1000 Books In 10 Years: Vol. 215: The Social Creation of Nature, by Neil Evernden

Neil Evernden

Neil Evernden

Neil Evernden’s The Social Creation of Nature is an interesting book in the ecocritical vein that focuses largely on the semiotics of ecocritical discourse.  It examines nature as it is defined by humanity and lays it against nature as it actually is.  Evernden notes that various groups have different agendas for nature: some see the ultimate goal in preserving nature as it is, while others view it as a resource for humanity.  The problem is that both parties draw on nature to defend their viewpoints, conceptualizing “nature as the source of authority” (Evernden, 6).  In explanation, Evernden cites the story of the budworm (12-13).  The budworm has ravaged spruce trees and many see it solely as a pest.  However, because the budworm does not damage other trees, it prevents spruce trees from dominating a given ecosystem. It therefore allows for the growth of other trees, preserving the biological diversity of the ecosystem in which it lives.  The problem?  As this example illustrates, one can help to maintain an ecosystem by destroying some of its elements.  Though Evernden does not draw on other examples, one could see how certain predatory animals, like lions, foxes, or wolves, might help preserve the ecosystems in which they live by killing other animals.  Those who exploit the environment for their own ends might draw on this template to defend their actions. That, Evernden observes, is the problem with how we interpret nature. Nature, as he notes, “justifies nothing, or anything” (15).  Taking this into consideration, Evernden suggests that the natural world, “far from being the standard to which humans should aspire… constitute[s] something which [humanity is] entreated to transcend” ( 19).  In fact, humanity tends to lend so much credibility to the natural world that the word “‘unnatural’ is a perjorative term” (21) and that “once something is perceived as lying in the realm of nature… it seems beyond criticism” (24).  The view that events in nature are ideally adaptive is controversial.  In the natural world, there are any number of instances where animals display behaviour counterproductive to their own ends. To defend destructive or exploitative behaviour in ourselves as ‘natural’ is ultimately based on flawed logic.  Adversely, there are productive activities performed by humans that can be called unnatural. Because, as Evernden points out, that has become a derogatory term, these activities may come be regarded as counterproductive.  We must be cautious in relying on the natural world as our teacher.

The budworm: These things are to spruce trees, what the ruling class is to the working class.

The budworm: These things are to spruce trees what the ruling class is to the working class.

There is another intriguing idea in Evernden’s work, though it is not fully articulated. According to Evernden, “Nature is God’s handiwork, replete with messages that people must discern, the better to live by God’s will” (42).  It could be argued then that nature, like the Bible, is ‘God’s handiwork’.  Though the statement is problematic for those who don’t embrace Christianity, there is a message here.  Not infrequently, biblical anecdotes prompt non-believers to attack the validity of the text.  For instance, the Bible seems to condone slavery and a host of other horrid things.  However, some Christians do not see the Bible as condoning these things, but rather as representing matters as they really were at the time.  In other words, the Bible is a descriptive teacher and not a prescriptive teacher.  Nature, likewise, can be seen as a descriptive teacher and not a prescriptive teacher.  It does not prescribe that we imitate it, but merely suggests that we take away lessons and apply them.

The Bible: Descriptive or prescriptive teacher?

The Bible: Descriptive or prescriptive teacher?

“Nature is perceived to be in danger, and it is up to us to devise the means of salvation” (3).  The statement is simple, but what is the solution?  Evernden notes that in “an homogeneous society with a single environmental ideal… misunderstanding is unlikely to occur” (6), but, in “a heterogeneous society, which tacitly embraces the notion of social relativity, we cannot articulate an absolute conception of proper behaviour” (6).  So this might be a roadblock.  One possible solution is what some ecocritics call the ‘garden’ approach, or as Evernden describes it, “‘wise stewards[ship]’” (121).  This “‘stewardship’ of nature… will permit us to husband all organisms just as we do our domestic animals” (100), but, as Evernden points out, critics “of this approach regard it as inadequate at best, or as the source of the problem at worst” (100).  Ultimately, however, “it is difficult to provide an alternative” (100).  Should we allow nature to take its course?  The last time nature had its way, the entire planet was decimated and almost every living organism on it lost.  One might consider ‘wise stewardship’ to be humanistic, and anybody who has done any degree of reading on ecocritical theory knows that humanists are the primary target for ecocritics.  Evernden notes that “Humanism… is… understood as a form of philosophy which places humanity at the center, displacing God, nature, and all other deities” (31).  However, Evernden makes some interesting observations, such as when he notes that “humanity is literally part of Nature” (93), a common ecocritical argument.  With that premise accepted, Evernden suggests that “to harm nature is to harm ourselves” (101) and we can then draw the conclusion that humanism, when properly applied, must include the natural world as an equal since humanity is embedded in it.

C.S. Lewis: Evernden draws much upon the works of Lewis.

C.S. Lewis: Evernden draws much upon the works of Lewis.

Of course, one of the problems with humanists is that they do not see humanity as part of the natural world. Hence, whatever conclusions they make based on their assumptions are going to be counterproductive toward the goals of humanity.  Evernden notes that to “the detached observer… nature is utterly devoid of human qualities” (89), but this is not the case.  There are any number of qualities that humanity sees as uniquely human but which are often displayed in the natural world.  One might suggest that foresight is a human quality, but what of the squirrels that store food for the winter?  Are they not aware of their own history and do they not act accordingly?  It could be argued that many humans fail to have the kind of foresight that squirrels possess.  In the same way, the ability to suffer is not limited to the human realm, as are a host of other emotive qualities that humanity sees itself as the exclusive owner of.

 tree

With the natural world in danger then, the garden approach seems to be the only alternative.  In the introduction Evernden notes that a “system of environmental management” (ix) must be embraced and that “environmental engineering must emerge” (9), much to the chagrin of folks like Robert Fulford who view environmentalists as “‘crankily misanthropic’” (33).  To implement order into the “‘divine chaos’” (120) of the natural world though, one must know and understand nature and “the way of knowing nature ha[s] to be through a kind of empathy” (41).  Such understanding is only possible when, as C.S. Lewis notes, “‘subject and the object… are of the same nature; they must be members and parts of one and the same vital complex’” (41).  Gifford Pinchot is bold when he states “the first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives on” (131), but this does seem to be the only way to salvation for the natural world, and while, by the standard of environmentalists, “our actions on behalf of nature seem destined to disappoint” (120), but humanity must, as Evernden states, “make it ours” (120) and embrace “global domestication” (120) in order for biodiversity to be preserved.

Interesting quotes:

If one “can get a majority vote on the sun, a consensus of normal minds based on the lower limit of normalcy” then one “can eliminate the idiot who goes below this and the visionary who rises above it as equally irrelevant.”  (86)

“death is the norm and life the anomaly to be explained”  (52)

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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