San Francisco Secession: Could It Create 'Ecotopia'?

San Francisco Secession: Could It Create 'Ecotopia'?

Republican Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone wants a Republican state of his own, a place called South California that would carefully exclude Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other Democratic-leaning counties. On Tuesday, county supervisors gave his idea a boost, endorsing Stone's plan for a secession summit.

Stone's plan ultimately doesn't have a snowball's chance in Palm Springs, but in the meantime, he's been able to get people talking -- and some of them are even asking whether we shouldn't just throw the bums out. That question is reminiscent of earlier plans for NorCal to have a secession itself.

Mike Trinklein, author of "Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It," told HuffPost that proposals like Stone's aren't as unusual as you might think (remember West Virginia), and said he's an enthusiast.

"California is a poorly designed state geographically," Trinklein argued. "You have too many people, so this is never going to stop happening."

While secession may be a dirty word for anybody who remembers a little American history -- Gov. Jerry Brown's spokesman quipped "A secessionist movement? What is this, 1860?" -- Tinklein thinks secession's gotten a bad rap. "Secession as a way of getting a new state is a perfectly acceptable way of settling these differences," he said.

Aside from an 1859 attempt to split California in two thwarted by the Civil War, previous partition proposals have mostly come from the northern end of the state: from San Francisco, or the mysterious border region called the State of Jefferson.

Back in November of 1941, a self-promotional group of men from Siskiyou County tired of being ignored by Sacramento, commandeered Highway 99 with hunting rifles to spread word of their proposal to create a new state, Jefferson, out of the backwoods of northern California and southern Oregon. That idea was stopped dead in its tracks by -- you guessed it -- Pearl Harbor, but the dream has never died, and even the local NPR station calls itself Jefferson Public Radio.

But what about San Francisco, the city by the Bay, which sometimes seems to style itself as a city that doesn't belong to this country or planet? It too has seen its share of secession suggestions, most prominent of all in a classic 1975 novel by Ernest Callenbach called "Ecotopia."

In that book Callenbach moots the fictional idea of a breakaway ecological state disgusted with the ecological disaster of consumerism in the United States. Ecotopia has been carved out of the Pacific Northwest and has its headquarters in San Francisco. The Ecotopians aren't talking to their American cousins, and they live off the land in a "stable state." Pseudo-Native American garb is in fashion, as are free love and wooden cars. High-speed rail zips people up and down the coast. All in all, "Ecotopia" is a forward-thinking vision of sustainability, one that seems remarkably prescient today, and particularly in the Bay Area, where people care greatly about the environment.

In "Ecotopia," Callenbach references a heated discussion over whether "ecology in one country" is possible. He wrote his book before global warming had been discovered -- so the debate holds renewed relevance in an era of failed international climate change agreements. Over email HuffPost asked Callenbach, now 82, whether his vision of Ecotopian secession still holds, and whether it would still make sense for San Francisco to become a national capital. He still lives in the Berkeley hills. Below his response is quoted at length.

The "ecology in one country" argument was an echo of an actual early Soviet argument, as to whether "socialism in one country" was possible. In both cases, it now seems to me, the answer must be no. We are now fatally interconnected, in climate change, ocean impoverishment, agricultural soil loss, etc. etc. etc. International consumer capitalism is a self-destroying machine, and as long as it remains the dominant social form, we are headed for catastrophe; indeed, like rafters first entering the "tongue" of a great rapid, we are already embarked on it.

When disasters strike and institutions falter, as at the end of empires, it does not mean that the buildings all fall down and everybody dies. Life goes on, and in particular, the remaining people fashion new institutions that they hope will better ensure their survival. So I look to a long-term process of "succession," as the biological concept has it, where "disturbances" kill off an ecosystem, but little by little new plants colonize the devastated area, prepare the soil for larger and more complex plants (and the other beings who depend on them), and finally the process achieves a flourishing, resilient, complex state -- not necessarily what was there before, but durable and richly productive. In a similar way, experiments under way now, all over the world, are exploring how sustainability can in fact be achieved locally. Technically, socially, economically -- since it is quite true, as ecologists know, that everything is connected to everything else, and you can never just do one thing by itself.

Since I wrote Ecotopia, I have become less confident of humans' political ability to act on commonsense, shared values. Our era has become one of spectacular polarization, with folly multiplying on every hand. That is the way empires crumble: they are taken over by looter elites, who sooner or later cause collapse. But then new games become possible, and with luck Ecotopia might be among them.

So far, at least, none of San Francisco's supervisors have responded to Jeff Stone with a secession proposal of their own. His plan is scheduled for a summit this fall.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot