Fellow: Awarded 1999
Field of Study: General Nonfiction
Competition: US & Canada
Eric Zencey is a novelist, essayist, lecturer, and social thinker currently serving as a Visiting Associate Professor of Historical and Political Studies in the International and Graduate Programs of Empire State College, State University of New York. His work in Empire’s International Programs takes him regularly to Prague, Czech Republic; Tirana, Albania; and other program locations in Europe.
He received a B.A. in Political Science and Economics from the University of Delaware in 1976. Interested in the intersection of these two disciplines as an avenue toward understanding the physical and conceptual roots of our ecologically unsustainable society, he pursued graduate work in political theory and political philosophy at the University of Delaware and Claremont Graduate University, receiving a Ph.D. from the latter school in 1985. His dissertation on “Entropy as Root Metaphor” was a broad ranging treatise on the ways that the second law of thermodynamics has found uses outside the realm of physics; one chapter called for the further articulation of what has come to be known as “ecological economics”—a school of economic thinking that, in contrast to reigning versions of the neoclassical model, sees the laws of thermodynamics as having direct and immediate application to economic processes, and which, as a consequence, recognizes that infinite economic growth is impossible on a finite planet. Other chapters looked at the historical theories of Henry and Brooks Adams, at the novels of Thomas Pynchon, at the “thermodynamic revolution” in biology that brought us our modern understanding of ecological systems.
Portions of that dissertation found their way into various essays Mr. Zencey wrote for The North American Review in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly “Some Brief Speculations on the Popularity of Entropy as Metaphor.” Work from the dissertation is also evident in the novel he published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1995, Panama. Briefly a best seller and translated into a dozen languages, Panama was hailed as a literary thriller, an historical-mystery-novel of ideas, and was favorably compared to work by Umberto Eco and Caleb Carr. The novel places the American historian Henry Adams (whose musings on the decline of democracy were influenced by the second law) into the scandal surrounding the collapse of the French Panama Canal Company in Paris in 1893.
Mr. encey taught politics, history, economics, and philosophy at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, from 1980 to 1995, when he left to be a full-time writer. In 1997 he brought out a collection of essays, Virgin Forest (Georgia UP), which develop a theme: because natural processes happen in geological time, historical understanding is a necessary element of an ecological consciousness. “If we are out of place in nature, we are also out of place in time, and the two forms of exile are related.” One essay in that collection, “The Rootless Professors” (first published in 1985), traces one root of our ecological problems to the environmental disconnectedness of academics, and helped spur the development of place-based education and programs in environmental literacy.
In addition to support from the Guggenheim Foundation, Mr. Zencey's work in nature writing and nature "thinking" has also received support from the Rockefeller-Bellagio and Bogliasco Foundations. He explained his development and his current work in an extended interview with Thailand’s The Nation:
As an undergraduate back in the 1970s, I lived through the US gas crisis, as it was called then—after US domestic oil production peaked in 1971, OPEC exercised its new-found market power and set a market-demand proration for oil that raised its price significantly in the US. It was, for some Americans, the first clear intimation that energy isn't just another commodity and that there are limits to our ability to exploit past solar energy—fossil fuel—to make wealth in the present. Another formative experience was majoring in politics and economics, which at my university were housed in different departments, different colleges. In studying those subjects I was trying to understand what we were doing to the planet and what we were thinking while we did it—the idea being, we need to change the way we think if we're going to have an ecologically sustainable society. I pursued those two questions through graduate school and have been thinking and working in this field since then. Currently I'm working on my next book, "Factory Planet: Preserving Democracy in an Era of Ecological Constraint." The American political and economic system is built on the assumption that we can have infinite economic growth, and when we come up against limits, as we are, it's clear that some things have to change. So I'm trying to do Green Political Economy—showing where and how our theories in politics and economics, and the institutions built on that thinking, have to change as we recognize that we can't have infinite economic growth on a finite planet.
Portions of "Factory Planet" have been published as essays and op-eds under such titles as "Mr. Soddy's Ecological Economy," "G.D.P. R.I.P," "Is Industrial Civilization a Pyramid Scheme?", "Fixing Locke: Civil Liberties for a Finite Planet," and "The Financial Crisis is the Environmental Crisis."
Eric Zencey is married to the novelist Kathryn Davis, and currently splits his time between Montpelier, Vermont, and St. Louis, Missouri, where Ms. Davis is the Fanny Hurst Senior Fiction Writer in Residence at Washington University.
Spouse: Kathryn Davis, Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction, 2000