In a continuing series to give our respect for the passing of author Ernest Callenbach last month, the editors of Cascadia Monthly have included the following articles that we feel help explore the vision, scope and breadth of societal examination he undertook in his work. None of us felt we could do this subject justice, so we felt it only appropriate to turn our pens over to Ernest Callenbach himself and let him have the final say in the matter.
The first piece, “The Man Who Invented Ecotopia”, was an interview with Geov Parrish that was run by the Seattle Weekly in March of 2005, a little more than 7 years ago, in honor of the 30th anniversary of Callenbach’s first novel, Ecotopia. Writing at a time when the idea of recycling was still a radical notion, the term ‘sustainability’ not yet coined, his novel became a seminal work.
Over the course of Callenbach’s life, Ecotopia sold more than a million copies, was reprinted in nine languages and became a cult classic, just as likely today to be found in an urban design and planning curriculum as it is a free radical lending library.
Jumping into the present, the second article, “Epistle to Ecotopians” was written by Callenbach in the final months of his life, as he began increasingly looking into his own past for wisdom to share with future generations. The article was found on his computer and released into the public domain by his family shortly after his death.
We hope that publishing this will help us all come together to envision ways that we can make our bioregion a better place, remind people that all things now taken for granted were once radical notions and, finally, that only by working together and setting aside the artificial red/blue lines so prevalent in our society can we live the green dream – or as we like to call it, the Cascadian dream.
Excerpts from “The Man Who Invented Ecotopia”
by Geov Parrish
Originally published in Seattle Weekly, March 23, 2005
Parrish: What makes this region different? Why did you pick this region to secede from the United States and chart a different course?
Callenbach: Well, it’s partly just because I live here [in Berkeley, Calif.] If you’re going to write a novel about a place, you’d better have a fair amount of knowledge about what the place is like and what the people who inhabit it are like. But I think the larger reason is that Ecotopia is a kind of bioregion. At the time I was writing Ecotopia the term “bioregion” had not yet been invented, although it followed very soon after. But we now see that the Cascadia bioregion, as the zoologists and botanists now call it, stretches north from the Tehachapi mountains in Southern California all the way up through British Columbia and into the Alaskan panhandle. And this is an area that’s defined by a fairly uniform climate; and the animals are pretty much consistent throughout—meaning animals of all kinds including insects and so on—as well as the plants. So there’s a certain geographical unity to the area. And my contention, as well as that of a lot of professional geographers, is that in the long run the characteristics of your bioregion help to determine what you might call your regional character. And if you contrast Ecotopians—let’s call them that for short—with people who live in hot, dry, arid climates of the Southwest, or climates of, say, Quebec . . . we see that people are somewhat different in these regions. They like different things and they have different possibilities open to them about building and getting around and raising food and a whole panoply of other things that in the long run. (Globalization is making us homogenous all over the world, but there’s a limit to that.) And I think in the long term, especially when globalization collapses under its own weight, as I think it’s going to do because it’s really a sort of tissue of monstrous subsidies that nation-states are still able to give to corporations, but when that can’t be done any more, then I think regionalism will reassert itself. And Ecotopia will be one of those regions.
Parrish: What are some areas in which that regionalism might assert itself, say, in the next 30 years?
Callenbach: Well, I think in city design all over the world, there are new things happening; that planners at least have pretty well gotten the picture that you can’t build yourself enough freeways to maintain the auto transit system in the long run. We’re going to have to do something else. So cities in the Northwest—Portland and Vancouver and Seattle—and San Francisco, for that matter, are all busy trying to do two things: one is to build more coherent networks of public transit, and the other is what I call in the book to build mini-cities, or emphasize neighborhood characteristics of cities within the huge areas of cities. I think Portland is probably the city that has accomplished this the most, at least on this continent. Maybe Toronto. That’s one thing that’s happening.
People are very discouraged about the national government, that is, people who are interested in the public welfare over a long period are pretty discouraged with what’s going on nationally in our political life. And so they are turning toward local defense of natural areas to the extent we still have them, which is considerable when you compare this country to others. They are beginning to think of doing things which are within arm’s reach. So you have things happening like what are called watershed councils, where people who live within a watershed begin to unite—and these are often very disparate people. There’s a very well-developed watershed council near here where you have ranchers, not only cattle ranchers, but you also have farmers who grow tree crops, fruit crops and so on, sportsmen, fishermen and so on, bicyclists, people who like to kayak, conservationists, students, local businessmen in small towns who don’t want to see their small towns gobbled up by distant malls and so on. And they’re beginning to say, “Look, we live here. We need to take care of this place. We need to share the work of doing it and we need to agree on some sort of core values that we can all work within. And oddly enough, this is a very traditional thing in a sense, but it’s also a very Ecotopian thing. And I take a lot of comfort from that. And I think this is happening all over the country, by the way. It’s not just happening here in the Northwest, although perhaps we have more of it out here.
It’s easy to exaggerate the difference between us and the rest of the country. Not only the red states but the blue states, and I think we need to seize on the common urge to take care of our place and see whether we can’t get through this current bad period and come out the other end with at least some of it intact.
Parrish: What are the impediments to achieving Ecotopia?
Callenbach: Well, there are two major impediments. One is that we are living under a system of very corrupt government. I don’t think there’s any possibility of mincing words. The American governing system has become colossally corrupt. And that’s true not only on state levels but also on the national level, of course. So many of our representatives are in the pockets of corporate entities of one kind or another that it has become very, very difficult to do anything that is in the interest of the great mass of the American people. So we have to think sooner or later of what are called in Maine and Arizona “fair elections,” a system of publicly financed elections, where people can still run by money they’ve raised from corporations and other large sources, but if they want to, they can run on public funds. This has been tried now in Arizona and Maine for two electoral cycles. It seems to be working very, very well. More than half of the candidates from both parties are now running, as they say, running clean. This means that if you get elected, you no longer have to look over your shoulder all the time to see whether your backers are going to rein you in or not if you vote for something public spirited. There have been attacks on this, of course, in both states, especially in Arizona where there’s more people and more money at stake. But so far, the systems have survived constitutional challenges, and they seem to be working very well. There’s a considerable movement in that direction here in California and I imagine in Washington and Oregon, too.
The electoral forum is necessity number one. Necessity number two, which is not altogether separate from that, is that we have to rethink what corporations are. Because when corporations are in charge of all basic aspects of a nation’s life, terrible things happen, and we are witnessing these terrible things around us day by day. I’ve just been reading a wonderful book [Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights] by a man named Thom Hartmann, who is one of the chief thinkers in this area, going back to figure out how corporations were first given the rights of persons. I think this is colossally important, because corporations are licensed by states, at least formally, and what the states give, the states could also modify or take away. As they did initially. And we have to somehow rein in the absolutely unchanneled corporate power that is now ruling the land. Because without that, we’re not going to be able to accomplish much, either ecologically, environmentally, or socially. So electoral reform and corporate reform are the two twin pillars of a decent future for America.
Now it may be that American democracy has run its course. I think Hartmann believes that it lasted until 1880 or somewhere along in there. So we had about 100 years of it, and then it was gone. I think maybe that’s a little bit too pessimistic. Or even if it had gone, maybe since we know what it was and could be, we can recapture it. I would like to think we could do that short of breaking the nation up.
The idea of Ecotopia as a separate country, I wrote it as a metaphor so that people could think, “Well, supposing we were in charge of this area out here, what would we do to take care of it? How could we live decently, how could we help each other be happy?” Because when you think of a nation of 280 million people, it’s pretty hard to think those thoughts. It’s like a gigantic blunderbuss tearing down the freeway—nothing could stop it—or an oil tanker in the straits, something like that—there’s not much possibility for steering. But small countries have the possibility to steer. And it may be that the United States, like the former Soviet Union, or perhaps even China, or perhaps even India one of these days, will have to be broken down into smaller and more efficiently governable entities.
There’s this wonderful book called The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau, which came out about 15 years ago now. One of his nations within the continent is Ecotopia, and he has eight other ones, including Mexamerica, which is Southern California and some of the desert areas to the east and Mexico itself, and it’s a fascinating book. Joel is a journalist at the Washington Post, he’s not a visionary like me, he’s just a hardheaded journalist. And he spent a year traveling around the country—and this goes back to one of your first questions—and he found that people live very differently in the different regions. They think differently, and they have different priorities. And he sort of summarizes it. It’s a very, very readable book. And I think he would contend that this process of differentiation is global.
We see the same thing happening in Europe, where the Catalonians in northeastern Spain are effectively an independent country even though they are technically part of Spain. The Basques would like to attain something similar. The Basques occupying both Spain and a little corner of France. The Bretons in northwestern France would like to recapture some of their autonomy. The Scots in the United Kingdom have been given back—by Tony Blair in one of the good things he did early in his regime—the Scots’ Parliament. It now has tremendous powers compared to what it was reduced to by the British long ago. And, of course, we see a whole bunch of new nations in the former Soviet Union. And it’s likely that most of these what you might call overgrown nation-states are not really workable in the long term. At least not workable as democracies.
And one of the things that’s going on that I couldn’t foresee at the time of Ecotopia is the existence of very fast widespread communications through the Internet and so on. Although it leads to easier and easier surveillance and control from the top, it also makes it possible for people in regions to know a lot more about what’s going on without having to be dependent upon a largely corporatized press. And that’s very exciting, because it means if you are a devolutionist in Wales—which is another area which would like to have more of itself to itself—if you’re a devolutionist in Wales, you can be in contact with people in Brittany and anywhere around the world and lay common plans and learn from each other.
That’s, I think, going to be a big theme in the remainder of the century.
Parrish: How do we start?
Callenbach: Well, by learning what’s going on. That’s the reason I want to write this article. If we can get an idea, a sufficiently clear idea of what is happening to the American empire, and why we are having these wars on the periphery all the time which don’t ever really seem to settle anything and which we can’t even seem to win decently. If we get an idea of how the interests of the American population are being sacrificed, really, to the interests of multinational corporations who don’t care whether they are doing business here or in China. I just read something where the head of Cisco, which is this giant information technology company, says, “We are laying plans to become a Chinese company.” Well, that should stop people in their tracks, because that means that the American population is sacrificeable, that the nation is an institution on the way out. I don’t think very many people are going to be comfortable with that. Ordinary people are not going to be comfortable with that. But once we get a fix on what is going on, I think you will find a lot of people are going to rise up and be counted and say, “No. We don’t want that.”
Parrish: What would the next steps look like in terms of regionalism, in terms of crafting this particular area into an Ecotopia?
Callenbach: Well, an odd thing is happening. It isn’t only regionalism, it’s kind of states’ rights in a bizarre way. Because one thing that’s happening is that the states, including some Republican governors, are realizing the feds have it in for them, and that they have to defend themselves against the feds. Now, this is very bizarre. In California, it took the form right after the election—there was a lot of to-do about secession—in a couple of columnists and a lot of letters to the editor in the Los Angeles Times. But what’s happening now, I think, is that we used to think that states’ rights people were racist reactionary renegade Southerners and so on. Now it looks like the people who are worried about states’ rights are people from the blue states, the relatively progressive states, who see that the feds are out to do in any kind of program in the states that helps large numbers of people. And that’s a very curious turnaround. So I think that maybe it’ll be regionalism to some extent, but it’ll also be state by state. You know that Spanish expression, va si puedes, get out if you can? Or save yourself. He who can save himself, should. Something like that.
We’re entering a period where local politicians, who have to be a little bit more responsible to their constituents than national politicians, I think are going to be feeling a lot of heat. And that could lead to some very interesting things. Now, California, and probably the same is true of Washington, sends a lot more money to Washington [D.C.] than we get back in terms of services from the federal government.
Parrish: That’s true of most states.
Callenbach: And I think that’s something that people gradually will get a fix on it. That this is not fair, and American people like to see things reasonably fair. So I think maybe that’s going to be a long-term lever that we can use.
Aside from that, I think wherever people see some avenue—and people are very varied in their tastes and talents and desires and so on—wherever people see an avenue that they can do something to improve their local situation, whether it’s their neighborhood or their town or their state or the valley that they live in, or whatever, we can get that kind of intensity out of commitment to place. And that’s a very Ecotopian thing in itself, also. And schoolkids are getting in on this in a big way, at least in California. There are a lot of teachers who have the kids out prowling around trying to repair creeks.
Parrish: That’s true here, too.
Callenbach: I imagine it is pretty much everywhere in the country; it’s very marked around the Bay Area here. And kids who have gone through that kind of program know a lot about nature, they understand in their bones something about the contradictions between heavy development and some kind of sustainability. They know the word “sustainability.” When I wrote Ecotopia I’m not even sure the word “sustainability” existed, in the sense that we use it now. It was just coming into view, and I think that you can describe Ecotopia as the first attempt to portray a sustainable future society, even though the word isn’t—I don’t think it is, at least—in the book. The idea of being able to have natural cycles that continue indefinitely, round and round, stable state cycles, stable state systems, as Ecotopians do call them, and that the idea is to think in very long terms and to work with nature rather than against nature. And this is a big philosophical overturn, because we’re coming out of 200 years where we were assuming that we were in charge. Anything we wanted to do to nature, badly enough at least, we could. We’re now beginning to understand that that’s not really the way it is. That’s why I wrote another book called Ecology: A Pocket Guide, which is an attempt to explain about 60 basic ecological concepts in ordinary language without any equations or diagrams or anything. So that if somebody says to you “sustainability,” you have a better idea what they’re talking about, not just in a goody-goody business sense, “The stock price is sustainable” or something like that, but what sustainability means in terms of natural cycles and the human role in those natural cycles.
We need to develop a much more concrete politics. That is to say, a politics about how we are living now and what we like about it and what we don’t like about it. Sooner or later, I think the idea, the dominant idea behind consumer society is that you will be happier if you have more. Now we know for a fact that’s not true. They’ve been taking public-opinion surveys and so on for decades now, and they all show that beyond some level of obvious misery, increased money and possessions do not make people happier. Maybe when you get way, way up on the upper middle class and you have so much money you can’t think about it, maybe then you get a tiny bit happier. But in the great range of human income and consumption and so on, the amount of goods you have is really not that significant. A lot of other things, your relationships, your community, and so on, those are the things that really make people happy. Our consumption of goods has tripled since 1960 or thereabouts. But are we three times happier? Nope. We’re just about exactly as happy as we were then.
So this has to get through our thick skulls somehow, that what makes for a good life is not goods. And I think maybe some of the people in Seattle that have worked on this, you undoubtedly know [voluntary simplicity advocates] Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, those people, working on what they call “enoughness.” We have to learn what is enough for us, and if enough of us can do that, it will change the nature of our society and our prospects for survival will greatly improve.
Epistle to the Ecotopians
by Ernest Callenbach
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, inEcotopia andEcotopia 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 US 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, downed electric wires and the like. Taking care of one another 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 superpowers 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 United States, 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.
Ecotopiais 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 Emergingputs 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 pre-existing 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.