Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach
The original paperback cover of Ecotopia, the design of which I still don’t get.

In recent years, the term “Solarpunk” has been batted around: A new kind of science fiction written around renewable, sustainable energy, embracing the natural world and an optimism for the future. Project Hieroglyph has recently used the term, leading some to believe it’s a relatively new thing. Others have pointed out novels written in the mid-90s that were purportedly the earliest Solarpunk novels.

Back when the first George Bush was assuming the White House, the Exxon Valdez was ruining the lives of countless Alaskan creatrures and William Shatner was busy hammering his nails into the coffin that was Star Trek V, I, myself, wrote a series of short stories called The Onuissance Cells.

But none of these examples were the first to the party. To see the original Solarpunk novel, you go straight to Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia.

Ecotopia (original publishing: 1975) tells the story of reporter William Weston, given the chance to travel from typically dirty, gritty, nasty and polluted New York to the newest country on the American West Coast, Ecotopia; and by interviews and his own daily diary, describe what life is like in a country dedicated to natural and sustainable lifestyles.  Through Weston’s eyes, we discover the efforts made for the denizens of the combined states of northern California, Oregon and Washington to throw off the unnatural and polluting practices of late-20th century America and embrace a new culture, and a way of life that at first seems practically barbaric to Weston, but begins to grow on him the longer he stays.

I had the pleasure of reading this book when it came out in the seventies, and when combined with my already-budding interest in alternative energy, back-to-nature methodologies and sustainable living, it became a transformative experience for me.  (If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it.)  Ecotopia embodied the movement against the existing oil-based, dirty, unhealthful and wasteful conventions of society and promoted individual, dedicated efforts towards a natural, positive, clean and sustainable lifestyle.  Today it is still held in high regard as a virtual blueprint towards a better society, and has even garnered support for the creation of an actual Ecotopian country on the American West Coast.  Ecotopia was Solarpunk, long before the name was coined.

The Onuissance Cells cover

Ecotopia, combined with my own interest in alternative energy and sustainability, and the growing popularity of architect Paolo Soleri’s Arcology movement, were inspirations for my short stories, The Onuissance Cells.  The stories take place in a future when Man has dismantled the old, crumbling, inefficient society and rebuilt it around sustainable and natural practices, gentler on the land, with a full appreciation for nature and a dedication to rebuilding our human-ravaged world. (Check them out; they’re free.)  Some of the ideas from my stories are taken from Ecotopia, but mixed in with many of the technological advances that have been discovered since 1975.

The Onuissance Cells represent my imagining for what the next age of humanity will be, once we grow past the society that is on life support today.  As we reach “peak oil,” many fear we’ve reached other peaks too, like peak agriculture and peak diversity… and we’re soon to see worldwide hunger and a significant loss of animal and vegetable life if we don’t reverse the trends.  In fact, factions of this society are beginning to question whether the Capitalist economy is a relic of the 20th century, and overdue for retirement along with our dysfunctional consumption habits and wasteful ways.  The Onuissance Cells, like Ecotopia, explored the future possibilities of guaranteed living wages, human-scale architecture and technology, and lives centered around living for experiences… not working for money.

I would love to see Ecotopia made into a TV miniseries; for one reason, because so many people will never read the book; and for another, because I think people should see for themselves examples of a different way of life, one that they can actually strive for.  And I suspect that, if Americans had a chance to see a functioning society like Ecotopia, they’d put some serious effort into pressuring our leaders into taking the rest of the country in the direction of Ecotopia… before it’s too late.