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Ernest Callenbach: Last Words to an America in Decline

Posted on May 7, 2012

(Page 5)

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, 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


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By Marian Griffith, May 12, 2012 at 1:28 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 9:58 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 12:44 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 11:39 am 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 5:35 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 7:04 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 6:37 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 6:34 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 12:10 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 11:57 am 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 11:48 am 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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