MONTPELIER — Eric Zencey, professor, writer and social critic, tireless evangelist for a new way of thinking about humankind’s relationship with nature, died on July 1, 2019, at his home in Montpelier. His wife, Kathryn Davis, daughter Daphne Zencey and sister-in-law Anne Davis were at his side. He was 65.
Eric arrived in Vermont in 1980 to teach at Goddard College, and quickly developed a deep love for his adopted state. It was at Goddard where he met Kathryn and where they were married, building a life together and raising their daughter, Daphne, first at the white farmhouse in Woodbury, then the red millhouse with the waterfall in East Calais, before finally moving to Montpelier.
Eric adored hiking Camel's Hump, swimming in #10 Pond, walking with Kathryn and the family dog in Hubbard Park and kayaking with Daphne at Wrightsville. Every August, the family would drive to the north shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island and spend an idyllic vacation along the warmest waters north of the Carolinas. His visit there in 2018, though delayed by a health crisis, was a highlight of his life’s last year.
While his writing focused for the most part on the subject of ecological sustainability, he was also the author of the best-selling 1995 novel Panama, in which Henry Adams (the subject of his PhD dissertation at Claremont Graduate College) turns detective. In addition to Panama, Eric published three works of non-fiction: Virgin Forest: Meditations on History, Ecology and Culture; The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy; and Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State (co-authored with Elizabeth Courtney). Before the final stages of prostate cancer debilitated him, Eric was finishing work on an essay collection, Slumlord Nation, entrusting its completion to his brother, Matt. Eric spent much of his career teaching courses that explored cross-currents among the disciplines of economics, philosophy, political science, history and ecology; he never gave up trying to disabuse the economics profession of its assumption that a planet with billions of people is physically capable of supporting infinite economic growth. In addition to Goddard College, he taught in Empire State College’s International Program, which required frequent travel to its extension campuses in Prague and Albania.
More recently, he served as a visiting lecturer in the Sam Fox School of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as teaching in the Honors Program at the University of Vermont, where he also was a fellow at the Gund Institute. Over the years, Eric’s work was recognized and supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim, Bellagio-Rockefeller and Bogliasco Foundations. His commentaries appeared in several publications, including The New York Times, and he was quoted on National Public Radio and in the Harvard Business Review. He also helped convince Vermont leaders to adopt the GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator), providing a more complete measure of a population’s well-being than the myopic GDP (Gross Domestic Product). After learning that he had exhausted all treatment options for his cancer, Eric responded with characteristic grace, good humor and persistence.
In the months before his death, he raised more than $100,000 to endow the Eric Zencey Prize in Ecological Economics, to be administered by the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont.
Eric is survived by his wife, Kathryn, and his daughter, Daphne, whose return to Vermont gladdened his heart. He is also survived by his brothers Carl Zencey (wife Susanne) and Matthew Zencey (wife Cindy); sister-in-law Anne Davis (husband Joe Mueller); nephews Gregory, Phillip, Nathan and Kyle Zencey and Bryan Shaw, and niece Jennifer. He was predeceased by his parents Ruth and Charles Zencey, and older half-brother C. Frank Shaw. His family is grateful to Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice, and especially for the exceptional care provided by Angie Romero.
Contributions in his memory may be made to the Eric Zencey Prize in Ecological Economics, through the University of Vermont Foundation, 411 Main St., Burlington, VT 05401. A memorial service is planned for Sept. 29 in VCFA’s Chapel.