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An Ecosterian Conundrum


Illustration by CARL CONWAY
An Ecosterian conundrum
Kirkpatrick Sale unearths a missive from the future.

The following pages of a hand-written diary were found a few weeks ago in a desk in a large mansion 40 miles north of New York City, under circumstances which remain a mystery ...

21 MARCH 2025
This day, the day on which Saint Benedict expired, seems an appropriate day on which to begin this diary. I won’t say he was an inspiration for us, except in the most mediated sense, but he was one of those whose example taught us the virtues of the communitarian life of devotion. That our devotion is to Gaia and not to God, and our community more egalitarian and diverse than anything he ever knew, does not diminish the kind of model for our work those early Christian monestarians provided.

In any case, I am setting down this story for reasons more terrestrial than divine. For although this community, one of the Gaian-centered ecosteries set up at the very end of the last century, was able to survive the Ecotastrophe it is now in the midst of another crisis. I feel I must tell something about the turmoil we are now going through for the benefit of those who will continue to live here as well as for any who may see these words in the future.

I am guided in this by the incontestable truth that the Ecotastrophe at last made clear: the industrial way of life brought to its perfection by the high-tech corporations and their subservient nation-states over the last few decades is nothing but a way of death, certain to end with the destruction of great numbers of surface species and systems. If the Ecotastrophe taught us nothing else, it surely taught us that – right into the marrow of our bones.

31 MARCH 2025
I must explain the Ecotastrophe.

First of all, it wasn’t one thing so much as an accumulation of all the multiple perils inherent in industrial civilization. The reckless devotion to industrialism produced chemicals that were pumped into the environment, that in turn produced the ever-enlarging ozone holes. From there came the ultra-violet radiation that killed off fragile species, destroyed forest and sea ecosystems, and allowed new viruses to flourish where those systems had been damaged.

The same devotion produced carbon pollution which in turn accelerated global warming. Inevitably, the ocean began to rise – about two feet by 2015. This destroyed coastal and inland systems worldwide, and made the tinderboxes that burst into a series of megafires for a decade. And so on. Industrialism, unable to stop itself, created the conditions for its self-destruction – just as those of us in the Ecosterian movement always said it would.

It all came to a head in the middle of 2020 with the first of the great die-offs, in Australia. That was when we realized that our environmental assaults had tipped the delicate oxygen-carbon balance that had allowed aerobic species like ours to flourish on the earth for more than three billion years. Great areas of the mesosphere were so carbon-heavy that human life below them could not continue. It was worst in the ozone-depleted areas, but global warming, the decline in the oxygen-producing capacity of disturbed ocean and forest ecosystems, and the terrible oxygen-depleting megafires indicated that it would soon affect most places on earth.

The toll was catastrophic. In less than a month all surface life in Australia was done for, New Zealand followed quickly, then Indonesia and the few Melanesian islands that hadn’t been flooded. The main Asian continent remained relatively unaffected for nearly a year.

Then, at the beginning of 2021, a world-wide ban on automobile use was introduced. The United Nations Army was stretched to the limit, yet it effectively monitored the ban everywhere but China. There was an embargo on all coal and oil shipments similarly enforced by UN might. But of course the horse had long bolted by then. The next big die-off came in southern Africa in March of 2021. A few months later a huge oxygen hole appeared over South America.

The global North, which had been pretty smug up until then (the North American Coalition even closed its borders against the hordes trying to escape from the South) suddenly began to suffer. Northern Russia, Scandinavia, Britain and Canada were particularly affected. By the next summer, oxygen holes were presumed to exist in every region of the globe and uncountable numbers of every aerobic species were dead and dying. I say ‘presumed’ because there were no reliable sources of information since the global news systems had collapsed along with other systems. In those few places where human life survived the only news came from a few straggling travelers.

But there were – there are – survivors. Much to the surprise of the scientists, there were some localized spots, mostly in the North and mostly away from industrial centers, that were able to resist the onslaught. These were mainly wetland areas with low population densities, high vegetation densities, no fossil fuels and self-sufficient agriculture.

It came as no surprise to us at the Hudson Ecostery, or to anyone else in the Ecosterian movement. For the last 30 years we have been preaching the Gaian message that the only way for humans to survive on earth was to give up the industrial world, isolate themselves in small self-sufficient communities devoted to ecological restoration and to get off the carbon teats of industrialism. We had to learn the ways of simple living and environmental harmony – and beg Gaia for forgiveness.

And so in these last three years the collapse of industrial civilization has actually meant very little to us, has not really changed our lifestyles much except that we no longer get global or even much inter-ecosterian news. Some of us don’t mind at all; I call the Ecotastrophe the ‘Freedom From Information Act’. We have gone on within our enclave, working hard to keep all its systems and species functioning despite the devastation outside.

Until the crisis that now so roils us. That has changed everything.

7 APRIL 2025
I see that sentence now – the one with which I ended the last entry – and my pulse races.

Illustration by CARL CONWAY Our current crisis started just about a year ago, when we made the first tentative moves to assess conditions in the immediately surrounding bioregion. Our atmospheric readings suggested that oxygen depletion seemed to have peaked sometime in mid-2023 and there was now oxygen in the area just beyond our forest. One or two brave types made forays out. Breathing conditions were found to be tolerable, at least until the heat of the summer. And so this winter and spring a good deal of exploration has gone on.

It was a few weeks ago, on 20 March, that Jack Cassian, one of our most veteran ecosterians, found the remains of a gas station a few miles away. Slightly exposed in the ground behind it were three huge tanks of gasoline with their fuel still in them, miraculously unexploded. He announced the news at dinner that night:

‘Ecosterians, I am bound to tell you of a discovery I made Outside today that I think will prove momentous for our little community. I have located a source of gasoline that just might provide an answer to a lot of the problems that have been nagging us.’

He held up a hand. ‘Now I know that a lot of you are going to start complaining. But please. I have given this a lot of thought. I want you to do the same. It won’t be hard to find a generator somewhere, or make one out of odd parts. With that much gasoline we could supply electricity here for at least two or three years on a modest scale. We could have electricity for lights on the main perimeter entrances and be able to spot any intruders, like the wild man who broke in last month – and believe me, there’ll be more of them as the air improves. We could use it for some of the cooking so we wouldn’t have to use up so much precious wood – particularly since the Outside forests are likely to take maybe 10 to 20 years to regenerate. We could even use it for lights in the labs and library at night so we don’t have to go blind with those damn candles and don’t risk another fire like the one that damaged the music collection.’

I was groaning out loud at this point. All this was complete heresy, an absolute travesty of all that Gaianism and Ecosterianism stood for – and Jack knew it full well.

He went on: ‘Oh, I know that some of you, you purists, think that what I’m saying is out of bounds because it means using fossil fuels and we all know what happened when they were used on a massive scale. But I’m just talking about a little gasoline generator, for Gaia’s sake! That’s not going to have any effect on our air here or the atmosphere around us. It will do no harm – and look at all the benefits it would bring. I can’t think of any reason except some kind of pious old-fogeyism to deny ourselves these improvements.’

Well, uproar followed and went on for nearly three hours before we broke for the night. And it has been just as heated in the two weeks since. I needn’t go into the details – I can’t bear to. But as I took pains to point out several times in our discussions, for us to adopt Jack Cassian’s plan would mean not only abandoning the principles of our community but would also very likely restore industrial culture here and give it a base from which it could spread out and condemn the world again.

Our principles are important in themselves: that we use only renewable fuels in our lives so as not to deplete the stock of the living earth’s living treasures; that we live simply so that all other species may simply live; that we live in accordance with the rhythms of nature, and make only minimal use of artificial light and heat; and that we do not use technologies that do violence to the earth – of which petroleum ones are the most heinous – on any scale at any time under any conditions.

But beyond this, adoption of electricity would mean that we were knowingly headed down that slippery slope of industrial thinking that had led to the Ecotastrophe. The kind of thinking that says that ‘if a thing can be done it should be’ and ‘if it’s easier it’s better’.

I was astonished to find that there were people who tended to side with Jack’s madness. Not the older generation, not the founding parents of 1997 and the early joiners. But many people who had been with us a long time and should have known better. One woman, Liana Campana, who had been an ecosterian for a couple of decades at least, said she was troubled but felt that the security of the community would be improved by electricity at the entryways. As the mother of a six-year-old she didn’t want to take chances with any more dangerous intruders. A younger man, who went by the name of Snake – it was the fashion for newcomers to take animal names after their vision quests – argued that we were exactly the kind of community that could be trusted with technology from the old days. We would use it wisely and not let it get out of hand, as non-ecosterians might if they got hold of that gasoline.

So the argument has raged – much to my astonishment, since I had thought Jack’s idea so preposterous. Tonight it gets put to a vote. I wish I were sure we would win. I am not. I don’t know what’s come over so many people, why the idea of technical ease and power can be so seductive to them, why they should be so willing to compromise – no, abandon – the ideas by which they’ve lived for so long. But that is why I began these notes, so that future generations can prepare themselves for these kinds of controversies.

Whichever way it goes, this vote will change our community for years to come. I will know better tomorrow how to assess our future – actually, the bioregion’s future, and perhaps the world’s.

8 APRIL 2025
I pray to Gaia for...

Unfortunately the manuscript presented to us ends at this point.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of seven books including Rebels Against the Future which tells the story of the Luddite rebellion against the Industrial Revolution. He lives in New York State and is currently working on a novel set in the future.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

New Internationalist issue 269 magazine cover This article is from the July 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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