Ernest Callenbach’s lectures are inspiring experiences, giving audiences new and cogent perspectives on the 21st century as a critical juncture in human history. He is a witty and forceful lecturer bringing to bear a vast knowledge of ecological science, the arts, and social issues. His lectures always leave room for audience questions, and he is flexible in setting up topics that match a group’s needs. He has spoken to student groups, professional associations, environmental organizations, corporate departments, and political groups. He is also available for media appearances, and he sometimes conducts workshops on voluntary simplicity and ecologically responsible living. His recent lecture topics (in addition to the samples below) have included:
“The Ecology of the American Outlook: Issues for the 21st Century”
”Hope for the Earth: An Ecotopian Perspective”
“Industrial Consumerism: A Self-Destroying Machine?”
Among his recent appearances:
Osher Institute, University of California Extension
25th Anniversary Celebration, TAZ newspaper, Berlin
KIESS Symposium on Intermediate Technology, Kyoto
Permaculture Institute, Nevada City, CA
Muskingum College, New Concord, OH
University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
St. Mary’s College, Moraga, CA
Freiburg University, Germany
University of Oregon, Eugene
FROM CAPITALISM TO ECOTOPIA:
A Successionist Manifesto
[Delivered as a lecture for the Carl-Schurz-Haus in Freiburg, Germany.]
For many today, the vision of an ecologically sustainable and socially congenial future is compelling. However, such a transformation seems unattainable as long as consumerist capitalism continues to destroy its own planetary support systems. An Ecotopian future would utilize technological innovations in renewable energy, compact city design, manufacturing, and transportation. But that future would also require social innovations such as product transparency in marketing, fairer financial regulation, carbon taxes, and reforms of corporate “DNA.” When we take an ecological view of such seemingly unattainable changes, we see that the emergence of new, mostly small-scale ideas and practices echoes the biological process of succession: modest but innumerable “weeds” begin to flourish on our disturbed planet, slowly creating the conditions for a future healthy world.
It is a privilege and a pleasure for me to discuss with you the ecological and social aspects of the future of capitalism. I have been an analyst of environmental issues for many years, but I also speak from the perspective of a novelist and visionary. My novel, Ecotopia, was read by many people in Germany in the 1970s, when the Green Party first brought ecological concerns into the political arena. Ecotopia appealed to people who became Greens because it was the first attempt to portray what an environmentally sustainable future society might be like. And, if I may say so, it remains a compelling vision of an alternative future. It also remains a source of hope for people young and old.
The Ecotopia story takes place in the United States, in what we now call the states of Washington, Oregon, and northern California—the northwest corner of the U.S.—and being American, I will focus mainly on American problems and potentials. But I trust my thinking may prove stimulating here too. We live in a globalized world, and we are all passengers on the same capitalist ship, trying to see where it is headed, and what corrections in course may be possible.
In our time together, my plan is to first describe the general nature of an Ecotopian future society. Second, I will examine the destructive impacts of industrial consumerist capitalism on the natural order that supports us. Third, I will suggest how Ecotopian thinking and actions could lead us to use powers of government in moving toward a sustainable world. And finally I will propose a kind of ecological metaphor for non-governmental actions: how “successional” changes happen in natural areas when they are disturbed, and how such changes might be paralleled in human affairs.
Part of my professional work was as a film critic, and I have a visually literal mind. So when I began to imagine what an alternative world might be like, I felt compelled to paint a very concrete and believable picture of it, aiming at a vision that many people might share. (As indeed they did.) Although the book Ecotopia is a novel—in fact a love story with a happy ending—it overflows with ecological, social, and technical information. It has had a surprisingly long life all around the world. (In fact it is still read in German gymnasium classes in the Reklam English edition.) Some of this durability stems from the careful research that underlies the book: it applies the ecological-science understandings first developed in the 1960s and 70s to the age-old question of “How we live now.” Scientists had amassed a great deal of new knowledge about how species co-exist in ecosystems, and particularly about how humans interact with the natural world. But nobody had bothered to apply these findings to real daily life. What would life be like if we gave equal weight to the ecological bottom-line, rather than only to the economic bottom-line?
Ecotopia, then, offers one specific vision of a possible future sustainable society. Nothing that has happened scientifically since its publication undermines its foundations. On the contrary, other projections of possible futures, whether they are done by geographers or energy analysts, arrive at similar conclusions. Moreover, especially for young readers, the book’s influence also stems, I suspect, from the fact that it is optimistic about the future, unlike most environmental writing and film-making.
In Ecotopia, life is good. Ecotopians own fewer goods and use far less energy than we do, but they enjoy healthy and tasty local food uncontaminated by genetic engineering (as, unfortunately, we Americans do not). They live in sociable shared dwellings, work in collegial worker-owned-and-controlled enterprises of modest scale—and for roughly 20 hours per week, accepting a lower level of goods consumption but enjoying much more leisure and social interaction. They are creative, valuing art and drama and dance as activities everybody can enjoy. They pay attention to their personal spiritual development and to their relationship with the universe. They are active physically—they spend a lot of time hiking and camping, which is especially appealing because Ecotopia is located in a bioregion with splendid mountains, a dramatic seacoast, and abundant wildlife. During their independence struggle against the U.S. “homeland,” the Ecotopians invented an intensely local and decentralized and ultrademocratic political order. They employ advanced information technology such as electronic publishing and videophones, and two-way television is part of their vibrant political life. Their borders are closed, and they have a slowly declining population. They have great social solidarity, and a high level of environmental education, which enables them to argue passionately about issues without dissolving into rigid camps. Their energy systems are decentralized and renewable, their transportation system is advanced; they have no private cars. They consider the term “consumer” to be an insult, preferring to think of themselves as producers—of new ideas, of long-lasting goods, of handmade clothes and houses, of art. They repair or re-use or recycle everything. They accept their nature as healthy animals, so they are sexy, playful, spontaneous. (When I describe this mythical place, some people ask where they can get a visa. . . . )
Ecotopia, in short, portrays a people who have adopted a new shared vision. Why do we need visions? Because, as was said long ago, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Without knowing alternative possibilities, we remain trapped in the present, resentful prisoners of the current powers-that-be, our creative energies stymied. Knowing other possibilities gives us power, opens up our imaginations, increases our energy. If we are realistic, we see that we are confronted with natural limits on human activities: our planet receives only so much solar energy, it has only so much farmable land, it has a limited amount of water and of fossil fuels, critical metals, and essential nutrient substances such as phosphorus. What are we going to do about surviving within these limits? In the end we must have a vision of something like Ecotopia, or we will end with chaos. To the Ecotopians, survival means intelligent co-existence with the cycles of nature, not a futile attempt to subdue it.
The need for some such new vision is particularly acute in the United States. When the Great Depression of the 1930s threatened mass revolt that might end capitalism, Roosevelt’s innovations of the New Deal held the country together. We developed Social Security, we protected unions, we created jobs. The massive industrialization of World War II also brought the country together. After the war, the Allied occupations of Japan, Germany, and Italy installed constitutions that encouraged generally democratic and responsive governments in the post-War period. But America itself, proud of its new world dominance, felt it needed no changes. So it never evolved into a parallel social democracy. Instead, in the McCarthyite period and during Reaganism and after, we slid steadily toward the right, toward a society of drastic inequality and suicidally huge outlays on the military. We have slowly reverted toward the dog-eat-dog pattern of pre-1929 American robber-baron capitalism—except that nowadays our biggest robber barons are Wall Street investment bankers. America’s only continuing shared vision goes back to the foundation of the American labor movement in the 1890s. It is the slogan, “More!” This vision of happiness through goods consumption was convenient to corporations, who developed a powerful advertising machine to encourage our wants, and later our borrowing. After all, like spectator sports, buying kept people’s minds off politics.
In this connection, we should remember that long ago Karl Marx pointed out that the “cash nexus” (buying and selling, the market as the measure of everything) corrodes and ultimately destroys all other human relationships. The Ecotopian vision, however, is quite different. It is not based on the narrow economistic myth that people’s chief motivation is always to maximize economic benefits to themselves. It takes into account that our human society is nested within an ecological order (“Nature”) which limits and shapes what we do, whether we acknowledge it or not. It accepts that we are social animals, tightly interdependent with each other and our natural support systems, and that our allegedly rational economic behavior is in fact often highly emotional. It admits that we deserve happiness, not just market efficiency, and it understands that while a modest level of comfort and security ought to be the right of everyone, the acquisition of more material goods does not necessarily bring more happiness.
HOW CONSUMER CAPITALISM IS DESTROYING ITSELF (AND US)
To grasp the destructive ecological impacts of contemporary industrial capitalism, we must talk about “throughputs.” These include the physical materials and energy which flow through our society—the steel, concrete, glass, electrical and fuel energy, food, and so on. Generally speaking, the damage throughputs do is proportional to the money spent on them. This is why the rich, high-consuming countries of North America, Europe, and Japan do by the far the largest damages to the global environment: they buy more, and therefore mine more, process more, refine more, manufacture more, ship more, dispose of more. Levels of consumption (and therefore throughputs) are rising in China and India as well, along with inequality.
As an example, let’s look at a new automobile. The impacts from its manufacture (its so-called embodied environmental costs) can be traced all the way back to mines, coal-burning or gas-burning electric plants, rubber factories, glass factories, plastic plants, petroleum and chemical refineries. Even if such a new car had 20% better fuel mileage than a similar older car, the impacts of its creation are so great that extending the life of the old car is usually ecologically preferable. (An entirely electric car using renewable-source energy would be superior.) This is a general rule: the purchasing of almost any other new object creates similar problems. Consumer capitalism, however, rests on creating an insatiable desire for new goods, for fashion cycles in clothing and cars, for constant upgrades in electronic devices, and so on. So we face a direct contradiction between the capitalist imperative and our planetary survival. (By the way, some people in Canada and the US who understand this perspective have created a new holiday, Buy Nothing Day. It happens on the day after the Thanksgiving holiday—traditionally the day on which our shops have their biggest volume of sales.)
Heretofore, when we looked at the environmental effects of consumer industrial capitalism, we concentrated on “emissions” and “pollutants”—carbon dioxide from combustion, which contributes to global warming (or as I call it, global heating), nitrogen oxide, methane, mercury, pesticides and herbicides, and so on. These emissions have climatic effects that may prove catastrophic. They also have health effects that are ominous. In the U.S., our sewer systems are steadily putting into the national waters a huge amount of estrogen-mimicking drugs, excreted by humans. Our industrial hog-factories and chicken-factories build up concentrated wastes that pollute landscapes and waterways. We are blasting the tops off mountains to get at coal deposits, unleashing global-heating emissions in that process, as well as in burning the coal. Although the U.S. boasts a national park system that is the envy and inspiration of the world, huge tracts of American landscape are being turned into wastelands. Moreover, our agricultural practices, involving heavy reliance on industrially produced nitrogen fertilizers and monocropping, are lowering soil fertility and promoting erosion. The run-off of excess nitrogen is poisoning the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, along with oil spills.
To take our thinking about impacts to a more sophisticated level, we should follow the Ecotopians and adopt a viewpoint that is biological rather than just physical, economic, or political. We keep well in mind these other factors: the world’s ominous divide into rich and poor, the shocking government bail-outs of reckless speculators, the swelling ranks of the un- or under-employed. But in this larger biological perspective, we see the planet as a self-regulating “geophysiological” system whose dominant microbial inhabitants maintain temperature, acidity, and other features in a range suitable for themselves and other life, including humans. The biosphere, setting of all our travails and triumphs, is a tightly interconnected set of ecosystems, almost an organism in itself (which some call Gaia). In this biological perspective, invisible microorganisms rule the world. They not only regulate our atmosphere, or try to, they also maintain the fertility of our soil, dispose of our wastes—not to forget providing our beer, wine, and cheese. We even recognize that our own bodies require the presence of millions of microbes in our digestive tracts, who collectively have more DNA than our own cells do.
Such a biological perspective enables us to think about the ecological impacts of industrial capitalism more broadly. For instance, most of our worries about global heating focus on flooding of coastal cities (or whole countries, like Bangladesh), on desertification of currently food-surplus areas like California or Australia, and so on. These are extremely serious worries. But we should worry a lot more about the biological support systems that keep the planet habitable for life. In the long run, and Nature operates in a very long run, it is even more disturbing that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are acidifying the oceans as well as warming them. It is seldom remembered that ocean microorganisms (which we now classify as algae) are fundamental suppliers of oxygen to organisms like humans. In their trillions upon trillions, they take up CO2 and liberate more than half of the planet’s oxygen—more than all the trees and grasses. Now global heating affects sea water as well as air. And warmer water decreases algae productivity and harms the plankton-based food webs that support fish. Still worse, however, is that acidity from dissolved CO2 reduces the algae’s ability to form their tiny carbon-storing shells. These shells normally sink to the sea bottom when the algae die, and ultimately form limestone deposits that sequester carbon for geological ages. By harming such ocean organisms, we first weaken their sequestering of heat-enhancing CO2, making the world get hotter still, and second we deprive ourselves of essential fish protein.
But it is not only in such grand and ominous processes that consumer capitalism undermines its own natural support systems. “Natural services” provide water purification, waste disposal, soil enrichment, fish stock replenishment, hurricane protection, and many other essentials. These services, statistically, are much larger than the world’s total industrial processes. We simply could never begin to pay for technological replacements of these services. The city of New York, for instance, could not afford a water purification plant sufficient for its future needs, and instead wisely decided to enlarge its forested watershed area, in which natural processes do the purification. But this is a rare success. On the whole, we are building up a vast deficit or negative balance—we are destroying natural services rapidly. In fisheries, for example, advanced technology finds fish more efficiently, scrapes the bottom clean so that nurseries for baby fish are wrecked, kills “by-catch” species in large numbers, and so on. Reliable scientific recommendations for limiting catch to sustainable levels are available, but they are seldom accepted or enforced, because the capitalist imperative of maximizing short-term profits prevails over biological good sense. The result is that most of the planet’s prime fishery areas are endangered or abandoned, victims of the quest for quick profits.
We could add to this indictment, but here let me step back to the principle that our capitalist society is nested within an ecological order that shapes and controls what we do, whether we acknowledge it or not. We are social animals, tightly interdependent with each other and with our natural support systems. But we have invented a system for organizing economic activity that contains fatal contradictions. While capitalism helped to raise Western humans from feudal agricultural misery into the slum servitude of the industrial age, and then briefly led to a postwar era of more fairly distributed plenty, it has now metastasized into a casino economy that impoverishes billions. The bottom half of humanity owns less than 1% of the world’s wealth, while the richest 2% own more than half. Supposedly democratic governments are corrupted by corporate interests, losing the people’s loyalty. In the future of such a system lie tyranny and revolution. We might liken capitalism to the self-destroying machines that Californian and French artists built in the 1970s—complex masses of wires and pipes and tubes and rods and tanks that set fire to themselves, started small explosions, sawed themselves to pieces, and ended up as nasty puddles of wreckage. . . . So we must find new ways of organizing ourselves.
POLITICAL COMPONENTS OF AN ECOTOPIAN FUTURE
Now I want to suggest how Ecotopian thinking could lead us to use government powers in moving toward a sustainable world. I much prefer evolution to revolution, and some interesting possibilities lie ahead. Among greenish thinkers in the U.S., there is a growing consensus about political changes imperative to survival, though whether they are possible or not is always in question.
We must note, as we begin thinking about such possible changes, that in a sense we do NOT actually live in capitalism, at least any capitalism that Adam Smith might have recognized. A better name for our system would be Subsidism, because there is not a single important industry in the U.S. that does not depend on massive government subsidies. The distinction between government offices and industry jobs has almost disappeared. As a result of this corporate looting of the public treasury, American income inequality has become the greatest in the industrial world, by far. And the supposed social mobility that Americans vaunt is in fact lower than that of many other countries.
The top 1% of Americans now claim more income per year than the bottom 100 million Americans taken together. The top 2/10th of 1% of Americans makes more on the sale of stocks and bonds in one year than everyone else combined; they reject the idea of a tiny “Tobin” tax on speculative transactions, whose proceeds could help counteract the catastrophes of the casino economy. No one knows whether a society with such truly feudal inequality can long remain either politically stable or somewhat democratic. But we can list some government actions that would improve its chances, and also lay foundations for an Ecotopian future:
First, regulation of the financial industry must be reintroduced, so that collapses of speculative derivatives in the global casino will not imperil the productive work of the country. (At its peak, the fantasy money economy apparently was four times larger than the real, actual economy of factories, stores, warehouses, farms, and so on.) This will be difficult to achieve in the U.S., because the government has been largely captured by corporate interests who do not wish to be restricted in any way. If Wall Street is given any new rules at all, they will probably be trivial. We have seen the power of the insurance, hospital, and pharmaceutical interests in the debate over American health policy: a large majority of citizens, and for that matter of doctors, favor a national health plan like those of other advanced countries, but the supposed health “reform” bill mainly delivers a large new bloc of compulsory subscribers to the insurance companies.
Second, we must have a carbon tax, with a corresponding reduction in income tax. (As the saying goes, “Tax the Bad, not the Good!”) A decline in carbon emissions is highly unlikely without carbon taxes. Even in Europe, where politicians talk a green line, the only thing that has driven down emissions a few percent is economic recession. Cap-and-trade, which American corporations might be willing to live with because they know it can be evaded, demonstrably does not work. But even cap-and-trade may not get through Congress, and a carbon tax is not even debatable in the U.S. at present.
Third, we need government action to increase the adoption of renewable-energy technologies, such as the feed-in tariff system in Germany. There was a time in California when the state subsidized wind power modestly, making California the world’s leader in wind power. Then the country turned rightward, and largely forgot about wind. Now we have finally caught up to Germany, though Spain and Denmark—and China—are not far behind.
Finally, we should limit the corporate damage to public health. Dangerous appliances can be recalled, food labels can be required so consumers can judge the amount of dangerous fats a food contains; industrial production of chicken and beef and pork can be made more humane and less dangerous to public health. Identification of the wild or farmed source of fish can be made mandatory, organic products can be certified. Such transparencies might be vastly expanded, as the author Dan Goleman recommends. He calls for detailed life-cycle analysis of products, to be made accessible on line and ultimately through some kind of bar-code on the product itself. His faith is that if people know enough about the origins, uses, dangers, and disposal of what they buy, they will make increasingly green decisions; this should drive corporate design and practices in green directions. One website, Goodguide.com, is leading the way toward such ratings, but the history of the Blue Angel and other national label systems is not terribly encouraging. Apparently, our buying behavior is far more habit-driven and irrational than we think.
To take these possible reforms seriously, we must be convinced that American capitalism can be subjected to the necessary governmental guidance. The skeptical view of the for-profit publicly traded corporation holds that, because the corporation’s overriding charter- and law-driven imperative is to maximize profits in the short run, it cannot achieve more than cosmetic improvements to its environmental impacts—unless forced by government. Otherwise, any corporate officers or employees whose actions jeopardize the bottom line will be removed. Limiting child labor or establishing the 40-hour week was not done by kindly corporations, but through the force of government action propelled by strong unions.
We see a few enlightened corporations (and a few substantial family-owned companies, like Patagonia) that have discovered how to reduce impacts in ways that actually improve profits, but in the U.S. we do not see many of them. The limited-liability corporation, legally a kind of super-citizen that in the U.S. can spend unlimited sums to influence elections, can also be viewed as an alien organism dominating planetary life. Left to itself, the corporation’s narrowly defined goals means it will undermine the planet’s habitability; it will set giant waves of environmental refugees in motion; it will impoverish the human and natural environment; and finally it will cause mass starvation, early deaths, and general misery. Large areas of the earth will probably be abandoned, rather like the area around Chernobyl.
However, within the political-economic conventional analysis, here are two possibilities that could lead in Ecotopian directions:
First, to reduce corporate power over U.S. governments, many analysts have concluded that Legislative reform is a prerequisite. At present, lobbyists possess immense power, since they contribute most of the money that representatives (of both parties) need to get elected or re-elected. In response to this corrupt system, a people’s movement for “clean elections,” i.e., public financing, has arisen. Two U.S. states, Maine and Arizona, have adopted this system, which is used by both Republican and Democratic candidates, and it is being instituted in Connecticut. Clean Elections will probably spread through the states before it becomes an item on the national agenda. If we can free our representatives from domination by corporate funding, much public-interest legislation will surely happen—in health, in finance, in reducing militarism, in transitioning to renewable energies, in reforming agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.
Second, to change corporate behavior requires rewriting of corporate DNA, which is contained in the corporate charters issued by states. Once we had democratically elected representatives, charters could include social responsibilities along with fiduciary ones (as they did in our early history). Corporations chartered in more permissive states could be prohibited from operation in your state, although many strenuous legal battles would be involved. There is now vigorous analysis in progress on these questions, and on the precarious historical legalities on which corporate personhood rests.
A ‘SUCCESSIONIST’ ANALYSIS
Such grand possibilities are exciting, and many people are working hard to bring them about, but the odds against them are still overwhelmingly discouraging. So, in conclusion, please let me offer a more optimistic alternative ecological view of social changes that are actually happening now. There are suggestive parallels between things people are doing and things that happen in nature. To explain what I mean, let’s first look at the ecological concept of “succession”—how different types of plants succeed or follow each other. In technical ecological vocabulary, we call an area of land “disturbed” when, for example, the trees have been cut down, or have been blown down by a storm; or lightning has set a fire that sweeps through a forest; or a grassland has been over-grazed by too many cows; or a road has been cut through grassland; or a marsh is filled in for a shopping-center parking lot. In such cases, the original ecosystem has been upset or destroyed. The land is exposed to sun, water erosion, perhaps landslides. The native plants and insects and animals and birds that the plants support have mostly disappeared.
What happens then is called “succession.” There are definite patterns by which species succeed or follow one another. First, certain weedy plants move in. They are small and can grow rapidly in difficult conditions, and produce many seeds. Even in a hotter climate, they find a way to survive and multiply. They support a few insects and birds. Some early “weeds” are larger, like alder trees, which add nitrogen to the soil. As leaves drop and stems decay, they add humus to enrich and lighten the soil. Soil bacteria and microfungi essential to nutrient uptake in roots, which suffer from heat and dryness, slowly return—they are the real health of the soil, and bring back the micro-fauna, the millions of tiny insects that aerate the soil and consume debris. Gradually a series of bushes and trees or grass returns to the area, and a stable ecosystem is reestablished, with a full suite of organisms large and small and microscopic, closely linked and interdependent, storing and recycling their nutrients efficiently. It may or may not be similar to the original pre-disturbance regime, but it will endure.
I believe that we see a similar pattern in human affairs. We live now in an epoch where many areas of the earth and of human society are being grossly disturbed. Huge numbers of people are unemployed, and may remain unemployed. Moreover, some of the big corporations, like giant trees, are falling—General Motors, for instance, which is now a government ward, and several airlines. Vast agricultural areas, in California, the U.S. Midwest, and in India, are dependent on pumped-well irrigation. However, over-pumping is drastically lowering water-table levels underground, and huge territories are likely to become semi-deserts where only wild plants grow. As global heating increases, desertification and crop reductions will become worldwide problems.
Weedy social change comes from below, not above. It goes around legislative blockades, like floodwater around a dam. The Civil Rights movement was not driven by crises of racist conscience on the part of powerful white people: it was driven by thousands of newly educated black students, aware of being deprived of their rights, who risked their lives to sit down at segregated lunch counters, and by thousands of organized black citizens who marched in the streets, braving police dogs and fire hoses. The Vietnam War did not end because Nixon and Kissinger finally realized it was a mistaken and doomed war: it ended because millions of American citizens, young and old, mobilized in huge demonstrations and brought into question the very legitimacy of the national government. Change comes from below—and when the national government is paralyzed, controlled by corporate interests, change can only come from below. The people must demand change, so that the government can be forced to accommodate change—to let the weeds prosper.
So let’s turn our attention to some examples of what we might call the “weeds” of social change. Like biological weeds, social weeds come in many species.
Take American university students. Like aggressive weeds, they have taken the initiative to evangelize their campuses with green ideas. They have organized, protested, and infiltrated the university services that provide student dormitories and cafeterias. American universities are corporations themselves, with the inertia found in all bureaucracies. They are often surprisingly large: the University of California is one of the state’s largest employers, with 180,000 employees. But through organized and sophisticated student pressure, meals have become more vegetarian and organic, and food wastes are composted. Disposable plastic utensils have been eliminated. Dishwashing has been made more water-sparing and energy-sparing. New buildings have been constructed to green standards in heating and air-conditioning systems and materials. Renewable-source electricity is being utilized, and efficient fluorescent lighting installed. Some of these changes save the universities increasingly scarce money. The main result, however, is a significant reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. Students have also propelled changes in university landscape management; they have worked to make their campuses more friendly to wildlife by decreasing pesticide use. Even students who are not particularly green approve of these changes. And presumably when the students graduate, they will be like weed seeds, spreading green ideas everywhere.
One way they do this is by how they live after graduation. Our residences cause a huge part of our environmental impacts—from their ecological construction costs, their maintenance needs, and their energy requirements. (American buildings, so many of them in suburban sprawl developments, account for some 40% of our energy consumption.) Many young people in American cities have little money and often no real jobs. But they have a lot of time and energy, and tend to live in shared apartments or houses. They use the social terrain of old buildings and streets efficiently, have rich social lives, and learn hard but essential lessons about living together with other people. Many of them become vegetarians or near-vegetarians from economic necessity, others from health considerations.
Another example: Below the radar of the media, and ignored by government, bicycles have recently been outselling the total of all cars and trucks sold in America. The automobile’s domination of the landscape is being challenged by these mechanical “weeds.” I have a friend whose shop finds old bikes, or parts of bikes, rebuilds them, and sells them for low prices. He cannot keep up with the demand. We are still far behind most European countries in bicycle use, but it is no longer rare in America to see adults riding with groceries or simply pedaling to work. And bicyclists are surprisingly effective at organizing politically, to force their cities to provide safer bike streets and bike paths.
Weed-like innovations are also moving into the business world, as we know from the work of a University of Maryland professor, Gar Alperowitz. The corporate model is exceedingly good at making profits, and often exceedingly bad at everything else. Life inside a corporation is too often stressful, unhealthy, confining, and temporary—the American work-force experience is increasingly transient. So people have been exploring and developing alternatives to the standard, top-down corporate model. If we look around as Alperovitz does, we see a proliferation of small weed-like growth. There are surprising numbers of worker-owned (and worker-controlled) companies, plus co-operatives, credit unions that do not get into speculative investment banking, neighborhood corporations and trusts, community-owned technology centers, and municipally owned enterprises. These are all local, democratic, and most of them are very efficient. Like weeds, they adapt to their local circumstances and thrive. Interestingly enough, they may in part be taking a place in society alongside unions. From the 1930s onward, it was through unions that working people confronted corporations and won the 40-hour week, paid health care, fair wages, and in short created the American working middle class. In today’s globalized economy, with the U.S. increasingly a non-manufacturing entity, unions have been greatly weakened, but alternative models of business can join union membership as a way of organizing social survival.
At the grassroots level, below the radar of the media, there is a lot of activity that is changing the ownership of wealth and making it benefit neighborhoods, workers, cities and communities at large. There are 11,000 worker-owned companies in the United States. There are also 120 million Americans who are members of co-operatives—a huge number, about a third of the population. Almost a quarter of our energy is produced or distributed by public utilities of various kinds—-special districts, cities, rural co-operatives. On the Danish model, co-housing projects are spreading, in which residents often eat together and cooperate in many other ways. To own and preserve wild lands from development, we set up non-profit land trusts, which provide jobs for managers and researchers. We also have thousands of innovative neighborhood corporations, some 4,000 or 5,000 of them, who own productive wealth to benefit their neighborhoods. They mainly deal in housing and land development, but also stores, businesses and factories.
Such non-profit organizations proliferate particularly in disadvantaged areas where local, state, or national government fails, where corporations don’t even provide grocery stores. People decide to take care of each other. And they are infinitely inventive in doing so. One New Jersey organization, called Newark New Communities, does several million dollars a year in business and pours its profits back into neighborhood health care and nutrition, education and jobs.
Again and again, we see that change starts locally. Cities are increasingly involved in redevelopment of blighted areas, in a dense mixed-use way that has many human and ecological advantages over sprawl, but they are also involved in green industries. They capture methane gas from sewage plants, producing electricity and creating jobs. They lend money to their citizens to finance rooftop solar panels, and put solar on city-owned rooftops. They even get into the business of supplying internet and cable TV service to areas that corporations neglect. In the Rust Belt city of Cleveland, Ohio, local groups are planning an ambitious cooperative that will run greenhouse businesses to displace food hauled in from California, similar to a hugely successful operation in another industrial city, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; they will operate a worker-owned laundry, and a cooperative installing solar equipment and heat-pumps. They will service hospitals and universities, which provide some of the contracts for food and laundry.
The pattern here is a decentralizing or relocalizing of economic activity and wealth. Even state pension funds have begun to realize that their fiduciary responsibilities can include investment in local green enterprises, rather than in hedge funds.
When unemployment grows and wages fall, people turn to new sources of food. In America today, both private and community vegetable gardens are thriving on vacant city lots. People get humus-building coffee grounds free from Starbucks; they teach each other how to grow food; they get to know and work with their neighbors. In large areas of Detroit and Flint, Michigan, once dominated by General Motors, many houses have been abandoned and removed, and their lots are becoming gardens. Like weeds, people are learning to nourish themselves again in changed circumstances. The companies that sell glass jars for preserving foods cannot keep up with the demand. And many people have joined CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) plans, where they pay a farmer a fixed amount beforehand and enjoy weekly deliveries of seasonal produce. This produces an intriguing new kind of direct bond between producers and consumers.
And like weeds, people enjoy and benefit from each other’s company. Some of them join together in small agile new companies, many of them near universities and full of very bright people. They are developing amazingly ingenious alternatives to old technologies. Biomimicry, the practice of imitating gentle natural processes rather than heating, beating, and treating materials into submission, promises great advances. Some discoveries are simply marvelous: it turns out that if you bake chicken feathers (the small downy ones) the result is microscopic tubes that store hydrogen at low pressure, so that it can be used in vehicles. Algae can be persuaded to produce oils. And the ancient technology of fermentation, in dispersed small-scale distilleries, can utilize agricultural wastes to produce ethanol fuel.
Such innovative small companies are the “bushes” of a successional series, along with so far unimaginable groupings of people determined to clean up rivers, or end a pointless war, or share meditation or child-raising techniques. They provide shade and protection for each other; they enrich the soil so that after them come bigger “trees,” and the incredible panoply of species that live in and around trees. Here we might think of electric-car companies, or co-ops distributing organic foods for their farmer members. Or companies that recycle building materials, furniture, even clothing. We will begin to live in eco-villages, where people survive off the grid with renewable energy, animal farming companions, self-education. We will convert our towns to Transition Towns, capable of surviving into the post-Peak-Oil, renewable-energy era. In a word, we will manage to live as Ecotopians on the scales that are accessible to us, and in the end we will transform the disturbed landscape of “late capitalism” into a new set of social ecosystems capable of long-term, steady-state survival.
We have come a long way in this lecture. We started with a quick snapshot of Ecotopian alternative ideas. Then we looked at the fatal impacts that consumer industrial capitalism is having on our prospects for survival. Then we considered some possibilities of government guidance shaping capitalism into less damaging forms. And finally we came to our analysis of the weed-like succession pattern whereby new kinds of organizations and businesses can provide the soil in which a new society can thrive.
This kind of thinking leaves me somewhat optimistic, even in the face of much bad news. As traditional capitalism falters, in the triple crisis of Peak Oil, Global Heating, and toxic economic globalization, we may see something emerge that is far better than what we now have and also better than traditional state-socialist models. Paradoxically, in America we are now living out a variation of state socialism-for-the-rich: basically, the investment bankers have captured the government and made it take on their losses. Ultimately, this strategy may bankrupt the country, disrupt the social landscape, destroy many worthwhile institutions—along with the bankers responsible for the collapse. But in our successionist perspective, of course, this will provide huge new disturbed areas for flourishing weeds.
We must respect these so-called weeds, and cultivate them. They are the fore-runners of a healthy Ecotopian future!
© 2009 by Ernest Callenbach
The following lecture by Ernest Callenbach was delivered on German Educational TV:
THE HOLLOWING OUT OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE
Greetings! As an unofficial ambassador from the fictional country of Ecotopia, I am pleased to be speaking to you from Freiburg, the intellectual heart of the Green movement in Germany.
I propose to explore with you a process called “hollowing out”–in which an empire, such as the contemporary American oil empire, is increasingly heavily armored and strong toward the outside world, but is gradually decaying within and becoming fragile and vulnerable. Understanding this process can help us interpret some otherwise puzzling happenings in American political life and thought. And perhaps it can also help us begin thinking about a fundamental change of values that will be needed to recover from the decline of the empire.
Ecotopia is a novel I published in 1975 as a vision of a future ecologically sustainable society–situated in the bioregion that had been the American states of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. It has sold about a million copies in nine languages (including Japanese) and the word “Ecotopian” has become a widely understood term for the values and attitudes that contribute to a sustainable and satisfying life. The founders of the Green Party in Germany were inspired by the translated novel (Oekotopia), and it still offers a vision of a hopeful future to young people who are distressed by the ecological and social impoverishment that seems inherent in expansionist, consumerist industrialism. I will employ an Ecotopian perspective in my analysis of the hollowing out of the American empire.
America today appears to be at the pinnacle of world power. Its total military budget is greater than those of all other countries combined. Its air force completely dominates global skies. Its navy patrols every sea. Its 750 military bases occupy key locations all over the planet; significantly, many of the permanent ones are located near oil fields and pipelines. The American empire runs on oil, which is essential in huge quantities for not only our transportation but for our agriculture, our fisheries, our chemical and plastics and wood and paper industries–for virtually everything modern societies do. The American military (which also runs on oil) rapidly mobilizes “shock and awe” campaigns to destroy any organized armed force that might arise against it. Its sophisticated technological weapons have the overwhelming impact that the Blitzkrieg did in World War II.
Nonetheless, we are beginning to see signs that this powerful empire is weakening–both without and within. The process is not visible to most Americans who live comfortably in the heart of the empire, and are exposed to very restricted and controlled news media. But some concerned Americans are trying to figure out what is happening to our country. What is the big, long-term picture? Part of it, certainly, is the prospect of “peak oil”–the likelihood that the world will soon enter a long, slow decline in the affordability and utility of oil. That is a key part of the process, but it is part of a larger pattern that I wish to address.
Of course, we must not forget that Europeans and Japanese are also deeply involved in the hollowing out process, through their own dependence on oil.
What I will do in this talk is: (first) summarize the usual trajectories of empires, (second) examine how certain social forces are operating to hollow out the American empire, and (third) look ahead to what will happen later. We tend to assume an empire’s decline is dramatic: The city of Rome’s population ultimately dropped from a million to only 20,000, and the Western Roman Empire’s infrastructure crumbled. Whenever an empire declines, there is of course severe hardship for many people, especially the poor. But modern empires (at least in the absence of a catastrophic new plague) do not contract so precipitiously. Most of an empire’s major institutions falter gradually, and new ones begin growing up to take their place. In a declining empire, there is a long struggle between people clinging to past values at any cost, and people seeking to develop new and more workable ideas. Values change slowly, as people struggle to see a more sustainable way into the future.
[Main Point #1]
Let us begin by summarizing the usual trajectories of empires. Most begin as rich city-states or regions. At first, they are local in their perspectives and values. They grow on the basis of their agricultural, forest, mineral, or fisheries wealth. Their central cities expand and diversify, producing a wide variety of goods and services. Sometimes they use protective tariffs to help them become independent of imports from abroad. As they take over their region and its periphery, they forcibly displace and eliminate the earlier inhabitants, as Euro-Americans displaced the Native Americans. Thus they develop powerful militaries, which are linked to wealthy aristocracies that make it their business to shape the government to their needs.
Above all, the growing empire needs cheap access to resources that lie outside the state. So the empire’s military forces are increasingly directed further abroad, to control the known world. Thus Athens with its triremes, Rome with its legions, and later Venice with its navy, attempted to control the whole Mediterranean basin. Alexander sought dominion as far east as India. The Mongol hordes swept through much of the Eurasian land mass. The British navy maintained the first truly global empire. In the 19th century, when the United States first became a full-scale imperial power, occupying the Philippines and Cuba, it declared the entire Western Hemisphere its province, deploying Marines whenever necessary to subdue rebellious puppets.
Some empires, like the Roman or the American, arise from democratic, republican, even libertarian beginnings. Originally, the vigorous government of a proud people defends those people and seeks to make their country strong internally. It supports domestic industries, independent farmers, education, health care and public health, community development, city beautification. Yet gradually, and inevitably, these populist values will be forgotten. A full-blown empire that seeks to dominate the world can only do so at the expense of its own people. It comes to spend its treasure on armaments, on costly displays of pomp and power, on secret police and surveillance. In addition, great sums of public money are siphoned off to the rich and well-connected. In its values, an empire slowly turns toward dominator attitudes and ideologies. It comes to value the power of the state more than the welfare of its citizens. It develops a belligerent foreign policy–relying not on diplomatic or economic leverage but on on weapons technology which can supposedly sweep enemies away and maintain hegemony. In the end, however, it exhausts and bankrupts itself.
In many empires, the public lacks political organizations to face a strong institutional (corporate) structure. This prevents even wise and well-meaning leaders from dealing with essential problems, since the rich and powerful are not motivated to solve basic long-term social problems. To do so would cost them short-term profits. Hence, the costs of outmoded and destructive arrangements are passed on to the population at large, and to posterity. In the case of the contemporary United States, this means, for one example, running up a vast international debt to maintain an otherwise unsustainable high level of consumption (public and private). Americans get to buy a lot of cheap goods now, but their children will pay very heavy taxes to service the nation’s sky-rocketing debt. Short-term thinking comes to pervade national financial and investment strategies. Governments indulge in “distractive” investments which do not contribute to the welfare of the mass of people, rather than “productive” investments which lead to better factories or farms. Our spectacle equivalents of the Roman circus are things like sending humans to Mars, publicly subsidized athletic stadiums, and almost surrealistically destructive weapons.
Now this process does not happen because some evil men with antisocial personal values gain control of corporations and governments. The imperial evolutionary process is quite impersonal, at bottom. Later historians may describe some emperor figures as clever and apparently prudent and kindly, or some as stupid, reckless, and punitive. In fact, however, the ruling class of an empire, whoever it selects for high office, is narrowly constrained by imperial realities. Indeed it is caught in an exquisite trap. Because the economic workings of the empire, and the political support (or at least consent) of the empire’s citizens, have become dependent on the extraction of wealth and resources from distant places occupied by resentful peoples, the empire cannot withdraw. In the case of the oil empire, it would be quite literally impossible to continue American life–or European or Canadian or Japanese life–without maintaining the benefits that come from American control of oil. Even if the US instituted a crash program of alternative energy development (wind, solar, biomass) we would face a melt-down of our societies–every aspect of which, most critically including food production, is massively dependent on oil inputs. In fact, research at Cornell University in the US found that we put many more calories–from oil–into our agricultural system than we get out of it in food calories. We are almost literally “eating oil.” We have net-energy-negative agriculture, a contradictory situation that is unsustainable over any long period.
The operations of a massive empire are naturally open to favoritism, fraud, graft, collusion, and the diversion of public funds into private pockets. Moreover, as an empire matures, its wealthy class generates “looters”–executives who extract maximum personal gain from the corporations they are entrusted to manage. In contemporary America, the looters abandon the traditional capitalist values of efficiency and thrift, and even sometimes corporate profit, aiming instead at private rewards mainly linked to stock prices. This is the motivation for much of the accounting fraud that has plagued large American companies, and stock brokerage houses too. But the looters have powerful friends in the government who come to the rescue. The federal government bailed out reckless savings-and-loan operations to a total of more than $50 billion. If nuclear plants cut corners on safety, the Price-Anderson Act protects them from potential financially catastrophic liability for reactor accidents. Government also assumes pension liabilities for failing companies. It did this for US Steel, has done it for hundreds of smaller companies, and is now doing it with United Airlines. Many more large companies are now lining up to use apparent bankruptcy as a way to escape pension obligations.
In brief, the evolution of empires traditionally leads to over-expansion, internal corruption, and fatally expensive militarism.
[Main Point #2]
Now I will turn to my second main point: How social forces drive the hollowing out process. One of the key mechanisms lies, paradoxically, in the modern American corporation–our fundamental institution. As Karl Marx astutely observed, “Capital has no country.” The American corporation faces few legal limitations and is in fact superior to real persons in its legal rights. Its officials are compelled, under threat of job loss or stockholder lawsuits, to maximize profits for shareholders. This is the paramount obligation that any “public” (stock-traded) corporation must live by. A corporation may sometimes undertake altruistic activities, but these are normally “cosmetic.” Of course some profit maximization can be achieved through more ecologically sophisticated product design, more energy-efficient production, and more informed management generally. This strategy is well established in Germany, and has substantial green benefits, but it is practically unknown in the heart of the empire. There, on the contrary, the head of Cisco, an enormous high-technology company, announces that the long-term goal of Cisco is to “become a Chinese company”–because that is the road to maximum profits. Whether American workers have jobs, or homes, or a future for their children, not to mention a decent society or a healthy environment, is of trifling concern to Cisco. So a peculiarity of the American empire’s hollowing out is that many major American corporations, from Boeing to General Motors, outsource manufacturing to low-wage countries. The effect of their zeal to obtain products at the lowest possible cost is that much of the American industrial base now exists in China, Thailand, Indonesia, and so on.
This fundamentally non-national corporate agenda sets the pattern for the hollowing out process. The resources of American society are increasingly diverted to the rich. America is dividing into two nations–the very rich and the poor: what we recognize as the Latin American pattern. The ratio between the earnings of executives and the earnings of workers becomes shockingly large, especially if compared with European or Japanese patterns. The rich live in segregated and gated enclaves, and shop in exclusive stores. The poor live in deteriorating neighborhoods. Their streets are potholed, their garbage is not reliably collected, and the police act like an occupying army.
As to the former modestly prosperous American working middle-class, it is being crushed. During the Great Depression and after World War II, strong unions gained working Americans a greater share of the national pie. A huge proportion of ordinary people were able to buy small houses and cars and send their children to college. In the US today, however, the values that supported fairer distribution of income have weakened. We observe a concerted corporate campaign to destroy unions and reduce wages, and also benefits such as pensions and health insurance. This is excused by crying about international competition from low-wage nations–a competition which we have exacerbated by establishing the World Trade Organization. Because even a modest life-style can no longer be supported on one person’s wages, both parents must work. Sometimes they need several low-paid jobs. The result is a dissolution of family ties and neglectful or abusive upbringing of children.
The impoverishing of large masses of trained and experienced working people entails vast indirect social costs, in addition to lost productivity, but these costs are borne by the general public’s taxes if they are met at all. The food-stamp program, for instance, which subsidizes food for the very poor, is being reduced. This sends people to “soup kitchens” or to seeking scraps in garbage bins. Many members of the middle class are falling into poverty: forty percent of the families who go bankrupt in the US do so because of catastrophic financial medical problems. These people will now seek care at underfunded public charity hospitals or clinics. They may end up homeless, depressing the quality of urban life. They will die younger–depriving their families of their support and depriving society of their productivity.
But an American corporation cannot care seriously about these results. To keep up its stock prices and the earnings of its executives, it must divert resources abroad, and hire the cheapest labor it can find. In the US today, young people thinking about their future look around for jobs that cannot be outsourced to India or China. They seek jobs that require personal contact or labor on the spot. Nurses, dentists, carpenters and plumbers, caretakers for the aged, bus drivers: these are the kinds of jobs that cannot be sent abroad. But almost every kind of office work can now be electronically automated and sent to any country with a substantial population of English-speakers. Professional jobs, such as X-ray readers, designers, programmers, accountants, and financial analysts, are also disappearing. It is predicted that in the next decade, many hundreds of thousands of such well-paid jobs will vanish from America. As an indirect consequence, our public educational system suffers because it is no longer a priority for the society to have a generally well educated working class–the corporations can readily employ people abroad who have been educated at the expense of their governments, not ours.
While the consumption-minded upper-middle class prospers, most of the population inside the empire feels its welfare declining. Thus a large majority of Americans now tell poll-takers that they are less optimistic. They expect that their children will not do as well as they have. It is especially depressing that the US medical system, because we lack a rational non-profit national health service, is enormously expensive and incapable of delivering good care to everyone. 40% of Americans have no health-insurance at all. Many of them cannot afford medicines or visits to doctors; they appear at public clinics when they are near dying. In these and many other ways, American life gradually comes to resemble life in Mexico or other so-called underdeveloped countries. But in America, families cannot provide the mutual support that Mexican families still can.
Consequently, the value consensus which sustained the American empire in its expansionist period has begun to disintegrate. Once, citizens sturdily volunteered to fight in wars; now the military is having difficulty recruiting, even from the lower levels of society. Once, Americans cooperated to maintain solid communities for working folks; they participated in many voluntary groups; they voted. Now many retreat into solitary anger, listening to “hate radio” to stoke their feelings of outrage.
Empires in the past have mostly faced external barbarians, often from the north. In the US, we have only the friendly Canadians to the north, but we are producing our own barbarians internally. Most damaging are the business looting class, who have noticed that the society is so rich, so full of fat, and so badly managed that huge opportunities exist for more or less illicit private gain. But ordinary people notice the rich stealing, in Enron or WorldCom or Tyco or a hundred others. So they decide they too may as well grab a few things if they can.
When people see that their institutions do not operate fairly or responsibly, they lose their loyalty to them. More than half the American electorate thinks so little of the political process that they don’t bother to vote. (The establishment, of course, keeps it difficult to vote by holding elections on Tuesdays.) For some, the values of hard work weaken; people have to show up to avoid getting fired, but many work only as hard as absolutely necessary. If they can harm the company and get ahead by doing so, they do not hesitate. For others, eager to protect their status or move up, working 60 or 80 hours per week is common–with short vacations or no vacations at all. The mobile phone, in fact, means that some people are never really away from their job. Workers with special skills jump from job to job frequently–taking some of their old company’s know-how with them. And a lumpen culture of rage, misogny, violence, and selfishness generates a nihilist atmosphere, especially in the lower levels of the society. Ethnic separatism and racism may have declined among adults, at least in sophisticated “blue” cities, but it is still common among the young. White suburban high-schools spawn massacres. Inner city schools experience violence so severe that police must be on hand at all times; school bathrooms become so dangerous that kids must learn to go a whole day without using a toilet. Metal detectors stand at the school gates. We are witnessing, in fact, a new kind of “lost generation.”
In the empire’s maturity, politics becomes increasingly corrupt, and this too contributes to hollowing out. Both politicians and the media who report on them espouse values of winning at any cost. Honesty is no longer valued. Lying and deception become the norm, even at the highest levels. The intelligence apparatus of the government is politicized and forced into an embarrassing decline. Analysts are forced to produce intelligence reports justifying adminstration policies. Then when reality surfaces, as in the case of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence community is blamed for faulty analysis. The once critical press, now owned almost entirely by megacorporations, is shamelessly sycophantic to the regime. For example, recently a British government memo came to light that established without a doubt that Bush had decided to attack Iraq when he was first elected. He was using alleged weapons of mass destruction as a deceptive scare tactic. But American press simply ignored it. Challenged, some reporters said it was old news: we had known about Bush’s deception long ago. But because of the press’s passivity, a majority of Americans don’t know. In fact a lot of them still think there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, or that Iraq had some connection with the World Trade Center attack. Thus public policy becomes increasingly erratic–because it is unchallenged by intelligent public debate. The imperial regime even convinces itself that it “creates” reality through its manipulation of the news.
Naturally enough, under such confusing and demoralizing circumstances many people grow increasingly cynical–whether they are alert and skeptical, or simply puzzled. Some of them, especially those under severe economic or emotional stress in their personal lives, turn for consolation to fundamentalist religions–in the US, the evangelical churches that offer easy, simple “Biblical” values. These values are harshly patriarchal, punitive, and prone to violence–a sort of mirror image of militant Islam. But they comfort people in a difficult, unsupportive world by giving easy answers to uncertainty and change. They drastically remove doubts about the future: 56% of Americans say they believe the prophecies in the Book of Revelations will literally come true.
As these kinds of social breakdown proceed, the potential instability of the empire grows. With its wealth inequality and its institutional corruption, America is now like a vast upside-down pyramid resting on its point. So far, it has not tottered, probably because no society on earth has ever had the degree of social control exerted by American media. So far the American public’s resentment of its situation has been safely channeled into controversies about “social issues”–such as abortion, church/state separation, gay marriage. But whether this stability will persist against severe difficulties brought on by oil shortages, international financial crises, or potential epidemics, remains to be seen. After all, reality does still exist, independent of the government’s news management.
Most obviously, as has happened with many earlier empires, people outside have begun to notice that the American empire is domestically weakening, and that its military is overstretched and hardly invincible either. Our military, caught in the quagmire of Iraq, would have grave difficulty dealing with other potential foes–such as Iran or North Korea. These, unlike Saddam’s Iraq, might pose a serious threat. On the frontiers, wherever occupation is half-hearted, challenges are not met: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. In both Vietnam and Iraq, the empire has been unable to subdue determined resistance. In Afghanistan, it has been content to control Kabul and leave the rest of the country to the opium-growers and warlords. It has had to tread lightly with Chavez’s oil-rich Venezuela. These are examples of the limits of “imperial overstretch” (a term coined by historian Paul Kennedy). What is the overall lesson here? As Kennedy shows, empires characteristically take on more foreign commitments than they can finance, or manage, and the marginal gains obtained are increasingly not worth the expenditures. The costs of war and the unilateral power-grabs of the Bush administration increase the US thirst for capital, but they reduce the return earned by it. This is in fact the single most important dynamic factor in the hollowing-out process. In the case of oil, for instance, huge outlays for war in the Middle East have drastically increased the real total cost of oil. But those costs are hidden in the government budget and appear only in your tax bill, and the future tax bills of your children, not at the petrol pump.
Enormous war expenditures are routinely approved by Congress outside the normal budget, as if they would never have to be paid for. (“Reconstruction” money is also appropriated, but very little of it has been actually spent in Iraq. It now appears doubtful that the Bush regime has any serious intention of rebuilding the country.) The total cost to American citizens of the current Middle East adventure seems certain to considerably exceed $500 billion, since massive American military presence is now expected to endure a decade. Thus, oil in the Empire actually costs at least twice as much as we think. This reality bites. It has real consequences.
Any empire suffers the paradox of spectacular military power externally and social decline internally–no matter who its leaders are. Hollowing out, unfortunately, decreases the ability of American people to explore and develop alternative technologies or alternative ways of doing business. The trained and educated American work force is seeing its jobs exported. Our universities are being forced away from basic science toward corporate-oriented and military research. This increasingly leaves innovative leadership to the rest of the world. A good example of this is in wind power, which California pioneered in the 1970s. We abandoned it under Reagan in the 1980s. Now Germany, Denmark, Spain, and even Britain are the leaders in wind power.
Nonetheless, to quote Karl Marx again, “The new society is born in the womb of the old.” So, around us we still see examples of Americans developing new values and skills that will be useful in the future. And they defend themselves as best they can. In the US, people turn away from the deadlocked national level toward local action. We seek to employ powers of the separate states to counter failures in Washington. Thus California has been able to maintain far more stringent regulations on air pollution than the rest of the nation. California gives rebates (subsidies) to people who install solar photo-voltaic arrays on their houses, or purchase energy-efficient appliances. Such measures, which are familiar in Germany but still unusual in the US, somewhat decrease our dependence on oil, and reduce the impacts of oil use. They prepare the way to a sustainable “Ecotopian” society of the future.
[Main point #3]
What can we predict about the course of the American oil empire in the years ahead? It’s most likely that the empire will decline, but not really collapse, over several more generations. A multipolar world will evolve in which Europe, Japan, China, and even perhaps Brazil are also centers of power. Some ancient societies, and isolated ones such as Easter Island, have collapsed utterly, leaving only a tiny remnant population behind. But they were almost entirely dependent on local resources, whose mismanagement led to their downfall. By contrast, the American empire is a complex global phenomenon, and techologically should remain resilient even if many of its components suffer declines and breakdowns. America’s oil-driven hegemony is only two generations old. What will we see in the next two generations, when oil has peaked and the empire is hollowing out? Here are my cautious predictions:
First of all, we will see a long, continued process of impoverishment of the middle and working class –though the upper-middle and upper classes will continue to live well. Military hegemony requires, as Stirling Newberry puts it, a society “filled with people who are desperate for work, a stone’s throw from poverty, and feeling themselves surrounded and beset by terrors and disaster. People who, therefore, cling zealously to arbitrary rules and partisan passions.” We will be a society characterized by fundamentalist delusions, widespread illiteracy, and political venality and incompetence, filled with envy, rage, and superstitition.
Second, a gradual rise in the price of energy and of fossil fuels will drive a slow transformation of all the suburban arrangements of American life, which are predicated upon cheap oil. Replacement of the global oil shortfall through liquified natural gas, nuclear, or coal (the dirtiest of all fuels), or even a crash program of alternative energies (wind, solar, biomass), would require a lead time of decades. As unsteady stock markets may be reflecting, an unprecedented energy crisis is upon us. In the coming decades, we will have to downscale and localize how and where we grow our food, where we live and how we get to work, how we organize health care, and so on. Mega-enterprises, from WalMart to United Airlines, will shrink drastically or disappear. Any activity with long, petroleum-dependent supply lines will become perilous. Our enormous plastics industry will shrink too, along with the waste it produces. Paint, paper, building materials, piping, and almost everything we use will become more expensive.
Third, all but the rich will suffer from declining health: We face continued obesity, with diabetes and heart disease becoming more burdensome, along with continued lung cancer from smoking. We will experience a slight loss of average stature, probably due to bad nutrition in childhood and adolescence. (This is in contrast to northern Europe, where people are getting taller, presumably because of widespread good nutrition while American adolescents eat a junk-food diet.) There will be a continued loss of fitness, even among the young, due to spending too much sedentary time with computers, video games, and in cars. Improvement in length of life will probably reverse itself, as it did in the collapsing Soviet Union. Our child mortality rates, already among the worst in the industrial countries, will get still worse.
Fourth, there will be a deterioration of infrastructure: highways and streets, bridges, and other road-transport facilities will all receive less maintenance, partly because they are now maintained with petrol-tax revenues which will decline. America’s very poor railroad network, however, will probably be improved. As cars become more difficult to own, people will have to share rides, and jitney-like services, such as are common in Mexico, will partly take the place of private cars. The focus of life will become much more local: people will try to work, live, and play in their own neighborhoods. Nonetheless, the maintenance of neighborhood buildings will deteriorate.
Fifth, we will face a loss of scientific pre-eminence, as Asia and Europe maintain superior levels of education despite their own peak-oil decline. The best American scientific minds are already being lured from basic university science to military and industrial work. This will lead in turn to a loss of technical pre-eminence, even in information technology. Paradoxically, the US will possess fantastic globe-girdling space armaments that could almost instantly destroy any army rising against it, yet our mobile phones will remain inferior to those of the rest of the world. High-tech arms are highly profitable to aerospace companies. But armament sophistication will increasingly mean little, as enemies have already learned not to rely on conventional armies.
Finally, on the financial front, we can expect some readjustment of the recent pattern of lowering taxes on the rich while increasing borrowing from abroad. This may be brought on by different thinking in Washington. Or actions by foreign creditors, such as turning away from dollars to euros (a process already happening) may be decisive. In any case, it will mean a significant downturn in American material-goods consumption. European countries will share in this downturn, through loss of American sales, but possibly their direct experience of war and privation equip them to cope better. Americans may re-learn their own earlier values of thrift, resourceful competence, and practical, cooperative “making do.” If so, it will soften their landing on economic terra firma.
So, to look ahead, like many empires before it, if the American empire has passed its peak and is hollowing out, what comes after the hollowing out? In conclusion, please let me sketch my Ecotopian perspective on this question. In the years since I wrote Ecotopia, American society on the whole has continued toward more energy-intensive, environmentally destructive, sprawl-oriented car-dependence. Within that pattern, however, a slow process of learning has been taking place–learning the lessons that will be essential after the oil empire has declined.
These lessons are stoutly resisted by the oil industry executives who are now in charge in Washington. But let me try to summarize the new values and attitudes that Americans will have to learn, over the coming decades, in order to recover from the decline of the empire.
Of course we will have to give these new values political expression. In the US, the systemic corruption of our legislatures by campaign financing can be cured by “Fair Elections,” a system of public financing now employed in Arizona and Maine. Since a majority of Americans are not in fact sympathetic to the military priorities of the empire, this (and only this) will make it possible to roll back the dynamic of the oil empire and begin to build a new sustainable, Ecotopian world. Among many other things, that will mean that as people understand that the corporation is not a God-given institution but one invented by humans and changeable by humans, we can alter the corporate DNA and push corporations toward social responsibility. These are huge challenges, but essential for our future. Now to our list of new values:
“Sustainability” as a goal is practical and satisfying, in the same way that “growth” prevailed as a shared value during the empire’s industrial expansion. “Sustainability” can be as powerful and emotionally appealing a metaphor as growth. We will have to accept that we can have growth only qualitatively, not quantitatively. Life can get better, indefinitely, but not through the production and acquisition of more material goods. We need to prize technology that is not only mechanically ingenious but ecologically and humanly appropriate. Miniaturization and de-materialization in the design of manufactured goods can help greatly in reducing our ecological impacts. These efforts, however, need to be coupled with new values that emphasize less materialistic, object-focused living. Extensive research shows that happiness is not correlated with income, above a modest level. We need to remember that the deepest satisfactions come from relationships, family, community, and nature.
Decentralization is satisfying and good because it is efficient—as well as beautiful. There are inherent advantages of comfortably human scale. This is particularly evident in the energy field, where the costs of distributing electricity are greater than those of generating it, even from relatively costly sources like nuclear. Another area in which we gain efficiency by smaller-scale and dispersed sourcing is food production and distribution. Transporting food long distances depends on oil consumption. We need to prize compactness over bigness.
We must learn to count on each other: to expect and value responsibility, generosity, helpfulness. Social change happens fundamentally through social or communal or political group processes, not just from individual actions. A few unusual people, usually highly educated, may change their behavior because they read a book or hear a lecture. But most of us change because we are involved in groups. We share values. We trade information. We feel good when we help each other. In the world after the empire, such old-fashioned values will be all-important.
Cooperation works better than competition. Nature evolves and maintains itself through symbiosis between species. Moreover, research shows that the best job performance, or academic performance, comes in cooperative conditions. So Americans will have to abandon our belief that hostile competition is the route to excellence.
Our values must become inter-generational. In particular, we must always remember that what we build or make impacts not only ourselves but our descendants. In the era of cheap oil, we built sprawled oil-dependent cities and suburbs that will now be heavy weights upon the shoulders of those who follow. American suburbs are not only cultural wastelands but enormously wasteful materially: A detached house requires something like 5 times as much copper, insulation, pipes, roofing, and so on as an apartment of the same floor area. Moreover, services such as mail and parcel delivery, ambulance service, street lighting, and street paving are much more costly per capita in detached-house areas. We must try not to make such mistakes again.
We must learn that it is our personal responsibility to care for the planet. US government actions to protect the environment are declining with the empire. The current administation is busily rolling back forest regulations, wilderness designations, and endangered species protections. It is weakening car and power-plant-emission limits, permitting oil-drilling in Arctic wilderness, and so on. But local people see new protective roles they can play. In the absence of meaningful political parties, for example, informal “watershed councils” are forming. People from usually opposed groups–conservationists, ranchers, town business owners, fishers, bicyclists, boaters–meet regularly to resolve their conflicts and improve the health of their shared waters and lands. They work on stream-bank restoration, cattle-exclusion fences, bicycle paths, traffic-calming in towns, reduced pesticide and herbicide use, and the promotion of organic farming.
And lastly, religious values must combine with environmental values. The spiritual values of human life may indeed become increasingly vital as economic life is straitened. In America, even some evangelicals are changing their values and speaking of the Earth as God’s body, which we should care for. Many other traditional religions are moving steadily toward environmental consciousness. And Buddhism, a strongly ecological religion, has a foothold in America today. Religion remains an important force in America, so these are promising developments.
If these lessons are learned and these values adopted, I believe that even in the face of imperial decline and hollowing out, we cean prepare a sustainable future. We will be able to teach our children that things will someday change for the better, and that we can achieve a world in which old, destructive values have worn away, and new more human, more Ecotopian, values triumph.
30 YEARS OF ECOTOPIA
[a speech delivered at a conference in Japan]
In this paper, I first review the origins of “Ecotopian” concepts about what is needed for a sustainable society. Then I summarize some lessons that Ecotopian thinkers have drawn from the 30 years since Ecotopia was first published. And finally I seek to look ahead into the future of efforts toward sustainability.
Ecotopia is a novel I published in 1975 as a vision of a future ecologically sustainable society, situated in the bioregion that had been the American states of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. It was, at that time, a rather unpopular project. Twenty publishers in New York rejected the book, and it was only published through a small California company that I organized for the purpose, with ten friends. But, to my surprise, it proved quite popular. Now, more than 30 years later, it has sold about a million copies in nine languages (including Japanese) and the word “Ecotopian” has become a widely understood term for practices and attitudes that contribute to a sustainable and satisfying life. The novel still appeals to people who are concerned about the ecological and social impoverishment that seems inherent in expansionist, consumerist industrialism. In particular, it offers hope to young people who confront an uncertain future. And because it was thoroughly researched and technically conservative, it remains a thought-provoking scenario for an alternative future.
One major reason why writing such a novel seemed challenging was that in the 1960s and 1970s we had gained a huge amount of sophisticated new scientific knowledge about the ecological processes in which human life is embedded. Concepts such as “ecosystem,” “ecological impact,” “niche,” “carrying capacity,” “food webs,” and so on were becoming
well known and even sometimes embodied in U.S. laws—such as those
requiring Environmental Impact Reports before major construction projects could proceed.
But we had never focused on what the new ecological understandings implied in terms of how people should live. The general concept of sustainability was not yet recognized, although it was used in specialized resource-management studies. No one had yet asked the crucial question: If we recognize that the biological “bottom line” is just as important for survival as the economic “bottom line” (or perhaps even more important), what should we do differently?
Ecotopia was an attempt to provide a tentative answer. Since I, like most Americans, am very interested in technology, I tried to construct a portrait of a society whose technology was minimally destructive. Ecotopian energy sources are renewable and decentralized: electricity generation utilizes geothermal, solar, ocean-thermal, and wind. Ecotopian architectural design incorporates solar space- and water-heating (and where necessary, solar-driven air-conditioning). Because wood is plentiful in that bioregion, Ecotopians have developed an aesthetic of wood construction, somewhat Japanese in spirit, with buildings only up to five or six stories high. Ecotopian city planning emphasizes compact, dense “mini-cities” of around 10,000 people, centered on rapid transit stations. Ecotopian transportation abandons the privately owned car in favor of electric mini-buses, electric taxis, bicycles, and bullet trains—which replace domestic air travel. Ecotopian agriculture is also primarily local, relying on sewage-based fertilizers, animals raised in relatively natural settings, mainly local food distribution, and the absence of herbicides, pesticides, and genetically bio-engineered plants or animals. Ecotopian forests and fisheries are operated on strict principles of sustainable yield, with some novel features: for example, before you can buy lumber to build a house, you must personally work in the forests to plant replacement trees.
Since technologies become widely deployed only if they “match” social attitudes, I was forced to imagine that Ecotopians had evolved beyond contemporary Americans. Where Americans are extremely individualistic, preferring isolation in their cars and suburban houses, Ecotopians had to be more sociable and cooperative. Otherwise they could never share the large apartments in which their extended families live, or work in employee-owned companies. Where Americans believe that economic harshness and hostile competition produce excellence, Ecotopians know that the best performance comes in cooperative conditions. Imagining different Americans may seem unrealistic in the short run. But I consider my hypothetical new national character justified because, sooner or later, reality compels changes in attitudes and behavior as the price of survival.
In short, Ecotopia was an attempt to portray sustainable technology with a human face—a world in which all technology was appropriate technology. The book was welcomed by readers, perhaps partly because it was also a love story with a happy ending. But it was soon used in universities, to stimulate thinking and discussion. In American universities, open discussion is the rule in many classes, and students learn from supporting or attacking Ecotopian values, customs, and goals. Sometimes student groups then work to persuade their university to recycle cafeteria food wastes, eliminate incandescent bulbs, use recycled paper in university offices, or replant the university grounds with water-saving native plants. In other words, they practice being Ecotopians.
Other people also took Ecotopian and related sustainability ideas seriously enough to develop demonstration houses with composting toilets, solar water-heating and cooking equipment, bee hives, fish ponds, gardens, fruit orchards, rabbit hutches, and chicken pens. Ingeniously, the wastes of one species became the food of another. For example, flies hatched in rabbit manure were eaten by nearby chickens, while dead bees fell into the fish pond to be eaten by fish, which were eaten by people. These early attempts toward “zero-emissions” planning were later systematized in “industrial ecology” thinking.
In the U.S., several unofficial research institutes and experimental farms aimed to develop Ecotopian ideas in practical areas. Some of this work has become visible on the internet. If one searches for “Ecotopia” on the Google search engine, some 18,000 entries are found. This suggests how widely the term “Ecotopian” has spread through the English language. “Permaculture” is a parallel development that is Ecotopian in spirit—a system of managing land that emphasizes trees, perennial crops, local building materials, and energy self-reliance. It has spread from Australia, where Bill Mollison first codified it, throughout the world.
Ecotopia Present: 12 Lessons
In the almost 30 years since Ecotopia appeared, we have learned many useful lessons about how sustainability might be practiced in real life sometimes along consciously Ecotopian lines and sometimes not. I offer here some general principles that I have noticed, although there are doubtless many others.
“Sustainability” as a goal is workable, in the same way that “growth” prevailed as a shared goal during the period of industrial expansion. Ordinary people can intuitively grasp that sustainability means not cutting more trees from a forest than tree growth replaces, or not catching more of a fish species than natural reproduction can support. “Sustainability” can thus be as powerful a metaphor as growth. (If our civilization is to survive, of course, sustainability must become more powerful.) Problems of attaining sustainability will be complex, but problems in achieving growth have been equally problematic.
“Sustainable development” is a contradiction, usually used to conceal plans for continued expansion. But we could speak honestly of “sustainable improvement,” where growth in quality occurs, but not growth inquantity of outputs. To be realistic, we must always focus on throughputs: the quantities of steel, concrete, energy, water, wood, and other material components that pass through a society. Throughputs are what cause ecological impacts, while GNP (Gross National Output), in itself only a financial measure, does not. Ordinary people can easily grasp the relation between throughputs and impacts. For instance, when we turn on a light switch and cause more electricity throughput, more water passes through hydroelectric generator turbines, with the impacts of killing more small fish and adding disturbance to habitats downstream. Our throughput levels must decline if we are to reach sustainability.
Can we have a society with economic growth but not growth in throughputs and impacts? The answer seems to be a guarded “Yes.” During several post-World War II decades, a number of countries in Western Europe in fact experienced stable levels of throughputs, and even some slight declines, although GNP increased sharply. Presumably this is because construction and other heavy-throughput industries had completed the reconstruction of Europe soon after the war, and thereafter population remained nearly constant so needs for construction were mainly for replacement. However, there was growth in relatively low-throughput industries: restaurants and other amusements, information technology, health-support activities. In these countries, some industries expanded while other industries declined; in total, they enjoyed qualitative growth, but without over-all quantitative growth. Hence their environments, with the major exception of increasing car-domination, suffered little damage, at least compared to the U.S. and Japan. From all this, we can draw a practical rule: other things being equal, any project that increases throughputs is bad; any project that decreases throughputs is good. Of course it is essential that all throughputs be considered, such as the “embedded energy” required in the manufacture of material components.
A wide range of impact criteria must be considered. For example, does a project change the albedo or surface temperature of the earth? Creating more or less reflective or absorptive surface is significant for global heating, and it is also a factor for the health and productivity of agricultural and forestry lands. Another issue is porousness: paving made from concrete blocks with holes for percolation of rainfall, allowing some vegetation to grow in the cracks, can still support light car or pedestrian traffic, and minimizes the erosion effects of rapid run-off. Swales, rock-stabilized areas, or small ponds can allow water to percolate into the soil slowly, avoiding the need for drainage channels or culverts. A third criterion is whether a project fragment or unifies ecosystems. We must remember to look at consequences for animal foraging, reproduction, and migration, for alterations to the water cycle, and for effects on nutrient recycling. Urban designers are beginning to understand that development need not preclude habitats for other species besides humans. The greening of cities can be small-scale and piecemeal, using street trees and shrubs, small planting islands, large window boxes, and roof or terrace gardens, as well as parks and other large areas.
“Small is beautiful,” another far-reaching principle, was first recognized in the 1960s and 1970s and remains true. We encounter many cases where supposed economies of scale are deceptive. Large corporations, although financially strong, are often rigid and inefficient. Knowledge-dependent enterprises easily become unwieldy if they grow too much. Large countries are generally ill-managed compared to smaller ones. But we can now add another principle, Decentralization is efficient—as well as beautiful. This is particularly evident in the energy field. It is not universally recognized, but the costs of distributing electricity are generally larger than the costs of generating it, even from relatively costly sources like nuclear. Therefore, “distributed” sources possess an inherent advantage. Moreover, renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar are widely dispersed, so they fit well with decentralized grids. This is why the Ecotopian energy system was so mysterious to my journalist hero: the Ecotopians always tried to generate energy near where it was needed, so their transmission lines were shorter, lighter, and often underground. They utilized geothermal, photo-voltaic, solar-thermal, wind, and ocean-thermal generation. They regarded the sunlight falling on buildings as valuable usable energy, especially for space and water heating, and revived ways to use it that had been developed by ancient architects and folk builders.
Another area in which we gain efficiency by smaller-scale and dispersed sourcing is food production and distribution. Highly mechanized agriculture (“agribusiness”) is destructive of the soil. It must be subsidized to be economically competitive, since its real yields are actually smaller than those of intensive agriculture. Transporting food long distances greatly increases our oil consumption. Adding together the energy used for transportation, the production and use of mechanized farm equipment, fertilizer and herbicides and pesticides, and food processing, far more calories (largely petrochemical) are put into the agribusiness system than come out of it in food calories. This net-energy-negative system means that we are almost literally eating oil. Moreover, large-scale “food technology” diminishes the nutritional and taste qualities of food, impoverishes farmers, and depersonalizes relationships between the people who grow food and the people who eat it. The Ecotopian goal is sustainable net-energy-positive agriculture, equal or superior to the surprisingly high outputs of many peasant societies in the past, and of “organic” agriculture at present.
Material growth easily overwhelms technical improvements. This is most striking in the case of cars. Improvements in fuel efficiency and emissions have not reduced total fuel consumption or pollution because the number of cars and mileage driven has more than replaced the technological savings. Thus, technical improvements by themselves, no matter how appropriate they appear, are insufficient. They must be accompanied by social improvements. In the case of cars, this means changes in urban design, zoning, permitted density, road design, traffic laws, tolls or other congestion-management measures, and so on. The over-riding consideration is that in the long run, total material throughputs must be restricted. Whether we can achieve an end to quantitative growth, especially if the population of relatively wealthy people continues to rise, is the crucial question for the 21st century. It should be a matter for wide debate.
Prevention is always better than treatment or restoration. Preventing toxics or heavy metals from being discharged into a municipal sewage system is better than trying to remove them during sewage treatment. Preserving a natural area is better than trying to restore it after it has been impacted by development. Preserving habitat for an endangered species is better than trying to breed the species in zoos and then reintroduce it into an impoverished environment. Keeping some large trees in a forest, rather than clear-cutting them all and then using herbicides to control regrowth, leads to better regeneration and a sustainable forest where essential mycorrhizae, small mammals, and bird species can continue a healthy existence. Limiting fishing before a fishery is exhausted avoids lengthy closures in hopes that fish species will recover.
Appropriate technology must not be merely technical. “Appropriate technology” too often relies on the novelty appeal of nontraditional, clever solutions. To be effective, technical visions must be:
(1) social—capable of being widely shared and enjoyed in practice,
(2) omni-gender and omni-age—with personal appeal to women, children, and elders,
(3) affective—with a strong emotional, symbolic, and even religious or quasi-religious side. People take considerations of efficiency, convenience, and ecological appropriateness into account, but their decisions are also powerfully based on aesthetic, moral, and social considerations. Moreover, entertainers, athletes, and other “stars” are important models for many people. At present, for example, many ordinary Americans are becoming interested in hybrid cars because green-inclined Hollywood people have been buying them. I think the same process occurs in most countries. If we can persuade celebrities to adopt appropriate technology in their houses or lives, we will greatly multiply the effects of our work.
“Carrots” (lures) and “sticks” (threats) are both necessary to change behavior, whether of donkeys or humans. Both need to be planned for. In general, modern society is good at providing carrots, especially if money can be made by doing so. Nature often provides the sticks. For example, it is now possible to foresee the end of the Oil Empire. Nobody knows exactly when massive price instability will set in, or when it will become prohibitive to use oil for some kinds of transportation or plastics. But it seems highly probable that serious disruptions in agriculture, industry, and city life will occur during the next few decades. This will be the “stick.” But “carrots” will drive the adoption of renewable energy: the fact that conservation, wind, and solar become cheaper and thus more attractive than traditional fossil-fuel use.
Social change happens fundamentally through social or communal or group processes, not just from individual actions. A few unusual people, usually highly educated, may change their behavior because they read a book or hear a lecture. But most of us change because we are involved in groups. Human beings are intensely social animals, acutely conscious of what other humans are doing. If we move toward a more vegetarian diet, it is probably because we know or encounter people who cook delicious vegetarian meals, eat them happily with friends, are in excellent health, and are friendly and supportive if we are curious about how they eat. If we think of adopting compact fluorescent lamps in our dwelling, it may be because we saw a public building adopting them, or our office, or a favorite hotel. So a main priority in the appropriate technology area must be to mobilize groups. It does not matter whether we are trying to establish a park in Nakano’s abandoned police academy grounds, or stop soil erosion in a town in Brazil, or achieve better public transportation in Berkeley, California. Several other factors also operate here:
(1) Solutions are almost always improved when many minds focus on a shared problem.
(2) The energy generated by a coherent group is more powerful than that of an equal number of individuals operating by themselves.
(3) Political pressure is most effective, at least in the absence of abundant money, through organizing large groups and providing massive publicity.
Appropriate group processes are essential. In mobilizing campaigns around any issues, effective organizations utilize many small but critical practices. In organizing native Alaskan people planning forest and wildlife conservation, for instance, it was important to seat people in meetings in an Ecotopian-style democratic circle, rather than in rigid rows with “leaders” in front. The circular arrangement promotes widespread group participation in discussion. It facilitates the face-to-face contact that is always important in decision-making. It makes it easier to arrive at the consensus that is required if shared decisions are to be implemented successfully. Another motif in successful campaigns is that rapid and repeated feedback between leaders and members is essential if mutual trust is to be preserved.
A final principle, often neglected by those interested in appropriate technology, is that the ecological effects of the built environment— particularly our cities, streets, and highways—are dominant in determining the impacts we have on the natural environment. A systems view, in which we include all relevant factors, must therefore lead us to confront the problems of car-centered city design, which is still spreading throughout the world. (Several years ago I visited Tokushima, in Shikoku, and was shocked at how the core of the city had been rebuilt for the rapid movement of cars. The city center is now hazardous and inconvenient for pedestrians, unfriendly for local small businesses, and lacking in visual interest.) Improving appliance efficiency, for instance, is certainly important, but its potential is dwarfed by the possibilities of conserving energy by minimizing use of cars. For another example, dense urban design means enormous savings in materials and energy in both construction and operation. A detached house requires something like 5 times as much copper, insulation, pipes, roofing, and so on as an apartment of the same floor area. Moreover, services such as mail and parcel delivery, ambulance service, street lighting, and street paving are much more costly per capita in detached-house areas. We also know that suburban-style development on the U.S. model is destructive of human bonds. When people always come and go in cars, they do not cross paths with their neighbors on the street, so they cannot develop neighborhood solidarity. Psychological isolation leads to mental health problems of many kinds, from alcoholism to psychosis. American families often move to the suburbs in search of a healthier environment for their children, only to discover that teen-age drug use and even crime are just as bad in the suburbs as in the cities. Moreover, because they walk more, city people are thinner than suburbanites, and thus suffer less diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments. The most important goal of city planning in the 21st century, and perhaps of all environmental protection work, should be to make things more difficult for cars.
As we look ahead through the 21st century, we can expect that certain Ecotopian themes will undergo modification and amplification. For one thing, Ecotopia as a country was rather isolationist. Its citizens believed that setting a good example of a sustainable, self-reliant country was their main imperative. Now that we are in an era of globalization, this perspective seems limited. For instance, as long as the U.S, China, and soon India contribute their huge production of CO2 and other pollutants to the global atmosphere, the rest of the world’s attempts to minimize global heating will be overwhelmed. However, this does not imply giving up the struggle. Any reduction in the severity of heating is desirable. In time, as the economic advantages of more advanced, less energy-intensive industry become clearer, even the U.S. will probably participate in Kyoto-type accordsand developments in renewable energy technologies will ultimately lead to reductions in U.S. emissions too, though probably not enough to slow global heating substantially, at least during the 21st century. Incidentally, one component of climate change is too seldom noticed: methane is an important greenhouse gas, and some 1 billion herbivorous animals on the planet generating methane add up to a significant source. These methane emissions may be even more significant than the climate effects of clearing tropical rainforests to make cattle pasture. Therefore, eating less meat should be an important world ecological goal.
Another major change since Ecotopia was first published concerns the Oil Empire, of which Japan and Europe are members along with the U.S. This empire now relies on 750 military bases; many of the permanent ones are located near oil fields and pipelines. The empire can easily destroy organized armies that challenge it. Nonetheless, it is increasingly fragile. In both Vietnam and Iraq, it has been unable to subdue determined resistance to occupation. Moreover, as has happened with other empires, the military expenses of maintaining control over distant resources (such as oil) grow uncontrollably. In the first Persian Gulf War, the U.S. expended more ($50 billion) on the military in the Gulf than it spent ($45 billion) on all imported oil. In 2004, we spent $150 billion to secure $132 billion in oil, and the total cost to American citizens of the Iraq adventure will probably exceed $2 trillion. Thus, oil in the Empire actually costs much more than we think.
Such expenses inevitably come at the expense of the homeland people’s welfare. In the U.S. today, we see this process advancing rapidly. Government support for health, education, infrastructure, and even public safety is declining; America is being hollowed out. Imperial governments gradually become captive to elites that reduce the power of representative bodies (such as our Congress) and loot not only the public treasury but corporate wealth as well; dishonest accounting becomes routine. In the present situation, the whole world inside and outside the U.S. is subject to the whims and increasingly irrational decisions of imperial leaders who tightly grasp their weakening power. Internally, the trained and educated American work force is seeing its jobs exported; the working middle class is being crushed. Our universities are being forced away from basic science toward corporate-oriented and military research. The Bush administration has privately aimed to destroy the remaining features of the New Deal, such as Social Security. Such hollowing out, unfortunately, decreases the ability of American people to explore and develop alternative technologies, and leaves leadership to the rest of the world. A good example of this is in wind power, which California pioneered in the 1970s but abandoned under Reagan.
Any empire suffers the paradox of spectacular military power externally and social decline internally, no matter who its leaders are. Under such circumstances, what is the role of appropriate technology and Ecotopian thinking? At least in the U.S., people turn away from the deadlocked national level toward local action. We seek to employ powers of the separate states to counter failures in Washington. Thus California has been able to maintain far more stringent regulations on air pollution than the nation. California businesses have been allowed by the state to deduct from taxes any money that they give to employees if they use public transportation rather than cars when they commute to work. California gives rebates (subsidies) to people who install solar photo-voltaic arrays on their houses. Such measures gradually decrease our dependence on oil, and reduce the impacts of oil use.
As we look ahead, technology will provide appliances and machinery that are vastly more energy-efficient. Miniaturization and de-materialization strategies can greatly decrease throughputs. In many cases, as the “Factor 10” movement argues, efficiency can be improved by an order of magnitude. This improvement could counterbalance considerable growth in consumption. These efforts, however, need to be coupled with visions of less materialistic, object-focused living. So long as people believe that their happiness depends on consuming, the struggle for sustainability cannot be won. We need to popularize the extensive research that shows happiness is not correlated with income, above a modest level. We need to demonstrate that an advertisement-driven life is stressful, and that true satisfactions come from relationships, family, community, and nature.
Promising new developments are often modest. For example, informal “watershed councils” are forming in U.S. regions united by rivers and streams. People from quarrelsome groups (conservationists, ranchers, town business owners, fishers, bicyclists, boaters) meet regularly to resolve their conflicts and improve the health of their shared waters and lands. They work on stream-bank restoration, cattle-exclusion fences, bicycle paths, traffic-calming in towns, reduced pesticide and herbicide use, and the promotion of organic farming.
Another rather Ecotopian development is appearing in local restoration efforts in the American Midwest. There, alien European annual grasses were brought in with cattle and have displaced the original deep-rooted perennial bunch grasseswhich are more appropriate for native animals such as buffalo, and sustain an enormous variety of flowering plants as well as insects, small mammals, and their predators. Restoration volunteers do hard, hot outdoor work, with a lot of digging, scraping, and planting. But they have discovered it can be “ritualized”and thus turned into a ceremonial healing of the shame that many people consciously or unconsciously experience about how we humans have wrecked the natural environment. In this movement, people use poetry and chants and dances to dramatize and ceremonialize our care of damaged nature. While this is not a religious movement in the traditional sense, it touches the spiritual side of our interactions with nature. In my opinion, the fundamental motivation of the environmental movement is indeed spiritual. Our lives ultimately turn on how we see (and feel) our situation in the universe, more than on technical or economic considerations. Ritual restoration may therefore lead the way for many kinds of appropriate technology.
Certainly ritual restoration has the potential to involve large numbers of people in environmental action, and to gain the sympathy and support of majorities even in industrial nations. It may find a home in the many organized religions that are moving toward environmental consciousness. (Buddhism, of course, is already a strongly ecological religion.) We should not be hesitant to confront the spiritual side of our work. In dedicating a new photo-voltaic installation, for instance, we should not be ashamed of what might be called prayer: speaking to each other about how the installation brings us into a healthier relationship with the sun and earth and indeed the whole Gaian biosphere. And when artists like Andrew Goldsworthy create beautiful symbolic objects, or Stewart Brand and his conceptual-art friends work to create a Millenium Clock, powerful spiritual connections are made. Indeed, a whole movement of eco-art is emerging to reflect our growing world ecological consciousness.
To conclude, we are all caught up today in a great multi-sided contest, here on our little planet. Art, religion, science, and technology all play a role in it. One camp includes the economist-minded, who consider only economic damage to be significant. These are the people whose god is The Market. Another camp is the religious fundamentalists, who worship “sky gods” that exist far above ordinary reality. They believe that this world is insignificant compared to some heaven beyond, since the material earth will soon be consumed. And another camp, to which Ecotopians like me belong, is the survivalists, who prize life in all its enduring, mysterious, and wonderful forms. Some of us honor the self-regulating forces that maintain our planet’s comfortable temperature and acidity; some honor numerous gods who inhabit the real world; some strive for compassion for all living beings. We all yearn to live in some kind of appropriate harmony with the natural order—believing that doing so will also produce a supportive social world.
We maintainers and survivors may not win all our battles, and the 21st century is sure to be a tumultuous and surprising one. But we will enjoy our struggles, value our friends, and find pleasure in our unending creative and restorative work.
© 2006 Ernest Callenbach