Review: The Natural Alien: Human and Environment, 2nd edition by Neil Evernden
“This is the book that started me on my career as an environmental writer/philosopher.” Derrick Jensen
In the preface to the second edition, Evernden wastes few words and delves straight into the essence of our environmental crisis:
“We must begin, however, with the recognition that the source of the environmental crisis is not without but within; not in industrial effluent but in assumptions so casually held as to be virtually invisible…our scarred habitat is not only of our doing, but of our imagining, and it will take a profound recreation of the social world to “un-say” the environmental crisis and constitute a more benign alternative.” (xii)
What diplomatic wording.
Natural Alien has 4 sections, with 6 chapters and an epilogue. In my review I have briefly summarized and chosen what I think are some of the pivotal quotes from each chapter, excluding the epilogue. I have tried to capture what I experienced as the essence of Everden’s discussion: the impact that duality has had on our “Being” and inter-relatedness; but like all reviews, it is not a substitute for the actual whole-book reading experience, and The Natural Alien is worth a slow, critical read. I’d place it on the shelf with Derrick Jensen’s The Myth of Human Supremacy and Paul Shepard’s Nature and Madness. In fact, that’s where it is.
Section 1- The Environmentalists’ Dilemma
Chapter 1- Talking about the Mountain
The author provides a brief history of the environmental movement whose roots reach back to the Romantic period, in Europe and in the United States. Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir were early examples of environmental activist. But how “environmentalism” and “environmentalist” became somewhat household terms was due to a 1970’s presidential declaration that the 70’s would be the decade of the environment. It is how, according to Evernden, environmentalism became immersed in bureaucratic red tape, statistics, and assessment analyses.
The scientific approach has molded how we think about problems, who we are and what living on a planet means; in our case, the scientific approach does not allow the mind to contemplate “meaning” or the significance of our experience as “human beings.”
“All of us, by virtue of our membership in a science-dominated culture, have adopted the abstraction of Galileo as our definition of nature. And in denying our immediate experience in deference to that abstraction we have gone some way towards cutting the earthly vocal cords ourselves.” (18)
“The results of ecological research are therefore predetermined in some measure. Starting with mechanistic assumptions, it can only discover machines. Consequently it will always seem reasonable to assume that we can manipulate the ecomachine. If we can fix engines, we can fix ecosystems.” (21)
“Resourcism requires that we think of the world as slavers thought of their human merchandise. Indeed, the domination of nature and the domination of man go hand in hand, As William Leiss has shown: they reflect the same assumptions of reality.” (25)
“ ‘In deep ecology, the wholeness and integrity of person/planet together with the principle of what Arne Naess calls ‘biological equalitarianism’ are the most important ideas. Man is an integral part of nature, not over or apart from nature. Man is a ‘plain citizen’ of the biosphere, not its conqueror or manager.’ “ (29)
“But in turning to personal experience one forgoes the security of an established belief system with which to make sense of the world and exposes oneself to whatever comes. It means becoming a perpetual outsider.“ (31)
Section 2 The Cultural Dimension
Chapter 2 – The Fields of Self
Explored are the historical foundations of our belief system, and the impact that those beliefs have had on our relationship with ourselves, each other and the environment.
“It is no longer possible to deal with environmental issues in isolation from the attitudes and assumptions that precipitated them in the first place.” (35)
“…there is nothing particularly subversive about ecology as normally applied. But its most basic premise, that of interrelatedness, could be subversive, if taken literally.” (40)
“Without resorting to any kind of mysticism we still arrive at a realization of interrelatedness that challenges our Cartesian foundations.” (40)
“…remember that the task at hand is to question and possibly alter the societal maps that essentially define reality. If it is necessary to challenge such maps, it is inevitable that we wander through unfamiliar terrain.” (43)
“But the form the experience takes is biased by the foundations upon which we build. Reality is partly belief: we find what we intend to find in the world.” (49)
“In convincing us that the world is composed of distinct subjects and objects he [Descartes] insulated us from concern with the world and made it next to impossible for us to regard the world as anything but a storehouse of material. But Descartes was wrong.” (54)
Chapter 3 – Returning to Experience
Explores phenomenology and the proponents of it; suggests a phenomenological approach to understand the environment and the environmental crisis.
“As Husserl says, consciousness is always consciousness “of.” There is no such thing as consciousness as an isolated entity, only consciousness of something—not even Descartes can just think.” (58)
“Heidegger was convinced that our way of thinking about the earth and ourselves had become seriously distorted. Essentially he argues that we took a wrong turn which has led us further and further from an understanding of our situation, and that no amount of remedial thought is going to set it right.” (60)
“But he [Heidegger] made a provocative beginning by describing us as a being for whom Being is an issue and whose way of relating to the planet is through ‘care.’ “ (63)
“…we need to remember that “Dasein” is not just a different way of saying ‘man,’ but represents a different concept of being human, a ‘field of care.’ And being such a field means more than being a body; it means being-in-the-world, and it also implies a different sense of environment.” (65)
“One is moved to philosophize when one does not feel at home anywhere. Such activity may reassure us, but it never succeeds in completely alleviating that fundamental anxiety. But our homelessness is not of significance only to ourselves. It is of vital import to life on earth, for our behavior as placeless beings is a factor in the lives of all.” (72)
Chapter 4 – The Biology of Subjects
This chapter summarizes the essence of the three chapters that preceded it: the real problem with environmentalism has been established: the belief in separation. Some contemporary environmentalist, like those of the Romantic period, recognize the belief in separation at the heart of our lack of relationship, our lack of concern, and thus the deterioration of the environment. Contemporary environmental activists who recognize the problem are up against unimaginable odds in the attempt to reverse decades of dualistic thinking that arrogantly parades unquestioned in contemporary life. This chapter looks at some of the attempts, however, to transcend the “us” and the “others,” the “animals” and “humans” split.
Regarding biologist Jakob von Uexküll, his work and creation, “The animal does not have a world-view; it “is” a world-view. And that world is as invisible as its feelings, thoughts, emotions, reveries, and so on-all the things that lead E.F. Schumacher to suggest that ‘life, before all other definitions of it, is a drama of the visible and invisible.’ 12” (80-81)
“Space is a part of the world of the subject-not the homogeneous space proposed by classical physics, but the qualitative mosaic which we know as individuals.” (81)
“Reality is inevitably a component of organic being, not something separate from it.” (82)
“When we think of reality, it is evidence of vision that we embrace. Sight, with its simultaneity, neutralization, and distance constitutes a unique influence on the way we think…The gain is objectivity, but the loss is any notion of interrelation between elements of the visual field.” (84)
“There is, then, a constant amplification of the role of visual assumptions by translating more and more of our experience into forms accessible to them. Nor is this restricted to science and technology. Even in popular culture there is a constant encouragement to visual thinking. The consumption of images by industrialized societies is astonishing, and it is accompanied by pressure to make images and so to experience the world as pictures.” (87)
“Objectification is an inevitable part of the life-rhythm of any being that lives by consuming life. But it is not a permanent condition. It is transitory, something appropriate to only certain situations and something that must routinely be inhibited to prevent erosion of the community.” (97)
“All of our discussion in this chapter, and indeed throughout the book, has centered on the relationship of mind to nature, the central concern of human ecology. It is the “kind” of relationship we establish which will determine the world we live in.” (99)
Chapter 5 – Natural Aliens
In this chapter, Evernden talks about alternative ways of looking at reality and at human beings, who he concludes, using neotony, are the natural aliens here. Neotony is the idea that development is halted at the juvenile stage (this idea is discussed extensively in Paul Shepard’s Nature and Madness). We are trapped in a kind of cultural teenage stage. Our relationship with the environment, unlike that of other species, has never developed because of our stuckness. While other creatures display “being” at home on the planet, or as the planet, humans have no sense of their own being, much less that of the environment, or the Earth. I’ve tried to avoid the overwhelmingly technical aspects of this chapter, without, I hope, misrepresenting its meaning.
“ ‘Only the “lowest,” the most superficial, aspects of the object are accessible to the instruments we employ; everything that makes the object humanly interesting, meaningful and significant escapes us.’ (104)
“…this is what we in western culture habitually do; study the details and miss the point, and then make up a theory to substitute for the point that is missed.” (107)
“It becomes increasingly apparent that there are many different ways of approaching the world, and that what we call ‘objectivity’ is but one of them.” (107)
“With every technological change we instantly mutate into a new-and for the ecosystem an exotic-kind of creature. Like other exotics, we are a paradox, a problem for both our environment and ourselves.” (109)
“Like Alice in Wonderland, we are trying to play a game with other beings who do not know our newly invented rules, or we their ancient ones.” (110)
Adolph “Portmann asserts that humans are, in effect, organisms without a niche. We are creatures without a predetermined role, who must create ourselves anew in each generation and in the process undergo what we call ‘cultural evolution.’ “ (111)
“More precisely, development is slowed so dramatically that the individuals never achieve adult form. They remain juvenile in form even when they are chronologically adult, but equally important, they do mature in one important regard: they are able to reproduce…and the ability to breed while in juvenile form is called “neoteny.’ “ (114)
“As perennially youthful creatures, ambivalent, agitated, and uncommitted to an environment, we inevitably lack that sense of direction and purpose implicit to the notion of “Umwelt” [the world of the individual organism]. By organic standards this is a monumental deformity.” (122)
“…it is we who are the natural aliens.” (123)
Chapter 6 – The Shells of Belief
The last chapter before the epilogue, the author summarizes the problem with the environmental movement, the perceptions that created it and offers some suggestion for how we can un-think the world we’ve created by re-imagining a different one.
“…and there can only be an environmental crisis in a society that believes in environment.” (125)
“The environment exists because it was made visible by the act of making it separate. It exists because we have excised it from the context of our lives.” (126)
“When nature becomes discernible as a separate thing, it can exist as an object of discussion. But the act of becoming discernible is also indicative of a transformation of the human context or background.” (127)
“The world we see is therefore revealed against a background of belief, without which it could not appear as it does.” (128)
“We are the environmental crisis. The crisis is a visible manifestation of our very being, like territory revealing the self at its centre.” (128)
“For, unlike other creatures, we seem to have maintained our plague phase so long that we threaten permanent destruction rather than a successional set-back.” (129)
“Man’s freedom lies primarily in the choosing of his ‘story,’ rather than his actions within that story.” (132)
“In other words, the context of our lives is constituted by the network of relationships which we are committed to…” (133)
“True, the explanations of science may amaze us, but to say ‘gee whiz’ is not the same as to exclaim ‘Oh!’ “ (140)
“Each of us is, indeed, a naïve ontologist, although we often forgo our responsibility and simply let someone else-what people think-do it for us. And each of us must bear the responsibility if the public ‘story’ becomes one we cannot live through.” (143)
In other news about the Earth and Home