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It is not easy to determine what this book is about: The author does not provide us with a clear summary. After much thought, I have concluded that it is about Professor Morton’s hypothesis that a global ecological crisis will be averted or mitigated if sufficient people adopt a perspective that the author calls “The Ecological Thought”. This perspective involves a realization that humans and their environment are interconnected; these interconnections the author calls “The Mesh”. In this context, the environment has no boundaries; it comprises all things that mutually influence one another, whether physical or intellectual. Examples include humanity, all life forms, the atmosphere, the oceans, the landscape and geology of the Earth, science and technology, and human artifacts, ideas, and history. The author even extends the mesh to include the galaxy and the universe because of their influence on our perspective of ourselves and our world. Their vastness compared to Earthly scales and their age compared to the human lifespan make us realize our insignificance in relation to the universe in which we live. The author believes that an acceptance of our insignificance is essential to achieving the mindset for effective ecological thinking: Only by stepping outside our immediate surroundings can we obtain a realistic picture of ourselves.
In this book, the author chooses not to demonstrate that adoption of The Ecological Thought will be successful in mitigating a global ecological crisis which he believes is already upon us: Rather, he assumes it to be self-evident that success will be the result. The majority of the book is spent in exploring the nature and interconnections of the Mesh. In particular, the author introduces a concept of “The Strange Stranger”, which he does not define but which emerges from his discussions as one or more aspects of The Mesh to which we are interconnected and that we may find disconcerting or frightening. Professor Morton appears to believe that it is very important that, as part of The Ecological Thought, we learn to accept (even love) these initially unwelcome Strange Strangers. Professor Morton also believes that The Ecological Thought will (or should) lead to new directions in scientific research (such as consciousness and suffering in animals and artificially intelligent systems), in the philosophy of ecology, which he believes must move from seeing a division between Nature and humanity to seeing the two as a holistic system within The Mesh, and ultimately in politics.
The two paragraphs above are my summary of the book. What else is there? What have I left out? The most solid underpinnings are the passages, drawn from evolution, in which the author illustrates the connections between earthly life forms, including humans. He occasionally quotes from poets such as Shelley, Milton, and Coleridge: Their relevance is much less easy to see. He also spends considerable time in one-sided debates with other humanist writers, most of whom he disagrees with. This may be of interest if you are a professor of the humanities but it is too arcane for those of us who are not. There is little else. The author offers no reason to believe that, even if it is widely adopted, The Ecological Thought will result in the mitigation of ecological catastrophe. The book gives no detail of what The Ecological Thought will look like, very little idea of what policies or actions may emerge, and no glimpse of what an “Ecologically Thought” future will look like.
What, then, of the concept of The Ecological Thought itself, to the extent that any picture of it emerges from the book? The name is new but the realization of the interconnectedness of humans, other earthly life, and the planet itself has probably occurred to all those who have seriously studied evolution, and the earth sciences. In studying those disciplines together with cosmology, it is impossible not to also grasp the fragility and insignificance of planet Earth and its living cargo. However, for most of us, the realization has not been developed into an explicit attitude towards ecology. Nor does this book undertake that step.
The intended audience for the book is not clear. The author does say that he hopes that people who are not specialists in critical theory will read the book. If it is intended for non-specialists in the humanities in general, it would seem that the author has lost touch with the rest of the world. Certainly as a non-specialist, I found the book to be very difficult to read. The writing is incoherent: Key terms (The Ecological Thought, Strange Strangers) are used extensively but not defined; there is no close reasoning and careful argument; the style comes across as pretentious, self-indulgent intellectual exhibitionism. The result is that meaning is obscured. In much of the book the author seems to believe that, if he tosses a heap of words onto the page, meaning will spontaneously emerge. An example of the book’s style is the following passage: “Environmental rhetoric is too often strongly affirmative, extraverted, and masculine; it privileges speech over writing; and it simulates immediacy (feigning one-to-one correspondences between language and reality). It’s sunny, straightforward, ableist, holistic, hearty, and “healthy”. Where does this leave negativity, introversion, femininity, writing, mediation, ambiguity, darkness, irony, fragmentation, and sickness?”. The only reasonably lucid passages are those where Professor Morton is drawing on Darwin; apparently his feet are held to the ground by Darwin’s own admirably clear writing.
The global ecological crisis requires stronger treatment than intellectual froth.