A review essay by David Orton
Main Currents In Western Environmental Thought, by Peter Hay,
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2002, 400 pages,
paperback, ISBN: 0-253-21511-0.
“Ecofeminism is now the predominant position within ecological thought.”
This book helps in locating oneself as a green or environmentalist activist within the history of
Western environmental thought, as seen by Peter Hay. This Australian academic, based in Tasmania,
particularly reflects the influence of Australian writers. He wrote this book to present the “multiplicity
of ideas” within environmentalism. It would have been good to have a picture of the author and some
information about his personal theoretical evolution and his current interests.
There are ten chapters in Main Currents In Western Environmental Thought:
Impulse”; “Ecophilosophy”; “Ecofeminism”; “Religion, Spirituality And The Green Movement”; “Green
Critiques Of Science And Knowledge”; “Reclaiming Place: Seeking An Authentic Ground For Being”;
“Green Political Thought: The Authoritarian And Conservative Traditions”; “Environmental Liberalisms:
Green Thought Meets The Dismal Science”; “Green Political Thought: The Socialist Traditions”; and
“Seeking Homo Ecologicus: Ecology, Democracy, Postmodernism.” There are more than forty pages
of environmental references. The book has a grand title, which can seem somewhat pretentious. The
author, by his selection of writers for Main Currents, decides who is “in” and hence fit for discussion,
and who is not. He seems to designate other theoretical positions, some of which he is apparently
unaware of, as unrecognized back eddies - like “left biocentrism”.
I did not know of Hay as a green movement theorist until a couple of years
ago, when I first saw a
reference to his book. Recently, a green from Sweden praised this book as a “must read”. I followed
the suggestion, and afterwards felt that a review might make it better known to others. I found some
of the discussions personally very helpful, e.g. on postmodernism, as “fraudulent radicalism” (p. 337)
with its elevation of culture over Nature; on ecofeminism and its limitations; on the ideas and influence
of Martin Heidegger for environmentalists and greens, with his critique of modernity and the importance
of living in place and defending this; the evaluation of attempts to forge a Marxist ecology and their
limitations; and on social ecology, including the work of Murray Bookchin. I read Hay as sympathetic
to the Left - he is a former Marxist, and I agree with him that “The ecology movement still struggles
to construct a coherent praxis, and here the left has much to contribute.” (p. 296) This author is also
sympathetic to deep ecology and the ideas of Australian deep ecology-influenced writers like Robyn
Eckersley, Warwick Fox, Richard Sylvan, Ariel Salleh and Val Plumwood, who all make important
contributions to this text. Yet Hay comes through as evolving in a Realo direction: “There has been a
tempering of support for radical ecology in the wake of recent assessments of philosophical
ecocentrism as politically unpalatable or otherwise incapable of implementation.” (p. 169)
Main Currents In Western Environmental Thought is written by someone
environmental heart is in the right place. There are things to learn here, as well as some positions
and opinions to distance oneself from, as for example the quotation on ecofeminism by Hay which
introduces this review. Yet the reader may also ask, who decides the genesis, propagation, and
relevancy of the various components of green and environmental theory? I believe this book focuses
too much on the literature of the academy and not enough on the theoretical concerns of green and
How Does Theory Unfold?
Reading Peter Hay’s book raises the question of how environmental and green theory or
philosophy arises and develops. It also raises the question about the relationship of published
“theorists”, who seem to be overwhelmingly university-based, to movement activists outside the
universities concerned about theoretical questions. For example, this book devotes too much
space to Michael Zimmerman, someone who is not only a deep ecology apostate, but who has
wandered the ideological map and written too much about this as if it had significance for the
green movement. Zimmerman would not even make the “C” team of green theorists whose ideas
are helpful for changing this world. Just because someone writes about the environmental
movement or green philosophy, that does not make that person a fit subject for analysis. Rather,
the writings need to have some direct relevancy for environmental and green activists who
embrace changing industrial capitalist society.
My own view is that published environmental and green theories are produced
in the main for a
university-educated audience. Those views which become “legitimate” subjects for discussion have
first to be selected to be published, either in academic journals or books, and this is normally
related to an university connection on the part of the author(s). This is not to deny that some good,
relevant, theoretical work comes out of the universities, but this book shows that there is much that
does not. Much writing by academics is a “chew over”, and obscures rather than clarifies or moves
forward in some way, our theoretical understanding. Unless green theorists are involved in some
concrete organizing, they will not understand the practical problems and difficulties of moving to a
non-anthropocentric world which is also socially just.
In my experience, an activist facing a problem often sees the need for
theory. For example, in
anti-forestry biocide agitation or off-highway vehicle struggles, we come up against the “private
property” argument. In the spraying situation, we are told “the land owner or forest industry has the
right to do what he or she wants on their land.” In the off-highway vehicle situation, we have a conflict
of “property rights” between the rider of the ATV or snowmobile, who claims, by ownership of the
machine, the “right to ride” anywhere; and the “rights” of the landowner to say who can come on
“their” land. Hence we see the necessity to work out a theoretical ecological view of land use, from a
deep ecology ecocentric perspective, where humans are not centre-stage.
Environmental activists have to contrast private property to usufruct use,
where all species have
their interests recognized on an equality basis. This means reigning in some taken-for-granted human-
centered rights under existing thought paradigms. We need an overall theoretical perspective like deep
ecology, which one can work with and apply in particular situations. As Arne Naess, the Norwegian
founder of deep ecology said, “The ideology of ownership of nature has no place in an ecosophy.”
New conceptions of so-called property rights must evolve which serve both to protect Nature and all
nonhuman living creatures, and to provide social justice for humans. Local environmental struggles,
while vitally important to participate in, can become ends in themselves and eventually exhaust the
participants, unless grounded in relevant green theory which gives a wholistic overview.
There is a dedication by Peter Hay to his past and present students of
a class on "Environmental
Values", who, we are told, "have been my best teachers." While the sentiment is laudable, for most
environmental or green activists, actual issues in the environment which they confront are the primary
instructor, not exchanges in an university classroom. Hay himself speaks of "The green activist's
penchant to value maxims forged in struggle rather than principles derived from abstruse theorising..."
(p. 165) The word "abstruse" is not out of place here. The university represents a privileged and
insulated enclave in society. Its primary function is a support institution to provide, through
theoretical work, for the continuation/propagation of industrial capitalism, with its human dominance
and self-serving manipulation of Nature. Notwithstanding the radicalism of a handful of university
teachers, for the university as an institution, the society we live in is taken as a given. Under industrial
capitalism, the main focus for teaching on the environment can only be “managerial environmentalism”,
known in one incarnation as “sustainable development”. The field of "environmental studies" has no
accountability to the movement in whose name it holds forth. Having said this, when invited by radical
professors to their classes, I do go to speak to university students about deep ecology, radical
environmentalism and green politics.
and Red and Inclusiveness
“...today the mainstream environmental movement is firmly committed to the social
justice concerns traditionally associated with the left...” (p. 185)
I have been very involved with both the left and the environmental movement.
I have written about
how the Left should relate to the environmental movement, and what I felt could be learnt from the
Left by greens and environmentalists. Yet there is only one passing reference to one of my earlier works,
in Main Currents, in connection with an exchange with Jim O’Connor on the concept of “socialist
biocentrism” (misleadingly called “Marxist ecocentrism” by Hay) in an article in the journal Capitalism,
Nature, Socialism. And Hay does not explore what is happening in this article, where a PRACTICAL
Nova Scotia issue, industrial forestry, is used to contrast a Marxist ecological perspective with an
ecocentric/leftist one, showing the different value assumptions of the two positions which are important
for any attempted fusion of the Green and the Red.
There are quite a number of other articles and book reviews about this
work, some of which bear
directly on topics discussed in Peter Hay’s book, but which are unacknowledged by him. (See various
Green Web publications at http://home.ca.inter.net/~greenweb/) For recent published presentations of
left biocentrism, see two 2005 publications: The Encyclopedia Of Religion And Nature and Patrick
Curry’s Introduction to Ecological Ethics.
“Ecofeminists may be seen to identify with a sisterhood of feminism, but not with a
family of environmentalism. Evidence adduced in support of this view would especially
instance the hostility evinced in ecofeminism to deep ecology.”(p. 92)
While I found the overall discussion on ecofeminism in this book by Hay
thorough and insightful, the
quotation about ecofeminism which introduces this review, repeated several times in the book, is, I
believe, a fantasy showing the disconnect between “Environmental Thought” in the universities and
everyday environmental and green life for the rest of us. Thus, for example, the Earth First!
environmental movement in the United States orients theoretically to deep ecology, not ecofeminism, as
does the Green Party of Canada, in its 2004 Election Platform: “We can begin to live up to the
challenge of deep ecology when we begin to draw boundaries and respect the limits of what
nature can support.” (2004 Election Platform, p. 44) Deep ecology, not ecofeminism - a gender-
based theory - is more likely to influence environmental or green activists in Canada and the U.S.
Does reading this book lead to greater environmental awareness? One must answer yes to this.
Therefore Main Currents In Western Environmental Thought has my overall endorsement,
despite the various criticisms that this review has raised. Perhaps the book could be renamed "The
Main University Currents in Western Environmental Thought"! It is unfortunate that Hay does not
have any path forward after such a survey of ideas, except upholding green or environmental
pluralism. As he rightly notes in this overview book, socialism has declined and environmentalism
now becomes the main opposition to the taken-for-granted ecologically and socially destructive
world of the bourgeoisie.
Green Web, R.R. #3, Saltsprings, Nova Scotia, Canada, BOK 1PO
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