At the beginning of the month we took our survey offline. We received almost 700 responses, with a preponderance from the Pacific Northwest. The results of this survey, about which we will be posting in the coming weeks, should provide an engaging and provocative look at spirituality, environmentalism, and their interplay here in the Northwest and beyond. We appreciate your interest: keep checking back for our next round of discussion and analysis.
In their inaugural issue of 2009, The Oregonian has published a piece on Ecotopia Revisited! Coupled with the publicity we’ve recieved in the USA Today and our advertisement on Beliefnet.com, this article is really helping us recruit a large number of respondents for our survey. I encourage you to share these links with your friends, family, students, and associates.
Oregonian writer Nancy Haught presents a thoughtful consideration of our research, helping explain its value for understanding contemporary society, especially here in the Pacific Northwest. Check out the article!
Exciting news: Lewis and Clark College’s very own Tom Krattenmaker has an op-ed piece in the USA Today this morning! His thoughtful consideration of the role of apocalypticism in American environmental culture provides some excellent journalistic exposure for the Ecotopia Revisited research project. Coincidentally, there was an article in the New York Times on Sunday about the lasting impact of Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia; quite appropriately, the piece was titled “The Novel that Predicted Portland.”
We’ve taken this as an opportunity to publicize our survey to a wider audience, by taking out an ad on the beliefnet.com website and sending invitations to a variety of national email listservs. We’re hoping to gather a substantial number of responses and we’d love your help in spreading the word.
We’ve set up a page with some information about the project and links to the survey:
You can also go directly to the survey itself:
I had the privilege of opening this blog series, and will now offer a few brief thoughts as our research nears its conclusion. I’d also recommend you view some attached presentations Evan and I made to our Ecotopia Revisited expert committee, including a background on the project and summaries of our surveys and interviews.
First and foremost, a huge thanks to Amber, Evan, and Meagan for their hard work and great ideas all summer and fall: it has been such a pleasure working with each of you, and I’m excited with what we have learned together. Second, another huge thanks to the communities and individuals throughout Oregon who participated in our interviews: we have come through this experience all the wiser from having spent time with you. The insights I share below are the result of the collaborative efforts of our research team and the input of our fellow Oregonians.
- One very provocative result Evan mentioned in his recent blog involved the similar values we found among members of intentional communities vs. other communities in Oregon. (A pretest of our survey actually revealed broadly similar values among respondents throughout the United States; we hope to look into this further.) This result is surprising: in terms of values, at least, you can apparently find Ecotopianism throughout a variety of communities in (and outside of) Oregon. Of course, there is always a degree of self-selection among research participants, but our invitation and interview procedures were designed to include a wide swath of perspectives. One certain implication: Ecotopianism is alive and well in the early 21st century. Whether this is a good thing or not, whether Ecotopia is our hope for the future or a hopelessly outdated vestige from our recent past, is open to interpretation, and I plan to write about the implications of this and related findings in future.
- Another important result Evan mentioned is the connection between spatial scale and our dream and nightmare worlds. It boils down to this: “think globally, act locally” has increasingly become “think dystopically globally, act utopically locally.” Evan covers this finding well, but again the result bears greater interpretive scrutiny: how empowering is it to focus on action at ever smaller scales? how efficacious is this mode of action, at local (and especially larger) scales? In the three-plus decades since publication of Ecotopia, the magnitude of—and arguably our awareness of—global political, ecological, and social crisis has grown. Has this sent us more and more toward envisioning better worlds at smaller and smaller scales, effectively giving up on global possibilities? We’ll all need to think, and talk, about this profound connection between scale and utopia/dystopia much further.
There are lots of other surprising results we are gradually uncovering as our analysis proceeds. But Evan’s blog concludes with a framing question I asked toward the outset of our research project, and I’d like to end by repeating the paragraph in which this question was embedded, originally presented in my initial blog:
Most utopian and dystopian discourse points outward to the worlds it describes—in the ecological realm, for instance, the dream of a sustainable society and the nightmare of global warming typically emphasize how to achieve sustainability, how to stop global warming. Yet the key question we ask in Ecotopia Revisited is: what do our contemporary utopias and dystopias tell us about ourselves? There can be no lasting resolution of the questions these utopias and dystopias raise unless we attend both to the outer and inner worlds they connect, the worlds we inhabit and the worlds we imagine. These worlds of object and subject, reality and desire, are ultimately inextricable, yet what this project offers is a corrective to the tendency to only point outward as we consider our ecological dreams and nightmares, ultimately contributing toward the self-understanding late-modern societies require to move forward as they justifiably flee nightmare worlds and pursue more ideal worlds in which to live well.
It is my hope that, in whatever small way, the contribution of Oregon communities via Ecotopia Revisited will indeed help us move toward worlds in which we may all live well.
Ecotopia Revisited is a multi-methodological effort: that is, we want to ask our key questions in a variety of different ways. Now that we’re finished with the data collection, we would like to provide a basic explanation of our methods as well as some initial findings.
Between July and October we passed out questionnaires at the communities we visited, including the annual meeting of the Northwest Intentional Communities Association. One hundred and forty persons completed the survey, providing us with demographic information and information about a variety of issues concerning nature, spirituality, and political and social ideals. Our survey asked about how strongly respondents identified themselves with certain descriptors (e.g. “environmentalist,” “rational,” etc.) and with certain places (e.g. “the United States,” “your watershed,” etc.). The survey was also structured around several scales, which use respondents’ answers to a series of inter-related propositions to measure their feelings about a broader concept; for instance, about the degree to which they share the ecological values espoused in Callenbach’s Ecotopia. We developed six scales—measures of basic concepts or attitudes—for this questionnaire:
- Transcendent Sacredness: Is nature sacred because of a creator God?
- Immanent Sacredness: Is nature sacred in and of itself?
- Ecotopia: Do the key themes of Ecotopia ring true?
- Dystopia: Does the future portend terrible possibilities?
- Seeking: Is one’s spirituality a kind of “quest”?
- Dwelling: Is one’s spirituality rooted in “tradition”?
Over this same period of time we conducted 24 focus group interviews at 14 different communities across the state of Oregon. We used a computer program to “code” the videotaped interviews, tagging the video files with a set of labels in order to create a searchable database that renders visible the commonalities and divergences among our many hours of interview footage. Without belaboring our coding system, we paid close attention to spatial scales (global, regional, and local), valuation (positive and negative), temporal scales (past, present, and future), thematic domain (science, religion, nature, society, politics, economics, etc.), and to common keywords. This allows us to instantly find, for example, all those places in our interviews where discussions of global issues coincided with worries about the problems the future will bring. Using these analytical tools as the basis for our initial interpretations, we can revisit each of the questions with which this research project began.
What are the continuities and departures between Pacific Northwesterners living inside and outside of intentional communities?
- Across the scales used in this study—with one notable exception—there was remarkable similarity between the responses of residents of intentional communities and others. Both groups demonstrated roughly equivalent tendencies towards “ecotopianism,” “dystopianism,” “seeking,” and “dwelling.”
- One statistically significant difference was that residents of intentional communities were somewhat more likely to ascribe to the view that the source of the “sacredness of nature” could be described as “immanent,” rather than “transcendent.”
- Both groups were also equally likely to describe themselves as “environmentalist,” as “rational,” and as “spiritual.”
- There was also a small degree of difference in the willingness of respondents to apply the labels “politically conservative” and “morally conservative” to themselves; these terms resonated somewhat more strongly with those not living in intentional communities.
- Our statistical analysis of the interviews indicates that Oregonians living in intentional communities are more likely to associate discussions of the environment with negative appraisals of the future (“ecopocalypticism”).
At what scales of place do their dreams and nightmares take root?
- One of the most intriguing features of our initial findings regards the different kinds of conversations that our interviews prompted about global, regional, and local issues. In short, there was a strong current of pessimism at the national and global scales and an increasing optimism at the regional and local scales. In other words, the fears and anxieties expressed by contemporary Oregonians are much more strongly focused on national and global issues; and conversely, their hopes and dreams are more attentive to regional and local issues. This speaks directly to the questions of empowerment and disempowerment on which so many of our interviews turned.
- Our pilot survey (the version we used to test out the phrasing of questions) was administered online to respondents all over the United States and even internationally. The results suggest that many of the attitudes and ideas typically cited as characteristic of “Ecotopia” are widely shared across geographic regions, thus questioning whether the Pacific Northwest is culturally, religiously, or environmentally distinctive.
What do our hopes and fears tell us about ourselves?
- This question continues to shape our thinking about Ecotopia Revisited and continues to guide the direction our analysis and follow-up research takes.
- We hope to continue to develop a better understanding of these questions by extending our survey to a national audience. Are the anxieties and fears, hopes and dreams that shaped the our interviews and that prompted the kinds of responses we received to our survey questions shared by Americans living in other parts of the country?