About three years ago Ernest Callenbach (author of Ecotopia, 1975) and Harvey Wasserman (author of Solartopia: Our Green-Powered Earth, 2007) got together to discuss their related ideas, which conversation was videotaped. (The transcript of the conversation can be read here). As both of these gentlemen are forward-looking, and have made an important contribution, e.g., through their novels, I hesitate to be critical of what they said in this conversation. However, some of their comments warrant criticism, and I use this essay to offer my own comments on some of their statements in that conversation.

In commenting on what Callenbach and Wasserman say, I confine my attention to this conversation between them rather than the contents of their books—in part because, although I have read Ecotopia, that was long ago, and I haven’t read Solartopia (and likely never will).

  • Early on Callenbach states that: “We ultimately are going to be living in a solar world. That’s all the incoming energy we’ve got”—and then adds: “Geothermal is the exception to that.” This statement indicates the principal “thrust” of their discussion, for their focus is especially on technology, the development of alternate sources of energy in particular. For example, they refer to deriving energy from fodder beets, Jerusalem artichokes, cat-tails, kudzu, algae, hemp—and the wind. I have no problem with their interest in alternate sources of energy, but think that their thinking about the future is too dominated by this topic, to the exclusion of other important topics.
  • Callenbach also, early on, states: “Ecotopia is at bottom biological and anthropological.” “I’m always trying to look at social structures, how do institutions evolve, how do things change socially.” However, the discussion between these two gentlemen involves little attention to such topics. Wasserman states: “You can’t have corporations structured the way they are [and] still have an Ecotopian-Solartopian reality.” Callenbach states that “nation states may be dinosaurs that we have not yet recognized as dinosaurs,” and adds that “we are going to have to invent some new kind of economic system.” But his earlier reference to “jobs” indicates that he thinks of the future economic system as but a modification of the present one. More basically, the discussion between Callenbach and Wasserman involves little discussion of institutional change. Wasserman states, near the end of their conversation: “The desirability now of ranchettes, small ten-acre parcels with a small garden where retirees and young people can go and really make it with a windmill and solar panels. That’s really the future.” This strikes me as evidencing a lack of imagination—from a sociological standpoint—on the part of both of these gentlemen.
  • Despite Callenbach’s avowed interest in the biological and anthropological, their discussion evinces no interest in humans as biological entities. For example, they devote no time to the discussion of human needs, “design specification” (see Chapters 3 and 4 in my What Are Churches For?). Nor does their discussion evince any awareness of the “discrepancy” concept (see Chapter 2 in the just-cited eBook).
  • Callenbach and Wasserman place an excessive faith in President Barack Obama (given a Nobel Peace Prize for what reasons??). They hope that Obama will “get us turned around from the military solution always being the thing we go for toward political and for that matter social and ecological solutions being the things they go for.” Callenbach says: “I don’t think it was a dumb thing for Barack Obama to talk about hope so much”—as if there is a correlation between Obama’s talk and his actions! And then there’s Callenbach’s outrageous statement: “Here he [i.e., Obama] is . . . cleaning up the white guy’s [i.e., President George Bush’s] mess”—when it would be more accurate to say that Obama has been basically continuing Bush’s policies, and in some respects is even worse than Bush. (And here I didn’t think that was even possible!)
  • Their reference to CONG—i.e., coal, oil, nukes, and gas—reflects their orientation to the concept of sustainability. The question that arises regarding such an orientation, however, is: Is that concept currently relevant? My position is that if this principle had been adopted by all countries in 1750, our current problem of global warming would never have developed. But that principle was not adopted, and global warming is a problem. In fact, I agree with British scientist James Lovelock that we either have reached the “tipping point,” or soon will. That is, Earth System (“Gaia” to Lovelock) has been so stressed by human activities that the negative feedback mechanisms that have been “working” to maintain relative stability have been (or are about to be) replaced with positive feedback mechanisms—those “working” to propel us toward disaster. In fact, Lovelock predicts that global warming will result in most of the world’s population being culled by 2100 CE (but directly by starvation, disease, and violence). Now if certain processes have been set in motion that we humans cannot reverse (with the possibility that attempts at technological “fixes” will simply intensify the problem), it should be obvious that the concept of sustainability is now obsolete. Our catchword today should, rather, be adaptationin that we had better start thinking in terms of how to adapt to the changes that will inevitably be occurring, because that’s the only choice we now have.
  • They seem to place their hope for effectuating change in government, being seemingly unaware that our society is “democratic” in name only. In actuality, it is controlled by rich individuals and the officers of major corporations—and those individuals have an obsessive interest in the short-run at the expense of the future. (See Bill McKibben’s two excellent recent essays at this site.) This means that those who engage in adaptive efforts will need to do so as individuals or as members of private groups—for only a fool would look to government for leadership on this matter.
  • Callenbach states early on: “What we need to do is to make out cities more compact and efficient and to make them produce both energy as you [Wasserman] have in Solartopia and for that matter food.” However, an important question here is: Can cities survive the ravages of global warming? If the world’s population is reduced, by 2100 CE, to about 7% of its current level (per Lovelock), how will such a world be able to support cities? And what’s so good about cities anyway?! The economic interdependence that enables cities to exist also enables exploitation to occur—and it does. This is not to say, of course, that the absence of a high degree of interdependence guarantees the absence of exploitation; but such absence is more conducive to the absence of exploitation than is the existence of a high degree of interdependence. Callenbach states that “Ecotopia, like your [i.e., Wasserman’s] Solartopia, is very decentralized . . .,” but his reference to cities implies that a high degree of decentralization does not, in fact, exist in Ecotopia.
  • Callenbach states at one point: “When the banks started to come unglued and the investment companies and so on, I was thinking of a passage in Ecotopia where the narrator, Weston, meets an Ecotopian militant who says, ‘Well, we kind of welcomed economic collapse and the flight of capital because we knew that could be turned to advantage,’ a T’ai Chi move, or something like that.” “So out of chaos and catastrophe can come . . . it loosens up the rock pile that American politics tends to be. All the rocks are settled in so tight against each other that nothing can move.”

If Callenbach and Wasserman actually believe that the collapse of our society will be a “good thing,” because it will enable a flowering of Ecotopia, I think they are being foolish. What seems to be a more reasonable stance—to me—is to assume that our society will be collapsing, and those who anticipate this would be wise to begin NOW to start engaging in adaptive activities. For doing so might not only help reduce the loss of life that will be involved with societal collapse, but contribute to the success of adaptation efforts.

  • Callenbach states: “This is not a beautiful system to operate in, though it may be better than alternatives. I don’t know. But at any rate, it’s what we have, what we’re stuck with. Maybe we can use the engine of corrupt Congress, and greedy industrialists, to build Solartopia or Ecotopia.”

The first part of this statement suggests that United States society, because of its relative lack of repression, is an ideal place to begin building a New Society within the shell of the Existing Order—and I agree with that point. However, his reference to “Congress” and “greedy industrialists” suggests that that’s not what he has in mind after all—so that it’s not clear what his thinking is on this matter!

  • Wasserman’s reference to “population control” tells me that neither he nor Callenbach takes global warming seriously. Don’t they agree with James Lovelock that global warming will make this “issue” a non-issue?—in that global warming will severely cull the world’s population by the end of this century. That is, global warming will act as an agent of “population control.”
  • Some of the statements made in this conversation go beyond the bounds of being naïve. For example, Wasserman states at one point “we have to abolish war”—as if this can be accomplished easily! And then later declares “Poverty is unsustainable”—suggesting not only that that’s the only reason he’s against it (making him anything but an Old Testament prophet!), but that because it’s “unsustainable” it “must” at some point in time disappear! What a dreamer!

If I had to state my problem with the contents of this conversation briefly, it would be that the intellectual orientation of both Callenbach and Wasserman is deeply colored by their commitment to the concept of sustainability. Unfortunately, that concept has long been obsolete, with the concept of adaptation now being the relevant one. However, that fact has yet to sink into the psyches of many in this society, or other societies, which fact will prove to be a disaster for our species. I hate to be a prophet on this matter, but have no other choice.

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.