Utopian legacy spotlights dual nature of human progress

Ernest Callenbach, who wrote “Ecotopia,” published in 1975, died this past April. Evidently he had been told that his demise was near because he wrote an “Epistle to Ecotopians,” which was found on his computer after his death. Ecotopians, loosely translated, are people who want to live in balance with nature so that both may survive the history that has led to our present day threats to life as we know it, or rather knew it. One might call Callenbach the gloomy futurist.

According to him, “Humans tend to try to manage things: land, structures, even rivers. We spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and treasure in imposing our will on nature, on preexisting or inherited structures, dreaming of permanent solutions, monuments to our ambitions and dreams. But in periods of slack, decline, or collapse, our abilities no longer suffice for all this management. We have to let things go.”

Maintaining these man-made structures that support our civilization depends upon the consumption of goods, and right now the world is experiencing a “crisis of under-consumption.” (A phrase Callenbach borrowed from Marx that seems apt.) Under-consumption is the result of underemployment and the under employed, those who are known as consumers, must cut back to the basics. Without people buying and using up the products of our present system, corners are cut, fewer people are hired, more people are laid off, and the result, according to Callenbach, is “something like México, where a small, filthy rich plutocracy rules over an impoverished mass of desperate and hopeless people.”

He has some advice for us for surviving our history: First, we should not lose hope. Without hope we give up. Hope is sustained when we help each other. cooperation has proven to be more productive in the long run than competition, and friendships are more apt to flourish.

He advises us to learn practical skills: Learn how to chop wood (and not your fingers), and to build a fire, to build a simple shelter and know what to do in case of emergencies. Learn first aid. In fact, never stop learning.

And learn to live with contradiction. These are the best of times and the worst of times because with each new wonderful time-saving or world-expanding invention or discovery, we make the planet less habitable. The discovery of an oil deposit brings cheers, because it brings down the price of fuel to run our cars and make our plastics, which can also produce more wasteland and waste. It brings a boomtown where money is plentiful but relationships, living conditions and the amenities are lost.

More efficient ways of fishing have enabled greater catches, but fishermen became big business resulting in wasteful killing, reducing the population of edible fish. Faster cars and cell phones are great for getting there quicker and being in touch with faraway friends, and they also make it easier to kill ourselves.

Today most of our financial institutions, businesses, manufacturing and power generators are run by computers. They are more efficient, but these systems are vulnerable to hacking and viruses. Should there be a breakdown or sabotage in any one of these sectors, it would be catastrophic to more people than ever before. Fewer people are being killed in wars, but more money is being spent on war supplies and more people are being left maimed, both mentally and physically.

Both weather and human catastrophes are happening more and more often. These are the times when people come together and show their generosity and humanity. It is the worst and best of times.

There does seem to be a sea change in the world. (I mean this metaphorically, although it is also happening literally). People in many countries are thinking “green” and recycling rather than throwing things out. Some are even eating less meat and discovering the world of vegetables and that they can grow them themselves. They are opting for energy-saving machines and even learning that tolerance and an open mind are better than hate and a closed one. Maybe, even if we are not, our children will be ready for the future.

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