Peter C. Van Wyck, Primitives in the Wilderness: Deep Ecology and the Missing Human Subject, 1997 and Timothy W. Luke, Ecocritique: Contesting the Politics of Nature, Economy, and Culture, 1997
Environmental philosophy is becoming ever more sophisticated, employing the insights of recent theoretical innovations. These include (1) critical theory, a neoMarxist tradition associated with various members of the Frankfurt School, (2) cultural studies, a Marxist-inspired reading of cultural "texts" -- whether highbrow or lowbrow -- from a sociological and political standpoint, and (3) postmodern theory, drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and others to analyze the status of nature in a world dominated by media images and signs and to question some of the fundamental assumptions of environmental theory, in both its liberal and left versions. These theoretical approaches bring great advantages to understanding the current environmental crisis and problematic assumptions of various forms of environmental philosophy, but they also pose a real danger of theoreticism, of an overly esoteric analysis that is inherently elitist because it is inaccessible to a broad public.
Two excellent examples of new theoretical approaches can be found in Peter C. van Wyck's Primitives in the Wilderness, and Timothy Luke's Ecocritique. Van Wyck employs postmodern insights to expose the metaphysical errors of deep ecology, while also calling for an integration of environmental theory and cultural studies approaches to analyze some environmental motifs in contemporary mass culture. Luke also makes some good use of postmodern categories, but he is grounded in a critical theory approach more concerned with the structural flaws of capitalism than the metaphysics of ecophilosophy. Together, each book sheds valuable light on serious problems with various options on the environmental menu, ranging from liberal environmentalism to social ecology and deep ecology. They help one to understand that the burden of responsibility for the growing magnitude of the environmental crisis lies not only with Exxon, General Electric, and Mitsubishi, but also with problems in environmental movements themselves.
Peter van Wyck rightly observes that there has been relatively little contact between theoretical advances in the social sciences and humanities and environmental thought. Deep ecology, for example, is as isolated from cultural studies as cultural studies is divorced from environmental concerns. There are two major strains of critique in van Wyck's work, a social, seemingly left critique that challenges the theoretical and political deficits of deep ecology (I say "seemingly" because, as I argue below, he is extremely vague in stating his positive views), and a postmodern critique that claims deep ecology is wedded to untenable metaphysical assumptions.
Despite the fanfare in the introduction, there is little innovative or interesting social criticism in van Wyck's book. Basically, his critiques of deep ecology are warmed-over Murray Bookchin, an author famous for his relentless polemics, with the difference being that Bookchin states his positions far more clearly and forcefully. Thus, van Wyck criticizes deep ecology for operating with a totalizing and essentializing definition of "we" in its claims that "we [human beings]" have caused the environmental crisis." This "we," of course, is a fiction that obscures profound differences between men and women, developed and underdeveloped countries, rich and poor, and so on. While all human beings contribute to environmental problems in some ways, the burden of blame must lie with groups such as affluent consumers and corporate CEOs.
van Wyck points out that deep ecology is hardly in a position to analyze such differences, since its focus is on creating spiritual rather than social change, and it lacks a substantive social theory. Moreover, deep ecology obliterates the differences between human subjectivity and the natural world, calling for a mystical union of the two in an undifferentiated totality. By dissolving the subject into the nirvana of nature, van Wyck claims, deep ecology lacks a theory of subjectivity and the human body, unable to theorize the ways in which society shapes conceptual and physical reality, and blind to the reactionary implications of subjects without a sense of self and a critical detachment from the natural and social environments.
Deep ecology does have a politics, however, which van Wyck, following Bookchin, condemns as a Malthusian-inspired antihumanism that privileges the needs of the earth over the needs of human beings. van Wyck argues that the antimodernism of deep ecology is frighteningly close to the reactionary philosophies that appeared with the rise of National Socialism in Germany. These philosophies too were resolutely antimodernist, seeing science and technology as deadly to the human spirit, and called for the subordination of individuality to nature and the Fuhrer. With modernity thus annulled, such an outlook can only long nostalgically for a preindustrial past and hope to recreate it in the future. By blaming humanity rather than distinct social forces, and by failing to grasp the positive aspects of science, technology, reason, and humanism, deep ecology can only see the future as a recuperation of the past, rather than as an elaboration of the progressive aspects of modernity.
The strongest aspect of van Wyck's critique is his critique of the mythological narratives informing deep ecology. Lacking a sophisticated anthropological and social theory, deep ecology falls prey to the Biblical myth of an original condition -- primitive society -- that was pure and untainted. The Edenic state of harmonious being was disrupted by a Fall from Grace, interpreted in as the rise of civilization, specifically agricultural society, and its alienating institutions and worldviews. Deep ecology operates with crude binary oppositions such as authentic/inauthentic, pure/mediated, good/bad that beg for deconstruction. The desiderata of deep ecology, accordingly, particularly evident in groups like Earth First!, is a "future primitivism," a return to an uncorrupted past when human beings were at one with nature. Thus, in van Wyck's postmodern terms, deep ecology is vitiated by a "foundationalism" and "essentialism" that appeals to an originary human condition that is pure and good.
He is right that deep ecology has reactionary potential, but, like Bookchin, he himself operates with the essentializing view of "deep ecology" as one theory, when in fact there are many different versions, not all of which are easily dismissed as "Malthusian." Indeed, even specific groups like Earth First! are sharply divided amongst different tendencies.
Throughout Primitives in the Wilderness, van Wyck offers numerous insights and probes legitimate problems with various deep ecology positions. To his credit, he defends Enlightenment positions, he upholds the importance of critical social theory, and he attempts to bring recent theoretical developments into contact with the pressing issues raised by ecological philosophy. Thus, one finds discussion of Donna Haraway's theory of cyborgs, Michel Foucault's analysis of surveillance and panopticon power, Alphonso Lingis' notion of the "Other," Gilles Deleuze's concept of the "image of thought," and other contemporary postmodern approaches.
The problem, however, is two-fold. First, there is often no clear linkage between postmodern theory and environmental issues, leaving one to wonder if in fact such a dialogue is worthwhile. What useful connection, for example, exists between Foucault's notion of the panopticon society and global warming, or Haraway's cyborgs and species extinction? We're left to imagine for ourselves. In fact, there are useful linkages to be made, as one might well use Derrida's method of deconstruction to undo the culture/nature opposition enshrined in Western theory, or employ Baudrillard's notion of "hyperreality" to analyze the ideology and effects of environmental theme parks, such as Tim Luke does in Ecocritique.
The second problem is the level of abstraction and abuse of jargon that mars this book. There is a gratuitous and pretentious use of theoretical terminology that simply clouds issues which demand clarification. The discussion of Deleuze's "image of thought" concept, for example, is inscrutable and completely off the wall. Consider this headsplitter:
"After Deleuze, we could say that part of my approach is to show how the conceptual and theoretical space of deep ecology remains entrenched within an `image of thought' that constrains its potential to say something new. The `image' in this context refers not precisely to ideology, nor is it some formulation of the imaginary -- though it is implicated in both. Rather, it is a kind of monster that squats down upon thought, weighing down upon it ... It is the foundation at the root of thought, the presuppositions that are there from the start: thought or thinking as an innate capacity or faculty which has an affinity with the true" (4).
The only monster lurking here is the fire-breathing, bogeyman of esoteric theory. Would it be too much to ask to substitute for this word salad the simple notion of "hidden assumptions"? Or is that facile and unsophisticated? Who does van Wyck envisage to be the projected readers of his book? How many people does he intend to reach with the thousands of hours of labor that went into this writing? As the planet continues to heat up, as the human population is on its way to another doubling, and as species are being wiped off the earth at the rate of 100 a day, what practical good is to come of reified postmodern discourse?
Moreover, early on in this work, the postmodernist van Wyck agonizes over the question of how to make positive, normative claims if there are no absolute foundations outside of history and society from which the theorist can speak. This is certainly a legitimate problem to raise, and is a preoccupation (obsession, really) of critical theorist Jurgen Habermas, but van Wyck never returns to it. The closest he comes to a positive position -- ungrounded in a metatheory that tries to justify its own assumptions and arguments -- is a cryptic appeal to Gianni Vattimo's (nonfoundationalist) notion of "weak thought," which is then lamely linked to a "weak ecology." He concludes the book this way: "I won't offer any conclusions apart from the hope that there are some for whom this [book] will have made a difference." I for one have not been moved by these abstractions, except perhaps for a bit of theoretical indigestion. Frankly, even though I am a theorist, I grow increasingly impatient with this mode of writing and with fellow academics who confuse word play with politics, abstractions with the public sphere. Again, there are valuable linkages to be made between postmodern and environmental theory, but this book fails to find them. I do indeed recommend this book, but only as an example of the kinds of problems postmodernists face when they attempt to address important events in the world (such as environmental destruction), rather than offering a clever reading of a text, and when they try, on rare occasions, to offer some reconstructive, rather than simply deconstructive, positions. Symptomatic of the failures of this book to carry through its project, there are only two pages (!) of anything that might count as "cultural studies," which involve a reading of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Overall, Tim Luke's theoretical approach is far clearer than that of van Wyck, but Luke is no pushover when it comes to his own occasional jargon-laden flourishes (see, for example, p. 198). Unlike van Wyck, Luke is grounded in the neoMarxist approach of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, rather than postmodern theory. Luke sometimes uses the insights of postmodern theorists like Foucault or Baudrillard, but always as a clear complement to a more primary Marxist economic analysis. Luke takes a far more political stance than van Wyck, and offers some proposals for change, which van Wyck claims he seeks but never delivers.
Where van Wyck is primarily concerned with a critique of deep ecology, taking it for granted that liberal environmentalism is bankrupt, Luke directs his attacks on some forms of mainstream environmentalism -- from the Worldwatch Institute and the Nature Conservancy to green consumerism -- that remain dominant influences today. A consideration of different forms of "ecocritique," Luke's book also considers the positions of deep ecology and Earth First!, the technoworld of Biosphere 2, and the ideas of Marcuse, Bookchin, and ecoarchitect Paulo Soleri. Along the way, Luke utilizes critical theory in a powerful way, exposing the failures of apolitical and liberal environmental discourses to deal with the institutional roots of the environment crisis that lie in a capitalist economy predicated on insatiable growth imperatives.
Turning first to the biocentric positions of deep ecology and Earth First!, Luke finds both to be fatally flawed. From similar premises as Bookchin and van Wick, Luke attacks the atavistic nature of each movement that romanticizes the preagricultural past. Like Bookchin and van Wyck, Luke condemns deep ecology for its antimodernism and "future primitivism." Luke is more sympathetic to the positive aspects of deep ecology, however, and he focuses on the logical problems inherent in key deep ecology positions. Luke credits the deep ecology appeal for advocating respect for nature and its challenge to consumerist ideologies. Decoupled from a substantive politics, however, the values of deep ecology are merely utopian and its avowed nature spirituality may simply become the new opiate of the people.
Dave Foreman, ex-leader of Earth First!, tried to dodge all political issues by claiming deep ecology is neither left nor right, it is simply transpolitical. In fact, Luke notes, Foreman's redneck values and strict wilderness focus alienated numerous groups of potential supporters, while the ecotage tactics of Earth First! "too often plays into the hands of the technocratic corporate and government modernizers" (55). Deep ecologists like Naess, Sessions, and Devall, however, displace political action into ethics and eschews tough questions relating to issues such as distributive justice. Nor have deep ecologists provided strong criteria by which to define "vital needs" human beings have a right to satisfy, and where to draw the line in cases on potential conflict between different claims to life. Despite its championing of "biocentric equality," deep ecologists inevitably privilege human interests and biocentrism slides into "soft anthropocentrism." "Until it comes to grips with [such] contradictions," Luke argues, "deep ecology must be held suspect as a political philosophy" (27).
The modern world has indeed employed science and technology in the service of exploiting human beings and the earth, but Luke insists the blame lies with the irrational social imperatives guiding their use rather with than the knowledges and technologies themselves. Where biocentrists typically long for a mythical past, Luke seeks an alternative modernity that uses science and technology in peaceful and ecologically benign ways.
Prima facie, it seems the project of Biosphere 2 might be a good example of an enlightened use of science and technology. Built as a technological simulation of the original biosphere, the earth, Biosphere 2 experiments with reconstructing natural ecosystems. Yet, from its inception it was plagued with mishaps and misfortune. It is more a theme park than a legitimate experiment, blending "dubious scientific practices and New Age philosophies of Gaia consciousness in an infotainment package that serious undermined [its] professional scientific credibility" (104). Ultimately, its ecosystem modelling has an extraworldly agenda, seeking ways of colonizing the landscapes of other planets rather than focusing on preserving the ecology of the earth. The underlying assumption is that we can escape the entropy process on earth and extend capitalist lifeways into the solar system indefinitely, whereas the emphasis should be on discovering social and political solutions to the ecological crisis on earth.
Luke finds a similar myopia in two major environmental groups, The Nature Conservancy and the Worldwatch Institute. For over four decades, The Nature Conservancy has labored to acquire private funding to buy whatever small pieces of nature it can afford, on the assumption that economic ownership is the best guarantee of natural preservation. In one sense, their accomplishment is admirable; yet, in effect, The Nature Conservancy plays the game of capitalism, trying to outbid and outmaneuver corporate giants. They are quite capital savvy, even soliciting bequests and offering tax shelters, trying to maximize the choices for potential donors.
The tactic is doomed, however, since one organization with paltry funds can never match the economic clout of corporations, and isolated islands of nature are hardly effective means of wilderness protection. Small gains in one area are always outweighed by huge losses in the total picture. Moreover, such groups are heavily tied to the economic strings -- and politics -- of wealthy backers. Ironically, the organization thrives on the proceeds of capitalist ecological destruction. In the final analysis, such organizations are businesses that strive to reconcile capitalism and environmentalism, growth imperatives and ecological necessities. The tactics of The Nature Conservancy "are those of complete compliance, and not those of radical resistance to this system of political economy" (58).
In an apocalyptic vein, Luke proclaims the "end of nature" as an integral ecosystem. From theme parks to ecotourism to small patches of wilderness and barely surviving species, nature is collapsing. All over the globe, nature has been transformed into real estate, administered resources, and spectacle; evolution is grinding to a halt; and organizations like The Nature Conservancy preside over its death. "Capital has won: Nature is dead. All that is left is the zombie worlds of economies and environments" (72). The death of Nature, thus signifies the final triumph of Capital, the complete takeover of the commodity virus of the earth's body.
Luke credits the Worldwatch Institute for their valuable empirical analyses of a wide array of environmental problems, but he sees them too as part of the problem rather than solution. Although Lester Brown and associates describe a portentous environmental crisis, their prescription for a solution falls far short of their diagnosis. Rather than breaking from the irrational logic of capitalist growth imperatives, the Worldwatch Institute chooses to become part of an emergent alliance of corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and global think tanks, all promoting the discourse of "sustainable development." Luke is rightly suspicious of the radical potential of an organization like the Worldwatch Institute whose funding comes from conservative agencies and Rockefeller foundations.
The ideology of the Worldwatch Institute is one of "resource managerialism," an "enlightened" anthropocentrism that reduces nature to units, resources, and systems that can be organized, designed, and managed by bureaucratic elites. The "watching" of the world, however, is never merely an instrumental program; rather, "it is essentially and inescapably political" (84) as it assigns authority and power to specific agencies. Brown and company fail to advance plausible visions of transition to an ecological society. Their positive suggestions hardly transcend "green consumerism" and the call for "voluntary simplicity," as capitalism continues its plunder of nature unabated. Until capitalism is challenged at its very heart, Luke argues, pieties like "sustainable development" remain oxymorons that legitimate the myth of a green capitalism. "Underneath the enchanting green patina, sustainable development is about sustaining development as economically rationalized environment rather than the development of a sustaining ecology" (85). Worldwatching provides invaluable sources of information, but it fails to confront the basic causes of environmental degradation; it correctly analyses many problems, but it too often treats them as separate and fails to relate them to core dynamics of growth and commodification.
Yet another tepid response to the environmental crisis are myriad forms of green consumerism. Luke undertakes a critical analysis of various popular manuals of green consumerism and finds them apologies for the structural flaws of capitalism. Books such as 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth provide some helpful tips, but misinform people that saving the earth in an easy thing to do. For opportunists like Marjorie Lamb, we can save the earth by expending only "two minutes a day." "Instead of thinking about how to reconstitute the entire mode of modern production politically in one systematic transformation to meet ecological constraints," Luke argues, "most tracts of green consumerist agitation [base their] calls for action on nonpolitical, nonsocial, noninstitutional solutions to environmental problems" (119). Such tracts wrongly focus on improving consumption habits rather than gaining control of the production process, and they accept weak bureaucratic reforms rather than advancing bold visions of total social reconstruction. They seek individual rather than social and collective solutions to problems, believing that effective change can come from the aggregated efforts of consumer monads.
From Luke's point of view, reformist organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the Worldwatch Institute are merely forms of "artificial negativity," simulated resistance that ultimately drains and wastes political energies into safe and harmless channels. In contrast to the apolitical thrust of deep ecology and the reformist tactics of mainstream environmentalism, Luke advances a bold vision of radical social change that grasps the irrevocably destructive nature of capitalism, while trying to salvage the best aspects of modernity.
In his conclusion, Luke advances a "preliminary outline" for dismantling the global corporate order. Rather than creating deep selves detached from concrete politics, conserving energy, issuing pamphlets of dire warning, or buying up remaining crumbs of wilderness, Luke seeks substantive political change that reconstructs the economic foundations of society. Luke envisions interconnected federalist institutions organized around "self-rule, self-ownership, and self-management," all promoting labor skills, participatory democracy, new sensibilities, and a harmonization of technology with ecology. This positive vision draws on useful aspects of Marcuse, Soleri, and Bookchin.
Luke offers no "blueprint" for change, of course, and a considerable number of questions are begged as to how to take the first step toward decentralization. There is no discussion, for example, of what media technologies should be utilized to promote communication, what changes are needed in the education system, or what potentialities and problems exist in the struggles of feminists, people of color, gays and lesbians, animal rights and health activists, and others. In addition, Luke radically divorces reforms from revolution and offers no criteria for distinguishing one from the other. One also has to wonder how anything can be truly radical in Luke's world of artificial negativity. His hope for the regeneration of nature through social regeneration stands in tension with his apocalyptic references to the death of Nature.
Still, Luke points us in the right direction for substantive change and he stimulates a sense of possibilities for change. He emphasizes that "modernity is not a unilinear and irreversible course" (209), and that an alternative modernity can be built, one that harmonizes advanced science and technologies with ecological values. Luke's clear political proposals are a refreshing contrast to the hopelessly murky appeals of van Wyck to a "weak ecology." Limited to vague suggestions for conceptual change, van Wyck fails to take the necessary step into concrete community politics advanced by Luke.
Taken together, van Wyck and Luke represent two very different examples of recent attempts to link environmental issues to theoretical developments in neoMarxism and postmodern theory. Where van Wyck's effort baldly exposes the reified pretensions of much postmodern theory, Luke's work -- constructed on a neoMarxist theoretical basis, an anarchist politics, and an occasional constructive use of postmodern insights -- vividly displays the potential and need for theory to inform "ecocritiques." Unlike so many reified postmodern analyses such as offered by van Wyck, Luke's book is also a strong example of the continued validity and importance of economics, of Marxist categories like profit, accumulation, and commodification.
Social reality is evolving dynamically and becoming ever more complex, and theory needs to change with the times. The future of environmental philosophy lies in innovative applications of critical theory, postmodern theory, feminism, colonial theory, cultural studies, and other perspectives, developed as clearly as possible and fused with concrete political objectives. As van Wyck and, especially, Luke's work helps to show, we need to transcend simplistic oppositions between anthropocentrism and biocentrism, overcome the dual impasse of liberal environmentalism and deep ecology, and move toward a broader social-oriented position that grasps the fundamental relation between environmental and social problems.