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The Wilderness Condition: Essays on Environment and Civilization.

This major American collection of environmental essays confronts the modernist threat to technofix the earth's surface; implicit is the paradox that in the wake of its success would come certain collapse. Civilization, without its correlate Wilderness, cannot survive. These incisive essays expose the roots of the environmental crisis. The tone is confident and the effect cheering. It is a tour de force. The philosophical and historical authors are: Michael P. Cohen, Pete A. Y. Gunter, Erazim Kohak, Dolores LaChapelle, Curt Meine, Max Oelschlaeger, George Sessions, Paul Shepard, Gary Snyder and Michael Zimmerman.

Each one has written a book or books which are recognised to be of environmental postmodern importance. Each teaches at an American university, but for one who directs the 'Way of the Mountain' experiential learning centre in Colorado. Each goes to the root of the matter to establish a sound foundation from which to reverse ecological breakdown, in contradistinction to the necessarily shallow accounts in the press and mainstream magazines. And, incidentally, the book as a whole confronts the charge that is ignorantly but frequently levelled against Deep Ecology that it promotes 'green fascism'. Quite the reverse is shown to be true, with civilisation quite able to co-exist with the biosphere in a 'harmonious and stable' relationship.

Recent defections from the Green Party by Sara Parkin and Jonathon Porritt, as well as the unexplained deaths of Petra Kelly and (disaffected General) Gert Bastian in Germany, have been creating a mood of distress and uncertainty among members of the Green Party. Oelschlaeger suggests, 'The message for the conservation movement is that power alone can do little in helping resolve a global eco-crisis: the crucial question is one of underlying ideology, and particularly the grounds of a truly deep ecology'. Oelschlaeger also stresses that 'the three wilderness philosophers -- Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold -- are not merely items of historical interest or antiquarian curiosity, but can or should be seen as contributing to our presently changing conception of the relation between wilderness and civilisation'.

Running through the book are two 'discernible drum-beats' (Thoreau). One suggests the importance of relating the present to the past for its implications for the future. Postmodern thinking is in accord that, as Oelschlaeger puts it, 'the only way forward is the step back: the rediscovery of our roots, our grounding in a wild and free source from which Homo Sapiens has come and to which any true human beingness remains attached'. And he quotes the ancient Chinese saying, 'Reversion is the action of the Tao'. Just think, even to turn round in a car it is necessary to reverse before going forward again!

The other drum-beat sounds the knell of literate language which is fast dissolving into 'information systems'. Ivan Illich is not mentioned, but his underlying theory, with Barry Sanders' Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, is 'No one would have thought in the nineteenth century that we would be hanging fast to literacy, as we see it vanishing: people are now becoming enslaved to the power of a machine in their pursuit of computer literacy'. Gary Snyder reminds us that 'All attempts at scientific description of natural languages have fallen short of completeness ... Without ever having been taught formal grammar we utter syntactically correct sentences'.

It is suggested 'how new possibilities for life in harmony with nature can be opened up by examining more closely how we speak of the world'. The world is not a machine, nor are human beings. Finally, Oelschlaeger suggests, 'the possibility that a revolutionary change in human consciousness is in the offing, a development that would ultimately change the ways in which humankind lives and relates to the wild world from which it came.'
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Author:Aitchtey, Rodney
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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