Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Review: James William Gibson, A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature (2009)

James William Gibson wants us to reconnect with the wild. A fairly constant theme within environmental thought, Gibson treads familiar ground in his 2009 book A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature, even if that ground continues to resonate with many Americans. Gibson believes we have lost touch with the wild around us and that this is a terrible thing. Happily for Gibson, many Americans have rekindled a connection with the wild, making the human race better for it.

Gibson calls enchantment with the wild the "last utopian dream." Although he avoids discussing the failure of every single other utopian dream the world has ever known or wondering if thinking in these terms is remotely helpful, he does point out interesting ways people are acting upon this dream--though getting in touch (literally touching) wild animals. Through worshiping Gaia and other earth-based religions. Through taking in wild animals as pets. Through the creation of wilderness areas and protections for wildlife. And through defending the Earth as members of EarthFirst! or the Earth Liberation Front.

While Gibson may be right that humans need connections (or at the least possibility of connections) with the wild, he also falls into the bottomless pits that sabotages many authors who make these arguments. First of all, he falls into the age old trap of white environmental writers--the Ecological Indian. For Gibson, Native Americans have a special relationship with nature. They are ecologically-minded, rarely waste animals, and are premodern ecologists. He quotes Chief Seattle's speech which is partially about the relation of Native Americans and nature, but fails to note that the speech was probably written by a U.S. Army officer. He quotes Luther Standing Bear, Lame Deer, and other Native Americans uncritically, simply taking their word about indigenous relations to nature. If he's read Shepherd Krech's The Ecological Indian, which takes a critical look at these myths, he doesn't show it. For Gibson, as for so many white environmentalists, Native Americans are everything whites are not. The problem with this is not only is it ahistorical, but it takes agency away from Native Americans to act in a wide variety of ways toward the land, much as whites do.

Gibson's support of touching wild animals as a transcendent experience is also problematic. Touching wild animals is almost always a very bad thing for those animals. Distance between humans and most animals is always better for those animals. Petting deer only tames them. Taking boats to see whales in the Gulf of California harasses the whales, possibly hurting their reproduction. Gibson thinks "animals speak to us." But as Werner Herzog notes in "Grizzly Man," the bear's eyes show nothing but indifference. Rather, people are reading into animals whatever they want to read into them. Animals are blank slates that we can impose our own values upon. People want to see them as wild and spiritual, so they do. The animals are just trying to eat and reproduce and build enough fat to get through the winter. In his favor, Gibson does see the need for limits, criticizing Timothy Treadwell for crossing the line and trying to become a bear.

Gibson's embracing of so-called "ecowarriors" is also fraught with problems. While one might argue that these radical organizations have brought attention to major problems and that they certainly act on their beliefs, as a scholar of working-class environmentalism, it's hard to respect these groups. Spiking trees that seriously injure woodworkers when they are manufacturing timber is not a way to protect nature--it's a way to kill someone. Sitting in a tree for 2 years so it doesn't get cut down rarely saves the tree. Personally, I think calling people who burn SUV lots "terrorists" is totally absurd, but these actions are counterproductive to say the least.

This gets to the crux of the major problem with Gibson's book--there is no room in his culture of enchantment for working-class people. Possibly if you are a person of color, particularly a Native American, you can be enchanted too, but only if you embrace the poverty of your people. This is a white middle-class movement and has been from its beginning. You can embrace Edward Abbey if you want, but you also need to point out that he was a horrible racist who hated Mexicans. The two sides of him are not unrelated and neither are the long-term class and race tensions within environmentalism. What can poor people take from this book that fits with their lives? Absolutely nothing.

Moreover, Gibson actually plays right along with the racial problems of environmentalism. He spends much of the second half of the book talking about some of the problems with the culture of enchantment. Most of this discussion isn't particularly helpful. He discusses exurban development, but stops far short of suggesting people shouldn't live in these places. He blames Republicans for all sorts of things, but there's nothing new here at all. I think we all know Republicans suck on the environment. He could ask why Republicans have controlled the debate on these issues for the last three decades, but does not, though he does note that it is beginning to change for the better, particularly within the evangelical movement. He also goes on to blame Native Americans for gaming. He laments that they are no longer the universal symbol of enchantment. This is a real loss for Gibson. But this is a good thing!!! While gaming has brought a new set of problems to reservations, it also has given Native Americans steady income for the first time since the arrival of whites. Gibson admits the poverty of Native Americans without gaming, but offers not a single useful suggestion. He doesn't realize that perhaps Native Americans as symbol of enchantment is nothing more than a symbol, completely unconnected from reality. He stops short of saying that new Indians aren't really Indians at all because they don't act toward nature like white environmentalists think they should, which many people have in fact said. But he's clearly sympathetic to this view.

Books like A Reenchanted World represent much of what alienates many Americans from environmentalism. While lots of people like hiking and getting into the wild, you aren't going to build environmental policy on Gaia, the Earth Liberation Front, touching bears, or criticizing Native American gaming. That's just going to alienate people. I don't think these ideas can help build a strong environmental movement. I feel compelled to review books such as this because of their currency within environmentalism. Gibson writes about important touchstones within radical environmentalism, but rather than critiquing them, he embraces them. Rather than find ways to create good environmental policy, he puts his faith in the tenets of radical environmentalism. I just don't see how this helps us build a better world in any way.