Green thoughts

Terra Nova
February 21, 1997

It is twenty years since Mary Douglas alerted us, in Purity and Danger, to one of the major underlying explanations for the growth of environmental concerns. Environmental anxiety, she told us, was but a mirror of anxiety about social form. Moreover, she went on, the articulation of ecological risk was a favourite device for sectarian social groups that sought to move their agendas towards the centre of society and make them socially acceptable. Friends of the Earth, the Quakers, and even feminist antinuclear groups were all really far more concerned about their own social vulnerability than about any real danger that might threaten those parts of the environment they purported to speak up for.

Most of us today would not agree with Douglas, since so many of us actually believe the frightening statistics about ecological change, the dwindling numbers of species, accelerating deforestation and the widening ozone hole. But with the appearance of a major new semipopular journal from the United States, Terra Nova, we are going to be forced to consider once more, Douglas-fashion, the risks to social form, and not just to neglect them as we panic about the very real aspects of ecological degradation.

To help us in this task Terra Nova digs deeply into the mix between urban and wilderness, with contributions from philosophy, literature, history, anthropology, science, environmental studies, politics, activism and the arts. It is heavily illustrated with some fine photographs. Moreover, this beautifully produced journal deserves our attention because it appears decisively to mark out the dimensions of a clamouring American angst that is comparatively new. Teresa Brennan, the historian of psychoanalysis, has recently called this phenomenon "green paranoia".

This is the angst of a society deeply disturbed by violence, by the social atomisation inherent in a car-addicted society and by a deepening abyss of inequality and social deprivation. The slide towards ecological ruin is only the icing on a remarkably worrying looking social cake.

For non-Americans, Terra Nova forces us to consider how far the existential and ecological crisis as Americans perceive it is particularly American or particularly new. The difference between 1970-71 (when Friends of the Earth and the modern environmental movement really began) and today is that environmental sensibility has now firmly entered the American academic mainstream: and this time the prominent intellectual figures of the new green movement are found in the East and not just the hippy Californian West.

When did this coming of age occur? Very recently, I think. In late 1995 the New York Times colour magazine published a special issue on "The greening of the humanities". Fittingly, the Times commented, the most exciting integration of green thinking into courses in literature, history and social studies had occurred at Middlebury College in Vermont, the "Green State". Vermont had also been the birthplace of George Perkins Marsh, whose conservationist masterpiece, Man and Nature, on the earth as transformed by human action, appeared at the end of the civil war. Environmentalist phases in American history always seemed to have emerged from the trauma of war. How are we to account, then, for the current state of environmentalism in the United States? Is it peaking, or waning, or merely precociously penetrating the nitty-gritty of the academy and the humanities in a way that has not yet happened in Britain or Europe or Southeast Asia? Terra Nova gives us some answers, some of them contradictory, some of them banal. As David Rothenberg says, "my motivation for starting Terra Nova is not to go after the sensational, the factual or even particularly the relevant immediacies of possible impending environmental doom or revelation. Instead, I believe in a more subtle approach. It is my feeling that the connections between humanity and nature are far more diverse, mysterious and confusing than most ecological writing has been willing to admit ..."

The pages of the first issue of the journal live up to this promise of subtlety. In an article called "D. B. Cooper, where are you now?" we are told the little-remembered, Marie Celeste-like story of a 1971 air hijacking, "the only unsolved sky-jacking in American history". Courtesy of Northwest Airlines, Cooper parachuted with $200,000 from a Boeing 7 at 10,000 feet over the old growth forests of Washington state and was never tracked down. So what are we to make of this? For Terra Nova, it seems, Cooper might have been a new kind of all-American hero, a quiet and ultimately nonviolent saboteur of the technological system, perhaps a forerunner of the Unabomber, that Berkeley-educated killer, demented hermit and wise critic of the modern economic system who was finally tracked down in the year Terra Nova was founded.

What is important about Terra Nova is that, for the first time, we see the American environmental movement being forced to look right outside the continent for solutions, most notably to India and Australia, in a search for alternative strategies of protest. In a powerful evocation of local struggles against corporate industrial polluters around New Delhi, Bikram Nanda and Mohammad Talib describe the traumas of the dissolution of the environmental and moral community of the village and the defining struggles of poor activists. In the publishers' blurb for the journal this article is unaccountably touted as "surreal" but the uncomfortable truth is that Terra Nova evades any class analysis of the hard facts of the easy and gross pollution of Indian livelihoods by law-breaking big commercial interests, buoyed up by World Bank-advocated programmes for "liberalisation" and "structural adjustment". The connections between poverty, social degradation and ecological damage are, perhaps, made far less easily by Americans than by Indians. For there is a "real" world out there beyond Yosemite, and beyond the New Age search for personal fulfilment whose somewhat self-indulgent and insular echoes permeate the pages of Terra Nova. The problem is that the American sense of national identity is inextricably tied up with the right to bear arms, with western "wilderness" and, above all, with giant redwood trees. Australian identity is similarly tied up, as Jennifer MacCulloch has demonstrated in her recent book, with the macho outback male, koalas and giant eucalyptus trees. Unfortunately all these icons tend to reinforce a separatism between nature and culture, due in part to their origins in a colonising experience. These conflicts are effectively presented in Terra Nova 3, above all in the poem "Boy with a .2 2" - sadly prophetic in view of the recent rural massacres in Tasmania and New Zealand.

More excitingly, a romantic but possible naturalistic redemption emerges in the course of a brilliant and horrifying paper by green activist Val Plumwood called "Being prey". In this true story Plumwood tells a moral tale of the consequences of neglecting Aboriginal beliefs and warnings in the search for personal recreation. Canoeing alone in the Northern Territory of Australia, she is dragged thrice to the river bottom by a crocodile and still manages to escape and crawl (for 24 hours!) back to her friends, albeit with parts of her thigh hanging off her. Plumwood has herself become an icon of the survival of the Australian environmental movement. Her current struggle, together with Peter Herbst, to save the Monga forest of New South Wales from the bulldozers, has made much of the Australian forests as sacred space. Her story, and that of the hybrid Aborigine/green movement in Australia, is one that Americans, and other westerners, would do well to pay attention to. With such tales, Terra Nova has done a great service in drawing the American environmental movement out of its purist and isolationist adolescence. Long may it continue to do so.

Richard Grove is senior fellow,Institute of Advanced Studies, AustralianNational University.

Terra Nova: Nature and Culture (four times a year)

Editor - David Rothenberg
ISBN - ISSN 1081 0749
Publisher - MIT Journals
Price - $48.00 (indiv.), $111.00 (instit.)
Pages - -

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