The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America

The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America

The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America

The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America


The Truth of Ecology is a wide-ranging, polemical appraisal of contemporary environmental thought. Focusing on the new field of ecocriticism from a thoroughly interdisciplinary perspective, this book explores topics as diverse as the history of ecology in the United States; the distortions of popular environmental thought; the influence of Critical Theory on radical science studies and radical ecology; the need for greater theoretical sophistication in ecocriticism; the contradictions of contemporary American nature writing; and the possibilities for a less devotional, "wilder" approach to ecocritical and environmental thinking. Taking his cues from Thoreau, Stevens, and Ammons, from Wittgenstein, Barthes and Eco, from Bruno Latour and Michel Serres, from the philosophers Rorty, Hacking, and Dennett, and from the biologists Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould, author Dana Phillips emphasizes an eclectic but pragmatic approach to a variety of topics. His subject matter includes the doctrine of social construction; the question of what it means to be interdisciplinary; the disparity between scientific and literary versions of realism; the difficulty of resolving the tension between facts and values, or more broadly, between nature and culture; the American obsession with personal experience; and the intellectual challenges posed by natural history. Those challenges range from the near-impossibility of defining ecological concepts with precision to the complications that arise when a birder tries to identify chickadees in poor light on a winter's afternoon in the Poconos.


“Think like a mountain”: the task promises to be a bit tricky for some.

Ferry, The New Ecological Order

We assume that the truth about nature is straightforward. Many of us still believe that ecologists can meet our need for a better understanding of natural processes simply by thinking “like a mountain,” as Aldo Leopold once urged them and all of us to do. “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf,” Leopold wrote. “Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.” Inspirational they may be, but these words understate the difficulty of the thinking we need to do. Luc Ferry is right to suggest that the task Leopold sets us “promises to be a bit tricky,” since even the best-educated among us fall short of rocklike objectivity and “can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves.” When it comes to environmental matters, all of us are going to seem like tyros if we measure ourselves by the alpine, inhuman standards of objectivity and sensitivity that Leopold postulates.

In recent decades, increasing numbers of ecologists have realized that knowledge of nature of the sort imagined by Leopold is impossible to acquire, and have suggested that our vision of ecology, and our ideas about and attitudes toward nature, need to be much humbler and a lot more supple than they are. Unfortunately, the humility and suppleness that we need to cultivate seem to be ruled out by the cultural presumptions that shape our thoughts about nature. In the United States, these presumptions give rise to a peculiar contradiction: some of those who still believe that this is nature's nation also believe that humans are alienated from the natural world by virtue of their enculturation, if not simply because of the bare fact of . . .

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