30 Sep 2008, 1:58pm
researcher perspective
by Amber Shasky
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Common Threads of Oregon Discourse

Since I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for the past 22 years of my life, I have always had a strong connection with the regional landscape and people. The house that I grew up in faced the Olympic Mountains to the west, and Pope and Talbot-owned, second growth forest to the east. In this small Puget Sound community, there are beaches within a ten minute walk in any direction. Although I could not identify it as such when I was a child, the surrounding environment invoked what some might call a spiritual connection to the mountains, peninsula, and trees that cannot be described with words. So when Jim Proctor, my former professor, made a call for research assistants for the Ecotopia Revisited project, I immediately jumped on the idea of researching contemporary discourse involving nature and spirituality, and visions of utopia and dystopia, in the Pacific Northwest.

My personal experience in the Pacific Northwest, as well as my experience living in Portland, Oregon and attending Lewis & Clark College for four years, has left me with the impression that the region and its people are unique in some way, specifically relating to the residents’ ecological, future-oriented, and global-scale convictions. There is also the sense that Pacific Northwest residents perceive themselves as distinct from the rest of the United States, and that they recognize themselves as a more environmentally and politically aware, more spiritual group. So it has been a fascinating, great learning experience to talk with Oregonians about these convictions over the past few months.

While we have barely begun the bulk of our data analysis work, there are common threads of discourse that seem to connect communities across Oregon. In both intentional and non-intentional communities, ideas about what makes an ideal community or community relationships, about the community’s connection to the natural world and surrounding landscape, and about fears regarding the global situation seem to be hot topics of discussion. While our interview questions probe for ideas relating to global environmental and social conditions (we show two popular movie trailers to prompt discussion), the same topics are touched on throughout the state. Global warming, non-linearity of future conditions (things getting worse before they get better), spiritual connections to the natural world, distrust of current political situations, and community values that involve sharing and stewardship are discussed in the bulk of our interviews. Thus it seems that in Oregon, this type of conversation is a buzzing one.

For now, David Suzuki’s quote seems to sum up a lot of the discussions we have heard this summer: “We are the air, the water, the soil, the sun. What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves, because we are a part of the web of life.” Many of the participants in our interviews have found personal resonance with this quote. It seems this quote resonates because it links the natural environment back to human nature, because it touches on a more spiritual note, and because it exemplifies something that is the bare essence of life. While we haven’t yet performed all the quantitative or qualitative analysis necessary to complete this project, it seems that there are strong, common threads that weave together public discussion and convictions in the state of Oregon.

20 Sep 2008, 4:53pm
researcher perspective
by Meagan Nuss
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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Our ventures into the utopian and dystopian landscapes of Oregon have been both academically and personally stimulating, not to mention challenging on a number of fronts. It is not surprising to for me to be reminded through these interviews just how much our dreams feed into our nightmares, and vice versa; it is equally no surprise, then, to be met with the difficulty of untangling the two, and to try to piece together a story of just how they play into each other. We have visited self-proclaimed intentional communities, cohousing communities, neighborhoods, and rural towns thus far. Each has created its own collective identity, some apparently more tightly knit than others. What is most interesting to me is how the individuals within these identities have found themselves there, and whether that has anything to do with a need to respond to some perception of the larger world. Jim mentioned the saying “think globally, act locally,” and as Jim suggested I’m not so sure that’s the most accurate way of capturing the kind of movement towards focused attention on the small and local. Maybe now “think globally” really means think of all the awful scenarios playing out on the world stage right now, and “act locally” really means finding one’s personal utopia where one is. It doesn’t sounds like such a bad idea.

Living in Portland, I’m privy to a lot of local activities that in some ways seek to be models for other cities and organizations to learn from. From progressive political leadership to a vibrant bicycling community, Portland is a great example of a unique and particular kind of city that draws people of a similar bent. In the same fashion, many of these communities we’ve been visiting have their own niche, their own specialties and culture, that tend to attract more people than other destinations might. You can go to these places and boast of them as excellent models, but another aspect of all that is that you don’t necessarily want to leave them. You have succeeded in blocking out, to some degree, the chaos of the outside world, by finding this little paradise of your own.In some ways that doesn’t sound like such an outlandish idea. And yet there’s something about admitting it that stirs a sense of guilt. I wonder about that guilt, because I’ve certainly felt it too. In the search for our own utopias, can we ever be truly happy when we find them? Is the guilt of our happiness relative to the rest of the world one of the forces that causes us to pick up and keep searching? The stories of the people we are speaking to continue to add new angles to these and other questions, and I’m excited to continue the journey of piecing them together.

19 Sep 2008, 12:47pm
interviews overview
by berry
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Halfway Across Ecotopia

In much of the scholarship on spirituality in modern America, the conceptual focus centers on the individual; spirituality is often used synonymously with self-transformation, personal experience, or the rejection of institutional doctrines in favor of individual practices. While these tendencies of contemporary society—the epitomized by a “therapy culture” of self-help books and life coaches—are clearly important to any understanding of modern “spirituality,” there are also more complex dimensions of this phenomenon that permeate contemporary social discourse. What might we add to our understanding of modern life if we were to ask not only how the broad range of beliefs, ideas and practices generally called spirituality make and remake the self, but were to also ask how these beliefs, ideas and practices make and remake communities and the collective life?

In my view, the Ecotopia Revisited research project asks about the meaning and salience of collective visions of the world yet to be. How can and how do people share their fears, hopes and dreams with one another? How does the collectivity of their imagination shape the worlds they make for themselves and for one another?

Over the next several months, my research colleagues and I will continue to develop and refine our thinking on these and other questions in postings on this blog. As of today, we have interviewed members of eight communities across the state of Oregon. With six more interviews scheduled in the coming weeks, my observations here remain conjectural, but a broader picture of what we have heard and seen has begun to come into clearer view. Here are a few of my initial ruminations:

1)     People’s hopes and fears are closely linked. In our interviews, we ask a number of questions about where they think “things are headed” locally, regionally, and globally. In talking about whether the problems that we face today are getting better or worse, many respondents answer “yes” (lightheartedly suggesting that they are getting both better and worse at the same time). More specifically, we have had a number of conversations that describe a vision of the future as getting much, much worse before some kind of radically transformative change foments a real and lasting solution to any number of problems that worry contemporary Oregonians (i.e. climate change, over-population, or suburban sprawl). In the wide-ranging public conversation about what the future will bring, the suggestion that genuine, large-scale collapse may be a necessary precursor to more hopeful visions of the future is a common theme.

2)     The line between personal choice and political engagement is often blurry, but most people are very thoughtful about the differences. How does one change the world? What is the relationship between the myriad of individual choices we make about how to live our lives and the impact those choices have on the world around us? This emphasis on interconnectedness is central concept in ecology, and forms a common thread through many of our interviews. An attention to the life of the individual is not necessarily a repudiation of the common good, and the variety of ways that participants in our study have expressed and explored this connection is rich and provocative.

3)     No one strays too far towards utopian fantasy, nor does anyone collapse under the weight of their anxiety about the future. We have now spoken with many dreamers and heard the anxieties of many people. Many of their hopes and fears are fantastical, but the size of their dreams and the magnitude of their fears has yet to come across as disconnected from a collective commitment to the present. The connotation of utopia as “no place,” and with it the frequent repudiation of political utopianism as delusional seems an unfair criticism of the ideas and dreams that participants in our interviews have shared with us.

18 Sep 2008, 5:06pm
by Jim Proctor
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An Overview: Why, What, Who, and When

To understand our motivation for Ecotopia Revisited, consider the omnipresence of utopic and dystopic discourse in late-modern American society, bearing witness to dreams and nightmares extending across multiple scales of time and space. Consider also the entanglement of this discourse in nature and spirituality, evidenced by the starring role played by nature in our ideal and nightmare worlds, and by the clear if complex parallels between utopia and paradise, dystopia and apocalypse.

Most utopian and dystopian discourse points outward to the worlds it describes—in the ecological realm, for instance, the dream of a sustainable society or the nightmare of 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 point only outward as we consider our ecological dreams and nightmares.  Perhaps Ecotopia Revisited can ultimately contribute toward the self-understanding we need to move forward as we justifiably flee nightmare worlds and pursue more ideal worlds in which to live well.

As its title implies, Ecotopia Revisited focuses on a particular location: Ecotopia, the fictitious setting of Ernest Callenbach’s mid-1970s novel.  There are good reasons for attending to the U.S. Pacific Northwest: cultural notions of sacred nature flourish in this region known for its unparalleled landscapes and unchurched population.  Given funding and time limitations we will limit our inquiry to the state of Oregon, which has hosted a number of utopian experiments over time.

In order to learn more about the contemporary utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares of Oregonians as representative Ecotopians, we have selected urban, suburban, and rural communities across the state that exemplify different contemporary notions of utopia. These include intentional communities, destination resorts, and communities such as Portland that enjoy something of a utopian reputation.  Though we doubt that all residents of these communities necessarily consider them to be utopian, there is a profound desire by others for utopias of these sorts: witness for example the amount of money people are willing to spend to participate in workshops in intentional communities, or to vacation in tourist resorts.  If anything, utopias and produced and consumed, and we suspect that Oregon intentional communities, destination resorts, and other contemporary utopias offer a good first glimpse into how utopic production and consumption works in modern Ecotopia.

There is another reason for our focus on located communities: the topia of utopia, dystopia, and Ecotopia means place, and residents of these communities dwell in multiple scales of place, from their community to the world.  We are interested in how their dreams and nightmares connect to practice, and at what scales of place: does, for instance, “think globally, act locally” adequately capture the late-modern imagination of the places we inhabit, or are local utopias arguably a retreat from global dystopias?  Late modernity has evidenced contrary place-making tendencies as a result of contradictory forces such as globalization and privatization: what do inhabitants of different communities throughout Oregon think of the worlds they inhabit? At what scales of place do their dreams and nightmares take root?  In short, by examining utopias and dystopias we bridge contemporary spiritualities with their attendant geographies.

We are conducting group interviews in roughly a dozen communities during summer and early fall 2008, supplemented by a background survey of participants and other community members, and followup individual interviews with selected participants.  The interviews are being administered by  my researchers, Evan Berry (postdoctoral fellow at Lewis & Clark) and Meagan Nuss and Amber Shasky (both recent graduates of our Environmental Studies Program), all of whom have made significant contributions to this project from its inception.

Our project also involves an advisory expert committee of scholars, who will meet with us in mid-November at Lewis & Clark to discuss our research results and consider options for joint publication. Expert committee members include:

  • Marion Goldman (Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Oregon)
  • Jim Kopp (Director, Aubrey R. Watzek Library, Lewis & Clark College)
  • Patricia O’Connell Killen (Provost and Professor, Department of Religion, Pacific Lutheran University)
  • Michael  Osborne (Professor, Department of History, UC Santa Barbara)
  • William Robbins (Emeritus Distinguished Professor, Department of History, Oregon State University)
  • Mark Shibley (Associate Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, Southern Oregon University)
  • Daniel Wojcik  (Director, Folklore Program, University of Oregon)

Evan, Meagan, and Amber will share in this blog some firsthand impressions of their research experiences, as well as larger reflections on the implications of our Ecotopia  Revisited project.  I’ll check back in later myself once we start making sense of our research data: I expect some very interesting and provocative results.  Stay tuned.