Book review – Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization

8-minute read

Climate change, pollution, habitat fragmentation, species extinction – there is no shortage of daily press coverage of the slow-motion collapse of our planetary ecosystem. So why are we barely acting? In this radical and thought-provoking book, sociologist Eileen Crist eloquently lays out the familiar causes. More importantly, she exposes and calls out the dominant anthropocentric mindset that is keeping us on the runaway train to destruction. There is another way, she contends, but will it find mainstream acceptance?

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Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization, written by Eileen Crist, published by the University of Chicago Press in February 2019 (paperback, 307 pages)

Though not fuming with the misanthropic rage of Nicholas Money’s The Selfish Ape, Crist’s book is nonetheless a pointed and furious cross-examination of anthropocentrism. Something she rather calls a human supremacy complex driving relentless expansionism. What we are doing to the planet is nothing short of terraforming on a totalitarian scale, she writes. Wildlife is under systemic assault, its freedom obliterated and constricted. What you quaintly call fishing is a regime of plunder. Our actions are best described as colonization, domination, slaughter, destruction, genocide, annihilation, a biological holocaust – in short, violence in many guises. I could go on – and the book provides many, many quotable passages – but I think I made my point.

One of the book’s main themes is the power of language in shaping our thoughts and actions. Our very perception of the world – to the exclusion of other modes of thinking. Crist purposefully uses emotive language – not to shock, but to expose how anodyne descriptions normalize our actions. And, she emphatically says, there is nothing normal about deforestation, overfishing, industrial agriculture, or mountaintop removal mining. We commodify nature by speaking of natural resources, ecosystem services, or fish stocks (also a humbug of Daniel Pauly). “Repurposing Earth as humanity’s resource colony” thus becomes an acceptable course of action, nay, our god-given right. As quotes from historical sources show, the ideas of “taming nature” and “progress” go back millennia. It also conveniently glosses over the death and destruction involved.

Ironically, though Crist is lyrical in her descriptions, she does occasionally go overboard on the academic sociology-speak. To write that “the relationship between people and nature is always shaped by ideational-actionable constructs”, or that it is “within the horizons of our imaginative-pragmatic capacity that we may become a people who abdicate human empire instead of struggling to ensconce it and clean up its self-endangering corollaries” are verbose and not helpful in transmitting her important message to a wider audience.

“What we are doing to the planet is nothing short of terraforming on a totalitarian scale.”

Next to providing an overview of our planetary crisis, the first part of the book criticizes technological fixes and the oxymoron of sustainable development, both of which seek to find solutions within the existing framework of perpetual growth. These two philosophies have a long history of clashing with each other. My big bug-bear with both is that nobody ever seems to ask the question: “Even if we manage to keep this show on the road for another century, where will that leave us? What will be left of our planet? And will people still not want more?”

The second part of the book turns to three discursive knots holding back even the environmental movement. In other words, she debunks three commonly heard refrains. One, that our impact and actions are natural, and that we have a long history of such behaviour. This is often propped up with Paul Martin’s Pleistocene overkill hypothesis. Two, that the idea of wilderness is defunct because there is no true wilderness left anymore anyway. Three, that our actions are (supposedly) spreading freedom to humans around the globe. If, to quote my favourite blogger Mark Manson, that freedom means “more brands of cereal to choose from, or more beach vacations to take selfies on, or more satellite channels to fall asleep to”, then “maybe what we want sucks”. #FakeFreedom. And, adds Crist, spreading this “freedom” requires us to destroy yet more of our natural environment.

Many books are lamenting our current predicament. Complaining is easy. Whether they are actually worth reading stands or falls on their proposed solutions. This brings us to the book’s third and final part: Crist’s call for scaling down and pulling back. Her insights into the worldview-constricting power of language were reason enough for me to give her one thumb up. Here is where the second thumb comes up. She head-on confronts overpopulation, calling it *the* big multiplier when considering the environmental impact of everything we do, and urging readers that we *have to* break the silence around this final taboo. Long-time readers of this blog will know my thoughts on this. For others, I will just leave you with my review of Should We Control World Population? and references therein. (My answer, by the way, is “Yes!”)

“Scaling down means not just curbing population growth but actively depopulating. […] a ball-park figure for optimum population size is two billion”

Scaling down means not just curbing population growth but actively depopulating. If we want to give all humans a fair and healthy standard of living without it costing the planet, a ball-park figure for optimum population size is two billion (see also A Planet of 3 Billion – the exact number will depend on what you plug into your equations). Crist sees the empowerment of women, and the universal availability of contraception and family planning as the only solution. We have good evidence that this works. (Though, hey, what about men? Who is getting all these women pregnant? Yes, she remarks that “patriarchy needs to be fast-tracked out of existence”, but it is made almost as an afterthought.) She adds that past, more radical solutions, such as forced sterilisation or China’s draconic one-child policy, are examples of how not to do it. Although I agree that this is the only palatable solution (and still a hard one to sell), I do always worry it will be too little, too late.

The pulling back part is where the book’s subtitle, Towards an Ecological Civilization, comes into play. I do think that much of what she writes here, interspersed as it is with frequent quotes from historical naturalists and radical environmental thinkers, becomes a bit woolly and does not offer a particularly actionable blueprint. Furthermore, Crist seems to draw a lot on Native American worldviews on how to relate to the world. For me, her talk of reconnecting with nature and honouring our relationship with the earth goes into cringeworthy spiritualism territory, but you may call me prejudiced. At least we both agree it will beat our current modus operandi.

To wit, to get towards an ecological civilization, Crist suggests, amongst others, to curb overconsumption, have fewer or no children, decentralize our economies, reduce global trade, stop eating meat, and pursue rewilding efforts on a planetary scale. Basically, we need to reset our thinking on what makes a good life and foster decency, virtue, and restraint.

“[…] the notion of our language shaping our perception is one of those “what has been seen cannot be unseen” ideas. When you pay attention to it you realise just how habitually we all […] speak of nature as a mere larder. “

She also pushes for a switch to organic farming. Now, I’ll be the first amongst the detractors to flag up the ongoing debate on whether or not there is a yield gap (see also Lynas’s excellent piece Organic farming can feed the world — until you read the small print). Pleasingly, Crist is realistic enough to add that overhauling our current agricultural system, geared as it is towards merciless efficiency, has unavoidable consequences for human population size.

To be clear, Crist does not advocate retreating to the caves, overthrowing civilization, and rejecting all modern technology. But what can stay and what should go? She remains vague on the particulars, adding in her epilogue that “it is impossible to foresee what such a civilization will look like; that will be a work in progress for future generations to shape”. Calling this a cop-out would be too easy, her book makes crystal clear that our current approach – where destruction is a feature, not a bug – is broken. But transitioning or reforming our economic system to deal with a shrinking population is a tall order, and that is but one challenge these ideas raise upon further reflection. The devil will be in the implementational details, so it remains to be seen if this is blue-sky thinking or not.

Despite some minor personal gripes, Abundant Earth is a very powerful book that will hopefully become influential. I especially found the notion of our language shaping our perception one of those “what has been seen cannot be unseen” ideas. When you pay attention to it you realise just how habitually we all (environmentalists included!) speak of nature as a mere larder. Will Crist’s radical ideas go mainstream? Time will tell. But as an eye-opening book and conversation starter, this one comes highly recommended.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

Abundant Earth paperback, hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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