Deconstruction of the rain forest

9th December 1994 at 00:00
The Chicago Gangster theory of life, By Andrew Ross, Verso Pounds 18.95 0 86091 429 1. The Green Rainbow, By Russell J Dalton, Yale University Press Pounds 22.50 0 300 05962 0.

Francesca Greenoak welcomes an analysis of the environmental debate that points out how much of the argument is filtered through unconscious stereotypes.

The 1971 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't even list the word ecology (though you can find it briefly defined under oecology). However, like many another new concept, once accepted into common usage, ecology began to proliferate amazingly. In one chapter, Andrew Ross's racy Chicago Gangster Theory of Life probes Susan Sontag's call for an ecology of images, mischievously turning the idea around to discuss instead the images of ecology which make the subject of his book.

Ecological concepts have become central to the way we apprehend the world,but in this acute analysis Ross shows us that what we understand about, for example, rainforest, or native culture, is not objectively what is, but a pre-packaged version, filtered through a framework of stereotypes.

The images which have become representative of ecology - the devastation of forests, the natural purity of early peoples in the blissfully unpolluted communities of pre-civilisation, the extinction of species - are given a semiotic once-over and the result is both devastating and invigorating. The object is not simply to deconstruct our knee-jerk attitudes but to promote a new vision of ecology: one which does not preserve either natural or human landscapes in a kind of manipulated museum, but accepts that they will survive vigorously in the modern world only if they interact with it. Rather than wringing our hands or searching about for traditional prototypes, we should be engaging in intelligent debate which might bring about a society that, juster in itself, is also juster to the natural world.

I would advise all students of ecology and the natural sciences to absorb the brilliant and very accessible chapter on the social pressure and economics of the preservation of native cultures in Hawaii. Ross deconstructs the tourist fairyland, pointing out the motives of its Mormon financiers, and the relegation of the native Hawaiians to low-paid theatricals in a world of perpetual primitivism.

Their culture has become caught in a time warp. It is also partial, presenting only aspects approved by western culture, such as the famous aloha welcome and the dances, although equally well accredited rituals such as human sacrifice, infanticide and widow-strangling are naturally ignored. What remains is a sanitised version of the Polynesian peoples, which conforms to the expectations of the huge tourist numbers who come to peek at the living museum.

The museum also reinforces the myth of people untouched by civilisation living in respectful harmony with nature, though the picture of Polynesian history which research now depicts is more one of a history of habitat destruction, land exploitation and extinctions. The idea of the noble savage, deeply in touch with nature, seems only to be tenable when we are ignorant of the facts. As Ross perceives it, no environmental or cultural degradation can be explained by the simple reduction which posits human depredations flying in the face of "natural laws". Gaia notwithstanding, snatching at utopian or doom-laden interpretations of the natural world are both fruitless; "there are no laws in nature, only in society . . . we are in dialogue with the natural world, it is not our supreme court."

There are many examples of scientists and politicians who drew upon the authority of nature in order to deploy a social agenda: the social Darwinism often used to justify totalitarian regimes, for example, or the pseudo-science which is used as a rationale for the self-seeking individualism by the New Right. Unfortunately the language of the ecological movement (with its stereotyped vocabulary of saving, investing, battling, surviving and so on), well-meaning though it may be, readily falls prey to misuse.

New scientific discoveries and new economics made ready bedfellows and it was no surprise to find the language of the ecological sciences ratifying legislation and finance, backed by gems such as "A Genetic Defense of the Free Market". Ross's own title derives from a comparison by Richard Dawkins of the human gene to a "successful Chicago gangster".

Ecology gets a definition but not much clarification in The Green Rainbow,which is the summation of research into the environmental groups of Western Europe made by Russell J Dalton. The period of study is unspecified, though many of the tables date from the mid 1980s, and there is a reference to some of the interviews being carried out before the Chernobyl explosion, which gives a faintly historical feel to the exegesis.

This book finds it useful to split the environmental movement into conservation groups (which tend to support the status quo) and ecology groups which generally speaking challenge it, and it maps generalised political orientations and administrative trends.

It does however take everything very much at face value and the text would, I think, be difficult for all but the most mature and assiduous students prepared to decode it. You can tell very early on if this is a book for you. Try this: "Instead of accepting the central role of leadership and the political entrepreneur, the ethos within NSMS supposedly evokes an aversion to the elitism that RMrational-choice theory maintains is a prerequisite for an effective SMO."

There is a list of abbreviations but SMO does not figure in it, so unless you are adept at memorising acronyms, the text becomes increasingly opaque.I also found some items puzzling, the reference for example, to spoonbills, rare in a region to the east of Amsterdam. I had always thought of this area as precisely the place where spoonbills could most readily be observed. Indeed, they were common when I went there.

There were other niggling points of information which cumulatively decreased my confidence in the book's authority. It does seem to add up to an archetypal volume for bureaucrats, combining a penchant for the most dreary cliche and rhetorical aphorism with at times, utter impenetrability.The dust jacket depicting a whitish-grey cloud in a bluish-grey sky, conveys perfectly the character of the book.

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