Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment, by Kenneth Worthy

Laurence Coupe on a grand indictment of the ‘Western epistemological error’

November 14, 2013

I’m typing this review on a computer. Although I’ll make a point of not printing a copy in order not to waste paper, the very book I’m reviewing prevents me from congratulating myself. Even as I undertake this exercise, I may be contributing to the horrific contamination of whole areas of Asia, where so much of the recycling of electronics is carried out. Even for those of us who regard ourselves as ecologically responsible, nature is increasingly invisible to us. We simply don’t see the consequences of our actions. Indeed, we are suffering from a radical dissociation from the Earth.

In answer to the question I’m begging here: yes, I do consider the publication of Worthy’s book is more than justified, despite the environmental impact of its composition, production and distribution. It looks to me as though it will be indispensable.

It may go without saying that we must develop a more informed respect for the natural world, but I’ve read few books that make such a thoroughgoing case for ecological awakening. Invisible Nature not only draws attention to what we have overlooked but also spells out the terms of our dissociation. Worthy is substantiating and extending Gregory Bateson’s indictment of “the Western epistemological error”: the delusion that “mind” is the unique possession of humankind and that nature consists of so much alien matter to be manipulated as we see fit.

About three-quarters of the book consists of a useful, thorough and persuasive account of the history of disconnection via dualism, from Plato through Descartes to the present. In a sense it’s an all-too-familiar tale, but I have seldom come across the whole story of how we came to be so hopelessly severed from the sources of life – the very life without which our finest intellectual achievements would never have been possible – told with such detail and eloquence.

In particular, I’m delighted to see the work of the late, sadly missed ecological philosopher Val Plumwood referenced. It was she who spelled out the pernicious effect of dualism: how it has informed an oppressively hierarchical worldview with culture privileged over nature, male over female, reason over nature, rationality over animality, spirit over matter.

Mention of the word “spirit” does remind me, however, that if I have one quibble, it is that I would have liked to see more attention paid to the religious dimension of our current crisis. After all, as Patrick Curry has reminded us, dissociation is also “disenchantment”. Worthy might perhaps have pondered further the implications of Plumwood’s case for a materialist spirituality, which avoids the damagingly transcendental model of orthodox religion by bringing the sacred resolutely down to earth. But even the most comprehensive book cannot include everything a reviewer might want.

Worthy clinches his argument in the closing chapters with specific and sensible guidance on ordering a human community while causing the least possible harm to nature. That is, he provides the blueprint for an associating ethics that might counter our dissociation. This impressive culmination ensures that all the theory covered is given practical force.

It seems, as I say, a necessary book. I keep going back to it and whenever I do I recall the advice, offered in another context by T. S. Eliot: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment

By Kenneth Worthy
Prometheus, 396pp, £11.73
ISBN 9781616147631 and 7648 (e-book)
Published 6 August 2013

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Reader's comments (1)

"I’ve read few books that make such a thoroughgoing case for ecological awakening" It would be great to have this awakening feeling thing shared! I'm left a bit suspicous though, that this book is offering anyting new: certainly the idea that philosophical 'dualism', splitting the world into mind and matter, is the root of our errors in our approach to the natural world has long been a (ahem!) sine qua non of environmentalist writing. In recent years I've enjoyed (if that is the right word) several fine philosohical accounts which go well beyond this idea - such as Ecocide! A Short History of the Mass-Extinction of Species, and even Cells to Civilizations - The Principles of Change That Shape Life. Maybe there's more to this book than the review gives a hint, but I'm not really encouraged to find out.

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