Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology edited by David Macauley, Reviewed by Janet Biehl

This book review was published in Social Anarchism, no. 25 (1998)

Minding Nature sets out to trace ideas of democracy and nature in the thought of a variety of philosophers and social theorists who, according to editor David Macauley, “have enabled us to rethink the possibility of creating a more democratic and ecological society.” The book, which is part of Guilford’s ecosocialist series “Democracy and Ecology,” consists of thirteen essays, many of which originally appeared in the ecosocialist journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. Each essay highlights a single thinker whose work will in some way help us “move toward both democracy and ecology.”

Given this goal, the choice of thinkers who are subjects of the essays is, however, sometimes peculiar. Politically they range over a wide spectrum: some (like Herbert Marcuse and Juergen Habermas) are critical theorists, one is an orthodox Marxist (Ernst Bloch), one is a quasi-Marxist social democrat (Barry Commoner), and one is a fascist (Martin Heidegger). They are joined by a theorist of the public sphere (Hannah Arendt), a regionalist (Lewis Mumford), an anarchocommunist and social ecologist (Murray Bookchin), and a philosopher whose political orientation is undefined (Hans Jonas). An arcane philosopher (the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty), jostles against popular writers on concrete environmental topics (Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich). Most of the thinkers discussed did their work during the twentieth century, but two are entirely preindustrial (Thomas Hobbes and Charles Fourier). Conspicuously missing are the anarchists Reclus and Kropotkin, which suggests that one purpose of the book is to explore the possibilities for an ecosocialist tradition that could parallel the better-defined ecoanarchist tradition.

As might be expected with such diverse thinkers, the essay’s discussions stray far afield from democracy and ecology, to a broad array of topics including religion, language technology, science, ethics, political power, and capitalism; many interesting ideas are raised that deserve consideration. But I will limit my own social-ecology reading of this book to asking how well it succeeds in helping us “move toward both democracy and ecology.”

The writings of Thomas Hobbes, of course, express no such goal but rather some of the obstacles it faces: as essayist Frank Coleman argues (although somewhat overstating the case), Hobbes’s vision is “a principal reason that the domain of nature is presently at risk.” As an authoritarian, Hobbes typically expressed the bourgeois-capitalist’s conception that nonhuman nature is a realm of scarcity. Modernism, Coleman shows, posited a “defect of nature”–that is, a limitation of natural resources or scarcity. Capitalism “generates the perception” of natural scarcity, then tries to “extricate” us from it “through the biblically derived project of dominion over the earth.” These passages of Coleman’s essay are a fine statement of the presumption of scarce resources that provided a rationale for capitalist exploitation, not to speak of nation-state domination.

Charles Fourier, in turn, properly belongs to the various traditions that have attempted to avert these social developments. Still, essayist Joan Roelofs’s characterization of Fourier as “red-green” is grating, since the absence of coercive institutions in Harmonian society (“passionate attractions” among individual members were to be its ordering principle) places Fourier at least as squarely in the black-green tradition. As a preindustrial thinker, however, his phalansteries were almost entirely agricultural, indeed even horticultural, in nature; cities and machines remained in the dim background. As such, his “ecology,” too, is one that minimizes cities and machines and emphasizes agriculture and rural living. Roelofs finds these features of Harmonian society appealing, including its “labor intensive” nature, since “human capital is most important for productivity”; but Harmonian work will be not only tolerable but pleasurable. As a theorist of democracy, however, Fourier is of scant interest: Roelofs herself admits that his phalansteries offered no processes for democratic decision-making.

Since Fourier’s time, the most militant sectors of the various socialist and anarchist traditions have shared at least one thing in common: an aversion to religion, which (apart from Christian socialists and the like) was most often seen as a source of oppression. Anarchists and socialists alike favored taking a secular, rational look at both nature and society, the better to comprehend those realities. This atheism was always salutary, and today some parts of the fragmented left, including but not limited to social ecology, have refused to change with the political weather by adapting themselves to today’s prevailing religiosity. One might expect that this book, as a project of ecosocialists, would treat the topic of nonhuman nature in similarly secular terms. But if anything, when the topic arises, the essays tend toward spiritualistic sensibilities and in some cases mysticism.

Accordingly, several authors in this book seem to identify the historical causes of the ecological crisis less as social than as idealistic in nature, pinning its deepest roots in erroneous ideas, especially religious beliefs. Essayist Michael Zimmerman avers that “dualism between humanity and nature leads to serious ecological (and social) problems.” For essayist David Abram, “The ecological crisis may be the result of a recent and collective perceptual disorder in our species.” If the ecological crisis is caused by ideas, in this line of thought, then ideas are what can provide a solution–especially religious or spiritual ideas. By his understanding of the human subject as “embodied,” says Abram, Merleau-Ponty offers us a new “ecological thinking,” a “renewed awareness of our responsibility to the Earth.” But Abram takes this thinking to a mystical level when he associates Merleau-Ponty’s statement that “the flesh of the world . . . is sensible . . . it is absolutely not an object” with the “Gaia hypothesis,” the mystical notion (based on an extrapolation of some scientific facts about the Earth’s temperature) that “the Earth’s biosphere acts as a vast, living physiology.” Such mysticism (like Zimmerman’s urging that “we need to step back from our incessant action” in favor of “meditative ‘thinking'”) is in accordance with nature romanticism but not with a socially active movement that tries to build a democratic, ecological society.

In some cases the essayists must contort their subject to make him or her relevant to ecological thought. Apologizing for the fact that Merleau-Ponty was a “committed humanist,” even a “recalcitrant” one–as if humanism and ecology were incompatible–Abram takes the notion of “embodiedness” into antihumanism, rejecting the notion that “language [is] that power which humans possess and other species do not.” So “embodied” is language, in his reading, that it nears dissolution into carnality, while “the real Logos,” he tells us, “. . . is Eco-logos.” In this avowedly “creative reading” of Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenologist becomes “the voice of the earth.” Abram “creatively” inserts nonhuman creatures, especially cats and birds and whales, into his subject’s thought: their absence from Merleau-Ponty’s actual writings, he assures us, “is not crucial.” Abram even speculates about a parallel between animal abuse and Stalin’s purges: knowledge of animal abuses by science and agribusiness, he thinks, might have been “as crucial for [Merleau-Ponty’s] rethinking of philosophy, as were the revelations concerning Stalin’s purges when these were disclosed in Europe.” Such formulations only serve to trivialize human suffering and have no place in a socialist or leftist outlook.

That Martin Heidegger also has a place in this book is equally bizarre and equally symptomatic of its spiritualistic tilt. Michael Zimmerman has long sought to convince deep ecologists of the relevance of Heidegger’s thought to their ideas. In his essay here he continues this effort–albeit recently in somewhat modified form, some very damning facts about Heidegger’s relationship with National Socialism having come to light several years ago. Zimmerman now advises that Heidegger’s “relationship with National Socialism” was “complex” (although party membership–the man remained a member of the Nazi party until 1945–is a rather unambiguous fact). In any case, his article is explicitly addressed not to ecosocialists but to deep ecologists, warning them rather mildly of Heidegger’s “political drawbacks” and “reactionary political views.”

One has to credit Zimmerman for persistence, however: he still maintains that “radical ecologists can learn from Heidegger’s philosophy.” (His project, incidentally, is contradicted by his fellow essayist Lawrence Vogel, who warns that “Heidegger’s existentialism gives us no good reason to care about future generations or the long-term fate of planet Earth.”) But what exactly can ecologists learn from this fascist? “Heidegger is right that certain kinds of naturalism are dangerous,” Zimmerman advises–but if Heidegger ever issued such a warning, he does not mention it. Warnings against National Socialism’s “dangers” seem hardly to have been what Heidegger had in mind–the movement he supported was the one that made those dangers into genocidal realities. Least of all can we say that Heidegger has much to contribute to a philosophy of democracy.

Other thinkers discussed in this book are far more relevant to democratic thought but are not in any sense nature philosophers or philosophers of ecology. Hannah Arendt’s writings, most notably, are highly significant for her ideas on democratic political communities and active political citizenship, as well as civic virtue and engagement; her implied commitment to face-to-face decision-making certainly makes her relevant for philosophies of direct democracy, including social ecology’s libertarian municipalism. As essayist David Macauley rightly points out, Arendt “identifies herself with or praises the revolutionary tradition, direct political action and direct democracy (rather than representation), decentralization, forms of organization such as the council system (rather than political parties), and potestas in populo.”

But her relevance to ecological thought is far from clear. Her writings on democracy in The Human Condition suggest, if anything, that the achievement of democracy depends upon the transcendence of nonhuman nature. Essayist Macauley, aware of this problem, admits that “Arendt follows Locke and Marx in characterizing nature as the ‘realm of necessity’ which must be overcome. . . in order to reach the ‘realm of freedom’. . . Arendt’s concept of nature is therefore as ‘blind’ as Marx’s.” Yet he also tries to suggest an “ecological” Arendt by taking up her rather trite discussion of the earth as seen from outer space and inflating it, suggesting that she is afflicted by “earth alienation.” “Themes of homelessness and rootlessness are at the center of Arendt’s political concerns,” we are told: Arendt “feels that we must recover the earth as our home.” None of this is convincing as ecological philosophy, least of all by comparison with her general ideas on nonhuman nature. As if Macauley also realizes that Arendt cannot be reconstructed into a nature philosopher, he acknowledges in the end that she was an “urban” and “cosmopolitan” thinker.

In a similar vein, Joel Whitebook’s “The Problem of Nature in Habermas,” written in the late 1970s and reprinted here with a retrospective introduction, took up the “challenge” of “thinking both democracy and ecology” in the thought of the Frankfurt School theorist Juergen Habermas. Habermas, Whitebook showed, objected to linking the two in a political sense. A defender of the Enlightenment, he attempted to advance “the completion of modernity’s unfinished project of democratization”; yet his position in relation to ecology was “troubling” for ecologists, since it “appeared to relegate nature to the status of a meaningless object of instrumental control.” Using a framework that was largely social ecological in nature (as social ecology was understood in the late 1970s), Whitebook attempted to resolve this dilemma, seeking “the transformation of our relation to the natural world,” in such a way as to address the ecological crisis, while still preserving the “indisputable achievements of modernity,” including its “advances in democratization.” He admits, however, that “the results” of his own article “were anything but conclusive,” since “Habermas’s transcendentalism necessarily precludes any reconciliation with nature.” Once again, democracy remains unreconciled with an ecological approach.

Far more of the thinkers discussed in this book suffer from the opposite problem: their ideas are pertinent to a discussion of nature and ecology but have little to do with democracy. In his discussion of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, essayist Yaakov Garb compares this celebrated work with Bookchin’s Our Synthetic Environment, which treated similar themes and many others and was published six months before Carson’s book’s 1962 publication, to much less notice. Garb points out that “Bookchin’s account of the dangers of pesticides was part of a comprehensive and politically forthright chronicle of the many assaults on the environment and human well-being that he claimed were inevitable in an industrial capitalist society.” By comparison, Carson limited her concerns to the strictly environmental and “remained safely within the bounds of the American mainstream,” ignoring the social concerns that Bookchin expressed. Least of all was Carson a theorist of democracy (nor, to be fair, was Bookchin in 1962): her “call for democratic control and public accountability of scientists and the chemical industry” was “partial and often indirectly phrased.”

As for the regionalist Lewis Mumford, essayist Ramachandra Guha pulls together many of his ideas from a wide variety of sources to remedy a lacuna in American environmental history: recognition of Mumford’s significance. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to assemble Mumford’s thoughts on nonhuman nature, Guha’s essay creates the illusion that Mumford wrote systematically on ecology and espoused a thought-out ecological philosophy. But as Guha himself also admits, Mumford did not present his ecological ideas systematically at all; instead they are “scattered through his writings”; some of the quotations Guha assembles are culled from relatively ephemeral writings. One could make the same point about Mumford as a writer on democracy: his references to it, while they exist, are also scattered, and usually they are references to representative democracy, not face-to-face or direct democracy. Mumford’s writings have significance for social ecology, especially on the aesthetic dimension of green cities, but they leave this reader wishing that he had theorized more coherently about both ecology and democracy.

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