Ernest Callenbach dies at 83; wrote environmental novel ‘Ecotopia’


Ernest “Chick” Callenbach, a film scholar and environmentalist who created a cult favorite in “Ecotopia,” a 1975 novel that predicted with uncanny accuracy a world where recycling is commonplace, food is locally grown and energy comes from the sun, died April 16 in Berkeley. He was 83.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Christine Leefeldt.

“Ecotopia” described a utopian world created by the secession of Oregon, Washington and Northern California from the United States. It takes place in 1999 when a New York newspaper reporter becomes the first American visitor since Ecotopia’s founding 19 years earlier. The story unfolds through the reporter’s articles and diary entries about his experiences in a country governed by eco-friendly principles and a female president.

The book has sold nearly 1 million copies since Callenbach and several friends scraped together enough money for a modest first printing. Later republished by Bantam, it has been translated into a dozen languages, most recently Chinese, and is read in college courses on literature and environmentalism.

“It came out at just the right time in terms of the environmental movement,” activist Ralph Nader said in an interview last week. “Environmentalists had been focusing on pollution inversions, rivers catching fire because of oil slicks, things like that. His book took it to a different level of possibility … and broadened the meaning of ecology.”

When Callenbach wrote the novel he was already halfway through his first career as founding editor of the prestigious journal Film Quarterly, published by University of California Press. He helped broaden the scholarly examination of cinema, drawing early attention to Clint Eastwood as a director, for instance. He also helped foster a new generation of film writers, such as Stephen Farber and David Denby, who were graduate students when they first wrote for him.

“Chick was a terrific editor,” Farber said last week. “I think his own taste tended toward more avant-garde films, but he wanted the magazine to acknowledge all kinds of movies, including Hollywood films. ... In his heyday the magazine published some of the most stimulating writing about film that you could find anywhere.”

Callenbach’s environmental consciousness was formed as a child growing up on a farm in Williamsport, Pa., where he was born on April 3, 1929. The rural lifestyle meant that “everything was recycled because no one was there to carry it away, and we practiced sustainable agriculture … because the country hadn’t gotten on a petrochemical kick yet,” Callenbach told the Chicago Tribune in 1990.

At the University of Chicago, he was involved in a documentary film club and majored in English, earning a bachelor’s in 1949 and a master’s in 1953. In 1955, after a short stint in Paris studying at the Sorbonne and watching four movies a day, he moved to California and was hired as an assistant editor for UC Press. He became the editor of Film Quarterly in 1958 after Pauline Kael, then a film writer and radio show host in Berkeley, turned down the job. He led the magazine for 33 years.

In the early 1970s, the farmer’s son found his disgust with consumer society rising. He was particularly upset at the way the country disposed of sewage by burning or dumping it. He wanted to write a magazine article about the problem but abandoned the project after realizing that he could not offer a practical solution.

Instead, he began to imagine what would have to change for the country to embrace new approaches. He wound up writing “Ecotopia,” where citizens recycle almost everything, anything that can’t be reused is banned, walking or magnetic-levitation trains are the main modes of transportation, and the few cars allowed are electric.

Callenbach was the first to admit that literary style was not the chief merit of the book, which he once described as “half-novel, half-tract.” The manuscript was rejected by 25 publishers, who, according to the author, believed that ecology was a passing fad.

With money raised from friends, he formed Banyan Tree Books and sold out the first couple of printings. After Bantam picked up “Ecotopia” in 1977, Callenbach called his novel “the little book that could,” his wife said.

He is also survived by a son, Hans, of New York City; a daughter, Joanna Callenbach, of San Francisco; and five grandchildren.

Callenbach wrote several other books, including “Living Poor With Style” and “Living Cheaply With Style.” He followed his own precepts: He bicycled to work for many years, drove a used car for 17 years, landscaped with native plants and grew his own vegetables. He bought his clothes from thrift shops until “used” became “vintage” and prices went up.

Proof that “Ecotopia” had a cult following came soon after it was published when he discovered a kind of “Ecotopian lending library” had sprung up. In 1977 Callenbach said he came across one copy that had been inscribed by 20 borrowers in places like Portland, Ore.; Missoula, Mont.; and Alberta, Canada, before it was returned to the original owner.

“That wrecks my royalties,” Callenbach observed, “but it does save trees.”