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?