Book review: “Pioneers of Ecological Humanism” by Brian Morris (2012)

Book Review

Pioneers of Ecological Humanism by Brian Morris (Amazon Digital, 2012), 272 pp.

Morris bookToday the environmental crisis and especially climate change are familiar topics in mainstream political discussions, but in the mid-to-late twentieth century environmentalism was only just emerging. Several thinkers whose names have since faded from memory were, back then, innovators in formulating the ecological critique of industrial capitalism that we take for granted today. Among them were Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), René Dubos (1901-82) and Murray Bookchin (1921-2006).

They have, Brian Morris argues, been forgotten too quickly. At a time when we are still struggling–intellectually, politically, and ethically–to grasp the reality of climate change, to face its implications, and to prevent it from getting worse (and in some cases even acknowledge its existence), the work of these three philosophers contains wisdom that is stimulating and germane. In Pioneers of Ecological Humanism, Morris has taken on task of demonstrating their intellectual stature and reaffirming their continued relevance.

None of the three was a scientific ecologist by profession. Mumford wrote on architecture and cities and technology and literature; Dubos was a microbiologist and experimental pathologist; and Bookchin was a political activist and a historian of social revolutionary movements. But all can be considered ecological philosophers as well, and this is the role upon which Morris focuses in his illuminating new book.

They wrote on the subject for a general audience, as public intellectuals. And in that connection they though across disciplines, integrated ideas from diverse fields of study, and addressed broad, complex themes in Western civilization. All wrote about the degradation of the natural environmental under industrial capitalism: pollution, chemical additives in food, deforestation, soil erosion, and nuclear power. All three wrote about that then-incipient crisis within the framework of humanistic social philosophy, because for all three, the very concept of ecology was indelibly social. Morris probes their common themes and shows that all three were luminaries in an intellectual tradition that he calls ecological humanism.

Morris (born in 1936), an emeritus professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, is himself a transdisciplinary thinker, having written on topics as diverse as anthropology of religion, individual and self, ethnobotany, insects, and anarchist history. Writing in a lucid, accessible style, he explicates the work of his three pioneers, and shows the chains of influence among them.

The ecological crisis, Morris observes, ostensibly presents us with an impossible choice. The driving force behind the crisis is industrial capitalism, turbocharged by science and technology, driven to pursue the Baconian dream of mastering nature. Philosophically that system is underpinned by dualistic Cartesian metaphysics, which presupposes a radical cleavage between humans and other life forms. And that cleavage in turn is associated with anthropocentrism, the idea that humans are superior to the rest of nature and thereby hold the right to pillage it.

The alternative is the neo-Romantic rejection of industrial civilization in favor of wilderness, whose conservation is to be our primary ecological aim. In pursuit of it, we are to cultivate a spiritual metaphysic regarding wilderness as pristine nature, even a mystical one, denigrating reason and technology. And we are to reject anthropocentrism in favor of biocentrism, a principle inhibiting humans from interfering with the vital needs of other organisms.

The first choice, the expanding capitalist order, has proved itself to be unsustainable–it is the very path leading to the ecological crisis. But the alternative, the fetishization of wilderness, is untenable as well, since pursuing it would require a massive reduction in human population (neo-Malthusianism), the subordination of human aims to perceived natural ones, and a regression to a low-tech hunter-gatherer existence. The choice between these two paths, Morris argues, represents a false dilemma. There is a third way: ecological humanism, an affirmation that human beings are capable of transforming their societies so as to enhance the flourishing of both humanity and nature.

Mumford, Dubos, and Bookchin all rejected the idea of a radical dichotomy between humans and the rest of nature. All three enthusiastically embrace the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, who demonstrated the organic link between people and other life-forms by showing that the nature of nature is evolution. Long before, in ancient times, Aristotle had emphasized the continuity between inanimate matter, plants, and animal life. But Darwin’s theory connected them all by explaining the principles by which new life-forms of life evolve and affirming that human beings are a product of that very process. People, like all other life-forms, organisms, mammals, and primates, are children of natural evolution and hence an intrinsic part of nature’s continuum of life-forms.

That said, homo sapiens is unique by virtue of its dual nature: we are social mammals as well as natural ones. Evolutionary history gave us symbolic faculties, including language, and a capacity for social cooperation and consciousness and choice. We necessarily inhabit that cultural environment as well as our biological one. Hence multiple factors–biology, society, psychology, and culture–condition us. And even though our extra-biological inheritance renders us distinct from other organisms, paradoxically it is itself a natural fact. Moreover, part of our our dual nature is creative agency. We are structured to interact with nonhuman nature, even to modify and transform it, through our labor and our imagination.

This distinctiveness, however, does not give homo sapiens a right to subordinate the rest of nature. All three ecological-humanist philosophers reject anthropocentrism, the idea that humans wield dominion over the earth, which exists for their benefit. All three oppose the treatment of the natural world as a human resource. All are critical of the overreach of modern science and technology. Mumford denounced the “megamachine,” machine technology driven by a Promethean ethic, at the expense of sustaining organic life. Dubos warned that our “Faustian ethic that identifies progress with the conquest of nature” has put us on a suicidal course and is contrary to biology. Bookchin emphasized that the driving force behind the “simplification of nature” was capitalism, with its market economy geared to producing goods for profit rather than need.

But the imperatives that drive this “Faustian” system, like those behind any other social system, are not biological. It is extrinsic to our physiological makeup; we are not somehow intrinsically malignant toward the rest of nature. On the contrary, our ways of organizing our social life are social, including the way that is driving the ecological crisis, and hence they are changeable. We are capable of changing that system and approaching the rest of nature with respect, imagination, and intelligence–even and especially with the use of science. We can orient our use of technology toward humane and life-affirming purposes rather profit and the destruction of the environment. In so doing, we can potentially even improve on it, promoting the flourishing of both people and the biosphere’s landscapes and life-forms.

The choice between anthropocentrism and biocentrism, as Bookchin observed, is facile. We can remove ourselves from ideologies of both domination and submission and cultivate a respect for natural phenomena, a sensitivity to the interdependence of life forms, which he called an “ecological sensibility.” Our cultural adaptability means we can “design with nature,” as Dubos put it. Rather than imposing a schema on a region, we can allow local topography, climate, and biota to influence human landscape and architecture.

All three support the conservation of “wilderness,” or relatively untouched land areas, as places of emotional solace, as biodiversity reserves, and as part of “ecological sensibility” and respecting other life-forms. But Dubos and Bookchin both argue that what we call wilderness is by no means pristine. Humans have been transforming the natural landscape at least since antiquity. Indeed, humans are an intrinsic component of practically all existing ecological systems, and therefore some degree of ecological management is imperative, management that is neither mastering nor dominating but cooperative and symbiotic. We can do this. As Dubos pointed out, creatively symbiotic relationships exist at all level of biological and social existence. Not only competition but mutual aid, reciprocity, and cooperation play a vital role in our relationship with nature. Hence in many regions worldwide, people have enhanced natural ecology through creative interventions, like bridges and canals; hedgerows, gardens, orchards, and vineyards; plowed fields and terracing; meadows and parks and woodlands; and wet-rice cultivations, among many other features. We need to preserve not only “wilderness” but these humanized or cultural landscapes.

All three philosophers reject the gigantic city, the megalopolis, as a zone of concentrated capital, traffic congestion, pollution, and anonymity, but they endorse new forms of urban life that integrate town and country on a human scale. Mumford thought the alternative social-ecological vision would have to be regional, seeing cities and their surrounding rural areas as interconnected. Regional planning would involve a balance between industry and agriculture, landscape and human activities, humans and their environment; it would bring nature into the cities in urban parks and gardens and nature sanctuaries. Dubos affirmed that “the great cities of the world contribute to the richness of the earth.” Bookchin wanted to decentralize cities into their human-scaled neighborhoods.

Not that the three philosophers were identical: Dubos was the most Christian; Mumford was vaguely pantheistic; Bookchin was an atheist. Dubos and Mumford, as Morris points out, were essentially radical liberals, while Bookchin was a social revolutionary. But all three advocated cooperation among humans as well as between humans and nature. They upheld enlightenment values of freedom, social justice, and cosmopolitanism. To varying degrees, Mumford and Bookchin especially emphasized community politics and civic democracy, Mumford as a communitarian socialist, Bookchin as a social anarchist and later as a communalist, favoring small-scale, decentralized industries and assembly democracy.

Morris astutely points out that Bookchin was “to an important degree a moral philosopher,” and that the society he envisaged was “an expression of an ethical socialism,” grounded in potentialities for freedom, consciousness and subjectivity. But all three philosophers cultivated a naturalistic ethics, supporting both unity and diversity. Dubos argued for an “ethic of nature,” one that was justified on economic, ecological aesthetic, and moral grounds. In earlier days, his concept of creative stewardship of the earth was controversial, but in our era of climate change the need for its seems clear. Brian Morris, by unearthing the the tradition of ecological humanism, has identified the framework; the task to which we must apply our faculties for culture, given us by evolution, is to develop the scientific and moral foundation for reorganizing our social system, from one that destroys to one that creates.

Pioneers of Ecological Humanism is essential reading for anyone concerned with these issues. Conversant with the history of ideas, Morris places Bookchin especially in a context that has eluded other authors who have treated his work. His writing style is lucid and accessible. Highly recommended.