Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization

Peregrine Falcon © Darren Burkey

By Eileen Crist
Book Review by John Miles

Reading Eileen Crist’s Abundant Earth has been, for me, both exhilarating and discouraging, a more emotional experience than most of my reading these days. The exhilaration comes from discovering a scholar, teacher, and writer who has pulled together ideas that I have been thinking about for nearly half a century, since I was drawn into environmental studies and discourses by the likes of Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich, among others. Teaching in one of the nation’s first environmental studies programs (Huxley College of Environmental Studies, Western Washington University), I found myself among a faculty embracing what Crist calls ‘techno-managerialism” as a response to environmental problems, while I, trying to teach environmental history and environmental ethics, aimed to draw students into critical examination of the belief systems that lead to our concerns about the environment and creation of our unique interdisciplinary college. I was definitely a minority voice, but here is Eileen Crist, drawing on extensive scholarship, presenting the powerful argument that we must challenge and change the worldview that has led us into serious environmental crisis. She has brilliantly brought together ideas I’ve long thought critically important, and this is cause for elation.

Eileen Crist, Abundant Earth: Toward and Ecological Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Eileen Crist, Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

On the other hand, as I read, I suffered from cognitive dissonance and discouragement. The cognitive dissonance involved the fact that I have been and am a part of the problem, tapping away on my computer in the comfort of my home, listening to classical music on Sonos.  Crist writes, “Environmental analyses define a consumer as anyone, anywhere in the world, who participates in the money economy; has some expendable income; lives in electrified quarters; can afford to regularly eat meat, fish, and other animal products; drives an automobile; owns sundry appliances, electronics, and run-of-the-mill clutter; and is generally immersed in a commodified existence.” I’m guilty on all counts, while at the same time agreeing with Crist that what ultimately is needed is rejection of consumerism and restraint in all actions that affect the environment.

The discouragement comes from reading this important book in 2019 as the world seems to be rapidly going in precisely the opposite direction from that which Crist convincingly argues we must go in order to avoid biodiversity destruction, anthropogenic extinction of members of the “more-than-human world,” population growth reducing human quality of life, and an Earth stripped of its beauty, health, and permanence in order to accommodate ten billion humans or more. President Donald Trump, in the United States, is rolling back environmental protection as fast as he can. Protected areas are shrinking and under siege across the world. Human migration issues are boiling in Europe, the United States, and other places. Crist argues the human population should be reduced gradually over time to two billion as opposed to projections that it will grow to more than ten billion, but today family planning, the key to even a modest reduction, is opposed in many places. Signs of the revolution in thought and value that Crist advocates are scarce. In the United States even the idea of a “Green New Deal” is being roundly criticized, an idea which might get us moving toward the goals Crist describes.

And yet, despair is not an option and perhaps the vision of an “ecological civilization” presented by Crist will catch on. We who advocate rewilding must continue to work toward that goal, and we can thank Crist for making the case that what we are doing is critically important even though we are surely in a David and Goliath situation.

Crist recognizes that many dimensions of the global ecological crisis are outside the consciousness of most of the world’s people, ignored by media and politicians, and asks why this is so. Her answer is that a human-supremacist worldview and belief in human exceptionalism are so inculcated in our thinking that they have been and are beyond question. Whatever we humans do to the other-than-human world (Crist avoids using the word “nature”) is “natural” and therefore not questioned, except by a few like Crist and the many scholars and thinkers she cites. She writes:

The human-supremacist worldview is the deepest causal layer of the biosphere’s  plight, for it makes humanity’s expansion appear acceptable and inevitable. In our time, human supremacy – the shared belief that humans are above everything and can rightfully use it all – sustains the trajectory of history’s course. The received credo of superiority-cum-entitlement reassures the human mind that colonizing the planet is the prerogative of our species’ distinction: if not our manifest destiny, then our naturally ordained lot.

She describes a worldview:

A worldview is a cultural-interpretive system that implies far more than a set of reigning ideas: it constitutes a lived belief system within which values, ideas, assumptions, and actions are intertwined; it spawns certain ways of thinking and being in the world, while precluding others; it binds “consciousness more or less blindly to inherited interpretations and does not permit consciousness of the possibility of alternative interpretations to arise.” (She quotes the theorist Jürgen Habermas.)

She explains how this worldview emerged out of classical and Judeo-Christian thought and how it is inculcated through the teachings of traditional humanism and how it “has spawned an enterprise that only knows how to grow – to invade and assimilate, to convert and develop, to acquire and consume.”

Next, she tackles what she calls “discursive knots,” borrowing the metaphor from Buckminster Fuller’s definition of a knot as “an interfering pattern.” Discursive knots are “oft-rehearsed patterns of reasoning about the global situation that interfere with the flow of imagination and action in an alternative direction.” The three knots, to each of which she devotes a chapter, are “a widespread proclivity to view the human impact as natural; a fashionable trend to concede wilderness as defunct reality and bankrupt idea; and a standard claim of human expansion as salutary for bringing more and more freedoms to increasing numbers of people.” She does an excellent job of untying these knots, offering clear and powerful arguments against core contentions of each of them.

For instance, so-called Anthropocene discourse or “Anthropocene-think” as she calls it, portrays human ascendancy to the summit of the Great Chain of Being as the course of nature. “Anthropocene writers,” she notes, “like to echo the still extant though discredited after the discovery of evolution – motif of ‘human consciousness as the crowning achievement of evolutionary development.’” She sees it differently:

Nature’s domination can, of course, just as easily be interpreted as human beings not using their brain-power or extraordinary intellect (including foresight and long-term thinking), constructing and implementing technologies with no regard for other species or future human generations, and acting with neither compassion nor empathy for nonhuman beings.

Regarding the wilderness knot, she writes “Acknowledging the abundant biodiversity of pre-Columbian North America, while recognizing also that the continent was widely inhabited by people, should not invite the conclusion that wilderness did not exist, but the hopeful realization that humanity and wilderness can beautifully coexist.” She addresses the third knot in a chapter titled “Freedom, Entitlement, and the Fate of the Nonhuman World” in which she argues that human expansionism may increase some freedoms for humans, at least in the short run, but at the expense of freedoms for all other living beings. The modern technological arsenal, she notes, “is constructed with no ethical deliberation whatsoever regarding the nonhuman realm.” Migration routes for many species all over the world, for instance, are being blocked with severe consequences for migratory species.

After addressing the discursive knots, Crist moves on to part three titled “Scaling Down and Pulling Back.” A core question is whether the Earth can feed ten billion humans and she thinks perhaps it can but at great cost to both humans and nonhumans, especially to the latter. She dismisses the idea of “sustainable intensification” of industrial agriculture as naïve because “industrial food production is humanity’s most ecologically destructive activity.” Even more misguided, in her view, is belief in human exceptionalism “that humans are not subject to natural laws like other species,” and the “ideology of Progress,” defined as “blanket construal of everything as an improvement over what came before.” Such ideas, deeply ingrained in the worldview she discussed earlier, must be repudiated and discarded and limitations on humans recognized and embraced.

Halting expansionism entails reversing, not accommodating, the trends of more: working to stabilize and reduce global population, prioritizing robust local and regional economies over global trade, downsizing the global economy, and substantially limiting and undoing the sprawl of industrial infrastructure. The vision inspiring these proposals is that humanity should not be the sea within which remnant patches of wild nature are as islands, but the other way around: wild nature can become the vast terrain within which human societies are nestled in reciprocity with nature’s abundance.

Human population must be gradually lowered, and total consumption greatly reduced everywhere there are consumers as Crist defines them. The population question must be reframed in four ways.

I have suggested . . . one, as a major variable undergirding excessive consumption and waste; two, as a global issue that a unified international community must address by promoting policies that will stabilize and slowly reduce humanity’s population; three, as a matter of human rights (most especially children’s and women’s), which begs for the achievement of full gender equality everywhere in the world; and fourth, as tied up with the present-day livestock calamity, which is devastating biosphere, animal lives, and human health.

Ultimately the human population should be lowered, in her view, to two billion, certainly a controversial idea and a large order in an international community that is far from unified about any of the prescriptions she offers for restoration of an abundant earth.

Crist is calling for nothing less than a reinvention if civilization. A question that plagued me throughout this amazing book was “Is such an ecological civilization even remotely possible?” This very day, as I write, politicians and pundits are concluding that in the 2020 presidential campaign in the United States, voters are not ready to reward politicians who would make climate change a top issue. The conclusion seems to be that Americans are not ready to make changes necessary to reduce carbon buildup in the atmosphere and oceans even though the negative consequences of such are increasingly obvious. And climate change deniers are in power here.

Eileen Crist, though, is a fearless scholar, offering ideas that are far outside mainstream thought even of environmentalists. I have thought, for instance, that the problem is a pervasive and delusional belief that that humans have unlimited wants and the earth has an unlimited capacity to satisfy those wants. The Earth does not have this capacity. Crist challenges this view.

Environmental entreaties against limitless growth on a “finite planet” risk propagating a fiction to make an otherwise valid point against human expansionism. For Earth’s proverbial “finiteness” is by no means an innate quality of its spherical corporeality, or net primary productivity, or net solar input, or any other quantitative measure. Earth’s perceived finiteness and present and coming scarcities for humans and nonhumans are straightforward results of human imperialism’s nonstop plunder.

Crist does not shrink from the magnitude of the challenges she describes in this book. She does not expect civilization to be reinvented overnight, but she also does not think that we humans have a lot of time to dally in addressing the challenges. We are making the Earth less abundant by the day, and ecological crises abound.

Abundant Earth is a must read for all concerned about wilderness, wildlife, rewilding, and the ecological future. Crist has combed a vast literature and presented the case for civilizational change most effectively. As I suggested at the beginning of this review, this book is not an easy or pleasurable read but an essential macro-analysis of what must be done and why. In her epilogue she quotes the eminent philosopher John Rodman. “What impoverishes nature also impoverishes man in blankterms of the type of human being that is produced in the course of a life devoted to transforming nature into commodity.” I am reminded of one answer to a question posed in the book Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril as to whether we have a moral obligation to take action to protect that planet. That answer is “Yes, because all flourishing is mutual.” Crist makes clear that perhaps ten billion or more humans can survive on the Earth, but those humans cannot flourish if they have destroyed the once-flourishing ecological abundance of the planet.


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David Blackwell - July 13, 2019

This looks like a very commendable book in these seemingly terribly troubled times—hugely informed and right on. That stubborn, and vital question remains (nor apparently was it the author’s intention to address): how to effect the needed change to a worldview consistent with what Eileen is saying.

Benjamin Vogt - June 16, 2020

Picking up this book, because it reminds me so much of my book A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future. We’re all in this together.

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