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December 18, 2008
By John Trent
It has been about three decades since Scott Slovic first read the 1970s environmental cult novel, “Ecotopia,” by Bay Area author Ernest Callenbach.
Still, the memory of that first reading remains vivid to Slovic – so vivid, in fact, he’s not surprised that the impact of “Ecotopia” remains profound.
“I read this book around 1978 or ’79, when I was an undergraduate at Stanford,” said Slovic, a professor of English at the University of Nevada, and considered one of the country’s foremost experts in environmental literature. “I think I was attracted to it because it seemed so different from all the literature we were reading in university classes – ‘classics’ by pre-twentieth-century British writers, challenging works of high Modernism by Wallace Stevens and William Faulkner.
“Callenbach had created a story about the future of the very region of the world, the Western United States – and especially the Pacific Northwest – where I had lived most of my life, and it was an inspiring vision of a progressive, green society.”
“Ecotopia” was originally self-published by Callenbach, who is now 79 and lives in Berkeley, Calif.
His novel presages many green themes and environmental actions that are common today: with the nation in financial crisis, Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” world features a Pacific Northwest that secedes from the United States and relies on its citizenry to create a sustainable economy where people eat locally, recycle and use bikes for transportation.
On Dec. 14, journalist Scott Timberg of The New York Times wrote about “Ecotopia” and its influence, noting that, “The novel, now being rediscovered, speaks to our ecological present.” Timberg sought out Slovic’s insight into why Callenbach’s book is considered such an important touchstone in the growth of environmental awareness in the United States and throughout the world.
Timberg quoted Slovic on how much of what we see today in environmentally progressive cities such as Portland, Ore. , where slow-growth, sustainable planning is the norm, can be traced to directly to Callenbach’s book, which saw a first run in 1975 of 2,500 copies.
“People may look at it and say, ‘These are familiar ideas,’” Timberg quotes Slovic as saying, “not even realizing that Callenbach launched much of our thinking about these things. We’ve absorbed it through osmosis.”
As a professor who is always looking to enrich his classroom readings, Slovic said the conversation with Timberg has made him think about perhaps incorporating Callenbach’s work into a future class.
“I do think it would be interesting to go back and look at it again and possibly to introduce it into some of my classes,” said Slovic, who practices his own form of environmental sustainability by riding his bike to campus each morning from his home in southwest Reno. “I would guess that most of my students, even those who are specialists in environmental literature, are not very familiar with Callenbach and may not recognize his role in spurring the environmental movement that we’re starting to take for granted today.
“That’s one of the reasons it’s nice to see journalist Scott Timberg writing about this topic and presenting it in a major forum like The New York Times.”