Invisible Nature

Kenneth Worthy, Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment (Prometheus, 2013)

Times Higher Education

14 November 2013

I’m typing this review on a computer. Though I’ll make a point of not printing a copy in order not to waste paper, the very book I’m reviewing prevents me congratulating myself. For even as I undertake this exercise, I may well be contributing to the horrific contamination of whole areas of Asia, where so much of the recycling of electronics is carried out. In other words, even for those of us who regard ourselves as ecologically responsible, nature is increasingly “invisible” to us. We simply don’t see the consequences of our actions. Indeed, we are suffering from a radical “dissociation” from the earth.

In answer to the question I’m begging here: yes, I do consider the publication of Worthy’s book is more than justified, despite the inevitable environmental impact of its composition, production and distribution. It looks to me as though it’s going to be indispensable.

It may go without saying that we need to develop a more informed respect for the natural world but I’ve read very few books that give such a thoroughgoing case for ecological awakening. Invisible Nature not only draws attention to what we have overlooked but also spells out the terms of our dissociation. In other words, Worthy is substantiating and extending Gregory Bateson’s indictment of “the Western epistemological error”: the delusion that “mind” is the unique possession of humankind, and that nature consists of so much alien matter, to be manipulated as we see fit.

About three-quarters of the book consists of a useful, thorough and persuasive account of the history of disconnection via dualism, from Plato through Descartes to the present. In a sense it’s an all-too-familiar tale, but I for one have seldom come across the whole story of how we came to be so hopelessly severed from the sources of life – the very life without which our finest intellectual achievements would never have been possible – told with such detail and such eloquence.

In particular, I’m delighted to see the work of the late (and sadly missed) ecological philosopher Val Plumwood being invoked. She it was who spelt out the pernicious effect of dualism: how it has informed an oppressively hierarchical worldview, with culture being privileged over nature, male over female, reason over nature, rationality over animality, spirit over matter.

Mention of the word “spirit” does remind me, however, that if I have one quibble about Invisible Nature, it is that I would have liked to see a little more attention paid to the religious dimension of our current crisis. After all, as Patrick Curry has reminded us, “dissociation” is also “disenchantment”. Worthy might perhaps have pondered further the implications of Plumwood’s case for a “materialist spirituality”, which avoids the damagingly transcendental model of orthodox religion, bringing the sacred very much down to earth. There again, even the most comprehensive book cannot include everything a reviewer might want!

Worthy clinches his argument in the closing chapters with some specific and sensible guidance as to how to order a human community while causing the least possible harm to nature. That is, he provides the blueprint for an “associating ethics” which might counter our dissociation. This section offers an impressive culmination to the book, ensuring that all the theory covered is given practical force.

As I say, this seems to me a necessary book. I keep going back to it, and whenever I do I recall the advice, offered in another context by T. S. Eliot: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”