- Ecotopian Narratives as Social Change StrategyFrom Lord Byron to Rob Hopkins
The ways in which we tell the story of our reality shapes that reality: the manner of telling makes the world.—David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
Current leaders of the sustainable society movement, from Naomi Klein to Rob Hopkins, have incorporated ecotopian narrative into their social change strategy. Rob Hopkins's Transition Initiative, for example, trains activists to use ecotopian narrative to imagine a better, sustainable life for their communities. The narrative process they employ sketches not only the goal but also the steps for achieving the goal. The future these communities envision have their roots in a literary imagination.
It is no accident that these social change movements would employ ecotopian narrative to inspire change. A review of the ecotopian genre shows that it has long been a tactic for driving society toward a better future. What may happen if environmental humanists make more visible these literary roots of the sustainable-society movement? In this moment, where the need to motivate mass social change is absolute but the rhetorical means for doing so are limited, understanding the genre may help refine contemporary social change strategies. Likewise, gaining critical awareness of contemporary ecotopian activism illuminates the literary roots of the (hopeful) future.
Reviewing the genre shows two significant pitfalls for applied ecotopian narrative. For one, it frequently projects highly problematic visions of socioenvironmental organization—totalitarian, exclusionary, [End Page 95] and elitist.1 That means we should start evaluating applied ecotopian narratives with philosopher John Rawls's test: "Would we be willing to live in the ecotopia regardless of our position in it?"2 Whose ecotopian story gets told matters, because as David Treuer reminds us, "The ways in which we tell the story of our reality shapes that reality: the manner of telling makes the world."3 When ecotopias fail to envision "an authentic hedonism" of sensual, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual fulfillment that can be sustained indefinitely for and by all members of the society, they have little chance of inspiring social change.4
Literary scholarship can also untangle the influence of the ecological imaginary on ecotopian ideas of community.5 Does our ecological imaginary inspire nostalgic visions of dwelling in small, homogeneous, agrarian communes? Would those pass Rawls's test? By questioning the implications of ecological imaginaries in specific ecotopian stories, environmental humanists can contribute to fair, just, and sustainable world building.6
The value of this process is visible when comparing the Transition Initiative's applied ecotopian narrative to Lord Byron's literary one. The Transition Initiative, a twenty-first-century intentional community movement, employs ecotopian narrative as a central strategy for defamiliarizing the work-and-spend lifestyle of neoliberal carbon capitalism and prefiguring the sustainable-hedonist society it hopes to create. Lord Byron's late poem The Island (1823) employs ecotopian narrative to defamiliarize the British Empire's world-disciplining project by contrasting it with an idealized vision of a Polynesian community where sustainable hedonism is the organizing principle. They both draw on ecological imaginaries to bring alternative myths of sustainability, reciprocity, egalitarianism, and nonhuman agency to bear in critiquing oppressive, exclusionary, and destructive regimes. In both, the process of critique builds a skeptical hermeneutic that can be applied reflexively to the projected ecotopia.
Ecotopian narratives are a variant of the utopian genre—they draw on ecosophical values and ecological concepts to imagine alternative social structures. While the common assumption is that utopias—"u- topos, a no-place"—are escapist fantasies that could never exist, theorists since [End Page 96] Ernest Bloch divide constructive, or concrete, ecotopias that envision "eu- topos, the good place," from abstract ecotopias that project impossible wish fulfilment.7 "Derived from critical social theory, based on an understanding of current social processes and achievable by development of those processes,"8 concrete ecotopias reflect the actual and potential worlds. As such, the genre pairs two complementary modes: one critical, a "negative archeology" to diagnose the "root of evil" in the actual world, and the other creative, a "positive architecture" to build an alternative from untapped potential within the existing system.9 This complementarity is the...