Re-evaluating Traditions                       

            Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities
                                            by Rod Preece, 1999, UBC Press.

                    "Be careful lest, in casting out your devils, you cast out the best that is within you."


            For those with open critical minds, who are willing to painfully think deeper, Animals and Nature:
        Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities
, is a book to shake you up, because it has something new to say. It can
        expand how humans look at our relationship to animals and nature in a more open-minded way, particularly
        from the perspective of "Western" culture. The author wants to improve how we interact with flora and fauna
        and rediscover the "best" of our own Western traditions, to help us find our way forward.


If you are blindly committed to the view that Western thought or its intellectual tradition is totally bound to a
        "domination of nature" thesis, then this book is not for you. This is not by contemporary standards a politically
        correct book. But I believe it is an important book. However, it is a complicated book to read because of the
        encyclopaedic task the author, Rod Preece, sets out for himself. It is a book that can make oneself feel ignorant,
        because of its sweep and informed historical commentary on philosophy, literature, religious traditions, and cultures.


There is a discussion of "Oriental thought", that is, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism.  I found the analysis of the
        Jains, e.g. ahimsa, as an exception to the "quietist tradition" of non-intervention or disengagement in the natural
        world very interesting. Jainism, and its application to non-humans, has influenced the adoption of vegetarianism and
        elimination of animal sacrifices in India.  The author says that the "interconnectedness" of humans, animals, plants
        and all of nature, to be found in Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and aboriginal thought, has a western counterpart.
        But, Preece says that there is a "general trend throughout Asia to a depleted fauna and devastated flora."
(p. 207) Here in Nova Scotia, where Buddhism has impacted society, I intend to further inquire with Buddhists
        whether this religion is an obstacle to environmental engagement in fighting the Earth destroyers. The point is made
        in this book that how we evaluate the animal pantheon, reflects values admired within human society.


Basically what this book is about, is the documentation and presentation of the dynamite thesis that the West,

                "has been significantly more sympathetic to the natural realm than it has been given credit for.
                By contrast, the customary depiction of Oriental and Aboriginal concerns for the natural realm,
                it is argued, has been greatly overdrawn."
Preface xii


Preece, who teaches political science at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, in a letter of September
        3, 1999, responding to a note I had sent him after reading this book, said his "primary concern, in dealing with
        the west, was to demonstrate that there has been a traditional ongoing respect for animals and nature
        prior to the western ecological revolution."


The author is a Green and no Western civilization apologist. The core thinking of this book is going to help
        change in a major way, for example, the aboriginal/non-aboriginal discussion in Canada. I have written elsewhere
        (see Green Web bulletins #67A and #67B, "Unfashionable Ideas: A Left Biocentric Critique of the
        Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples"
), that there is substantial intellectual disarray
        among non-aboriginals concerning aboriginal issues. One factor in this is a genuine sense of historical guilt because
        of the past racist and unjust past treatment of aboriginals. (This statement should not be misread to imply that
        racism is no longer present in contemporary society, although I believe the situation is qualitatively different today
        because racist practices against aboriginals are not sanctioned either by the state or by the majority of Canadians.)
        However, this very consciousness of historical guilt seems to inhibit contemporary critical discourse. This book is
        going to increase critical discourse. It is going to make it possible, within the environmental movement, to oppose
        those "aboriginal advocates" who seem quite prepared to promote social justice at the expense of wildlife and the
        ecology, by tapping into historical guilt and fostering a bias against looking critically at aboriginal societies in the
        past or present.


The book will also provide the general documentation to substantiate what has become obvious to me, as a
        result of reading the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples. That is, that the commissioners in their five-volume
        1996 report, had no understanding of the evolution of consciousness in non-aboriginal society in Canada, which
        opposes treating wild animals as "resources" and commodities to be sold in the marketplace, and what this means
        for a deeper land ethic. (Interestingly, the commissioners in their report, do not mention or discuss the deep
        ecology movement.)


Preece stresses the necessity of looking at aboriginal practices, not the ideals which are presented for public
        consumption. A language of harmony with nature conceals for the author, "relatively little consideration for animal
        suffering." (p. 193)  Animals are seen instrumentally for aboriginals, and the author, as this reviewer, does not accept
        that "traditional rights" can justify the use of snowmobiles to hunt wolves, continuing support for the leghold trap
        and the fur industry, use of gillnets, etc. "Rituals" invoked in the killing of animals are seen as cultural "atonement"
        by aboriginals. The author says,

                "Tribal societies customarily controlled nature as much as they were able, and often to nature's
                lasting detriment. Humans are far more similar to each other than those who glorify Aboriginal
                environmentalism would have us believe."
p. 177


Another interesting observation made by Preece, is that each "tribe", or in a Canadian context, aboriginal nation,
        sees itself as a chosen people, with their own creation myth. This conflicts with the universalism of the ecological
        ethic and helps in understanding the extreme bitterness of views around an issue like the Makah grey whale killing.

                "Every tribe sees itself as the chosen people, whose responsibility it is to look after itself. This view
                is the antithesis of egalitarianism and universalism. For the Aboriginal, the permanent interests of
                the tribe are sacred."
pp. 183-184.


And Preece re-evaluates the Western intellectual tradition:

                "The Western tradition, so readily castigated by its opponents, has not been so uncaring as its
                depiction by detractors would have us believe...It should not escape our attention that, in the
                nineteenth century, a vegetarian movement, anti-vivisection movement, naturalist movement,
                and animal welfare movement, and, in the twentieth century, an environmental movement and
                animal rights movement all began, and in most cases have found the greatest response, in Western
                society. Indeed, Western society's greatest critics are themselves Westerners, and are products of
                a civilization that has promoted and encouraged intellectual dissent to a far greater degree than
                any previous society. The fact that Western civilization has treated the criticisms as legitimate has
                given greater weight to those criticisms than would have been the case in any other contemporary
                society. The West has certainly not been immersed in the realm of nature; but at least it has been
  p. 7


Like deep ecologists and left biocentrists, Rod Preece in his book Animals and Nature, sees the necessity
        for a spiritual transformation. The following quotation reveals a deep ecology understanding, particularly the
        concept of Self-realization, even though deep ecology, unfortunately, is not discussed in this book:

                "All cultures think of their own interests first and only a spiritual education dedicated to a sharing of
                identities with other peoples, other animals, and nature as a whole can diminish the environmental
                destruction we face. It can be diminished by our being educated to share our identity with the natural
                world and thus understand it as a part of ourselves."
p. 230


            This book has helped me further along a path I was already on. I expect the book to be attacked as an apology
        for the Western intellectual tradition but it is not. I feel that intellectuals who feel the guilt of Western imperialism,
        can refuse to consider some of the positive features of this society, necessary to grasp, as we work to build an
        alternative relationship to the natural world rather than the destructive "resourcism" of industrial capitalism. The
        Nietzsche quote, which was in the book, addresses this. I believe like Preece, that our guilt over the legacy and
        ongoing destructiveness of industrial capitalism has lead to a romantization of aboriginal societies as ecological and
        social models and an undue reverence for Eastern philosophies. Of course we must learn from everyone, but new
        thinking and models are necessary. Like the author, I believe that similarities among differing cultures in their
        attitudes towards nature and wildlife are more striking than the differences. But for all of us, big changes are
        necessary if there is to be a turn-around.


            I found the book too drawn out, but given the task set by the author, perhaps there is no way around this. I think
        it is a shame that deep ecology was not part of the analysis, because this is part of the way forward.

                                                                                                                        David Orton, September 12, 1999

                        Published in the Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, vol. 2:3 (1999).

      To obtain any of the Green Web publications,  write to us at:

Green Web, R.R. #3, Saltsprings, Nova Scotia, Canada, BOK 1PO
E-mail us at:

        Back to                                                                                                                        
            The Green Web
            A Taste of Green Web Writings and Left Biocentrism
         Green Web Book Reviews
     Last updated: January 27, 2005