Ecocentric Transformation                

                                                                                                                       A  review  essay  by  David  Orton      

                                    Nature, Environment and Society
                                    by Philip W. Sutton, Palgrave Macmillan, published in
                                    conjunction with the British Sociological Association,
                                    2004, 214 pages, paperback, ISBN 0-333-99568-6

               "Ecocentric theorists are right to argue that human beings are NATURAL
               beings, but they are wrong to suggest that the biological is somehow more
               'real' than the social. Such a view remains a serious obstacle to ecocentric
               theories of self and society as well as to any accommodation between
               ecocentric and sociological approaches to environmental issues."
  p. 114

            I found Nature, Environment and Society, written by UK sociologist Philip Sutton, who teaches at
        Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, a small but helpful, very interesting and intensely political book.
        Sutton examines the impact of environmentalism and the Green movement on sociology, the study of society.
        This book is not just for sociology students.

            The book has nine chapters - which include an Introduction, a chapter on "The Ecocentric Challenge for
        Society and Sociology", and a very extensive bibliography. As Sutton says, sociology is "arguably the most
        anthropocentric of the social sciences."
(p. 9) He points out:
                "Because sociology developed initially during a period of rapid
               industrialization and strong economic growth, many, though not all,
               of its theories took for granted that nature simply forms the backdrop
               for human activity but does not shape it." (p. 175)

          Sutton also looks at what sociology can contribute to our understanding of the natural world and the
        ecological crisis. This book is a sympathetic yet critical examination of environmentalism and the challenge
        that ecocentrism or deep ecology poses to mainstream sociology and its self-definition. For deeper ecocentric
        Greens, the natural world and the ecological crisis are real, but how these are seen by society IS socially
        conditioned and this can determine what becomes lifted into societal consciousness. The "social construction
        of reality" perspective, taken from sociology, if seen as not denying the material reality of the natural world, has
        something very useful to contribute.

            This is a review of current sociological literature related to the environment. Reading this book also forces
        us to confront how the "self" is formed; this as the Green social movement attempts to move beyond
        anthropocentric consciousness and consumerist self-identity.

            Sociologists study how human societies function, and try to unmask or go beneath apparent social realities.
        Disenchantment with official views of existing social realities can result from this "sociological imagination".
        Historically, sociology defined itself as human-centered and, as Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), the French
        sociologist, argued, in opposition to biology. In today's world, sociology has to accommodate in some way
        to the natural world and to ecocentric thinking. For sociology, says Sutton, "The main threats to human
        societies stem from their relationship with the natural world."
(p. 15) This would be a basic point of unity
        for deep Green activists, with  Nature, Environment and Society.

            Students trying to acquire a sociological consciousness are often told that, following the influential German
        sociologist Max Weber (1863-1920), sociology strives to be "value free." But surely today, as a starting point,
        to aspire to this as an ideal requires the inclusiveness of an ecocentric consciousness, not one that is human-
        centered? Sutton wants to bring nature into sociological theories. However, the central focus of the book is
        the late response taken by sociology to the upsurge in environmental awareness and the rise of Green
        consciousness in modern societies. The author argues that it is only within the last ten years or so that the views
        of radical ecologists have entered sociology. Sutton, like many of us, sees that there is a post-industrial
        political realignment underway with "'Nature' or 'Life' becoming the central political cleavage rather than class,
        inequality and wealth distribution." (pp. 31-32) At the same time, as the deep ecologist Frederick Bender has
        noted in his recent book:
                "I do not think ecology sufficient to explain every aspect of human
                culture...We must also discover how human culture evolved, how
                social, political, and religious factors, etc., became predominant at
                various times. Ecological models frame such factors' significance,
                but do not replace them." 
(Bender, The Culture Of Extinction:
                Toward A Philosophy Of Deep Ecology
, p. 102)

            The ecocentric endeavour that many of us are engaged with, seems to have had a spreading impact not
        only on sociological theory. Three recently published books that I have read, illustrate this widespread
        impact. These books include Sutton's book, Judith McKenzie's Environmental Politics in Canada, and
        Bender's The Culture Of Extinction. The three books all take deep ecology (or ecocentrism or ecologism -
        here used synonymously), as setting a defining bar and theoretical stage for analysis of the world around us,
        even if Sutton or McKenzie would not, perhaps, call themselves personal supporters of deep ecology
        philosophy. But we do see, with these authors, that deep ecology is becoming an orientation, not only in
        university teaching subjects - here sociology, as in Sutton's book, but really throughout contemporary culture
        and politics.

        An Anomaly
            An anomaly and disturbing counter current to the above deep ecology trend, is the fourth edition (2004)
        of the undergraduate reader,  Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology,
        senior editor Michael E. Zimmerman. This edition has totally dropped the section on Deep Ecology, edited
        by George Sessions, which was part of all previous editions. This fourth edition has an expanded
        Ecofeminism and Social Justice section; more emphasis on social ecology and "ecofascism" (an essay by
        Zimmerman attempts, by innuendo, to link ecofascism to deep ecology) in the Political Ecology section, and
        a new, rather obscure section called "Environmental Continental Philosophy." We are told, pathetically, by
        J. Baird Callicott who is responsible for the Environmental Ethics section in this edition, that deep ecology
        "now seems", "vaguely anti-intellectual", and that since September 11, 2001, "responsible environmental
        philosophers" wish to "distance themselves" from "militant ideologies associated with groups that have used
        illegal and even violent means to achieve their ends." (Callicott also falsely asserts that "deep ecology has
        been integrated into the ecofeminist section", yet this philosophy is merely a prop for some of the ecofeminist
        theorists featured, e.g. Mary Mellor.) It seems that some US eco-philosophy academics do not mind having
        their careers partially obligated to the Green and environmental movements, but a post September 11th
        "blow back" is not part of the price they are prepared to pay. In the US, is deep ecology and its radical
        "field practice" becoming too subversive for academic textbooks?

        Some issues raised  
               Reading  Nature, Environment and Society raised a number of issues for me.  

        - Ecocentrism's overall impact on sociology
               Sutton says that in sociology, there have been two basic responses to the impact of the ecocentric
        Green movement and radical ecology. As someone reading this book and not knowing the actual literature
        which Sutton evaluates, I would characterize the overall responses or "ideal types" within sociology as follows:
            One is of acknowledgement and partial accommodation to the ecocentric theoretical perspective, what
        Sutton calls "critical realism." This is where his own sympathies clearly lie, and the early writings of Marx and
        Engels have been important influences. But this a minority and less influential tendency. For Sutton, this
        perspective approaches the environment in ways that diverge from the viewpoint of mainstream sociology.
        Critical realists assume "natural processes have a reality outside human categorization and that the way in
        which humans know of these processes allows them to exert some measure of control over their impact on
        society." (p. 177)
            The other response to environmental issues comes through as one of downplaying or minimization, officially
        called "social constructionism." This is a majority tendency among those sociologists paying attention to the
        Green movement. This tendency insists on the social creation of environmental issues in a significant sense,
        hence, in Sutton's and my own view, tending to minimize the overall influence of the natural world and the
        growing ecological crisis on human societies. It needs to be remembered, for the ecocentric activist influenced
        by deep ecology, "society" is not just human society, but also includes other animal and plant societies and the
        Earth itself. In past animistic societies this was the situation. Left biocentrists like myself, strongly believe we
        need to find a way to bring this animistic-type spiritual consciousness back, if there is to be any chance of
        turning around this culture of biological extinction which envelopes us all. So while ecocentrism is closer to the
        critical realism perspective than to social constructionism, these still seem only preliminary steps on the deep
        ecological path forward and to a more inclusive definition of "society."

        - Is ecocentrism a New Social Movement?
               Is ecocentrism "new", that is, a qualitatively different social movement from what has gone before? Or
        does ecocentrism have some kind of continuous history going back to the English romantic poets of the late
        18th century and early 19th centuries (Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and Shelley), and the US
        transcendentalist philosophers (Emerson)? Sutton argues in his book that for ecocentrism: "most of its main
        tenets can be found in earlier periods."
(p. 22) What is the "new" aspect for this author is that ecocentric ideas
        today are reflected in much larger populations than in the past, where the social base was an educated elite.
        Most deep ecology supporters in North America had seen the initial formulation of this ecocentric philosophy
        by Arne Naess as something quite unique, although Naess himself has always stressed that deep ecology existed
        before he introduced the terms "shallow" and "deep" in the now famous 1972 presentation "The Shallow and
        the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary."
I do not believe that Sutton really understands the
        scope and depth of deep ecology, and why it is qualitatively different from the writings of the romantic poets,
        even though the appreciation for the natural world is a common bond. For myself, nature poems or paintings, to
        be considered ecocentric works, must also be political, that is, designed to arouse others to change the world in
        the general direction we want to head. I believe, unlike Sutton, that ecocentrism needs to be characterized as
        a New Social Movement, the view apparently generally held in Europe.

        - The formation of the Self
            Sociology teaches its students that personal identities are SOCIALLY given and sustained. So how can the
        personal self become an ecological Self, with a strong sense of place, which includes all other plant and animal
        beings and the planet itself? What are the roles of social and cultural (and political and economic) factors in all
        this for personal and societal change? These are important questions for ecocentrism. Sutton's book brings
        sharply into focus the question "What are the social components of the ecological Self" as understood in a deep
        ecology sense? An important point which is brought out, is that societies which are anthropocentric stress how
        humans DIFFER with the rest of the natural world. Ecocentric theorists tend to see the evolutionary
        SIMILARITIES or continuities of humans with other planetary life forms, as humans are natural beings.
            Questions that remain to be answered are: How can deep ecology, while giving primacy to the relationship
        with the natural world in the formation of an ecological Self, incorporate social components? What are these
        components for the Earth-caring society which needs to come on the historical stage? And how can this be
        fostered as a necessary social trend by ecocentric activists?

        - Postmodernism
            The sociology of knowledge (one of its leading proponents is Karl Mannheim), has always fascinated me,
        instructing as it does that ideas and thought generally are socially grounded, and that understanding this is a
        necessary part of any evaluation of their efficacy. The postmodernism path, which is in essence fundamentally
        at odds with a deep Green ecocentric world view and politics, has been significantly influenced, in a negative
        way, by the sociology of knowledge - although I appreciate the "critical" postmodernist viewing lens. For
        Sutton, radical ecology and postmodernism have in common an appreciation of "diversity, plurality and
(p. 169)  But the fundamental dispute with Green politics by the postmodernists, is over the
        existence of non-human nature and whether or not it is knowable: "Poststructuralism does not accept that
        nature forms any kind of grounding for self-realisation nor does it confer political legitimacy."
        Mainstream culture is "deconstructed" by postmodernism, the source of many scholarly articles, but no
        alternative way forward is offered. Essentially, with postmodernism, Sutton argues, the ecocentric alternative
        to the destruction of the environment arising from Western industrial 'civilization' is undermined. I like the way
        he put this: "Philosophical arguments which suggest that 'anything goes' usually mean that 'everything
        stays the same.'"
(p. 171)

            While overall it is extremely positive towards ecocentrism and deep ecology, there are some criticisms of
        Sutton's book.

. The biological world is more real than the realities of the social world, at the end of the day - a position
        which Sutton, as a sociologist, cannot accept, although his book reaches out to ecocentrism.

            2. Sutton is too sympathetic to reform environmentalism. For example, his view on ecocentric Greens
        joining with reformists to work with so-called sustainable development. (p. 145)

            3. Overall, Sutton seems lacking in practical experience in the ecocentric Green and environmental
        movements, which I believe influences his assessment of various situations. His view is that the population
        issue has receded in importance, as high consumption in the industrialized North is stressed (pp. 167-68),
        whereas ecocentric Greens influenced by deep ecology would say that both consumption and population
        issues are crucial. Another example which would have activists shaking their heads, is Sutton's mystification
        about Green politics and environmentalism being "characterized by ideological diversity," which, he says,
        is "far from clear, at least to me." (pp. 79-80)

            4. Sutton is influenced by the Andrew Dobson's Green Political Thought. Overall, this is very positive.
        Dobson shows, in a convincing manner, the revolutionary implications of what he calls "ecologism."
        However, as noted by me in previous articles, Dobson has an essentially negative view of the environmental
        movement. He does not see the "mainstream versus radical" struggle within the environmental movement, in
        which many deep ecology influenced environmentalists are involved. Of course most environmental activity
        does not fundamentally challenge the dominant industrial capitalist paradigm. So for Dobson and Sutton,
        environmentalism somehow is equated with light green and is contrasted with ecologism. Sutton states that
        the British Green Party attracts a "higher proportion" of those influenced by ecocentrism than are to be
        found in environmental organizations. (p. 49)  This I find hard to believe. In my experience in Canada,
        reformists flock to Green parties. Those who want a total ecological and social transformation of industrial
        capitalist society, as some do in the environmental movement, tend to keep their distance from Green
        electoral politics. The experience of the fundamentalist green philosopher Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997) in the
        early 1980s, showed the self-imposed reformist limitations of the Green electoral road in Germany. Although
        a co-founder of the West German Green Party, Bahro resigned from it in 1985.
            5. Sutton states that "A politics of nature is just as likely to be a politics of the right as that of the left..." (p. 83)
        I believe this to be a fashionable, but basically incorrect view. Fascists or rightists prioritize some grouping
        of humankind. But deep ecology supporters do not elevate the human above other species in their view of
        Earth preservation. Ecocentrism, with its continually affirmed support for biological diversity, while often siding
        with the left on social justice issues, is not on the left/right continuum, and is basically democratic in human
        sentiment and supportive of social diversity. An interesting issue among left biocentrists, who identify with the
        social justice component of the left where "justice" includes all species and the planet itself, is trying to see how   
        ecocentric principles can be expressed in social organization. The non-ecocentric left itself normally has a
        human-chauvinist view towards the welfare of other species, although, unlike the right, it is humans generally
        who are given priority, not some specific grouping of humankind. The left is ready to sacrifice other species
        and their habitats, if these conflict with human interests.

            My general overall impression, after reading Nature, Environment and Society, is that the radical
        ecocentric environmental or Green activist entering the field of sociology could have a hard time indeed being
        taken intellectually seriously. Because, to be taken seriously, means mainstream sociology expanding its
        human-centered world view, far beyond its present comfort zone. Those sociologists who are prepared to
        embrace the ecocentric imagination, and not just "deconstruct it", seem to be a small minority. The one-time
        inspiring "sociological imagination" of the US sociologist C. Wright Mills needs an ecocentric upgrade.
        Sutton's book shows that the "consensus" of sociology today is not yet ready for a deep ecology ecocentric

            This book makes an important contribution, in that it raises for the Green ecocentric movement the
        sociological perspective, with its correct insistence that different social and cultural factors, reflected in
        different societies, have differing environmental consequences. This is a book for the thinking environmental
        and Green activist and I have no hesitation in recommending it to others. There is much to learn from it that
        can help in more effectively subverting industrial capitalist society.

        October 2004

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