The Underestimation of Politics in Green Utopias: The Description of Politics in Huxley's Island, le Guin's the Dispossessed, and Callenbach's Ecotopia

By Mathisen, Werner Christie | Utopian Studies, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

The Underestimation of Politics in Green Utopias: The Description of Politics in Huxley's Island, le Guin's the Dispossessed, and Callenbach's Ecotopia


Mathisen, Werner Christie, Utopian Studies


Introduction

THE AIM OF THIS ARTICLE is to analyse how politics is described in three important green literary utopias: Aldous Huxley's Island (1962), Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), and Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975). What kind of political institutions does the reader encounter in these utopias, how do they operate, and what are their responsibilities? To what extent is politics described as a separate sphere of activity? Is it understood as an important facet of utopian society? Do these utopias emphasise the political aspects of other institutions and spheres of society, assigning them political functions? If this is the case, what are the political and social consequences of such a transference? The following discussion focuses on these general questions, addressing the character and role of politics in the green utopias. At the end of the article, several recent contributions from political theory and political science are referred to and drawn into the discussion. These contributions are used to gain a critical perspective on predominant trends in the green utopian discourse, and to show how more communication across the boundaries between academic political theory and literary utopias may benefit both these discourses, by broadening and renewing them.

Three "cases"

The three utopias are chosen primarily because of their established position as important instances of the category "green utopias". My selection is made in accordance with, and based upon, academic studies of utopias in general (Hollis 1998, Kumar 1987, Kumar 1991, Saage 1995, Saage 1997) as well as more specialised studies of green utopias (de Geus 1999). In analysing these three books, widely read and "canonised" by students of green utopias as well as by a broader public, I expect to find elements and tendencies representative of the green utopian discourse more generally.

As the three novels are quite well known by utopian scholars and students, I will not give comprehensive accounts of them. The article will focus closely on the treatment of political institutions and activities and the relations between politics and other institutions and spheres of society in these literary utopias.

Huxley's Island was published in 1962, a number of years before the "limits to growth" debate and the publication of several classical contributions to green political theory, yet many of the fundamental ideas of modern ecopolitical thought are expressed here: Huxley depicts an anti-consumerist utopia, a utopia of decentralisation and self-reliance, sketching a third way between the capitalist and communist versions of industrialism.

Le Guin's The Dispossessed is of particular interest because it keeps the promise of its subtitle: it really is an Ambiguous Utopia. In this acclaimed novel, we are told about a utopian society existing under conditions of great scarcity, and the problematic consequences of the political and social solutions developed to cope with that scarcity are openly described and reflected upon. This makes it a valuable starting point for a critical discussion of the understanding of politics in anarchist and egalitarian green utopias.

Literary quality is not the reason for giving Callenbach's Ecotopia more attention than the other two novels. This book is of great interest to us both because the political aspects of the green utopia is most thoroughly described here, and because it seems to enjoy a special position among green utopias, as a kind of "modern green classic". More than 650,000 copies of Callenbach's novel have been printed; it has been translated into nine languages (de Geus 1999, 170), and it has given its name to the sub-genre of utopias we are dealing with here. As a supplement to Ecotopia, I shall also refer a few times to another novel by Callenbach, Ecotopia Emerging, published in 1981. By describing the political movement that eventually succeeds in establishing Ecotopia, Callenbach also gives us more insight into the political philosophy this green utopia is founded upon. …

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