Critical Ecology and Critical Theory

With the Canadian government’s formal withdrawal in December 2011 from the Kyoto Protocol, an internationally binding treaty on reducing greenhouse emissions, optimism about positive environmental change grows more elusive and, if I can indulge in a brief fit of hyperbole, my frustration an ever-widening pit of despair. So, when I came to review Andrew Biro’s edited collection Critical Ecologies: The Frankfurt School and Contemporary Environmental Crises, I prepared for a freefall into that pit. This was not going to be pleasant reading. I was right. Biro’s collection was not a calming study; it made me cranky. But that is what makes this such a necessary read for anyone who has an interest—no, an investment—in changing the habits of mind that have led to this global environmental mess.

Critical Ecologies brings together fourteen contributors who engage primarily with the works of Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Jürgen Habermas. Biro divides the book into four sections: 1) Science and the Mastery of Nature 2) Critical Theory, Life, and Nature 3) Alienation and the Aesthetic 4) Critical Theory’s Moment. The connecting theme—domination of nature, humans and nonhumans—undergoes reassessment through critical theory’s contributions to the conceptualization of the nature/culture dialectic. Starting from various Frankfurt School concerns—aesthetic, scientific, spiritual, and technological, for example—each contributor calls for an updated framework for or adaptation of critical theory to address current environmental and political crises. When modified to embody historical and current struggles and issues particular to the times, through theoretical argument and case studies, the contributors illustrate how critical theory remains relevant and useful today. Engaging current environmental challenges, critical theories are regalvanized in novel and politically pragmatic ways, specifically in relation to a reiterated paradox: as human power to manipulate the biophysical world increases so does human vulnerability to the risks caused by these manipulations. Current political praxis requires change to the social and political relationships that shape current perceptions of the environment; this collection offers cognitive models that can help shape policies that affect those relationships.

For environmental and literary critics, Critical Ecologies provides methodological frameworks in which to incorporate political ecology into literary analyses. The volume offers a range of subtle variations on debates about labour, historical changes, capitalist practices of extraction, production, marketing, and consumption, and the innovation of technologies and subsequent failure of transformative thinking to keep up with that progress. What I find refreshing about these arguments is their resistance to any retreat to radical ecology (or deep ecology), or to the other extreme, techno-fix-it models as solutions. Rather than reject human rationality wholesale, they advocate methods to push and reconfigure its current limits to disrupt unequal nature/culture power dynamics. They explore oppressive and relational political and social tensions that affect and ultimately inspire collective action to help recognize the need for far deeper attitudinal changes that would embed behavioural changes and ensure they are sustainable. Central to this understanding, and repeated throughout this collection, is how not the mastery of nature but . . . the relation between nature and man (Benjamin) has created global environmental crises.

Lack of space limits a detailed summary of each essay; thus, what follows is a few, but not all, of the highlights. William Leiss’ Modern Science, Enlightenment, and the Domination of Nature: No Exit? examines the disconnection between scientific innovation and scientific ethic as a human (mis)understanding of the control and the construction of our relationship with the biophysical world. The essays written by Shane Gunster, Steven Vogel, and Andrew Biro in Part Three contribute to ecoliterary analyses in that they explore such topics as beauty, alienation, and cultural production within technological, social, and historical contexts. As a result, they collectively advocate a more complex understanding of reconciliation and its obverse, alienation and the contemplation of the possibility of radical social, environmental, and political transformation. Concerning the global/local, Jonathan Short’s essay innovatively brings together Adorno’s thoughts on identity thinking and Giorgio Agamben’s ideas on sovereign power. He illuminates how under the twin imperatives of survival and domination, revealed in both identity thinking and the political form of sovereignty, . . . most of humanity is still living out its prehistory—a situation Short argues is both intolerable and open to necessary change.

Because contributors present clear overviews of the critical theories they address, previous engagement with the works of the Frankfurt School is not required but would certainly enrich reader’s critical engagement with and appreciation of the collection. As contributors are frequently in direct conversation with one another, the volume unfolds as an ongoing open dialogue between interdisciplinary environmental thinking and critical theory. If I have one criticism, it is the absence of feminist perspectives. Inclusion of an environmental feminist analysis would benefit a reassessment of critical theory. Pertaining to issues of gender coupled with environmental justice, feminist critique would offer greater scope to this collection’s already rich expositions, which elucidate the diverse ways in which human domination of nature conceals contradictory or unequal social relations. In fairness, I am displaying my own political and scholarly biases: Biro never promises this to be the definitive word on environmental crises and critical theory; instead, he offers the beginnings of a new conversation in environmental studies. As a result, that free-falling, sinking feeling becomes a little more manageable to face and to renegotiate.

This review “Critical Ecology and Critical Theory” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 137-38.

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