August 11, 2009

In the past several weeks, we have speaking with people about a range visionary and even utopian thinkers and explorers: we heard about about Henry Ford’s ill-fated utopian community in Brazil; we talked with the skipper of the Plastiki, who is setting out to explore the technology of recycling and to alert the world to the dangers of plastic; we’ve heard from leaders of the California Conservation Corps with their vision of reclaiming the land and offering job training to young people; and we’ve interviewed Chico leaders in the permaculture movement, with its aim of creating a sustainable, post-industrial society.

For this program, we  depart from our interview format and simply read some writings by and about visionaries. We read from some of the better known older utopias—those of Sir Thomas More and Francis Bacon—some more recent, like 19th century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman and 20th Century science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin. And we read about visionaries a diverse as John Muir and a mother and daughter who sell hotdogs in Denver. And we even read about a vision of an America of the past from the dome car of the California Zephyr, which used to run from Chicago, down the Feather River Canyon, to Oakland.

The Readings

The title of our show is taken from Ernest Callender’s 1973 utopian novel describing a new nation, consisting of northern California, Oregon, and Washington, which has seceded from the U.S.   Reporter William Weston from the U.S. based Times-Post is the first journalist invited to visit Ecotopia. In tonight’s program break the cardinal rule of the book report, and tell you how the book ends.  Weston sends all his notebooks and reports back to his editor and tells the boss he is not coming back:

  • Ernest Callender. Ecotopia. New York: Bantam Books, p. 181.

The genre of Utopia was originated by Sir Thomas More in 1516, about an island—Utopias are often isolated geographically—with a social structure of communal, sustainable level. Here’s a passage from Book II, Of Their Trades and Manner of Life:

  • Thomas More. Utopia. First published in 1516. 901. New York: Ideal Commonwealths. P.F. Collier & Son. The Colonial Press. This book is in the public domain, released July 1993 by the Internet Wiretap. Prepared by Kirk Crady ( from scanner output provided by Internet Wiretap.

Life in Frncis Bacon’s 1626 New Atlantis was so good that the Atlantans tried to shoo visitors away from the shore of their island and give them 16 day visas!  The Atlantans, however, do nurse the narrator back to health and show him and his crew the House of Salomon, which is essentially a research university for the betterment of life on Atlantis:

  • Francis Bacon. The New Atlantis. 1626.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Classics, 1909. Volume 3, pp. 172-173.

We’ll fast forward a several centuries and read from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 utopian novel Herland.

  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Herland. Exact date of writing not known, but the “author” of the text gives it as 1915.  New York: Pantheon, 1979.

And here’s a short passage from Ursula LeGuin’s 1974 Science Fiction novel, The Dispossessed:

  • Ursula LeGuin. The Disposessed. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Here’s a vision of a lost utopia from Bruce McGregor’s and Ted Benson’s book Portrait of a Silver Lady: The Train They Called the California Zephyr. This excerpt is called “Father’s Magic Carpet.”

  • Bruce McGregor and Ted Benson. Portrait of a Silver Lady: The Train They Called the California Zephyr. Boulder, CO: Pruett, 1977. p. 207.

Susan: From Amity Shales comes this description of Franklin Roosevelt’s utopian vision for the Tennessee River Valley. (You may recall from our interview with Greg Glandin that Henry Ford had also had his utopian eye on this valley, but was thwarted by congress. But during the depression, Washington decided to get into the River business and create “a river utopia.”)

  • Amity Shales. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper Collins, 2007. pp. 173-4,175-6.

Here’s an episode from the life of visionary John Muir. Growing up on a marginal farm in Wisconsin, he mostly spent his days in grueling labor, but he developed a passion for reading, mathematics, and invention even if he had to get up in the middle of the night. This passage suggests some of the traits that led Muir become arguably the greatest nature visionary:

  • Thurman Wilkins. John Muir: Apostle of Nature. Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 1955. pp. 24-25.

Like John Muir, another visionary who was able to put his utopian views into action, was A. S. Neil, who in 1921 established Summerhill, a model for progressive educatiion that is still running today.  Summerhill’s web site today opens with a quote from Neil, who asks you to:

Imagine a school…

Where kids have freedom to be themselves…>

Where success is not defined by academic achievement but by the child’s own definition of success…>

Where the whole school deals democratically with issues, with each individual having an equal right to be heard…>

Where you can play all day if you want to…>

And there is time and space to sit and dream…>

…could there be such a school?

We read a bit more about Neill’s vision in this passage from his 1960 book, Summerhill:

  • A. S. Neill. Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing.  New York: Hart, 1960.102-103.

As we’ve seen in the case of John Muir, visions are accompanied by hard work. Here’s a great story about street-level visionaries from Kitchen Table Entepreneurs by Martha Shirk and Anna Wadia. It’s called, “Moving Up: One Hotdog at a Time.”

  • Martha Shirk and Anna Wadia. Kitchen Table Enterpreneurs.  Cambridge Center, MA: Perseus, 2002. pp. 1-2, 20-22, 25-26.

Why do people do visionary, utopian work? The psychiatrist Robert Coles has written “a witness to idealism” in his book  The Call of Service.  In a chapter on Young Idealism, Coles explains how he came to understand his own passion for public service.

  • Robert Coles. The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. pp. 174-177.

Idealists, visionaries, and utopians are often regarded with great skepticism. You may remember from H. G. Wells’ 1915 The Time Machine (either the book or the film), that the Time Traveller’s efforts are regarded with great skepticism by his circle of friends. Having shown his buddies a miniature model of the time machine—which disappears in time, but everybody thinks it’s a trick—he takes them out to the lab to see the real thing;

  • H. G. Wells. The Time Machine. 1915.

Filby may wink, about the time machine, but in our time, a theoretical physicist named Paul Davies has written a book on how to build a time machine. For the layperson, he explains much of modern physics—relativity, uncertainty, curvature of time and space—and then has a chapter suggesting how a worm hole time machine could be constructed and explains how it would differ from Wells’s machine and would differ from some of the problems encountered by Marty McFly in Back to the Future.

  • Paul Davies. How to Build a Time Machine. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2001. 91-92.

We have just one do-it-yourself item tonight for all you northstate utopians.  Check out “Utopia: the Game” which says:

Welcome to Utopia, a world where reality and dreams come together, a world where the lowliest of peasants can become the world’s greatest heroes. A world unlike any other that you may have experienced now stands before you. Any peasant can become Lord of their own province, but only the greatest can survive. Being a leader in the world of Utopia will challenge your every skill and demand your careful attention. Without diplomacy and tact, you will never rise to the respect the people demand of you. You must decide when to be ruthless and when to be compassionate. Will you run an empire of might or magic? Perhaps one of cunning and betrayal? Alas, it is almost impossible to do them all. Every decision, every challenge will be yours and yours alone.

Playlist: Ecotopia #45  Utopians and Visionaries

1. Beautiful Day       4:08    U2    All That You Can’t Leave Behind

2. Glorious                 5:19    MaMuse   All The Way

3. The Road to Utopia                     4:54    Utopia    Adventures In Utopia

4. Utopia        4:58    Alanis Morissette    i-Tunes Originals – Alanis Morissette

5. Life Uncommon   4:57    Jewel      Spirit

6. Weave Me the Sunshine           4:28    Peter, Paul And Mary      The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. Kodachrome         3:31    Paul Simon

8. Joy To The World 3:16    Three Dog Night       Three Dog Night – The Complete Hit Singles