I’ve just read Ernest Callenbach’s final essay, and I find myself inspired to post some thoughts here.
Callenbach, editor of Film Quarterly, was also the author of Ecotopia and a prequel Ecotopia Emerging. Born in 1929, he died on April 16, 2012. An announcement of his passing appeared on H-Utopia, as did the essay. I encountered the essay, however, through Mark Bittman’s comments in today’s New York Times, and I’m grateful to Bittman for calling Callenbach to the attention of a larger audience.
I had been thinking of Callenbach lately, as my enthusiastic consumption of the Hunger Games trilogy and film reminded me of having read Ecotopia in a Humanities course on utopias that I took as an undergraduate in the early 1980s. Suzanne Collins’s post-apocolyptic world in which an ostentatiously wealthy Capitol has bought its security through annual “games” in which teenagers fight to the death recalled to me Callenbach’s crunchy Northwestern utopia in which alternative energy, community-owned bicycles, and freedom of emotional expression came at the cost of a football-like “game” in which the losing team died. When I taught Ecotopia in a First-Year Seminar several years ago, students found Callenbach’s world less appealing than I had as an undergraduate. I have been wondering whether the popularity of the Collins novels might produce a different response now.
But today I am more interested in what Tom Engelhardt characterized as Callenbach’s “last words to an America in decline.” In Ecotopia Callenbach had imagined a nation achieved through the secession of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. This new nation functioned as an ecologically conscious model for the rest of the world, and in his final essay Callenbach acknowledged that our world’s interdependence makes survival through independent “good living” unlikely to say the least. Many of his recommendations bring to mind contemporary homesteading as undertaken by some people I know and by some cohousing communities I have been exploring online recently.
It would be easy to read Callenbach’s final essay negatively, but I’m more interested in thinking about how his novels and his essay might help us think about questions of life, publishing, and liberal education in a world that continues to change radically, even if some say we are nearing the limits of Moore’s Law.
I’ll think more about this over the next couple of weeks, I’m sure. What do you think?