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June 15, 2010

Lincoln Allison meanders through Ecotopia - and is reminded that anyone who says they aren't a snob is either a liar or an idiot

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison returns to Ecotopia - and finds socialism with an American face.

In 1981 Joel Garreau's book, The Nine Nations of North America, was published. One of its interesting aspects was a challenge to the established view that the American state and American commerce tended to homogenise cultures and economies. Instead, Garreau suggested that geographical mobility allowed people to choose between the lifestyles dominant in different regions, thus increasing existing differences. Therefore Houston and Seattle (for example) are becoming more unlike each other.

In some respects (though not in terms of the freedom of choice) the idea is broadly parallel to that put by Asa Briggs in Victorian Cities because he argues there that urbanisation and industrialisation in England made for more diffuse local societies, creating Geordies and Scousers and making Lancashire more different from Yorkshire than it had been before because the ethnic mixes and economic experiences were more different between regions than they had been in a more agrarian society. The Garreau thesis (and Garreau himself) has thrived and is still being developed and discussed.

One of Garreau's "nations" was Ecotopia, a relatively damp strip of the West consisting of parts of Northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska.

The idea was by no means new: it was a slightly different take on Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia: the Notebooks and Reports of William Weston, which had originally been self-published in 1975 and was a political fantasy in which Washington, Oregon and the Northern half of California secede from the United States.

Even this wasn't particularly original: my wife and I lived in California in 1975-76 and were involved in many varieties of conversation in which Ecotopian westerners assured us that they were much more in tune with nature than other Americans, more concerned with the quality and texture of life and much less involved with the instrumentality and comfort-seeking which typified the American way of life.

The eventual need for secession was something which sometimes came up in these conversations as did the growing gap between Southern California, portrayed as the least spiritual place on the planet, and the Northern half of the state, seen as the opposite. These ideas tended to blend in with the vague radicalism and "hippy" spirit which still lingered around at the time, but they have proved rather more durable than many other things which were said then.

So when we recently meandered from Seattle to Big Sur one of the things I was thinking about was an impressionistic test of the Ecotopian thesis by comparing the West now both with what it was like thirty five years ago and with our experiences of travelling through the American heartland just eighteen months ago.

First glance suggests two completely different countries. For a lover of landscape this is a wonderful place, the opposite of the flat fields of soy and corn: there are volcanic mountains, the biggest trees on the planet and a wild coastline with a turbulent sea. There is a bigger variety of crops than anywhere else on earth and at one point we moved through lumber forests, orchards, vineyards and down to the paddy fields of the Sacramento Valley within an hour.

You can choose your season in Ecotopia: we had winter snows in Mount Rainier and Crater Lake, blustery English spring on the coast and summer sunshine in inland California. Most of Ecotopia is publicly owned, including national parks and forests and state parks and beaches. The people are different, too: they do not fly the flag on their lawns or put up signs saying God Bless America and there is no more public evidence of religious belief than you would see in England. Cyclists and joggers abound, obesity is rare. We sat in the sunshine outside Kirk’s steakburger joint in Palo Alto looking for fat people and seeing none. At last we spotted a stout couple, but they got into a car with Alabama plates. In Ecotopia everyone has their favourite cycle track, their favourite hiking trail, their favourite farmers’ market and their favourite local wine.

And their favourite planning ordinance. Back in the day I was researching a situation in which the middle-classes in the Bay Area were desperately trying to prevent development, which seemed a fairly hopeless task given the protection of private property rights in the 5th and 14th Amendments and the courts' insistence on the "highest and best" (that is, most profitable) use of land. What is remarkable is that they have used ideas like sustainability to create ordinances so stern that they wouldn't be allowed in England. An extreme case is that several Californian towns have ordinances against franchise businesses so there are no Starbuck's or McDonald's in places like Nevada City, Carmel and downtown Palo Alto. Snobbery, you might say. To which I would reply that anyone who says they aren't a snob is either a liar or an idiot.

Preserving the wilderness was relatively easy, given that national parks et al. are what Daniel Boorstin called the "cathedrals of America" and the project of preservation co-opts a good slice of the political right. But the achievement of town planning is more unexpected. Northern California now contains the neatest, best preserved towns in America; they look the oldest places in the country even though this is the newest region. San Francisco is the biggest and it has swathes of its own version of colourful "Victorian" town houses which have been built since my day.

But I submit my own home town is the most remarkable. Mountain View in our day was a scruffy chunk of suburb clustered round the vulgar strip of El Camino Real. It was chiefly famous for its demography: 80% singles and a median age of twenty eight. There was no downtown, as we discovered on our first Saturday when we went looking for it. But there is now and it has a piazza, impressive civic buildings and lots of sidewalk cafes and restaurants - though a distinct and quite proper absence of the plaques found in other Californian towns explaining how "historic" the whole place is. In fact the most surprising single event of our journey - even more surprising than having to change our rental car twice - was being able to go to the theatre in Mountain View, a very good production of Michael Hollinger's Opus. Meanwhile, our local Szechuan restaurant still exists and has pictures of the last four US presidents plus Mrs Thatcher, Mr Gorbachev and Benazir Bhutto all eating there; I always thought it was rather good.

One of the intangible charms of Ecotopia, especially in the rural areas, is a kind of endearing anarchism. There are marijuana growers' festivals even though growing marijuana is supposed to be illegal and the teutonic law-for-law's-sake attitudes of much of the USA are absent. There is no ethnic majority and no cultural norm; Native Americans and their institutions, including casinos, are more prominent than elsewhere.

And there are the hoboes and eccentrics, normally male, white and bearded, who crop up everywhere. Sometimes they beg, usually they don't. Sometimes an old guy falls alongside you on the trail and shares his eccentric opinions, fairly unpredictable, but usually with an element of hedonism and live-and-let-live. Probably they thrive on the benign climate and abundant land. They are, of course, a principal subject for California's greatest writer, John Steinbeck. But this is not life imitating art - all the evidence suggests that guys like this have been a prominent part of Californian life since the 1849 goldrush.

Even Doctor Watson must have guessed by now that I rather like this part of the world. In fact I would live there if I didn't live in England. Perhaps it's the sense of cultural freedom, an America without assertive Americanism: there are good breweries and vineyards and plenty of cricket and Seattle even has the most devoted "soccer" fans in the USA. Perhaps it's just familiarity, having spent our first year together there as a married couple.

But confusions of time and space might blur my comparisons. America in any region might seem more "socialist" (as the tea partyites put it) in Obama's mid-term than it did during his campaign. While we were there it was revealed that the number of Americans on foodstamps had exceded forty million for the first time; also that the percentage of American incomes which came in wages and salaries from private companies had fallen below 42% for the first time. Put these facts alongside a public sector which is already more involved in education, land ownership, sport and even health than is our own and you do have "socialism" in a sense. The fantasy lies in thinking that democracy will ever be non-socialist.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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