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Ernest Callenbach, Last Words to an America in Decline 

By Ernest Callenbach

Posted on May 6, 2012


Introduction by Tom Englehardt

Thirty-five years later, it was still on my bookshelf
in a little section on utopias (as well it should have
been, being a modern classic).  A friend had written
his name inside the cover and even dated it: August
1976, the month I returned to New York City from years
of R&R on the West Coast.  Whether I borrowed it and
never returned it or he gave it to me neither of us now
remembers, but Ecotopia, the visionary novel 25
publishers rejected before Ernest Callenbach published
it himself in 1975, was still there ready to be read
again a lifetime later.

Callenbach once called that book "my bet with the
future," and in publishing terms it would prove a pure
winner.  To date it has sold nearly a million copies
and been translated into many languages.  On second
look, it proved to be a book not only ahead of its time
but (sadly) of ours as well.  For me, it was a unique
rereading experience, in part because every page of
that original edition came off in my hands as I turned
it.  How appropriate to finish Ecotopia with a
loose-leaf pile of paper in a New York City where paper
can now be recycled and so returned to the elements.

Callenbach would have appreciated that.  After all, his
novel, about how Washington, Oregon, and Northern
California seceded from the union in 1979 in the midst
of a terrible economic crisis, creating an
environmentally sound, stable-state, eco-sustainable
country, hasn't stumbled at all.  It's we who have
stumbled.  His vision of a land that banned the
internal combustion engine and the car culture that
went with it, turned in oil for solar power (and other
inventive forms of alternative energy), recycled
everything, grew its food locally and cleanly, and in
the process created clean skies, rivers, and forests
(as well as a host of new relationships, political,
social, and sexual) remains amazingly lively, and
somehow almost imaginable -- an approximation, that is,
of the country we don't have but should or even could

Callenbach's imagination was prodigious.  Back in 1975,
he conjured up something like C-SPAN and something like
the cell phone, among many ingenious inventions on the
page.  Ecotopia remains a thoroughly winning book and a
remarkable feat of the imagination, even if, in the
present American context, the author also dreamed of
certain things that do now seem painfully utopian, like
a society with relative income equality.

"Chick" -- as he was known, thanks, it turns out, to
the chickens his father raised in Appalachian central
Pennsylvania in his childhood -- was, like me, an
editor all his life.  He founded the prestigious
magazine Film Quarterly in 1958.  In the late 1970s, I
worked with him and his wife, Christine Leefeldt, on a
book of theirs, The Art of Friendship.  He also wrote a
successor volume to Ecotopia (even if billed as a
prequel), Ecotopia Emerging.  And as he points out in
his last piece, today's TomDispatch post, he, too, has
now been recycled.  He died of cancer on April 16th at
the age of 83.

Just days later, his long-time literary agent Richard
Kahlenberg wrote me that Chick had left a final
document on his computer, something he had been
preparing in the months before he knew he would die,
and asked if TomDispatch would run it.  Indeed, we
would.  It's not often that you hear words almost
literally from beyond the grave -- and eloquent ones at
that, calling on all Ecotopians, converted or
prospective, to consider the dark times ahead.  Losing
Chick's voice and his presence is saddening.  His words
remain, however, as do his books, as does the
possibility of some version of the better world he once
imagined for us all. Tom


Epistle to the Ecotopians 

By Ernest Callenbach

[This document was found on the computer of Ecotopia
author Ernest Callenbach (1929-2012) after his death.]

To all brothers and sisters who hold the dream in their
hearts of a future world in which humans and all other
beings live in harmony and mutual support -- a world of
sustainability, stability, and confidence. A world
something like the one I described, so long ago, in
Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging.

As I survey my life, which is coming near its end, I
want to set down a few thoughts that might be useful to
those coming after. It will soon be time for me to give
back to Gaia the nutrients that I have used during a
long, busy, and happy life. I am not bitter or
resentful at the approaching end; I have been one of
the extraordinarily lucky ones. So it behooves me here
to gather together some thoughts and attitudes that may
prove useful in the dark times we are facing: a century
or more of exceedingly difficult times.

How will those who survive manage it? What can we teach
our friends, our children, our communities? Although we
may not be capable of changing history, how can we
equip ourselves to survive it?

I contemplate these questions in the full consciousness
of my own mortality. Being offered an actual number of
likely months to live, even though the estimate is
uncertain, mightily focuses the mind. On personal
things, of course, on loved ones and even loved things,
but also on the Big Picture.

But let us begin with last things first, for a change.
The analysis will come later, for those who wish it.

Hope. Children exude hope, even under the most terrible
conditions, and that must inspire us as our conditions
get worse. Hopeful patients recover better. Hopeful
test candidates score better. Hopeful builders
construct better buildings. Hopeful parents produce
secure and resilient children. In groups, an atmosphere
of hope is essential to shared successful effort: "Yes,
we can!" is not an empty slogan, but a mantra for
people who intend to do something together -- whether
it is rescuing victims of hurricanes, rebuilding
flood-damaged buildings on higher ground, helping
wounded people through first aid, or inventing new
social structures (perhaps one in which only people are
"persons," not corporations). We cannot know what
threats we will face. But ingenuity against adversity
is one of our species' built-in resources. We cope, and
faith in our coping capacity is perhaps our biggest
resource of all.

Mutual support. The people who do best at basic
survival tasks (we know this experimentally, as well as
intuitively) are cooperative, good at teamwork, often
altruistic, mindful of the common good. In drastic
emergencies like hurricanes or earthquakes, people
surprise us by their sacrifices -- of food, of shelter,
even sometimes of life itself. Those who survive social
or economic collapse, or wars, or pandemics, or
starvation, will be those who manage scarce resources
fairly; hoarders and dominators win only in the short
run, and end up dead, exiled, or friendless. So, in
every way we can we need to help each other, and our
children, learn to be cooperative rather than
competitive; to be helpful rather than hurtful; to look
out for the communities of which we are a part, and on
which we ultimately depend.

Practical skills. With the movement into cities of the
U.S. population, and much of the rest of the world's
people, we have had a massive de-skilling in how to do
practical tasks. When I was a boy in the country, all
of us knew how to build a tree house, or construct a
small hut, or raise chickens, or grow beans, or screw
pipes together to deliver water. It was a sexist world,
of course, so when some of my chums in eighth grade
said we wanted to learn girls' "home ec" skills like
making bread or boiling eggs, the teachers were
shocked, but we got to do it. There was widespread
competence in fixing things -- impossible with most
modern contrivances, of course, but still reasonable
for the basic tools of survival: pots and pans,
bicycles, quilts, tents, storage boxes.

We all need to learn, or relearn, how we would keep the
rudiments of life going if there were no paid
specialists around, or means to pay them. Every child
should learn elementary carpentry, from layout and
sawing to driving nails. Everybody should know how to
chop wood safely, and build a fire. Everybody should
know what to do if dangers appear from fire, flood,
electric wires down, and the like. Taking care of each
other is one practical step at a time, most of them
requiring help from at least one other person; survival
is a team sport.

Organize. Much of the American ideology, our shared and
usually unspoken assumptions, is hyper-individualistic.
We like to imagine that heroes are solitary, have super
powers, and glory in violence, and that if our work
lives and business lives seem tamer, underneath they
are still struggles red in blood and claw. We have
sought solitude on the prairies, as cowboys on the
range, in our dependence on media (rather than real
people), and even in our cars, armored cabins of
solitude. We have an uneasy and doubting attitude about
government, as if we all reserve the right to be
outlaws. But of course human society, like ecological
webs, is a complex dance of mutual support and
restraint, and if we are lucky it operates by laws
openly arrived at and approved by the populace.

If the teetering structure of corporate domination,
with its monetary control of Congress and our other
institutions, should collapse of its own greed, and the
government be unable to rescue it, we will have to
reorganize a government that suits the people. We will
have to know how to organize groups, how to compromise
with other groups, how to argue in public for our
positions. It turns out that "brainstorming," a totally
noncritical process in which people just throw out
ideas wildly, doesn't produce workable ideas. In
particular, it doesn't work as well as groups in which
ideas are proposed, critiqued, improved, debated. But
like any group process, this must be protected from
domination by powerful people and also over-talkative
people. When the group recognizes its group power, it
can limit these distortions. Thinking together is
enormously creative; it has huge survival value.

Learn to live with contradictions. These are dark
times, these are bright times. We are implacably making
the planet less habitable. Every time a new oil field
is discovered, the press cheers: "Hooray, there is more
fuel for the self-destroying machines!" We are turning
more land into deserts and parking lots. We are wiping
out innumerable species that are not only wondrous and
beautiful, but might be useful to us. We are
multiplying to the point where our needs and our wastes
outweigh the capacities of the biosphere to produce and
absorb them. 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

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. In the
biological process called "succession," a desolate,
disturbed area is gradually, by a predictable sequence
of returning plants, restored to ecological continuity
and durability. When old institutions and habits break
down or consume themselves, new experimental shoots
begin to appear, and people explore and test and share
new and better ways to survive together.

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.


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. It is
intent on speedily and relentlessly extracting the
maximum wealth from that carcass, impoverishing our
former working middle class. But this maggot class does
not invest its profits here. By law and by stock-market
pressures, corporations must seek their highest
possible profits, no matter the social or national
consequences -- which means moving capital and
resources abroad, wherever profit potential is larger.
As Karl Marx darkly remarked, "Capital has no country,"
and in the conditions of globalization his meaning has
come clear.

The looter elite systematically exports jobs, skills,
knowledge, technology, retaining at home chiefly
financial manipulation expertise: highly profitable,
but not of actual productive value. Through
"productivity gains" and speedups, it extracts maximum
profit from domestic employees; then, firing the
surplus, it claims surprise that the great mass of
people lack purchasing power to buy up what the economy
can still produce (or import).

Here again Marx had a telling phrase: "Crisis of
under-consumption." When you maximize unemployment and
depress wages, people have to cut back. When they cut
back, businesses they formerly supported have to shrink
or fail, adding their own employees to the ranks of the
jobless, and depressing wages still further. End
result: something like Mexico, where a small, filthy
rich plutocracy rules over an impoverished mass of
desperate, uneducated, and hopeless people.

Barring unprecedented revolutionary pressures, this is
the actual future we face in the United States, too. As
we know from history, such societies can stand a long
time, supported by police and military control,
manipulation of media, surveillance and dirty tricks of
all kinds. It seems likely that a few parts of the
world (Germany, with its worker-council variant of
capitalism, New Zealand with its relative equality,
Japan with its social solidarity, and some others) will
remain fairly democratic.

The U.S., which has a long history of violent
plutocratic rule unknown to the textbook-fed, will
stand out as the best-armed Third World country, its
population ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-educated, ill-cared
for in health, and increasingly poverty-stricken: even
Social Security may be whittled down, impoverishing
tens of millions of the elderly.

As empires decline, their leaders become increasingly
incompetent -- petulant, ignorant, gifted only with PR
skills of posturing and spinning, and prone to the
appointment of loyal idiots to important government
positions. Comedy thrives; indeed writers are hardly
needed to invent outrageous events.

We live, then, in a dark time here on our tiny precious
planet. Ecological devastation, political and economic
collapse, irreconcilable ideological and religious
conflict, poverty, famine: the end of the overshoot of
cheap-oil-based consumer capitalist expansionism.

If you don't know where you've been, you have small
chance of understanding where you might be headed. So
let me offer a capsule history for those who, like most
of us, got little help from textbook history.

At 82, my life has included a surprisingly substantial
slice of American history. In the century or so up
until my boyhood in Appalachian central Pennsylvania,
the vast majority of Americans subsisted as farmers on
the land. Most, like people elsewhere in the world,
were poor, barely literate, ill-informed, short-lived. 
Millions had been slaves. Meanwhile in the cities, vast
immigrant armies were mobilized by ruthless and often
violent "robber baron" capitalists to build vast
industries that made things: steel, railroads, ships,
cars, skyscrapers.

Then, when I was in grade school, came World War II.
America built the greatest armaments industry the world
had ever seen, and when the war ended with most other
industrial countries in ruins, we had a run of
unprecedented productivity and prosperity. Thanks to
strong unions and a sympathetic government, this
prosperity was widely shared: a huge working middle
class evolved -- tens of millions of people could
afford (on one wage) a modest house, a car, perhaps
sending a child to college. This era peaked around
1973, when wages stagnated, the Vietnam War took a
terrible toll in blood and money, and the country began
sliding rightward.

In the next epoch, which we are still in and which may
be our last as a great nation, capitalists who grew
rich and powerful by making things gave way to a new
breed: financiers who grasped that you could make even
more money by manipulating money. (And by persuading
Congress to subsidize them -- the system should have
been called Subsidism, not Capitalism.) They had no
concern for the productivity of the nation or the
welfare of its people; with religious fervor, they
believed in maximizing profit as the absolute economic
goal. They recognized that, by capturing the government
through the election finance system and removing
government regulation, they could turn the financial
system into a giant casino.

Little by little, they hollowed the country out, until
it was helplessly dependent on other nations for almost
all its necessities. We had to import significant steel
components from China or Japan. We came to pay for our
oil imports by exporting food (i.e., our soil). Our
media and our educational system withered. Our wars
became chronic and endless and stupefyingly expensive.
Our diets became suicidal, and our medical system
faltered; life expectancies began to fall.

And so we have returned, in a sort of terrible circle,
to something like my boyhood years, when President
Roosevelt spoke in anger of "one third of a nation
ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-clothed." A large and militant
contingent of white, mostly elderly, Anglo-Saxon,
Protestant right wingers, mortally threatened by their
impending minority status and pretending to be
liberty-lovers, desperately seek to return us still
further back.

Americans like to think of ours as an exceptional
country, immune through geographical isolation and some
kind of special virtue to the tides of history. Through
the distorted lens of our corporate media, we possess
only a distorted view of what the country is really
like now. In the next decades, we shall see whether we
indeed possess the intelligence, the strength, and the
mutual courage to break through to another positive

No futurist can foresee the possibilities. As empires
decay, their civilian leaderships become increasingly
crazed, corrupt, and incompetent, and often the
military (which is after all a parasite of the whole
nation, and has no independent financial base like the
looter class) takes over. Another possible scenario is
that if the theocratic red center of the country
prevails in Washington, the relatively progressive and
prosperous coastal areas will secede in self-defense.

Ecotopia is a novel, and secession was its dominant
metaphor: how would a relatively rational part of the
country save itself ecologically if it was on its own?
As Ecotopia Emerging puts it, Ecotopia aspired to be a
beacon for the rest of the world. And so it may prove,
in the very, very long run, because the general
outlines of Ecotopia are those of any possible future
sustainable society.

The "ecology in one country" argument was an echo of an
actual early Soviet argument, as to whether "socialism
in one country" was possible. In both cases, it now
seems to me, the answer must be no. We are now fatally
interconnected, in climate change, ocean
impoverishment, agricultural soil loss, etc., etc.,
etc. International consumer capitalism is a
self-destroying machine, and as long as it remains the
dominant social form, we are headed for catastrophe;
indeed, like rafters first entering the "tongue" of a
great rapid, we are already embarked on it.

When disasters strike and institutions falter, as at
the end of empires, it does not mean that the buildings
all fall down and everybody dies. Life goes on, and in
particular, the remaining people fashion new
institutions that they hope will better ensure their

So I look to a long-term process of "succession," as
the biological concept has it, where "disturbances"
kill off an ecosystem, but little by little new plants
colonize the devastated area, prepare the soil for
larger and more complex plants (and the other beings
who depend on them), and finally the process achieves a
flourishing, resilient, complex state -- not
necessarily what was there before, but durable and
richly productive. In a similar way, experiments under
way now, all over the world, are exploring how
sustainability can in fact be achieved locally.
Technically, socially, economically -- since it is
quite true, as ecologists know, that everything is
connected to everything else, and you can never just do
one thing by itself.

Since I wrote Ecotopia, I have become less confident of
humans' political ability to act on commonsense, shared
values. Our era has become one of spectacular
polarization, with folly multiplying on every hand.
That is the way empires crumble: they are taken over by
looter elites, who sooner or later cause collapse. But
then new games become possible, and with luck Ecotopia
might be among them.

Humans tend to try to manage things: land, structures,
even rivers. We spend enormous amounts of time, energy,
and treasure in imposing our will on nature, on
preexisting or inherited structures, dreaming of
permanent solutions, monuments to our ambitions and
dreams. But in periods of slack, decline, or collapse,
our abilities no longer suffice for all this
management. We have to let things go.

All things "go" somewhere: they evolve, with or without
us, into new forms. So as the decades pass, we should
try not always to futilely fight these transformations.
As the Japanese know, there is much unnoticed beauty in
wabi-sabi -- the old, the worn, the tumble-down, those
things beginning their transformation into something
else. We can embrace this process of devolution:
embellish it when strength avails, learn to love it.

There is beauty in weathered and unpainted wood, in
orchards overgrown, even in abandoned cars being
incorporated into the earth. Let us learn, like the
Forest Service sometimes does, to put unwise or
unneeded roads "to bed," help a little in the healing
of the natural contours, the re-vegetation by native
plants. Let us embrace decay, for it is the source of
all new life and growth.

Ernest Callenbach, author of the classic environmental
novel Ecotopia among other works, founded and edited
the internationally known journal Film Quarterly.  He
died at 83 on April 16th, leaving behind this document
on his computer.

Copyright Ernest Callenbach 2012

(c) 2012 TomDispatch. All rights reserved. View this
story online at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175538/


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