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Category Archives: Ecology

Hacking History

Just a quick thought, drawing on some of the elements from a conversation happening over at roger’s site.

In the post below, I mentioned that one of the parallels that could be drawn between Darwin’s work, and Marx’s, was that both are concerned to explain how a nonrandom result – a pattern of historical change – might take place without a conscious designer. Another parallel is the notion that adaptation takes place through the gradual modification of existing structures – biological structures, for Darwin; social structures, for Marx. Marx’s understanding of historical development has often been misinterpreted as teleological, as though later periods of history realise some sort of immanent essence of earlier ones. Darwin’s theory has often been similarly misinterpreted. But the point, in both cases, is much more prosaic: things that exist now – biological or social – have arisen from the gradual modification of things that existed in the past. A relation therefore connects the present to the past – not because the past necessarily drove history in some particular developmental direction, but because the present was formed from the reconfiguration of materials that existed in the past.

“God is a hacker, not an engineer”, Francis Crick is reported to have said: evolution, in other words, does not operate according to conscious intention or predetermined plan, but opportunistically, blindly seizing situational potentials for transformation. For Marx, history has been a hacker as well: our present time has emerged from a similar sort of gradual, unintentional modification of the detritus of earlier societies.

Marx poses the possibility of a new driving force of historical change – one consciously, collectively chosen. But even this possibility is situated historically – Marx’s argument is not that, unlike all preceding historical periods, our time should be the first to defy the notion of adaptation through modification. Instead, Marx carefully analyses the potentials immanent within our history, allowing him to present communism as another historical adaptation that operates by reconfiguring materials that lie ready to hand. At the same time, and more profoundly, Marx presents the possibility for the sort of conscious politics of social development on an aggregate scale as itself one of the historical adaptations that has been generated unintentionally, through a prior process of blind gradual modification operating on earlier social structures. In this case, the blind historical process, stumbling along its accidental path, has speciated a new kind of potential driving force for historical change: a possibility to recognise and consciously participate in what, up until this point, has been an unconscious process.

Very little time at the moment, so the phrasing here is probably not ideal – it’s so easy to hear either teleology or voluntarism in these kinds of discussions, and so I’m not sure the way I’ve presented this quite captures what I’m trying to convey… But more at a quieter time…

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Malthusian Asides

Miro's singing fishMarx reserves a special sort of loathing for Malthus. Since chapter 25 of Capital focusses precisely on the ways in which capitalism generates its own distinctive laws of population, the chapter can in many respects be read as a frontal assault on Malthus’ work. Marx’s antipathy is so strong, however, that he has to ease into the direct mention of Malthus’ name. Safeguards are required. A certain amount of buildup is needed.

First, Marx will establish his capacity for equanimity in the face of some fairly explicit apologistic material. Marx quotes – in the main text – Bernard de Mandeville’s sage advice on keeping the poor in their place:

It would be easier, where property is well secured, to live without money than without poor; for who would do the work? … As they [the poor] ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. If here and there one of the lowest class, by uncommon industry, and pinching his belly, lifts himself above the condition he was brought up in. nobody ought to hinder him; nay, it is undeniably the wisest course for every person in society, and for every private family to be frugal; but it is in the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get … Those that get their living by daily labour … have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure. The only thing then that can render the labouring man industrious, is a moderate quantity of money, for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make his desperate, so too much will make him insolent and lazy … (765)

After allowing Mandeville the floor for this and other choice recommendations, Marx praises him – calling Mandeville as “an honest man with a clear mind” – and offering nothing more vituperative than a mild corrective rebuke for Mandeville’s failure fully to understand “the mechanism of the accumulation process” (765). Marx then quotes Eden, who agrees that:

It is not the possession of land, or of money, but the command of labour which distinguishes the opulent from the labouring part of the community. (766)

Marx goes on to “remark… in passing” that Eden “was the only disciple of Adam Smith to have achieved anything of importance during the eighteenth century” (766). The comment appears casual, trivial, and beside the point – a curiosity we could surely skip lightly past on the way to the substantive material in the next paragraph. Except that a massive multi-page footnote blocks our way and, when we decide that a footnote of such prodigious length might be important, finally locate the footnote marker at the end of the “passing remark” above, and cast our eyes down into the marginalia, we discover that special circle of textual hell into which Marx has decided he will deposit Malthus…

Malthus is therefore introduced into this chapter with an insult: Eden is the only disciple of Smith to amount to anything – making Malthus a disciple of Smith who… didn’t… Just in case the reader doesn’t make the connection, Marx makes it for them, in the opening sentence of his note:

If the reader thinks at this point of Malthus, whose Essay on Population appeared in 1798, I would remind him that this work in its first form is nothing but a schoolboyish, superficial plagiarism of Defoe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc., declaimed in the manner of a sermon, but not containing a single original proposition of Malthus himself.

And so on. For three pages of small-typed footnote, which rapidly veers off into a mischievous round of speculation (for which the textual pretense is an observation about Malthus’ personal vow of celibacy) asking why Protestant clergy in particular should have proven so well-represented amongst theorists of overpopulation, and concluding with comments on how Adam Smith was reprimanded for his friendship with the atheist Hume…

Malthus finally makes his way into the main text of this chapter in section 3, in a discussion of modern industry’s need for surplus population. Malthus figures here as a sort of limit case of the obviousness of the point Marx is making: “Even Malthus”, Marx points out, “recognizes that a surplus population is a necessity of modern industry…” The implication is that, if even Malthus recognises it, the point is simply too obvious to be denied…

Even here, however, Marx can’t give Malthus credit for one point well understood: Malthus accounts for this, Marx argues, “in his narrow fashion, not by saying that part of the working population has been rendered relatively superfluous, but by referring to its excessive growth” (787). Marx quotes Malthus at length here – speaking dourly about how many years it takes to bring “an increase of labourers… into market in consequence of a particular demand”, compared to the much shorter cycles of investment of accumulated capital, such that natural population increase is too blunt a means of increasing the supply of workers to accommodate the vicissitudes of industrial demand (787).

At this point, Marx introduces the burlesque image of political economy as a cross-dressing discourse – one that adopts one character to proclaim the necessity of a surplus population available to deploy at any moment, only then to shift to another character that holds the population responsible for not increasing its numbers beyond what subsistence can allow:

After political economy has thus declared that the constant production of a relative surplus population of workers is a necessity of capital accumulation, she very aptly adopts the shape of an old maid and puts into the mouth of her ideal capitalist the following words addressed to the ‘redundant’ workers who have been thrown onto the streets by their own creation of additional capital: ‘We manufacturers do what we can for you, whilst we are increasing that capital on which you must subsist, and you must do the rest by accommodating your numbers to the means of subsistence.’ (787-788)

The final quoted passage does not come from Malthus, but the logic of the section inserts Malthus into this scene – as someone stepping into the character mask required for a particular apologist production, ready to cast that mask aside and step into another as the situation requires…

Malthus crops up again – in the form of a reference to “Malthusians” – in the final section of the chapter, in a passage which summarises the results of a long empirical and theoretical discussion aimed at showing how processes specific to capitalist societies generate demographic trends – laws of population – that are anything but inscribed intrinsically in nature:

Here then, under our own eyes, and on a large scale, there emerges a process which perfectly corresponds to the requirements of orthodox economics for the confirmation of its dogma, the dogma that misery springs from an absolute surplus of population, and that equilibrium is re-established by depopulation. This is a far more important experiment than the mid-fourteenth century plague so celebrated by the Malthusians. (861)

Once again, Marx is unwilling to place Malthus at the centre of his focus – even in a passage in which Marx is essentially claiming to have derived the historically and socially specific basis for the phenomena Malthus reads off onto timeless nature. Once again, Malthus cannot be dignified with a direct discussion, but is allowed to enter the text only obliquely – by way of an aside: “Let us remark in passing,” Marx says:

if it required the naivety of a schoolmaster to apply the standard of the fourteenth century to the relations of production prevailing in the nineteenth century, and the corresponding relations of population, the error was compounded by overlooking the difference between its consequences in England and in France.

Marx underscores here an important point in relation to what he means by “law”. Not only are Marx’s “laws” historically and socially specific – not only are they understood to derive from contingent social practices, rather than invariant nature – but they are also probabilistic – they are tendencies, which play themselves out in different forms in specific situations within the historical and social context Marx sets out to analyse, which confront countervailing tendencies, and which are highly dependent on complex boundary conditions. Like many other chapters in Capital, this chapter draws attention to multiple theoretical possibilities – and a diversity of actual empirical outcomes – every time it attempts to illustrate a “law” at work.

Marx then further highlights the social dimension of the laws that he has derived, by taking one final shot at the Malthusian analogy to the plague – tacitly asking what sort of “natural” law would operate like this:

The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. (861)

The chapter ends with an extended discussion of the Irish famine and migration, emphasising the social character of what is portrayed. It also – characteristically – draws attention to the mirror world – to the unintended consequences of the ways in which this “law” has been allowed to play itself out:

Like all good things in the world, this profitable mode of proceeding has its drawbacks. The accumulation of the Irish in America keeps pace with the accumulation of rents in Ireland. The Irishman, banished by the sheep and the ox, re-appears on the other side of the ocean as a Fenian. And there a young but gigantic republic rises, more and more threateningly, to face the old queen of the waves

Hunger Is Hunger

Two passages, one from early and one from late in the Grundrisse.

The first, from the section I discussed yesterday, where Marx grapples with the extent to which his categories are historically specific:

Firstly, the object is not an object in general, but a specific object which must be consumed in a specific manner, to be mediated in turn by production itself. Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down meat raw with the aid of hand, nail and tooth. Production thus produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively.

The interweaving Marx attempts here is one of the most characteristic dimensions of his work. Hunger is something natural – something physical – but something no less historical for all that. Its historical manifestations – each of its historical manifestations – are no less natural for not being timeless invariants. Something can be an historical product – and yet deeply, profoundly, and inextricably embodied. Our activities – what we do, what we make – inform us, developing us, expressing us, creating us – and linking this self-creation intrinsically with the creation of what might superficially be taken as things wholly external to ourselves, but which Marx rather conceptualises as nonhuman objects participating in interactions with us.

The same fundamentally historical quality of the natural manifests in Marx’s scathing critique of Malthus late in the manuscript:

It is Malthus who abstracts from these specific historic laws of the movement of population, the natural laws, but natural laws of humanity only at a specific level of historical development, with a development of forces of production determined by humanity’s own process of history. Malthusian man, abstracted from historically determined man, exists only in his brain; hence also the geometric method of representation corresponding to this natural Malthusian man. Real history thus appears to him in such a way that the reproduction of his natural humanity is not an abstraction from the historic process of real reproduction, but just the contrary, that real reproduction is an application of Malthusian theory. Hence the inherent conditions of population as well as of overpopulation at every stage of history appear to him as a series of external checks which have prevented the population from developing in the Malthusian form. The conditions in which mankind historically produces and reproduces itself appear as barriers to the reproduction of the Malthusian natural man, who is a Malthusian creature. On the other hand, the production of the necessaries of life – as it is checked, determined by human action – appears as a check which it posits to itself. The ferns would cover the entire earth. Their reproduction would stop only where space for them ceased. They would obey no arithmetic proportion. It is hard to say where Malthus has discovered that the reproduction of voluntary natural products would stop for intrinsic reasons, without external checks. He transforms the immanent, historically changing limits of the human reproduction process into outer barriers; and the outer barriers to natural reproduction into immanent limits or natural laws of reproduction.

This passage is dense with implications that I won’t unpack here. Malthus stands accused of the move Marx finds most typical of the political economists: maintaining that there used to be history – the history described in terms of “external barriers” and contingent, artificial constraints – but there is no longer any – Malthus’ own laws are taken to be an eternal, natural necessity, contrasting to the external and artificial barriers that prevent these laws from becoming empirically manifest.

For Marx, by contrast, nature has history. Nature is history. A law of population, a pattern of demographic change, is no less “natural” for all that it might apply only given very specific and transient boundary conditions. Births and deaths, famines and times of plenty, become no less objective, no less “biological”, for all that their conditions have the potential to be transformed. Natural laws are not a pure, distilled, isolated, external force exerted upon objects. Natural laws are the descriptions of regularities that emerge within interactions – regularities, then, that can be as fluid as the entities interacting and the diversity of ways those interactions could probabilistically unfold.

Marx suggests that our biology, our physiology, our materiality are not “underlying” factors, onto which more transient things are grafted. Instead, it is our very materiality that is in motion, and the aspects of that materiality that are subject to change (all aspects, on a time scale long enough…) are no less “material” for their openness to transformation.

Marx constantly pushes at this – aiming for a nonreductive materialism – an historical materialism. One which has precisely nothing to do with some inevitable historical progression through defined historical eras until an inevitable culmination has been reached: this unfortunate conventional image of historical materialism transposes into Marx’s work a conception of ahistorical law – of nature as a transcendent, external driving force of more transient phenomena – that is precisely what he was attempting to oppose. It is the political economists, for Marx, who are reaching for the notion that their laws somehow grasp a form of nature that transcends empirical phenomena and the boundaries of their own moment in time. Marx is, by contrast, reaching for tendencies that manifest the peculiar and transformable nature of capitalist society. In the process, he reaches for a form of theory that can cast light on the potential to constitute new forms of interaction – and thereby open up new natures, with their own distinctive patterns – and possibilities.

Worker Bees

I have to admit, I’ve never particularly thought about the industrial organisation of crop pollination, until I read this column from the New York Times discussing possible responses to Colony Collapse Disorder – the mysterious plague that causes adult bees to desert their hives, leaving honey and larvae behind. I found this image particularly striking:

…it is important to add that, here in the United States, the majority of our crops are pollinated not by wild bees, or even by honeybees like mine, which live in one location throughout the year, but by a vast mobile fleet of honeybees-for-rent.

From the almond trees of California to the blueberry bushes of Maine, hundreds of thousands of domestic honeybee hives travel the interstate highways on tractor-trailers. The trucks pull into a field or orchard just in time for the bloom; the hives are unloaded; and the bees are released. Then, when the work of pollination is done, the bees are loaded up, and the trucks pull out, heading for the next crop due to bloom.

Your Future Is Our Future

I’ve been seeing this Westpac ad recently on billboards along my tram route. I gather the intention is to express that Westpac has made commitments to environmentally and socially responsible lending practices. This isn’t, though, my immediate association on seeing the ad… In many ways, in fact, this might make an excellent model for one of the demotivational posters at Despair.com.

Westpac ad showing penguin on melting ice shelf, captioned Your Future Is Our Future

Noblesse Oblige

I not infrequently run across articles, like this recent one from The Age, promoting the concept that some particular premodern society had a more humane relationship to nature than modern/western society does. The Age article, for example, cites professor of archaeology John Parkington, who notes the prevalence of representations of particular animal forms in rock art dating back 200 to 10,000 years, and argues that the representations:

reflect the way the hunter-gatherers saw nature and their place in it, and include elements of shamanism.

With the domestication of plants and animals, humans started “moving ourselves out of the ecosystem … that was the beginning of the process that took us to the position of being outsiders”, he said.

“That’s why we unbelievably and inexplicably are failing to recognise the threat of global warming, because we’re outside it,” he said. “We’re going to carry on manipulating it, as apparent owners of it, until it’s too late.”

Parkington says the hunter-gatherers placed themselves inside the ecosystem, rather than outside looking in. “So they see animals as other beings who know the world in a different way … and sometimes in a very valuable way, and sometimes they want to take on that knowledge.”

The animal that occurs most often in Cederberg rock paintings is the eland, a large antelope that Parkington said was revered by the Bushmen as “a beautiful sentient being”. He said they developed rules for hunting, “a guiding ethos”, as a way of justifying their pursuit of eland and of behaving “sustainably and responsibly in the world … as a species that actually shares the landscape and vegetation with other beings”.

I remain agnostic on the particular human community whose history Parkington studies – their culture may, in fact, have expressed a highly developed sense of sustainability, and their practices may indeed hold lessons for the contemporary period. I would sound one small note of caution, in that it sounds from the passage above that the eland are a primary object of the hunt and, in that context, it would at least be possible to suggest that there might be different psychological motivations – aside from, or in addition to, some deep commitment to sustainability – that might underlie repeated ritual proclamations about how beautiful and sentient these creatures are. But Parkington is the expert on the culture he studies, so I won’t second guess.

If Parkington has been quoted correctly, however, he is making far grander, and more mystical, claims than would apply to one culture alone: he argues (again assuming the news account is an accurate representation – and I do understand that nuance is not the strength of the journalistic medium…) that what accounts for the cultural emphasis on sustainable values and practice is the fact that nomadic forms of existence in general are more “inside” nature – involve a less mediated relationship to nature – than settled existence. Settled agricultural societies, by contrast, have apparently removed themselves from this embeddedness in nature – and their cultural values therefore adopt a more instrumental, less sustainable, orientation to nature.

I find this notion empirically and theoretically questionable – and am also a bit unnerved by its normative implications: is the claim that sustainable management requires a regression to nomadic existence? If this isn’t the normative claim, then shouldn’t this cause us to reflect critically back on the original relationship posited between cultural values and living “inside” nature???

If this were an isolated position, I wouldn’t be too concerned. Unfortunately, I don’t find it that unusual for people – including academics – to valorise pre-modern peoples (sometimes understood, as in this example, as nomadic, sometimes encompassing earlier agrarian societies, sometimes extended to modern indigenous societies, as well) on the grounds that, in a very general way, such people held more sustainable values than are expressed in modern societies. I’m happy for this issue to be explored as an empirical question – as an investigation of how particular premodern societies actually lived, and as an exploration of how they articulated their practices culturally. What worries me is when these sorts of claims start to be made in an undifferentiated and apparently universal way – as though all human societies before a certain historical era, or all contemporary societies that have been materially disenfranchised to a certain degree, have certain moral qualities in common.

Politically, I worry because this position seems at best essentialising – in the guise of offering deep respect, it “others” people by rendering them magical and mysterious and beyond our normal ken – a position that, I suspect, serves to flatten and channel mainstream receptiveness to indigenous political claims in particular ways… (I’ve discussed this issue previously <a href="here and at Savage Minds.)

Analytically, I worry because I suspect that, at least in some cases, this position involves drawing an invalid deduction from objective limitations to cultural beliefs: premodern societies were more likely to live in some kind of “balance” with nature for “material” reasons, quite independently of cultural norms, because they simply had fewer resources to mobilise against their environments – the long-term persistence of this kind of balance might well have come to be articulated in cultural norms, or cultural norms might well have made achieving balance with the environment a comparatively easy task; equally, though, cultural norms might have diverged strongly from anything we would regard as “sustainable”, and yet Malthusian forces might have held the population in balance with nature nevertheless…

Ethically, I worry because I feel that academics have the leisure and the training – and therefore the responsibility – to break away from a fixed orbit around our own cultural tropes (in this case, I can’t help but worry about the way in which this common valorisation of premodern cultures seems to channel the romantic vision of the Noble Savage) and examine the best evidence at their disposal, so that we can actually be prepared for the sober decisions we may need to make, if we wish to confront a complex problem like global warming.

Arsenic and New Homes

With the much-appreciated volunteer assistance of a colleague, I conducted a few pilot interviews in the Laurimar community centre yesterday, testing questions about the local knowledge and use of adult and child education facilities, child care services, travel patterns, and similar issues. This work will eventually feed into the development of a survey that will be administered in a more systematic fashion, in this and other developments in the region.

The community centre also hosues a Maternal and Child Health facility, which was closed the day we were interviewing, but which posts fliers and brochures in the hallway for people to browse. Most of the material was what you would expect to see in any MCH facility – information about immunisation schedules, numbers for after-hours health hotlines, tips on feeding, advice for getting young children to sleep. One brochure, however, warned of a more local health concern: arsenic from mine tailings left behind by Victoria’s gold mining industry. According to the brochure:

“Mine tailings that contain arsenic are spread over large areas of land, including land now used for housing… In many gold mining areas, mine tailings have been used for landscaping instead of normal soil.” From Arsenic and Health: Are You Living in an Area with Mine Tailings? – State Government Victoria, Department of Human Services, pp. 1-2

The publication then goes on to note that arsenic does not tend to build up in the body over time, and that small daily exposure therefore appears to have no ill effect, but that long-term health effects can result from higher levels of exposure over a long period of time, and that immediate acute poisoning can occur if a child consumes a handful or so of mine tailings. The publication offers practical advice for recognising mine tailings – they “look like clay or sand”, and “are usually white, pale yellow or grey in colour” (p. 2). It then warns you not to allow babies or small children to put dirt or sand in their mouths, as this could result in arsenic poisoning, to wash children’s hands often to clear away traces of arsenic – oh, and, while you’re at it: “Do not put mine tailing sand in your child’s sand pit” (p. 6).

If you’ve already made the mistake of filling your child’s sand pit with mine tailings, however, be sure to contact the EPA before removing the offending substance: there are special rules you’ll have to follow in the disposal process.

A toddler contemplates whether to sample the mine tailings...What struck me most about the publication, though, were the illustrations. The publication features a cheerful nuclear family – parents, four children and a dog – all demonstrating the right and wrong ways of dealing with mine tailings. The idea, I think, is to present the information in a non-threatening way. Maybe it’s just because I have a toddler myself, but some of the images seemed unintentionally macabre… This image, for example, portrays a smiling toddler contemplating a handful of sand. It was captioned in red bold ink in the text: “Eating small handfuls of mine tailings containing high levels of arsenic could be dangerous.” (p. 5)

I’ll never look at a sand pit the same way again…

Planted Pots and Other Biodiversity Dilemmas

Last year we conducted a number of site visits related to planning issues arising from Victoria’s Net Gain policy. The Net Gain policy was added to Victorian planning schemes in 2003 as part of Amendment C19, but significant details relating to how the policy would be implemented were still being fleshed out at the time our visits were being conducted in mid-2005.

At base, the policy is intended to provide a strong incentive for developers to preserve native habitat, by requiring native vegetation displaced during development to be replaced by a much larger quantity of equivalent native vegetation, in a similar ecological niche. While everyone understood the strategic intent of the policy clearly enough, there was considerable uncertainty over the details of implementation. It was common for us to witness genuine confusion over what was “equivalent” vegetation, how much additional vegetation was needed to offset the removal of a particular patch of native vegetation, how far from the original site the “offset” vegetation could be located and, especially, how to interpret the apparent permission granted under the policy, on some occasions, to contribute money or other works in lieu of offset plantings.

We observed various disputes and negotiations contesting whether and how Net Gain policy applies to particular patches or pieces of vegetation. One of my favourites was an attempt to decide whether a particular patch of trees were “natural” or not. This dispute arose because the policy (at least as it was understood in the field at that time – I’m happy to be corrected on this) did not attach Net Gain obligations to native habitat that was deliberately planted – only to native habitat that had arisen “naturally” – presumably because there would otherwise be a strong disincentive to plant any new native vegetation. This policy exception then led to a series of quite intriguing debates over whether, for example, specific trees had arisen spontaneously from fallen seeds, or had been planted actively by farmers in the distant past.

On one site visit, the developer (who was, by and large, quite interested in retaining red gums for the amenity they would ultimately provide to the development) was negotiating the offset implications of a few trees that would need to be removed to clear space for a wetland (itself a product of a requirement for water sensitive urban design). The developer argued that certain red gums had been deliberately planted, and were therefore not sufficiently “natural” for Net Gain to attach. The Council staff asked for proof, and were shown the way in which the red gum trees had been carefully fenced – presumably to protect them from damage by grazing livestock. The Council staff argued that this wasn’t sufficient evidence: that the trees could have arisen naturally, only to have the farmer decide to protect them from livestock at a later point. The developer then responded by walking Council staff further into the proposed wetland area, and showing them this:

This tree has grown to engulf the pot in which it might have originally been planted.

The tree actually looks too old, to me, to have been originally planted in this kind of pot, but it was a fantastic moment in the negotiation process.

Landscape and Memory

I haven’t been able to post much recently, as I’ve spent much of my time working directly at my “field” site and, until the ethics arrangements I have proposed have been approved by the university, I need to keep confidential the various thoughts that have emerged from that research. This weekend, however, I have taken a brief break from fieldwork to re-read Simon Schama’s Landscape & Memory (1995). It’s an impressive work, which I have really enjoyed re-reading. I particularly appreciate the delicate balancing act Schama attempts, between engaging with the nature-myths of modernity, while also recognising that modern romantic ideals often sit in complex tension with democratic values.

I particularly liked the way Schama frames his goal (p. 14):

It is not to deny the seriousness of our ecological predicament, nor to dismiss the urgency with which it needs repair and redress, to wonder whether, in fact, a new set of myths are what the doctor should order as a cure for our ills. What about the old ones? For, notwithstanding the assumption, commonly asserted in these texts, that Western culture has evolved by sloughing off its nature myths, they have, in fact, never gone away. For if, as we have seen, our entire landscape tradition is the product of shared culture, it is by the same token a tradition built from a rich deposit of myths, memories, and obsessions. The cults which we are told to seek in other native cultures – of the primitive forest, of the river of life, of the sacred mountain – are in fact alive and well all about us if only we know where to look for them.

And that is what Landscape and Memory tries to be: a way of looking; of rediscovering what we already have, but which somehow eludes our recognition and our appreciation. Instead of being yet another explanation of what we have lost, it is an exploration of what we may yet find.”

Schama goes on – in the style of a critical theorist – to argue that he does not intend to minimise the consequences of ecological degredation, but rather to demonstrate that our past – and our present – need not be seen as a one-sided rush toward destruction, but rather as a complex and contradictory history. By understanding this history – in all its contradictions – we can equip ourselves to choose our future course.

I think this is quite a good formulation of what would be entailed by a critical appropriation of our past – and I think that Schama’s work is an important reminder that constructing an adequate ethics for our times may entail a very complex series of partial appropriations that do not accept wholeheartedly the judgments handed down by either the rationalist or the romantic traditions.

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