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Ernest Callenbach, RIP

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Ernest Callenbach, author of Ecotopia, has died. One of the most influential books of the environmental movement, Ecotopia tells the story of a secessionist Northwest that has committed itself to living sustainability.

I must admit, I rather strongly dislike the book. Published in 1975, the book tells the story of William Weston, a mainstream reporter who goes to investigate the new nation of Ecotopia, consisting of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. It explores various ways of green living, but is really about the conversion of Weston to the cause, not only through the demonstration of sustainability, but though smoking a lot of pot, uninhibited sex, and absurd games of warfare meant to foster a particular kind of hippie manhood. While it’s interesting to imagine a sustainable America, there’s much to roll your eyes over. The sex scenes are laughably bad. The manhood exercises are totally ludicrous. And while it was written in 1975 and under the ethnic nationalist context of the times, the fact that not only is virtually everyone in the novel white but that the other secessionist black republic of Oakland is treated in a stereotypical way is deeply frustrating. Is environmentalism only for white people? In Ecotopia, it sure seems this way.

On the other hand, my students LOVE Ecotopia. I’ve only assigned it once actually and I thought they’d see through the ridiculous parts of it to find an interesting window into 70s environmentalism. I think they were sucked in by the drugs and sex, but in any case they clearly saw it as a model of living in 2010. And that’s fine I guess, there is a vision for them to follow in the book, though I hope they can combine with a vision of critical reading skills.

Certainly part of my issue with the book is growing up in Eugene around a counterculture heavily influenced by Callenbach. A hippie, I am not. But Callenbach’s heart was in the right place with the novel and his impact still resonates today.

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