By Chris Carlsson; AK Press, 2008, 288 pp.
Chris Carlsson is a long-time community organizer, writer, and radical historian based in San Francisco. He helped launch the Critical Mass monthly bike-ins, which now take place in 5 continents and over 300 cities, and was a founder of the dissident magazine, Processed World, a publication reporting on the "underside of the Information Age."
A driving argument throughout his book is that nowtopians are working outside the capitalist economy to create "A social revolt against being reduced to ‘mere workers,’ to being trapped in the objectified and commodified status of labor power."
It is this movement that Nowtopia focuses on, telling stories from across the garden plots, bicycle parties, and kitchen tables that play essential roles in creating utopia now. In a chapter on vacant-lot gardeners Carlsson digs into the roots and legacies of community gardening. Readers are informed that during World War I, a campaign was launched to "plant for freedom" and "hoe for liberty" in which 5 million gardeners produced $520 million in food in just two growing seasons. By 1944, in World War II, 18-20 million families had "Victory Gardens," which produced 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables. More recently, in 2004, 37 gardens in NYC produced more than 30,000 pounds of food. Globally, there are approximately 200 million urban gardeners producing food and income for around 700 million people.
This book illustrates that these gardens grow more than food, they grow community. New York City gardener Sarah Ferguson says, "Like the antic shrines and alters they construct in their flower beds, these eclectic havens are in a very real sense churches, where people find faith—both in themselves and in their neighbors." NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani waged a war on gardens, working to sell the lots off to real estate developers. In 2000 he told the New York Times, "If you live in an unrealistic world then you can say everything should be a community garden." Yet many NYC neighbors banded together and resisted, preserving their garden lots and strengthening their community in the process.
Community gardening also offers an alternative to buying into the corporate food world. Environmental justice activist Jessica Hayes, for example, who worked at The Food Project in Boston, said, "I can fight that [industrial agricultural system] until I die, but at the same time build an alternative so that at some point we can just cut the global system off."
Another nowtopian activity is bicycling. In Nowtopia, Ted White talks of his experience at the Center for Appropriate Transport in Eugene, Oregon where he worked with young kids to fix and put bikes together. White says the work was empowering and confidence-building: "They took metal and rubber and plastic parts, put them together, fine tuned them, and then voila they had literally made themselves a vehicle for both external exploration and self-discovery." Similarly, Eric Welp, who teaches people how to fix their own bikes at Chain Reaction in Washington, DC, said, "We’re not going to solve the world with bikes, but we can change it by changing a kid’s outlook" and mode of transportation.
Carlsson guides readers through the rich history of bicycle zines, providing an example of the early 1990s with a zine called Mudflap by Greta Snider. In her zine, Snider tells stories of "haunts for bike-punks in Toronto," "rants against buying stolen bikes," and develops different city-specific games for bicyclists.
Critical Mass bike rides—when bicyclists converge to take back the streets from cars—are another inspirational example of renegade bike culture redefining streets and protest. Carlsson says of these gatherings, "The bike ride is the premise, but the deeper transformation of imaginations and social connections is hard to measure."
Nowtopia moves off the streets and into cyberspace in another chapter called "The Virtual Spine of the Commons." This includes a brief people’s history of the Internet, and a celebration of the rise of open and free software. This software movement, Carlsson writes, has "helped to radically reduce the price of software, providing access to thousands of new programmers and technically skilled people." However, he laments that with programs like Blogger, MySpace, and YouTube, "A profitable business model arose by placing things people have been making privately for a long time (personal diaries, novels, photos, ramblings, poetry, school gazettes) in a public context of advertising and ecommerce, and then working to make those public, commercial platforms as monopolistic as possible."
The author also shows many examples of how the Internet has been an incredible organizing, media, and fundraising tool for social movements and activists all over the world. From the Zapatistas getting their messages out to non-profits and social organizations networking in ways that were unimaginable in pre-Internet days, Carlsson analyzes the highs and lows of this powerful tool: "Typically, online communities are criticized for promoting disembodied and immaterial connections. Too often political campaigns that may once have mobilized a street action or something directly physical have instead turned into a cascade of emails and online petitions. But as the remarkable participation in the February 2003 global anti-war demonstrations revealed, the same electronic communities can network themselves to produce an unprecedented public demonstration."
Carlsson’s Nowtopia reminds us that there is much work to do beyond simply voting, and the examples he outlines in his book can be a good place to start, or expand, your own local revolutions. They are not necessarily end-all solutions, but could be catalysts toward broader social change and movements. As Carlsson writes, "An unfolding potential can and does erupt in the most surprising places, seemingly simple and limited but also embodying deeper aspirations for a more profound transformation."