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?

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.

30 Sep 2008, 1:58pm
researcher perspective
by Amber Shasky
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Common Threads of Oregon Discourse

Since I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for the past 22 years of my life, I have always had a strong connection with the regional landscape and people. The house that I grew up in faced the Olympic Mountains to the west, and Pope and Talbot-owned, second growth forest to the east. In this small Puget Sound community, there are beaches within a ten minute walk in any direction. Although I could not identify it as such when I was a child, the surrounding environment invoked what some might call a spiritual connection to the mountains, peninsula, and trees that cannot be described with words. So when Jim Proctor, my former professor, made a call for research assistants for the Ecotopia Revisited project, I immediately jumped on the idea of researching contemporary discourse involving nature and spirituality, and visions of utopia and dystopia, in the Pacific Northwest.

My personal experience in the Pacific Northwest, as well as my experience living in Portland, Oregon and attending Lewis & Clark College for four years, has left me with the impression that the region and its people are unique in some way, specifically relating to the residents’ ecological, future-oriented, and global-scale convictions. There is also the sense that Pacific Northwest residents perceive themselves as distinct from the rest of the United States, and that they recognize themselves as a more environmentally and politically aware, more spiritual group. So it has been a fascinating, great learning experience to talk with Oregonians about these convictions over the past few months.

While we have barely begun the bulk of our data analysis work, there are common threads of discourse that seem to connect communities across Oregon. In both intentional and non-intentional communities, ideas about what makes an ideal community or community relationships, about the community’s connection to the natural world and surrounding landscape, and about fears regarding the global situation seem to be hot topics of discussion. While our interview questions probe for ideas relating to global environmental and social conditions (we show two popular movie trailers to prompt discussion), the same topics are touched on throughout the state. Global warming, non-linearity of future conditions (things getting worse before they get better), spiritual connections to the natural world, distrust of current political situations, and community values that involve sharing and stewardship are discussed in the bulk of our interviews. Thus it seems that in Oregon, this type of conversation is a buzzing one.

For now, David Suzuki’s quote seems to sum up a lot of the discussions we have heard this summer: “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.” Many of the participants in our interviews have found personal resonance with this quote. It seems this quote resonates because it links the natural environment back to human nature, because it touches on a more spiritual note, and because it exemplifies something that is the bare essence of life. While we haven’t yet performed all the quantitative or qualitative analysis necessary to complete this project, it seems that there are strong, common threads that weave together public discussion and convictions in the state of Oregon.

20 Sep 2008, 4:53pm
researcher perspective
by Meagan Nuss
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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Our ventures into the utopian and dystopian landscapes of Oregon have been both academically and personally stimulating, not to mention challenging on a number of fronts. It is not surprising to for me to be reminded through these interviews just how much our dreams feed into our nightmares, and vice versa; it is equally no surprise, then, to be met with the difficulty of untangling the two, and to try to piece together a story of just how they play into each other. We have visited self-proclaimed intentional communities, cohousing communities, neighborhoods, and rural towns thus far. Each has created its own collective identity, some apparently more tightly knit than others. What is most interesting to me is how the individuals within these identities have found themselves there, and whether that has anything to do with a need to respond to some perception of the larger world. Jim mentioned the saying “think globally, act locally,” and as Jim suggested I’m not so sure that’s the most accurate way of capturing the kind of movement towards focused attention on the small and local. Maybe now “think globally” really means think of all the awful scenarios playing out on the world stage right now, and “act locally” really means finding one’s personal utopia where one is. It doesn’t sounds like such a bad idea.

Living in Portland, I’m privy to a lot of local activities that in some ways seek to be models for other cities and organizations to learn from. From progressive political leadership to a vibrant bicycling community, Portland is a great example of a unique and particular kind of city that draws people of a similar bent. In the same fashion, many of these communities we’ve been visiting have their own niche, their own specialties and culture, that tend to attract more people than other destinations might. You can go to these places and boast of them as excellent models, but another aspect of all that is that you don’t necessarily want to leave them. You have succeeded in blocking out, to some degree, the chaos of the outside world, by finding this little paradise of your own.In some ways that doesn’t sound like such an outlandish idea. And yet there’s something about admitting it that stirs a sense of guilt. I wonder about that guilt, because I’ve certainly felt it too. In the search for our own utopias, can we ever be truly happy when we find them? Is the guilt of our happiness relative to the rest of the world one of the forces that causes us to pick up and keep searching? The stories of the people we are speaking to continue to add new angles to these and other questions, and I’m excited to continue the journey of piecing them together.