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Ecology, A Pocket Guide

by Ernest Callenbach
Reviewed by Don Weiss

Wallace 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 novel Ecotopia and many other works, thinks this is an unduly negative view and provides one of the tools we can use to educate one another about ecology — a new book called Ecology, A Pocket Guide. It’s a book both timely and, for us at the Ecology Hall of Fame, particularly comforting.

When we started the Ecology Hall of Fame, we put out the word on the internet, asking for nominations, suggestions and comments. Of the emails that came back to us, several argued that our basic concept was flawed. The writers felt we were misusing the term “ecology.” It was, they argued, a scientific term with no implications for social action, a non-philosophic concept. They said what we were creating was an “environmental movement hall of fame” and asked that we change the name.

Ernest Callenbach’s newest book, Ecology, A Pocket Guide, shows us how right we were. Ecology is more than a scientific discipline. It’s a philosophic stance, a way of looking at the world that sees connections, connections between plants, animals, and processes. Though short and small, to fit the subtitle, “A Pocket Guide,” it packs in a wealth of information in prose that is consistently clear, making difficult concepts understandable and highlighting the importance of the simple things that make up life on earth.

The book is organized as a glossary of the terms ecologists use to understand and explain the world. Entries for Water, Soil, Energy, Bacteria, and so forth contain a page or two of explanation covering:

  • What is this?
  • What does it mean, in ecological terms?
  • Why must we understand this and take it into consideration in our everyday lives and our political thinking?

Some of the facts he presents are familiar, but the devil is in the details and often, in ecology, it’s the connection between two “simple facts” that is of crucial importance. Callenbach repeatedly makes these connections, showing that knowledge too follows the First Law of Ecology, “All Things Are Interconnected.”

One of the sections I most appreciated was Urban Ecology. In it, 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 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).”

Ecology, A Pocket Guide is published by University of California Press and should be available at your local bookstore for $9.95.

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