Nearly three decades before the 2004 elections, author Ernest Callenbach asked a prescient question: If we Oregonians, Washingtonians and Northern Californians were in charge, what would we do?
His answer: We’d leave the United States to its own self-created woes and build Ecotopia, our independent utopian society.
The idea was a fringe notion in 1975, when Callenbach’s classic novel “Ecotopia” first captured a young generation’s imagination.
But in the wake of recent national elections, a sovereign Ecotopia — or Cascadia, as it is now widely referred to — is re-emerging as a subject of interest for some. Long bandied about as little more than an engaging thought experiment, the secession of Oregon, Washington, northern California and possibly British Columbia from the United States and Canada suddenly is intriguing everyone from whimsical Web masters to earnest political activists.
That’s right: Cascadia, our Cascadia, a new peaceful, sustainable, neighborly, environmentally friendly strip of fir green and fog gray that stretches anywhere from southern Alaska to northern California.
That is, except for the proposed state of Jefferson, an island of conservative red in a liberal blue sea at the Oregon-California border. But more about that later.
“Ecotopia,” set 20 years after the secession of Oregon, Washington and Northern California, describes a land of electric mass transit, outdoor recreation, video-conferencing and a 20-hour workweek. Freed from the political controls and traditions of the United States, Ecotopia develops an ecosystem that is a perfect balance between humans and the environment.
“It focuses the mind to think about separatist sentiment,” Callenbach says now, “regardless of whether it ever gets serious.”
As he prepares a 30th anniversary edition of “Ecotopia,” Callenbach says the book has become popular again among young people, who don’t see its original environmental messages as impractical fringe theories.
Callenbach also sees a long-term trend toward smaller, localized governments.
“The U.S. is too damn big,” he says. “Small countries are best. They don’t have armies careening around on the other side of world.”
Callenbach points to collaborative governments, such as Oregon’s watershed councils, which bring ranchers, environmentalists, recreationists and Native Americans together to attempt consensus on contentious issues.
“That kind of thing will grow a lot, no matter who is in office,” he says. Cascadians organize
In Portland, people interested in Cascadian independence have already begun organizing.
“There’s a huge buzz in the activist community about Cascadia rising,” says Bryan W., an 18-year-old Portland State University freshman who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals from the federal government.
“There’s a large section of Cascadia that I’ve been in contact with,” he says, “but with Bush being elected, it has gotten even moderates involved.”
The Cascadia Confederacy message group on Yahoo has seen a minor explosion in e-mail traffic, from eight in January to 69 in October and 42 so far in November, according to Yahoo statistics. The confederacy is seeking full sovereignty and self-determination for its citizens, according to its self-description. Cascadia, it says, would move away from capitalism and a nation-state form of government to “a social organizational form that allows for autonomous direct democracies and the flourishing of indigenous culture.”
The Cascadian National Party, a tiny, near-dormant political party launched the day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, also has seen a recent surge of interest, says Brandon Rhodes, a 20-year-old college student who is the party’s Eugene representative.
It’s not exactly a groundswell: Rhodes’ in-box has gotten about half a dozen e-mails on the subject in the past week. Nevertheless, that’s up from the usual pace of one a month.
The party’s ultimate goal is for Oregon and Washington to secede peacefully from the United States and form the sovereign nation of Cascadia. The party’s priorities would be decentralized government, greater civil liberties, less control by corporate interests and more environmental safeguards.
“Right now, it’s still a matter of kind of saturating the market with the idea instead of running to Canada,” says Rhodes, a third-year student in political science and environmental studies at the University of Oregon. “The Democratic party disappointed a lot of people. A lot of people didn’t like (Kerry) at all. I didn’t vote for him.” Auto sticker sales increase
One of the most whimsical efforts is being waged by Lyle Zapato, who suggests that the sovereign nation of Cascadia already exists in spirit, if not yet in the world atlas.
His Web site, Republic of Cascadia (http://zapatopi.net/cascadia.html), defines the country as Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
“The Republic of Cascadia,” the Web site acknowledges, “is not yet officially recognized by Canada, the United States of America or the United Nations. Not that it is any of their business.”
Zapato, who reveals his geographic location as central Cascadia “near the surface,” created the site in 1998, he writes in an e-mail. The purpose is “to help bring about the revolution to liberate the people of Cascadia from remote Federalist control” — a sentiment also expressed by other, more serious separatists.
Zapato says orders for his Republic of Cascadia auto sticker hit 63 between Nov. 2 and Nov. 5, up from a handful prior to that. Orders are coming from all over Washington and Oregon, with one person ordering 12.
Not exactly huge sales, Zapato writes, “but considering I didn’t do any special advertising of them other than the link on the Cascadia page (that’s been there for well over a year) or try to tie them into current events, it’s kind of amusingly unexpected.” Linking Cascadia by rail
A much more serious effort to link Cascadia together is under way at the Cascadia Center of Seattle’s Discovery Institute. The center doesn’t advocate secession, but rather cooperation among Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
“The reality is that opportunities lie not in political union, but in strategic alliances,” says Bruce Agnew, the center’s director.
The center’s overarching goal is to promote the notion of a land without borders. Specifically, the think tank is targeting the development of a better transportation system, such as high-speed rail, for people and goods throughout Cascadia.
The 12-year-old center also keeps its eye on the Northwest’s tourism, economics, technology and alternative energy.
Not to mention health care.
“Hordes of people are going to Canada for flu shots and prescription drugs,” Agnew says. “The Bush administration will have to deal with the drug issue.” Reviving Jefferson state
Toward the opposite end of Cascadia, in Northern California, some folks embrace the idea of secession, but not with the rest of Cascadia.
Brian Petersen, a 38-year-old landscaper, tractor mechanic, promoter and part-owner of a car wash in Yreka, Calif., would rather see Northern California merge with Southern Oregon to form the new state of Jefferson.
Petersen lays out his vision on his Web site, www.jeffersonstate.com, which has existed since 1998.
Fed up with what they see as liberal control from far-flung state capitals, the citizens of Jefferson would constitute a conservative new red state. The driving issues are property rights and local government control.
“Jefferson went for Bush,” Petersen says.
The Jefferson secession effort is hardly new. On Nov. 27, 1941, four Northern California counties, plus Oregon’s Curry County, declared themselves the 49th state of the union. (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet been admitted to the union.)
“Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice,” read the declaration, which was handed out to motorists stopped at highway blockades outside of Yreka, the state’s interim capital. Ten days later, the United States was plunged into World War II, and the Jefferson movement evaporated.
Today, Petersen suggests that Jefferson could incorporate the 12 northernmost California counties, along with Coos, Curry, Douglas, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Lake counties in Oregon.
“All the pieces are there,” Petersen says. “It’s just a matter of sounding the horn.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area, at the far southern end of Cascadia, “Ecotopia” author Callenbach says he’s now writing a piece about where the United States is in the evolution of empires. Titled “Going Down With the Empire,” the piece notes that, as always, old institutions crumble and new ones rise up.
“There’s a reasonable chance of an ecotopian empire rising up,” he says.
“We have to keep our spirits up,” he adds. “This country has been crazy for a long, long time.”
Steve Woodward: 503-294-5134; [email protected]
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