15 Dec 2008, 1:45pm
overview
by berry
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Ecotopia Survey in the National Media

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:

http://www.lclark.edu/dept/envs/ecotopia_survey.html

You can also go directly to the survey itself:

http://ecotopia.survey.sgizmo.com/

3 Dec 2008, 5:42pm
overview
by Jim Proctor
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Some concluding thoughts on Ecotopia Revisited

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.

3 Dec 2008, 1:58pm
interviews overview
by berry
1 comment

Notes on method and some initial results

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.

Survey methodology:
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”?

Interview methodology:
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?
1 Dec 2008, 2:18pm
interviews overview researcher perspective
by Meagan Nuss
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Walking the Talk: How Empowered Are You?

After several long months of talking to Oregonians of all ilk and walks of life, another chapter of Ecotopia Revisited is complete.  There is still much data crunching and qualitative work to be done, but there are a number of observations that we can see at this point in the project.  My immediate interests lie in the difference of degrees of hope between residents of intentional versus non-intentional communities, a thread I began in my previous post (Pragmatism Reveals Degrees of Hope).  Given that we found many surprising correlations between these two groups (or maybe not so surprising!), what appears to be their main difference and from what does this difference spring?

The survey we administered to participants of our project, in addition to a number of volunteers that took the survey online, examined individuals along a number of different worldview axis.  Does an individual see nature as inherently sacred, or sacred for theological reasons?  Does one value a vision of ecotopia, in which society is based around a local economy and natural products?  Is the world on the brink of some kind of significant collapse?  How much does one identify as an American or an Oregonian? How much does one identify as environmentalist, spiritual, religious, or morally or politically conservative?  Our results showed us a remarkable lack of significant difference between people living in intentional communities and others.  This means, for example, that you are no more likely to find an ecotopian, dystopian, or environmentalist in an intentional community as you are in a non-intentional community.  The distribution of Oregonians we interviewed reflects similar values and worldviews across the board.

The consistent choice of D.T. Suzuki’s quote (“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”) is another significant similarity that has already been discussed to some degree.  This quote was chosen 72 per cent of the time, which means that across all of our interviews almost three out of every four people chose Suzuki’s words as personally meaningful.  Clearly this sentiment reflects a common worldview, at least in the Oregonians who participated in our project.  The quote can be interpreted differently, of course; generally participants would either speak of it in a more ecological, scientific way or in a more spiritual, philosophical way.

Now, in light of the above correlations and similarities, what does this lend to thinking about degrees of hope and empowerment?  I am struck by how persistent Suzuki’s quote was and by the discussion it generated.  In this and other inspirational quotes, many people signaled their need to look at the world through a positive, solution-oriented framework; hence, perhaps, the negative correlation between inspirational quotes and factual quotes from authorities of science.  We also heard comments about Suzuki’s quote being philosophically distinct: that if our global (or national, or local) society functioned more from the framework of Suzuki’s quote, than we wouldn’t be in the kind of mess we’re in now.

Suzuki’s quote is about having a responsive and responsible relationship with the earth.  In ecological terms, it is recognizing that what we physically put into our air, our water and our soil will come back to haunt us (or bless us, depending on our choices of treatment).  Think lead poisoning, contaminated water, and greenhouse gas emissions.  In a metaphysical sense, Suzuki stirs sentiments of oneness with the cosmos and a deep recognition that somehow we all are inherently connected.  It is an acknowledgement that the individual’s interests ultimately lie in the interests of the whole, on many different scales.

While this quote resonated in both kinds of communities, there is a distinct difference in the lifestyles of the residents in each.  Many of the intentional communities we interviewed were embedded in a natural landscape that the residents worked  on daily and often depended on for their resources, to some degree.  They ate food from their gardens, used energy from their decentralized renewable resources, built structures out of clay, straw and water, and sequestered water from on-site locations.  No community was entirely self-sufficient in their needs, but each was pursuing projects to move in that direction.  Hence, it is not a far leap to conclude that these people were directly and actively living in a manner that reflects Suzuki’s quote.  It was readily evident that everything that happens to the land they lived on, will eventually affect them in some way or another.  This practical sense of Suzuki’s quote may well cultivate the more spiritual interpretation of it, as well.

Another difference between intentional and non-intentional communities is the degree to which people report a strong sense of personal political empowerment.  It is my impression that, while most of our participants resonated with Suzuki’s quote, those who were actively living in that worldview – that is, seeing how their actions on the planet affect them directly – were able to feel more empowered in their role as an individual in the midst of global crisis.

Does this mean that one lifestyle is better than another?  I make no presumption to judge.  The way one chooses to live is the result of a plethora of complex factors and preferences and at best reflects the uniqueness of each individual.  In a world where there is great concern over the direction the future will take, each individual is faced with the challenge of determining how she or he will personally respond. Whether those lifestyle choices foster empowerment or disempowerment is in the hands of each individual.  Do the current circumstances of the world demand that every person feel personally involved and responsive in some way?  Again, I am not one to judge, but we can glean from our research that among the many different ways one can cultivate a sense of empowerment, actively practicing a philosophical worldview that acknowledges the interrelatedness of every individual’s interests is but one solution.