Environments, Natures & Social Theory: book review

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

Environments, Natures & Social Theory: Towards a Critical Hybridity (Damian F. White, Alan P. Rudy, & Brian J. Gareau, 2016, Palgrave Macmillan) brings together the bodies of literature around social theory, economics, politics and governance, philosophy, ecology, and environmental discourse. This ambitious text is one that I, personally, felt the need for: I have encountered most of the thinkers and theoretical concepts under discussion in this text through various courses and research projects, but reading them side by side and in conversation with environmental topics helps bring clarity to the positives and negatives of each approach. White, Rudy, & Gareau do an excellent job of introducing thinkers in a balanced way, then carefully scrutinizing them, placing them alongside alternate schools of thought, and offering syntheses or middle ground between two opposing perspectives. I appreciated that rather than, for example, rejecting Malthusian limits in favor of technological progressivism (or vice versa), these authors explain the helpful aspects of each perspective, seeking awareness of each and attempting to recognize blind spots. They bring together social theory and environmental thought into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by tracing the development of critical hybridity, postcolonial perspectives, and environmental justice.

While many environmentally minded theorists tend to disparage earlier thinkers for their lack of awareness of environmental issues, this book draws out the environmental aspects and implications of social theorists, economists, and other thinkers in the Enlightenment and into the nineteenth century ideologies of Marx, Engels, Durkheim, and Hegel. They also refuse to reduce the early environmental movement to the conservation and preservation advocated by affluent white males, pointing out historical examples of women, labor unions, and people of color who advocated for access to natural spaces and functioning ecosystem services over the last two hundred years.

Drawing together this breadth of literature around the socio-political, ecological, and economic problems we face, White, Rudy, & Gareau open up space for the emergence of hybridity, a concept emerging from the literature of a number of fields in the last few decades. In Environments, Natures & Social Theory, the authors focus on the work of Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour, whose work questions the separation between nature and culture, humanity and our technologies, and the boundaries we try to place between disciplines. At the same time, the authors draw upon the insights of critical theorists regarding power dynamics, noting that not all mixing and transgressing of boundaries leads to liberating and sustainable practices. They walk the readers through the history of environmental policymaking since the 1960s, pointing out ways in which ideas that began as well-intentioned policies to protect natural resources and communities have often morphed into policies that protect the financial interests of corporations and governments.

Throughout this text, the authors attempt to open up the reader’s “socio-ecological imagination,” inviting us to envision a way forward that brings together the best of the previous theories. Rather than falling into a binary choice between biological or social construction of human history, between jobs or a healthy environment, between collapse or austerity, they advocate for a critical hybridity that opens up our imaginations toward creative human flourishing. This requires recognition that social and ecological systems are inextricably intertwined, so that thinkers and practitioners in both the social sciences and the environmental disciplines need one another. Their vision for a future that draws on the imaginaries envisioned by these hybrid thinkers is an exciting one, full of creativity, life, and reconstruction.

Whole Terrain readers interested in the collective impact of environmental policy and thinking about the best ways to organize society in light of the anthropocene will find helpful guidance in this book. Rather than rejecting former thinkers out of hand, these authors encourage us to draw from the wisdom of each perspective, while remaining grounded in the reality that we are integrally connected with our place and context. As we work to enact our own environmental practices, are we willing to take this bricolage approach, not standing for a rigid party line on any issue, but recognizing the porous and dynamic interrelatedness of our social and ecological settings?

My main critique of this book is that it is fairly dense, and one needs a foundational knowledge in social theory, economics, environmental discourse, and philosophy in order to wade into this text with cognizance of the backstory. Academics in environmental studies will find in this text an excellent resource that draws together and focuses the conversation around the development of a more sustainable social theory, and the text may be helpful in graduate-level classrooms. Its concepts are useful and will hopefully take root in fields related to environmental studies, already a nexus point for hybridity. White, Rudy, & Gareau offer hope in the face of collapse, agency for environmentalists tempted toward paralysis, and imaginative action that can lead toward a joy-filled future. As they conclude, “So, let’s get on with it” (215).

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