Academic journal article New Formations

The Ecological Blind Spot in Postmodernism

Academic journal article New Formations

The Ecological Blind Spot in Postmodernism

Article excerpt

Ecology and the environment have been strangely absent from the most prominent intellectual orientation of the last two decades: postmodernism. The absence is all the more intriguing given that postmodernism and radical ecology share many themes (for example, they both question 'rationality,' 'reason' and 'progress'). This absence is surely a matter of more than mere academic curiosity, at least for those of us who expect our prominent thinkers and philosophers to make a contribution to addressing the paramount issues of the day. (1)

I will here explore this 'blind spot' in postmodernism by examining the work of two radical ecologists, Charlene Spretnak and Theodore Roszak. The critique of modernity that Roszak offered in The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) and Where the Wasteland Ends (1972), although predating the ascendancy of postmodernism, nevertheless engaged with many of postmodernism's later concerns including the totalitarian 'closure' in modernity highlighted by Lyotard, Baudrillard and Laclau. Postmodernists, however, took little notice of Roszak's ecologically dimensioned approach. Then during the 1990s, Charlene Spretnak launched what has been described as 'The most sustained ecofeminist critique of postmodern theory'. (2) Again, postmodernists failed to engage with her ecologically grounded critique.

Radical ecology perhaps has much to learn from postmodernism. Equally, however, when every other aspect of life seems to be acquiring its 'green' variant--from ecotourism to ecoterrorism--postmodernism still appears ecologically under-dimensioned. To that extent, this re-examination of the work of Roszak and Spretnak is an attempt at ecological outreach work to the postmodern, a contribution to engaged dialogue.

Some commentators consider that postmodernism's rise to intellectual ascendancy was due, at least in part, to the failed high hopes of leftist radicals in the 1960s. (3) Terry Eagleton suggests that:

   Post-structuralism was a product of that blend of euphoria and
   disillusionment, liberation and dissipation, carnival and
   catastrophe, which was 1968. Unable to break the structures of
   state power, post-structuralism found it possible instead to
   subvert the structures of language. Nobody, at least, was likely to
   beat you over the head for doing so. The student movement was
   flushed off the streets and driven underground into discourse. Its
   enemies ... became coherent belief-systems of any kind--in
   particular all forms of political theory and organization which
   sought to analyse, and act upon, the structures of society as a
   whole. For it was precisely such politics which seemed to have
   failed ... (4)

Writing at the time of the student rebellions, Roszak discerned that the underpinnings of the 'structures of state power' were all but invisible to traditional ideological analysis. Too often the street dissenters of Paris seemed to believe that, 'the status quo is supported by nothing more than bayonets, overlooking the fact that these bayonets enjoy the support of a vast consensus which has been won for the status quo by means far more subtle and enduring than armed force'. (5) For Roszak, however, the most urgent political priority was not to 'subvert the structures of language', but rather to develop a searching critique of the psychological and metaphysical underpinnings of the technocratic political order.


According to Roszak, one of the greatest threats to both citizens and the natural environment is the epidemic 'bigness' of our contemporary political and economic style:

   Both the persons and the planet are now confronted by a common
   enemy. It is terribly important to recognize that scale is an
   independent problem over and above, say, ownership and control. The
   Marxists ... assumed that you can correct all the problems of the
   industrial system by just changing ownership and control . … 
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