The 'Environment' Is Us
The 'Environment' Is Us
Taking up the green thread from ebr4, Harold Fromm reviews three new books of eco-criticism
Books dealing with ecology and environment are now a vast industry, an avalanche of information and opinion that exceeds anybody’s ken. The “environment” itself keeps growing, enlarging, encompassing, so that the environment of 1998 is a very different thing from what it was on the first Earth Day in 1970. The sheer number of disciplines that has evolved since Aldo Leopold’s landmark Sand County Alamanc of 1949 is startling - environmental medicine, environmental history, environmental engineering, environmental ethics, social ecology, green travel, green farming, conservation biology, ecofeminism, ecocriticism, animal rights, to name a few - exceeding in subtlety and complexity such early concerns as emissions, toxic waste, acid rain, cancer clusters, etc. On the World Wide Web alone the information is daunting, hopeless, beyond belief.
In fact, the term “environment” now seems inadequate, a misrepresentation of the current state of affairs. After the Industrial Revolution, human beings came to be seen as more or less autonomous creatures who had been placed in an “environment” that they could use as they wished or even, in some perverse sense, do without. Understood rather literally, the environment was the stuff that surrounds us: factories, automobiles, trees, skies. Now, however, the center around which the environment wraps is getting smaller and smaller (or larger and larger) as what formerly seemed adventitious to the Imperial Self begins to look more and more essential to its very constitution. The “environment,” as we now apprehend it, runs right through us in endless waves, and if we were to watch ourselves via some ideal microscopic time-lapse video, we would see water, air, food, microbes, toxins entering our bodies as we shed, excrete, and exhale our processed materials back out. Western through and through, I say this without any flirtatious gestures toward Zen, any practical sense that individual things are an illusion (in a philosophic sense, everything is an illusion), or any lapse of faith in the Imperial Self. The “ecocentric” rant (“I’d sooner shoot a man than a grizzly”) that briefly served Edward Abbey and Dave Foreman with such bravura showmanship has had its day and now Abbey and Foreman seem as imperially selved as anybody else, if not more so. (Though Foreman has since become a mainstream eco-pussycat.)
Three almost randomly chosen new books from the environmental deluge work together, when read as a group, to heighten one’s sense that the environment has ceased to be a wrap and looks more and more to be the very substance of human existence in the world. The first of these takes an “inside” approach (via subjectivity), the second an “outside” approach (via public policy reform), and the last is a philosophic overview of the influential theory of “deep ecology.” The writing styles and mentalité are as unlike as their contents.
Bodies in Protest: Environmental Illness and the Struggle over Medical Knowledge by Steve Kroll-Smith and H. Hugh Floyd, is a study that comes perilously close to disaster but somehow manages to add up to more than its liabilities. Written by two professors of social science, the book is weighed down by portentous Foucaultian melodrama, not merely employing but repeating to distraction every cliché in the cultural studies lexicon, so that it often reads like a boilerplate whose blanks have been filled in with its ostensible subject. The authors seem to regard the cliché as the essential part of their achievement but if they had all been left out, little would have been lost - and the gain might have been a shorter, more impressively “original” essay. Both their cultural studies theme (endlessly repeated) and their somewhat lumbering social science style are typically represented by the following:
Throughout this book, the idea of EI (Environmental Illness] as a new way of knowing the body in its relationship to built environments is revealed in the activities of ordinary people who claim the right to theorize their bodies and thus shift the social location of theory construction from experts to nonexperts.
The contours of this new knowledge become more visible as we record how these theorists change the definitional strategies of science from a focus on nature and the person to a critique of society. Finally, the political efficacy of MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity] is measured by its rhetorical power to convince the world that modern bodies and the environments they build are undergoing profound change. (66)
Or as they put it elsewhere: “Environmental Illness is a story constructed by nonexperts about human bodies in somatic dissent against a material world saturated with commodities promising to make life easier and healthier (but doing the opposite for many people], and the body itself more attractive” (136). This is surely academic newspeak (now sounding somewhat shopworn) “constructed” according to the most trendy canons of academic power. Behind the locutions are observations worth heeding but the language itself compromises much of the insight. To take just one example: the very title of the book, Bodies in Protest, is an imprecision dictated by current academic locutions. Although the authors say with some plausibility that environmental illnesses have produced a distinctive narrative rhetorical style in the people who suffer from them, in no sense of the word is it the “bodies” that are “protesting” but the people (subjects?) who inhabit these bodies. The real “rhetoric” of bodies is burps and farts, bleeding and drools, not linguistic narrative techniques - which emanate from the consciousness of “people” (now an obsolete and retrograde word in a Foucaultian world of “discourse formations” that produce the mouthpieces that speak them).
The authors’ basic claims, however, are convincing: As a result of a vast array of modern materials, from carpets to treated wood to ventilation systems to perfume, a tremendous web of chemical sensitivities has been produced that exceeds the available verification methods of contemporary medical science. The people who suffer from these maladies - a substantial number, it should be added - are more often than not told by their doctors that tests reveal nothing wrong with them and that it may indeed be all in their heads. But the large number of stories and quotations that the authors supply from their interviews with chemically sensitive people almost never give the impression these ailments are principally psychosomatic. The intelligence and rhetorical skill with which the sufferers describe their conditions are powerfully persuasive and constitute what the authors refer to as an “alternate rationality.” Once they have been deserted or insulted by their MD’s, these people research their own conditions and, without abandoning mainstream medicine, use the techniques and data of the sciences to present an alternate analysis that is nontheless far removed from New Age moonshine. The authors’ analysis, however, is predictable: “Medicine works closely with the state to define and regulate bodies in the interest of cultural and capital production” (32) and they substantiate this cliché with a reference to Foucault. It’s not as though such a concept were altogether useless - but it’s not the reductive, totalizing, gospel truth they imply by their interminable metaphoric repetitions (e.g., “biomedicine is charged by the state with writing the somatic text” .)
Kroll-Smith and Floyd seem uncertain whether MCS and EI are a linguistic thing, a psychological thing, a political thing, a bodily thing, or a moral thing. They make passing remarks to the effect that EI “joins a mind to a body that is no longer readily intelligible by cobbling together clusters of words to tell a story of disease” (84) even though they don’t really seem to think that these stories are just “stories.” But narratology is another academic fetish right now and the authors are trapped in conflicting paradigms that undercut the substantial message they have to convey. On the one hand, they admire these sufferers for standing up to a colonizing medical profession, but on the other hand they are a little jittery about committing themselves above and beyond the licences of their boilerplate. They come off as most at ease when they can sing professionally accredited arias about power, the state, bodies, etc. etc., in other words, when they can sound like everybody else.
Given these vacillations, their conclusions seem admirable. If mainstream medicine won’t legitimize environmental ailments, the sufferers themselves must learn how to do so. Not only must they be able to explain themselves effectively (which many already do), but they must engage the sympathies of their listeners and the social institutions of which they are a part. The authors provide graphic evidence of changes made in the workplace and elsewhere as a result of the willingness of co-workers and friends to acknowledge the realities of kinds of suffering they themselves do not experience. Cases of environmental illness are more and more frequently being won in courts as a result of legal rather than medical criteria. “Ordinary people are fashioning a new form of rationality to account for changes in their bodies, blurring the boundaries between layperson and expert” (197). Although “a new form of rationality” seems like another professorial extravagance, Kroll-Smith and Floyd have somehow managed to avoid being totally steamrolled by the heavy-duty “construction” equipment of their profession.
Thinking Ecologically: The Next Generation of Environmental Policy, edited by Marian Chertow and Daniel Esty, is far away in style and substance from the previous book. The essays presented derive from an ongoing project at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. All are judicious, reasonable, and clearly expressed in the well-tempered language of policy studies, the subjects and points of view bringing to mind the annual State of the World volumes from the Worldwatch Institute, although the latter tend to be more impassioned and programmatic. The world being put under the microscope here is not the “subjective” one of individual experience but the “objective” public world of politics, industry, lifestyles, employment, and international relations. The contributors discuss issues such as industrial ecology, ecosystem management, property rights, land use, technology, ecological law, automobiles, energy prices, and the global economy. There is a wealth of information as to what is going on in every imaginable area of practical ecology and if the book can be said to have an ongoing theme or viewpoint (which I think it does), the message has to do with interconnectedness and cooperation. As they cogently demonstrate, the era of governmental fiats from on high and piecemeal solutions to environmental problems is now winding down in favor of more integrated policies whose aim is to incorporate environmental considerations and costs into the products, processes, and services that drive the global economy, considerations that are gradually being naturalized in a sort of corporate super-ego. In one of the most interesting of the essays, “Coexisting with the Car,” Emil Frankel outlines the failure of government regulations in solving the problems caused by the rapid multiplication of private autos:
Policymakers must recognize reality: Americans cannot be forced out of automobiles by regulation nor cajoled into using them differently by highminded appeals to sacrifice personal convenience for the good of the whole. But at the same time, we cannot drive away and forget the problem. The key will be making car and truck travel pay for itself. When the full costs of pollution, congestion, and habitat destruction are factored into driving, incentives for change - in personal behavior, corporate transport decisions, and technologies - will be created (191).
In sum, the contributors see “environmentalism” not as an external pressure but as an increasing strand in the fabric of every societal activity.
Primitives in the Wilderness: Deep Ecology and the Missing Human Subject by Peter C. van Wyck is the most inclusive and intellectually sophisticated of these three books - inclusive because it subsumes the private and public foci of the first two studies, and sophisticated because its perspective is essentially philosophic and self-reflexive. Van Wyck, as humanist, has mastered (for good or ill) the language of cultural studies that Kroll-Smith and Floyd bumbled so heavy-handedly and uses it as the medium for analysis of the crippling deficiencies of deep ecology as a type of environmentalism. Van Wyck’s prose, however, is far from exemplary, blighted by numerous obscure passages (endemic to cultural studies), occasional solecisms and syntactical blunders, and deficiencies of copy-editing. Still, if you can tolerate the lingo, his is an impressive critique. Van Wyck, like Murray Bookchin and others (including me), recognizes deep ecology for what it is: a univocal, absolutist, messianic, misanthropic, pseudo-primitive rejection of contemporary life. Deep ecology
lifts and relocates a contested and confused modern subject from its structured relations to ideology, politics, the unconscious, and so on, to a smooth, noncontradictory ecological space. No longer a potential site of resistance, the ecological subject is undifferentiated from its context. This subject is no subject at all; it becomes a desubjectified organ of Nature. It is a dream of a posthistorical subject and its pathology is that of a transcendental narcissism. (106)
The jargon, admittedly, is relentless but usually not impenetrable. The roots of deep ecology can be found in Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic,” which (to quote from A Sand County Almanac) “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” (SCA 204). As developed in recent years this has come to mean that human beings are just another biological element in the ecosystem and that to privilege them is to be “anthropocentric.” Hence, Foreman and Abbey’s claim (in differing words) that they would just as soon shoot a man as a grizzly. Deep ecologists speak of the “intrinsic value” of everything rather than the “instrumental value” we place upon things we suppose to exist for our own benefit - but the list of implied exceptions is rather large, including cancer cells, the AIDS virus, bubonic plague, cockroaches, etc. And since trees are unable to defend their own “intrinsic value,” obviously they need spokespersons trained to “speak for the other.” In a Foucaultian ethos in which all speech is a power ploy, somehow the deep ecologists fail to notice that speaking for others is like speaking for God - the biggest power ploy known to humankind. These bourgeois couch messiahs sing the praises of hunter-gathering (farming was the beginning of exploitation), fantasy-driven matriarchal cultures, goddess-worshiping cults, indigenous peoples’ primitive harmonies with the land, and other golden age fatuities.
It is van Wyck’s aim to show that deep ecology abstracts human beings from the political, social, economic flux in order to position them in a fixed and timeless “nature” arbitrarily defined from infinite possibilities. That there may be a hidden agenda in such choices (dictated by time, place, culture, parents, psychological history, education) does not seem to occur to these ecological thinkers. The human subject, i.e., the person (everyone besides the ecologist), simply disappears as an individual consciousness and becomes an anonymous member of one species among many. The deep ecologist fails to notice that, far from being ecocentric or biocentric, he is as anthropocentric as anybody else, since any system of thought is a strictly human production determined by societal and personal contingencies. Furthermore, no species is ecocentric, because survival depends on looking out for one’s own interests. Do birds suffer angst as they shit upon your head?
More traditional than van Wyck’s language is a quotation he gives from George Bradford:
Ecology as a pure science specifies, often with profound insight, nature’s movement and the impact of human activities on it. But a pure science is ambiguous, or silent, about the social context that generates those activities and how it might change. In and of itself, ecology offers no social critique, so where critique flows directly from ecological discourse, subsuming the complexities of the social into a picture of undifferentiated humanity as a species, it goes astray. (61)
In our multicultural world, the ecological situation differs drastically not only from country to country but from cultural persona to cultural persona. The “we” of deep ecology, as van Wyck likes to point out, is far from a unitary one. The end of the line for “we” speaking for the “other” and for unilateral definitions of reality is, of course, the manifesto of the Unabomber. But we’ve seen plenty of other messianic precursors who dynamite research laboratories, free animals from enclosures, blow up the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City Federal Building, shoot abortion doctors, and so forth. These saviors are more than anthropocentric - they’re basket case narcissists for whom there is no “other” at all.
Van Wyck looks at radical ecology’s suspicion of reason, the Enlightenment, and science. He remarks with irony, “Peel back the layers upon layers of history, technology, culture, modernity, and on the inside, the very center, there can be found the kernel of the real human: the ecological subject” (104). But, he asks, who is this ecological subject? Alas, nobody answers the call. “To say that organisms (humans and others) are produced discursively (that is, through adaptation and the institutions of culture), that they do not preexist themselves, is to radically change what can count as ‘nature’ ” (119). Although Murray Bookchin’s social ecology - on a track similar to van Wyck’s - avoids many of the pitfalls of regressive and phony primitivism (and Bookchin hates deep ecology with a passion), his own suspicions of centralized technology and hierarchical relations between institutions and people entail other unrealistic limitations to a solution of the problem that used to be called “man and nature.” Van Wyck tries to resolve some of this problem’s antinomies by concluding his book with an account of “situated knowledge,” particularly as developed by Donna Haraway. The goal is a limited objectivity that does not make eternal truth claims but that also does not disparage the validity of subjectivity, suppressing instead invidious alternatives like anthropocentric and ecocentric, self and other, subject and object. “The claim that Haraway’s objectivity makes is not one of detached truth-seeking from some imaginary point above the fray, but of limited, localized, and embodied knowledge” (123), a kind of “ ‘conversation’ bounded by affinity and complicity,” a living amidst contradictions (124). Finally, van Wyck borrows from the philosopher Gianni Vattimo the notion of “weak thought.”
The weakening of thought in this sense refers to the weakening of the “autonomous pretensions of reason” (quoted from Iain Chambers). This “weak” turn does not imply the absolute death of reason, or the end of value. Rather, its claim is on an always reflexive position with respect to reason and value. It is a kind of thought and practice that must always remain aware of its own artifice, its own locality, and its always limited scope. (129)
Admittedly, this vacillating “solution” is not as satisfying as tablets from on high - but the contemporary problem of belief is itself the problem of the unbelievability of truths from on high. So this may be the best we can do for now, short of unabombers and Timothy McVeigh.
All three of these interesting books share a sense of the gradual disappearance of the environment as an “out there” thing. As the subjective experience of the chemically ill is bit by bit objectivized, as corporate policy internalizes the environment into an essential ingredient of production, as the supposed objectivities of deep ecology are seen more plausibly as negotiations between selves and others, the conflict between people and the environment looks to be moving toward an awareness that “the environment,” after all, is really us.