TomDispatch and Ernest Callenbach

A remarkable insight into our present world and hopes for the future.

As many of you dear readers will know, I am incredibly fond of the essays that Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch fame publishes on a regular basis.  Indeed, it was just a week ago that I published a Tomgram from Bill McKibben.  Had it not been for Tom querying if I had read his Ernest Callenbach last-words piece I might have missed what, for me, has been one of the most profound ‘mind-stretching’ reads for a very long time.

I pondered for most of a morning as to whether to publish Tom’s essay in one piece, as Tom presented it, or to break it down into two.  Our much shorter attention-spans as a result of the world we now live in worked against it being two parts.  But I also wanted to include other materials that give an insight into the late Ernest Callenbach so, in the end, this TomDispatch is republished as two pieces.  I trust that works for you.

So without further ado, here is Tom’s introduction to the last words of Ernest Callenbach.

Tomgram: Ernest Callenbach, Last Words to an America in Decline

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 [tomorrow’s, Ed.] 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, 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. Tom

Let’s find out a bit more about ‘Chick’ ahead of his words tomorrow.

This is the Wikipedia entry from which I quote:

Born April 3, 1929 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, he attended the University of Chicago, where he was drawn into the then ‘new wave’ of serious attention to film as an art form. After six months in Paris at the Sorbonne, watching four films a day, he returned to Chicago and earned a Master’s degree in English and Communications.

Callenbach then moved to California. From 1955 to 1991, he was on the staff of the University of California Press (Berkeley). A general copywriter for a number of years, he edited the Press’s Film Quarterly from 1958 until 1991. He also occasionally taught film courses at U.C. and at San Francisco State University.

For many years Callenbach edited the Natural History Guides at the U.C. Press. He began to take environmental issues and their connections to human value systems, social patterns, and lifestyles just as seriously as he had taken film. He was heavily influenced by Edward Abbey. He is therefore known as an author of green books, namely as author of the ecological utopias Ecotopia (1975) and Ecotopia Emerging (1981). (While his novel popularized the term “ecotopia,” it was actually coined by the ethnographer E. L. Anderson.)

In terms of concepts of human involvement with the ecology, as well as some of the economic and social concepts, the Ecotopia books are related to what is known as the sustainability movement. Callenbach’s Ecotopian concept is not “Luddite” — he does not reject high technology, but rather his fictional society shows a conscious selectivity about technology. As an example, with its emphasis on personal rather than impersonal interaction, Callenbach’s Ecotopian society anticipates the development and liberal usage of videoconferencing.

Indeed, for all his involvement with print publications, Callenbach remained quite interested in visual media. Aspects of his book Ecotopia in some ways anticipated “reality TV” — which emerged into recognition, and was given a label as a genre, 20 or more years later — because in the story the daily life of the legislature and some of that of the judicial courts is televised in this fictional society, and televised debates (including technical debates concerning ecological problems) met a need and desire among citizens.

Callenbach has been a part of the circle of West Coast technologists, architects, social thinkers, and scientists which has included such luminaries as Ursula K. Le GuinStarhawk (Miriam Simos), Sim Van der RynPeter CalthorpeStewart BrandKevin KellyJ. Baldwin, and John Todd. As with a number of these others, he has been a speaker, discussion panellist, and essayist.

Here is Chick’s website which is worth a careful peruse including his biographical details and some of his talks.

Finally, there are a number of good videos featuring Ernest Callenbach’s visionary ideas and one of his longer ones will be included tomorrow.

To close today’s Post let me leave you with this.

by Ernest Callenbach

I. Thou shall love and honor the Earth for it blesses thy life and governs thy survival.
II. Thou shall keep each day sacred to the Earth and celebrate the turning of its seasons.
III. Thou shall not hold thyself above other living things nor drive them to extinction.
IV. Thou shall give thanks for thy food, to the creatures and plants that nourish thee.
V. Thou shall educate thy offspring for multitudes of people are a blessing unto the Earth when we live in harmony.
VI. Thou shall not kill, nor waste Earth’s riches upon weapons of war.
VII. Thou shall not pursue profit at the Earth’s expense but strive to restore its damaged majesty.
VIII. Thou shall not hide from thyself or others the consequences of thy actions upon the Earth.
IX. Thou shall not steal from future generations by impoverishing or poisoning the Earth.
X. Thou shall consume material goods in moderation so all may share the Earth’s bounty.

Music: Marcome, “All Alone”

3 thoughts on “TomDispatch and Ernest Callenbach

  1. Some no doubt dismissed Callenbach has having been seduced by some kind of pantheistic New Age theology but, to me, it just sounds like common sense (and/or an acknowledgement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics).


  2. Very interesting. As usual, I was unawares of these characters. Up to the early 1980s, the cultural gap between North and South was intense, and animosity evident. Now it can be argued, it’s all the same, as the ‘cultural” pretense of the North has waned…

    “VI. Thou shall not kill, nor waste Earth’s riches upon weapons of war.” Sure, feels good. But history feels differently. Waste upon weapons, or be wasted as a despond.


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