Welcome to Ecotopia


In this era of tea-partying revolutionary-era dress-ups, one usually associates secessionism with the far right. But if things turn sour for the present majority in Washington, you should expect a whole new wave of separatism to emerge on the greenish left coast.

In 1975 Ernest Callenbach, an author based in Berkeley, Calif., published a sci-fi novel about enviro-secessionists called Ecotopia; a prequel, Ecotopia Rising, came out in 1981. These two books, which have acquired something of a cult following, chronicle--largely approvingly--the emergence of a future green nation along the country's northwest coast.

Aptly described by Callenbach as "an empire apart," this region is, in real life, among the world's most scenic and blessed by nature. Many in this part of America have long been more enthusiastic about their ties to Asia than those with the rest of the country. It is also home to many fervent ecological, cultural and political activists, who often feel at odds with the less enlightened country that lies beyond their soaring mountains.

Until the election of Barack Obama, the Pacific Northwest certainly was separating from the rest of America--at least in attitude. After George W. Bush's victory the 2004 presidential election, the Seattle weekly The Stranger published an angry editorial about how coastal urbanites needed to reject "heartland values like xenophobia, sexism, racism and homophobia" and places where "people are fatter and dumber and slower."

Such a narrow, cynical view of the rest of the country is in line with Callenbach's Ecotopia novels, in which the bad guys--representatives of American government and corporations--are almost always male, overweight and clueless about everything from technology to tending to the earth.

Of course, would-be Ecotopians have much of which to be proud. The three great cities of the region--San Francisco, Portland and Seattle--easily rank among the most attractive on the continent. They all boast higher-than-average levels of education and--at least around San Francisco and Seattle--some of the world's deepest concentrations of high-tech companies.

Yet for all their promise, the Ecotopian regions cannot claim to have missed the current recession. Downtown Seattle currently suffers a vacancy rate in excess of 20%, the highest in decades; last year apartment rental rates dropped 13.8%, the steepest decline among American metros. Meanwhile vacancies in the Silicon Valley area south of San Francisco have soared to above 20%. By early this year, there was enough unoccupied office space in the Valley to fill 15 Empire State Buildings.

This may seem a bit counter-intuitive for a region that boasts the headquarters of Microsoft, Costco, Amazon, Intel and Apple. But while such companies provide lots of high-wage employment, they are no longer enough to spark much growth across the region's economy. The San Francisco area has actually lost jobs over the past decade and shows little sign of recovering its once prodigious growth rates.

But easily the weakest of the economies has been Portland, which lacks the presence of major anchor firms like those in greater Seattle or the Bay Area. Portland's unemployment rate has been well over 10% since late last year.

A wave of youthful migration has made the city a slacker haven for the past decade and, in turn, exacerbated unemployment figures. Homeless kids now crowd the downtown area, which, although far from destitute, does appear pretty grungy in places.

Yet, like the Ecotopians in the Callenbach novels, Portland residents and politicians seem nonplussed about their anemic economic performance. After all, the city voted heavily--despite solid opposition from the rest of the state--to raise Oregon's taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, a move likely to deter new in-bound investment.

"You don't have a big focus here on economic development," observes Stephen B. Braun, dean of the School of Management at Portland's Concordia University. "There's much more emphasis on quality of life than on making a living."

The proof: Portland may have high unemployment, but the big idea around city hall is not how to promote jobs but about investing an additional $600 million in bike lanes.

All these places, of course, avidly endorse green jobs even if there's little prospect they could replace the jobs being lost in the fading blue-collar sectors. A growing green job sector needs a vibrant economy that produces things and builds new buildings, notions that have little currency across much of the region.

This anti-growth attitude reflects that of Callenbach's Ecotopia, which favors a "stable state" economy over job or wealth creation. Ecotopian politics explicitly ban both population increases and the private automobile.

While the mayors of Portland, San Francisco and Seattle are hardly that extreme, they could propose policies that would make driving more burdensome. And they certainly seem to do wonders in chasing would-be baby-makers out of the city. All three cities have among the lowest percentages of children of any in the U.S.

Perhaps the toughest issue facing the Ecotopian political economy lies with the issue of class. Callenbach's Ecotopia adopts something of an anarchic socialism; the cities of the real ecotopia have tended toward ever greater class bifurcation.

San Francisco, for example, boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation and remains a favorite destination for inherited wealth, whether among individuals or nested in nonprofits. Yet according to the Public Policy Institute of California, if the cost of living is applied, San Francisco ranks high among urban counties in terms of its concentration of poverty.

It doesn't help that the city's economy has been hemorrhaging corporate headquarters and mid-range middle-class jobs for decades. High-end workers commute to Google and other Valley companies, and others work in the financial or media sectors, but many mid-range jobs have been lost, many of them to more affordable business-friendly locales in places like Colorado.

As middle-class jobs disappear, Ecotopia's cities increasingly resemble restrictive communities that are anything but diverse. As analyst Aaron Renn has pointed out, Portland and Seattle stand as among the whitest big cities in the nation. And San Francisco's once vibrant African-American population has been dropping for decades.

In the coming years this pattern will likely become more pronounced in Seattle and Portland as well. These cities continue to attract many well-educated people, particularly from California, who in turn bring with them both significant accumulated wealth and anti-growth attitudes.

Strict "green" planning regimes are also accelerating the decline of the local middle class by driving housing prices up, greatly diminishing the once wide affordability for the middle class. Seattle's regulatory environment, according to one recent study, has bolstered housing prices in the region by $200,000 since 1989. The percentage of families who could afford a median price home in the area has fallen by more than half.

Many observers see a similar outcome from Portland's widely ballyhooed planning regime. Despite the massive acceptance by planners as something of a model for the restored city, the vast majority of all job and population growth in the region has occurred at the less pricey fringes, including across the river in Vancouver, Wash., which lies outside the fearsome Portland planning regime.

So what is the future for the region, and particularly the eco-cities? If the country starts moving toward the center, and even the right, you can expect Ecotopian sentiment to rise again, perhaps not to the point of secession but expressed in attitude.

But this may not be all bad. As America's population grows and other regions rise, perhaps it's helpful for the various parts of the country to experiment with different systems. Short of civil war, there's something to be said for relentless, even if sometimes daft, experimentation at the local level. The rest of country may not follow all their strictures, but our would-be Ecotopians could produce some interesting and even usable ideas.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

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Everybody in Ecotopia accepts abortion as one solution to population control--after a long debate. How simple. No family planning programs. No abortion clinic bombings. No wild demonstrations. No voting. No sex education classes. Just conduct a lengthy debate and get rid of the abortion controversy.

Abby - contracts for difference specialist.


It's a lot easier to reverse Ecotopian polices than it is to reverse bad growth that plagues every metro area in this country. Remember, cancer is growth too, but it's not exactly wanted or intended growth.

A magic wand can reduce taxes, fees, and other burdens in a heart-beat; but can you do the same for that exurban subdivision that leveled forest and farmland? Once it's gone, it's gone. It's best to develop sensibly and wisely.

Corporate libertarianism in black & white

Joel's well written indeed. He's nicely packaged the corporate worlds hopes & fears. There's always an interesting view, once you realize what he's left out.

And you even brought up Vancouver. Did you know that the unemployment rate in Clark County stands at 13.7%? so much for business moving there. Vancouver is primarily a residential offshoot of Portland, which, is why unemployment went up markedly in the last three years. Did you know that workers in Clark County typically have to take a 33% pay cut, compared to workers inside of Portland for the same jobs? The issue, is that an ecotopian type of methodology can force business to be accountable to their community. I keep getting the impression, that you've just never been to Portland. Perhaps you should visit. I have a spare bicycle, I could even show you the sights.

Also, have you considered that there are reasons why many corporations have headquarters, and larger bases of operations here? Nike, Adidas, Intel, Xerox, Tektronix and Gunderson all have major departments in our area. They are drawn by the creative talent. That talent, is drawn by livability.

As for the tax issue, We raised the corporate minimum tax, from $10, to $250. If a business is going to leave two, over $240.00, then they wouldn't make a good employer anyway.

The reality, Joel, is there are reasons why people from other cities come to Portland to study planning, and sustainability. It's a good model, to study results. It's not perfect, but it's as close as a North American city has come. We will continue to enhance active transportation, and transit, because it works. I know that corporate libertarians fear that other cities will find this model attractive.

Oh, also, many of the bicyclists in Portland, ARE the baby Boomers.

Haha: Leave. Us. Alone?

"The rest of country may not follow all their strictures, but our would-be Ecotopians could produce some interesting and even usable ideas."

Ha, I can't tell if this is meant to be condescending or not. It almost reads a bit like: "God, if those Ecotopians got off their asses, maybe they'd come up with something. Like the Internet, maybe someday they could produce a usable idea like that if they tried. (Hold on a second...)"

But I jest. I don't know, Joel. Why do you like to write about this so much? Is this column a soliloquy subconsciously inspired by the Olympics?

I do think you raise good points here about the "over-regulation" of Ecotopian policies, but also I fear your view is a little limited as to what they're up to. It suggests that short-term economic indications are of or should be of value to "Ecotopian" policymakers - while they expressly are not - and that low taxes and business-friendly deregulation are the only attractors of economic prosperity. Yet I don't think they care too much about today's unemployment so long as they're laying the foundation more for centuries of sustainable prosperity. Maybe, in the end, this will be their great folly.

I think low taxes and deregulation definitely do create economic growth. But so does "quality of life," just maybe not as quickly and predictably. And "quality of life" can sometimes drive a different kind of economic growth than that standard model of typical lowest-cost manufacturing of highest-volume product units to maximize market share. It's a model that could be, instead, cut from a cloth of totally new ideas and totally new industries.

The entire internet industry, for example, was one such "interesting and even usable idea" that emerged - in large part, though not entirely - from the Silicon Valley of Ecotopia. Consider Joel Garreau's 1980 pre-explanation of how this phenomenon may have taken place:

"Third, the [computer] engineers and other key people at the cutting edge of [the semiconductor] 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. "

Despite the fact this observation is now three decades old, I feel like you talk about the Ecotopian environmentalism as if its something new. Something that is being enacted for the first time today, despite the fact it's really been going on since Tom McCall. It's also been far more restrictive than the rest of the country for a long time, too.

Similarly, your premise seems to imagine Ecotopia's status as having "some of the world's deepest concentrations of high-tech companies" as a random, natural occurrence, as if the region one day just "got lucky" with that. To some extent it may have. And I could also be misreading you here. Either way, it seems highly likely that the two - passionate environmentalism and highly technological industrialism - might at least be vaguely connected if not casually linked (per Joel Garreau's almost prophetic but counterintuitive explanation). Consider what the internet has done for the effort to make sure people recycle, rather than landfill, their newspapers when they're done reading them. High-tech isn't low impact, but we have started thinking (whatever good that is) about prosperity differently: owning a single thing that does many tasks is more chill than owning many things that do few tasks.

I can understand your argument that Portland and Seattle's high unemployment rates - especially their high youth unemployment - is not sustainable. The question is: what happens after it quits being sustained? Will the highly-educated, fairly well-off hipster contingent of San Franciscans, Portlanders, Seattlites and Vancouverites dry up and run away? Is this happening now? Or will they just "make work" for themselves if they can?

It's all speculation; only time will tell. It's very likely Ecotopia could just fade off into the economic obscurity from which it came, suffering the ill-advised effects of its overbearing and so-called job-crushing environmentalism. Yet it hasn't faired either that much better or worse than the country economically; its per-capita income is high, it's lost jobs at about the same rate as the nation.

There's also another odd and unpredictable economic factor: Ecotopians are totally obsessed with Ecotopia. They seem to love their home almost religiously, as their critics constantly are all too eager to harp on this attachment to their home-place as "an elitist cynicism toward everywhere else." This is certainly often true too, but nonetheless: Ecotopians rarely want to leave. It's home.

Maybe their "economic suicide" will force them to finally leave or give up on protecting it, as outsiders have been enthusiastically predicting since the Haight/Ashbury days of the 1960s. And I'm sure most Ecotopians would prefer local prosperity, no matter what internal contradictions this actual preference might create in their convoluted - perhaps even confused - worldview.

(Per the convoluted worldview: it might surprise you to learn many Ecotopians are very libertarian (death with dignity, decriminalization, whatnot), and are, as you point out, utterly disillusioned with the monstrous Federal government ("the rest of America"). Among Ecotopian Republicans, the region claimed many early supporters of Ron Paul. But that aside...)

I suppose in looking to the future of Portland/Seattle, we should consider this interesting comparison, made by Joel Kotkin, and reiterated above:

"Why is this? Perhaps Portland is actually a bit too livable. As urban scholar Joel Kotkin put it, 'Portland is to today's generation what San Francisco was to mine: a hip, not too expensive place for young slackers to go.'"

If this is true, which it very well could be, I guess I'd just wonder what happened to San Francisco in the post-Haight/Ashbury era? Is it still a place 'not too expensive' for young slackers to go, still a 'slacker haven' like Portland? And what happened to this 'inherited wealth' for which the city is a destination? What did they do with it? Is it, after all, a regional asset or a regional liability? Actually, what do inheritors of wealth always do with it? Usually, they invest. They employ people. They create jobs, do they not?

But only time will really tell. Ecotopian may be doomed forever, for all we know.

In parting, another interesting thing to consider - while we're on the topic - is Joel Garreau's 1980 pre-characterization of the 2004 Stranger editorial:

"It becomes difficult to reason with these [Ecotopians.] 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.'"

Not quite as bad as you make it sound

This piece has some on-point criticisms of the way we're doing business (or not doing business) here in Portland, but I'm compelled to point out a couple of less-than-true claims.

The tax raising measures that were passed this last January were not passed by Portlanders alone. The "solid opposition from the rest of state" that the author points to ignores ten other counties (outside of Multnomah, where Portland is situated) where a majority voted in favor of the measures. Several other counties' votes were narrowly divided.

As far Portland planning's "similar outcome," compared with Seattle's housing prices, there are also plenty of studies that do not support this claim.