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Ecological Optimism and the Guide to Go With It

Don Weiss reviews Ernest Callenbach's Ecology: A Pocket Guide

Ecology: A Pocket Guide, by Ernest CallenbachWallace Stegner once called ecology "a harder form of literacy" than reading and despaired of teaching the American public to change its ways. Ernest Callenbach, author of the famous utopian novel Ecotopia, thinks this is an unduly negative view. His latest book, Ecology: A Pocket Guide, is a tool we can use to educate one another about ecology.

The book is organized as a glossary of the terms ecologists use to understand and explain the world—from Air to Zoos. Most entries combine the "What" and "How" of scientific discourse with the all-important "Why" of philosophy. Even more importantly, he gives the "What Else"—the connections between facts that are the essence of ecological thinking.

For example, in the section on Urban Ecology, he makes clear that an appreciation of and adherence to ecological thinking doesn't lead to the conclusion that we should all move back to the land and live as our ancestors did. First of all, as he points out in the section Population, there are too many of us for that (see his entry for Carrying Capacity). But more importantly,

Cities have been vital centers for human societies all over the world since before human history began. In fact, cities are the single most productive invention of the human species.

They are also, in some countries and potentially all over the world, extremely efficient places for human habitation. If they are allowed to develop organically, with an emphasis on complex interactions of living, working, shopping and recreation within neighborhoods, they can develop into what he calls "modern ecocities." This is, after all, the logical extension in human affairs of the wisdom gained from studying natural processes, the wisdom that is ecology. Callenbach wisely refuses to draw a line between human artifacts and processes and natural ones—after all, we're a part of the world, too. By applying what has been learned in the study of ecology to human affairs, we can, potentially, improve our society and the way it lives in the world. This is an optimistic view, but one based on a study of the natural world.

This optimism pervades Ecology, A Pocket Guide, and elevates it above those books that seem to shout, "The world is going to hell unless you get out there and protest!" Near the end, in a section on Values, Callenbach lays out his optimistic view of our emerging ecological consciousness:

At some great turning points in history, dominant values become exhausted or problematic and people work out new values that they hope will enable them to survive better. With the rise of capitalism, Western peoples have adopted the belief that technology can solve all our problems and is the most important thing in life while religious and cultural matters have become secondary. At the moment, many Americans are seeking ways to escape the values of expansionist industrialism (embodied in the key idea of Growth) and live by new values associated with ecology (embodied in the key idea of sustainability).


Don Weiss is program director of EcoTopia/USA, a Web-based environmental education and promotion non-profit organization based in Santa Cruz, California.
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Ecology: A Pocket Guide
by Ernest Callenbach

University of California Press, 1998
ISBN 0-520-21463-3


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