John Michael Greer's Retrotopia is a piece of narrative fiction that takes place in November, 2065, in the Lakeland Republic. Lakeland is one of several new nations that came out of the dissolution of the United States in the aftermath of the Second Civil War, which takes place some decades before this book begins.
It's a fascinating look at a future both grim and surprisingly hopeful. Peter Carr, our viewpoint character, is a man of wealth and means visiting from a section of the US where the future has gone in pretty much a straight line from where we are right now. As a result, his clothing and shoes are made of "bioplastic," a flimsy, clammy material that's all the rage (much like polyester made from plastic bottles, perhaps?). He's flummoxed when he can't look up facts on the "Metanet" or make notes using his "Veepad," a technology that's the 2065 equivalent of the internet--think Twitter, but with fewer characters and more ads. He encounters a family of wage class laborers immigrating into the Lakeland Republic on his train ride into Toledo. When he asks them if they'll miss having access to technology, they sneer at him. Apparently, both mom and dad have worked an average of 70 hour weeks in order to keep their family fed and housed, and still can't afford the latest Veepad X.
Enter: the perfect Utopian vision that is the Lakeland Republic. Through a series of very different policy choices, Lakeland has brought about a future that's off on its own adventure. Each county votes on what level of technology it wants to build and maintain via its own taxes. A Tier One county is set at about the level of 1830's America--dirt roads, a local Sheriff, not much else. As might be expected from such basic infrastructure, Tier One is primarily agrarian. Not just agrarian, but family farm agrarian. Think Amish barn raisings and buggies--and not surprisingly, a significant portion of Tier One citizens have religious beliefs similar to our modern day Amish. Tier Five gives you the 1950's, think sidewalks, paved streets, electricity, indoor plumbing, and public transit.
But there's a twist. Living in Tier One doesn't stop any individual from putting up solar panels and installing a computer in their home--it just stops them from having access to the Metanet (there is no Metanet in Lakeland). And in Tier Five, owning an automobile is perfectly legal--but subjected to a bevy of taxes that make it very expensive to own and operate. Most folks get around via a network of bio-diesel trains for county-to-county travel, and streetcars or horse-drawn carriage in the city. Long distance shipping is done via a combination of canal barge and sailing ship.
And one more twist. A technology level in the 1950's doesn't include the social mores of that time--so Peter Carr meets a millionaire business tycoon, Janice Mikkelson, with a wife fifteen years her junior. And he sees two young men tying the knot in the ballroom at the hotel where he's staying. And ethnic minorities of every color are mentioned regularly as playing a bevy of roles in society, from the President of Lakeland on down.
A reduced level of technology, as well as policy choices that provide disincentives for automation, mean that employment in the Lakeland republic is at all time high. Offices are full of clerks using slide rules and secretaries taking dictation instead of computers. Manufacturing plants are full of mechanics and engineers with hand tools instead of robots. A robust public transit system requires two people on each street car--a conductor and a ticket taker. Reporters and photographers are legion--without the metanet, newspapers are big business and there are a plethora.
The Lakeland Republic has rejected World Bank Loans and been under sanctions for some time. Rather than shriveling up and becoming an economic basket case, though, the nation has rebuilt not just local industry, but local supply chains for everything else, too. Carr sees small vegetable gardens in front of every house he passes in the city--and larger and larger plots as he gets out into the hinterlands, non of them owned by corporate conglomerates. Small mom and pop shops are big business--even the milliner, with his small cubby hole shop full of hats, seems to be doing well for himself (and apparently has some kind of referral deal with a local tailor, too). This is a thrifty nation--the street car lines are made from steel girders recycled from sky scrapers that were destroyed in the Civil War.
Now, the rest of the world hasn't given up modern technology, so readers might be wondering just what would happen if a nation that maintained a reliance on satellite connections to operate a modern, high-tech military decided to invade the Lakeland Republic. As it happens, Greer goes into that in some detail--and he put my concerns to rest. Lakeland will be fine--though they won't be taking their army on any foreign misadventures, I can tell you what. The US equivalent juggernaut facing a low-tech armed insurgency at every turn? Not so much. (Hey, we've been at war in the Middle East fighting an armed insurgency for fifteen years now. How's that going for us?)
If you're going oh, but "Muh internet! Muh commercial air travel! Muh car!" right now, recognize that your grandparents (or depending on how old you are, great-grandparents) got along just fine without those things. It's an entirely different way of life, to be sure--much slower--but refrain, please, from the value judgments. Having a cell phone (the price of which is artificially decreased by the fact that it has likely been manufactured under slave labor conditions in the 3rd world) does not make you any richer in the things that matter--in fact, there's a bevy of research that suggests that social media and access to instant information is making us less happy and more disconnected. I'd rather have the majority of the country employed in jobs that offer a living wage and reasonable work hours. I would gladly make that choice if it were offered to me.
Nevertheless, I have questions, John Michael Greer. What happens to the Toledo stock market when Janice Mikkelson has sold her last street car--since there's nowhere left that needs one, or no more steel (recycled or otherwise) to manufacture one with? Can your vision of a Retro future survive with an economy in a steady state, instead of one in perpetual growth? Does a peak in 1950's technology mean that any vaccines invented between now and then are verboten? And since a crisis in antibiotic resistance would likely impact Lakeland too, is surgery still done? Penicillin isn't going to cut it in 2065. Would you be able to clean up environmental issues left over from modern technology--toxic waste dumps, nuclear waste, that kind of thing? What about technology that's used in identifying and prosecuting criminals, like DNA testing? Speaking of criminals, you don't go into your legal and judicial system much. How are drugs treated in Lakeland? What kind of systems are in place for folks too old or infirm to work? What does the social safety net look like in a Tier One county? If a Tier One county voted to move up a tier, what mechanisms are in place for building the infrastructure they would then require? Since it probably takes less money to maintain an already built system than to build one from scratch, are taxes artificially raised and then lowered later? What if a county sheds a tier? What happens to the pre-existing infrastructure? Is the local power plant shut down, disassembled, and auctioned off? To whom?
I've read this book several times now--first when it was published on JMG's old blog in installments, and again when it was polished up and available as a paperback. Each time I read, I have new questions. Still, the book is only 253 pages and our viewpoint character only spends two weeks in Retrotopia, fulfilling his research functions to the incoming administration for the Atlantic Republic. For that space and time, JMG covers an awful lot of ground.
Primarily, he leaves me with hope. Hope that whatever future lies ahead could provide a better quality of life for more Americans, particularly poorer Americans. Hope that we as a nation might be able to enact policies that do more than line the pockets of our politicans. Hope that there's something better than technology that's artificially throttled just to boost 4th quarter profits for some multi-millionaire CEO (creating scads of unnecessary tech-waste in the process). There is hope.