The Man Who Invented Ecotopia

Author Ernest Callenbach talks about localism, the future, and the state of Ecotopian ideals.

The Man Who Invented Ecotopia

The following is an extended, edited version of Geov Parrish’s interview with Ecotopia author Ernest Callenbach on the 30th anniversary of his futuristic novel about Pacific Northwest secession. The story is told from the perspective of an American reporter, William Weston, who is one of the first outsiders allowed into Ecotopia some 20 years after Washington, Oregon, and Northern California have successfully separated themselves from the rest of America to form a new country. What he finds is an alternative universe, a place that is socially progressive, hardworking, and connected to nature. It is a society without the internal combustion engine but with maglev trains. It is, in many respects, the first picture of how a modern society could be restructured around environmental principles, and in that, was both reflective of its era and a road map for future ecologically aware development. Ecotopia proved to be a seminal book. Not only did it sell nearly 1 million copies in nine languages and generate a sequel, it became something of a utopian manifesto for the green movement, including the German Green Party.

Today, at age 75, Callenbach is retired from his day job at University of California Press, where he was founder and editor of Film Quarterly. He lives and writes in Berkeley, Calif., where Geov Parrish talked with him by phone. He, like his fictional character William Weston, offers his observations on the Ecotopian phenomenon, how far it’s come, and where it is likely to go in the years ahead.–The Editors

Geov Parrish: What’s changed in the 30 years since you wrote Ecotopia? Are we any closer to Ecotopia now than we were in 1975?

Ernest Callenbach: History is a spotty thing; it moves back and forth, and so there’s been some backsliding from where we were in 1975, especially on the internal combustion engine.

I think the reason that George Bush is so enthusiastic about hydrogen—to the extent that he is genuinely enthusiastic, and we can’t really tell—it’s because he imagines that hydrogen will be made out of petroleum source fuels. But those of us who think in the longer term know that that’s not good for the long run, so we’re going to have to think about renewable sources for hydrogen, and the only place in the world that’s doing that is Iceland. The Icelanders have a tremendous wealth of both hydroelectric and geothermal energy. So it makes sense for them to produce hydrogen using that kind of energy, and they can probably be totally self-sufficient. Luckily, there aren’t too many Icelanders, so even if everybody has at least one car, they can probably get away with it.

In more populous larger countries without their resources, it’s not going to be so easy. So in the long term what’s going to happen probably is that cars are going to scale back, somehow or another, we don’t know. Probably it won’t happen voluntarily, because at least in countries like the United States, we are so totally dependent on and wedded to the automobile, both in practical terms and emotional terms, that we’re going to have to be driven out of the driver’s seat by main force rather than getting out on our own.

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: What are you reading these days? What kind of ideas are exciting you?

Callenbach: Well, I read a tremendous number of periodicals. The book that I’m just finishing now is Thom Hartmann’s. I don’t read much fiction, oddly enough. I never have. I wish I had more time to do it, but the reading time that I have, a lot of it is on the Internet now. Trying to keep up with what’s going on in the Middle East and so on. And one has to be less and less dependent on newspapers. I find now that when something hits The New York Times I knew about it two days ago through some of the stuff on the Internet. You can get addicted to it, of course. It can eat up your life, and I try not to spend too much time on the computer.

The big question that I’m really trying to think about—and I’m trying to shape an article about it—it would be called something like “Going Down With the Empire.” Because there are quite a lot of people in the world that think the American empire has overreached itself and is hollowing out; that the American working class—in the period of World War II and right after that—the American working class was allowed to thrive in a way that it had never been allowed to before, perhaps because they needed to be bought off in order to put their shoulders, their collective shoulders, behind the war effort in World War II. But we now see a very concerted effort to destroy not only unions, but also pension plans, and everything else that has supported what you might call the working middle class in some comfort in this country compared to most other countries. And I think now the Republicans and the other right-wing people have realized that now is their time to strike and destroy all this, as they call it, welfare state that allows people to live decent lives even though they’re quite modest working folks. And this is going to propel us more in the direction of a Latin American country where you have a large number of very, very poor and quite desperate people eking out an income and an upper middle class and an upper class, small upper middle and an even smaller upper class, who live extraordinarily well by any historical standards, obscenely well. And a political structure that is, thanks to corporate control of the media, that is surprisingly stable. Now how long this can go on before people get—the old Marxist term was immiserated—how immiserated people can get before they take to the streets and throw the whole thing into the river, I don’t know. But it may be quite a while.

Parrish: One of the things that’s been exciting to me is that you’ve seen almost the opposite process going on in Latin America. You have a number of governments that have gotten there on the power of their opposition to the neoliberal regime.

Callenbach: Indeed, indeed. And that’s very, very admirable, and of course, it’s not welcomed at all in Washington [D.C.], where they see that these governments may not be disciplinable, especially Argentina, they may not be disciplinable by the international corporate structure.

But we’re not that far down yet, and we’re still a very fat country where there’s a lot of juice to be wrung out and put into rich peoples’ pockets.

It’s tempting to exaggerate the evils of politicians, even George [W.] Bush. Probably—this is kind of a heretical thought—but probably had [John] Kerry been put in, he would probably do half of the bad things that Bush is going to do. Because presidents are forced to do things. He would have inherited a totally oil-dependent economy. The reason he was so wishy-washy about the war is because he’s a bright guy and he realizes that America cannot give up control of the Middle East oil fields. No way. And there are a lot of other things that any American president would do which are counter to the welfare of the general American people. But sooner or later, the American people are going to have to take responsibility into their own hands again of forming a government such as they would rather have. It’s either that or take the punishment.

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.”

And so some of the very vigorous political organizing that happened during the campaign I hope will have longer impact. I’m itching to see Howard Dean made the head of the Democratic National Committee, because I think that would make the Democrats again into a fighting force that can reach out and touch ordinary people. Most of the Democrats, like Kerry himself, they don’t have a very good feel for how ordinary people live or how ordinary people think. I think Dean does, oddly enough. And I think the Republicans are scared of him, which is one of the reasons why they make fun of him. The man is a soccer coach, so he yells at a meeting and everybody tries to make him look like an idiot.

Parrish: The idea that politicians don’t have a temper or use foul language is kind of preposterous.

Callenbach: Well, yeah. I think we might see some real action out of the Democrats if Dean becomes their head—whatever powers the chairman has, I’m not sure they’re that great actually. But it would be more exciting, more lively, and I think it would get the attention of ordinary people. It’s no accident that more than half of American voters do not vote. It’s because they don’t see that there’s any real alternative, and because we hold our voting days on days other than Sunday like all other voting democracies do. It’s very hard for working people to get out there to the polls. That’s another thing that has to be changed when we’re reforming our electoral system.

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.

Parrish: What gives you hope?

Callenbach: Well, I think we often overrate the intelligence of the human species. A lot of the time we act out of other things than intelligence. But when you look at things like the California energy crisis, when Enron and its friends were gouging Californians and running energy prices through the ceiling, Californians started turning off the lights. And Dick Cheney made fun of conservation as a “personal choice but not a policy question.” Well, when Californians started exercising personal choice, it cut down their energy use by something like 20 percent. It was staggering. The same thing happens when you have a drought or some other emergency like that. People will pay attention if there’s something really sensible being said to them. And I think that in the long run we need to get past these awful empty political slogans of freedom and blah, blah, blah, and get down to questions of how we are living, and what we are doing to ourselves and each other and to the natural world. And when we begin to talk in those terms, I think most people have the capacity to be interested and to think about it, and we hope, move on it.

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.

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