A Green-Powered Trip Through Ecotopia

This free-ranging conversation between Ernest Callenbach, author of the legendary Ecotopia (1974), and Harvey Wasserman, author of SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030 (2007), about our green-powered future was filmed by EON and can be viewed here.

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 issues.

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 not.

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 fun, too.

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 be.

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 there.

Ernest: A little sex and violence help sell a novel and get people’s attention.

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 worked.

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 political.

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 technology.

The current line about nuclear power is that it’s SO twentieth- century.

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 crops.

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, unfortunately.

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 space….

Harvey: You strong-arm them a little….

Ernest: You strong-arm them a little, but mostly, basically you pay them off.

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 about.

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/ Solartopian development.

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 hybrid.

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 apparently gigantic…

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 industry.

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 consider.

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 really works.

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 population control.

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 diminishes.

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 more.

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 kind.

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 corporation.

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 that.

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 controlled.

Ernest: And local. I follow the work of the International Forum on Globalization quite a lot….an old friend of mine named Jerry Mander.

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 Ecotopia.

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 future.

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 akin.

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 perfect sense.

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 might be.

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- be democracy.

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 are.

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.

Ernest: Absolutely.

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 mess.

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.

Ernest Callenbach is the author of Ecotopia. He can be reached through his website.

Harvey Wasserman has been writing about atomic energy and the green alternatives since 1973.  His 1982 assertion to Bryant Gumbel on NBC’s TODAY Show that people were killed at TMI sparked a national mailing from the reactor industry demanding a retraction. NBC was later bought by Westinghouse, still a major force pushing atomic power. He is the author of SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030, is at www.solartopia.org. He can be reached at: Windhw@aol.com



Harvey Wasserman wrote THE PEOPLE’S SPIRAL OF US HISTORY: FROM JIGONSASEH TO SOLARTOPIA.  Most Mondays @ 2-4pm PT, he co-convenes the Green Grassroots Election Protection Zoom (www.electionprotection2024).  The Mothers for Peace (www.mothersforpeace.org) could use your help in the struggle to shut the Diablo Canyon nukes.