Our Place in Space and Time

Issue 301
March/April 2017
Manifesto for A Green Mind

Reviews

Our Place in Space and Time
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Cover: Artwork by Angela Harding www.angelaharding.co.uk

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Wanderer by Maggie Chiang www.hellomaggiec.com

Wanderer by Maggie Chiang www.hellomaggiec.com

Peter Ainsworth welcomes a study of our relations with Nature. Human Ecology: How Nature and Culture Shape Our World by Frederick Steiner. Island Press, 2016. ISBN: 9781610917384

This is a book about where we live: about our human relationship with (inhuman) Nature, natural resources, the spaces we create and the impact we have on them – and on ourselves. Our impact might be greater than we think.

I am writing this on the day that the European spacecraft Rosetta slowly settled and expired on a comet 700 million miles away. That’s quite a long way. We don’t yet know what Rosetta will tell us – if anything – about ourselves or the universe; but what we can infer is that as a species we are undoubtedly, well, a bit curious and ambitious.

Meanwhile, the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo is being pulverised by bombs in a war whose origins are unfathomably deep and yet whose consequences are very immediate and terrible. I am quite certain, unfortunately, that by the time you read this the conflict (still less its causes) will not have been resolved. I am also certain that the tenets of human ecology won’t mean much to the victims of bombing; nor will they resonate in the corridors of power around the globe, although they should.

What, in fact, is human ecology? The author’s definition isn’t very helpful. “Human ecology emphasizes complexity over reductionism, focuses on changes over stable states, and expands ecological concepts beyond the study of plants and animals to include people.”

In other words, perhaps it is an attempt to place human activity within a much wider ecological and economic context. This is a very worthwhile thing to do. The author reminds us that the verbal root of both ecology and economics is the Greek word oikos. Somewhere in the history of the West, we seem to have forgotten that what matters to us at home, in our place – wherever that may be – is also part of a far bigger idea than ourselves. Money, and how we make or spend it, and how others – for example governments – spend it on our behalf is simply a part of human ecology. The economy is merely a subsidiary of the environment. The environment is where we live. It is up to us to make or mar it in every generation. We usually mar it. But technology and willpower offer hope.

Frederick Steiner’s book gets this point, and makes it. He is an American academic, so it’s not an entirely easy read, although there are moments of enlightened and almost poetic prose. His final chapter depicts a taxi ride through Rome. It is beautifully written: “The cab moves along, slicing through strata of time, geologic and human. One can touch time here” and “We learn from Rome, we can learn from all places.”

Human Ecology was first published in 2002. Steiner has updated it and there’s an excellent new foreword by Richard Forman (of Harvard University), who makes the point that the author “poses important questions, many of which are the grist of discussion with family and friends, and others that are of a cosmic nature”. Exactly. Steiner tackles a huge subject and does so impressively well within a short space. The fact that, of the paperback’s 237 pages, fully 51 are to do with acknowledgements, notes and bibliography speaks of the multitude of sources referenced throughout: I lost count of the number of references.

My only disappointment is that Steiner so often resorts to the opinions of others rather than asserting his own view, which is what academics tend to do. This is a gateway book, in the sense that it sets out a huge idea and leads the reader to explore further. I was also surprised that no reference is made to the work or thoughts of E.F. Schumacher, whose views on economics and ecology are – surely – central to the whole idea of human ecology.

As to the dislocation between the vile realities of Aleppo, the strangeness of Rosetta (and where she is), the worthiness of academics writing earnestly about faith – Steiner brilliantly covers all the major religions in this context – and the spaces we inhabit, well… I hope this book is influential with politicians; it should be.

Peter Ainsworth is Chair of the UK Big Lottery Fund and of the Churches Conservation Trust, and a board member of the Environment Agency. He is a former Conservative MP.

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