[Originally posted at EcoGeek. This was adapted from the Remembrance of Ernest Callenbach that I posted yesterday. It also incorporates the fragment of an interview I had started doing with him for an EcoGeek of the Week profile that never happened. Since the interview is included in this version, I’m re-posting it here, as well, although some of what I’ve written repeats what I had in my first article. But for those unfamiliar with Ernest Callenbach, this may be a better introduction to his work.]
Ernest Callenbach died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 83. You may not recognize his name, but his book, ‘Ecotopia’ was an extremely influential early novel of environmentalism. It has been translated into a dozen languages and has sold nearly a million copies since it was first self-published in 1975. I would have to say that I am the EcoGeek that I am because of Ernest Callenbach.
‘Ecotopia‘ presents an alternative future where Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State have seceded from a collapsing United States that is choked with pollution. The new country has isolated itself from its parent country, and the book is presented as the journal of the first reporter from the US to visit, some 20 years after secession, to see how Ecotopians live. The Ecotopian lifestyle was more connected to the land, more interpersonal, and more conscious of environmental effects. It may not be a realistic possibility, but it offers a compelling vision for what could be aspired to.
I had a brief email correspondence with Ernest Callenbach for a possible interview for EcoGeek (to be part of the EcoGeek of the Week series). I had only done a few of these interviews; a couple of them went well; a couple others less so (and never got published). Ernest Callenbach was a hero to me, and I didn’t want to screw that one up, and I wanted to ask good questions. I have the first part of that discussion, but things telescoped and other things came up and the interview was never finished. What follows is that interview segment.
Sorry for the delay in replying. I will try below to get things started, in a telegraphic sort of way; I can embroider and extend them if you’re interested. For my general approach to ecological matters, you might want to take a look at ECOLOGY: A POCKET GUIDE. Its entry on Energy, for instance, tries to give a quick-and-dirty summary of thermodynamics, which is actually quite relevant to what technology can and can’t do for us. . . .
EcoGeek: What did you imagine the world would be like when you were a kid? Is it better or worse than your childhood fantasies?
EC: As a young kid I imagined it would stay pretty much the same, actually; it wasn’t until I got into high school that I understood anything about history and change. I was a pre-teen when WW2 began, and after that, of course, it was clear that a lot would change, for better or worse. I grew up in a rural area of central Pennsylvania, where it was inconceivable that human impacts could derange natural systems to the extent we have experienced since. Or that science and medicine could have the reach and elegance they have achieved. Or that social alienation could reach its current pitch. Or that people could have relatively free sex lives!
EcoGeek: What new technologies do you think have the potential for the greatest impact on the environment?
EC: The escape of certain deleterious GM plant materials could be utterly catastrophic to everything except microbial life–much worse than nuclear war, conceivably. But the old technologies–all that involve burning stuff–are much more likely to lead to environmental (and human) decline. (Not that new technologies are a helluva lot more innocent!)
EcoGeek: What environmental issues do you think are going to require technological intervention? Or, to put it a bit better perhaps, what environmental problems do you think *can* be remedied by technological intervention?
EC: I wrote a whole relatively techno-optimist book, ECOTOPIA, on this and related questions. But technological intervention depends on social processes, ultimately. Right now the dominant social process is profit- seeking, and it is unclear (to put it kindly) whether current societies will be able to mobilize the required technological changes.
EcoGeek: In an earlier EcoGeek interview, Karl Schroeder contributed this question, which I think is a good one to ask: Do you believe that sustainability is a zero-sum game? –In other words, that in order for us to live within our environmental means, we must scale back or abandon our ambitions in other areas?
EC: Under current technologies (in the broad sense–including agriculture, for instance) we are certainly in a zero-sum game. We might discuss another type of question too: what can new technology contribute toward a “soft landing” of industrial consumerism? (I am temperamentally a gradualist, and I doubt if we are confronting quick collapse, but the likely landing seems to be on the hard side.)
Let me know what you think of these comments, and of ECOTOPIA if you’ve had the chance to look at it again!
I’m extremely sorry I never followed up with that, and I’m sorry that I didn’t have the chance to correspond with him further.
Ernest Callenbach had written a final letter to his readers, which was discovered on his computer after his death and was recently published. I found it well worth reading and insightful, going beyond the caricatures of Ecotopia and presenting his views of the possible in the present day.
Adapted from a longer Remembrance of Ernest Callenbach (p s proefrock architecture)