August 22, 2012

Ernest Callenbach (1929-2012)

I think I may have posted the following link in the Comments section on this blog, shortly after Chick Callenbach died (April 16) and an unpublished article was discovered on his computer, but let me post it again:

I knew Chick briefly when I lived in San Francisco, and Peter Berg (who died last July) and I invited him to speak at an ecology conference we co-sponsored in 1979 entitled "Listening to the Earth" (Gary Snyder and Murray Bookchin were also participants). The thing that struck me about him was his humility, his low-key, understated quality. After all, in the wake of his best-selling novel, Ecotopia, he had been heavily lionized by the media and green folks everywhere, but none of that interested him. He was completely unaffected: a man without a mask. That same quality is evident in his posthumous essay. I encourage everyone to read it in full, but let me just quote a few passages, to give you the flavor of it. I should add that 25 publishers rejected the novel before he self-published it (in 1975), and to date it has sold nearly a million copies. The book remains a major contribution to an understanding of what I refer to, in Why America Failed, as the alternative tradition in American history.

Chick believed that we were entering some very dark times, and that these could last a century or more. Thus he saw the changes we are going thru in slo-mo, as a process I have likened to the "waning of the Middle Ages," when a long-standing way of life starts to disintegrate, and a new way of life begins to take its place. So Chick was an optimist, but only in the long run. He writes:

"When old institutions and habits break down or consume themselves, new experimental shoots begin to appear, and people explore and test and share new and better ways to survive together.

"We live in the declining years of what is still the biggest economy in the world, where a looter elite has fastened itself upon the decaying carcass of the empire.

"The U.S., which has a long history of violent plutocratic rule unknown to the textbook-fed, will stand out as the best-armed Third World country, its population ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-educated, ill-cared for in health, and increasingly poverty-stricken: even Social Security may be whittled down, impoverishing tens of millions of the elderly.

"As empires decline, their leaders become increasingly incompetent -- petulant, ignorant, gifted only with PR skills of posturing and spinning, and prone to the appointment of loyal idiots to important government positions. Comedy thrives; indeed writers are hardly needed to invent outrageous events.

"No futurist can foresee the possibilities. As empires decay, their civilian leaderships become increasingly crazed, corrupt, and incompetent, and often the military (which is after all a parasite of the whole nation, and has no independent financial base like the looter class) takes over. Another possible scenario is that if the theocratic red center of the country prevails in Washington, the relatively progressive and prosperous coastal areas will secede in self-defense.

"So I look to a long-term process of 'succession,' as the biological concept has it, where 'disturbances' kill off an ecosystem, but little by little new plants colonize the devastated area, prepare the soil for larger and more complex plants (and the other beings who depend on them), and finally the process achieves a flourishing, resilient, complex state -- not necessarily what was there before, but durable and richly productive. In a similar way, experiments under way now, all over the world, are exploring how sustainability can in fact be achieved locally. Technically, socially, economically -- since it is quite true, as ecologists know, that everything is connected to everything else, and you can never just do one thing by itself.

"That is the way empires crumble: they are taken over by looter elites, who sooner or later cause collapse. But then new games become possible, and with luck Ecotopia might be among them.

"All things 'go' somewhere: they evolve, with or without us, into new forms. So as the decades pass, we should try not always to futilely fight these transformations. As the Japanese know, there is much unnoticed beauty in wabi-sabi -- the old, the worn, the tumble-down, those things beginning their transformation into something else. We can embrace this process of devolution: embellish it when strength avails, learn to love it.

"There is beauty in weathered and unpainted wood, in orchards overgrown, even in abandoned cars being incorporated into the earth. Let us learn, like the Forest Service sometimes does, to put unwise or unneeded roads 'to bed,' help a little in the healing of the natural contours, the re-vegetation by native plants. Let us embrace decay, for it is the source of all new life and growth."

Amen. (This is me, not Chick).