Review of Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence
by Timothy Morton (Columbia UP, 2016).
Dark Ecology explores the psychological and existential experience of being human and being culpable for environmental damage at a moment when life appears to swing in an uneasy balance between rapacity and healing. This timely monograph appears in the same year that an extensive study of global land use published in Science asserts that biodiversity has declined by more than 10 percent in well over half the areas studied, which means that what scientists considered a safe boundary for planetary health has been crossed. Scientists don’t know what this means, practically speaking, and this inability to predict the consequences of human habitation and agriculture, coupled with the paralyzing understanding that it will be catastrophic, whatever the concrete details turn out to be, is one problem addressed by Morton’s concept of agrilogistics as a strange loop in which human fate, and the fate of terrestrial biota generally, are bound.
The book includes plenty of excursions into territory of interest to scholars with literary and ecological interests: he defends the use of the term “Antropocene,” he reflects on Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he sees Oedipus’ fate as bound up with actions taken by his grandfather. There are countless allusions to popular culture, from Sesame Street to Godzilla. The heart of the argument, however, is the claim that in attempting to control the natural world through the cultivation of agriculture and the destruction of that which is wild and non-human, human beings have only managed to mimic nature in a manner that may well destroy us all. Consider an example that is now well-known, explored even in fiction such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer: the use of chemicals to destroy insects pushes against evolutionary processes such that it will often be the case that insects emerge which can do ever more damage to crops but are unaffected by the chemicals. In the meantime, those chemicals frequently turn out to cause collateral damage which harms humans, even if the harm is considered aesthetic, as in the loss of birdsong. Morton constructs a compelling case for seeing human management of the natural world as simply part of the natural order; human action prompts responses from both living things and the environment itself, especially in the realm of global warming. The human project of controlling the environment in order to extract goods for human consumption turns out to be a childish attempt to control that which is utterly beyond control.
Morton is no logician, and confuses the application of logical axioms to statements with descriptions of the natural world. However, he is right to note that the natural world transcends our use of language to demarcate boundaries and divisions. The solution he offers to the impending ecological crisis is a prescription for using language and vision in new ways such that human beings consider their very consciousness as inhabiting a shared space with the non-human and the non-objective. We can offer pragmatic considerations to motivate this shift in worldview, and Morton does allude to those. As new antibiotic resistant bacteria emerge and as global warming threatens not just coastal cities but the conditions under which human life is possible, those practical reasons might be thought to be sufficient. However, the human mind balks at imagining a future without itself, Morton explains, so that a sort of loop forms which makes it impossible for humans to consider those reasons and that future compelling. Instead, he suggests that we approach the problem indirectly, changing our worldview because we recognize that the one we currently inhabit is flawed. If we can change our vision, we can simultaneously change our future. We can do this, he suggests, through rethinking the concepts of need and desire, which will impact our behavior as consumers, and bring us into an awareness of death, nonviolence, interdependence, and the joy that inhabits all living things.
The structure of the book borrows its form from fabric. Rather than chapters, Morton embraces the use of three threads which together construct a loop. This loop cannot be escaped, Morton notes, since the future is implicated by the past, and we are powerless to lift ourselves outside a present moment which might be defined as a second, and might be defined as 12,000 years. The loop metaphor makes it possible for Morton to fold many ideas and debates into the text so that he is as comfortable endorsing the copyrighting of land as art as he is debating Marxists. The freedom such a structure engenders reflects his serious proposal for a revision of human thought processes.
One potential shortcoming in the book is revealed in the frontispiece, in a moving tribute to the death by automobile of his cat, Allan Whiskersworth. Morton asserts that humans treat cats differently from dogs: “I mean we don’t let dogs just wander about.” All of us write in a specific place; we cannot transcend our position in space-time. However, the comment reveals a very specific place within human society. In many places in the world, particularly in less developed, less wealthy, less secure places, dogs do wander about, just as Allan Whiskersworth did. Although the book luxuriates in references to culture, history, art, and literature, a lack of awareness of how life is lived by a tremendous percentage of the human race also permeates the pages. This is no indictment of Morton’s prescription for saving the world; the impoverished can also learn to live in joy and change their way of being. It is merely to say that the work of reaching a wider audience might need to be done by other voices who inhabit other points in space-time.
Reviewed by Delilah Caldwell
Delilah Caldwell is a epistemologist and independent scholar in Richmond, VA.