This last week I read yet another depressing environmental news story. It wasn’t that we’ve hit 391 parts per million in atmospheric CO2 concentration, meaning that keeping the global temperature under 2 degrees Celsius is growing ever less possible. It wasn’t even the fact that antidepressants were the third most prescribed drug in the United States, which conveys just how devastated our mental environment, and not just our physical environment, has become.
No, it was that the bold and visionary environmental thinker, Ernest Callenbach, passed away.
Callenbach, if you don’t know, wrote the revolutionary novel Ecotopia in 1975. This novel, where an American journalist visits the break-away country of Ecotopia (the Pacific Northwest, which had successfully seceded from the United States 20 years prior), is about a nation following a different path of development—one that puts sustainability, sanity and a joyful way of life first and foremost. Ecotopia, as Callenbach’s narrator notes, is a country that “poses a nagging challenge to the underlying national philosophy of America: ever continuing progress, the fruits of industrialization for all, a rising Gross National Product.”
In his novel, Callenbach paints a compelling picture of a society that doesn’t abandon progress but reclaims it, giving up on destructive uses of technology—cars, zombifying levels of TV watching, chemical-laden foods—but enhances sustainable and humanizing uses of technology, like trains, renewable energy and green design. That evolution is coupled with somewhat radical cultural evolution, where government is more localized, aggression is dealt with in ritual battles, and monogamy is discouraged (this was written in the 1970s after all).
Callenbach will be missed, but hopefully, in Callenbach’s final moments before returning to the Earth, he had a dream of crossing the border into Ecotopia himself. And he saw, with his own eyes, what a world free of war, consumerism, and the institutionalized poverty and inequity so normal today, looks like. And let’s hope that Vera Allwen or even the beautiful Marissa D’Amato was waiting for you, Ernest, ready to show you around the utopia you helped to build.
Let’s hope so. And let’s give thanks to the Earth for having provided humanity with Ernest Callenbach, whose powerful utopian vision has helped shape the ambitions of three generations of environmentalists. And what better way to give thanks than with Callenbach’s own words—a poem he wrote, “Global Thanks Giving”:
I give thanks to the tropical snake whose venom provides pills for my civilized blood pressure, and thanks to what’s left of his harboring rainforest. Thanks to the Sri Lankan tea-gatherers working in the merciless sun to give me the cup that lends courage for the morning. Thanks to the banana trees of Costa Rica, and to the Indonesian mahoganies felled to veneer my bedroom dresser. Thanks to the Canadian spruce cut down and pulped for paper with which we might enlighten each other. Thanks to the cotton-growers of India living on the verge of starvation, who gave me my shirt, and to the women in the Hong Kong sweatshop who sewed my pants. Thanks to the nimble-fingered Chinese Slowly going blind in their silent factories Assembling my cool electronic toys. And thanks to uncountable tiny beings compressed by geological history into oil under Nigeria or Venezuela, whose fossil energy lets me cross a whole town for an ice-cream cone. Thanks also to the trillion microbes who ferment my beer, recycle my wastes, and finally will return my body to the Great Round of Being. Thanks above all to fellow humans born in the wrong countries, who suffer falling wages, malnutrition, deaths of innumerable children, destruction of their landscapes, mutilation of their ancient cultures, in order that our goods shall be cheap and our corporations profitable. We owe thanks giving, yes— but dare we ask forgiveness?
Ernest, your wisdom and passion will be missed.