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NatureReview - Nature
Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times
by Peter Coates
University of California Press, 2005
Review by Rob Loftis, Ph.D.
Jan 9th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 2)

As I was starting in on Coates's Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times, I had a conversation with my colleague Baylor Johnson, who had finished the book. "I've been looking for a book to give undergraduates," he said, "that would succinctly describe the important ways the concept of nature has been used in history, and I was really hoping this book would be it, but it isn't."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because it's all deflationary," Baylor responded, "All he does is look at accounts that others have given of older attitudes towards nature and try to poke holes in them."

I didn't expect to agree with Baylor's diagnosis, largely because I share Coates's antipathy to many of these naïve, idealizing accounts of older visions of nature, but I have come to embrace my colleague's claim, and even take it further. The polemic nature of Coates's book not only makes it inappropriate for an undergraduate text, it makes his book a poor book in general. You can't assemble a good history out of a bunch of pot shots.

The first chapter of Coates's book is promising enough. As he outlines his approach to history and nature, he makes a nice distinction between five major denotations of the word 'nature': nature as a physical space unmodified by humans, nature as the whole of the universe, nature as the essential principle of a thing or the universe, nature as a guide in human affairs, and nature as the opposite of culture. He also states that he will incorporate the actual history of the environment into his history of the concept of nature, so we can see how the two have interacted. Unfortunately, his nice fivefold distinction is simply never seen again, so we never get the chance to see why the focal meaning of the term nature moved from the universe as a whole and its organizing structure to unmodified physical spaces seen as a source of moral guidance. He does give us some ecological history, mostly in the second and third chapters, but this is used only to show that different cultures could not have had a robust ecological consciousness because they inflicted so much ecological damage. On the whole, the book promised in the first chapter never materializes.

What we get, instead, is a jumpy tour of different individuals and social movements that others think were predecessors to modern environmentalism but that really are not. Thus the Pythagorean ban on eating meat was not a forebear to modern animal rights consciousness in part because it was based on a hierarchical theory of species, in which meat eating was a form of lower savagery. Roman pastoral poetry was not a predecessor to the nature conservation movement because it was merely "literary posturing" that stemmed more from contempt for the city than love of wilderness. The literature on St. Francis, according to Coates, is "a striking example of our proclivity for making figures of the past over in our own image" (53). Francis did not have a conception of nature in general. He only thought about individual natural objects, and his depiction of those was "utterly conventional" (ibid.). Coates also digresses to deflate claims made about ecological consciousness of non-European cultures. Thus "The case for the American Indian the ecological activists usually offer…[fails] to rise much above the sophistication of the portrayal of Indians in Disney's movie Pocahontas." The damage to the environment in Asia shows that Buddhist and Daoist traditions are not truly ecologically conscious. Returning to the West, Coates tells us that Thomas Jefferson's purchase of Virginia's Natural Bridge was not an early act of nature conservation, as Eugene Hargrove claims, because Jefferson preferred human-modified pastoral landscapes to pure wilderness. Even the Romantics turn out not to be true environmentalists. According to Coates, Emerson did not really value nature because for him it was merely a conduit for human enlightenment.

The few times when Coates acknowledges affinity with the contemporary environmental movement, he is discussing social movements that environmentalists typically do not acknowledge or do not want to acknowledge as ancestors, and the affinity he asserts is quite weak. The most explicit connection to the modern environmental movement is awarded to the Nazis. Hitler's minister of agriculture, Richard Darré, is called a "green forefather," although not a "particularly close or influential" one (168). The Renaissance figures and early scientists whom Carolyn Merchant blames for "the death of nature" are also rehabilitated, if only because their attitude was not that great a break with the past. In her critique of early modernity "Merchant virtually succumbs to the concept of a scrupulous golden age" (77). The poet John Clare, who resisted the British Enclosure Acts, also avoids deflation: his life and works are simply presented without comment.

These deflationary claims aren't what make the book bad. There is a large amount of truth in all of them, especially the emphasis on the connection between environmentalism and far right nationalism. Environmentalism only became firmly associated with the left in the sixties, and they have always made strange bedfellows. One reason Coates's book fails is that he never explicitly outlines his standards for being a "true predecessor" for modern environmentalism, or even give examples of who he thinks is a representative modern environmentalist. He says repeatedly that current environmentalism began in 1945, motivated by fear of the atom bomb and various new pollutants, but he never says why he draws that line. Most of the people typically thought to be the fathers and mothers of environmentalism do not seem to be environmentalists at all according to him. John Muir, the founder of one of the largest environmental organizations on Earth, is awarded two sentences in the book, and described only as a follower of Thoreau, who, like all Romantics, was apparently not a real environmentalist. Octavia Hill, who founded similar organizations in Britain, is portrayed largely as a defender of aristocracy. He has nothing substantial to say about Aldo Leopold, who at least managed to live past the magic date of 1945. Rachel Carson does not appear in the index.

Coates's implicit standards for being a genuine environmentalist seem to be conflicting. It seems clear that a true environmentalist must accord nature as a whole moral status. Thus St. Francis was not an environmentalist because he had no concept of nature in general. Similarly, Daoist nature attitudes are not like their Western counterparts because they are prudential and not true attributions of moral status. At other times, though, Coates's environmentalist seems more like an animal liberationist. The Romans are not environmentalists because their circuses were as cruel to animals as they were to humans. Hunting preserves seem to be treated differently than true parks, and hunting itself said to cause "current sensibilities" to "shudder." But of course the conflict and periodic rapprochement between animal liberationism and environmentalism is well known. If belief in animal rights and the moral status of nature as a whole are both necessary conditions for being a true environmentalist, there are few environmentalists indeed. Perhaps Coates feels that Aldo Leopold was not a true environmentalist because he loved hunting and managed game preserves. 

The deepest problem with Coates's book, though, is that he has no positive story to tell. He is keen to tell us that there was no environmental golden age from which we are now fallen. So what story is there to tell? Can we tell a narrative of moral progress, as Leopold and Dale Jamieson want to? Why not tell a story where ideas form lineages, like genes? At points he discusses chains of influence, but if he seriously pursued these remarks, they would undo all of his deflationary work. Based on his own evidence, a chain of influence runs from the Roman pastoralists to contemporary environmentalists through Rousseau. When it actually comes time to discuss contemporary attitudes toward nature, Coates admits that there is not one environmental position. If he had taken this fact seriously while writing the rest of the book, he could have told a much more interesting story. Can we identify modern heirs of Roman pastoralism and distinguish them from the ancestors of animal liberationists? A historian interested in tracing lineages could weave many threads here. It would also be very interesting to hear about the relationship between environmental damage and environmental awareness beyond the crude claim that civilizations who damage their environments probably don't have much environmental consciousness. Perhaps environmental consciousness actually grows in response to environmental damage. Coates actually raises this possibility at one point, suggesting that Native American ecological consciousness was a response to the Pleistocene overkill. He can't really pursue this idea, though, because it conflicts with his more general claim that Native Americans did not have much ecological consciousness. The blurb on the cover from a New York Times review says that Coates ties historical attitudes to nature with the "political goals of the times." I wish I had read that book. Coates, however, gives us no sense of how different societies have different political goals and all of the attitudes towards nature he reviews wind up the same. They are all equally anti-environmental.

Coates's writing is generally snarky and his story is filled with gaps and jumps. He seems especially fond of anecdotes of environmental hypocrisy, from a story about some Romans who cut down a tree because it endangered a statue of Sylvanus to Romantics who cleared land so they could have a better view of the wilderness. Some of the gaps in his book are genuinely odd. I can understand an Englishman skipping over Americans like Muir, Leopold, and Carson, but why isn't there a chapter on ancient Hebrew attitudes to nature? He repeatedly discusses White's claim that the West's poor environmental attitudes have their roots in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. It is one of the Stories of the Fall that he targets. So why doesn't he give ancient Hebrew attitudes to nature a chapter alongside the chapter on the Greeks and Romans? His story also jumps around a lot. The chapter on the ancient world starts with the Hellenistic era, then moves back to the Athenian renaissance, and then forward to the Church fathers.

I imagine that the publishers of this book were hoping for the same book my colleague Baylor was. College textbooks bring reliable sales. Sadly, I can't think of any reason for anyone to read this book, except perhaps as a guide to the literature for someone who is writing the work that this book should have been.

 

© 2006 Robert Loftis

 

Rob Loftis, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, St. Lawrence University


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716