Monday, February 9, 2009

Book Stall Review: Radical Ecology

Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World
by Carolyn Merchant
Routledge, 2005

How we comprehend our world determines, to a large extent, how we interact with its features -- soils, water, air, plants and animals. Logical positivism, handed down from Aristotle and Isaac Newton, is largely responsible for a mechanistic worldview that looks at nature as individual parts behaving according to recognizable laws and capable of being manipulated.

It is this way of thinking, so dominant in Western societies, that many environmentalists blame for a rapacious capitalism that depletes non-renewable resources, ravages ecosystems for profit, and pollutes indiscriminantly.

Only a switch in our mindsets, coupled with real social and political change, can truly transform our society from egocentrism and homocentrism (human-centered) to ecocentrism, shaping a sustainable world out of one that is endangered.

Marking the frontiers of this ethical transformation are the radical ecologists, the subject of environmental historian Carolyn Merchant's detailed study of cutting-edge philosophies and movements. This includes radical thoughts in spiritual ecology, social ecology and deep ecology, and socio-political movements like The Greens, ecofeminism, bioregionalism and sustainable agriculture.

"Radical Ecology" offers a critical assessment of these alternative worldviews, outlining their fundamental principles and describing areas of disagreement and consensus.

Deep ecology, for instance, is founded on the principle of "biospheric equality," according to Merchant, which "places humans on an equal level with all other living things in an organismic democracy." Its worldview embraces complexity and local autonomy, and seeks to establish a new ecologically-based science.

"The new science is process oriented," Merchant explains. "It draws on design with nature, rather than the imposition of form on nature. Biological and cultural diversity are desired ends."

While other forms of radical ecology like Earth First! and spiritual ecofeminism share some of the same goals and principles, they are also at odds over specific actions and values. Deep ecologists who advocate population control have been accused of being overly rationalist and technist. Social ecologists have branded some of their attitudes racist and elitist.

Making sense of these multivarious belief systems and coalitions, and providing a conceptual framework on which to analyze their thought, is Merchant's singular accomplishment. Like a TV channel guide to alternative programming, "Radical Ecology" offers a menu of ethical performances and a synopsis of their story line.

None of these radical movements are likely to make America's epistemological prime time but, as Merchant points out, their ground-breaking effort may set the stage for genuine change:

"The visibility of radical environmental movements may make mainstream environmental goals more acceptable. Radical actions often raise public consciousness about issues enmeshed in bureaucratic technicalities. Changes triggered by radical actions may then come about through normal political processes."

Copyright 2005 by Michael Hofferber

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