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Words From Beyond the Grave on a Darkening Future
Thirty-five years later, it was still on my bookshelf in a little section on utopias (as well it should have been, being a modern classic). A friend had written his name inside the cover and even dated it: August 1976, the month I returned to New York City from years of R&R on the West Coast. Whether I borrowed it and never returned it or he gave it to me neither of us now remembers, but Ecotopia, the visionary novel 25 publishers rejected before Ernest Callenbach published it himself in 1975, was still there ready to be read again a lifetime later.
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.
“Chick” -- as he was known, thanks, it turns out, to the chickens his father raised in Appalachian central Pennsylvania in his childhood -- was, like me, an editor all his life. He founded the prestigious magazine Film Quarterly in 1958. In the late 1970s, I worked with him and his wife, Christine Leefeldt, on a book of theirs, The Art of Friendship. He also wrote a successor volume to Ecotopia (even if billed as a prequel), Ecotopia Emerging. And as he points out in his last piece, today’s TomDispatch post, he, too, has now been recycled. He died of cancer on April 16th at the age of 83.
Just days later, his long-time literary agent Richard Kahlenberg wrote me that Chick had left a final document on his computer, “Epistle to the Ecotopians,” something he had been preparing in the months before he knew he would die, and asked if TomDispatch would run it. Indeed, we would. It’s not often that you hear words almost literally from beyond the grave -- and eloquent ones at that, calling on all Ecotopians, converted or prospective, to consider the dark times ahead. Losing Chick’s voice and his presence is saddening. His words remain, however, as do his books, as does the possibility of some version of the better world he once imagined for us all.