Andreas Späth

Welcome to ecotopia

2010-03-17 08:00

Environmentalists, myself included, know what they're against. We're opposed to nuclear power and burning fossil fuels like coal and oil. We don't want industrial factory farms or air pollution and we can’t stand genetically modified crops. But what exactly are we for? How do we propose to lead greener and more sustainable lives, not just as individuals and families, but as an entire civilisation?

Vague utterances about recycling, energy-efficient light bulbs and growing organic vegetables are hardly sufficient ammunition in arguments with those who insist that business-as-usual remains the only viable way forward.

It may come as somewhat of a surprise that I suggest utopian fiction, and especially a sub-genre called ecotopian fiction, as an avenue for us to engage with an ecologically-sound future. Obviously it's not the only way to imagine humanity's long-term survival on Earth - there is a great need for detailed technical and scientific blueprints - but for those of us who struggle to read non-fiction, ecotopian fiction may provide more accessible glimpses of possible futures.

Modern readers are unlikely to find much green inspiration in classical utopian works such as Plato's Republic or Thomas More's Utopia, which describe rigidly regimented societies that no one, barring authoritarians and wannabe dictators, would find attractive nowadays. Among the political left, utopian thought has long been synonymous with childish immaturity, irrationality and downright counter-revolutionary intentions. Don't let that stop you from reading Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy and News from Nowhere by William Morris. These 19th century socialist utopian classics present fascinating visions of egalitarian societies that have learned to share the Earth's resources equitably. In the same tradition, try Ursula K Le Guin's starkly beautiful sci-fi novel The Dispossessed which juxtaposes life on two neighbouring planets, the harsh but classless anarchist world of Anarres, and Urras, which is characterised by authoritarian states and massive inequality.

The first work of fiction to specifically explore how society could be reorganised to exist in balance with nature was Ernest Callenbach's novel Ecotopia, which was published in 1975 and is set in a near-future California. The heroine in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, a novel which provides a feminist perspective on the topic, is locked up in a mental institution, but manages to escape to an egalitarian ecotopia every now and then. The book introduces a theme that is common to many others in the genre: the close geographical and temporal proximity of utopia and dystopia. Fragile, newly established ecotopian societies are constantly under threat from aggressive foes that are intent on dragging them back to the old ways of doing things. Another good example is Starhawk's cult novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, in which San Francisco has been transformed into a green urban oasis, home to a non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal community of people living according to the politics of consensus decision-making and free love, which is under imminent threat of invasion from the militaristic and anti-ecological state to the south.

American writer Kim Stanley Robinson is a central figure in ecotopian fiction. He has edited a volume of short stories entitled Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias and written voluminously himself. His celebrated Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) has humans escaping an overcrowded and environmentally exhausted Earth to colonise the red planet.

More recent novels with strong ecotopian leanings include James Howard Kunstler's World Made By Hand which describes the northeastern United States in a post-oil era and Margaret Atwood's stunning The Year of the Flood which tells the story of a small group of individuals trying to survive in a world devastated by an apocalyptic disaster.

While critics may complain that ecotopian fiction is mired in an escapist and counterproductive dream-world, those of us who love it recognise it as a legitimate way of imagining possible green futures that improve on our terminally flawed present. Not convinced? Why not pick up one of the books I mentioned and find out if you're an ecotopian yourself.

- Andreas manages Cape Town's newest independent book shop, Lobby Books, which can be found at 6 Spin Street in Cape Town.

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