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.