Ecotopia Burlington: May 16 at Generator Makerspace

National Public Radio ran a series recently that imagined what cities will look like in 2050 after “we stopped climate change.” Stopped it in its tracks. (Their timeline was a little quicker than Feverish World’s invocation of 2068 as the year to aim for.)

In a similar spirit, EcoCultureLab would like to invite residents of the Greater Burlington Area to imagine what this place will look like in a post-carbon world, a world that is no longer reliant on the mining and burning of fossil fuels for its energy, transportation, communication, and other infrastructural needs. We would also like to add “just and equitable” to the “post-carbon” designation, as we don’t see the latter arising without overcoming some of the huge gaps in justice and equity that mark the current political-economic configuration.

What would an ecotopian Burlington look and feel like? An ecotopian Vermont, an ecotopian Lake Champlain Basin?

Unlike “utopia,” which literally means “no-place” — a place existing only in the mind — or “dystopia,” a “bad-place,” utopia gone awry, “ecotopia” at its most literal means “home-place” (oikos, the root of “economy” and “ecology,” referring to “the household”) — a place that has been made sustainable, reinhabited and turned into a viable life-region. Popularized in 1975 by film critic and novelist Ernest Callenbach, ecotopia has come to designate something beyond the current squeeze-point, on the other side of what Adam Frank has called the “sustainability bottleneck.” Ecotopian visions sometimes go hand-in-hand with dystopian scenarios, as in the late Ursula Le Guin’s remarkable vision of northern California many years after the eco-apocalypse, with sea levels having risen substantially and flooded the Californian central valley, but with a resilient and fascinating society having arisen in the aftermath.

Imagining an ecotopia by 2050 seems ambitious, to say the least, if not hubristic. At a time when many of us can hardly think beyond 2020 (imagining an election will improve things sufficiently to be able to think further), rekindling the ecotopian impulse might seem like a distraction. But in a place like Burlington, couldn’t we give it a try?

As it turns out, ecotopian visions abound (especially in California and the Cascadian U.S. northwest), with Burlington already being enlisted among them. The Ecotopia 2121 project included Burlington in its 100 “super eco friendly cities of the future.” Playing up longtime Burlington resident Murray Bookchin’s eco-anarchist visions (deep inspirations for some of us), the 2121 folks foresee Burlington’s city council disbanding itself in favor of self-organized groups and small businesses “vetted at public assemblies for their trustworthiness.”

UVM’s incoming president Suresh Garimella, in discussing his reasons for coming to Burlington, touted the 2013 book Sustainable Communities: Creating a Durable Local Economy, which focused on Burlington as its case study. The book documents the many things the city of Burlington has done to make itself more sustainable — such as vitalizing the downtown core, “incubating” non-profits and locally owned and socially conscious businesses, supporting the “creative economy,” and providing lending and training programs for women, refugees, and others.

But how will such efforts stand up to the challenges of the feverish world ahead? What other efforts will be needed? How might Burlington lead the way in coming to grips with climate change, threatened terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, a fossil-fuel based “infinite growth” economy (on a finite planet), and the vast inequalities that threaten the functioning of a globally connected society? Where do we even start?

On the hunch that only by feeling our way forward — with visions of what a good world could look, feel, smell, and taste like — can we even hope to garner the motivation to take on the challenges of the coming decades, EcoCultureLab will be soliciting contributions from residents, children, artists, and professionals. To kick things off, we are planning a public forum on May 16, which will also be the launch of a series of Third Thursday gatherings at Burlington’s Generator, a series that marks an evolving collaboration between EcoCultureLab and the Generator MakerSpace.

To prepare, we could do worse than to listen to the NPR series, and then to ask: What’s missing from the picture? What’s being left aside, glossed over, unrecognized? What’s unrealistic here? And what would apply to a mixed urban-rural region like northeast Vermont, the Winooski River watershed, the Lake Champlain basin, or whatever we call the place we (greater Burlingtonians) call home? Will it take new real estate developments? Or a de-real-estatization of the city? What will transportation options look like? What about the work- and food-scape? What will Burlington culture feel like?

EcoCultureLab’s hunch is that we need to begin articulating a sense of a goal before we can start to imagine how to get there from here.

Consider the May 16 event a launch for Ecotopia Burlington. 7:00-8:30 pm, Generator Makerspace, 40 Sears Lane, Burlington.