Nowtopia Group Book Review


Reading Nowtopia

by Ray, Day, Amber, and Scott

Chris Carlsson’s book Nowtopia has given us new and fresh insight about our current day society. We frequently disagree with the way he presents his message, which seems angry and may turn readers off (you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar). We do agree with a lot of his ideas about being more self-sufficient rather relying on others for goods and services that we can provide or do for  ourselves.

In the chapter “Vacant Lot Gardeners”, Chris Carlsson talks about how groups of people have come together and donated their time and resources to create gardens in unused or abandoned parking lots. He describes vacant lot gardeners as rebels fighting against the tyranny of government, when in reality many vacant lot gardeners are generally poor people that have found a way to nourish their neighborhoods while bringing the community together for a common cause. These gardens help beautify the community, bring people together, and help feed the poor. Unfortunately, if they do not own the property, these gardens can be shut down and the land sold for profit by the owners, because the value increases after the gardens are made. They have the right to do so, considering that the people who worked the vacant lot garden are legally squatters and have no rights to the property.

Carlsson describes another route – these gardeners could negotiate with the landlords or city and seek legal permission to use the land. Instead of fighting against government, they work with it in order to get the rights to plant on city-owned property. Carlsson states that “city governments tend to look supportively on community gardening initiatives” (91). This is because gardens increase community involvement and restore abandoned and wrecked plots into bountiful and beautiful properties. Although these plots are still owned by the city, both the community and government have plentiful gains from the hard work of its people. The truth is that government has supported gardening since World War I, where they promoted programs to help fund the war (Miller, 396). Some of these programs were “Plant for Freedom” and “Hoe for Liberty” (Carlsson, 82); this is one time that the Government learned from the immigrant and poor community.  In our opinion, if these vacant lot gardeners want to keep their gardens going, it may best to do it through legal means. This exemplifies a recurring conflict we noticed in our reading of Nowtopia – the effectiveness of the most radical means may be limited, up against society and government.

This contradiction presents itself again in the chapter “Outlaw Bicycling”. It has great ideas about being independent from gas guzzling, polluting automobiles. Not only is bicycling healthy for you, it is also good for the environment. What we don’t agree with in this chapter is how some of these extremist bicyclists display their opposition by defying government-instated laws; for example, they refuse to wear helmets in order to protest the use of automobiles, and Peak Oil arguments. They are putting themselves and others in danger, just so they can give “the man” the bird. Our group finds some of these approaches highly irresponsible. One of our group members, Ray, knows from personal experience that helmets are a good thing. His own child was hit by a car on his bike and thankfully a helmet saved him from a concussion. He was still in the hospital for 3 days; it could have been worse. It is irrational to assume that protesting laws meant to protect people from harm will help in the fight against pollution and oil shortage. Although Carlsson’s own arguments for bicycling are, for the most part, scholarly and lucid, the subcultures he sources often are not. Megulon-5, of Portland’s C.H.U.N.K. 666 group, says in Carlsson’s Nowtopia “We are preparing for a post apocalyptic future with different laws of Physics” (115). This is inaccurate, hyperbolic and inaccessible – a tone ill-suited for encouraging positive lifestyle change in others.

There are ways, however, in which these subcultures make themselves accessible to everyone. For example, we appreciate that these outlaw bicyclists create workshops that teach others how to maintain and fix their bikes, rather than paying someone else to do it for them. These workshops also provide tools and used parts that others have donated to help with the repairs on their bicycles. D.I.Y. bike shops are some of the best things to come out of the outlaw biking scene, and we agree that this is truly needed in communities. Places such as the Bike Kitchen, Sopo Bicycle Cooperative, and Bicas provide a great service to communities by teaching people, for a very small membership “fee” or free, how to repair bikes, freely sharing knowledge from everyone in the shops. These shops also support and provide other community services to help keep children out of gangs and away from crime, such as Earn-a-Bike programs that give adolescent children a sense of accomplishment by having them build bikes for themselves, learning bike safety along the way. Places like build-your-own-bike shops bring honor to the bicycling community; a cohesive message of cooperation might be more influential without the contradiction introduced by helmet-spurning bicyclists.

Biodiesel is another D.I.Y. social movement that foments connection and networking. Chris Carlsson talks about Bio-fuel in the section “Free-Fuel: The Tinkerer’s Grail.” Like the cycling movement, it’s taken the form of a subculture in the United States, although it is embraced in other countries for its practicality (Sweden, for example, has industrial plants dedicated to converting fried-food leftovers to fuel). Running cars on biofuel emphasises the benefits of reuse. Although biodiesel tinkering promotes self-sufficiency, Nowtopia places more emphasis on the way it promotes community interaction. However, difficulties with marketing and competition arise when biodiesel becomes so successful that “the biofuels movement is starting to have commercial success” (176).

     The difficulty of maintaining integrity as a subculture becomes popular is brought up again in Nowtopia’s Burning Man Festival section. Once a year tens of thousands of individuals converge upon Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create a community known as Black Rock City, a community dedicated to art, self-expression, and self-reliance. The participants, who refer to themselves as burners engage in a commerce free society, an experimental community that lasts only one week a year.

Chris Carlsson went to Burning Man in 2003 as a self-designated “Official Scrutinizer,” using a brief questionnaire. His goal was to explore class consciousness among participants, to find out who they were, what they did the rest of the year, and their perception of class. The burners he interviewed covered a wide ranging demographic in both age and occupation. Chris Carlsson posits that most people who come to Burning Man are part of the working class. When they’re not at Burning Man they go to work, most living from paycheck to paycheck. They embark once yearly on an expedition to the desert along with tens of thousands of others to live in an experimental commerce free society. Many of those Carlsson scrutinized stated the commerce free society as the main reason they return.

There is a darker side of Burning Man that is usually not discussed among the participants: the commercialization of Burning Man as a result of organization and operational costs. Self-expression isn’t free nor is it cheap. Ticket prices for the week long burning man festival are reaching an average price of over three hundred dollars. They are sold through Black Rock city LLC. exclusively. When Chris Carlsson wrote to the Black Rock City LLC. to obtain information, the response he got was surprising to say the least. Carlsson writes:

My first attempt to interact with the organizers of Burning Man led to a puzzling and ultimately absurd exchange with a self-designated media committee representative going by the moniker “Brother John.” I thought to communicate my intentions to this committee as a courtesy. Much to my surprise my first e-mail led to a response “rejecting” my “request”, misunderstanding my own past attendance, admonishing me to come to the actual just to experience it. According to Brother John, after I’d soaked it up for a year I could make a proposal the committee might “approve”. I was shocked and wrote back my rejection of their authority. Brother John then indicated that he realized it was a relationship based on mutual agreement and they could not regulate me if I didn’t accept it, but that the Burning Man media committee would expect me to submit to them anything I wrote prior to publication! (215-216)

This is a blatant attempt at corporate censorship from an organization that claims to promote free speech and self-expression. Chris Carlsson professes that there is no stopping the industrial machine we have created, but we can change our role in the machine and how it affects us as individuals. Co-optation is a trap that is almost impossible to avoid. Even the best ideas supported by volunteers succumb to the economic perils that befall us all.

The book is honest about these weaknesses by acknowledging, for example, the factional differences in cycling culture, the difficulties in sustainable biodiesel production and the bureaucracy of Burning Man. We are not necessarily satisfied by the dominant systems currently in place, but given these weaknesses, we are not certain that the methods described by Carlsson are the most effective way to shift those systems. Knowing the problems these social movements have encountered can only help improve their strategies in the future.

There are many ways to lessen the effects of capitalism prevalent in today’s society as evidenced throughout the book, from urban gardeners growing their own food, artists at Burning Man repurposing discarded items and transforming them into art projects, biodiesel tinkerers making fuel from waste vegetable oil, and many more. We can and should become more and more self-reliant and less dependent on corporations to provide. However, we realize that the particular subcultures described in Nowtopia may not appeal to everyone. This is a problem only because these individual acts require many participants from all walks of life, working together, in order to truly instigate change.

Works Cited
Carlsson, Chris. Nowtopia. Edinburgh: AK Press. 2008. Print.

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