After the ruins - Page 2

SF's pasts and futures -- and Chris Carlsson's Nowtopia
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But Brand was a leader of the counterculture, not a revolutionary. He believed that the market economy, not political change, would usher in a better world. While today's market — at the behest of individuals — has started to demand renewable energy or sustainable growth, it also has brought us the SUV, suburban sprawl, and the highest fuel prices in history. Apple may empower the individual — or want consumers to believe it does — but at 29, Silicon Valley has the highest concentration of Superfund sites in the country.

Brand deserves credit for intuiting the peculiar "machine in the garden" Bay Area we live in today, a place perhaps more "California Über Alles" than utopian. It's far from the postmarket SF envisioned in Ernest Callenbach's 1975 novel Ecotopia, which is set in 1999, nearly 20 years after Northern California, Oregon, and Washington have seceded from the United States to form the titular nation. A colleague of Brand's, Callenbach bases his society on ideas from the Whole Earth Catalog, but for one major difference — Ecotopia comes into being not through the free market but through an environmental revolution. (I won't spoil it, but here's a hint: it starts in Bolinas!)

While Callenbach's future sometimes resembles a mixture of the Haight Street Fair and Critical Mass, there are twists. Ancient creeks have been unearthed, and on Market Street there is a "charming series of little falls, with water gurgling and splashing, and channels lined with rocks, trees, bamboos and ferns." Ecotopians have instituted a 20-hour work week that involves dismantling dystopian relics such as gas stations. There is a surplus of food produced close to home. Materials that do not decompose are no longer used. This new world is no wilderness — it reconciles civilization and nature. Yet perhaps its most radical idea is that humans can create a utopia without help from a plague, apocalyptic war, or earthquake.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake leveled 4.7 square miles — or 508 city blocks. It destroyed 28,188 structures, including City Hall, the Hall of Justice, the Hall of Records, the County Jail, the Main Library, five police stations, and more than 40 schools. Yet strangely, many apocalyptic tomes — including recent ones such as the speculative nonfiction best-seller The World Without Us and the born-again Christian Left Behind series — are reluctant to imagine a totally destroyed San Francisco.

In contrast, Chris Carlsson's 2004 utopian novel, After the Deluge (Full Enjoyment Books, 288 page, $13.95), suggests the City is at its most charming when at least partially in ruins, like the old cities of Europe. In Carlsson's post-economic SF of 2157, rising sea levels from global warming submerge much of the Financial District, yet the City adapts by serving old skyscrapers — now converted into housing — with a network of canals.

After the Deluge's vision of reduced work, free bikes, and creeks unearthed from beneath streets borrows from Callenbach's Ecotopia. Yet Carlsson seems to have his most fun imagining a city transformed by ruins: take a subtle comment on the Federal Building at Seventh and Market streets. In Carlsson's map of SF circa 2157, the monstrosity that some call the Death Star is simply labeled "The Ruins."

Similarly, the photographs in After the Ruins 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire (University of California Press, 134 pages, $24.95) appear to delight in the City's impermanence. Mark Klett presents famous images of the smoldering city in 1906 alongside carefully shot contemporary photographs from the same vantage points.

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