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Ernest Callenbach: Last Words to an America in Decline

Posted on May 7, 2012

(Page 2)

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.


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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.

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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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