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.

26 Nov 2008, 5:24pm
overview researcher perspective
by berry
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Wrapping Up

Over the next couple of weeks we will be posting some further analysis of our interviews and surveys. We hope that you will take the time to read through this blog to get a sense of our approach to the questions around which this research project is structured. Please feel free to post comments: we look forward to hearing from you!

Looking back on four months of interesting conversations, beautiful places and diverse communities, we remain curious about the very things that prompted our research in the first place. Although we are starting to see some noteworthy patterns, our project is by no means finalized. In fact, we would like to remain open to the possibility of conducting additional follow-up interviews, akin to those we did after each focus group. Please email me if this is something you would be willing to do.

11 Nov 2008, 1:31pm
overview researcher perspective
by berry
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Only a few days ago, Americans chose to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States, underscoring the degree to which “change,” “hope” and “progress” animate the present national discourse.  Media coverage of both the Democratic primaries and the National contest has attributed much of Obama’s success to his ability to articulate a coherent and compelling “vision” for the country. Though the vision presented by his campaign conjoins the desire to end the war in Iraq, rebuild our infrastructures, and renew our credibility abroad, the widely hailed “vision of the future” lauded by pundits and voters alike is more an image than a policy platform. What exactly is coherent about a “vision”? For projects like Ecotopia Revisited, this question can be rephrased theoretically: how might social scientists account for the meaning and role of a national political “vision”? Praise for Obama’s “vision” is nominally directed towards his policy positions, but such praise supposedly (though ambiguously) captures a loftier characteristic of his capacity for leadership, a strategic rather than a tactical dimension of his politics. What is this unarticulated element of modern politics that lies beyond policy?

Allow this researcher a quick thought experiment: suppose that when the word “vision” is applied to the Obama presidency, it carries not a specific content, but rather an openness to possibility itself. Perhaps we can reread the endgame of the electoral season less as the validation of a particular set of policy prescriptions (e.g. as a combination of health care reform, an economic stimulus package, and funding for renewable energy infrastructure) than as a public endorsement for the basic kinds of possibilities that the Obama Administration represents (i.e. radical transformation rather than reformism, the politics of reconciliation rather than old-fashion bipartisanship, etc.). If this is the case, than it seems reasonable to suggest that the emphasis placed on “vision” in this election points to a cultural moment that rests on “hope.” The Obama campaign’s message resonated with Americans, perhaps, because it recognized that many Americans make their decisions (about lifestyle, politics, or friendships) based on faith, a faith not in something specific, but in possibilities, optimism (or pessimism), and potential. Theologically speaking, this difference resembles the difference between “belief” and “faith.” Belief signifies a tenet that religious adherents either affirm or deny, whereas faith signifies a disposition that makes possible belief and disbelief. Such a fanciful line of analysis suggests that on November 4th, Americans took a leap of faith, hoping that the vision described to them over the last year and a half of campaigning promises something authentically different than the status quo.

What does this suggest for Ecotopia Revisited? To begin with, it suggests that we might hear different responses about what the future holds were we to conduct new, post-election interviews. More to the point, however, this rumination of the ambiguity of political “visions of the future” underscores a well-travelled difference between two kinds of utopias: blueprint utopias and process utopias. The former is a type of literary utopia in which the necessary “ingredients” of an ideal society are listed and explained in systematic order, with Thomas More offering the prototypical example. The latter type of literary utopia, the processual, rejects the idea that utopia is an assemblage of certain social, political, or environmental content, but rather advocates an open-ended process that moves towards perfectibility. In sum, the salience of “vision” in the 2008 electoral cycle seems to indicate that the utopian dreams at the core of contemporary American political discourse is more process-oriented that it is blueprint-oriented. Much like the American choice of Obama as a leader who promises to “help move the country in the right direction,” the open possibility of the future guides many of our respondents’ thinking about local, regional, and global issues. When words like “vision” seep into our discourse, we do well to notice the subtle emphasis on form over content, hope over practicality, and possibility over actuality.

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.