A green-powered trip to Eco-Solartopia
This visionary conversation between Ernest Callenbach, author of the legendary ECOTOPIA (1974), and Harvey Wasserman, author of SOLARTOPIA (2007), about our green-powered future was filmed by EON and can be viewed at blip.tv and
by Ernest Callenbach and Harvey Wasserman
June 5, 2009
Harvey Wasserman: It's an honor to be with the author of Ecotopia, which
inspired me and so many others to become active on environmental
It also inspired me to write Solartopia, What I’d like to talk about
is getting from Ecotopia, the first vision of an ecological society, to
Solartopia, a vision of a totally green-powered Earth. Yours is the
first realized vision of an ecological society and thirty years later
I’ve tried to write a companion or follow-up piece with a vision of
a solar-powered society.
I read Ecotopia in the early seventies and I just re-read it, and
what’s amazing and shocking and gratifying about it to me, as I’m
sure it is to you, is how much of it came true.
Ernest Callenbach: Not enough.
Harvey: So what inspired you to write Ecotopia?
Ernest: Well, the story actually begins with sewage. I had written
a book called Living Poor With Style which was a guide to how
you can live better for less, which was the first one of what’s now
an enormous volume of books about that stuff, and I was looking
around for a new project, and I ad been brought up in the country
in central Pennsylvania and everything was recycled because there
was nobody to haul it away, and I was dimly aware that we were
living in a society of about that time about 200 million people and
we were just eating away and pooping away and all the waste was
just being gotten rid of as we thought at the time. It was being
burnt it was being barged out to sea, everything except recycling it
as nutrient material back onto the land.
And I thought….there’s something really crazy going on here,
biologically crazy. And so I began to write this article called “The
Scandal of Our Sewage” all about how we were making a big
mistake, and I started going to the University of California at
Berkeley’s library on sanitary engineering---believe it or not,
Berkeley has such a thing---and I discovered that in our society
when you have two paths, and path A is cheaper than path B, you
take path A even though path B is biologically sane and path A is
Now the world is full of things like that, as you well know, and I
got very depressed at this, and I began looking around the world. I
looked at Cuba, I looked at China, I looked at European counties…
nobody was getting their BLEEP together. So at some point a light
went on. And I thought ‘If there is no country that’s doing this
utterly fundamental thing right, maybe it’s time to invent one.
So I sat down and wrote the section on food to sewage to fertilizer
to more food, the so-called stable-state recycling system that’s
really the basic article of faith of the Ecotopians as they develop.
And I looked at that and I remember thinking “if anybody’s smart
enough to get that right, they’d probably do a lot of other stuff
differently too, wouldn’t they?” And, for example, then I started
thinking about land use, and energy, and transportation, and all the
other things that finally made up the book.
And I think probably, I’ve been thinking of course about the
differences between your approach and mine, and one of them is
that Ecotopia is at bottom biological and anthropological. I used to
hang around with a lot of anthropologists up here on campus in
Berkeley, and I also knew some at the U. of Chicago when I was a
student there, so I’m always trying to look at social structures, how
do institutions evolve, how do things change socially.
And also, because I grew up in the country, and because my father
was a professor of agriculture, and I did a lot of gardening and
stuff as a kid, I was always very oriented toward the biological side
of life. And so those things combined as I tried to imagine this
country that did not yet exist but I hoped someday would exist---I
began to stir those ingredients into the pot, too, and it was great
Harvey: Oh, yeah, it’s so much fun to read. I suspect writing
Solartopia was the same kind of fun. You get to create the kind of
world that you want, that you know is possible and must come to
Were you living in Ecotopia---California---when you wrote it?
Ernest: I was living in Berkeley, in a very ordinary sort of way.
People expect me to be a back-to-the-lander, but I came from the
land and have no impulse to go back to it. In a way Ecotopia is
really about our cities, and how our cities can be sustainable if we
go about it right.
Our agriculture and our forestry and our fisheries need to be made
sustainable, but our cities which is where most of us live and
which is where most of our impacts are, are really the top priority.
Harvey: And you had a great plot, of course. Lots of great sex in
Ernest: A little sex and violence help sell a novel and get people’s
Harvey: What from Ecotopia has come true.
Ernest: Well, many things have not come true, and lets get some of
those out of the way. In everything connected to the automobile
we have backslid since the seventies since I wrote Ecotopia. We
have more cars, we’re driving more, they produce more global
warming gases, more pollutant gases, more everything.
Harvey: You had a mass transit system in Ecotopia that really
Ernest: Ecotopia, like your Solartopia, is very decentralized, so
there’s not so much moving around with machines o any kind,
much more walking, much more bicycling, much more local transit
oriented things. We’ve made a little progress in that and we’re
making some more and we’ll have to make much more, of course
as post Peak Oil comes on. And in that respect you can also be
hopeful in that the thinking of city planners and to a large extent
city officials has really undergone a revolution since Ecotopia
came out. It’s not due to Ecotopia so much but it’s the legacy of
Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities, and people
who have followed that kind of thinking on what makes cities
valuable and above all what makes them efficient, because cities
are really a much more efficient way of human beings living that
being dispersed throughout the countryside, everybody with a car
and a separate homestead and a twenty-mile drive to what they
need to do to live,
What we need to do is to make our cities more compact and more
efficient and to make them produce both energy as you have in
Solartopia and for that matter food. Paris was a food exporter into
the 19th Century, and if the French can do it, we can do it.
Harvey: Yes, all those baguettes going out.
When I read Ecotopia I thought this was really a great thing. It
inspired me. I was living on a commune. We were farming
organically. Then the way we made this connection to Solartopia,
is that living on this organic farm, reading Ecotopia and emulating
many aspects of it, the local utility came in and tried to build a
nuclear plant four miles from our house.
We, of course, were thrilled. We coined the phrase “No Nukes”
and we actually stopped them. And where they wanted to build the
Montague, Massachusetts, nuclear plant is now a nature preserve,
right on the Connecticut River. It’s a great thing
But when I sat down to write Solartopia, I wanted to take the
Ecotopian vision and apply it to the whole world in a society that
has gone totally to renewables.
I was very committed to not having any magical inventions.
Which is true in Ecotopia, which is very down-to-Earth. It is not
an implausible scenario.
Politically the idea of California, Oregon and Washington
seceding---well, we did have a Civil War when the slave states
tried to secede….
Ernest: Might yet happen though…nation states may be dinosaurs
that we have not yet recognized as dinosaurs. It’s true that I was
trying to be very realistic, very conservative technically. I didn’t
want anybody to say “Oh, that’s cute but it’s science fiction.” We
don’t want people to fail to realize that the problems are really
If you want to call Ecotopia by a category it should probably be
political fiction because I made this wild metaphorical assumption
that there might be a breakaway of California, Oregon and
Washington who in turn would go their own ecological way to save
their own ecological skins, and that that would be a kind of beacon
for the rest of the world.
In Solartopia you’ve taken a much more daring approach to say
that not only this little tiny, specially gifted quarter could do it, but
the whole world should do it.
Harvey: Right, but of course we do start with Denmark, which is
probably more like Ecotopia than any other country on Earth at
this point in time.
But the Danes had a Green Party which was partly inspired, I
understand, by Ecotopia.
Ernest: May be…
Harvey: They have their own little community, Christiania, which
is a green community right there in Copenhagen. But they also
pioneered utility-scaled wind farming. So the point of Solartopia
is that we successfully, in a technical sense, convert our entire
energy supply to renewables and efficiency, which is very do-able.
Just as everything in Ecotopia was do-able, and proved to be done
in the last thirty years…in Solartopia, we have the wind
technology, we have the turbines, we have the solar panels, we
know enough about bio-fuels, and ocean thermal, and geothermal,
and recycling that we could do it.
In Solartopia we have the enemy, which is Kong CONG---Coal,
Oil, Nukes and Gas---which I had a lot of fun with, obviously.
And once we’ve defeated King CONG politically…the reality is
that once we’ve wiped the Earth clean of all fossil and nuclear
generators, we could install, with available technology, sufficient
renewable resources to run the planet without a blink in the lights.
And that’s part of the point.
Ernest: It was kind of refreshing to see that Al Gore gets that.
Harvey: He does to a certain extent, but we have some issues with
Al Gore. For example, he wants to now build a national grid,
which I am very very dubious about, because the electro-magnetic
fields and the sheer logistics of that are daunting and problematic.
Plus we have a model of decentralized energy, as Ecotopia is
decentralized. And we want community-controlled energy, and
that would not come with an Al Gore model super-conducting grid.
Al Gore has also failed at this point in time to take on the nuclear
power industry, which we think is the cutting edge of the bad old
The current line about nuclear power is that it’s SO twentieth-
Ernest: You know it’s funny when you were talking about
originally getting into this through an anti-nuke struggle, the same
thing was true in Germany, actually. The beginnings of the Green
movement were around Freiburg in southwestern Germany, the so-
called banana belt of Germany, where there’s a university and very
splendidly preserved town that wasn’t apparently bombed much
during World War Two.
The German authorities apparently wanted to build a huge nuke
outside of town. And the farmers and the townsfolks and the
students all got together and said “No Nukes.” And out of that
came the Green Party in Germany that I know was influenced by
Ecotopia, really sprang into being.
Harvey: Well they also in Germany did the first occupation of a
site. They didn’t just demonstrate. They actually physically
grabbed hold of a site in Wyhl, West Germany, and that was the
inspiration for our demonstrations at Seabrook, which I was
fortunate enough to be involved in.
In ’75, just as Ecotopia was coming around, we had a conference
in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was the Toward Tomorrow Fair.
And at that Conference we pretty much crafted a clear vision, that
we would have an Ecotopia that would be totally solar powered.
We thought photovoltaic cells would come on first. But as it turns
out wind is cheaper and easier to do. There were windmills in
Persia in the 1400s. There was actually a windmill in Manhattan
in 1660, when it was New Amsterdam.
Ernest: When the Dutch were there. My ancestors…
Harvey: The vision of a totally green-powered Ecotopia, which I
put into Solartopia, is about thirty-five years old now. Its birth
pretty much dates to that fair and when Ecotopia came out.
And now the technological interchange, which is what I lay out in
Solartopia, is pretty easy to do in certain senses.
Ernest: I notice you include geothermal, which a lot of people
don’t do, and which I think is very important, among other reasons
because we happen to have a bunch of oil companies around the
planet which are very good at drilling holes. And since that’s what
we need to tap geothermal we would be in great shape if we could
transform them from fuel producers to geothermal producers.
Harvey: Of course, the corporations have managed to find ways to
make geothermal a negative. For example, when they wanted to
do geothermal in Hawaii, they picked the most sacred piece of land
on the Big Island. It’s like, give me a break!
Another of the great things about Ecotopia is the politics. You
GET the politics and it’s a very political book.
In Solartopia the first draft was just a technical transformation.
OK, we take the wind here, we put the PV here, we have the green
roofs, we have the geothermal.
And we have bio-fuels, which are NOT food-based. We don’t use
corn or soy for fuel. We have the “incredible inedibles” which are
hemp, of course, and switchgrass, and algae, and the other great
But the second step, which is essential, as it was in Ecotopia, is
breaking the corporations. You can’t have corporations structured
the way they are still have an Ecotopian-Solartopian reality.
Ernest: When the banks started to come unglued and the
investment companies and so on, I was thinking of a passage in
Ecotopia where the narrator, Weston, meets an Ecotopian militant
who says, “Well, we kindof welcomed economic collapse and the
flight of capital because we knew that could be turned to
advantage,” a T’ai Chi move, or something like that.
And lo and behold something like that is actually happening in the
country. And I notice in Solartopia you say that good things
happen and then some bad things too, which is the way reality is,
But it looks like we are going to have some really serious moves
on the sustainable and renewable energy system. And it looks like
we are probably going to get some kind of national health program.
So out of chaos and catastrophe can come….it loosens up the rock
pile that American politics tends to be. All the rocks are settled in
so tight against each other that nothing can move.
Harvey: Of course the $750 billion blank check isn’t going to do it
for the banks. We really need to grab hold of this transformational
moment. And we’re all hoping that the Obama
Administration….Bush we couldn’t push, but we could stop him
from doing some things. Obama, hopefully, we’ll be able to push.
You’re exactly right….all this opposition to socialism all these
years which called for the nationalization of the banking system,
and suddenly we have a private banking system that collapses, and
where do they go? If we had the government controlling the
banking system all along it might have been a lot better.
So in Solartopia we do presume a major collapse, based on energy,
as you do in Ecotopia. And the major question is, “who is going to
control it, the corporations, or the public?”
Ernest: I’m just re-doing my website and one of the things I’m
putting on it is a piece I wrote maybe ten years ago called “The
Coming Eco-Industrial Complex.” In this little modest proposal I
argue that maybe this is the way we do things in reality. It is still a
country when you want to get something big done, you bribe big
corporations to do it. That’s what we did in World War Two.
That’s what we did in other wars too. That’s what we did in the
Harvey: You strong-arm them a little….
Ernest: You strong-arm them a little, but mostly, basically you pay
And Congress gets in bed with a substantial business elite and they
pump public money into these guys’ pockets and they do what
Congress and the nation say ought to be done.
And what we’ve been doing of course is a permanent war economy
and all the things that go with that, that Eisenhower warned us
Harvey: And Washington.
Ernest: Well, yeah. Can we then contemplate the Congress getting
smart enough to say “You know, we don’t really want Bechtel
building incredible bases in Iraq, we want them rebuilding cities in
America, and here’s the money, boys. Go do it.”
If we can learn this kind of game, maybe some things…the price is
always high. This is not a beautiful system to operate in, though it
may be better than alternatives, I don’t know.
But at any rate, it’s what we have, what we’re stuck with. Maybe
we can use the engine of corrupt Congress, and greedy
industrialists, to build Solartopia, or Ecotopia.
Harvey: I recently wrote a piece called “General Motors Must Re-
Make the Mass Transit System it Murdered.” You have a mass
transit system in Ecotopia that works. In Solartopia we talk about
the deliberate destruction of a mass transit system that worked,
done by General Motors, Standard Oil. It’s one of those
conspiracy theories we know is true. And it has to be rebuilt.
So beyond the technical fixes that are on the production of energy
side, rebuilding the mass transit system is critical. That was an
unfair advantage that Ecotopia had, was a good mass transit
system which is going to be very expensive but has to be done.
Phoenix just opened a $1.5 billion mass transit system.
Ernest: I’m actually a partisan of alcohol burning or electrical
buses. People think light rail is more dramatic and more
glamorous and more middle class and people will be more willing
to ride it.
But I think if we had better buses, more stylish and comfortable
and commodious buses, people would ride them also. And buses,
since they can ride on any ordinary city street, have a far less big
capital investment required at the beginning.
The other thing that goes without enough honor in our society is
taxis. Taxis are a very ancient invention, going way back into the
Middle Ages, people had horse-drawn taxis. Taxis have the great
virtue of total flexibility, just like privately owned cars.
So I think what’s going to happen, actually, is some weird kind of
merger between buses, taxis, light rail, not-so-light rail, and also
things like jitneys and car share companies.
Car share companies are doing very well in the United States in
many big cities. I like this idea a lot because a lot of the problems
of the private car do not have to do with how we power them or
what exhaust they produce in the atmosphere, it’s the effects they
have on our land use. The more people that can use one vehicle,
whatever kind it is, the less damage they’re going to do.
That’s one of the hopeful things that’s going on. The price of gas
used to not make much difference. It would go up to maybe $3,
people didn’t care.
But when it got to $4.50 or so, people began to change their habits.
And one of the things they began to do was join car share
companies, and that’s a really good piece of news.
Harvey: And now that the price of gas has gone down, people are
continuing to use mass transit, which is a hugely Ecotopian/
In Solartopia we rebuild the inter-city rails, as well as the systems
inside the cities. All American cities over 2500 had a light rail
system prior to the onslaught of General Motors. So in Solartopia
the trunk lines are all rail, and then the buses and the jitneys and
the taxis all work into the capillaries of the system. It’s a good
With bio-fuels one thing that’s come true both from Ecotopia and
from Solartopia is we have a solar-powered bus system in
Thousand Palms, California, where they have a photovoltaic array
that creates electric current that separates hydrogen from water and
powers the buses, creating a solar-powered bus system.
Ernest: There’s a man named David Blume, who has written a
giant book…he’s a hands-on alcohol guy with a perma-culture
orientation. His book is called Alcohol Can Be a Gas. He
contends that there are things like fodder beets which are
Harvey: And Jerusalem artichokes…
Ernest: …and things like cat-tails. The interesting thing about cat-
tails is that they like to grow in marshy places like, for example,
sewage lagoons. They clean the sewage while they provide bio-
mass that you can turn into alcohol. So we may see an awful lot
of cat-tails in Ecotopia or Solartopia.
Harvey: When we talk about bio-mass we talk about plants that
are actually pollutants. Cat-tails are a major pest in the Everglades
and other pristine eco-systems that we’re trying to save. Kudzu
could be a fabulous source of bio-fuels. Just go rip it off all the
trees in the south.
And algae. Algae blooms are, of course, catastrophic in the Gulf
of Mexico. But algae is going to be the staple of the bio-fuel
industry. There are a couple hundred different species of algae.
And what you need to grow algae is water and carbon dioxide.
And in Solartopia I see algae as being a huge staple of the bio-fuel
Ernest: I agree with you about algae. One of the thing about our
scientific orientation in the twentieth and twenty-first century is
that it has been physics-dominated, not enough biology dominated.
So when you start talking about micro-organisms you see people’s
eyes glaze over.
But micro-organisms run the world.
Harvey: They have a great sex life.
Ernest: Certainly a very unusual one. We won’t get into that.
But I think as we learn more about the micro-organisms on the
planet we will learn to live a lot better.
Harvey: In Solartopia I see the major use of bio-fuels in air travel.
We’re not going to have electric-powered airplanes and I don’t
think hydrogen will be practical for air travel for many many years,
if ever. If we’re going to duplicate kerosene in an ecological way
it’s going to come from bio-fuels.
I’m not sure we’re really going to need much bio-fuel for ground
transportation. We will have alcohol buses and so on, But they
may yet run on PV-generated electricity.
Ernest: It depends a lot on how cheap to produce and how
adaptable hydrogen turns out to be. There are difficult technical
problems about moving and storing hydrogen, so we don’t know
how practical hydrogen is going to be.
In all these things, the question is whether you can convert one
form of energy into other forms of energy efficiently. We
ultimately are going to have to be living in a solar world. That’s
all the incoming energy we’ve got.
Geothermal is the exception to that.
Harvey: And the tides. We do have lunar energy you could also
Ernest: Right. And the question is how you convert one layer of
energy to another one. When you convert solar energy either
directly into electricity or into a hydrogen form you are always
calculating what are the most efficient things to do, and you have
some very ingenious examples of that in Solartopia, and little by
little people are beginning to cope with this too.
I think one of the fundamental things that’s changing in our world
attitudes these days is getting away from the idea that energy
comes from burning.
In the beginning we were burning wood, which comes from a form
of stored solar energy.
Harvey: Right. But a very complicated form.
Ernest: Then we were burning coal, which was stored solar energy
from way way way way back. Oil the same way. Finally we are
getting to where we are thinking about the solar energy that’s
coming in right now, and how are we going to live on this in real
time, in current time.
But I think the understanding that that’s the problem has spread
beyond enthusiasts like you and me into the general technological
community. Not only that but into the investment community.
There are a lot of people in and around Silicon Valley who are
putting up stupendous sums of money to get into all this stuff.
Harvey: I’ve had a radio show in Columbus, Ohio, and we’ve had
on a lot of people with solar businesses. Everyone else is going
broke, and these guys are coming on saying they’re doubling their
businesses every year. In Ohio! So the Solartopian economy
The massive paradigm shift---Hazel Henderson and others have
talked in terms of that paradigm shift---Ecotopia was the first to
think in those terms, and now Solartopia, we can do it this way
now, was this: in the 20th Century it was said that what was good
for the environment would be expensive. We wanted to save the
Earth, but it was going to cost us money and jobs.
The paradigm shift, which we have pushed all these years, has now
come to be. People understand that what’s good for the
environment is now not only good for the economy, it’s essential to
the economy. And that we’re not going to have an economic future
without an Ecotopia and a Solartopia because that’s where the jobs
and the future really is.
The other part of Ecotopia and Solartopia that we haven’t
commented on is that they are both very feminist books. After I
did all the work on the technical conversion to solar energy, there
were some other nagging issues not dealt with, primary of which is
How do you control it? What do you do about six billion people
going to ten billion or whatever number of people there will be on
the planet? As part of Solartopia, it was clear to me---especially
knowing people who are Catholic---that it’s women who are going
to have to control the future population. If women are empowered,
not only with access to birth control but education, equal pay,
prosperity…wherever women have equal rights…population
I think the women of the Earth, in league with Mother Earth, in
Solartopia and in Ecotopia, will be the ones who decide how many
people we have and how the population will be controlled.
Ernest: I agree entirely with that. In Ecotopia the women have a
very strong attitude that they are in control of their bodies. Which
includes whether or not they have children. The universal
experience of demography in the past twenty or thirty years is that
if you give women the things that you’ve just listed they have
substantially less children---even in very highly religious cultures.
The lowest birth rates in the world are now in now still nominally
Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, Quebec. These have had a
stunning downturn in fertility.
The problem with the world is not that we have too many people in
general. We have too many rich people. Too many high
consuming people. If we can continue to have populations in the
industrial world decline, we’ll be a lot better off.
Harvey: Right. I think we have to do that with women, as you say.
Then the other small details in getting to Ecotopia and
Solartopia---we have to abolish war. You mentioned being on a
war economy. There’s no room for war in either Ecotopia or
Solartopia. One of the great things, being a historian, reading
Ecotopia and waiting for the shoe to drop, right, for the US to just
send in the troops. But thankfully it doesn’t happen. Obviously it
doesn’t happen in Solartopia either. We just can’t afford this any
Ernest: We’ve already entered without realizing it, a world in
which war doesn’t work any more. It didn’t work in Vietnam, it
didn’t work in Iraq, it isn’t working in Afghanistan. Maybe the
powers that still exist that are still capable of making war are going
to wake up and say “wait a minute, we have to try something else
to get what we want, to get what we need.”
And that would certainly be a great day, if one of the things that
Obama can do is to get us turned around from the military solution
always being the thing we go for toward political and for that
matter social and ecological solutions being the things they go for.
Because when you look at the wars that have happened or are
likely to happen in the world today they are mostly over resource
questions rather than political questions.
Even the war in the Middle East it is partly a cultural war and so
on but it’s a war about water. The Israelis have controlled almost
all the water in the West Bank. Most wars are going to be o that
So if we get our socio-ecological, Solartopian house in order the
likelihood of war will go way down.
Harvey: Also the question is “can we afford war any more?”
Athens, Rome, the ancient Persians, there’s plenty of history that
every great democracy or whatever other kind of government there
is always destroys itself with empire. Now we have an
administration looks to “where we’re going to fund all this
stuff?”…it’s got to come from the defense department. We can’t
sustain this. So I think the great challenge for getting to Eco-
Solartopia now is to transition out of this huge military budget.
Now we thought this was going to happen at the end of the Cold
War, Clinton was going to….
Ernest: It was the peace dividend.
Harvey: So what happened to the peace dividend? Now we have
no choice. We had the big computer boom so nobody seemed to
notice how much money was flowing around. We don’t have that
sort of luxury any more.
The big boom now, the equivalent to the computer boom, will be
the renewable energy boom. Like you say, Silicon Valley, all that
money from Google and the other big residual corporations is
going to have to go.
The other thing we have to face which is implicit in Ecotopia and
very explicit in Solartopia is changing the nature of the
We have had, as you well know, since the 1880s corporations have
had human rights, and they don’t have human responsibilities.
We’re not going to get to Ecotopia or Solartopia without changing
Ernest: In the long run that’s true. If we had an eco-industrial
complex we could go quite a ways. But in the end, to have a
democratic social order that does ecological things as a matter of
course, does them right as a matter of course, we are going to have
to invent some new kind of economic system.
What I was trying to get at in Ecotopia is not capitalism as we
know it or socialism as we have known it or anything really. It’s a
novel system called worker control, worker ownership, which
would be a genuinely different approach to what Marx called the
means of production.
Harvey: Is that Groucho or Karl?
Ernest: The big one. You know, Marx said some things that
people forgot. One of them I turn around in my mind a lot:
“capital has no country.” Before the age of globalization and
utterly ruthless multi-nationals that couldn’t care less whether any
given country lives or dies, we didn’t really have a very concrete
idea what that meant.
But he was right: “capital has no country.” If we are going to
sustain the country for each other, for a population that can live
decently, in a responsible Solartopian way, we’re going to have to
get the grip of capital off of us.
Harvey: The marker in the 20th Century of the effectiveness of any
democracy was directly related to the strength of unions. Ecotopia
really had, thankfully, and very importantly, a clear social
conscience. Poverty cannot exist in either Ecotopia or Solartopia.
Poverty is unsustainable.
We clearly see now, given the financial crisis, that top-down
management of banks, of manufacturing, of banks, of distribution,
of medicine…also can’t be sustained. It has to be community
Ernest: And local. I follow the work of the International Forum on
Globalization quite a lot….an old friend of mine named Jerry
Harvey: Jerry Mander was the guy who gave me the initial grant
for the project that became Solartopia.
Ernest: You know he gave me the grant that allowed me to typeset
Harvey: All right Jerry!!
Ernest: They are always talking about what they call “a turn
toward the local.” That’s why I got involved in the research that
led to Bring Back the Buffalo. Looking at the buffalo in
Yellowstone on vacation once it occurred to me that in that strip of
the country called the Great Plains, they only have two things
going for them: one is grass, the other is wind.
And as you say in Solartopia---I didn’t get around to it in
Ecotopia---I didn’t know it at the time---buffalo and wind power
coexist very beautifully. So in that presently very backward area
of the country, really conservative, very underdeveloped you might
say---is probably the region of the United States, or of the whole
world---that is in closest reach of genuine sustainability. Because
they’re not very many people and they’re not doing much damage.
Harvey: I think there are a bunch of counties in the Great Plains
that have fewer people now than they did in the 1880s.
Ernest: Most of them do. There are some towns that are growing
modestly. But for most counties, it’s back to the grasslands.
Harvey: So we’ve got feminism, we’ve got the corporations,
we’ve got the end of war, the next ingredient in both Ecotopia and
Solartopia is food. And that four-letter word goes along with
another one, which is meat.
As a vegan who does it fish, far be it from me to tell anyone else
how to eat. But meat as we grow it now is not sustainable.
Commercially raised, feed-lot fattened, mass meat-packed
hamburger and all that other stuff is not sustainable. We can’t have
an Eco-Solartopia with that kind of food industry.
Ernest: It’s inhumane, too. I happened to go to the California state
fair a couple of years ago, and they were proudly displaying a sow,
a mother pig, in one of these pipe cages. She couldn’t turn around.
All she could do was stand up or lie down in her poop. She would
lie down and her piglets would nurse along the side. It was a
caricature of the worst jail you could imagine. I didn’t eat any pork
for a while after that.
The Ecotopians are hunters. Like the people I grew up with in
central Pennsylvania. They go out and shoot deer every once in a
while. And they believe that’s ok, because it’s a fair struggle. It’s
pretty hard, actually, to shoot a wild deer. They probably don’t do
it very often. And they it with proper ceremony.
When we were researching the buffalo, we found that the Indians
say “the Creator gave us the buffalo to take care of, and then the
buffalo will take care of us.” I think that’s a good model for a
relationship between us and other living beings. You have to
extend compassion to vegetables too, in my opinion. I talk to the
vegetables when nobody’s looking. Then I eat them.
Harvey: But do they talk back?
Since the Great Plains don’t really appear in Ecotopia, but they
do in Solartopia, as we fly over them, the presumption is that the
meat industry, the commercial beef industry, has failed, because
the beef cow is a stranger to the Great Plains. It’s a hybrid that
doesn’t really belong there.
Because of the high cost of grain, transportation and feed-lotting---
outside of a nuclear plant, there are very few things more
destructive of the planet than a factory farm. That includes feed
lots for the beef cattle, the factories for the chickens, and the hogs
and the eggs.
Ernest: And they’re all dependent on oil.
Harvey: Terribly. In Solartopia we see the reversion of the Great
Plains to the wind and to the buffalo. The towers are great
favorites of the buffalo because they can rub up against them and
the big problem is they rub the paint off.
Ted Turner who is the largest landowner in the United States…
Ernest: …after the federal government…
Harvey: …has brought back the buffalo.
Ernest: If you’re going to eat meat, buffalo doesn’t have anti-
biotics, it doesn’t have hormones, very low fat. It tastes good...
In the whole, when we look at agriculture, the thing that always
comes back to my mind is that we are presently in net negative
energy agriculture. That is to say we are really eating oil. If we
weren’t pumping all this petroleum into agriculture we wouldn’t
have anything to eat.
What we need is to go back to net positive energy agriculture
which is what people have lived on this planet ever since there
were people. That involves a lot of very important changes which
organic farmers are in a position to make, but which traditional
business farmers are not.
It’s almost like an ecological succession pattern. The organic
farmers are doing very well. They are not hurt as much by high
fuel costs as are the commercial farms. So all over the world, there
is an upwelling of low-energy input farming. Gradually the big
farms I think are goiong to die out. It won’t be easy. It won’t be
quick. But in the long run, that’s not the way to do agriculture.
Harvey: The desirability now of ranchettes, small ten-acre parcels
with a small garden where retirees and young people can go and
really make it with a windmill and solar panels. That’s really the
Solartopian agriculture foresees the end of factory farming. It’s a
huge issue. In Ohio and elsewhere we’re still fighting them. As
you mention it, there’s an interesting intersection between the
animal rights movement, the sow-holding unit you mentioned….do
people really have to give up meat. Well, factory farming has got
to stop if we’re going to have a Solartopian set-up.
Ernest: I have a lot of experience with raising chickens as a kid. It
is perfectly possible to raise chickens---the right adjective would
not be “humane” since they’re not human---but to raise chickens in
“chickenly ways” where they can feel good and produce lots of
eggs if you don’t want to eat meat if you don’t want to eat them at
least they should have a happy life before they go, of the kind we
would hope for ourselves and all other living beings.
Harvey: We need the sort of agriculture where people can control
their own food supply. So the Eco-Solartopian model is a
democratic one, with a small “d.”
I think that’s why Ecotopia has remained such an important book.
It’s a grassroots, people-oriented, human empowering and feminist
view of the world. So the hardware that comes in with Solartopia,
and the dealing with the corporate issues explicitly, it really comes
around full circle.
Ermest: They’re both very hopeful books. That’s why it’s neat to
talk with you. We come at it from a different perspective, getting
into it differently than I did. But the results are very parallel, very
People—especially young people in our world---are very hungry
for hope. I don’t think it was a dumb thing for Barack Obama to
talk about hope so much. That’s a really significant thing, how
people feel about life. What they do. Whether they’re galvanized
into activity, or whether they sortof sit back and wait for things to
fall in on their head. Nobody likes to feel that way.
Harvey: Your book and the birth of our activism on the anti-nuke
thing co-incided. Since the publication of Ecotopia and since the
beginning of the anti-nuclear movement, and even now with the
publication of Solartopia, we have had the luxury of seeing our
stuff come true.
You really gave birth to a popular vision of recycling that would
work. People instinctually recycle in this country. There is no
economic incentive for the average household on a micro basis to
recycle. Everybody does it. Yours is the first vision of a society
that actually did that. It must be very gratifying.
Ernest: One of the most gratifying things is that I predicted an
electronic book distribution system, where there were essentially
large juke box or Xerox-like machines, sitting everywhere. In
schools, on street corners, in bars, everywhere you could think of.
And you could go in and put in your credit card or, as I had them
doing, quarters, and it would display information about books.
And you could even read some passages as you could on Amazon.
And if you wanted to you could put in your card and it printed it
out for you right then.
And this is happening. You can go on the web and look for
something called “book machine” and you can see it. And I don’t
know how many there are.
Harvey: The Kindle is really taking off.
Ernest: Similar idea.
Harvey: It’s really happening that way.
We envisioned community-owned wind power. And that’s
happening. Very clearly. We had a professor named William
Heronemus at the University of Massachusetts. And he used to be
viewed as a Gyro Gearloose kind of guy. And he had these pictures
of these huge wind arrays that would be in the ocean. And
everybody said…pffft….and now, 5 megawatt wind arrays are
being manufactured by General Electric to go in the ocean.
Do they mention William Heronemus? Of course not.
We saw photovoltaic cells on every rooftop. That’s certainly going
to happen. We already have photovoltaic paint. I’ve been in
factories outside Detroit…there’s a guy named Stanford
Ovshinsky, who’s really the Einstein of renewables. He developed
the amorphous silicon cell, which goes into solar shingles, which
we fantasized about.
There’ve been surprises along the way. My favorite one---and this
gives me hope in gadgets that haven’t been invented yet---my
favorite new one is the tiles that are in the airports, where people
walk on these tiles and the movement up and down generates
electricity. It’s fantastic!
So the hope that we’ve been having is not just some fantasy.
That’s why Ecotopia is so great because so much of it not only was
plausible, but has come true.
Ernest: The attitudes have spread. In the end it’s probably the fate
of visionaries to be forgotten while their visions are implemented
by other people. And that’s fine by me.
Harvey: Yeah yeah. But the struggle is to keep the corporations
from turning them bad. We have seen green technologies---alleged
green technologies---go bad. There were those who thought
nuclear power was going to be a good thing.
The irony is that nuclear power is endorsed in the Port Huron
Statement, the great document of the radical student organization
of the 1960s thought that nuclear power was going to be the magic
bullet. As did I. I got a book for my bar mitzvah called Our
Friend the Atom and I used it for a report in 9th grade. And from
1959 to 1973 I thought that nuclear power was the magic bullet. It
was supposed to be a green thing. And people are still talking
about it being green. It’s ridiculous.
But look at trash burning. That was going to be a great answer to
the dual problems of trash and energy. But you can’t burn plastic.
And there were other things along the way that seemed to make
You CAN put windmills in areas that they’ll kill birds. We proved
that at Altamont. Virtually impossible to do that anywhere else.
But you have to be careful.
Ernest: Well, it’s a learning process. And the more people that get
involved with it, the better it will be. Some of these people are
going to be very non green-looking people. And that’s ok. As long
as they do the right things, it doesn’t matter what their ideology
Harvey: Another major element of the Ecotopian and Solartopian
visions, combined, is basic democracy. This didn’t seem to be an
issue in the 1970s, not something we talked about back in Ecotopia
but I did raise it in Solartopia is how we count our votes, and
whether we actually have fair elections and fair vote counting.
And since our experiences in 2000 and 2004, now having had eight
years of an unelected President, in Eco-Solartopia I strongly
advocate a paper ballot.
Ernest: The Canadians count their entire national ballot in four
hours. I guess they have a lot of local election boards
Harvey: It’s all on paper.
Ernest: Yeah, it’s all on paper. In Ecotopia I was trying to imagine
that politics was really year-round fun. In America political parties
are like balloons that blow up for a while and then after the
election they all go pssst, leaving in place just a few key players.
But Ecotopian and Solartopian politics would have to be continual
affairs, where people are involved with what’s going on all the
time. They would have to invent new ways to make it fun. Of
which voting is only one part of the series of things that people do.
It’s very dismaying to me that people are losing faith in the fairness
of our election counting. That is a really fatal thing for our would-
Harvey: To our Eco-Solartopian credit, through the internet and
some of the talk radio shows, with no help from the corporate
media, or much of the liberal media for that matter, in a very short
period of time we had a huge election protection grassroots
movement arise in this country.
Barack Obama gets into the White House because these people
came out in Ohio and elsewhere and were at the polls and watched
the vote count and made sure that this one wasn’t stolen. In a scant
four years we had the rise of one of the most effective grassroots
movements in history. And that shortening of the range of time it
took to do this was very encouraging….
Ernest: …it was impressive….
Harvey: …in an Eco-Solartopian way. Japan, Germany and
Canada all have paper ballots.
On recycled paper…we can get rid of the voting machines. They
will make great artificial reefs. They are perfectly designed to
steal elections, and we cannot have them in Eco-Solartopia.
Ernest: And lets hope we have the ballots printed on hemp paper.
In Eco-Solartopia hemp is a very big deal. For one thing because
the government regards marijuana as the least dangerous of all
hallucinatory drugs compared to alcohol…
Harvey: …and tobacco…
Ernest: …which kill hundreds of thousands of people each year, it
is a relatively benign substance, which can be overused of course,
but there are people who will over-use drugs no matter what they
But on the whole hemp is an amazing, amazing plant and has been
a crucial thing in the history of this country and other modern
countries to. It’s going to come back. Little by little. Partly as
medical marijuana, but also as an industrial product.
Harvey: As a food crop, and certainly as a bio-fuel. As many
people know, you take the seed, you throw it in the ground, it
grows. You don’t spray it, you don’t fertilize it, you don’t do
anything. As a source of bio-fuel, I think hemp is essential.
Harvey: As a source of diesel. As you know the inventor of the
diesel engine---strangely enough, named Diesel---envisioned
peanut oil as being the basic fuel. And then for cellulosic ethanol.
And for animal feed.
Ernest: The seeds are full of vitamins.
Harvey: Exactly. The Founding Fathers---and Mothers---but
Jefferson, Washington, Madison---all the Founders who had
plantations would astounded, probably in disbelief, to hear that
hemp is illegal. There have been a number of times in American
history where the growing of hemp was actually mandatory.
During the Revolutionary Era, and also during World War Two.
All of Kansas was in hemp,
As a step toward Eco-Solartopia, de-criminalization would clearly
be a move forward and one of the tests, of this administration.
There’s a pretty serious movement among the farmers of North
Dakota to get hemp legalized. It’ll be something the people in the
future will wonder why it was ever illegal.
You’ve advocated making the buffalo the national animal. I think
hemp will probably become the national plant.
Ernest: Why leave it to the Chinese and Canadians when we can
do it ourselves?
Harvey: Right. Which is all part, I guess, of keeping hope alive.
That was Jesse Jackson’s thing. Martin Luther King. All these
hopeful people. Look, we’ve been through the civil rights
movement. Remember way back when we said someday we’ll
have a black president. Here he is…cleaning up the white guy’s
Someday we would have a woman be president, that almost
happened. Some day we would have Ecotopia…and someday we
will have Solartopia….Now we know that these great visions were
just the reality of our economic future.
Ernest: It’s coming.
Harvey: Let’s just conclude by saying that since both Ernest and I
went to the University of Chicago. We are the new Chicago
School. We can let Milton Friedman turn over…
Ernest: He can turn over in his grave over that one.
ENDIT…THANKS FOR WATCHING/LISTENING/READING
Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia has been republished in its 30th
anniversary edition by Banyan Tree Books in association with
Heyday Books. Harvey Wasserman’s Solartopia! is at
www.solartopia.org and www.harveywasserman.com. A written version of this conversation appears in Pathways Magazine. DVD at: orders@EON3.net
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