29 Oct 2008, 10:54am
researcher perspective
by Amber Shasky
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Worrying - A thing of the past?

Just as there are frequent discussions about population and one’s spiritual connections to the natural environment, the idea of conceptualizing reality – utopian and dystopian – comes up a lot during our interviews. One of the primary questions behind our research is “what do our dreams and fears tell us about ourselves?” Our utopian and dystopian dreams seem to map the reality we create for ourselves.

Our cognitive responses to dystopian thoughts - depression, anxiety, and rejection of dystopian dreams - seem to dictate our interpretation of the global situation. Some interviewees discuss their dislike of any messages with negative undertones because they believe negativity will inhibit solutions and engagement. Similarly, some believe if they worry too much, they will become incapacitated and unable to create positive change. When someone voices a certain dystopian nightmare, there is a type of coping mechanism or rejection of that negative reality generated by the human psyche. When one has previously considered a reality dominated by dystopian scenarios, they reject the term “worry” and reject negative undertones.

Are utopian dreams sometimes generated from a place where one is entirely preoccupied with worrying? Or do our dystopian dreams generate cognitive dissonance? In other words, are people looking for other things to justify their own lives in order to refute the ideas generating their nightmares? It is evident by this example that our dreams do paint our realities and that utopian and dystopian dreams are tightly interwoven. But why are some hesitant to accept negativity and worry where they once held dystopian thoughts?

22 Oct 2008, 12:21pm
by berry
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Ecotopia Revisited Expert Committee

We finished conducting interviews for Ecotopia Revisited early in October, which means that we are presently working on analysis and interpretation. We are gathering all the survey data we collected into a single source and listening again to all of our interviews. It is also time to ask around for ideas about how to put everything we’ve heard in context. In order to accomplish this complex task, we are inviting a panel of social scientists to help us better understand the conversations we’ve had with a variety of different Oregonian communities.  These scholars—whose expertise ranges from spirituality to history, from folklore to the Pacific Northwest—constitute quite a distinguished group.
Ecotopia Revisited Expert Committee:

  • Marion Goldman (Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Oregon) is a scholar of gender and society, with longstanding research interest spirituality and intentional communities in the American West (i.e. Esalen and Rajneeshpuram).
  • Jim Kopp (Director, Aubrey R. Watzek Library, Lewis & Clark College) has a forthcoming book, Eden Within Eden, which explores the history of utopian and intentional communities in the state of Oregon.
  • Patricia O’Connell Killen (Provost and Professor, Department of Religion, Pacific Lutheran University) teaches American religions and specializes in the Pacific Northwest. She edited Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone, which offers a comprehensive survey of the religious traditions and innovations that define the region’s religious landscape.
  • Michael Osborne (Professor, Department of History, UC Santa Barbara) is an environmental historian with an expertise in medical science and colonialism. Professor Osborne heads the steering committee for Ecotopia Revisited.
  • William Robbins (Emeritus Distinguished Professor, Department of History, Oregon State University) is a preeminent historian of the Pacific Northwest, and has published extensively on the social and environmental history of the region.
  • Mark Shibley (Associate Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, Southern Oregon University) is a social scientific scholar of contemporary spirituality movements in the Pacific Northwest. He teaches courses in both sociology and environmental studies.
  • Daniel Wojcik  (Director, Folklore Program, University of Oregon) has a research focus that blends folklore, popular spirituality, and apocalypticism in contemporary American culture. His recent publications cover a range of topics from pilgrimage to millenarianism to UFO cults.
6 Oct 2008, 3:21pm
by berry
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What do our dreams and fears tell us about ourselves?

As the fundamental question guiding our research efforts, this suggestive question connects utopian and dystopian ideas with the tangible messiness of the actuality of our everyday world. Do our dreams and fears describe an interior landscape, a topography of the contemporary human psyche? Or do such anxieties and anticipations reflect the world around us, mirroring the problems and promises that confront us? The answer, of course, is both. Our utopias and dystopias offer an imaginative response to the complexities of late-modern life and map out possible futures for us to explore. The emphasis placed here on “mapping” should come as no surprise: the hopes and fears that shape these imaginary landscapes are themselves situated within the larger terrain of human environments. It makes good sense to interpret contemporary American expressions of hope and fear as ways of charting possible courses through the joys and difficulties of human existence in a petroleum-fueled era of consumerism and virtuality. This approach, however, easily falls prey to the argument that “the map is not the territory,” in other words, that utopian and dystopian sentiments are a representational reflection of where we stand and not, in fact, the place we actually stand.

Thus, in Ecotopia Revisited, we complement the assertion that our dreams and fears tell us about where we think we are with a firm commitment to the view that hopes and dreams have a profound ability to remake the world in which we live. Just as the actual complexities of contemporary life shape the terrain of our imagination, so too do the landscapes of our imagination shape the world we live in today and its future.

Better understanding the co-creation of our imaginary landscapes—both utopian and dystopian—and the actual landscapes of daily life (physical, social, political, and environmental) is an important element of our research effort. Emphasis on questions of global, regional, and local scales helps us look carefully at the ways modern Americans (a.k.a. Oregonians) survey the terrain around and before them.

6 Oct 2008, 1:01pm
researcher perspective
by Amber Shasky
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Some Might Call It Oregon

Part of our analysis for Ecotopia Revisited is to compare communities that some might consider a utopia on a rural-urban axis. We have visited intentional communities, tourist destinations, and communities that are sometimes described as utopian, in eastern, central, western, and coastal Oregon. Throughout these interviews, I have been reflecting on how Oregonians’ ideas are similar across these places. Although the following suggestions are still preliminary, I believe it is important to note the similarities of rural and urban Oregon.

There seem to be stereotypes of both eastern, more rural Oregon, and the western, more urban region of the state. The typical stereotype of western Oregon is that residents are more politically liberal, distant from open wilderness, and that the dense population in Portland, Salem, and Eugene has a strong sway in the statewide politics. Stereotypes about eastern Oregon usually are that it is politically conservative. For example, an article in the New York Times reads: “Oregon is well known for the sharp divide between its more liberal and populated west and its rural east.” However, our evaluation of Oregonians’ opinions regarding the global, regional, and local situations hint that western and eastern Oregon are more similar ideologically than some might believe.

Like there are similar threads of discussion between intentional and non-intentional communities, rural and urban Oregonians appear to discuss similar themes. In both places, residents touch on nature, spirituality, and community in similar ways. Oregonians discuss nature in a few different contexts – nature as regenerative for people who appreciate it, as aesthetically something to appreciate, and as something that needs to be preserved for it’s inherent qualities. Participants in our interviews touch on ecological sustainability when they discuss the future of the world, region, and local area. People in rural and urban areas also touch on spirituality by discussing their connectedness to religion, nature, community, and people. Finally, residents of both areas emphasize the importance of community and reliance on others.

While this commentary is still anecdotal, the parallel conversations had by rural and urban Oregonians don’t simply ascribe to the “liberal and populated west” and “rural east” label. These conversations, much of which relate to political topics, show that ideologically urban and rural Oregon are, perhaps, not so different.

1 Oct 2008, 8:56am
interviews researcher perspective
by Meagan Nuss
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Do People Always Spoil Utopia?

Population is one of the most common themes we hear in the interviews.  It readily comes up when we start to talk about dystopia, but it never seems very far from people’s minds throughout the whole discussion.  People are deeply concerned about the balance of population and resources.  At the global level, overpopulation as one of the strongest forces causing much of the world’s worst problems is considered a plain fact.  At the regional and local level, dramatic rise in population is a looming threat to the perceived relative utopias people enjoy here.  The fear is that this current utopia will fail when more people come to enjoy it too (whether because they are forced from their own homes, or because they are drawn voluntarily to the Pacific Northwest and particular localities within it).  Overpopulation is certainly a factor that can put a tremendous amount of pressure and strain on a system that was working well with its given resources, and if it happens too quickly, its affects can be devastating.  I’m interested, however, in the underlying assumption tied up in the idea of there being a tipping point where more people equals a downward spiral into dystopia – or at least enough disruption that an ideal community loses the things which made it ideal.  For example, one man described Seattle as his utopia for twenty years; another ten years later everyone else moved there, and he had to get out.  The city had turned into a dystopia for him – too much noise, traffic, pollution, and so on.

It’s one thing to say one might just prefer a smaller town to a city.  But what is it about utopias needing to be well-kept secrets from the rest of the world?  Are successful utopias always undiscovered, where perhaps there can be some people, but not many?  As Jim Kopp writes about in Eden Within Eden (forthcoming), when early pioneers came west and found places that invoked names like Paradise, Eden, Enterprise, and Eureka, they were looking upon vast tracts of beautiful land untouched (as far as they knew) by humans.  I wonder if those pioneers imagined development like industry, agriculture, and large communities of people when they looked upon the new land, or whether instead they believed the “untainted” nature of the place to be essential to their notion of utopia.  Did they expect it to remain as ideal as they found it, when more people came out to join them?  Or does this go back to classical ideas of Eden as involving pristine nature and the absence of man?  In the case of the latter, you can see the stubbornness of a “me only” attitude – only me, and a few others, can live here and occupy utopia.  If you come, it will be ruined, and we’ll all have to move on to the next place.  Utopia can only stay in balance with so many people, and, well, we were here first.