Ernest Callenbach

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Ernest Callenbach’s speculative 1974 novel, Ecotopia, is a fun read if you get the chance. It imagines a future world in which much of the American Northwest secedes from the union and creates an environmentally conscious, car-free nation, though one that doesn’t shy from the powers of technology. The author tries to pinpoint what printed media would become in this brave new world, rightly envisioning computer connectivity and self-publishing book machines, though not the Internet’s paperless reality. Callenbach also didn’t get caught up in the type of thorny copyright issues that face something like Google Books. An excerpt:

“The newspapers, which are even smaller than our tabloids, are actually sold through electronic print-out terminals in the street kiosks, in libraries, and at other points; and these terminals are connected to central computer banks, whose facilities are ‘rented’ by other publications. Two print-out inks are available, by the way; one lasts indefinitely, the other fades away in a few weeks so the paper can be immediately re-used.

This system is integrated with book publishing as well. Although many popular books are printed normally, and sold in kiosks and bookstores, more specialized titles must be obtained through a special print-out connection. You look the book’s number up in the catalogue, punch the number on a juke-box-like keyboard, study the blurb, sample paragraphs, and price displayed on a videoscreen, and deposit the proper number of coins if you wish to buy a copy. In a few minutes a print-out of the volume appears in a slot. These terminals, I am told, are not much used by city dwellers, who prefer the more readable printed books; but they exist in every corner of the country and can thus be used by citizens in rural areas to procure copies of both currently popular and specialized books. All of the 60,000-odd books published in Ecotopia since independence are available, and about 50,000 earlier volumes. It is planned to increase this gradually to about 150,000. Special orders may also be placed, at higher costs, to scan and transmit any volume in the enormous national library at Berkeley.”

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Rules for remaking society from “The Coming Eco-Industrial Complex” by the late Ernest Callenbach:

* We must create a new renewable-energy system to end our costly need to control the world’s oil militarily. Wind and solar-thermal have become the cheapest new-power-generating technologies, and are also labor-intensive; photovoltaic and battery storage technologies are improving rapidly; geothermal is an enormous resource—and oil companies happen to know how to drill wells. The U.S. is rich in renewable energy resources, and should aim at total energy independence, which will save us vast sums in the long run.

* We must rebuild our cities in the proven, compact forms of the world’s great cities, to reduce our dependence on petroleum-fueled cars. Our sprawling suburbs need to be transformed from cultural wastelands into communities with healthy centers and the creative cultural richness that cities have traditionally offered. A lot of tracks need to be laid and urban and suburban concrete poured. If we walk to transit stops, like New Yorkers, we will even lose weight and live longer. If Bechtel can build mega-airports, civil and military, it can certainly build eco-cities.

* We must develop a universal recycling system, so that all major materials (steel, paper, glass, aluminum, wood, plastic, even water) will be in steady and predictable supply without sabotaging our support system, the natural order. A giant job-intensive industry must be created here.

* We must restore our forests, fisheries, and agriculture to stable, net positive productivity. At present, we are cutting more timber than we grow and catching more fish than can reproduce. We are even putting far more petroleum-based calories into agriculture than we get out in food calories—in essence, we are eating oil, a non-renewable resource. And if we eat lower on the food chain and cut down on livestock, we will reduce our climate impacts even more than by getting rid of private cars.

* We must put people to work restoring our rivers, waterfronts, and wetlands—trashed by generations of engineers, dumpers, and developers. Carry on with what the New Deal started!

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Mark Bittman at the New York Times mentions Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 futuristic novel, Ecotopia, in his most recent column. Callenbach, who also founded Film Quarterly, recently passed away. The book fantasizes that Northern California, Washington and Oregon secede to create a green paradise in which fossil fuels are banned. I’ve always meant to read it but never have. I must correct this. From a TomDispatch post about the late writer:

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.

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.”

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Callenbach discussing Ecotopia in 1982:

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