Book Review: “The Alternative of Real Ecology” by Kveldulf Gunnar Larsson

Introduction

Self-titled “real ecologist,” Kveldulf Gunnar Larsson, gives himself a lofty task in The Alternative of Real Ecology1)Kveldulf Gunnar Larsson, The Alternative of Real Ecology (Germany: Solitude Books, 2016). when he attempts to critique ecology as it is presented today, environmentalism is it is practiced around the globe, and humanistic thought…all in a book that is self-styled as “a collection of thoughts […] not written to be taken seriously.”2)Larson, The Alternative of Real Ecology, 95, 266. Indeed, The Alternative of Real Ecology is a unique book insofar as it is, either intentionally or unintentionally, written in a quasi-Delezuoguttarian way by trying to do away with subjectivity both in the traditional, humanistic sense, and in the sense of being a book about something. Indeed, Larsson notes his book has no value in the traditional sense. “It has no scientific, academic or literary value. It was not written to entertain or make money. It has no educational value; it was not written to educate. It doesn’t even have any environmental value as it’s not an environmental book.”3)Ibid., 2. Unfortunately, the subsequent questions that arise from Larsson’s bold statements and radical project (e.g. ‘What am I reading?’ ‘Why am I reading this?’ ‘How ought I understand the human-‘nature’ relationship?’) receive little treatment apart from the repetition of slogans within the 260+ pages of the book. Furthermore, numerous editorial and stylistic errors hinder the reading of The Alternative of Real Ecology to the point that, not only does one become angry with the text itself, but the project as a whole is jeopardized. The subsequent review will be divided into three parts: substance, critique, and style; however, as we shall see, the nature of the project necessarily intertwines the three together.

Substance

From the beginning of the book, Larsson contrasts his view which he calls “real ecology” with all current environmental philosophies. Indeed, he situates himself not as an academic or researcher (thus the book has no academic or scientific value), but an advocate for nature. Seeing the numerous causes4)Larsson notes that faux solutions (p. 9), overpopulation (p. 135), and modernity (p. 192) are among the causes of the ecocide. of what he calls “the ecocide” – “the extermination of biodiversity/wilderness”5)Ibid., 5. – as being inexorably linked to “human nature,”6)Ibid., 1. he notes that environmentalism of the kind promoted by Al Gore and other celebrities amounts to little more than “popular environmentalism” which makes people feel good without actually changing anything.7)See chapter 2: Popular Environmentalism, 9-31. While I am certainly amenable to the project of critique – indeed, the act of critiquing things without necessarily posing working alternatives is near and dear to me – the bravado with which Larsson advocates for “real ecology” and the nature of the topic (that is to say, a book dealing with the environmental crises in our world) necessitates, for me, some alternative. Luckily, Larsson provides one: “real ecology.” Unfortunately, what “real ecology” actually is and means is just as unclear after 269 pages as is its potential application. Further, despite what Larsson says in the epilogue about “real ecology” being a call to action, the formulation of it throughout the book couches it in mere advocacy and acknowledgement.8)Ibid., 265. Indeed, Larsson notes that not only is “[t]he advocacy of Nature […] nothing more than the raised voice of someone who feels her pain,” but it is fundamentally inactive insofar as it is the mere “presentation” that requires “acknowledgment.”9)Ibid., 58, 59.  In the context of the ecocide and the numerous environmental crises that are going on, taking this cavalier of an approach (indeed, not even trying to stop the ecocide)10)Ibid., 93. is politically dangerous and ecologically destructive. While I’m no Marxist, I think Marx’ 11th Thesis on Feuerbach is especially relevant in the context of ecology: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”11)Karl Marx, Marx and Engels Collected Works: Volume 5, trans. C. Dutt, W. Lough, and C. P. Magill (Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 5.

The logical question that arises out of all the above is ‘what is real ecology?’ Unfortunately, I do not have an answer. Indeed, it seems as if Larsson does not have a stable answer (or at least an articulatable answer) himself as real ecology is originally presented as “the alternative to modern human existence itself,” (whatever that may mean)12)Larson, The Alternative of Real Ecology, 3. then as an “[a]dvocacy of Nature,”13)Ibid., 58. then as a call to give up luxury by “not buying, using, and consuming as much as possible,”14)Ibid., 92. then as a catalyst for “inner change and non-contribution,15)Ibid., 93. and finally as a vague call to action.16)Ibid., 265. Placing the reader in a situation where they are unable to articulate the central idea of your book – indeed, the central idea that you note will likely be misunderstood17)Ibid., 94. – is an extremely undesirable position to be in. The lingering question after 269 pages, for me, is ‘what is real ecology?’ Ultimately, the various answers given are presented without explication and the central theme of Larsson’s project remains a mystery.

As Larsson moves forward in his examination (and to continue, we must necessarily bracket the issue of the multiple definitions of “real ecology,” although they by no means go away), he affirms that “real ecology” rests upon environmental advocacy which, for him, entails raising one’s voice and letting Nature’s pain be known.18)Ibid., 58. This view, however, not only fails to break free from the humanism Larsson is so desperate to avoid, but fails to solve anything as its success (if that is even the correct word to use when discussing this type of alternative) is entirely contingent upon the acknowledgment of “real ecology,” something whose criteria for success I am unable to find or articulate. Indeed, unlike other postmodern critiques that don’t inherently offer a solution to the problems they raise (e.g. Foucault, Baudrillard, etc.), Larsson seems to tie “real ecology” to the nebulous ideal of being acknowledged by people, a species that he thinks is largely uninterested and/or stupid.19)Ibid. What’s more, it’s unclear what acknowledgement of “real ecology” would look like. Does it merely need to be recognized by one person? By a few? Indeed, what are the criteria for successfully acknowledging something? These are questions I cannot find answers to and thus my notes in the book consist primarily of question marks.

While there are, of course, numerous small issues discussed within The Alternative of Real Ecology (e.g. popular environmentalism and the role of celebrity advocates, overpopulation and possible solutions, trash, human rights, and money), this review cannot be an exhaustive analysis of each chapter and thus we must necessarily move on.

 

Critiques

There are a few salient issues within Larsson’s analysis in The Alternative of Real Ecology, but for this review we shall only focus on one major one: the question of ‘nature.’ Indeed, we shall ignore the numerous internal contradictions, equivocations of words, and other logical inconsistencies (many of them may be explicable by writing style) and focus the brunt of our critique on the a priori issues of what nature is and whether humans are a part of it.

In his “introduction to terms,” Larsson’s only comment on “Nature” is that it “refers to ‘Mother Nature’. Planet Earth.”20)Ibid., 5. The issue with this definition ought to be clear to any reader, but lest I risk leaving anyone behind, I shall explain the error. Defining ‘nature’ as ‘mother nature’ does nothing to help elucidate what it is we are talking about. Indeed, the definition Larsson provides is not only trivial, but is also tautologous. To illustrate the problem with this definition, allow me to use an equally trivial and tautologous example: “’Human’ refers to ‘Human Beings.’” Alternatively, another example might be to define that which is right (ethically) as “that which is good.” As should be obvious by now, none of the above definitions help elucidate the term they are trying to define, and as such leave the reader in constant darkness. In chapter five, Larsson gets closer to a proper definition of nature when he says “[w]here the ecocide threatens human existence (as primary target [sic]) we are talking about the environment; where humans ‘live’. Where the ecocide threatens the biodiversity/wilderness (Nature) we are talking about ecology.21)Ibid., 95. While this seems to get us slightly closer to an understanding of ‘nature’ by contrasting it with the environment – that is to say, the environment is where humans live and ‘nature’ is everything else –, a simple analysis will reveal that this dichotomy is fundamentally flawed. If one accepts this dichotomy, one must also accept the following claim: an untouched forest in the middle of Finland is ‘natural’ until a single solitary human shows up and sets foot on the ground. Once a human begins to exist – that is to say, live – in a given area, the area ceases to be natural, regardless of how “real” their ecology is. While this may in fact be the case, it seems counterintuitive to our ‘innate’ understanding of ‘nature,’ and Larsson provides no argument as to why we ought to accept it. Indeed, Larsson himself appears to be opposed to argumentation and is thus left in a rut!22)Ibid., 266.

There is a more damning issue with Larsson’s dichotomization, however: it undermines his entire project of “real ecology.” Indeed, if things cease to be natural when humans engage with them, then having a “real relationship with Nature,”23)Ibid., 64. and subsequently an understanding of “real ecology,” is impossible as every time we come in contact with nature, we de-naturalize it, thus eviscerating the possibility for a real relationship to occur. In other words, Larsson’s dichotomization makes the goal of a “real relationship with Nature” impossible to attain. ‘Nature,’ like the Platonic realm of the Forms or the Kantian noumenal world is forever unattainable.24)Ibid.

Ignoring Larsson’s inability to define ‘nature’ and granting him some definition of it, the arguments he makes necessarily presuppose some ontological difference between humans and ‘nature.’ Indeed, when Larsson notes that not only is it “[h]uman nature” that compels humans to destroy ‘nature,’ but that humans are the only creatures doing so, he tacitly implies a fundamentally large, and unbridgeable, gulf between humans and other ‘natural’ creatures.25)Ibid., 1, 60. Indeed, Larsson’s critique shares much in common with Bill McKibben’s argument that nature has ended due to human interference.26)See Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York: Random House, 1989). The problem with such a line of argumentation is that it posits a category distinction between humans and ‘nature.’ As Vogel has noted, McKibben’s (and subsequently Larsson’s) view is committed to a strong dualism whereby human beings are viewed as ontologically sui generis, distinct from all other creatures on Earth. Once the human touch is on something, its ontological status shifts: no longer natural, it is now an artifact. The human world and the natural one are thus treated as separate realms.27)Steve Vogel, “Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature,” in Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, seventh edition, ed. L. P. Pojman, P. Pojman, and K. McShane (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2015), 156.

This odd ontological commitment not only reifies the anthropocentrism that “real ecology” wants to do away with, but it blurs the lines between the different meanings of ‘nature.’ Further, Larsson’s strong dualism places him in an interesting double bind where either a) humans are natural and thus all of our actions, including the destruction of biodiversity, are natural (and thus, “it would seem by definition that we cannot interfere with it [the environment], since nature turns out by definition to include whatever we […] do); or b) humans are unnatural (alternatively phrased, human actions are unnatural thereby affirming an unfounded ontological distinction between humans and ‘nature’) and thus every action we take is an act against ‘nature’ and thus, as noted above, precludes any ability to form a “real” relationship with ‘nature.’28)Vogel, “Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature,” 156-157. In short, any answer one tries to give to the ‘Problem of Nature’ commits oneself to one of the aforementioned positions and thus locks in a double bind where “either we violate it [nature] all the time or violations of it [nature] are logically impossible.29)Ibid., 157.

Further, there are deeper criticisms of the concept of ‘nature,’ but I will leave those for a reader to explore on their own time.30)See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), Steve Vogel, Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), and Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Stylistic

This section will be brief and to the point: The Alternative of Real Ecology is a nightmare to read from a stylistic perspective. Rife with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, I suspect the issues in the book lie in two places. First, Larsson is not writing is his native tongue, Norwegian, and then hiring a third party to translate the work. Rather, Larsson makes a very impressive move by writing the book in his non-native language of English. For this, I have to give him to credit and thus I cannot personally hanker too much on the odd sentence constructions as Larsson has already been able to do much more than I could: write a book in a foreign language. Second, however, I suspect some of the more deep-seeded structural issues with the book (e.g. incorrect formatting of citations, citations being left out, block quotations not being articulated as such, font changes, and poor page layout) lie with the editor. From my understanding, Larsson did have a third party edit the book and I have very little tolerance for the negligence of professional editors. If you are getting paid to make sure a book is readable, everyone ought to expect that you do your job.

Given all that, even if an individual did decide to buy a copy of The Alternative of Real Ecology and ignore all my previous criticisms, I suspect that they would, after a few pages, put down the book (regardless of their sympathy for “real ecology”) due to the near unreadability of the text. All that being said, I am pleased that the majority of the printed book is set in a Serif font; the proper style for printed works.

References   [ + ]

1. Kveldulf Gunnar Larsson, The Alternative of Real Ecology (Germany: Solitude Books, 2016).
2. Larson, The Alternative of Real Ecology, 95, 266.
3. Ibid., 2.
4. Larsson notes that faux solutions (p. 9), overpopulation (p. 135), and modernity (p. 192) are among the causes of the ecocide.
5. Ibid., 5.
6. Ibid., 1.
7. See chapter 2: Popular Environmentalism, 9-31.
8. Ibid., 265.
9. Ibid., 58, 59.
10. Ibid., 93.
11. Karl Marx, Marx and Engels Collected Works: Volume 5, trans. C. Dutt, W. Lough, and C. P. Magill (Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 5.
12. Larson, The Alternative of Real Ecology, 3.
13. Ibid., 58.
14. Ibid., 92.
15. Ibid., 93.
16. Ibid., 265.
17. Ibid., 94.
18. Ibid., 58.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid., 5.
21. Ibid., 95.
22. Ibid., 266.
23. Ibid., 64.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid., 1, 60.
26. See Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York: Random House, 1989).
27. Steve Vogel, “Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature,” in Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, seventh edition, ed. L. P. Pojman, P. Pojman, and K. McShane (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2015), 156.
28. Vogel, “Environmental Philosophy after the End of Nature,” 156-157.
29. Ibid., 157.
30. See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), Steve Vogel, Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), and Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

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