Reviewed 12/13/2009

A Reenchanted World, by James William Gibson

Access to this book courtesy of the
Mountain View, CA Public Library
The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature
James William Gibson
New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2009




ISBN-13 978-0-8050-7835-0
ISBN-10 0-8050-7835-5 306p. HC $27.00

Contrary to what some might expect, based on its title and subtitle, this book is no paean to nature worship, no effusive burble over tree-huggers and whale-savers. It is, rather, a sober and thoroughly researched history of the burgeoning trend toward a renewed appreciation of the natural world. That appreciation was once our common heritage, before the industrial age — before we gained the power of dominion over nature that the King James Bible seemed to promise us. But appreciation is perhaps too weak a word for the pre-industrial condition of mankind, so much at the mercy of nature: the fury of tornado or earthquake, the claws of bear or tiger, the ravages of disease. We appreciated (read: respected and feared) nature then because we had no alternative.

This appreciation had a spiritual aspect, and that too is reawakening. It is clear that no respectful relationship with nature and wild creatures can be maintained over the long-term, generation to generation, without a spiritual component. Regulations may stop corporations from dumping wastes, or curtail urban sprawl. Public disapproval may prevent abuse of wild (or domestic) animals. But nothing short of a sense of awe in the face of nature can bring the behavioral transformation the author clearly desires. He leads off with individual tales like that of Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived atop a giant northern California redwood tree she called Luna for 21 months. These, he maintains, are indications of a general "reenchantment" — a reconnection with the natural world. He describes it thus:

"Except in its particulars, this story was by no means unique. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, a new and striking kind of yearning was evident in the way ordinary people felt and talked about nature. People were touched by stories of bears who befriended humans, enthralled by the fluid grace of whales, moved to the depths of their souls by majestic trees, dark mountains, and flowing rivers, newly alive to the sense of mystery, of a world larger than themselves. Some suburban residents came to feel deeply connected to the few remaining open spaces—slivers of forest, wetland, meadow—around them, dedicating years, even decades to trying to save them from development."

– page 3

This reenchantment has its extreme forms. One man went to Alaska and lived among grizzly bears, trying to become one with them. His aim was achieved in grisly fashion when he was eaten by the bears. But the transformation need not go so far, or even turn us all into latter-day versions of John Muir. It need not, to use the canard current among anti-environmentalists, "destroy the economy." It will, however, call for some changes in everyone's lifestyle. These can be summed up as living more lightly on the land. I will not describe what that means in this review. Nor does the author, in his book. He relates an ongoing battle between environmentalists of various stripes and what I call the church-industrial complex. That latter group was in the ascendancy during the first half of the George W. Bush administration. Then its advance was beaten back by a series of court verdicts, Congressional actions, alliances of disparate groups, presentations like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Subhankar Banerjee's photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and a shift in popular opinion. The author describes these events in gripping fashion, ending on a cautiously hopeful note:

"Despite periodic losses and setbacks, the momentum behind this cultural transformation continues to build, and it suggests that anyone who cares about the Earth should take heart. The culture of enchantment has kindled people's interest in other creatures, helped them empathize with animals, made them want to see lands and oceans preserved. It has opened people's imaginations, and in doing so it has changed the political climate. The spread of enchantment means that the environmental movement and its allies can now shift their strategy from defense to offense. Such an offensive strategy will require a strong proactive agenda for environmental reform, one in which unambiguous legal mandates against drilling in ANWR and road construction in national forests are only the beginning. The reenchantment of nature—if coupled with political courage to act—offers a chance to remake the world."

– page 254

This book is well-researched and well-balanced: While it chiefly condemns (rightly) the excesses of corporations and people who abuse public lands, it does not spare the extreme environmentalists — the people who spike trees and burn down animal research labs — either: it names them and shames them. Everyone should read it, and for true friends of the environment I rate it a keeper.

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