The Ecological Thought

August 26, 2010

About 15 years ago, the poet Gary Snyder published an article titled "Is Nature Real?". In it he made a heartfelt complaint: "I'm getting grumpy about the slippery arguments being put forth by high-paid intellectuals trying to knock nature and knock the people who value nature and still come out smelling smart and progressive." He had in mind those literary theorists and philosophers who, having discovered the joys of deconstruction, think they are being ever so clever in declaring nature to be nothing more than a cultural construct.

As a Zen Buddhist, Snyder is fully aware that the standard human experience of nature is riddled with illusion. But in all his writings, he has always insisted that it would be absurd to infer that there is no such thing as nature; Zen, after all, involves learning to live at one with it.

It might be said that post-structuralist thinking attempts something similar to the Buddhist exposure of illusion, but it falls far short of it when it merely results in a high-handed denial of the more-than-human world (here I use David Abrams' phrasing). I am afraid to say that this is what seems to happen in the course of Timothy Morton's new book, The Ecological Thought. Let me say that I do appreciate what Morton is attempting to do: that is, correct our unthinking attitudes to nature - or Nature, as he calls it - to make us think more carefully about the way we reify, consume or idealise it. But alas, the effect is far more deconstructive than reconstructive: "In the name of ecology, we must scrutinize Nature with all the suspicion a modern person can muster. Let the buyer beware."

Morton's case for a natureless ecology is not aided by the fact that he has such difficulty in defining it. "Ecology has to do with love, loss, despair and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis ... It has to do with reading and writing ... It has to do with sexuality." That is from the introduction, but after nearly 80 pages we are none the wiser: "The ecological thought is about people - it is people." Nor does it get much clearer by the final page, I'm afraid.

If we can trace a thesis, it is that, as far as nature is concerned, we should move from a Romantic-style piety towards a postmodern scepticism. In other words, we must abandon our loyalty to our local place and embrace the wider sphere of global space. It is perplexing, however, that Morton should invoke Buddhism to convey this sense of space: he shows no knowledge of Snyder's well-informed Buddhist ecology, but seems to rely on the odd insight gleaned from a fortnight's holiday in Tibet.

Philosophically, in fact, he is much closer to Marxism than to Buddhism. Hence his agitprop denunciation of ecological thinkers such as Arne Naess and James Lovelock: "Deep ecology, which sees humans as a viral blip in the big Gaian picture, is nothing other than laissez-faire capitalism in a neofascist ideological form."

If such pronouncements make one wince, at least Morton's political leanings mean that he feels obliged to address the ideas of the most important reinterpreter of Marxist theory of the 20th century, namely Theodor Adorno. But again, it is worrying that Morton seeks to draw on that philosopher's specific insights while discounting the central importance he gave to the concept of nature. It was Adorno who insisted that "domination over nature is paid for with the naturalisation of social domination" (to use Simon Jarvis' succinct summary). And it was Adorno who memorably declared: "Art is not nature, but wants to redeem what nature promises."

There is an interesting book to be written about Adorno's importance for ecological thought, but it would not be one dedicated to the idea that you can have ecology without nature. While I am sure that many readers will benefit from the challenge of reading Morton, I hope they then go back to Adorno. If they also go back to Snyder, so much the better.

The Ecological Thought

By Timothy Morton. Harvard University Press 184pp, £29.95. ISBN 9780674049208. Published 28 April 2010

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