spill underlines - with graphic intensity - just how disastrous our fossil fuel reliance can be.

Green seers alerted us long ago. In 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring sounded the alarm bells. In fictional form, Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia mapped out how the world might look if society swung against the culture of pollution that Carson slammed.

Ecotopia's University of Chicago-educated author set the novel in 1999 - 25 years from when he was writing. His story consists of the dispatches of William Weston, a mainstream media reporter and the first American to thoroughly investigate Ecotopia, a budding nation that broke away from the US in 1980. The new country encompasses Northern California, Oregon and Washington.

At first, Weston is just inquisitive about, instead of sympathetic towards, its citizens, who are led by a charismatic woman called Vera Allwen. Despite Weston's reservations, the citizens that Allwen rules come across as intelligent, inventive and socially responsible, if fond of bloody war games.

But the country's core is progressive. Its credentials include employee ownership of farms and businesses, a 20-hour work week, the eradication of pollution, 'mini-cities' that overcome overcrowding, recycling bins and a culture of reverence to trees. Eventually, Weston is seduced by Ecotopia's ambience. He defects from the US.

The idealistic take on the future earned Callenbach acclaim. 'The newest name after Wells and Verne and Huxley and Orwell is Ernest Callenbach, creator of Ecotopia,' said the Los Angeles Times. Despite the glowing reception, Callenbach originally had to self-publish because at first his yarn fell flat, he told The New York Times.

Some publishers said Ecotopia lacked enough sex and violence. One said that the ecology 'trend' was finished. Today, the book seems eerily prescient.

Callenbach says that he is 'dickering' with a Chinese publisher about a translation. 'It may sound immodest, but Ecotopia is still, after all these years, the only really fleshed-out portrait of what an ecologically sustainable society would look like,' the Berkeley-based film guru and gardener says.

Of course, Ecotopia is a hopeful and positive vision, in a confident vein that may now seem naive. But if we do avoid collapse and chaos, it will have to be along Ecotopian lines, sooner or later.

Imagine a world that has overcome its addiction to oil and embraced the transport used in Ecotopia - publicly available white bicycles that can be borrowed at will.