I would have to say that I am the EcoGeek that I am because of Ernest Callenbach.
Ernest Callenbach died a couple of weeks ago. His name isn’t necessarily all that recognizable, although I understand that more than a million copies of his book, ‘Ecotopia‘ have been published, and in more than a dozen languages. This is not so much an obituary as it is a remembrance of what Ernest Callenbach meant to me.
It may not all have started with him, I’m sure there are other influences, maybe some of them have been stronger than his. But, his book – ‘Ecotopia’ – sparked my imagination powerfully at the time that I read it, and it was certainly an important early influence on me and my development, and it helped steer me toward being the environmentally-oriented person I am today.
‘Ecotopia’ was not the sort of thing I was likely to read at that time. I was very interested in science-fiction in those days, and Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were some of my favorites. While today it is possible to think of ‘Ecotopia’ as a science-fiction book, it wasn’t classified as such, and probably never would have crossed my path under normal circumstances.
I remember listening to the radio, some local AM station, one night when I was in middle school. It was probably a Top-40s station of that 1970s period, and, in addition to the pop music, they also had some little syndicated pieces they would air. That night, there was a 60-second book review of Ernest Callenbach’s book, ‘Ecotopia.’ There was enough in that review to make it sound interesting to me, though I don’t recall now anything the reviewer said about it. But I know I was interested enough that I eventually sought out the book and read it.
Things about ‘Ecotopia’ just resonated with me. I don’t recall whether it was in middle school or if it wasn’t until early high school when I read it, but I do recall how much it struck a chord with me.
Some of the descriptions of the first glimpses of Ecotopian cities also captured my architectural imagination, as well. My interest in being an architect goes back at least as far as early in middle school. There have been big detours in my career, but the interest in the field has deep roots for me. The idea of more walkable, pedestrian-friendly, and most of all *attractive* streets appealed to me then, as well as now. The single image from the book that sticks most strongly with me is the description of a street where the old storm sewers were torn out and a natural stream was planted down the middle of the street in its place.
Trains and monorails (yes, monorails; this was the 70s, before monorails had their public failures and developed their more contemporary pop culture references) were used for most transportation, with electric vehicles used for local transport. Space colonies were another product of the late 70s that bore some of the same impetus to make a better place with a rich vein of techno-optimism running through it. Both were equally appealing to me, though both are equally impossibly out of reach.
It is not only the environmental consciousness aspects of Ecotopia that were important for me. The social aspects of the government and of work that make up Ecotopian society are also appealing. The ideas of a more relaxed and flexible work life, that is more about human enrichment and less about lining the pockets of the executives are ones I’ve come across on more than one occasion, but this was probably the first time I encountered such radical notions.
A lot of Ecotopian activity was brought down to a more human scale. Corporations definitely are not people in Ecotopia. People are much more prone to deal with one another on a human being to human being level, rather than as scripted spokes-droids for their corporate masters. Even health care is largely done in a small scale setting rather than a big, warded hospital.
In graduate school, after one of those long detours, when I was finally studying architecture, my thesis project research led me into examining cohousing, which was even more unusual and unknown than it is now. Cohousing isn’t explicitly described in ‘Ecotopia,’ but the ideas and the kind of living presented by cohousing would certainly be comfortable to the Ecotopians. They would understand its small community dynamics and would be able to fit right in.
Before building a building, Ecotopians had to work in forestry, and were required to plant trees in order to replace those they were going to harvest for construction. There is an awareness of the past and the future carried in that kind of approach. The idea of product life-cycle takes on a whole different tenor when you are more intimately connected to the origins and the end use, and have to confront your own use of resources, as well as taking responsibility for replenishing those resources for those who will come after you.
When I read Joel Garreau’s ‘Nine Nations of North America,’ which looks at the different regional character of parts of the country, one of those was called Ecotopia, and it very much matched the area Callenbach had originally described and its character followed in the outlines of what Callenbach had written.
I think I’ve only read ‘Ecotopia’ twice. As I said, it certainly stuck with me the first time, and then I dug it out to re-read it before trying to get in touch with Ernest Callenbach a few years ago. It’s on my list for another re-read now.
I had a brief email correspondence with him for a possible interview for EcoGeek (to be part of the EcoGeek of the Week series on EcoGeek.org). I had only done a couple of these interviews; a couple of them went well; a couple others less so (and never got published). Ernest Callenbach was a hero to me, and I didn’t want to screw that one up, and I wanted to ask good questions. I have the first part of that discussion, but things telescoped and other things came up and the interview was never finished.
I’m extremely sorry I never followed up with that, and I’m sorry that I didn’t have the chance to correspond with him further. Ernest Callenbach had written a final letter to his readers, which was discovered on his computer after his death and was recently published. I found it well worth reading and insightful, going beyond the caricatures of Ecotopia and presenting his views of the possible in the present day.
Reviewers will tell you that ‘Ecotopia’ is a flawed book, that its assumptions are not realistic, that its characters are two-dimensional, and that the whole thing is a bunch of political hooey. I’m not going to argue that it is fantastic literature, or that it offers a compelling narrative, or that it’s the roadmap to our salvation. I can see the flaws, and yet love it even more for the vision it offers of what could be. In the third of a century that has passed since it was first written, many things from Ecotopia have come to pass, at least in some form, although not necessarily just as cast in the novel. More of it is coming. It’s not an especially long read, and I consider it well worth it, especially if you have a drop or two of EcoGeek in you, too.
Ecotopia at Amazon
(Note: the descriptions and characterizations of ‘Ecotopia’ and Ecotopian society are from my recollections rather than from direct reference. Errors are possible, and I apologize in advance for any mistakes on my part.)