Utopian Visions: A Breath of Fresh Air

Women's Crossroads Blog - Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez - I have been reading Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, a 1960’s-era utopian novel envisioning what would happen if the West Coast of the U.S. seceded from the union, and became entirely self-sustaining by reducing its demand for fossil fuels and inventing new sustainable technologies. The book also describes a social revolution as radical as anything Marx ever came up with—communal living, free love (of course, it was written in the 60’s), and cradle-to-grave security. Ecotopia also happens to be governed by women!

I’m reading the book for potential inclusion in my syllabus at the University at Albany—it was suggested by one of the faculty on my team at Project Renaissance. I actually prefer Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing as utopian novels go, because it’s a more lively read, and less pat—there’s still a chance that Starhawk’s Californian utopia could fail, whereas Callenbach’s Ecotopia is a done deal, and so a little static.

But why am I telling you this? I’d been privately scoffing to myself as I read along in Ecotopia—this could never happen! What pie in the sky! And then this morning I received an email from Susan Witt at the E.F. Schumacher Society in South Egremont, Mass., announcing the launch of a new local currency program in the Berkshires, BerkShares.

Lo and behold, right here in our little corner of the world, a social experiment is underway—modest, to be sure, but real nevertheless. The idea is to replace federal currency with local money called BerkShares, which would be accepted by local businesses only. You would exchange dollars for BerkShares at local banks ($90 for 100 BerkShares) and participating businesses would accept each BerkShare as one dollar, thereby offering a 10% discount to BerkShare consumers.

Susan Witt has been talking about the potential of local currencies for quite a while, but it didn’t really sink in for me until this morning just how positive they could be. Just as in Ecotopia, there’s value in investing in the local, thinking small, green, and self-sustaining.

When I look out into the national scene and see the uses that my tax dollars are going towards (and not going towards), it definitely puts me in a secessionary kind of mood. I hardly recognize the leaders of our country as “my fellow Americans”—I don’t share their vision of how the world should be, I don’t share their values, I want to distance myself from them and hunker down among likeminded people in my local community waiting out this siege.

And while we wait it out, we can and should be working for change! Buying BerkShares is one way; electoral activism is a must; trying to be as green as possible in one’s individual lifestyle is another.

For me, as a teacher, having students read a utopian novel and discuss the ideas it generates seriously is yet another realm of activism. My SUNY students usually come in pretty mainstream and unquestioning. As a new school year approaches, I look forward to challenging them to think outside the box a little bit. There’s just not enough fresh air inside that mainstream box, is there?