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Ernest Callenbach: Last Words to an America in Decline

Posted on May 7, 2012

Ernest Callenbach, author of the beloved 1975 utopian novel “Ecotopia,” died of cancer last month at the age of 83. Days later, a sort of farewell detailing his hopes for the world he left behind was discovered on his computer.

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch. Here is Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, followed by Callenbach’s final document.

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 have.


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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.


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.

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By Marian Griffith, May 12, 2012 at 2:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

And another opportunity of discussing the immediate and moderate future of the USA and the entire world in fact, has been lost to pointless bickering.

Mr.Callenbach’s final words were not about who is most at fault for the current state and he clearly lost some of the youthful optimism he had when he wrote Ecotopia.
What he wrote is about how unless we manage to change things the USA and the economic system it has forced upon the world is bound to self-destruct, and if we are very luckly it will do so by imploding quietly and not by setting the entire world on fire. The phrase ‘the usa is becoming the world’s best armed third world country’ does not inspire confidence.
Mr.Callenbach also identified a number of traits and characteristics that are going to be essential to see ourselves through this decline and will help us build something new from the ruins. The key ones being that we can only survive if we work together and share fairly. The opposite of what the money driven hyper-capitalism is forcing upon us all.

As the financial parasites in their mad dash to produce goods ever cheaply (and keep an ever larger amount of the wealth for themselve) hollow out the ability of the people to purchase things we are getting ever closer to the point where the whole thing just collapses. What is the point of having slaves build cars cheaply when the world is divided in slaves and factory owners. The first can not buy cars and the second can not keep a factory profitable.
And the breaking point is much nearer than we like to think. As oil prices go up so does the unsustainability of the global economy. If the oil price doubles (which could happen very rapidly indeed) China no longer can ship their goods at prices that the impoverished American and European population can afford. Demand collapses, China slides into a recession and the USA in particular has insufficient industry to produce its essentials (nor might I add can afford to ship the food to its hungry cities from halfway the continent. And that is if the global warming does not destroy the viability of agriculture in the midwest).

This seems to me to be a slightly more important issue than who has the biggest epeen.

And I think we might start with being more kind to each other (because if not us then who will?)

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By americanme, May 10, 2012 at 10:58 am Link to this comment

No, you should shut up and get a GED.

This article was about the impending doom of the planet—are you such a desperate wannabe gringo that everything on this planet has to do with silly gringo volunteer program ideas?

You are an insulting little twit, in my opinion, and nothing you have said causes me to have doubts about my opinion.

You recommend mowing lawns for oldsters like myself, and reading the newspaper to them—those are solutions to the current planetary crisis?  Besides, you are a hypocrite, as you have insulted this oldster.

And who told you that all oldsters were either illiterate or blind?  I didn’t pull my PhD out of a box of Crackerjacks.

I can’t think of too many activities that would be more fatuously irritating to me than to have some undereducated kid try to read the news out loud to me in the seven languages which I read!

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By americanme, May 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm Link to this comment

Look kid, I posted what I posted because I live in Mexico and my post very accurately responds to your pie in the sky foolishness.

I am an american—A Native American who lives in Mexico, in the American hemisphere.

And I am not some undereducated nitwit who doesn’t even know what paranoia is.  I am not paranoid.  If I were I would certainly not come to this site and receive virtual death threats because I am not white—and infantile screeds like the one you just posted to me.

This OLD WOMAN whom you just insulted sees you for the hypocrite you are.  You didn’t bother to take the time to treat me with courtesy, even!

With insulting twits like you posting your cursi crap here it’s no damn wonder I am not optimistic!

And I do not fish!  Like many non-coastal Native Americans, I am allergic to fish and shellfish.

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By americanme, May 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm Link to this comment

And those three activities are going to change the world?

You wouldn’t last long with those capers in Mexico.

1.  No lawns except the very rich folks.

2.  The city hall jokers pocket at least 25% of the money for materials to repair potholes so that they can start building their mansions and so that the holes will open again in 3 months.  They would run your ass out on the end of an AKJ-47, and you’d be lucky not to do jail time.

3.  Newspapers are a luxury—you’d have to buy the paper, too.

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By exoevolution, May 8, 2012 at 6:35 am Link to this comment

a luminous
world awaits
a dawn
when darkness
is illuminated.
when ignorance
is educated.
when hate
becomes love.
when all is One, something to be dreamed of
everyone, everywhere is One.

a glowing
reality breathes
a thought,
consciousness heartbeats.
soaring upward
consciousness informs.
diving inward
consciousness transforms. 
becoming love… without end… be love… be love…
consciousness when all is One, something to be dreamed of
everyone, everywhere is One.

across the universe,
suns are born,
stars explode,
light-gods that give everything,
  lighting the darkness, awaking the void.

consciousness kisses the lips of creation.


the sun is so beautiful.

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By prisnersdilema, May 7, 2012 at 8:04 pm Link to this comment

I don’t disagree with what he said, good advice, and lately I have noticed that
some of my neighbors are raising chickens…Along with many proud gardens.

The day may come when someones book on raising chicken’s reaches number one
on the NY times best seller list, it will be more shocking to some, than the fading
away of America’s heartland, and industrial base.

Still the loss of Japan as an industrial nation, will be difficult for the economy of
the world to absorb. The question of where will the Japanese live, may take
generations to resolve. Their end, if the world survives the resultant release of
cesium, that is already killing many Japanese through heart attacks, will serve as
an eternal testament, to the madness, stupidity, and lies of our leadership.

Just as hope is better than despair, in facing life’s issues, reality is much better
than pretty lies.

In a 100 years of dark times, mankind’s survival will be uncertain, cooperation,
and acceptance, will help tip the odds in our favor, and certainly those that survive
by the dint of that cooperation and acceptance, will be most worthy.

Of the things on his list, there are a few I know how to do. I will have a lot more to
learn as time goes on, I hope I am up to the challenge.

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By Randall Smith, May 7, 2012 at 7:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Google Burningman, read the FAQ for new Burners, and learn about radical self-reliance.

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By Randall Smith, May 7, 2012 at 7:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We are way past the point of no return; the Bush-43 election.  The collapse from the Lehman Brothers meltdown would have FORCED immediate change.  But alas, the change is just postponed.  Now we get a president that postpones the hard decisions.  The crazies are not in control of the House of Reps.  The collapse will be MUCH bigger when it come.  Just learn new skills, like most people with sales skills that are no longer needed.  Maybe in 100 years things will be better.  The rest of this century will be trying to create a new form of goverment and economy, one without oil.

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By americanme, May 7, 2012 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment


And WHAT, may I ask, is that way to soften the ire and dilute the fear?

I don’t see it being put into practice anywhere.

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By americanme, May 7, 2012 at 12:57 pm Link to this comment

I can see why this would speak to white people in the US.

Doesn’t say diddly squat to those of us who are not white, and who are nevertheless victims of the white settler colonial state.

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By gerard, May 7, 2012 at 12:48 pm Link to this comment

Surfboy:  “..soften the ire and dilute the fear.”  Absolutely.  Every specific contribution is needed now, and valuable.

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