By Greg Garrard (on Ecocriticism)
A more nuanced consideration of automotive culture is the centrepiece of a collection of essays by Harold Fromm, The Nature of Being Human: From Environmentalism to Consciousness: ‘Ecology and Ecstasy on Interstate 80’. Fromm was not only an environmentalist, happy to concur that technology is one of ‘society’s chief critical problems’ (p. 107); he and his wife Gloria had suffered grievously from airborne pollution from the industries of Gary, Indiana. But then three thousand miles into a solo road trip around America, a CD of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis filling the interior of the car as he crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains, he experienced an ‘ecological epiphany’ … :‘Everything human is technology!’ (p. 109). It is not an original insight, as he freely confesses, but his realization of its truth seems to knock over the received ideas of ecocriticism and environmental philosophy like bowling pins: Max Oelschlaeger’s ‘nostalgia for hunter-gatherers in The Idea of Wilderness ’ suddenly seems ‘the decadence of a technologically pampered bourgeois philosophy professor’, while the ‘chest-thumping bravado’ of Edward Abbey, author of nature writing classic Desert Solitaire, was materially sustained by provisions mailed from a grocery store. He was, Fromm says, ‘as much a child of technology as the bourgeois tourists he satirized in the recollections of his ranger days at Arches National Park’ (p. 110). Aldo Leopold’s radical biocentric prescriptions in A Sand County Almanac had degraded, with the passage of time, into ‘pious clichés for undergraduate term papers and for political reappropriation by the bourgeois anti-bourgeois left’ (p. 112), while the concept of the ‘intrinsic value’ of nature, so dear to and so endlessly debated by environmental ethicists, is a device designed to ‘foreclose conversation, like references to God, and to establish the “innocence” (i.e. reverence for life) of biocentrists vis-à-vis the selfish predatoriness of anthropocentrists’ (p. 111). From the co-editor of the foundational The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), especially, these are powerful points, and eloquently made. In the context of the book, they help to explain Fromm’s shift of interest from ecology through neo-Darwinism to the explorations of consciousness in the work of Daniel Dennett and others, never entirely leaving any phase behind.
Having trod a very similar path myself, I find myself in agreement with almost all of Fromm’s arguments, and yet unsatisfied by the book as a whole. His prose is effortlessly clear and muscular, and often enjoyably good-humoured, as in his commentary on the Sokal Affair, ‘My Science Wars’. But because the essays represent a collection of his writing over thirty years, there is a fair bit of repetition and a disappointing lack of forward motion. I appreciate Fromm’s recapitulation of the Darwinian arguments against social constructionism, but then hope in vain for an explanation of what an evolutionary perspective can contribute to literary and cultural analysis beyond a counter-revolution against the myth of the ‘blank slate’. Moreover, it remains unclear what exactly Fromm thinks a Darwinian narrative can contribute to environmentalism apart from a rather dispiriting longue durée of anthropogenic extinctions and collapsing civilizations. The highlights are the ‘vision’ chapter already discussed, Chapter 20 on the illusoriness of the self, and the Conclusion, ‘My Life as a Robot’. Much of the rest would be as well derived from reading Fromm’s sources: Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett.