Canadian Jeremiad


Andrew McMurry


Rogue Primate: An exploration of human domestication
by John Livingstone
Key Porter Books, Toronto. 229 pages


During the central Canadian summer many are drawn to what is known as "cottage country," a region of lakes and rivers, shield-rock and trees that belts the near-north of the Windsor-Toronto-Montreal corridor. On any July week-end the road- and water-ways of this bucolic district are crammed with eager recreants, speeding toward the natural beauty and repose which, as a result, now exists mostly in memory. In the vicinity of a large provincial "wilderness" area, Algonquin Park, I recently passed some leisurely sunsets observing what has become a rather common sight in those parts: a pair of loons, bobbing and diving in a lake made turbulent by the twilight passages of innumerable jet-skis and power boats. Their haunting calls bounced around the bay, competing with the full-throated roar of outboards and, once, the thunder of a float-plane taking off right over their heads.

It was an unsettling juxtaposition, and I didn’t know exactly how to take it. In one sense, of course, I was sad and angry for the loons, and for myself too, now that cottage country provided so little sanctuary from the life-dampening technologies of speed and power that already ruled everywhere else. I had found myself in just another province of the World Machine. (I cursed Bombardier, the Quebec company that had invented the "Sea-Doo.") Yet in another sense, I took some comfort in the fact that the loons had not been driven off the lake despite the heavy traffic, that maybe the birds were tough and durable, ancient flyers who, like their cousins the crocodiles, weren’t about to be done in by the pleasure-seeking behavior of a big-brained mammal.

This latter aspect of my double-mindedness was probably traceable to one of my holiday reading selections: Gregg Easterbrook’s optimistic "eco-realist" tome, A Moment on the Earth, the thesis of which, in a nutshell, is that nature is very well, thank-you, and getting better. For example, Easterbrook maintains there is nothing in the way of man-made environmental devastation that can compare with what nature itself has already dished out—and survived. Taking the long view lets us regard a few lost species or a little climate change with a degree equanimity; after all, geologically speaking, our time is only a moment on the earth, which will abide, come what may. Furthermore, and to the disgust of many environmentalists, Easterbrook contends that the environmental movement has become a victim of its own success, that it won’t take "yes" for an answer. Because mainstream society and business have now learned the correct lessons and made the appropriate changes in the direction of eco-friendliness, greens ought to rejoice and knock-off the doomsaying—doomsaying which, says Easterbrook citing as proof the Al Gore vice-presidency, has now become the establishment position anyway. Better to bask for a while in the after-glow of twenty-five years of positive environmental gains, which include, among other things, the recovery of the alligator, the eagle, Lake Erie, and Prince William Sound. With such triumphs in mind, the environmental movement should less self-righteously move on to the unglamorous but far more pressing job of actually managing our now-sustainable future.

A Moment on the Earth, as embarrassingly panglossian as it is, at least provides some relief from the often cranky and bitter rhetoric that pervades many another environmentalist jeremiad. By this I don’t mean to suggest that such rhetoric is not understandable, given its origin in what is no doubt a more accurate assessment of the price of ecological disruption than Easterbrook’s inglorious attempt to make a silk purse from sow’s ear. No, I simply want to note that what the antinomianism of radical environmentalists quite often does is to so decisively confirm the perfidy of the human species that their own proffered solutions (usually some sort of quantum leap in consciousness) inevitably come across as terribly utopian. If it is true, ecologically speaking, that we have fallen so precipitously from grace, it seems downright naive to imagine we could ever find our way back. One is left to say, "You have convinced me, prophet, that every additional human being is one more disaster for nature, yet now you summon me to action?!" In essence, if the high moral dudgeon of the eco-rant is necessary to get our attention, it can equally have the effect of forcing its author into the cul de sac of hyper-misanthropy and post-humanist primitivism, not to mention the reader toward a nerve-deadened fatalism.

This is not to say that fear, self-loathing, or breast-beating do not have their role, but far better, it would seem to me, to balance the language of ultraism with some measure of Easterbrook’s pragmatics, if none of his smug "eco-realism." For example, I know my loons would be better off without power boats on the lake. I know they would be better off without a human presence on the lake at all. Any culture that places water-sports over the health and safety of fellow living creatures seems worthy of condemnation. I can lie in my hammock and rage against the machines all afternoon. I do. Yet I also know that the folks driving the boats aren’t likely to agree with me, or that even if they did they surely wouldn’t join me in renouncing cottage country—loon country now—forever. In fact, I know I will never make that renunciation myself. For better or for worse, we are here, and we are the only ones who can do anything about us. So to paraphrase Wendell Berry, how, practically speaking, do we get off the motorboat and into the canoe, or more generally, how do we, collectively, save the world from ourselves? As disagreeable as it is to many enviros, "nature" must finally be approached as a social and political category, not as a "reality" that if understood aright would allow us to sweep aside the ideological clap-trap of our sham-culture and bring ourselves into benign relation with the earth and its other creatures. Moreover, the problem of nature cannot be addressed by individuals "getting in touch" with nature following the examples of John Muir and Henry Thoreau, or, most radically, of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Instead, "saving nature" must be approached as part of an effort to remove the systemic obstacles to communication and action that, in our complex and heterogeneous society, limit our ability to respond effectively to many sorts of environments—both internal and external. (And I’ll say more about what I mean here later.)

All of which is prefatory to the other source of my ambivalent reaction to the loon’s predicament: John Livingstone’s Rogue Primate: An exploration of human domestication, a book that stands four-square against the technocratic, resource management approach of Easterbrook, boldly calling instead for a Copernican transformation of our anthropocentric Western world-view. Rogue Primate, which won a Governor-General’s Award (the Canadian equivalent of the National Book Award), is an impassioned, elegantly written skewering of Western culture and technology that compares favorably with David Ehrenfeld’s The Arrogance of Humanism, Paul Shepard’s Nature and Madness, and Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. It will resonate with anyone who has railed against jet-skis, rodeos, the fur-trade, Cartesian dualism, or industrial agriculture, and who despairs for a planet suffering from Homo sapiens’ ongoing project of biotic de-diversification. A jeremiad of the first-order, Rogue Primate still suffers from the same drawback that hobbles each of the works named above: as he tallies up our species’ many failures and moves inexorably toward his own radical solution, Livingstone stakes out such a relentlessly "deep" ecological ethical position that he winds up asking us to not solve our many problems but to return to the moment on earth and in mind when we simply did not have them.

Livingstone’s central thesis is that just as it has bred a number of animals (cattle, goats, pigs, etc.) to de-emphasize certain wild traits, the human species has domesticated itself to the point where it too has forgotten its place in the natural world. Because domesticates are selected for passivity, reduced sensory acuity, tolerance of crowding, and homogeneity, they lose their natural penchant to organize themselves into stable social structures and so to respond properly to eco-social constraints. Cattle are a good example: "Glazed, dulled blurred travesties of their once-wild ancestors, they give the impression not only of failure to recognize one another, but a failure to recognize even their own species. . . . A domesticated hoofed grazer or browser no longer has relevance in the broader natural community. It is in every respect a ‘loose cannon,’ contributing nothing to the functioning of the greater living surround, and potentially devastating to it" (24-25). Anyone who has spent much time on a dairy farm or ranch will recognize this portrayal as essentially correct. But Livingstone’s real point is that humans have simply made cattle over in their own image. As with cattle, "Our sensory inadequacies, ironically enough, probably assist us in enduring the terrible dreary sameness and homogeneity of the human physical environment, and our crowded confinement in it. Our tolerance of sensory undernutrition and our placid, docile acceptance of it is worthy of that paragon of passivity, the Holstein cow" (33).

Livingstone suggests that the human evolutionary speciality is "storable, retrievable, transmissable technique," and that this "prosthetic" form of being has rendered us helpless without it. "We are bound to technique, indentured to technique, and we grew naturally into serfdom along our evolutionary way. The dependence into which we have grown has made us not merely the servants of how-to-do-it, but one of its very artifacts. The problem animal is its own creation, its own domesticate" (12). The self-absorbed, hot house environment of domestication leads to an unhealthy "zero-order humanism," which he defines as an "ideology of the necessary primacy of the human enterprise" (140), as well as a kind of ultimate "trump card" which "carries its own moral authority and, like any other absolute, requires no explication or justification" (142).What humanists think of as unmitigated triumph—our expanding capability to manipulate nature instrumentally—Livingstone (following Horkheimer, Adorno, Heidegger, and a host of others,) views as a double-edged sword, whose dangerous efficiency allows us to sever the ecological bases for existence even as we declare that we, as the central figures in time’s drama, are simply following through on our evolutionary predisposition to dominate nature.

Much of the rest of Livingstone's critique likewise covers already well-trodden ground. A chapter on exoticism explores the human-assisted dispersal of species and its negative effect on biotic diversity, a subject ably documented by Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism and Clive Ponting’s A Green History of the World; the sections about the influence of classical economics on Darwin's thinking add little to a theme that by now has entered even the popular imagination, through widely-read books like Jeremy Rifkin's Algeny. Similarly, Livingstone’s argument for an expanded notion of self follows a line of cybernetic thinking that passes through Gregory Bateson to Livingstone’s fellow-York University faculty member Neil Everndon, whose The Natural Alien has so far set the bar for Canadian environmental philosophy. Ubiquitous as well is the echo of Thoreau, whose uncompromising commitment to place, "wildness," and the value of unmediated experience informs Livingstone’s writing throughout. In this passage, for example, Thoreau’s favorite bird makes an appearance:

When I identify a bird song as that of the wood thrush, I am thereby not only demonstrating my skill and knowledge but also my ability to categorize the animal, thereby reducing it to an inanimate cipher within a greater abstract taxonomic classification. It is equally true, however, that when I learned the song of the wood thrush in my childhood, the bird became my familiar and my friend, who through my life reminds me of his presence with his voice. It pleases me to welcome the old friend returning after a long winter’s absence. If I did not know who was singing, there could no doubt be some aesthetic appreciation of the sound, which unlike many bird songs happens to be euphonious to the human ear, but there would be none of the intimate pleasure of personal re-cognition. My childhood experience of the bird, and its lifelong annual relationship is more satisfying than the last. What I celebrate is not merely the existence of the wood thrush, however; it is my connection to him. My bond to him. My self in him. (128-29)

Although most of his arguments aren’t new, Livingstone’s strength is his ability to render in evocative language what are relatively complicated philosophic positions without surrendering rigor. That ability, along with his unquestioned "feeling for the organism" (to borrow Barbara McClintock’s phrase), leads to perhaps the most interesting chapter, a dissection and repudiation of the discourse of natural rights, particularly animal rights. Livingstone agrees with ecofeminists and some environmental ethicists that the extension of "rights" to animals is a highly anthropocentric move, one which only promulgates the chauvinism it hopes to target. Livingstone points out that "If we are so much as to use the language of ethics, then we are bound to contain our arguments within the domesticated metaphysical dome of zero-order humanism. Conventional arguments can take us no further than the power-based human political structures of interests and obligations, rights and duties, and the primacy of the individual" (171). He claims that "This simply is not good enough for Nature," which "does not appear to be organized along the sociopathological lines of hierarchical dominance, and thus requires no form of antidote, Nature is of other stuff. It is wild" (171-72).

And there is that word again wild. "Wildness," in fact, turns out to be Livingstone’s own trump card, the "stuff" that grounds his critique and which he nominates as the vehicle to carry us all down the royal road of environmental sanity. Just as Thoreau cited the experience of wild nature as the cure for his own shallow, materialistic culture, Livingstone detects in "wildness" the potential energy required to scrape the anthropocentric scales from our eyes. If we can but release that energy (which remains our genetic birthright despite the predominance of zero-order humanism) we might be able to "remove the mythological ‘imaginative insulation’ that surrounds a human society, reveal the world outside the cultural stockade, and—presto—good things can follow (149).

Those "good things" include, for example, the recognition that "our treatment of the non-human [is] not merely 'wrong' in some contrived moral philosophic sense, but monstrous and unnatural" (175). "Wildness" has that revelatory, healing power: when we give rein to the wild impulses straining within us we find ourselves once again in joyful harmony with the rest of creation, not because that harmony is "right" in a transcendent sense but simply because it feels good. "The dissolution of the ego-centered self, as when one was drawn close, ever closer and at last into the gold-flecked eye of a toad, or when melted into black earthy humus, laced with wintergreen, on a cool forest floor. When one sought, and found; when one relinquished, and was free. . . . That quality of wildness remains in us." (196-97). He concludes the book by imploring us to "Look at a child gently holding an unfledged young robin that has fallen from its nest. Look into that child’s eyes. The sweet bondage of wildness is recoverable" (197).

It may be stating the obvious to note that Livingstone is deconstructing one metaphysic ("zero-order humanism") only to erect another, albeit more appealing, one ("wildness"—or what some detractors of deep ecology prefer to call "irrationalism" and worse). Perhaps more salient, however, is the observation that a goal like reversing the degradation of the earth, if achievable, must be pursued through social communication, not by a rejection of communication in favor of mute, personal contemplation. That is to say, while it may be desirable in general terms to have more people engaging in nature appreciation, our society at large has developed in such a way that those personal reflections do not necessarily translate into positive environmental gains. "Find the wild child in each of us," Livingstone seems to say, "and the rest will take care of itself." Unfortunately, society is far too complex and too differentially organized to expect that its processes and activities might align themselves in some coordinated pattern of sustainability arising out of Livingstone’s grand green gestalt.

Instead, the social system deals with self-generated complexity by forming multiple subsystems responsible for different areas of communication and action. These "function systems" have taken on a kind of virtual life of their own, quite apart even from the people who supply their raw semiotic material. Such systems appear to pursue their own internal goals blindly, as if in ignorance of their environments, whether "environment" is considered as "nature," persons, or other function systems. An environment becomes simply that which does not communicate with the system, and hence is the system’s "other." The scientific function system, for example, is based on a distinction which seeks to divide communications about the world into either "true" or "false." Science constitutes itself as a kind of organism that feeds itself on truth and casts off falseness into its environment. Its only rationale as a system is to maintain its organization by continuing to process communications according to this particular code; it sees the world according to that Manichean formula—and that is all it sees.

How a theory of social systems (such as the one adumbrated here, developed by the German social scientist Niklas Luhmann) can help us see the limitations of Livingstone’s call for dramatic forms of consciousness-raising is by forcing us to consider the relationship of individual to social system. What Livingstone despises—economic, legal, political, and scientific blindness to the health of the environment—cannot be overcome simply by a renovation in conscious, individual systems. The various function systems of contemporary society will not respond in a uniform fashion to the "moral" communications which would presumably arise from the new consciousness Livingstone imagines. It is painfully obvious of late, for example, that morality has no more influence on the economy than it does on the weather. Morality has its own sphere of operation (in conscious systems of individuals and in the programming of the religious function system) but the systems of society simply do not recognize morality as a functional consideration.

In this sense, we don’t have an environmental problem so much as a problem of environments, each of which is produced by the system which defines it. The first step toward a solution to the problem of "nature," such as it can be imagined in toto, is to ensure that we understand what it is that various systems "think" about the world, that, for example, the world according to the economy is always and necessarily reducible to no more than a positive or negative exchange of money. Then we realize that the narrow perspective of the economic system can only be combated through the other systems, probably by making the environment of the economic system more "irritable," thus forcing it to modify its structures if it wants to "survive." Needless to say, then, the challenge at hand is even more complicated than Livingstone imagines, and certainly more complicated than can be discussed here. But it does seem likely that the deep ecological solution is by no means deep enough, avoiding, as it so often does, the social nature of the "nature problem" by searching for a new "zero-order" to replace the old one rather than seeking a "second-order" perspective that is partial, relative, and distributed among the various systems involved.

Still, it’s easy to see why Canadian environmental "communicators" might be bitter: despite the efforts of best-selling authors like Farley Mowat, David Suzuki, and now Livingstone himself, not to mention the many highly-publicized protests of aboriginals and activists and even the work of a few progressive provincial governments, the Canadian populace remains relatively complacent when it comes to environmental issues. We hear that we have more wolves and bears, more freshwater and more trees than anywhere else in the world, but we forget that we also have the bloodiest hunts, the widest clear-cuts, and some of world’s largest river diversions and dams. Even the total collapse of the cod fishing industry seems to have happened in a remote province far out in the Atlantic, whose entire population could fit in a corner of Toronto.

Perhaps, like the earth itself, Canada is simply too big for most people to comprehend ongoing environmental degradation in a way that really resonates. A highly urbanized country where most people live within one hundred miles of the American border, Canada’s hinterland stretches away so far north that what happens much past the city limits is directly experienced by very few. Then, too, are the terms of our highly decentralized political federation, which permit provincial governments to reverse the policies of their predecessors and ignore the national will at a speed and to an extent that would astonish Americans, who by contrast possess remarkably stable and incrementalist legislative processes.

"Canada is a beautiful dream," said our Prime Minister recently as part of an effort to keep that selfsame federation from expiring under regional and linguistic pressures. The dream of limitless evergreen forests, pristine lakes and rivers and mountain fastnesses, herds of caribou moving across vast arctic plains—that dream is also in danger of expiring, imperiled on every front by a social system that acknowledges few ecological limits and considers none sacrosanct. If Rogue Primate is at times too much a jeremiad against this seemingly implacable system and too little an analysis of why it might be that way, Livingstone has at least produced a very powerful jeremiad. And perhaps until such time as those ecological limits are themselves more powerfully felt and the system begins, perhaps belatedly, to respond, the jeremiad will remain the eco-radical’s genre of choice. This is because at bottom the jeremiad is a means of avoiding through passionate force the difficult question no eco-radical (ironically, always the ultimate optimist) really wants to face: how to get from this world to that one, the one in which we are restored to the garden, wild once again, when all signs say you can’t get there from here.

Andrew McMurry is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Indiana University. He is interested in the emerging paradigm of self-organizing systems, especially as it relates to contemporary cultural theory and literary criticism. His essay on apocalypticism was recently e-published in Postmodern Culture.



Works Cited




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