Life is Complex: Discordant Harmonies

Discordant_HarmoniesThis review is going to be a bit of a struggle as Daniel Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century is more of an academic introduction to current ideas in conservation biology than a piece of pleasure reading. This is not to say that the two are separate, but to suggest that the content of this book is the primary reason I read it. I am hoping that some of the other environmentally-friendly books on my list will have more focus on narrative and story than on facts and theories.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy Botkin’s book. I did and I found his writing accessible and engaging. He uses a number of great examples to demonstrate his central point: that the tropes we use to talk about nature and the natural world are outdated and, in fact, hinder us in addressing the current environmental challenges. I was familiar with the gist of what Botkin was proposing before reading the book, so it was not a sea-change moment for my thinking. If I can sum up his idea it is this: that we have previously seen nature as either a kind of organic being that possesses some form of consciousness/ divine intention (and which we cannot truly impact) or as a machine that essentially runs itself. He argues that current biological research has proven these ideas false. Nature is not a steady-state machine that will simply repair itself if we have damaged it or achieve a kind of optimal state of equilibrium. Instead, Botkin shows nature to be a much more dynamic, complex, and ambivalent thing. Natural history shows that the climate has changed many, many times in the Earth’s long history and that our current conditions, while optimal for our life, are not guaranteed to stay that way. He also argues that we, as human beings, have had an impact on the environment and that we need to think long and hard about what kind of future we desire and how we might get there. Botkin is neither a deep ecologist who argues humanity’s tendency to destroy the natural world (the “nature is best left on its own” position) nor is he a technological utopian (we can fix and manage nature better than it could). He does believe that technology will play a very important part in our future, but he argues that we need to be very careful about new technologies and what their potential impacts are.

The blend of science and broad cultural thinking makes this book an important work in terms of re-thinking how we are currently living. I want to believe that this book is out-dated, but the fact that any number of environmental organizations are still preaching the leave nature alone/wilderness gospel proves me wrong. This book took me a long time to finish – I started it near the beginning of January – and I think this is, in part, because of the complexity of the material. It is heavy reading and cannot be simply plowed through. I both like that, it forces a slower process of reading that is very beneficial, and dislike it because I have a tendency to demand scientific soundbites. Our culture has conditioned us to desire short-term, concise, and reasonable solutions to problems. Botkin argues that this is precisely not the case with global environmental problems. We will neither know everything we could possibly know if we are to act in time nor will we truly know what kind of consequences our actions will have. Reality is more complex than the 30 second news clip has room for. Amen.

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the cultural components of nature and the natural world, but I would recommend taking your time with this book.

Botkin, Daniel. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.


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