Writer of 1970s 'Ecotopia' Makes a Comeback in the Green Era
In the 1975 cult environmental novel "Ecotopia," Washington, Oregon and Northern California secede from the United States in the midst of a global financial crisis. Author Ernest Callenbach creates a sustainable society where recycling is required, food wastes are turned into organic fertilizer, and most energy comes from solar, sea, wind and geothermal power.
The prescient Callenbach, now 79, is suddenly in demand again as interest in a green society and environmental stewardship is back in vogue. More than three decades later, Callenbach's book concepts are being taught in English, political science, sociology and environmental courses on campuses across the country, and he is a sought-after lecturer.
His book, which he originally self-published, was just reissued with a new cover by Bantam Books.
"I was pretty lucky in some of the things I wrote about coming true, but the basic thrust is not that original," Callenbach said in a phone interview from his home in Berkeley. "People then and now look ahead at what a society would be if there was not cheap energy from oil."
Callenbach says the Midwest-Great Lakes region had best turn its attention to sustainable manufacturing and resource management.
The recently shuttered General Motors plant in Janesville, for instance, could be used to make buses that would be powered by electricity or alternative fuels, he said.
"When we went into World War II, in two months, Detroit was making military trucks and tanks," Callenbach said. "So when things have to be done quickly, they can."
"We can't just prop up these failing enterprises," he added. "We have to get them to adapt to a new, greener world."
The Midwest should also be using high-speed trains and streetcars, and buildings should be built to better conserve energy.
"The skill of these industrial areas can be put to use," Callenbach said. "We need an ecological-industrial complex."
Callenbach would rather see ethanol made from agricultural waste than corn, and he hopes to see greater use of rivers and lakes for the ferrying of parts and goods.
He'd also like to see the Great Lakes used for wind power. "Wind over water is very strong, not obstructed by hills or trees."
Callenbach, who grew up in Pennsylvania and went to college at the University of Chicago, visited relatives in Wisconsin when he was young. His father also attended the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate.
Callenbach, who edited the prestigious journal Film Quarterly at the University of California Press from 1958 until he retired in 1991, has also written nonfiction books on ecological issues and the fictional prequel "Ecotopia Emerging."
He said he became interested in ecological matters in the early 1970s after reading Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book, "Silent Spring," which exposed the dangers of pesticides, and because of emerging clean water and clean air legislation.
"I was rather skeptical at first but began doing some reading and became convinced it was a big field that people weren't taking seriously. 'Ecotopia' was an attempt to apply the scientific ecological ideas that had been evolving and applying them to real life."
Callenbach is the first to admit that his futuristic book is not a great work of literature. There is a love story, though some critics say it amounts to little more than gratuitious sex. But he says he took pains to base his ecological ideas on science, even sending his chapters to scientists for fact checking.
"I was not doing science fiction," he said. "I was trying to raise the question that we could be doing all this stuff in 1975 and why aren't we? Our goose will be cooked if we don't do it now."
In a blurb for the book, consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote, "None of the happy conditions in 'Ecotopia' are beyond the technical or resource reach of our society."
The story is told through the eyes of a New York reporter who visits the breakaway country in the early 21st century, 20 years after secession. William Weston's assignment is the first officially arranged visit by an American since the separation. His tour of the capital city, San Francisco, is full of surprises: Market Street, a two-lane street lined with thousands of trees, caters to electric taxis, minibuses and community bicycles. Buses do not charge fares.
Cities have been broken up into communities linked by interurban trains, and residents live within a half-mile of transit stations. There is a 20-hour work week, and people tend to work when they feel like it, though in a productive and creative way. After the secession, many wealthy people flee to the United States, leaving the people who worked for the factories, farms and stores in control of their organizations -- with oversight by local governments and local courts.
The new tax system relies on a corporation tax on production enterprises. There are no personal income, sales or property taxes, but a land tax discourages sprawl. Absentee investment is not permitted. Tax revenues are used by the community governments to provide recycling services, housing, power, water, telephones, medical services and police protection. A share goes to regional and national governments to support larger-scale operations such as defense and large-scale research.
Women get equal pay, and Ecotopia has a woman president who heads a women-dominated political party. Free love is common, but women choose the fathers of their children, and most couples are monogamous.
The country was formed in response to deteriorating conditions in the United States. As "Ecotopia" explains, "The burden of outlays for an enormous arms establishment caused a profound long-term decline in the world competitiveness of American civilian industry. A slow drop in per capita income led to widespread misery, increased tension between rich and poor, and ended citizen confidence in economic gains."
While current conditions echo Callenbach's fictional world, the author is optimistic about President-elect Barack Obama, whose administration, he says, "has some brains at work."
"This is a country full of capable, dynamic and energetic people. If we get moving in the right direction, we can accomplish an astonishing amount of things," he said.