Book review: Being Ecological, by Timothy Morton

Timothy Morton is a philosopher with a growing reputation for describing humanity’s current environmental predicament, and why we seem unable to address it. In his latest book, Being Ecological, he explores the idea of how to live ecologically. No, not with practical advice. There’s nothing practical here. “It also contains no ecological facts” we are warned on the first page, “no shocking revelations about our world, no ethical or political advice, and no grand tour of ecological thinking.”

Instead, what Morton does is investigate the way we talk about ecology, nature and our relationship to things other than ourselves. He points the reader towards something more embodied, an awareness of lived ecology rather that a factual or intellectual understanding of ecology.

For Morton, humanity is still working with an understanding of the world that emerged with settled agriculture, a way of thinking that pulls us out of the rest of the world and sets us apart. “We’ve been thinking that we are on top of things, outside of things or beyond things, able to look down and decide exactly what to do, in all sorts of ways for about 12,000 years.” In reality, we’re intimately interconnected with everything else. What I understand to be me, as I sit here writing, is a complex assemblage of human and non-human cells. We aren’t in control, and the world is not fixed at human scale. The way that we view the world is one of infinite ways of viewing it, from fruit flies to elephants. ‘Nature’, as we use the word, is a human oriented interpretation of the world. It’s not the only one.

That’s the heart of the matter, but the book is also about art, music, religion, God, beauty, death, time, and language. It’s a serious work of philosophy that builds on the work of Kant and Heidegger. You’ll also find Lego, zombies, Star Wars, a surprisingly playful approach for a book that’s not an easy read. Much of its playfulness is in its style, which is dazzlingly kaleidoscopic. Morton dances around a subject, mixing metaphors, inventing words, writing synaesthetically about the texture of ideas or the taste of thoughts. It is at times clever, at times uncomfortable, and sometimes scarcely coherent. But just as you think a section is going nowhere, it will land on a cogent point that opens up a whole new way of thinking about something.

The book’s back cover blurb begins with the question ‘why is everything we think we know about ecology wrong?’, which I dislike. I object to such ‘everything you know is wrong’ statements, not because I think I’m right necessarily, but because no one person is a lone totem of truth. And while I suspect the publisher put that line there rather than Morton, Being Ecological does tip into that territory a bit too easily. It gleefully dismantles concepts of nature and sustainability, replacing them with something held much more loosely and playfully, an expanding horizon of perspectives on the world, of which the human is only one.  There’s something attractive about this explosion of context, but it’s also a very vague idea. Is it a perspective that takes us anywhere? Is it useful? How do we apply it? Would it save us from environmental crisis if we did?

Being Ecological doesn’t get into these practical questions and seems almost dismissive of them. As a result, I imagine that plenty of readers will get to the end and think ‘so what?’ And being a smart man, I expect that’s what Morton wants: to open a door, complicate his readers’ assumptions, and let them work it out for themselves from there.


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