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Cultural geography of Ecotopia

February 16, 2012

This is the first article filed under Dispatches from Ecotopia, a mythical nation state profiled in Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia-the novel of your future (which is set in 1999).  It just so happens that I live in the heart of the setting for this novel, a place where many of the societal features portrayed in the novel have actually come to life.  The overall region is commonly noted as “cutting edge” or where major new cultural developments and changes first surface.  So, in a blog examining such notions (as some southwest Indian cultures have proposed) of a pending transition from a fourth world culture/civilization to a new fifth one with new ways, it seems logical to me that possible clues as to what this Fifth World Culture might look like would be perhaps evident first in my current backyard.

In “Ecotopia” a reporter from a newspaper in the United States is allowed full access to this new country from where he sends dispatches of what he is observing, experiencing, and thinking.  William Weston decides in the end to stay in this region, sheltered on purpose for years after seceding from the United States of America.

Here is a portion from Weston’s June 19th report filed from San Francisco:

“Where is Ecotopia going in the future?  After more than six weeks’ intensive study of the country, I find it still hazardous to guess.  There is no doubt, I have been forced to conclude, that the risky social experiments undertaken here have worked on a biological level. Ecotopian air and water are everywhere crystal clear.  The land is well cared for and productive.  Food is plentiful, wholesome, and recognizable.  All life systems are operating on a stable-state basis, and can go on doing so indefinitely.  The health and general well-being of the people are undeniable.  While the extreme decentralization and emotional openness of the society seem alien to an American at first, they too have much to be said in their favor.  In these respects, I believe, Ecotopia offers us a difficult challenge, and we have far to go to even approach their achievements.

On the other hand, these benefits have been bought at a heavy cost. Not only is the Ecotopian industrial capacity and standard of consumption markedly below ours, to a degree that would never be tolerated by Americans generally, but the Ecotopian political system rests on assumptions that I can only conclude are dangerous in the extreme…………

Under Ecotopian ideas, the era of the great nation-states, with their promise of one ultimate world-state, would fade away.  Despite our achievements of a worldwide communications network and jet travel, mankind would fly apart into small, culturally homogenous groupings….

Ecotopians argue that such separatism is desirable on ecological as well as cultural grounds—that a small regional society can exploit it’s “niche” in the world biosystem more subtly and richly and efficiently (and of course less destructively) than have the superpowers……

[Amusingly, reporter Will Weston notes in a personal diary entry, “blah, blah, blah.  Can hardly bear to re read that last column.  They’ll probably love it in New York.  Real “objective” pseudo-think, trying to conclusions at any cost…]”

Today, decades after this novel was written, federal attorneys in California districts have warned Mendocino County officials that they face prosecution over a system where medical marijuana patients can form grower cooperatives allowing large, 99 marijauna plant gardens, in exchange for fees that go into the Sheriff’s department.  While the federal government now has a policy allowing people to obtain and use marijuana as medicine, so long as they comply with state laws, the federal attorneys obviously thought the Mendocino system was a bit much with all this money involved.  The Board of Supervisors ended this system in response to the threat and returned to the old one of allowing 25 plants per parcel, no money now going to the Sheriff.

In 2004, Mendocino clearly demonstrated that it is the heart of Ecotopia, a country with a fully green/countercultural orientation, when it’s voters banned genetically engineered crops and seeds, telling Monsanto to get lost in effect.  $700,000 was spent to get voters to vote otherwise.  With 3300 counties nationwide, Mendocino stood alone in taking this measure and braced for a fight with one really big bully.

There are only about 88,000 people living in Mendocino, which has around 3500 square miles of land and 380 of water.  That is 25 people per square mile.  Median income is below national averages.

The wikipedia article on Mendocino notes:

“The county is noted for its distinctive Pacific Ocean coastline, Redwood forests, wine production, microbrews, and liberal views about the use of cannabis and support for its legalization. It is estimated that roughly two-thirds of the economy is based on the cultivation of marijuana.[1]”

What interests me about this county (in the context of this blog) are what clues are here in the unique culture geography of Mendocino for emerging cultural, economic, and political models that may significantly reshape the lives of future generations.

One thing that I think I am beginning to see more and more is a real desire and movement to de centralize in the way Will Weston described above.

A poorer county than most, with little industry, extravagant consumption (very typical in urban and suburban areas) is not so evident here.  Sadly, government services, including the ability of the Sheriff to provide protection in all corners, gives the scene here a much more primitive feel than most.  

Secession?  While that is not a looming reality, this county feels so sheltered and cut off in some ways that we might as well be divorced from the United States of America.

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