March 12, 1996
Proposing a new set of environmental ethics, Callenbach’s visionary novel Ecotopia depicts a necessary, evolutionary step in the way environmentalism in America should be seen. The novel addresses the issue of whether or not an environmental ethic exists and if so how feasible is it to have such an ethic in order to propose a stable solution to our impending environmental crisis. Callenbach bases Ecotopia on a “stable-state” society that is founded on ethics which ground the society in a need to make the society biologically suitable to the environment rather than trying to change the environment to benefit our own needs.
“We want better things through biology. We don’t think in terms of things,’ there’s no such thing as a thing– there are only systems’ ” (Callenbach 88) is the Ecotopian slogan for how they view the world. Ecotopian ethics combine the view that every part of Nature has a purpose and right to be here while believing that this purpose isn’t necessarily for the strict utilitarian and dependance for the continued existence of the human race. Instead of objectively looking at the world as a series of things, Ecotopians believe that all life as well as all of Nature are interrelated in systems. Their belief in the world as being interconnected, is best defined by the expectation that all parts of Nature, including man, have some relationship (in fitness and use) and are important to one another, and if one connection is removed or damaged then the entire system is damaged and cannot function as well. Therefore, their whole society is based on a stable state society that ensures the well being of the human population as well as the Natural world is functioning normally and together.
The norms of Ecotopian society exist in the balance they exhibit between Nature and manmade civilization. There is no thought given to the desire to control and dominate one part of Nature. Callenbach’s overall vision of Ecotopia borders on a very highly holistic and society where “the Ecotopians act out their fantasies all the time” (175) and life is seen as a constant adventure where the unexpected brings delight in the new day (171). Here, it seems as if there are no norms of the society but what the individual makes of the world around it. This is true only insofaras the individual imposes no real threat against the biotic community unless it’s a necessary need for the continued survival of the individual and the community.
In his article on environmental ethics, Tom Regan attempts to define what exactly constitutes an environmental ethic. An environmental ethic, to him, must satisfy two conditions. The first states that “an environmental ethic must hold that there are nonhuman beings that have a moral standing,” whereas the second holds that “the class of those beings that have moral standing includes but is larger than the class of conscious beings– that is, conscious beings must be held to have moral standing” (Regan 187). However, there is one problem with this ethic. Both conditions must be satisfied in order for a ethic to exist. Then, and only when these two conditions are met can an environmental ethic take form. But, how does one of “conscious being” address those nonhuman beings in such a way that is the same as one addresses other “conscious beings”? Is there any way of separating the nonhuman utilitarian use from an purely aesthetic existence within the world? These are some of the underlying issues that Callenbach tackles on in Ecotopia.
In order to satisfy the first condition of Regan’s model, a society must recognize that nonhuman organisms have a place within the greater scheme of things, whether their purpose affects or not affects humans at all. Within Ecotopia this first condition is met because the Ecotopians believe that everything has a right to be on the planet. They define the nonhuman population as the trees, animals, the land and water, as well as the air. However, Callenbach does note that there is a difference in viewing Nature as having a “moral standing” and just allowing Nature to continue its own thing.
Human interaction and intervention with the environment is determined by cultural and social labels and values that we place upon the biosphere. Regan’s first condition implies that in order for an ethic to occur people must see Nature as having some sort of a purpose. But, who exactly is this purpose directed to? In Ecotopia this question poses a moral dilemma for its inhabitants for there are many ways that Nature serves a function directly and indirectly connected to human society. For some Nature’s sole purpose for being is to benefit humans and that Nature cannot exists for no other reason than to benefit the quality of one’s life (or the pocketbook for that matter). On the other hand, others believe that Nature exists on its own rights which may or may not have anything to do with humans.
The trouble with the way that Ecotopians view their compatible relationship and symbiosis with Nature, is that humans may need to use Nature to continue their existence. Here the problem begins with the question of who determines what things from the natural world should be taken and to what extent. Within the novel, Callenbach shows the Ecotopians desire to preserve and protect the natural world but it isn’t this that is in question. What callenbach questions is the Ecotopian balance between the utilitarian purpose of natura as it allows their society to exist between the other extreme of just letting Nature exist and evolve on its own. The conclusion that Callenbach makes it that man cannot just leave his environment alone to exist anymore. Instead it is how he uses the environment that becomes the solution to this dilemma. Therefore, this argument between the intervention and preservation of Nature becomes a constant struggle and a central issue for the Ecotopians within the novel.
Ecotopian technology is one such example where this society contends with the dilemma of whether or not Nature’s use should directly benefit humanity in utilitarian ways. Technology, as it is presented in Ecotopia, becomes direct proof on how feasible is it to have such an environmental ethic as proposed by Callenbach. Biology as a scientific discipline allows them to create compatible technology with minimal harm to their environment. Moreover, this technological struggle becomes evident in how Ecotopians choose to construct their tools. Either technology is composed of natural element, such as wood, or they are created by manmade substances, such as American plastics.
Weston comments on this dichotomy as he suggests that “there is still a strong trend in Ecotopia to abandon the fruits of all modern technology, however innocous they may be made, in favor of a poetic but costly return to what the extremists see as nature’ ” (Callenbach 85). Two things are being presented in this passage. The first is the dichotomy of the opposing views of technology as used within Ecotopia. The second is the suggestion that a complete return to “natural” elements would prove costly in terms of the loss of the environment, the very thing that the society tries to protect. This ideal to preserve the natural elements while using it to extreme uses fails within the novel’s setting because it is no longer feasible to use strictly natural materials to support the human population because of the continued growth of humans outnumbers the supplies needed for such a “poetic return”.
This dichotomy of how Ecotopians see as the best way to construct technology is best represented in two separate illustrations. The first case illustrate is their use of electronics, as a means to preserve the rights of their biotic community. The second is their use of natural materials in sustaining their stable-state society. The first instance where Weston comments on the Ecotopian use of technology as a possible contradiction in their ethics is on their use of television as a way of interacting with the world, “rather than letting it [television] use them” (Callenbach 42). Like the Americans, the Ecotopians have become dependant upon some electronic and electric benefits of modern technology. In some way this use is beneficial. For example, the use of television and computers may eliminate the waste of paper (conserving trees) and help in the passing of important information to each member within the community. “Viewers not only watch- they expect to participate. They phone in with questions and comments, sometimes for the officials present, sometimes for the TV staffs. Thus TV doesn’t only provide news- much of the time it is news” (Callenbach 43). This passage shows how their technology allows the community to use it not only for entertainment but for educational reasons that might provide the community with a greater change that may lead them to a better way of living in harmony with their surroundings.
The second and most perplexing issue Callenbach tackles within the novel, as it relates to technology and environmental ethics is how trees and other natural products are used as resources. Wood is a natural material to the Ecotopians, and being a society who is for a “natural way of life” they use it as a material component of Ecotopian lifestyles. “Wood is a major factor in the topsy-turvy Ecotopian economy, as the source not only of lumber and paper but also of some of the remarkable plastics that Ecotopian scientists have developed” (Callenbach 60).
The use of wood as a utilitarian item is the first half of the Ecotopian dilemma. For as many Ecotopians feel the use of wood is necessary to keeping the continuity of naturalness the society invokes. “Extremists, however, still take exception to any use of plastics, believing they are unnatural materials that have no place in an ecologically idea world” (Callenbach 85). This passage defines the whole paradox that the Ecotopians feel about the use of natural materials, such as trees, as opposed to the use of these natural products in the creation of manmade goods. Admitingly, they cannot escape the need to use their natural surroundings to support and furnish the necessary goods to continue their existence. Yet, at the same time they also have a strong need to preserve and use less of the natural materials that are needed to provide society with. Callenbach presents this second aspect of Ecotopian tree use in an almost religious contradiction to the utilitarian need.
This second aspect, of viewing natural elements as spiritual beings and possessing spiritual quality suggests that, “the Ecotopians do not feel separate’ from their technology” (Callenbach 51); for they view technology as a way to express their feelings and beliefs. Here the Ecotopians view their technology as being imbued with spiritual qualities and respect they would anyone or any one of Nature’s creations (Callenbach 51). Within the novel, trees are given an almost Godlike stature and protection and their use as materials are carefully regulated. This spiritual view of Nature shows that Nature has a purpose that goes far beyond the use of Nature as a direct benefit to humanity.
Tschachler, in his article “Despotic Reason in Arcadia? Ernest Callenbach’s Ecological Utopias” states that “the function of the quasi-religious forest service’ of the tree worshippers’ (p.55) is to mystically reconcile humanity to the creation” (Tschachler 307). Having constructed the Ecotopians desire to reconnect and reconcile their use/abuse of trees, Tschachler’s statement satisfies Regan’s second condition for an environmental ethic. This belief that they must worship and atone for their use of trees as a material shows to the reader that while they understand the utilitarian need and use for trees they must also recognize that the tree “died” for them therefore giving them a moral standing within the biosphere community.
Throughout the ages man has always sought out nature to provide a spiritual comfort. In Ecotopia this still holds true. Nature as it sits, untouched by man’s hand, provides the Ecotopians a way of escape from their civilization. Yet at the same time, it is also recognized by Ecotopia that nature is also a necessary element in the continued survival of humanity. Callenbach’s novel tries to work out the relationship of man to environment and whether or not it is feasible to have what is called an environmental ethic. Ecotopian ethics combine the view that every part of Nature has a purpose and right to be here while believing that this purpose isn’t necessarily for the strict utilitarian and dependance for the continued existence of the human race. Man cannot live without Nature, for we are all interconnected. It is when this view is recognized and accepted and when man chooses to advance his race biologically to match his environment rather than trying to change the environment to benefit our own needs, then will our race become truly advanced we can then live compatibly with our environment.
Regan, Tom. “The Nature and Possibility of an Environmental Ethic.” All that Dwell Therein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. 184-205.
Tschachler, Heinz. “Despotic Reason in Arcadia? Ernest Callenbach’s Ecological Utopias.” Science- Fiction Studies. 11.3 (1984) : 304-317.