The Ecotopian shift

Thirty years after the novel Ecotopia debuted in 1975, author Pat Joseph referred to the society it depicted as “authoritarian”, a term which has recurred often in subsequent popular criticisms of the book.  Sometimes a synonym is used instead, such as “totalitarian” or “the heavy hand of the state”, but the intent is the same: to convey that the Ecotopian government is oppressive, narrow, and no improvement at all over the United States from which it seceded.

But what exactly is Ecotopian totalitarianism? For starters, all businesses are forbidden to employ more than three hundred workers. Businesses are taxed heavily on their profits. All non-biodegradable plastics are banned. Anyone wanting to build a house out of wood is required to contribute a certain amount of time working for a forestry cooperative. Strict border controls are maintained with the hostile nation of the United States. The government possesses a small but effective intelligence network.  Pollution is a criminal offense.  Heavy tariffs keep foreign trade to a minimum.  The proceeds from business taxation are used to provide a guaranteed basic income for every citizen.

Ecotopian totalitarianism is also notable for what it doesn’t involve. The standing army is miniscule and the national defense placed in the hands of citizen-soldiers. Every Ecotopian is trained in the use of arms – not theoretically, but trained to use them on living creatures through hunting and ritual war games. The police, on the other hand, are unarmed. Schools are run by students and teachers with no input from the state. Drugs are legal. Minority communities are given political autonomy if they want it. The population is steadily decreasing, which means less violence and fewer roles for the state to play. There is no state religion. The original American Bill of Rights is part of the constitution, with additions that expand its protections. The legislative process is open to ordinary citizens, who can call in and take part in the debates whenever they choose. No action which does not harm someone else is illegal. Most government takes place at the local rather than the national level.

On the whole, this does not seem like a recipe for classic totalitarianism. The elements most essential to tyranny – a disregard for human rights and a strong army maintained to enforce this disregard – are completely absent in Ecotopia. Free choice in almost all aspects of life, except where it might lead to damage to the environment or to one man accumulating power over his fellows, is guaranteed.

And this means that criticism of Ecotopian society as totalitarian is more informative about how Americans define totalitarianism than it is about Ecotopia. To the American, it doesn’t matter how much freedom you have as a person, or how little danger you are in from the state. The only thing that counts is how much money you can make, and how much status and power you can acquire as a result of your financial success. Ecotopia is really a perfect test case to analyze this sort of thinking. Take away all the dangers of a central government run wild, and replace them with a few environmental regulations and limitations on wealth, and suddenly Ecotopia is totalitarian. Cross the border back into the contemporary United States, with widespread violence, with a massive state army and bureaucracy, with rules governing every aspect of life except for the unrestrained pursuit of wealth, and just as abruptly you are back in the land of freedom. How else can this be explained, if Americans are not using a very different dictionary than the rest of the world?