Dreams of frogs and the Bronx

Bringing the Biosphere Home - The Politics of the Environment

五月 3, 2002

The late Niklas Luhmann pointed out that we humans could not talk to "the environment". We could talk to each other about it and in so doing were likely to channel our conversations into delineated fields, such as economics, politics, law, science and many others. That way we were in danger of losing the essential wholeness and interconnectedness of human-nonhuman relationships and of creating believable myths in one channel that had no relation to, and might even contradict, others.

Here we have two books from different ducts. The volume by Mitchell Thomashow is an intensely personal account of the author's interaction with various parts of North America, including his rather nice-sounding plot of New Hampshire and his dreams about the Bronx. His foundation is a "place-based perceptual ecology", and he is also concerned with teaching this in a department of environmental studies. So a comparison with Thoreau comes to mind, with airplanes replacing the railroad, but the frogs being a constant. Nobody could doubt the validity of his observations (though he seems to have ignored a lot of the "place" literature in failing to absorb the work of Yi Fu Tuan), or perhaps his desire to make us pay more attention to our immediate surroundings in spite of the lure of the internet. Yet that localism has always carried, as here, the danger of being a prisoner to the near-at-hand.

The book gives off the spaciousness of rural America: cities and their fringes evoke negative reactions in his waking and dreaming states, and so the ponds of New England and the Rockies are the benchmarks for his perceptions. The city of Mexico figures briefly - and only on the way to see butterflies - so the whole dimension of America-in-the-world is given lip service but no analysis. This approach is underlain by a structure that is difficult to follow. While the writer deserves credit for abandoning a ground-up or linear-time framework, his alternative does not quite work either. All in all, this book is unlikely to resonate outside North America. It is in the end too personal and too national a treatment for the rest of us.

With Neil Carter, we are in a different channel altogether. This is a textbook on environmental politics and it goes for its objectives with total clarity. We have two chapters of theory, three chapters on environmental groups and parties, and five on policies towards achieving "a sustainable society". These are topped and tailed by an introduction and a conclusion. Boxes and sidebars highlight points, definitions or data, key critical questions are framed for our attention ("is the environment a postmaterial or material issue?" should engage most readers for quite some time) and there are the usual lists of references. Selected further reading and websites finish each chapter in a creative attempt to enlarge students' information base in a critical fashion.

For once, the laudatory quotes on the back cover are to the point: "light on its feet yet profoundly scholarly" one says; "skilfully and comprehensively charts the origins and dynamics of environmental politics" another says. This book admirably caters to demands for a clear text for students of politics and might well have a useful role as an introduction for anybody needing a primer to the politics channel of environmental discourse. This usefulness is enhanced by the way the book reaches well beyond the shores of its author - most often into Europe, although the concerns of the South are not neglected. As an accompaniment to an undergraduate course on environmental politics, this book is among the top few in a field well served by its practitioners.

If I were to suggest improvements for later editions, I would ask that the concepts and rhetoric surrounding "sustainable" be brought together and subjected to critical analysis, and that the relations between technological change, social change and politics be given more space. The whole concept of "sustainable development" could, after all, be transformed by certain kinds of technology, such as getting all plants to fix their own nitrogen or machines to sequester carbon from the exhausts of motors.

The difference between these two books is interesting. One is a classic example of a social-science text, the other is in the tradition of Thoreau in sitting in the wild and moving outwards in thought. Neither is very action oriented, but both are aware that communication channels are not always the same width. Indeed, we might suggest that our perception of the environment is being altered radically by a shift from personal experience plus print to personal experience plus the small screen, and no doubt the personal experience will not stay the same in those different lights. If the environmental myths that allow the degradation of nature's services are to be superseded, then all communicators have to think carefully about what they say to us and what media they choose.

Ian Simmons is emeritus professor of geography, University of Durham.

Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change

Author - Mitchell Thomashow
ISBN - 0 262 20137 2
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 244

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