California is the promised land, from the Gold Rush to now, in the 21st century. The state is the birthplace of Hollywood and the booming tech industry. California and its unyielding potential makes it the home of a better possible future — a utopia.
This past weekend, scholars, students, artists and intellectual thinkers from a variety of academic fields came together at the Music Recital Hall at UC Santa Cruz to challenge the idea that California is a utopia. They discussed how utopias and dystopias are placed in conjunction with one another when relating to California, and the paradoxes it presents.
The sold out conference centered on the late Ernest Callenbach’s novel “Ecotopia” and the 1970s philosophies of ecological utopias, but speakers were encouraged to creatively apply the theme to their own field. The 1975 novel presents Callenbach’s idea of a future where humans coexist with nature and live in diverse, technologically proficient communities.
“When we celebrate [Callenbach] we are celebrating this moment where people thought things could be better in the United States,” said keynote speaker Kim Stanley Robinson.
Robinson is a prominent Californian science-fiction author, whose work includes “Pacific Edge: Three Californians,” “Aurora” and the “Mars” trilogy. In 2013, The New Yorker acknowledged him as one of the greatest living science fiction and potentially greatest political writers alive. In his presentation, Robinson addressed the context in which utopias are written, including how the political and socioeconomic climate of a generation impacts its vision of a future, both real and imaginary.
“Science fiction is always tremendously good at expressing how young people feel about their futures. It doesn’t predict the future very well, but it always diagnoses how people feel,” Robinson said. “Young people are feeling like the world is a mess. Their futures are endangered, they’re in competition with labor around the world — some of which gets paid only a dollar a day — and there’s not a whole lot of hope to be had. So dystopia feels right, because it’s how things feel.”
The event began with Robinson’s keynote and continued on Saturday with speakers, audience questions and panel discussions facilitated by Ronnie Lipschutz, College Eight provost and politics department chair.
“I see this [California] as being a place obsessed with the utopian idea,” said Lipschutz, who first thought of the idea three years ago and planned it for over a year.
Since “Ecotopia” is required for the College Eight plenary course, Lipshutz invited creative discussion of the topic of utopia and dystopia in relation to each speaker’s own individual field of research including theoretical imaginations of capitalism, systems of governance and the environment.
“‘Ecotopia’ is thinking about what it means to be in this place where people are constantly dreaming about certain kinds of futures,” speaker Kristin Miller said. “‘Ecotopia’ is definitely one of them, but there are many others that are the same vein as ‘Ecotopia’ or they’re in conversation with it, a critique of it, or presents some totally different future.”
Kristin Miller, a UCSC sociology graduate student whose research is on the intersection of the environment, technology and the urban space, also spoke in a talk titled “Postcards from the Future: Envisioning Utopia and Dystopia.” She presented a visual analysis of how California has been both the stage of utopia and dystopia.
“California is a state where movies are often filmed, because it’s close to the studios and close to the film crews,” Miller said. “But California as a place, not as a filming location but an actual place, has been used to symbolize all different kinds of possible futures in sci-fi films.”
Her project includes going to the locations of famous movie scenes and rephotographing old movie stills. She then lines up the scene in the image with what remains in the current environment.
“I was really intrigued by the idea of being able to [rephotograph] with images that are ostensibly of the future, but they are actually from the past, because some of these movies are from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Miller said.
Miller joined scholars and thinkers from across the nation from fields like anthropology, politics and communications at the conference.
“I’m really thrilled to have been included,” she said. “It’s a big honor, there are so many truly visionary fascinating people who are going to be speaking.”