Final message to us from Ernest Callenbach

The Powerful Final Words From Ecotopia Author

Ernest Callenbach

This document was found on the computer of Ecotopia author Ernest Callenbach (1929-2012) after his death. It was originally published at TomDispatch.

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  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. 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 era.

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 survival.

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 was the author of the classic environmental novel Ecotopia among other works.  He died at 83 on April 16th, leaving behind this document on his computer. This document was originally published at

One thought on “Final message to us from Ernest Callenbach

  1. Pingback: Final message to us from Ernest Callenbach | My Blog

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