|Ernest Callenbach Interview
Imagine having to work only four hours a day to produce all the high quality goods and services you will ever need. Imagine beautiful, handmade products designed to last, not to be continually replaced and tossed away. Imagine a culture that celebrates art and community rather than material acquisition. Imagine solar power, community housing, ample public transportation, and no more commute hassles. Beyond Woodstock, more visionary than even Star Trek, this is Ecotopia.
Ernest Callenbach self-published the book Ecotopia in 1975, and its impact has since reached global proportions. Ecotopia has been translated into nine languages, the last one being Korean. Callenbach, college professor, publisher, and environmental educator, is author of several books, including Ecomanagement: The Elmwood guide to Ecological Auditing & Sustainable Business. His latest project involves bringing back the bison and could lead to a redefinition of land development and potential sustainability. Softspoken and unassuming, Callenbach's personality belies the power of his vision to define a future that really works. His is as important and vital a message as I have ever encountered. From OPEN EXCHANGE MAGAZINE, May-June 1994.
Bart Brodsky: Why is it that there is so little talk today about the future? The popular media tends to avoid it except for escapist comic book futures, immensely entertaining, perhaps, but not very realistic.
Ernest Callenbach: In a way, not thinking about the future is an American disease. Other countries don't seem to have nearly the problem we do. In Europe governments are making plans for 20 or 50 years ahead. They're adopting green policies. The Canadians are a good deal better than we are. I think there's something about the ideology of American life, the emphasis on the capitalist bottom line, which is defined by quarters, not even whole years, that sort of "unfits" people to think in longer perspectives. It discourages them from thinking.... In architecture, for example, in Europe they still build buildings for a long time. They assume a building might be around for a hundred years or so. In America, because cost accounting and MBA thinking has penetrated architecture, you don't dare think in more than about 20 year terms, because after that it may be torn down. And this seems reasonable to us. Of course, it has very heavy economic and ecological costs, but that doesn't cut any ice.
BB: It seems that the recent earthquake in Southern California would have been a perfect opportunity to talk about rebuilding the cities, of restructuring life so that we wouldn't be so dependent on freeways, to discuss clustered housing. Yet almost none of that was mentioned in the major media. How is it that people like you didn't somehow get a forum?
EC: People don't want to listen. There was a thing in the paper today where CalTrans was congratulating [Southern Californians] about not bringing any doubts about rebuilding the freeways exactly the way they were, and therefore they were able to do it very rapidly. They say rather unkindly that in San Francisco, "they're still arguing about where to put some of the rebuilt freeways."
BB: And here we go, condemned to repeat the mistakes....
EC: In the big earthquake of 1906 San Francisco had the chance to re-route streets in non-grid pattern that would have matched the landscape more intelligently, but they rebuilt everything exactly the way it was. Cities have an incredible, almost insane instinct to rebuild themselves just the way they were. Although, in Europe, some of the cities, after being flattened in World War II, were able to significantly improve their downtown areas especially.
BB: You recently commented that your next car would be an electric car. How will that make a difference?
EC: I drive hardly at all, you know. I live here in the middle of Berkeley, and most of the places that I go I can go by bus or on foot and avoid the whole hassle of cars, as well as getting a certain ideological satisfaction out of it. The car that I use is a 1977 Honda Civic, what I call "the least car that money can buy." It's been a very trouble free little car and it's got about 60,000 miles on it, and with luck it might last another 10 years. By then there should be electric cars. Of course, the American car industry is extremely reluctant to go into new car design of any kind. When you study the history of the air bag or the radial tire, or almost any automotive innovation they have been full of arguments about why they couldn't or shouldn't do it. Amory Lovins, who is a very wise man in matters of energy, predicts that the next wave of car design, which will create what he calls "supercars" that are very light carbon fiber structure cars driven by mixed cycle engines, where you have a very little gasoline or hydrogen or fuel cell engine whose sole function is to generate electricity to charge a battery or get a flywheel going. It's job is not to push the car but to charge the propulsion mechanism. He thinks that it will be perhaps the electronics companies or the Swatch watch company, which is heavily into car planning, and other non-automotive companies, which [will lead the way]. He says automobile companies are into stamped metal, and that's not what future cars are going to be like.
BB: We seem to be so addicted to consumption. I remember a vision of the 70's from an old professor of mine. He said that the last drop of oil will be used to fuel the bulldozer to shape the concrete to make the roads that no car will be able to drive on because there will be no gasoline left! As a culture we seem to like to walk right up to the precipice. When are we going to turn around?
EC: I don't think it will happen that way. What will happen is that other forms of energy will get relatively, progressively cheaper. Windpower, for example, is getting very much cheaper than it was in the beginning. You know, when we first had windmills on Altamont Pass everybody thought they were kind of a joke. They had to be subsidized by tax write-offs that Jerry Brown, bless him, put in. What happened was that wind machine development went through about four generations of technical improvements, to the point now that if you were building a new power generating facility, wind and solar thermal are just about the cheapest that you could get. If you had intelligent tax policies that favored them just a tiny bit, they would sweep the planet. Oil and more particularly gas would not be used for power generation.
BB: You're talking about possibilities and I'm talking about cultural resistance. The Greens, which had been very big in Europe, seem to have been stymied to some degree. They've never gotten a foothold in this country with regard to policy-making. Why has the Green movement been a failure so far?
EC: I don't think that the Greens in Europe, particularly in Germany, have been a failure. They've been an incredible success, although right now the party is in disarray because of the fundamental split within it between the spiritually oriented Greens and the "social ecology" type Greens. This is a split that we also have in our much more tiny and ineffectual Green movement. Interestingly, Danny Moses, an old Green in these parts and formerly a publisher at Sierra Club Books, is going to run for governor [of California]. And the Green Party is a state registered party now, so although they have very little money they may be able to raise some extremely interesting issues. Society changes as people on the "outs" raise issues which the "establishment" seems to ridicule because they aren't important and there's no way you could deal with them if they were important. You can see this process over and over again in every areathen little by little the elements get stronger and stronger, and sooner or later people on the middle of the road realize that something has to be done about it, and little by little, by the intricate and complicated and maddening mechanisms of what I call "semi-democratic" country politics, you do get some changes happening. It's a very draining process for the people who engage in it personally. Many people with great ideas, a lot of people with technical wisdom, simply don't have the stomach for it.
BB: Is the spirituality of the Green movement a help or a hindrance?
EC: It appeals to some but it turns off others. There are very hardboiled scientific Greens. There are are some who believe that the environmental movement is fundamentally a spiritual movement that has to do with what is a fitting way for us to live on earth. There's what you might call a Buddhist wing of the environmental movement that, incidentally, is close to my personal sympathies. The environmental movement is like capitalism itself, a matter of axioms. There is no way that you can prove to anybody that the "bottom line" should be our dominant value. It's just that a lot of people say it is, and therefore it is. It seems impregnable, but it is possible to change that bottom line to say instead: What is important is sustainability. Short-run profits, even though they might seem very jolly and enable people to buy second homes in Palm Springs, are in fact a detriment to the overall health of the system and all the individuals in it, including the people who get to buy the big homes.
BB: The possibility of capitalism's becoming a force for creative change is the focus of Paul Hawken's new book, The Ecology of Commerce. Hawken seems to be saying that you can be a capitalist, serve the bottom line and serve the environment. Is this possible or is this hopelessly naive?
EC: You could say that it better be true, because for better or worse, we live in a capitalist country, and a capitalist epoch, for that matter. If we don't learn how to make capitalism environmentally sustainable, our goose is cooked. We may go on like this for another fifty years or so, but sooner or later we'll suffer some kind of collapse. Short of total revolution, which I am not holding my breath for, we'll have to make it possible for people to make money out of ecological reform, which is why a lot of what Paul Hawken says makes perfect sense. If we can't get business to do things right ecologically, who else is going to do it?
BB: How do we determine for our culture what is sustainable, what is a good use of technology and what is an overuse? What's good and what's bad? I like my car, my computer, my fax. When have we gone too far?
EC: I don't think there's any overall answer. Jerry Mander, a very good friend of mine, in his new book, The Absence of the Sacred, makes the case that most technology ought to be treated as guilty before adopted. Dave Brower of the Sierra Club and now of Earth Island Institute, said similar things. I think, though, that the question of the guilt of technology is a complicated one and has to be assessed technology by technology. The bow and arrow, after all, was a technology. When Indians adopted it, it meant that they were able to do certain things differently than they had done before, when they had to hunt with traps or snares, or what not. Agriculture, after all, has a certain technology. And when the horse arrived it was a new technology. Our technology is a lot fancier and harder, [sometimes] smaller and lighter. These are things that Paul Hawken is enthusiastic about. Technology does not exist by itself. It exists in a class structure and a social culture. One of the reasons why our present technology, on the whole, is used for environmentally destructive purposes is that it is used single-mindedly in the service of making money. So the question is what rules society establishes for the fit use of technology.
BB: The issue of population has been ignored to a great degree [among certain factions of] the environmental movement and the culture in general. Population number-crunchers like Garrett Hardin say that America should close its borders to protect our own. Some countries should literally be written off as apocalyptic population basket cases. Contrast this with people like Frances Moore-Lappé and her focus on "Food First," feed everybody first and then worry about population. Is there some enlightened middle path between these two?
EC: The Elmwood Institute held a conference on population matters about whether it's possible to envisage a sustainable population. The questions that you raise occupied us for about two full days, and we never got anywhere near the bottom of any of this! So we're going to have to skim the surface. Population is a very hot issue, because human beings are a species, like any other, who by their biological nature to tend to multiply to fill up the available niche. One thing that we have discovered how to do, first with wood, then with coal, then with oil, is how to use stored fossil biological energy to make a bigger niche for ourselves. And that's why we have 5 1/2 billion people on earth. Because it's possible.
BB: I've read that to sustain the population of the planet at a European standard of consumption, roughly half that of US standard of energy consumption, that maybe a billion people could be supported. [We've got at least 4 1/2 billion too many people right now!] Would you agree with those figures?
EC: Well, what you have at present is a situation where one billion of the persons on the planet at this moment are living in a more or less European mannerthe Europeans, the North Americans, and the Japanese. They do something like four fifths of the damage done to the planet ecologically. The remaining population is to a very large extent people who live on the land in a state of desperate poverty in a step aboveperhaps we should say belowsustainability. They're poor enough not to have access to energy sources that would enable them to do really substantial damage. So, even though there's probably no country that you can't call overpopulatedthat's destroying its forests, it's seacoasts if it has any, its riverbanks if it has any, and is becoming steadily less and less sustainable agriculturally because of damage to the soil's productivitythe worst population problem is in the United States, probably followed then by Europe. European populations have, in some cases, actually dropped. I don't know whether it is possible in any reliable scientific way to say what a reasonable carrying capacity of a country or of a state like California would be. All I can say is that most of the people who have looked into these matters, starting with Paul Ehrlich, are convinced that the United States is the most overpopulated country in the world, because our consumption impacts are so much greater proportionately.
BB: Sustainability, then, is going to require an absolutely fundamental revisioning and restructuring.
EC: I think so. You have to realize that as far as people are concerned, less is better. If you have less people they can live substantially betterand society will last longer. When you get a society that is butting right up against the limits of subsistence, which is what happens in a country with lots and lots of really poor people, for example, stripping the land of not only trees but bushes in order to cook rice with, you get to a sort of downward spiral of ecological degradation which is really ominous. This is affecting much of Africa.
BB: You wrote Living Poor With Style about 20 years ago, now in its reissue re-titled Living Cheaply With Style. But as one person told me, "I'm more interested in living with style cheaply than living cheaply with style!" (laughs) What does that say?
EC: The idea when I wrote the book was to say that money is not everything. It's more important to live in a way that makes sense to you and figure out how to do it with less money if you need to, which most of us do, than to simply go for the money and hope for the best, as I have said, in the toxic exhaust of the advertisers. (laughs) And there are a lot of people among us who have not had very much money and who have learned a lot of wonderful tricks that we need to share with each other. It's very important to realize that Americans have been getting poorer now since about 1973. That is to say, real wages, the amount of bread you can buy with an hour of your time, has been dropping. And it's very hard to get exact information about this. It's not put on the front page of the business section, much less on the front page of the news. But it appears from a study of the Federal Reserve that was done three or four years ago that the drop has been something like 15% for individuals. Now, this is a tremendous deprivation for the American people.
BB: It's largely experienced as the decline of the middle-class and the manufacturing class.
EC: Yes, and the lower class has been getting poorer and poorer. And it has been saved from being a total catastrophe only by the fact that so many women have gone out of the home to work. So the honorable labor that women used to do in raising children, taking care of their families and houses, has now been put under double pressure exported into paid jobs. So the monetary security of the American people has been achieved at the cost of tremendous changes in family structure. And we don't know yet what the costs of this are going to.be. I'm not saying that childcare is terriblemy daughter works and is doing it and the kid is doing finebut if you look at the whole pattern of family life it's hard to imagine evacuating that amount of energy and attention and love out of the family structure doesn't have pretty profound effects.
EC: So what we're having in the United States is pushing more and more into what some would consider the normal condition of working class people, namely poverty. What we have to do is to cope with that realistically. Bill Clinton comes in and says, "What we have to do is come in and create a lot of high tech jobs and everything will be like the 50's again...." This is a dream world. The American economy now exists in a context of aggressive world capitalism, and our wages were abnormally high due to the very lucky circumstances available for America at the end of World War II, when all the other industrial economies of the world had been flattened. Well, they're not flattened anymore. They're up and running, and in many cases they run smarter.
BB: So, is our economy retreating to worldwide norms, or is there something more fundamental happening?
EC: I think in a way what's happening is the global economy is becoming more hydraulic. If you have a set of pipes with water in them, the water will find its level throughout the whole system. What happens in wages, now that capital is so mobile, is somewhat similar.
BB: In Ecotopia the average citizen had to work only four hours a day because the average citizen didn't need to maintain a car or fancy trappings. Things were built to last, with no planned obsolescence. More like "lifestyles of the natural and durable."
EC: Ecotopians thought about how much stuff they really wanted, and they considered that they could get enough of it working about half of what we do, probably producing about two thirds of what we do.
BB: Is that still realistic today?
EC: Oh, sure! And the idea the working hours should be reduced is a now a very live issues in the depressed economies of Germany and particularly France.
BB: But for many people that means they're going to have less money to buy their fancy things.
EC: Exactly. So in cultures where people are more resilient and practical, more able to do things for themselvesand that happens to be the case in France particularly, with their more rural traditionit would be easier for people. In America, where the strong family structure has tended to disintegrate, nowadays people feel so terribly alone. American capitalism tends to be so socially corrosive that everybody is an individual atom trying to survive like all the other little individual atoms.
BB: That's why we've been doing so much work through OPEN EXCHANGE at intentional community building, not necessarily shared living, but ways to help people connect and to maintain associations and friendships over time.
EC: Co-housing, too, because it needs to be a physical thing. If you go to Bangkok you find that middle-class families live in compounds, three generations of people living in a set of buildings. Around this compound there are individual dwelling units, but everybody spends time with everybody else, so it gives a tremendous resilience against economic deprivation as well defense against social ills of all kinds.
BB: The co-housing options I've seen in the Bay Area tend to be more expensive than the traditional alternatives. Unless and until they can be designed in such a way as to lower their price, to make it more affordable than, say, to rent, I don't see where you will have a massive switch to co-housing.
EC: Yes, I agree. In the inner Bay Area, where land is so expensive, this may be [the case]. In Denmark, where co-housing originated, most of the co-housing seems to be on the periphery of towns, where land is cheap and where a larger parcel can be worked with, which is a great advantage to the designers. But I think that you might pay more for a given unit of co-housing per square foot [in the Bay Area], but because of what you would be getting socially, and not going out to eat [because of voluntary and enjoyable shared cooking arrangements], this can save you an astonishing amount of money. A house also involves a lot of maintenance and management expenses, too.
BB: What do you think of Al Gore? Is he really an environmentalist?
EC: You can't ask what politicians are secretly, because it doesn't really matter. Gore knows an unusual amount of environmental matters for an American politician, and to have risen as far as he has is a kind of miracle. On the other hand, we notice that when things he wants are proposed, they get shot down as frequently as they would if they had been proposed by somebody else. He's probably had some effect on some of the good appointments in the administration. Bruce Babbit, for example, is probably there because of Gore. On the other hand, when you look at what has happened when Babbit has tried [with little success] to make some very minor reforms in the management of our grazing lands which are rented out at super-subsidy prices to welfare ranchers.... So, it's difficult to be optimistic about political figures. What you want in a democratic society is someone who has a good instinct for which way the wind is blowing. If we the people can make the wind blow in the right direction, politicians will follow. The thing we can be optimistic about is movements. If you can generate a successful movement for ecological reform on a variety of levels in our country, if it becomes a real movement, and not just a reaction against the destruction of this forest here and that river there, and build a movement which has a vision of what the United States might be like if it was a sustainable community, then I think we could exert some influence on the politicians to cut up the pies differently.
BB: Last question. What's new for you and Elmwood Institute?
EC: Elmwood Institute is an educational organization devoted to bringing ecological thought out into the world and trying to put it to work. Elmwood is mainly working now on a program called Eco-literacy, which is aimed at schools, designed not only to teach children to love furry cute animals, but to understand some of the principles of ecology. Fritjof Capra is the main intellectual force organizing all this, and there is a team of collaborators who have been involved in educational work for a long time who are very canny about ways in which things can be made to happen in schools. We're still doing our own follow up on a book about the ecology of business. The aim of this book is to give aid and comfort to businesspeople who would like to do something if they could. This book explains how you can analyze your company's operations, to diagram all the inputs and outputs, and it describes some strategies lower management people can use in convincing top management that doing things better from an ecological point of view may be more profitable.
BB: It sounds like you're continuing to build through education toward a sustainable future. I trust that today we've brought some of these ideas to a wider circle of people. Thank you for sharing your vision.