Home > Blog: Currents & Futures > “Ecotopia” visionary author Ernest Callenbach passes…

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Currents and Futures


Ernest “Chick” Callenbach, friend and fellow conspirator, died last month.  I echo my friend Tom Atlee‘s tribute to him. My friend Richard Register posted Callenbach’s last writing in its entirety [see below].  (I find it interesting that I met Richard, Tom and Chick at the same time!  Quite a confluence of energy!  I can’t remember who introduced me to whom…)I strongly urge you to read Chick’s last work, his very prophetic and posthumous final writing, “Epistle to the Ecotopians”. Knowing of his pending death, he penned a last testament…

To all brothers and sisters who hold the dream in their hearts of a future world in which humans and all other beings live in harmony and mutual support — a world of sustainability, stability, and confidence.  [Click link to read the entire “Epistle to the Ecotopians”.]


My first encounter with Chick was through his small but monumental book, “Ecotopia”.  I think it’s safe to say that “Ecotopia” was one of a small handful of truly ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting books for me.

 The first time Chick and I met face to face was a few months after the 1989 Bay Area earthquake.  It became the backdrop for what turned into a major life lesson Chick taught me.

I agreed to meet Chick for the first time in his house in Berkeley – he was still in recovery from a serious health malady.  As I walked in, I made some quip about being in earthquake-prone California (I was new to the West Coast at that time).

He looked at me and said, “Underneath my front porch are two backpacks, for me and my wife.  We’ve got sleeping bags, tents, flashlights, water, clothes and food for two to three weeks.”

I thought to myself, “Wow, this guy is prepared!”

Chick wasn’t finished.  He went on, “The backpacks are just to get us up into the Berkeley Hills.  We have buried tents, clothes, food, seeds, water filters, tools and other equipment.  It’s all buried near a year-round creek.  The land is level and can be cleared to build shelter and grow vegetables.”

I’m sure my mouth was hanging open. My second thought was not nearly as charitable as my first.  I thought to myself, “Wow, this guy is a NUT!”

He still wasn’t finished.  He walked close to me, looked me in the eye, and said quietly, “Sharif, I believe there’s going to be another earthquake.”

This lesson took place before I even sat down.

Every scientist that studies earthquakes says the same thing: that the San Andreas Fault has yet to run out of steam, that we have NOT YET seen what they refer to euphemistically as “The Big One”.

Everyone in the state of California knows this.  Yet, how many are actually PREPARED for it?

Chick’s stand-up lesson was powerful.  Our beliefs are evident from our actions.  Not what we SAY, but what we DO.  From our actions, most of us believe that we will live forever, that our negative actions have no consequences, that nothing can ever hurt us. This is the epitome of what I call EXCLUSIVITY – that we are removed from everything and everyone

Why aren’t we all as prepared as Callenbach was?  Yes, his preparations cost him and his wife weeks of time and thousands of dollars – probably less than a remodel on a house, less than a used car.  We spend thousands on remodels, vacations, or sports equipment… but spending the same amount to prepare for upcoming turbulence seems absurd.

How many of us say things like, “Oil is about to run out!”  How many of us ACT like it is?

This comes from addiction… Addiction to the Status Quo.  It makes people, even those who call themselves “revolutionaries”, shrink back from the magnitude of the tasks ahead of us.  How many “futurists” tout a world that looks just like this one… with the light bulbs changed?

And, its not just the turbulence of an earthquake.  ALL of our tectonic plates are in motion – political, economic, social, cultural, even spiritual.  Most of us are addicted to the status quo on all of it.  Most of us just turn up the volume on our 500 channels of cable TV.

Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” gave us permission to think the unthinkable: what happens WHEN the United States government goes away?  (It’s as inevitable as the San Andreas Fault… IT’S ONLY A QUESTION OF WHEN.)  What are the tools, techniques and processes that we must invent and rediscover, to create a positive future for all?

I was further inspired when, some years later, I discovered another slim but mighty book by him, “A Citizen Legislature” (with Michael Phillips).  Here’s an uber-radical thought: how about a DEMOCRACY that does away with ELECTIONS?  Where every citizen has the duty of a term of service in the legislature?  No more bought and paid for politicians, no need for electoral reform… because there are more elections!

One could say that Callenbach was indeed foolish.  Since the “Big One” didn’t happen during his lifetime, his work in preparing for it was “wasted”.

Wasted, compared to what?  Yes, we who envision the future could spend more time watching television, going to Las Vegas, following sports teams, polishing the car… But, I believe that the means and the ends are ONE.  The question is not whether we fully entertain ourselves with our various pastimes.  The question is whether or not I am living and acting true to my destiny and true to my soul.

Callenbach’s demand – that we envision that which we don’t want to think about – is the mark of a true revolutionary.  He truly inspired me.  I will miss him.





9 Comments, RSS

  • Ted Polozov

    says on:
    May 21, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Great exposition Sharif,
    I’ll be sure to add it to my list!

    • Sharif

      says on:
      May 21, 2012 at 11:08 am

      Time for my “true confession”: Although I’ve read “Ecotopia” many times, I never read his prequel, “Ecotopia Emerging”! I thought that I had enough of an idea of what it was about from my conversations with him. (This, despite the fact that he GAVE me my copy!) It sat on my “to be read” shelf — which lets you know how old some of the books on that shelf are!

      I’ve taken it down, and I’m going to read it, now…



  • Brian Setzler, CPA

    says on:
    May 21, 2012 at 10:38 am

    Thank you for the reminder that our actions speak volumes about our beliefs.

    So why do we remain stuck when our intellect knows the status quo is dangerous and in need of transformation? In graduate school I was introduced to the works of Kegan and Lahey, two Harvard psychologists who studied this phenomena.

    The book I read in school was “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation.” This book helped me learn some new tools for transformation.

    A 2009 book, “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Leadership for the Common Good)” seems like it might be good reading to understand why we as individuals and as a collective are immune to change.

    This is from the book description:

    “A recent study showed that when doctors tell heart patients they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully. Desire and motivation aren’t enough: even when it’s literally a matter of life or death, the ability to change remains maddeningly elusive. Given that the status quo is so potent, how can we change ourselves and our organizations?”

    • Sharif

      says on:
      May 21, 2012 at 11:28 am

      Brian, thanks for the book referrals. Both sound interesting — I’ll take a look at them on my next trip to Powell’s…

      The blurb about the heart patients is very telling.

      I actually think that the “impetus for stasis” is hard-wired into us, as a generational survival mechanism. Sort of, “whatever you’ve been doing to survive, keep doing it”. From a tribal and generational perspective, “status quo-ism” was the mechanism that prevented societies from falling apart. It made tons of sense, when humans had minimal impact on their environment (when it took 20 men a week to cut down one old-growth tree); when “war” consisted of one guy trying to hack to death someone trying to do the same to him.

      Now, when one person in a machine can “harvest” 20 trees in an hour, when “war” consists of pushing buttons on one continent, and watching people die (via video) on another, “status quo-ism” becomes our PRIMARY barrier to effective transformation.

      Or, as my favorite author** says, “People will continue to enact their story, even a dysfunctional story, until they are given a better one”.



      ** Modest prevents me from revealing my favorite (and most handsome) author…

  • Jonathan Betz-Zall

    says on:
    May 21, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for posting this message, Sharif. I, too, was inspired by my first reading of Ecotopia in 1976, in fact I’ve been trying to help create Ecotopia ever since then! I named my first child after Marissa Brightcloud. And thanks for sharing the insight you gained from this post earthquake encounter. I’ve been thinking about this too but have reached a different conclusion and set of actions than Chick did. Fleeing to the hills where you aren’t already part of the community only invites parasites and invaders; sooner rather than later they will overwhelm your defenses so you might as well have stayed home. Instead, we’re building resilience where we are, stockpiling supplies to share with our neighbors and creating community with them as our only real defense.
    Cheerio! Jonathan

    • Sharif

      says on:
      May 21, 2012 at 3:19 pm


      Thanks for the post… much food for thought!

      Both responses (yours and Chicks) are better than continuing with “status quo-ism”. And, between the two… yours might be deeper and more “elegant”.

      Something I left out of the original post… Chick was laying in more supplies and seeds than he and his wife needed — he was planning on putting the “parasites” to work! That said, organizing with people (and with


      ) with whom you already have a relationship is even better!

      As you do this, avoid the tendency to “turn inward” — just creating a slightly improved version of “status quo”. Become evangelicals, taking the positive vision out to other communities.



  • Sharon

    says on:
    May 21, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    But- If you envision all of the bad things that could happen then aren’t you making them come to past and bringing them into reality.

    • Sharif

      says on:
      May 21, 2012 at 3:22 pm

      No, I don’t think so. Driving carefully past road hazards or removing sharp objects from children doesn’t mean you are energizing the potential negative consequences.

      DWELLING on the possible negative consequences, while doing nothing positive to avert them, DOES magnetize what you don’t want…



  • Carol

    says on:
    May 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Thank you, Sharif, for this beautiful tribute to your friend…we like to think we are prepared, but there is always so much more we can do. Also, thanks to you, I have subscribed to the webcasts for the Spring of Sustainability (for life), as it’s difficult to listen “live” here in Hawai’i due to the time differences. I can’t wait to hear your presentation, I’ve been watching for it! Malama pono and aloha.

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