Requiem for Ernest Callenbach
I just read that Ernest Callenbach, author of Ecotopia and many other works, died on April 16th of cancer at the age of 83.
Ecotopia has probably influenced me as much as anything I have read, as it has many other readers.
It was the original inspiration for this ongoing novel project, Inter States.
I came across Ecotopia in a course at RPI around 1980-81, and promptly selected it as the basis of a paper I wrote for that course, entitled “The Economics of Ecotopia.” I was fascinated by the whole-picture approach of the novel, in which Callenbach strove to come up with a world that, while different from the rest of America, was plausible and internally consistent. I believe he succeeded.
Emblematic of my somewhat overenthusiastic idealism at the time, I gave a copy to Rep. John B. Anderson in the year following his failed 1980 presidential election attempt as an independent candidate. Anderson’s office was just off Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC, near the National Cathedral. The rumor was that he was preparing a new campaign bid. I presented Ecotopia to him as if the blueprint of a better future had all been worked out. (In my mind, it was true.) Not sure whether he ever read it.
Now, Tom Engelhardt has posted an essay by Callenbach found in his computer posthumously, entitled Epistle to the Ecotopians. I read it with deep mixed feelings of appreciation and dread. The world that Callenbach depicted feels in some ways closer and in other ways more unreachable than it did when I first read it only a few years after its writing – closer in terms of the new technologies and practices that have been developed in the nearly four decades since, more unreachable in terms of political ideologies and in terms of the damage to climate, habitat, biodiversity, the middle class, etc. that has accumulated since then.
The year 1976 saw America beginning to recover from the trauma of Vietnam and the Watergate crisis, and between the twin oil shocks of the 1970s. Jimmy Carter was elected president, and had not yet failed in his presidential agenda. The USA was celebrating its bicentennial. Worry and wounds were starting to give way to greater social cohesion and optimism, after the turbulent 1960s. But there were still many dark clouds around, including air and water pollution visibly worse than what we typically experience today, and Callenbach was clearly affected by these experiences as he penned Ecotopia in the years of the early ’70s. (It was not yet “morning in America,” as Reagan would trumpet in early 1981.)
In Callenbach’s last written words, he is grateful for a full life, and Gaian in his composure. But his opinion is clear about “a century or more of exceedingly difficult times” ahead, so his essay revolves around the attitudes, capacities, and skills that will be needed to survive and keep utopian visions alive. He writes of hope, mutual support, practical skills, organizing, and learning to live with contradictions – things people are actively working on at, for example, the upcoming Slow Living Summit. ”Survival is a team sport,” he writes. One theme he mentions is the fact that Americans are currently migrating into the big cities and losing many rural skills, ironically at a time when we may need such skills again soon, more than ever. If this great de-skilling continues and the ability of cities to provide for their citizens’ needs falters for whatever reason, imagine the desperation of large numbers of people as they migrate again or throw their trust into the hands of a populist or despot?
Yet his tone, while troubled, achieves an optimism that indicates to me that the fire behind Ecotopia never died:
And yet, despite the bloody headlines and the rocketing military budgets, we are also, unbelievably, killing fewer of each other proportionately than in earlier centuries. We have mobilized enormous global intelligence and mutual curiosity, through the Internet and outside it. We have even evolved, spottily, a global understanding that democracy is better than tyranny, that love and tolerance are better than hate, that hope is better than rage and despair, that we are prone, especially in catastrophes, to be astonishingly helpful and cooperative.
We may even have begun to share an understanding that while the dark times may continue for generations, in time new growth and regeneration will begin. …
It is never easy or simple. But already we see, under the crumbling surface of the conventional world, promising developments: new ways of organizing economic activity (cooperatives, worker-owned companies, nonprofits, trusts), new ways of using low-impact technology to capture solar energy, to sequester carbon dioxide, new ways of building compact, congenial cities that are low (or even self-sufficient) in energy use, low in waste production, high in recycling of almost everything. A vision of sustainability that sometimes shockingly resembles Ecotopia is tremulously coming into existence at the hands of people who never heard of the book.
It’s in the latter, semi-edited part of his essay where the fires re-emerges white-hot. This is no hazy idealism, murmuring of a happy ending:
Now in principle, the Big Picture seems simple enough, though devilishly complex in the details. We live in the declining years of what is still the biggest economy in the world, where a looter elite has fastened itself upon the decaying carcass of the empire.
He goes on: carcass; maggot class, Karl Marx; violent plutocratic rule… A massive piece of our challenge is without a doubt political, and it is here where our times may become most “exceedingly difficult.”
On the secession theme, one of the questions he leaves us with is, “How would a relatively rational part of the country save itself ecologically if it was on its own?” In a time of criminal mendacity by right-wing politicians and corn-pone theocrats [recently noted elsewhere: "theocons"], this is a question that many in the better-informed, more progressive parts of America are surely asking with growing frequency.
I am sorry you will no longer be here with us. But your thoughts and words will be. Thank you for your work, Ernest Callenbach.