This is Chapter Nine – "Ecotopia" – of "The Nine Nations of North America" by
Joel Garreau, as published by Houghton Mifflin in May, 1981.
"New Stuff" regarding Nine Nations can be found at
PARADISE, as it turns out, smells like bee glue.
Near the crest of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, Paradise is guarded by Three
Sisters. North, Middle, and South - 10,085 feet, 10,047 feet, and 10,358 feet,
respectively - the Three Sisters are snowcapped behemoths that tower over the
Douglas fir near the top of the valley of the McKenzie River. In late spring,
when the dogwoods bloom in the forest, the Sisters feed just barely melted light
blue mountain water past Paradise, over well-rounded boulders, past the jagged
snarls of uprooted giant cedars felled by winter storms.
Paradise smells like bee glue because it is surrounded by black cottonwoods. The
buds of black cottonwood contain a yellowish, tangy, pungent, clean, and
resinous-smelling stickum called propolis. Bees collect propolis to attach their
honeycomb to their hive, hence the popular name. But the other thing propolis
does is permeate the air of the forest, its aroma quickening the senses and
focusing urban-jaded attention on the broken water flowing swiftly past.
Presumably it's the propolis that is sharpening the attention. The other
possibility is simple fear. For Paradise is just above the rapids
euphemistically called the "most interesting"on the McKenzie, and the river
guide in red baseball cap, black neoprene booties, and orange life vest is
giving what is cheerfully referred to as the "death speech."
"Okay,"says the guide, "I'm going to go through the whole spiel, just in case.
We're going to hit heavy water almost immediately, so we're not going to have
much time to practice. We're going to do a little dry run right here, okay?
We'll start with the basics, and then we'll move on to what you do or don't do
if you hit the rocks."
As the guide drones on, explaining the dynamics of the six-person, $2000 gray
rubber raft on which we are going to ride down the mountain due west toward the
city of Eugene, the speech is occasionally interrupted by gusts of slightly overshrill wisecracks and nervous laughter. No one seems entirely comfortable
with the fix they've gotten themselves in, rafting the McKenzie so soon after
Certainly, the ride is hardly one you'd compare to going over Niagara in a
barrel. There are far more dangerous rivers in the Pacific Northwest. But on the
other hand, though the air is warm, there has been considerable discussion on
the trip up to Paradise about exactly how long a person would last in water this
cold before suffering from hypothermia - the body's inability to maintain a
constant temperature of 98.6 degrees. Hypothermia leads to unconsciousness,
shock, and death. Nobody disagrees that the duration of the process would be
measured in minutes.
"The hardest thing to do is shake your fear of leaning on the water. Put the
paddle into the water as vertically as you can, then push it through the water,
really putting your weight on it. The lower arm doesn't bend at all. It's the
fulcrum point. If you hear me yell 'Fulcrum! Fulcrum!' that means straighten
The five people listening attentively to the guide look like an advertisement
for sheep-raisers. They are clad from head to toe in multiple layers of wool,
one of the very few fibers that will conserve warmth even when soaking wet. The
raft trip had been almost scuttled because the crowd could not rustle up the
requisite number of wetsuits -the rubber underwear that protects scuba divers
from the ravages of ocean cold for hours. Finally, a judgment call had been made
that enough wool would probably keep the crew members from doing serious damage
to themselves. So, feet covered with three layers of socks had been laced into
sneakers, and arms rather stiffly encased in layers of wool shirts were now
being further encumbered by rigid life vests, each equipped with a collar
designed to keep even an unconscious head afloat.
This is a very rocky river, and the worst is at the beginning, so if there's a
chance of an accident, it's highest at the start [says the guide]. The boat is
amazingly forgiving, but nonetheless, the river has a tendency to remind you
that it's there. If we hit a rock head-on, the boat will come around, and we'll
end up floating downstream, with time to recover. But if we hit it sideways,
it's a little more risky. The boat doesn't handle it quite so well. What happens
is that the boat rides up on the rock, and then gets pinned down by the force of
the water. It happens with canoes, kayaks, rafts ...It's a very uncomfortable
position to be in. So we try to avoid that. But if we do hit sideways, jump on
the tube closest to the rock. It's called highsiding. You almost do it
instinctively, because the other side is going under. So leap for the far tube;
everybody in the boat put their weight on it. It holds the boat down, and slowly
it will come around. It does work. I will shout the command if it's necessary.
It will all happen very quickly.
Ha, ha, ha. Oh yes. "Highside! Highside!"everybody suddenly takes to commanding
each other in slightly constricted voices. It's very early on a Sunday morning.
There's a great deal of interest voiced in whether there's maybe not something
good to read in the Sunday paper and maybe we could try this some other time.
Now. If you should fall out of the boat, which is possible in this section,
we'll try to get you back in right away. But whatever you do, don't get caught
between the boat and a rock. If it looks like that's what's going to happen,
just swim on down the river, and when we get to a quiet place, we'll get you
back on the boat. Of course, there aren't any quiet places for the next six
miles, so ...I'm sorry. I shouldn't laugh. Really. We don't have many people
fall out in this stretch. Just stay in the boat. If the boat itself should turn
over, just stay with it. You'll all be together in the water. If you should come
up under the boat, don't worry about it; there'll be an air pocket there that
you can breathe. But it's very unlikely that the boat will turn over. I've only
flipped a boat once or twice.
In an eddy near shore, a kayaker does wrist exercises with a double-bladed
paddle. This kayaker will escort us down the river like a fighter pilot
accompanying a lumbering bomber. The kayaker is securely bound into the craft by
a neoprene skirt attached in a theoretically watertight fashion to the boat by
hooks, and to the person by a sturdy belt at the waist. Getting out of a kayak
in an emergency is not the world's easiest task, because a person's automatic
reflex is to assume a crouched position when confronted by danger, and you can't
bend your knees in a kayak; if you try, you may wedge yourself in there
permanently. But as a help, the rubber shield comes equipped with a white
plastic "Jesus ball."If you're in trouble, you grab the white ball, yell "Jesus!"and
pull as hard as you can. The idea is that the bindings that hold you to the
flimsy shell will promptly give way, leaving you to the water and the rocks
unimpeded. We innocently ask the kayaker to show us a barrel roll, a basic stunt
that involves turning the craft completely over and then righting it again,
spending a few seconds head down underwater in the process. The kayaker drops a
hand into the blue water for a moment, letting the chill slip between loose
fingers. After a brief period of thought came the smiling but serious reply:
"Only if you pay me."
In relatively calm water some hours later, the guide will hand over command of
the raft to one of the novice river-runners, who will discover that coordinating
the efforts of six oarsmen with sharply barked commands is more of an
intellectual achievement than he had thought. Running a river is a lot like
running a pool table. A working knowledge of physics is mandatory. The main
difference is that on a raft you are the cueball, and the surface on which
you're rolling is itself moving.
But just downstream from Paradise, no one except the guide was doing any
thinking. "Left turn! Backpaddle! Forward! Forward! Lean into it! Stop!"came
the commands, and we obeyed with surprising alacrity and coordination, focusing
completely on the small pieces of water against which we were pitting our backs.
Miraculously, we found ourselves whizzing between boulders and over standing
waves, the nose of the keelless craft pointed unerringly forward as the drill
sergeant in the stern eyed the conditions far down the river and authoritatively
positioned us for new surprises even as we huddled masses were greeting the cold
shocks of the old ones.
At lunchtime, on a gravelly clearing, came the first opportunity to get a really
good look at the river guide and kayaker, who were so at home with the harsh
forces of the river that they seemed a part of it, like the mountains and the
Douglas fir and the ravens, like ancient Indians.
Both of them were women. In some parts of the continent, it's not the most
common thing for a man to stare at a woman's thigh with no more prurient a
thought than marvel at the articulation of her muscles.
But then again, in some parts, it's not altogether common to find a pair like
this. Neither of them could have weighed more than 130 pounds, but they wore on
their bones the mark of a vigorous life, shaped not by hours behind a desk under
fluorescent lights that denied noon and dusk, summer and fall. These women
blended into the Oregon landscape. They were healthy animals. It seemed a bit
stupid to spend time pondering how it came to be that the difficult art of
slipping into unquestionable command came so naturally to Jean Carroon, the
guide. After all, this is the late twentieth century, right? Isn't this what the
social revolution that flowed from the 1960s was all about? Why shouldn't she be
unself-conscious about her prowess at close-order drill?
No reason. Any more than an outsider should find it remarkable that in Northern
California's Marin County, in the state whose southern half is dominated by the
gasoline-consuming, nature-denying sprawl of Los Angeles, serious plans are
advancing to transform a surplus Air Force base into a solar-powered city. After
all, we've always said that human habitats that work with the planet, rather
than against it, would have to be built sooner or later.
Why should it be remarkable that in Everett, Washington, under the world's
largest building - the assembly plant for the Boeing 747 jumbo jet - lunchtime
can find two hundred people in the sixteen-hundred-foot-long bomb shelter. Not
grimly preparing themselves for Armageddon. But jogging.
Or that in the urban parks of Berkeley, California, large signs have been
erected, warning residents not to drink from the creek water because it may be
polluted. After all, it's not Berkeley's fault that almost everywhere else in
North America it would never occur to city dwellers that pollution control may
be so far advanced that the water in their parks could be clean.
Or that in Homer, Alaska, at the dedication of the first broadcast radio station
whose signal could reach the town, five hundred people - a large percentage of
the entire population of the lower Kenai Peninsula - showed up at a high school
gym for the festivities. And I, a child of the sixties, now in a white shirt and
tie, could slowly look around and have it dawn on me that virtually everybody
else but me was on the "right"side of the age-of-thirty barrier. And that I was
by far the straightest-looking person there, the others being dressed in strange
ways - fringe, fur, beads - that I hadn't seen en masse for a long time. Not
since those corny days when the word "counterculture"was new, to be precise.
Even the elected officials were of that age and dress.
Yet there's no reason why this should be considered odd. For a long time, now,
there have been many visionaries saying that the future would be formed by
alternative ways of life. The only thing that's remarkable is to find a chunk of
North America where such ideas are not only not viewed as particularly flaky,
but where such a future actually is considered logical, even inevitable, and
seems to be taking hold.
There are some paths into the twenty-first century that are very different from
the bigger-is-better, growth-is-inevitably-good, sons-of-the-pioneers
philosophies that are especially well represented in the MexAmerican and Empty
Quarter nations of the West.
What's special about the Pacific Northwest is the number of otherwise ordinary
middle-class suburban homeowners, major party politicians, and even captains of
industry there who seem to be prepared to walk these paths. And not consider it
The name Ecotopia for the nation of the Pacific Northwest comes from the title
of a melodramatic, but nonetheless brilliant, 1975 novel by Ernest Callenbach,
who edits Film Quarterly magazine in Berkeley. In Callenbach's book, the year is
1999, nineteen years after Northern California, Oregon, and Washington have
seceded from the United States. The inhabitants of these states had taken their
final look at the nuclear-and-foreign-oil-addicted, materialistic, wasteful,
polluting, military-industrial-oriented, racist, sexist, soul-mangling direction
in which North America was galloping headlong, and decided they wanted out.
Through implausible nuclear blackmail, they had forced the rest of the country
to allow them to secede and had set up their own independent nation, which they
named Ecotopia. Taken back to its Greek roots, Ecotopia means home place, but
the more obvious meaning lies in the contraction of Ecological Utopia, which, in
the novel, is precisely what the Northwesterners proceed to build, after sealing
off their borders to the insidious influences of the rest of the continent.
In the novel, the internal combustion engine is outlawed, and the capital city,
San Francisco, is broken up into a chain of mini-cities wherein creeks flow
where the traffic used to choke, and potholes are planted with flowers. The
shrewd female president has guided the nation into a "stable state"economy, in
which wastes are recycled, small-scale technology is the only kind there is,
solar power is ubiquitous, and the work week is down to twenty hours. The
country is pollution- and noise-free, and an educational-social-sexual work-play
ethic stresses the equal functions of men and women as tool-bearing animals
capable of improving the quality of life. Violent urges are channeled into war
games, and sexual promiscuity is allowed at the four annual holidays of the
solstices and equinoxes. And, oh yes, from time to time people have a meaningful
relationship with a tree.
Utopianism is as North American as the Mormons, the socialists of Saskatchewan,
and the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. There is hardly a white person
in the whole continent whose ancestors did not arrive with the firm, if
starry-eyed, idea that they were going to build a better world than the one they
left. Yet it would be difficult to analyze seriously an entire segment of the
continent from the perspective of a melodramatized tract except for two things:
- Callenbach's vision is selling. After being turned down by twenty-five
East Coast publishers who asserted that "the ecology fad is over,"Callenbach formed
a collective of friends who brought out the book themselves. Without any
advertising, completely by word of mouth, the private edition sold thirty-nine
thousand copies, which is extremely good by the standards of the book business.
And that was before Bantam, the incongruously named publishing giant, woke up to
the commercial realities and bought the rights to produce a standard paperback
version. That edition had sold ninety-five thousand more copies by the end of
1979, and the sales were perking along at the unflagging rate of a thousand per
month. Callenbach estimates that at least half of these sales are in the Pacific
Northwest, where "ecotopianism"is a readily understood newspaper word. His
success has been so marked that he is finishing a second Ecotopian volume, in
which he fictionally reports the politics that led up to the founding of the
new "nation."The appeal of Callenbach's idea, the scope of which has been compared
to the work of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell, has
been analyzed in several ways. Even the author admits that the attraction is not
in the quality of the prose. One suggestion has been that Callenbach's futurism
has the audacity to have a happy ending, in which the problems of the twentieth
century come under human control. This is a powerful thing today.
- Second, it's working. The Pacific Northwest, politically, economically, and
socially, is right now operating on some fundamentally different assumptions
from its neighbors'. Most of these assumptions revolve around the more
conventional concept of enhancing the quality of life. In 1979, New Scientist,
the respected British magazine, published an article by Peter James, a member of
the Institute of Planning Studies of the University of Nottingham, that asked, "Why does Callenbach sit Ecotopia in the Pacific North-West? Is there any
correspondence between his ideal society, and the present state of things in
that part of the U.S.? The answer is a qualified yes."New Scientist focused on
the politics of Oregon. "Oregonians,"it noted, "are an outdoor people, and are
willing to follow their love of nature to its political conclusions, in support
for environmental policies at the ballot box. The result is bipartisan
attitudes within the political parties. As former Governor Tom McCall has put
it, 'No one
in his right mind wants to be caught voting against a big reason why most people
live here in the first place.’ " The article pointed to the clean-up of the
Willamette River, the valley of which is the most densely populated portion of
the state. Once heavily polluted by untreated sewage and sulfite wastes from
lumber and paper mills, it now is congenial swimming for both people and salmon,
"a success story,"according to the federal EPA, "yet without parallel in the
United States."And it points to the state's "more complex awareness of the
results of human activities"on nature as producing political initiatives that
are taken for granted in Oregon, but are remarkable by the standards of the rest
of the continent: the first Department of Energy, the first bill banning pop-top
cans and throwaway bottles, the most stringent standards in the world for the siting of thermal power stations, tax credits for alternative energy
installations, laws that force utilities to aid customers to conserve, a total
ban on the storage of nuclear waste in the state ...The list is long.
But the focus could just as easily have been extended to Northern California,
including the state capital, Sacramento, where such institutions as the state
Office of Appropriate Technology (OAT) matter-of-factly pursue the mechanics of
windmills and harnessing the steam from the mantle of the earth. Meanwhile, the
state Arts Council has reorganized itself administratively into "bioregions,"arguing that whether you work with nature or against it, the planet is going to
influence your operations, so you may as well work with it, and not draw your
political lines as if mountains and river barriers do not exist. Such ideas are
so distinctly Ecotopian that Governor Jerry Brown was dismissed as "Governor Moonbeam"during his 1980 race for the presidency of the United States. In New
England, he said things like "You don't hear much about holistic medicine in
presidential primaries,"and seasoned eastern political reporters turned to each
other and said, "You know? He's right. You don't hear much about holistic
medicine in presidential primaries."
Yet the point that Brown was making might not have been regarded as particularly
strange in the Northwest, where, once some unconventional assumptions are made,
hundreds of new conclusions can be arrived at. In Ecotopia, holistic medicine
can be seen as having considerable internal logic. If you've got a Social
Security or Medicare system that is financially on its last legs, the argument
goes, perhaps it's time to take a look at what we're spending our money on.
Perhaps it's wrong to gear our medical system to the heroic treatment of
biological catastrophes. Perhaps it would be better, and ultimately cheaper, to
view patients as whole (hence "holistic") organisms, with complicated
interrelated systems. Perhaps the thrust should be at keeping these systems
well, rather than responding to them only when they're screwed up beyond belief.
It's the same logic that a careful automobile owner applies when he's scrupulous
about what he puts in the gas tank, how he applies a rust preventive, or when he
changes the oil - that it's a lot less expensive than replacing a blown engine
or a rotted quarter panel.
The hitch with a holistic medical system is that it requires people to pay far
more attention to what they eat than they generally do now - perhaps forcing
changes in the chemical-dependent agribusiness system. It requires changes in
"life style"- like banning tobacco. And it makes your head hurt to think how
you would administer a holistic medical system through existing massive
bureaucracies. You'd have practically no choice but to decentralize.
But, then, in Ecotopia, none of those propositions is always viewed as crazy,
The Ecotopian vision extends to southeastern coastal Alaska, the economy of
which, unlike the oil regions of the far north, is based on renewable resources,
like salmon- and king-crab-fishing and timber. And to western British Columbia,
which is the warmest place in Canada - the only point that is normally above
freezing in January. "We are a temperate island,"I was told, "surrounded by a
sea of envy."And even to western Washington state, although it's the home of
Boeing's cruise missile and the base for the Trident submarine - two of the most
devastating weapons systems ever devised. Christopher M. Little, the publisher
of the Everett (Washington) Herald, tells of the culture shock he encountered
when he moved to Everett from the East Coast. "They're not into recreational
deviousness around here,"he said. The point he was making was that office
intrigue for its own sake was a foreign concept in his new Puget Sound home - a
very different situation from the Washington, D.C., law practice he had been
accustomed to. In fact, he could only numbly answer no to the very first
question he was asked at a staff meeting, which was "Are you into mellow?"Similarly, he tells the story of his chief production man. Newspaper production
types are rarely described as the greatest triumph of human evolution. Newspaper
production devices - notably the presses - are big, dirty, loud, and dangerous,
and the men who run them tend to respond in kind. The system is also fast,
complicated, and unforgiving, so when a newspaper production manager has a bad
morning, it tends to define the top end of the scale of bad mornings.
This is why Little was so intrigued by how this Washington state production
manager dealt with stress. Most of his kind release it volcanically. In Everett,
the man, who is in his fifties, walks out the door of the building on his lunch
break, picks up an apple or a hamburger at a nearby shoreside greasy spoon, and
buys a round-trip ticket on that part of the highway system that is the Puget
Sound ferry. He gets on the boat, absorbs the rhythm of the water, gazes at the
snowcapped Olympic Mountains to the west, marvels at the clean, attractive city
skyline to the east, and, at the end of the hour, he comes back to the office.
Feeling like a new man.
I guarantee you that this is not the way it works at the Washington Post.
Ecotopia, for the purposes of this book, has boundaries somewhat different from Callenbach's, in that they are not hindered by arbitrary political boundaries,
either of states or countries. The real Ecotopia, appropriately enough, follows
biophysical borders more faithfully than any other nation. Mountains that snare
the Pacific clouds and force them to drop their rain define this nation exactly. Ecotopia is the only place in the West that is blessed by bountiful water. The
entire Chile-like thin coastal strip is lifted out of aridity by twenty inches
of rain a year or more - sometimes much more: one hundred inches. In the West,
where thirst is a preoccupation for over a thousand miles in any direction, Ecotopia is special, and the mountains that collect the moisture make it
As mentioned in the MexAmerica chapter, Ecotopia starts where the Tehachapi
Mountains meet the Pacific at Point Conception, effectively shutting off the Los
Angeles urban ooze, which some Northern Californians refer to as "slurbs."Ecotopia then hugs the ocean along the central coast of California, with its
back to the Coast Range, separating it from the dry, hot, heavily irrigated,
agribusiness-oriented MexAmerican San Joaquin Valley.
Past the beauty of Monterey Bay, Ecotopia crosses the peninsula that encloses
southern San Francisco Bay to include "Silicon Valley,"the home of the
semiconductor industry, which has been referred to as the basic manufacturing
component of the future - the "steel of the twenty-first century."It includes
the city of Oakland, which is rare in the West in being heavily black, but which
has a bright future because of the supermodern containerized port facilities
that have drawn most of the ocean freight business away from the capital of
Ecotopia, San Francisco. (San Francisco's first industry is tourism, but it is
also a major financial center and corporate headquarters town.) It then curves
around the East Bay to include Berkeley, the crown jewel of the University of
California system and the ideological birthplace, in the sixties, of the
counterculture. It follows the Sacramento River Delta, which empties its
northern waters into the bay, past Davis and Sacramento itself, across the San
Joaquin Valley to the Sierra Nevada, effectively splitting California in half.
On the other side of the Sierra Nevada - Spanish for "snow mountains"- whose
winter snowpack feeds the valleys to its west well into the summer, is the Empty
Quarter desert of Nevada. Heading north, Ecotopia follows the mountains as they
open at the Donner Pass, the crossing from the east named after the immigrant
party that got trapped there in the winter of 1846-1847, ultimately surviving
only by resorting to cannibalism.
After passing by the bulk of the played-out gold rush fields of the famous
Forty-niners, the Ecotopian border then picks up the Cascade Mountains, as the
Ponderosa pine yields to Douglas fir, passing towering Mount Shasta, which looms
over the California-Oregon border. Douglas fir is a stronger building material,
for its weight, than is pine, and is the basis of Oregon's most important
industry - timbering.
One of the things that is hard to get used to about this area, for those
accustomed to the rest of the West, is how often the vistas are framed and
blocked by forests and mists. It can be claustrophobic. As in an eastern city
dense with skyscrapers, sometimes the only view of the blue can be obtained by a
person's looking straight up. This is the exact opposite of the "big sky"country across the mountains. Its endless lush variations on the color green
also contrast markedly with the reds, browns, and grays of the rest of the West,
and contribute to its being perceived as "God's country"- the perception that
has led to a sharp rise in immigration, and, in turn, to antidevelopment
politics objecting to the "Californication"of this wilderness.
At the Columbia River, invariably described as "mighty,"and correctly so - it's
second only to the Mississippi in quantity of water carried - Ecotopia crosses
the Oregon Trail, the ancient immigration route to the West, made a great deal
more comfortable by the existence of Interstate 80 North. (Interstate 80 South
cuts the mountains in an equally historic spot, the aforementioned Donner Pass.
Of all the places to cross the mountains made available by the technology of
modern road-building, the inter-state planners, interestingly, liked best the
spots identified by half-wild, hulking mountainmen over 150 years ago.)
In Washington, while the Cascades continue north, what's on either side of them
changes. The east benefits from the dams and lakes, including the quite Grand
Coulee, to the extent that the region is called the Inland Empire, despite
relatively thin population. Here you can find wheat like Montana's, rather than
unrelieved desert. But you can also find unreconstructed, Empty Quarter-like
devotion to the Hanford nuclear works, where the fuel for the second atomic
bomb, the one dropped on Nagasaki, was produced. It is now the largest complex
of experimental and production reactors in the hemisphere, if not the world. So
beloved by the populace are these elsewhere-controversial bummers that the
politics of the place are Empty Quarter- more akin to Utah or Nevada than they
are to Ecotopia.
To the west, the politics and economics have been shaped by renewable resources
- particularly the bargain-priced hydroelectric power from the Columbia Basin
complex. There are thirty hydroelectric dams there now, and the Grand Coulee is
still the largest single source of electricity in the hemisphere. Such a massive
undertaking were those dams in the thirties that Woody Guthrie wrote twenty-six
songs about them.
Uncle Sam needs wool, Uncle Sam needs wheat,
Uncle Sam needs houses 'n stuff to eat,
Uncle Sam needs water 'n power dams,
Uncle Sam needs people 'n the people need land.
Don't like dictators none much myself,
What I think is the whole world oughta be
Run by ee-lectricity . . .
(From "Talking Columbia", by Woodie Gutherie)
Now, however, their legacy is the basic industry here - strong, light aluminum,
the manufacturing of which requires inexpensive energy as its most important raw
material. It takes twelve times as much power to create a pound of aluminum as
it does to make a pound of iron. A good-sized aluminum plant uses as much power
as a city of 175,000 people, and there are only seven cities bigger than that in
all of Ecotopia. A third of the continent's aluminum comes from here.
The higher, related industry is Boeing, the world's largest airplane
manufacturer. It is, of course, a natural complement, being a major consumer of
aluminum, but that is not the reason it is located here. William E. Boeing, the
founder of the company, was from Seattle originally, and that obviously
contributed. But more to the point, in pre-World War II days, Boeing benefited
from being strategically located near a different strong, light
aircraft-building material - spruce.
A flight from San Francisco to Seattle aboard one of Boeing's products is the
best way to take in the most breathtaking part of the border - the volcanoes.
The most scenic at two and a half miles high is the dormant Mount Rainier. But
the most awesome is Mount St. Helens, which, on May 18, 1980, vaporized undreamable millions of tons of earth and rock and a medium-sized lake, and
threw the result sixty thousand feet into the atmosphere of the rest of the
continent in the largest explosion of any kind in North America in recorded
history. These volcanoes are the eastern edge of the Pacific "Rim of Fire,"
which extends to South Asia.
The bulk of British Columbia is so vacant as to be clearly Empty Quarter, but
Vancouver, the third-largest city in Canada and the West Coast exit for its
grain, is on the shores of what amounts to an inland sea. The Strait of Georgia
is the northern end, and Seattle's Puget Sound, the southern. That, plus its
highly civilized traditions and handsome scenery, marks it as a part of Ecotopia.
So the border, crossing the Fraser Valley, which the Hudson's Bay Company in the
1800s admired for its furs and gold, cuts east of the city and north toward the
Coast Mountains for Alaska.
The fjords of this coast are as deep, cold, clear, and gorgeous as anything
Scandinavia can boast, which is one of the reasons Ecotopia has attracted so
many northern Europeans - Swedes, Germans, and British. The tall trees, the
constant mist, and the temperate climate look a lot like the west coast of a
different continent - Europe. To such people, it feels a lot like "home."At
least the Russians thought so. They were among the first non-Spanish Europeans
there, trading as far south as California's appropriately named Russian River,
even building a fort above San Francisco in 1812. They found an advanced coastal
native population, now most commonly remembered as producers of totem poles,
conducting a home-grown form of conspicuous-consumption capitalism that fitted
right in with the trading patterns of the Europeans. Some of the coastal Indians
were also distinguished by being fat, one of the few Native American strains of
whom that could be said. Of course, they lived in an area so thoroughly blessed
with natural resources that it was feasible for them routinely to feast on
salmon, crab, and clam, and still be burdened with so much leisure that they
developed advanced crafts. Ecotopia extends north past the Alaskan state
capital, Juneau, which is isolated by being two time zones east of the vast bulk
of its state. Juneau is so ensconced in its damp mountain terrain that it is
impossible to get to the city by road, although the approach by ferry is a
stunning ocean cruise.
Climatologically, Ecotopia could extend almost to Siberia along the
rain-drenched Aleutian Islands. The enormous harvests of salmon and king crab
from the Bering Sea around them mark their Ecotopian natural wealth. But at a
certain point, transportation problems become overwhelming. And that point is
the port of Homer, which is literally the end of the road in North America. You
simply can't get any farther west by car. Beyond the road's end, the natural
challenges are so harsh that the rest of Alaska is a logical part of the Empty
An examination of the topography of Ecotopia, especially from a pre-World War II
perspective, yields many explanations for its current countercyclical
development. From Point Conception to the Kenai Peninsula there are, for
example, very few geographic reasons for cities to exist on the northern Pacific
Unlike the North Atlantic, which is littered with natural harbors, there are
only two major natural shelters from the winds in Ecotopia-San Francisco Bay,
and the great Tacoma-to-Vancouver Puget Sound-Strait of Georgia complex inside
the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The mouth of the Columbia River is guarded by treacherous shoals and vicious
wave action. (The mouth's northern edge is called Cape Disappointment.) It
wasn't until World War I that engineering work on the Columbia River Bar made
Portland, one hundred miles up the river, even semireasonable as a connection to
the Pacific. To this day, the shallows and the riptides limit the growth of
Portland as an ocean connection. The largest grain haulers still don't dare to
try to make it out that river fully loaded. Oil supertankers are out of the
question. Inland from Portland, however, barges can make it on the Columbia and
the Snake rivers all the way to Idaho.
Arcata Bay, two hundred miles north of San Francisco, in the redwood country of
Eureka, California, offers a nice shelter, but the overland connections are
terrible because of the mountains.
The rest of the shoreline is marked by narrow beaches, more frequently pebble
and rock than sand, snuggled up against high-land ranging from deceptively steep
hills to rugged cliffs disappearing into mountains.
There is little coastal lowland, no barrier islands, and no inter-coastal
waterway. It is not a particularly hospitable shore for approach by sea.
On the landward side of Ecotopia, the mountains offer a formidable barrier. The
few choices available to the interstate highway builders demonstrate that. In
fact, in satellite photos, almost all of Ecotopia looks like crinkled tinfoil.
That's why advertisements used to include the tag line "Prices slightly higher
west of the Rockies."Transportation was a problem. If the continent had been
settled from west to east, rather than the other way around, Ecotopia might be a
different place. The Cascades might have filled the role of Appalachia, acting
as a snare to trap the dirt poor who couldn't find it in themselves to move on.
But instead, the Northwest was separated from encroaching civilization by a
thousand miles of even more forbidding mountains and desert. So today the twelve
million or so total population of Ecotopia isn't much bigger than that of the
Los Angeles Basin.
Even apart from the transportation problems, the Northwest didn't offer the
inducements to settlers that some other parts of the continent did. Up until the
World War II aluminum boom, there simply wasn't an abundance of ways for large
numbers of people to prosper, compared to the Breadbasket or even latter-day MexAmerica. The land is fertile enough, but most of it is at a 45 degree angle
to the horizontal, which did not make it easy to farm. Even where farming was
successful, such as in the Willamette River Valley of Oregon, there were natural
limits to marketing. The forces that made it difficult for people to get in,
made it difficult for grain and produce to get out.
Unlike the Breadbasket, timber was abundant, which was a great comfort to
European settlers conditioned to consider lumber a prerequisite to civilization.
But an industry that basic does not offer a great deal in the way of an economic
multiplier effect. The operators of the forests and the mills - the rapacious "timber
beasts,"as they were called - could become fabulously wealthy, but
there was a long income drop from those few to the men who actually held the
saws. Nobody ever got rich holding a hand tool, and the number of men who moved
from the woods to the board room are so few as to be legends. Allied industries,
such as furniture-making, are also low margin. Furthermore, in such a stratified
economy, it's not even easy to be a merchant. It's just as hard to make it
selling groceries to a gyppo logger as it is being a logger.
There wasn't much in the way of mineral riches to plunder after the gold rush
ran its course. The short duration of even that boom is attested to by the ghost
towns all over Northern California and southern British Columbia, which were
left behind when it became clear how much greater the opportunities were in the
Empty Quarter environs of Nevada and Colorado. There is very little oil, coal,
or gas in Ecotopia. Even the bauxite to feed today's aluminum mills must be
imported from Indonesia and the Caribbean.
There wasn't even much sun. Seattle likes to say that the total annual rainfall
in that fair city is less than in New York, but that doesn't explain the town's
suicide rate, which is the highest in North America, and is often attributed to
the way the water comes down. All over Ecotopia the weather loves to hang in a
difficult-to-dress-for balance of wetness that is moister than mist but drier
than drizzle. The standard joke is that in summers in the Pacific Northwest,
residents don't tan, they rust.
Ecotopia does have a very long Anglo history by the standards of the West.
Because of a variety of explorations, 1844 has frequently been cited as the year
in which the "sea to shining sea"concept sank into the popular mind in the
United States, and expansionist fever took hold. The very next year, Portland
was founded by Yankee traders who had come all the way around South America's
Cape Horn. (The town was almost christened Boston.) Immigrants had started
pouring into the Willamette Valley in the early 1840s. San Francisco became a
formally Anglo city in 1846, when California was wrested from Mexico. Washington
state has a shorter history as part of the United States, but it had been run by
the British Hudson's Bay Company, in effect as part of British Columbia, since
1824. The 1840s were a time when Wisconsin - two thirds of a continent to the
east - was only just being admitted to the United States. It would be another
twenty years before Canada would be confederated. The greater part of the
western American lands hadn't even been organized into territories.
So what you ended up with, as you entered the decade of re-thinking that was the
1960s, was a physically isolated region that, like most of the West, was not
heavily populated. (The valley of the McKenzie, where Paradise lies, did not get
electricity until 1942, didn't get telephone service until 1952, and the main
valley road linking Eugene with the Empty Quarter's environs to the east didn't
get pushed over the Cascades until 1962.) It didn't have the diverse industry of
the Foundry, didn't have the resources of the Empty Quarter, didn't have the
sun-drunk boosterism of MexAmerica, and didn't have the agribusiness of the
All it had was breathtaking beauty; untrammeled nature near population centers;
the mildest, most temperate climate in North America, where the air never burned
or froze; an economy almost totally based on renewable resources such as fish,
timber, and hydro; a certain amount of social homogeneity; a long enough history
that a basic agreement had evolved about the right way to comport oneself (to
wit, mind your own business); and, at its southern border, a stunningly bleak
and foreign example of what unlimited growth gets you: Los Angeles.
It was in the sixties that a thundering market suddenly appeared for all this,
in the form of the quality-of-life revolution. The phrase "quality of life"became important in that decade because that's exactly what was disappearing all
over North America. Advancing industrialization propelled by a desire for more
money to spend on raising a standard of living instead brought smog, noise, and
congestion to one part of North America after another. "Screwed up"is the term
you hear again and again in Ecotopia, in reference to the rest of the continent.
Ironically, because of its then relative industrial backwardness, Ecotopia was
able to catch the wave when environmental thinking became popular.
Because of its long history of open-mindedness and education, Ecotopia was
willing to pursue the new ideas. It had a mild climate. (Palm trees grow in
Berkeley even though it is at the same latitude as Richmond, Virginia; if it
snowed in the Bay Area, San Francisco would not exist. Can you imagine trying to
get up those hills with ice on them?) This encouraged experimentation. (If your
geodesic dome in Bolinas, California, collapses in the middle of winter, you
merely get cold; in North Dakota, you would die.) In this fashion, not being
screwed up became precisely Ecotopia's most valuable and marketable asset.
We're ahead of the rest of the country, [said Andrew Safir, the chief economist
of the state of California], in that we value our environment. And we do so, I
think, for very rational economic reasons. We do lead the nation in trends, and
one trend, I think, is to take your income in a non-pecuniary fashion. Salaries
in the Bay Area reflect the quality-of-life differential. In New York, you work
in a filthy environment so you can buy a house in the Hamptons or Vermont to get
out of the crap you're living and working in. The easier thing to do is to
benefit from an attractive environment directly, as we do here. In fact, nonpecuniary income in the form of nice surroundings is a better bet than
pecuniary income, because it can't be taxed and isn't subject to inflation.
Walking to the windows of his corner office atop a high-rise in the financial
district of San Francisco, below which the city and the bay sparkled, Safir
It's tough for the government to tax my view. If you live in New York, and live
without a window or up inside some alley somewhere, you may earn twenty thousand
dollars more a year, but the government takes ten thousand of that. Well, is my
view worth ten thousand dollars? I would say the view's worth twenty, which is
why it's a rational judgment to be here. From an economic standpoint, it's a
simple trade-off. It's not to say that we're any more weird than anybody else.
It may not make Ecotopia weird, but it certainly makes it different. This is the
first place in North American in which even the middle class has moved on the
idea that a person may have to lower his monetarily described standard of living
in order to raise his overall quality of life.
Think about that for a minute. In order to be better off, you may have to see
less money? Less production? Fewer cars? Fewer factories? Smaller farms? Become
less dependent on supermarkets, canned entertainment, and other expensive
It's impossible to overestimate quite how fundamentally different an idea that
is from the gung-ho approach that has fueled this continent's development since
the very first days the Europeans landed.
While the other eight nations speculate about how, in tunes of scarcity, they
will further their current ways of life, Ecotopia asks a profound question: Were
we heading in the right direction in the first place?
It is sometimes unnerving, the different views of what the future should look
like that spring logically from this controversial question.
Safir himself unconsciously demonstrated this when, in the middle of a
discussion about capital formation, Pacific Rim trade patterns, gross national
products, and growth curves, he mentioned, "I mean look, there are a lot of
great uses for solar energy."Reaching over to his desk for a cube of
transparent plastic, he said, "These things sell like wildfire. It's a solar
music box."Walking over to a window, he said, "I'm on the governor's solar
council. Tom Hayden's the chairman of it. Now this little baby,"he said,
planking it down in the sun, "plays, of course, as one would suspect, 'You Are
My Sunshine.'"And sure enough, on cue, the three wedge-shaped photovoltaic cells
on the top of the gadget started feeding direct current to the device, which
tinkled merrily away. As the music continued behind him, the well-paid chief and
self-described hardheaded economist of the state of California turned and said,
"Now that's a real marketing piece. They wholesale for about ten dollars, retail
at forty dollars. I thought about splitting for Aspen, and doing nothing but
selling these things."
Almost the moment you get north of the Tehachapis, you run headlong into the
kind of monumental clash of values that springs from this kind of
development-questioning attitude, and that typifies relations between Ecotopia
and its neighbors.
Because of its growth, Southern California has essentially run out of convenient
places to put the heavy industrial facilities needed to support its
megalopolises. For reasons of land cost, if nothing else, operations that
require proximity to the sea are particularly difficult to site. So it is
looking north to place things like nuclear reactors and liquefied natural gas
MexAmerican Southern California has almost two thirds of the votes in the state,
and the most compelling need for such devices, because its existence is based,
philosophically, on such conventional ideas as the one that holds that
individuals will not gain a bigger share of the economic pie unless the pie
itself gets larger, and that pie will not grow without more LNG terminals and
So plans are afoot to put such facilities, for example, between Point Conception
and San Luis Obispo, to the north. The magnitude of the unpopularity of that
idea among the locals, however, is awesome.
Liquefied natural gas is the most volatile chemical explosive in common use
today. Very little compares to it in terms of BTUs of energy released per unit
volume when it comes in contact with a spark. An LNG plant went up in Cleveland
during World War II, and the enormousness of the explosion was not commonly
comprehended at the time, because people had nothing to compare it to. We do
now: if there's ever a serious screw-up at an LNG plant, it will blow with the
force of a moderate-sized atomic bomb.
There are a lot of folk in Northern California who think the idea of putting
such a plant anywhere, much less near the almost-completed Diablo Canyon nuclear
reactor, is a bad idea. There are more who think that putting them near each
other on an earthquake-prone coast is a very bad idea. Then there are those who
object to the idea of putting them together on an earthquake-prone coast on
which they happen to live - and not for the benefit of the residents, but for
the loathed city of Los Angeles.
Finally, there are those who look out over the unspoiled, drop-dead scenic
vistas of this coast, still described as "the way California used to be."When
they think of the idea of an LNG facility and a nuclear reactor and the
earthquakes and the unhappy locals and it all happening right here, on these
beaches, with these beguiling, bosomlike manicured rolling hills, they get
semi-inarticulate in their rage.
It becomes difficult to reason with these people. The differences in perceptions
and premises go so far back into time and history that there's almost no talking
to them. If Ecotopia were to have a motto, in fact, it would be "Leave. Me. Alone."The rock-ribbed state of Washington offers the classic dichotomy between
the Empty Quarter values of its eastern half, and the Ecotopian values of its
western half. Its controversial former governor, Dixie Lee Ray, had a startling
and rare capacity personally to embrace portions of both. On the one hand, she
was a woman chief executive who liked to retreat into the woods of Fox Island on
Puget Sound and live there with her Afghan hound, raising piglets that she
proceeded to name after members of the capital press corps. On the other hand,
as the last chairman of the old Atomic Energy Commission, she was one of the
continent's foremost proponents of nuclear power. At one point she got so
cross-cultural that she was arguing that feminists ought to favor nukes because
they were liberating. No, I don't completely understand, either.
The clash in values is most acute over energy futures. Washington's development
has been entirely based on cheap energy. In 1975, $24 worth of electricity from
Seattle City Light, the city-owned public utility, would have cost $196 if the
bill had come from New York City's Consolidated Edison. But all good things have
limits, and all of the good places to put large-scale hydro facilities in the
Columbia Basin have been used. Meanwhile, engineers came up with charts that
predicted demands continuing to go up. So the region's utilities decided to
build twenty-six coal and nuclear plants, which would produce power at ten times
the cost of hydro plants. Well, from the rage of the ensuing controversy, you'd
have thought that the power companies were trying to ban motherhood. This
continent has not seen such opposition to an idea since Curtis LeMay suggested
we bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age. Newspapers in the Northwest have
spoken of an incipient civil war. That may be less hyperbolic than it seems
because some people in the region grimly remark that whoever tries to complete
those plants will have to contend with terrorist bombings and sniper fire.
This raises the amazing specter of a power company having to establish air
superiority before it can start pouring concrete. But more important, this
controversy has produced a document called "Choosing an Electrical Energy Future
for the Pacific Northwest: An Alternative Scenario,"by the Natural Resources
Defense Council. Based heavily on a study performed by Skidmore, Owings and
Merrill, one of the nation's largest architectural firms, and reviewed for the
federal Department of Energy by TRW, the hi-tech corporation, it argues that Ecotopia can make a massive turn-about via simple conservation techniques. It
calls for the installation of twelve inches of ceiling insulation in buildings,
the greater use of storm windows, and the employment of waste heat from
industrial processes to do useful work (cogeneration). It claims such measures
would clean the air, save the salmon industry, avoid Three Mile Island mishaps,
and create jobs. All this would cost $20.5 billion, but the result would be a
total saving, by 1995, of $6 billion over the cost of the thermal plants.
Such analyses have become so influential that Seattle and Portland have become
continental leaders in the retrofitting of homes, offices, and factories to
conserve energy. Seattle City Light even embarked on its conservation plan,
which has received wide-scale public and industrial support, with the explicit
intent of avoiding investment in a nuclear plant. Congressman Jim Weaver of
Oregon has introduced legislation to create the Columbia Basin Energy
Corporation, which would require, through power sales contracts, that within ten
years "every structure regularly accessible to the public and every residence
within the service area of the purchaser to be insulated, weatherized, and
provided with conservation devices for the purpose of reducing the demand for
electric energy to the extent deemed economically feasible."
As William Boley observed in Oregon Times magazine:
There's an energy war going on out there, all right, only peripherally having to
do with "cheap hydro"and who gets it ...For the real war is over two competing
visions of our society. One was presented in a utility tract of the mid-'70s,
entitled "Why Oregon Needs More Power": It reads, "The economic well-being of an
industrialized, civilized and healthy nation is directly proportional to the
amount of electric energy it uses."
The other, by essayist Edward Abbey, came after surveying [an Empty Quarter
strip-mine]. He wrote, "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the
The advanced debate in Ecotopia about which path the society should take brings
up questions of fairness. An expansion of the Redwood National Park, near
Eureka, California, brought bitter opposition from the loggers who would lose
their high-paying jobs as a result. Preserving the wilds for tourists and
backpackers were not anywhere near as important to them as a paycheck.
In Eugene, Oregon, meanwhile, there are communes of young people who replant
trees in areas that have been forested. When I was there, one of the thorniest
problems they faced was squaring their Ecotopian politics with the fact that
illegal Mexican aliens, willing to work for practically nothing, were beginning
to take their jobs away from them.
One of the most hotly contested arguments that growth advocates produce is that
a "stable state"society is one that will tend to freeze those members on the
bottom economic rungs, like blacks, exactly where they are.
Situations like this demonstrate that any "small is beautiful"ethic raises
questions that go to the very core of how we should live. They ultimately are
technological questions, and North America is a technological civilization.
Ideological Ecotopians believe history to be running in their favor. In an era
of diminishing resources, more thoughtful relationships to what's left is the
only reasonable pattern, they would claim.
Yet a one-year project of the San Francisco-based Foundation for National
Progress that attempted to explore this societal split included a report
entitled "Technology: Over the Invisible Line?"It implies that Ecotopianism is
Many thinkers of our time have had a sense that we are, or may be passing into a
new culture-phase. It has been variously dubbed: Post-Industrial, Technological
(Jacques Ellul), Nuclear, Supranational, Space, Megalopolitan,
Behavior-Controlled, "Epoch B"(Jonas Salk), Bio-Engineering, Sensate (Herman
Kahn), Post-Humanist (Lionel Trilling), and so forth.
The mere proliferation of such terminology suggests that the changes taking
place are of an order qualitatively different from that, let us say, of the
shift from the Renaissance to the Industrial Age. Each term in itself connotes a
radical alteration of the human condition.
The report then lays down thirty propositions, with a "these opinions are not
necessarily those of management"disclaimer. They start:
- "A real culture"which is "all of a piece"is now emerging.
- Prefigured by Nazi Germany and, less clearly and effectively, by Soviet
Russia, its outlines are most perceptible in [North America].
- It is dominated and pervaded by technology.
- By technology is meant an integrated system of thought and action enabling us
to produce any desired effect by the most efficient means. These means are only
in part dependent on machines. More important, in the techno-system, are its
propulsive general ideas, such as that which assumes the prime property of the
environment to be its alterability. [Emphasis added.]
- Technology is autonomous, universal in trend, and, unless arrested by global
catastrophe, irreversible. Because, as at its optimum, it is all-controlling, it
is not controllable. This is implied in technology's familiar categorical
imperative: If it can be done, it will be done. If possible, then necessary.
Phrasing it differently, the technician is the master of technology only as the
fish is master of the water.
Here's the punchline:
30. If ...all civilizations are organic ...are born, grow and die - then
society will, at some undetermined future point, change into a new and
different form. However ...a truly universal imperium - a world techno-
society - may be different in essence from all preceding societies and may
therefore ...be immortal - at least for the duration of humankind. However
...nothing prevents those who prefer a humanistic rather than a technical
culture from preserving the humanistic tradition somewhat as the monks
during the Dark Ages preserved the artifacts of classical Greco-Roman
culture. At some future time, as techno-society is replaced by another
culture, it may be possible to exhume our traditional culture and try to fit it
into the new culture. While this may prove impossible, there is no harm in
taking a chance ...It is our thesis that this function of preservation - a
of cultural deep-freeze - is the most feasible activity open to adherents of the
dying society. Active, organized opposition to the emergent techno-culture
is a sentimental exercise in futility.
Well, if Clifton Fadiman, the author of this tract, was looking for an argument,
he gets it in Ecotopia. "Monks! Sentimental monks, are we?"comes the reply.
Fadiman dismisses the ecology movement as just another technology, but in the
down-at-the-heels industrial section of the flatlands of Berkeley, there's a
house that is designed as the prototype of a brand new urban world. It is indeed
a work of technology, designed to help people "gain control of their lives,"but
it is tough not to see it as potentially revolutionary, for that.
This structure is called the Integral Urban House. It is a product of the
Farallones Institute, named after the Farallon Islands, which lie outside San
Francisco Bay and are the leading fringe of Ecotopia. The Farallones Institute
is also, organizationally, a close cousin of the Foundation for National
Progress, to which Fadiman was connected; this suggests the extent to which
nobody out here actually buys the Orwellian belief that the forces of darkness
must necessarily triumph.
The Integral Urban House was bought, in run-down condition, for $ 5000. A
good-sized semi-Victorian in which four people actually live, it still doesn't
look very prepossessing from the street. But because of the improvements that
have been made in it - in effect, recycling it - the house could easily now be
assessed at over $ 100,000.
It is built on an eighth of an acre in an area seemingly designed to display
what's wrong with the conventional approaches to the way we live in cities. Its
back fence is chain link, topped with three strands of barbed wire, put up to
guard an adjacent, pot-holed, bleak, paved parking lot. You can see railroad
freight cars as they thunder by only a block and a half away. A few blocks in
the other direction are houses with plywood over their front windows. A feature
of the neighborhood is an ugly concrete tower that is periodically torched in
order to train firefighters.
The house, however, is an oasis. In the southwest corner, there is a windmill
made out of recycled fifty-five-gallon oil drums, cut up and rewelded into S's
to capture the wind from any direction. It drives a pump, made from an old inner
tube, that raises water and aerates it. This water then flows into a large fish
tank, the inhabitants of which help free the people who live in the house from
frequent trips to the supermarket meat counter.
On the other side of the house are the compost bins, which, without odor, absorb
all biodegradable wastes. These would otherwise require an expensive sewer
system to dispose of them. Next to the bins are the chickens, a dozen of which
produce more eggs than the average family can eat. They also love to eat flies.
Out back, surrounding the fish tank, is the garden. It is on raised platforms,
mulched, intensively planted in the French manner, and picturesque, being
interspersed with flowers and herbs, and virtually the last word on
petrochemical-free organics. It is simply loaded with careful juxtapositions of,
for example, marigolds and vegetables, the characteristic odor of the first
supposedly discouraging garden pests attracted to the second. But the gardeners
here are so far into this kind of topic that they now say they don't think
marigolds work all that well as a natural pest repellent, and go on at great
length singing the praises of parasitic wasps.
Inside is a Clivus Multrum composting toilet, an ingenious Swedish device that
does not use precious water or any power source, and that, again, doesn't flush
wastes into an expensive sewer system. Instead, it produces garden fertilizer, odorlessly and cleanly transforming excrement and food wastes into a substance
with the texture and smell of peat moss.
The roof bristles with solar arrays and another, conventionally bladed,
windmill. Every place where heat transfer could occur, be it the hot water tank
or the walls, is insulated to a fare-thee-well.
In short, the Integral Urban House is a living, working example of nearly every
"soft technology"idea ever devised for completely changing the way North
Americans live in cities.
In fact, it has so many interlocking systems that Sierra Club (who else?) Books
has published a five-hundred-page, coffee-table $12.95 paperback that is
essentially the house's operating manual. When the book describes
vegetable-growing, it starts all the way back with the classification of igneous
rocks, and when it talks about the house itself, it includes a discussion of how
to read a water meter.
When Page Nelson, the codirector of the house, discovered that I was calling the
Pacific Northwest Ecotopia, he smiled and said, "Not yet."The unspoken
implication: "But we're working on it."
The Integral Urban House and the hundreds of home-grown prototypes like it are,
in effect, the research and development arm of this alternative view of the
future. They demonstrate once and for all the technical and economic feasibility
of the path that must be trod if we are to avoid a nuclear-and-oil-powered
Syn Van der Ryn, who founded the California Office of Appropriate Technology for
Jerry Brown, writes in the introduction to the Integral Urban House book that
when, in the late sixties, he first heard of a couple who were trying to build
an urban, but ecologically oriented life, "I nodded, thinking to myself, 'Yes,
Berkeley is full of eccentrics.' "But then, after the first oil shock of 1973,
it occurred to him, "It comes down to this: more and more energy - material and
human - is used to maintain present wasteful habits and pay for their effects.
More government to administer and regulate the complex effects of centralized
technologies. More dollars to treat the social and environmental diseases that
result from the way we live ...The challenge is to make cities ecologically
stable and healthy places to live."
It's at least open to question whether urban North Americans are ready to get on
a first-name basis with chickens in their backyards any time in the near future.
The same goes for Jerry-rigged windmills.
Yet in Davis, California, work is proceeding apace on what you might call the
Integral Suburb. In some ways, this development is infinitely more important
than anything the Farallones Institute does, because the Davis project is
motivated by greed. Greed is a far more reliable and universal agent of change
than is the urge to do good for your fellow man. Thus, it should be very
encouraging to Ecotopians that a lot of their ideas are being used by a general
contractor not simply because they're holy but because they make money. The
future of any great idea is always made more bright when it's found to be
Village Homes, in Davis, is sited on a sixty-nine-acre former tomato field in
this college town. Its developer, Michael Corbett, has built 70 percent of the
$38,000-to-$130,000 homes there, and other contractors who build in Village
Homes must adhere to extensive covenants and restrictions that Corbett has
The solar-conscious subdivision's innovations include extra-narrow and
tree-shaded streets that absorb (and therefore radiate) less than the usual
amount of heat, at times cutting air temperature by as much as 10 degrees.
The drainage system is simple and highly unusual, in that it is essentially a
series of manmade streambeds and pools. It's calculated to return more than 85
percent of the rainfall to the local water table, compared with the 40 to so
percent return rate of standard and more expensive underground systems.
Energy conservation is encouraged by the simple expedient of building carports
that are too small for a gas guzzler. "Wasted"front lawns are all but
eliminated by building the houses only fifteen feet from the street. Backyards,
on the other hand, are large and contiguous with commonly held land so that
neighbors must garden together or hire a gardener, and most people prefer to get
to know each other. Some of these areas have flowered in row crops, vineyards,
white clover, and small orchards. A corporation controlled by a homeowners'
association is developing a small commercial center and building some apartment
units, and a community center featuring a pool and a clubhouse is also run by
"I knew there was a homeowners' association, and that's all I knew,"Joyce Vermeersch, a nutritionist, told the Los Angeles Times.
"Then I began to sense I
wasn't just buying a house, I was buying a way of life,"and she started to get
very nervous about all this enforced neighborliness, cooperation, and
self-reliance. She complained to the developer, who offered to return her
deposit, but while she considered the offer, Vermeersch looked at "every house
for sale in Davis in my price range,"and the result was that she stayed in
"As the economic situation gets worse,"said one UCLA analyst, "I suspect this
kind of living will become more and more attractive to people in the so-called
mainstream. Village Homes strikes me as the kind of place that might be more
difficult to accept were it not for the economic squeeze."
In a doctoral thesis, Janice Graham Hamrin determined that Village homeowners
tend to be "young professionals, well educated (often with graduate degrees),
earning a moderate income, white, single or newly married, and active in a
variety of leisure time activities, especially sports activities of some type,"and that they tend
"to consider themselves to be politically liberal,
independent thinkers, artistic, to value self-sufficiency, and to believe they
[can] influence what happens in the world around them."That is, they're
dreaming upper-middle-class Anglo dreams.
Of course, one shouldn't sneeze at upper-middle-class Anglo dreams, because they
are the ones that are in cultural control in a lot of the continent. And Ecotopia is a decidedly Anglo place. Outside the cosmopolitan Bay Area, blacks
and Mexicans average 1 or 2 percent of the population, and, as in the
Breadbasket, there are relatively few people of southern European ancestry,
compared with the number of residents of Scandinavian and German stock. And they
don't call it "British"Columbia for nothing. This does raise the question of
how exportable some of these northwestern ideas are. In North Carolina, for
example, there are simply tons of beautiful old log cabins in scenic settings,
each heated by wood and graced by a yard full of chickens, the inhabitants of
which participate in a cooperative life style. But the people who live in them
do not consider themselves Ecotopians. What they consider themselves to be is
poor and black. If pressed, they might describe as Utopian a situation in which
they never again split another log or messed with another stupid chicken. The
idea of a young, educated white couple voluntarily living the way they do - even
seeking out the experience - would be, to them, almost beyond belief.
In fact, all this Ecotopian marching off into a golden future can become just a
tad irritating. Ecotopia was originally settled, after all, by descendants of
New England Puritans, and to this day, even its search for new futures is
burdened with some moralistic self-righteousness. It's not hard to find people
in the Northwest who get as rigid with distress over the idea of a person eating
an additive- and sugar-laden Twinkie as a devout Empty Quarter Mormon does about
someone imbibing strong drink.
Enough smugness accompanies some aspects of Ecotopia that I took a perverse
pleasure in noting that the Integral Urban Chickens had a bad mite infestation
that made their rear ends look as if they had been forced into a window fan.
This gets at some of the perhaps unfortunate directions all this alternative and
sometimes elitist thinking can take.
Marin County is the unspeakably hip / chic suburban community north of the
Golden Gate that thrives on tall redwoods, octagonal barns, alfalfa sprouts,
walls made of planks nailed on the diagonal, hanging plants, and the highest
achievement of the modern economic version of people taking in each other's
laundry: crafts. In places like Marin - and this includes enclaves from Santa
Cruz to Mendocino to Eugene to the Seattle water-front - there is no end to the
cozy shops featuring locally made pottery, woodworking, and leather-tooling.
Much of it is marvelously innovative and of great technical quality, but that
sometimes gets lost in the overpowering grooviness of it all. Like too much
health food, it can make you sick.
Richard Ofshe, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, shared
in the 1979 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Meritorious Public Service. In the tiny
Marin County weekly, the Point Reyes Light, he helped to expose the Synanon
cult. He swears by Cyra McFadden's book The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin
"Every damn word of it is true,"he fulminates, as he tells of hearing
conversations in which stock dividend checks arriving late held up the
purchasing of food stamps. "It doesn't even go far enough."A sample:
When he flashed on Sam Stein, sitting in the gloom at the bar of the Velvet
Turtle, Harvey hardly recognized him. Here he'd been looking for a freak in acid
glasses all these weeks, and Sam, with a haircut so short he had skin showing
over his ears and wearing a polyester leisure suit, looked more like Bob Haldeman
than Hunter Thompson. Sam was going through changes for sure ...
"Peace, Harv,"Sam said serenely. He signaled for another gin and tonic. "Don't
let it get to you."
"Sam,"Harvey said ..."What's coming down with you, anyway? I mean, why did you
get your hair cut like that, with your ears sticking out? And the leisure suit.
Leisure suits are out; they weren't ever in. Look, what are you trying to
"Leisure suits are in in Hammond, Indiana,"Sam said. He paid for his g & t and
offered Harvey the maraschino cherry. "I'm getting back to my roots, Harv, you
know? I'm cutting out on Marin. They need urban planners in Hammond."
"Sam,"Harvey said, "have you completely freaked out? Okay, so you're leaving
Angela. That's cool; I mean, I know where you're at. But Marin? I mean, Jesus,
you're leaving Marin for Hammond, Indiana?"
"Harvey,"Sam said, "trust me. I know what I'm doing."He set down his drink
with a shaky hand. "I can't take the whole Marin head-set anymore. Angela.
Marlene. Natural foods. Cocaine. Woodacre. Flea markets. Pool parties."
"They don't have flea markets in Hammond?"Harvey asked. "They don't have pool
parties? What's so goddam oppressive about pool parties?"
Sam ate his maraschino cherry himself. "The last time we went to a pool party,"he said slowly,
looking straight ahead, "I went into the gazebo and I screamed,
Harvey. I flipped out. We were at the Gallaghers', you know, and Frank Gallagher
fired up those outdoor speakers of his: Vivaldi, full throttle. So the Woodwards
on the other side, they figured massive retaliation. They fired up their outdoor
speakers: the overture from Tristan and Isolde."
Harvey noticed that Sam had a tic going in his right eyelid. "Big deal,"he
said. "Listen, you ever been to Winterland? I mean, noise is part of
contemporary culture, you know? It's part of life."
Sam ignored him. He'd signaled for another g & t. "Then this guy on the next lot
over - I guess he wasn't heavily into classical - he turned up these incredible Klips of his and he started playing Stan Kenton."Harvey noticed to his horror
that Sam had tears in his eyes. "'Artistry in Rhythm,' Harv,"he said. "And
that Japanese landscape artist with the Spanish-style across the street - he
started playing 'Hawaii Calls.' He's got Klips, too. And Ginger Gallagher kept
passing around organic prunes from the Torn Ranch, and Angela kept telling me
how hurt she was because I didn't use the blow-dryer she bought me for
Christmas, and everybody else was reciting bumper stickers and really getting
off on 'We Brake for Garage Sales' and 'Another Glass-Blower for Udall' and
'Save the Wombats.'"
"Sam,"Harvey said urgently, "get ahold of yourself, man."Sam's voice was
rising alarmingly. "You wanna go to Hammond, go to Hammond. Whatever's right ...
"Plant stores,"Sam went on compulsively. "Kleen-raw in the hummingbird feeder.
Weekends at Tahoe. Vasectomies. The Fungus Faire, redwood bathtubs, mandalas,
compost piles, needlepoint, burglar alarms . . ."Harvey had already begun to
back toward the door when Sam's voice rose to a cracked tenor. "Acupuncture,
saunas, sourdough, macrame . . ."
Out in the parking lot, safely back in his Volvo with the doors locked, Harvey
sat shaken. He hated to give her the satisfaction, but Kate was right. Sam Stein
was really sick.
You can laugh at this kind of culture clash, but it can take some terrible,
tragic, bizarre turns.
In 1979, Dan White, a San Francisco supervisor elected from the outnumbered
white "hard-hat"constituency of the city, shot and killed George Moscone, the
mayor of San Francisco, and Harvy Milk, the councilman who was the de facto
representative of the large homosexual population. When White came to trial, his
defense, essentially, was temporary insanity brought on by an overdose of junk
food (!). And he was let off with a wrist-slap sentence (!!). The result was a
large gay riot, in which police cars were overturned and set on fire. The point
of this recitation is that in San Francisco, at that time, White's actions were
often interpreted as being provoked by frustration at how little power and sway
working-class "straights"had in the city. They were, in effect, an oppressed
minority, in a land in which it is possible to hear otherwise intelligent,
educated people seriously discuss "astrological birth control"and think nothing
Considering how often, in Ecotopia, issues turn on questions of life style, and
the most emotional debates are reserved for the questions of how one's life is
affected by a nuclear power plant, the use of pesticides and herbicides, or a
plan to clear-cut hundreds of acres of wilderness, this nation's economics have
a certain through-the-looking-glass quality to them. At the same time that Ecotopia is made a very attractive place by the ease with which a person can
live simply, and relatively close to nature, Ecotopia's manufacturing base is
heavily dependent on high-technology industries.
The same nation that, in its every architectural manifestation, demonstrates its
affection for natural wood and its loathing of plastics is one of the world
centers of superadvanced computers and the latest designs for blowing the whole
planet away with nuclear missiles.
Take the semiconductor manufacturers of Northern California's Santa Clara
("Silicon") Valley, the world capital of advanced computer circuitry.
The manufacturer of a semiconductor, through a photography-like process, makes
several patterns on a wafer of silicon, a component of sand (hence the nickname
of the valley). The last pattern is made up of metal spun far finer than human
hair. All of the patterns - etched, diffused, metallic - make up the circuit
that performs the computer function. The resultant package is very small, very
mass-producible, and therefore cheap.
Each of these little gadgets, as of this writing, is smaller and thinner than
your smallest fingernail, and the technological revolution you keep hearing
about in this field is in the advances that are being made all the time in how
much "stuff"- how much circuitry - you can print on this silicon without the
whole thing either shorting out or the patterns becoming so fine as to be
Ironically, it's at least partially an accident of this technology that these
things end up being so small. When they were being developed, there simply were
not that many markets which actually required semiconductors to be so tiny. How
many satellites were there in the universe in which weight was so crucial? A
semiconductor chip could be much bigger than it is and still fit comfortably in
a hand-held calculator. While small chips are faster than big ones, a major
reason for their size was a manufacturing consideration. These chips are not
made one by one. They are printed in a batch on a silicon wafer, say, four
inches in diameter. Each time a layer of stuff is printed on this silicon wafer,
it must be, in photographic parlance, "fixed."That is, the wafer must be
treated so that the stuff you've laid on will stay there. As it happens, this
fixing process is achieved through the application of monumental quantities of
energy. In effect, as each layer of the circuit is laid on, the whole wafer is "baked"at temperatures sometimes high enough to reach the outer limits of
Each time you fire up a furnace to bake these four-inch wafers, you make an
investment in energy, whether there is one complete circuit on a wafer or a
hundred. Obviously, the economics of scale dictate that you want to put as many
of these circuits on each four-inch wafer, and as many wafers in the furnace, as
you can, thus cutting your energy costs. Then, when you've finished the entire
circuit-laying process, you can cut apart the individual but identical bits of
each wafer and proceed to use these computer chips however you wish. It's the
same economics of scale that make the cost of small photographs less than the
cost of large photographs. You can print four 4-by-5-inch photographs on the
same piece of paper that one 8-by-10 would require. If the 4-by-5 will do the
job for you, obviously, you go with it.
The semiconductor industry's concern with energy costs helped lead to this
microminiaturization. That it will change all our lives is a side effect.
"Who knows what you can do with these things on the low end of the scale - at
the consumer end?"asked Kirk Lindsay, the headquarters sales manager of Advanced
Micro Devices in Sunnyvale. Advanced Micro Devices is considered an
average-sized "quality"house in the semiconductor business. Everything it
produces comes up to strict military specifications. "We're mainly just serving
the top end of the market - satellites and military applications and the
communications industry and things like that. And we're expanding as quickly as
we can to do that."
Writing about semiconductors is invariably embarrassing; because no matter what
your projection, it ends up being outstripped by reality in no time at all. Say
you accept the standard explanation of what these can do, which is to replace
many mechanical controls that have slow, breakdown-prone and bulky moving parts.
That's as if Marconi described what he did with radio by saying, "I've
transformed sound waves into electromagnetic waves."It bears no hint of the
future. There would be no way of anticipating, from that, that television would
end up being used as a narcotic that effectively neutralizes the hyperactivity
of jangled urban nerves.
Walking around the manufacturing operation at Advanced Micro-Devices is a
similarly frustrating experience. Men and women wear the most perfect
science-fiction surgical white robes and slippers designed to prevent dust from
settling on the silicon wafers containing the tiny devices. They operate in
rooms that are in "positive pressure."That is to say, the air pressure inside
is slightly higher than it is outside so that when a door is opened, air gusts
out, not in, again to control dust. That air in the photo room is bathed in a
warm, orange-yellow light, because light at the other end of the spectrum -
ultraviolet - is what's used to create the image on the wafer. Electron
microscopes project enormous magnifications of the tiny elements of the chips
onto television screens, where they are examined for flaws. But this doesn't
tell you how these chips will change the world.
Lindsay attempts to offer a couple of examples of semiconductor uses that may
someday seem routine:
Take the technology of watering your lawn, he says. Okay, the first level is the
guy standing with his thumb over a garden hose. At some point, he decides to
replace his thumb with a lawn-sprinkler attachment to the end of the hose. All
he has to do then is turn the faucet on and off. But then he gets tired of
coiling and uncoiling the hose. So he puts pipes underground. Then he gets tired
of turning the faucet on and off. So he installs a mechanical timer with little
pegs on it that turns the sprinkler on and off automatically. But that results
in ludicrous situations in which you see sprinkler systems running in the
pouring rain. The really efficient way of watering your lawn would be to put
tiny probes in the root system of the lawn that would tell whether the roots
were thirsty or not, and then hook those probes into a microprocessor, which
would decide when to turn a water pump on and off. This would be cost-effective
only where water is more expensive than semiconductors - but in some parts of
the continent, someday soon, that's going to be true.
Or take energy conservation, he says. People right now use window shades or
louvers either to let heat from the sun come in through a window or to keep it
out. But louvers break, and the system doesn't work at all if you're not around
during the day to play with it, and anyway, it doesn't do anything about glare.
So maybe what you want to do is take your double-glazed window and coat each
layer with some chemical that would change colors as an electric current was
passed through it. One layer would adjust for heat, the other for glare, so that
you'd have one combination on a cold day when light was bouncing off a layer of
snow and a different one on an overcast but muggy day. You then hook the windows
up to one end of a chip, the other end of which would be attached to some simple
sensor on the roof. And it would run your solar heating system with maximum
Of course, microprocessors are already controlling fuel flow in some cars to
increase mileage, and others are being worked into your phone system to make the
automobile partially obsolete by, for instance, eliminating your trips to the
bank. There's no reason you shouldn't be able to pay your bills and conduct your
financial affairs by phone. The pushbutton keyboard, after all, is no different
from a calculator.
Just remember that, as these visions of an alternative future change your life,
it is no accident that Silicon Valley is in Ecotopia.
First, it is there because it is near Stanford University, in Palo Alto. In a
successful attempt to lure high-technology scientists from the East at the dawn
of the computer age, post-World War II, Stanford, which is called the Harvard of
the West, offered its staff an important concession. It allowed scientists to
profit personally from discoveries they made in the course of university-related
research. That is, a Stanford professor who came up with a technological
breakthrough could patent his device and go into business manufacturing it. Once
there was a community of thinkers at Stanford doing just that, it was natural
for them to put their operations in the nearest town hungry for clean,
smokeless, high-paying industry, which happened to be the San Jose area, next
door. In this fashion, they could keep their eye on their constantly changing
operations while maintaining face-to-face communication with others who spoke
their extremely exotic high-tech language. Second, the Silicon Valley is in Ecotopia for the same reason the aluminum industry is. Although finished
semiconductors can be assembled into final products anywhere there is a
population with manual dexterity - from Massachusetts to Malaysia - the actual
manufacturing sucks a lot of electricity, so it is important that the
electricity be cheap, which often means renewable hydro.
Third, the engineers and other key people at the cutting edge of this industry
are scarce, the competition for their services is fierce, and the salaries they
command are handsome. Where such a person is considering three similar job
offers in, say, Massachusetts, Texas, and Northern California - all
semiconductor centers of one sort or another - it is hardly unusual for the
decision to be made finally on the basis of:
Quality of life.
Which, of course, links up with the environmental concerns of Ecotopians
exploiting simple technologies like solar hot-water heaters.
Many semiconductor firms are now seeking to locate new facilities outside the
Santa Clara Valley, simply because there is little flat ground left there on
which to build plants and housing. And because of that quality-of-life concern,
many companies are examining locations in northern Ecotopia: Oregon and
There is another aspect of Ecotopia's economy that is, you'll pardon the
expression, disorienting: its trade with Asia appears to be more significant
than its trade with the rest of North America. It's tough to nail this down
because, of course, Ecotopia does not literally have customs inspectors
measuring its trade with the rest of North America. But:
"We don't want to rely anymore on the establishment of the eastern states.
They're Europe-oriented, and our future is with Japan and the Pacific Rim,"said
Richard King, director of the California Office of International Trade. "The
Japanese see California as part of their Pacific co-prosperity sphere, and we
better be responsive to that,"he added. Presumably, when he said that, he was
not recalling that "Co-prosperity Sphere"was the precise term used by World War
II Japanese militarists to justify their far-flung Pacific empire. "But, of
course we do see it that way,"said one smiling Japanese banker in San Francisco.
"We see California already as part of Japan. Oh, yes. California Prefecture."
When China began to open up its economy to the West, Seattle and Vancouver saw
dollar signs. Before Mao, they had been the ports from which North America's
trade with China had flourished, simply because they're the closest. And, of
course, Vancouver had been shipping Canadian Breadbasket wheat to China
throughout the seventies.
One of the first things the People's Republic bought when it started looking
through the North American industrial candy store was a Boeing jet, which ended
up going nonstop from Peking to Paris on its maiden flight. In fact, when I was
at the Boeing 747 assembly plant, a plane destined for the PRC sat gleaming in
its Vaseline-green protective coating, peacefully co-existing next to a plane
with Taiwanese markings.
It's politically unthinkable to export U.S. oil, and oil is Ecotopian only in
the sense that the Alaska pipeline ends in Valdez, but to illustrate geographic
economics, Alaskan oilmen nonetheless keep pushing the idea of a new triangle
trade. The idea would be to ship North Slope crude to Japan, which would reduce
Japan's imports from Mexico, and the Mexican oil thus freed up would in turn be
pipelined to Houston. That would be cheaper than shipping the Alaskan oil
directly to the Texas refineries, as is done now. (Actually, Ecotopian attitudes
do play a large role in this calculation, in that goo-laden supertankers are out
of the question for Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay residents. As a result,
the crude ends up being lightered through the Panama Canal to Gulf Coast
refineries. The all-Empty Quarter, trans-Canada, Northern Tier pipeline is alive
as a proposal largely because it's one of the few direct ways to get Alaskan
crude to the Breadbasket without facing kamikaze Ecotopian environmental
On any city street in Ecotopia you can see the extent to which it is a Pacific
Rim nation. There are twice as many Japanese automobiles as there are in the
East. It's been suggested that one of the reasons North American auto-makers
were slow in meeting the Japanese challenge is that they didn't live on the West
Coast, and weren't physically confronted day after day by the magnitude of the
Asian success. You look out your Detroit window, and you still see people
driving Chevys. Here, you don't.
In fact, there is some concern that Ecotopia is being reduced economically to
nothing but a resource colony of the Asian industrial powers - surrendering its
vital natural resources in exchange for much more costly manufactured products.
Again, trade figures are slippery, because they are not usually gathered along
the boundaries this chapter describes. But Pacific Rim U.S. states ran up a $3.6
billion deficit with Japan in 1978, twice the 1976 trade imbalance. Oregon pulp
is fueling the Asian bureaucratic paper-shuffling explosion. British Columbia
logs arc used to build Kyoto homes, and Vancouver doesn't even get to keep the
sawmill jobs that would result. The Japanese just want the logs. Their lumber
specifications are different from North America's, and far more customized. A
two-by-four is not a meaningful concept in Japan. Huge self-sufficient Japanese
trawlers ply the Bering Sea, catching bottom fish North Americans are not used
to eating, and not even landing in Alaska to pick up provisions, much less to
generate cannery jobs. Japanese interests are buying up western farmland, thus
reducing the importance even of agricultural exports. And now, of course, Japan
is going after the semiconductor market. "The question is whether we want to
become a banana republic,"said E. Floyd Kwamme of the Silicon Valley's National
Semiconductor. "The problem is that manufacturing creates more jobs than
agriculture. If we think we are going to balance our trade with the Japanese by
selling them beef and grapefruit, we'll end up killing our industrial base."
"The exporting of the raw materials from which our jobs spring,"says George
Cassidy, president of the Portland-based Lumber Production Industrial Workers
Union, "is the exporting of our jobs."
"We are getting in the position of selling all our logs and fish for TVs,"Ed Furia, co-chairman of the North Pacific Ocean Protein Coalition (a lobbying
And now China has started producing an airplane with startling similarities to
those first Boeing 707s it bought, along with a suspiciously large supply of
spare parts. At Boeing, the Chinese knock-off is matter-of-factly called the
706, and the pirating seems to be shrugged off. "What the hell,"I was told.
"It's twenty-five-year-old technology."
But a consideration of the 707s and China and the through-the-looking-glass
aspects of the Pacific Northwest's industries raises another topic.
There is a very, very real Looking Glass.
It's flying somewhere over North America right now, refueling in midair, coming
down only when its engines run low on oil, and then only after an identical
sister ship takes its place. It is definitely nothing but state-of-the-art
technology. It has been referred to as the "Flying Fuehrer Bunker,"and it is
piloted by a man with perfect vision who has a black patch over one eye. If a
Soviet nuclear missile explodes within his field of vision, searing his exposed
cornea, the pilot will switch the patch from his protected eye onto his now
useless orb, and fly on. For the Looking Glass plane is designed to run the
world's last war after all the generals on the ground are gone. It's the command
post that will further the strategy of MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction - so
it's designation as the Looking Glass is apt. And, of course, it's Ecotopian.
It's an EC-135, which is the military configuration of a Boeing 707.
That's not Ecotopia's only contribution to MADness. Boeing builds cruise
missiles on Puget Sound - twenty-foot-long, ground-hugging, pilotless little
jets, with megatonage cargoes, thousands of which will be unleashed from the
bellies of the B-52s if it ever comes to that. They have little semiconductor
brains that read the terrain they fly over, telling them to take a left turn at
the Volga River. Those semiconductors were probably built in Ecotopia.
And that's not all, either. In Bremerton, Washington, less than an hour's
soothing ride from Seattle aboard one of the Puget Sound ferries, is a naval
shipyard. When I took the ride out, it was harboring something I didn't even
recognize at first, nestled in among the Douglas fir and the steep hills and the
pebbled beaches and the vacation homes and the sailboats tacking in the wind and
the clouds washing in off the Pacific across the Olympic Peninsula. All I saw
was some sort of strangely architected squarish building isolated on top of a
low but very sheer gray cliff, and I looked harder and harder because, even in
this land of surprises, I'd never seen geology like that, much less the building
style. "That's the Enterprise,"said a friendly local who noted my
concentration. "Just back from the Middle East."The Enterprise. The world's
largest nuclear aircraft carrier. The "building"was the operations tower. The "cliff"was the hull supporting the flight deck.
For that matter, about fourteen miles up the Hood Canal from the Enterprise,
Kitsap County property values are soaring. Not long after this book comes out, a
vessel longer than the Washington Monument is high, probably escorted by the
killer whales, which like these waters, and which it resembles, in a certain
way, will round Cape Flattery into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, shortcut Puget
Sound by using the Hood Canal, pass the bridge that sank during a winter storm
the other year, pass South Point and Lofall, and then dock in Bangor.
It will be a Trident submarine, the Ohio, the largest submarine ever built. At a
length of two football fields, it will be, without a great deal of competition
(save from the likes of the Enterprise), one of the world's larger naval
It's the ultimate weapon.
That's what its designers meant it to be.
It warehouses twenty-four four-story-tall Trident I missiles. Each of these
missiles carries ten independently targetable warheads, each of which is aimed
at a city. Not a military target; a civilian city. Each warhead is designed to
produce an airburst that would cause flash blindness, hurricane winds,
spontaneous combustion, thermal radiation, and radioactive fallout. And that's
at the edge of its effectiveness. Closer to ground zero, it's supposed to
vaporize its targets the way Mount St. Helens vaporized. Two hundred and forty
Soviet cities. Flick.
That's one Trident submarine.
Kitsap County will be the home for ten.
When the Ohio and its nine sisters are not home in Kitsap, they are supposed to
be on the deep ocean floor, waiting for Armageddon.
Nuclear war will not occur the way most people think. It will not be a question
of the president hitting some button as the blips appear on the radar screen, to
throw everything we've got past the incoming everything-they've-got.
Most strategists feel that it will occur in waves, in which one side throws a
certain amount at a certain number of military targets. Those targets will
probably throw what they've got before they are ionized. And then everybody will
stand around surveying the result. But by no means will that be the end. The
whole military strategy of both sides ensures that there is no way that that
will be the end. The object of the game is to make sure that no matter how
massive the first strike, there will be lots left to throw back.
After everybody compares the result of the first wave against the computer model
of where the first wave was supposed to leave us (which will occur after the
analysis of which of the thousands of possible first waves actually got thrown),
there will be a rational, managerial decision made, very possibly aboard the
EC-135, about how and where to target and launch the second wave. And the third,
and so forth. And after each wave, the men will talk to the computers, and the
computers will talk to each other, and in effect the question will be asked:
"Had enough, Leonid? Had enough, Ronnie?"
While all this is happening, Kitsap County's finest will be sitting on the
bottom of some ocean somewhere. Presumably, it will be the Pacific, near
Siberia. But then, though these Trident I missiles can fly forty-five hundred
miles, it doesn't pay to use their total range. The very planet has a nasty
habit of introducing "bias."It throws up magnetic interference and such, which
introduces error into the trajectory. On a testing range, this error can be
compensated for, if you're familiar with it. But presumably this will be the
first and last time anybody ever tries to throw several million tons of death
from the depths of the Pacific at the left rear, fourth-story window of the
Kremlin. So actually, it pays not to use the full range.
The point of the Tridents, the Ecotopia-based Tridents, is to sit on the bottom
of that ocean until everybody has thrown everything they ever dreamed of at each
other. And then the ten of them, with their 200 missiles, and 2400 warheads, are
supposed to surface silently and wipe out the 2400 largest remaining population
centers that are considered worth wiping out. That's why they're aimed at
civilian targets. It goes without saying that the military targets will already
be worthless. The cruise missiles alone ...
Remember Nevil Shute's 1957 end-of-the-world story, On the Beach? It winds up
with a submarine surveying North America for any signs of life. But I'll let
Bill Prochnau tell it. Bill wrote a series of stories called "Life at Ground Zero"for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In a photo that accompanied it, he
sits at the controls of a Trident submarine training simulator. The picture
caption reads: "The firing key which in real life would send 24 life-destroying
missiles into the heart of Russia is just behind Prochnau, slightly out of arm's
The series, which ran just before the Salt II process was finally aborted by the
invasion of Afghanistan, is a humbling example of the truths you can buy from an
honor box for fifteen cents. Much of my preceding scenario is drawn from it.
In On the Beach, [Prochnau wrote] the nuclear submarine, gray and ominous like
the killer whales that swam nearby, cruised silently at periscope depth past
Whidbey Island and Edmonds and into Elliott Bay, heaving to off the shoreline of
The radar officer, Swain, took the first look, Seattle being his hometown. He
saw Ken Puglia's drugstore and Mrs. Sullivan's house, with one window broken. He
couldn't see his own home because that was "up Rainier Avenue, past the
Everything looked so normal, except the people were gone.
In a moment, Swain was gone, too, out the escape hatch and into the radiation,
swimming home. Just before the U.S. submarine Scorpion headed back to Australia,
all hope for the Northern Hemisphere discarded, the skipper got one last glimpse
of Swain. He was fishing in Puget Sound and waiting for the first deadly signs
of radiation poisoning.
It wouldn't happen exactly Nevil Shute's way now - a 37-day nuclear exchange
between the northern superpowers, many cities left undamaged, the radioactive
fallout killing everyone north of the Equator, then slowly moving south to
eclipse the last humans in Australia, on the beach. At least, most strategists
and scientists don't think it would happen that way. In the fourth decade of the
nuclear age, they don't see 37-day wars, and fallout is becoming 'tolerable.’
But some parts of Shute's book still seem hauntingly possible and prophetic -
mankind's last lonely voyage under the sea whence he came, a sailor's return to
Puget Sound whence he came.
If it ever came to the very worst, the American and Russian submarines would be
the last to say goodbye - the last to threaten and probably rain death on the
trigger-happy offenders in all countries. And for the American crews, Puget
Sound probably would be the home to which human nature might draw them as the
food ran out, finally ...
Again and again in my travels through the Pacific Northwest, I said to people:
Now look. I know you've got powerful senators like Scoop Jackson who effort
mightily to bring military dollars home. But doesn't anybody at least see the
ironies of building the cruise missiles here? Of basing the Trident missiles
here? Doesn't anybody find it the slightest bit mad to be working on the
ultimate vehicles of death in the midst of a land that reveres quality of life?
Well, I was told, you know. We've got a lot of aluminum ...And apart from
that - it's clean industry.
In the Olympia Hotel, the Rotary Club of Seattle is having its Wednesday Lunch.
The hotel ballroom is full of large gray men in large gray suits. The only black
man I can see is on the podium, invited to discuss some meaningful social topic.
There may be a couple of women, but they are no more numerous than the men with
beards. There are perhaps four hundred people under the big crystal chandeliers.
The master of ceremonies hits a bronze bell. Everybody stands and faces the
Pacific. A spotlight hits the American flag. The spotlight apparently is on the
same circuit as the fan that makes the flag billow. You can see the fan behind
the flag there, making the banner ripple. Time is very important to this group.
They make a big production out of starting precisely at 12:30, and ending at
1:30. People bail out of this lunch precisely at 1:30. Sometimes they cheat.
1:28. Who knows why. Maybe it's important to them. Maybe looking as if it's
important to them is important to them.
Anyway, precisely at the stroke of half-past twelve, the master of ceremonies
stands up and gongs this bell, and all these large gray men stand up and start
singing as if their hearts would break, about this 1814 battle that occurred
three thousand miles east. The piano plays, the conductor waves his arms, the
fan spins, and the flag waves.
Everybody sits down.
The Episcopalian minister stands up to recite the blessing. "Lord,"he says,
"it's been an exciting week."
And he goes on about Mount St. Helens, which, having just blown up, in fact has
made it an exciting week.
He runs through the revised standard invocation, and he gets to the point where
he is supposed to swing into the number in which he stresses how great God is,
and how small is man.
But. Unself-consciously. Instead, he turns to these Rotarians and he says: "Let
us consider the limitations on our technologies."
And they bowed their heads and prayed.