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This thought-provoking book is a collection of essays from diverse experts who are concerned about the state of the biosphere but who are critical of environmentalist attitudes in specific and of people's attitudes in general towards nature. The authors show how these attitudes have unintended negative consequences for environmentalists and their goals. We should all be aware of the diverse attitudes of others and beware that disagreement is inevitable. Being dogmatic about nature only leads to confrontation or rejection of responsibility instead of solutions. In the foreword to the paperback edition, editor William Cronon remarks that the hardcover was controversial and that some environmentalists reacted defensively to the will-intended criticism. The book handily achieves its goal of provoking introspection and for me it also triggered strong emotions. Much has changed in the world since the book was published in 1996, yet many of the ideas continue to be relevant.
The focus is on America. The essays are apolitical and non-partisan. The book had its origin in an interdisciplinary seminar taking place in 1994 at University of California in Irvine, where participants had an unusual opportunity to be paid to think and talk together over several months. The results are fascinatingly diverse perspectives from experts in humanities, history, geography, linguistics, urban architecture, gender studies, consciousness, philosophy and ethics. The writers make exclusively qualitative analyses. The lack of participation from more quantitatively or statistically oriented disciplines is reflected in the lack of statistical corroboration of the topics covered; the overall theme (the need to rethink) and some essays in particular are weakened by unconvincing and unsubstantiated statements. This qualitative approach is generally appropriate because the goal is to rethink and not to publish figures, but the lack of a concrete basis for the theses make it impossible to judge the size of the problems nor to measure whether things have changed since.
Our conception of nature is often loaded with our romantic notions of purity, authenticity, vitality, escape and the sublime. This is often an illusion and has many consequences. It can lead to an extreme, uncompromising mentality that generates more enemies than friends of environmental causes. It can restrict nature to a separate reserve or playground, excluding the poorer parts of society. It can lead to exclusive focus on saving and corralling pristine environments and ignoring all of the rest of nature, where humans actually live. It can lead to political distortion, for example when one species is singled out for protection instead of the ecosystems that includes that species. Worse, it can lead to irresponsibility for the lives we actually lead.
The seminar discussion was partially driven by "found objects", observations or things that came to the participants more or less spontaneously and that were symbolic. For example, the title of Richard White's paper " `Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living': Work and Nature" comes from a bumper sticker with this motto. This paper is a good example of harsh criticism of attitudes written by an environmentalist who sincerely wishes environmentalists success against those who believe it is within their rights to inflict pollution on others, such as the so-called wise-use movement. "Environmentalists so often seem self-righteous, privileged and arrogant" because they identify nature with play and a place where leisured folk come only to visit and not to work, stay or live. "If the issue of work is left to the enemies of environmentalism, to movements such as wise use, with its single-minded devotion to propertied interests, then work will simply be reified into property and property rights." Without an ability to recognise the connection between work and nature, environmentalists will eventually reach a point where they seem trivial and extraneous and their issues politically expendable. White gives no corroborating statistics but a convincing array of examples of how idealised histories and narratives mask realities, how jobs that are removed from nature or a fetish for purity often lead to subconscious irresponsibility, or how well-meaning environmentalists favour models that are unrealistic for large populations. Such behaviour is greatly appreciated by rich polluters because the environmentalists discredit themselves and allow whoever is behind the bumper stickers to incite resentment among voters.
White is correct that we have even less of a chance of a success if we fail to engage the workers (i.e., voters), but this would only be a start. White does not mention the larger issues that would have to be addressed even if all environmentalists had ideal attitudes and relations with the working world. Yes loggers have legitimacy, and yes highly-efficient modern logging machinery is of itself not evil, but since depletion of forest carbon-sinks is a form of mass destruction in a world with unsustainable human growth and consumption, being pals with the lumber jacks is not enough. Surely most offshore riggers and fishermen are also nice people, but the oceans are being massively polluted and depleted and attempts at sustainable usage of the oceans have mainly been failures. Most people are blissfully unaware or uncaring of these situations and continue to consume and pollute with no substantial sense of personal responsibility.
By coincidence, I read Milton's "Paradise Lost" around the time that I read this book. This made it more fun to read about "Edenic" thinking. In "Uncommon Ground" we are asked to think about all of nature, not just the coralled-off parts. Similarly in "Paradise Lost", Michael reminds Adam and Eve, while kicking them out of Eden, that their God is not just in Eden but omnipresent. Nuclear waste is also nature. God is also present in the dead-zones off the American coast and in Canadian tarsand tailing ponds.
The last chapter gives a helpful summary from each contributor about what he or she would like the reader to learn from their essays and the book. Despite ageing, this book is certainly worth reading. As shown by the example of Richard White's essay, the book achieves its goals within the apolitical scope that it gives itself, but neither White nor the other authors attempt to position their recommendations in the context of the most urgent environmental problems facing humans in the biosphere, such as massive destruction and depletion of resources in parallel with massive grwoth of population and consumption. The logical conclusion after reading this book is that one can either react with despair or one can become politically active for sustainable human life in this biosphere, the only one that we have.
This concludes my review of this book. The following are some notes on ideas brought up in the book and related political aspects not brought up in the book.
Our conception of nature is not just influenced by our culture; it is the direct product of our culture. In the West, the story of the Garden of Eden and the notion of paradise have an overwhelmingly deep influence on our conception of nature. This is obviously different in cultures having different mythologies. To understand attitudes towards the environment, one must therefore understand the underlying culture. Furthermore, our conception of nature is mixed with our societal morals, for example when we perceive or when we are made to perceive something as unnatural or going against nature, our rationality is muted by conscious or subconscious emotions. Nature thus becomes a moral trump card in disputes. The Eden story is understood and communicated in radically different ways, depending on other attitudes and interests. Individuals generally interpret "God's giving Man dominion over Nature" in whatever way that pleases them, i.e., with or without a corollary of responsibility. Cronon writes, "Trouble surfaces only when ... one person's Eden comes in conflict with another's, much as God's plans for Paradise collided with Satan's. Then the Edenic myth becomes the vehicle for ... demonizing them as allies of the dark angel."
Nature is also sold as a commodity, for example through nature-experience shows like "Sea World" or through businesses selling products that are connected with nature. The latter have a large range, such as eco-food stores or nature boutiques in shopping malls. This is a tremendously successful feel-good industry. Some parts of this industry are beneficial to animals and the environment, but many parts are harmful. The buyer must beware.
Perhaps the underlying assumptions and attitudes of American environmentalists addressed in this book have changed since it was published in 1996. If so, one would have to wonder why, because not much else has changed: the rates of pollution and environmental destruction have continued to increase and the dominant political parties have been either hostile or only weakly supportive towards reform. Perhaps people have become more despairing. Perhaps they are more aware.
Possible political solutions are not mentioned. The odds are stacked against us. If we don't get more active, then sincere, effective environmentalism (as opposed to superficial blah-blah) is condemned to eternal political irrelevance in the US and in all countries with similar political systems including all the larger Commonwealth countries, because of several factors.
First, majority-based federal elections for two or three parties (i.e., first-past-the-post, as opposed to proportional representation for multiple parties) make it impossible for small political parties (e.g., parties that take environmentalism seriously) to share power. In such a political model, voting for an alternative party is correctly perceived by voters as a waste of a vote. For example, the few votes for the Green Party in Florida in 2000 may have cost Al Gore the election, handing power to George W. Bush. Small parties are thereby condemned to the fringes and are therefore unattractive for potential candidates. No one wishing to have a stable family income can be a career politician for a small party in this model. In this model small parties can never mature because they never share responsibility for government. The media portray them as amusing but not serious. Although over 40% of voters are not represented, most citizens are convinced that their country's democratic model is the best!
Second, most legislators are beholden to corporations and lobbies that pay for elections that are innately expensive. These interest groups set the agenda for legislation and for the news media, thereby ensuring the odds against environmental reforms. People are misinformed and kept that way. Even the extreme weather conditions brought on by human-caused climate change, the threat of massive world overpopulation, and the massive pollution and depletion of the oceans have not brought substantial change to this system. Some brave individuals try to make a difference, but their efforts will be wasted without political change. The only solution is for the individual to get active, live an exemplary life, and push for a better world.