Book Review: The Distortion of Nature’s Image

Damian Gerber,
The Distortion of Nature’s Image: Reification and the Ecological Crisis (SUNY, 2019)

Reviewed by Francisco Gelves-Gomez, University of the Sunshine Coast/The University of Melbourne

(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)

The environmental crises, and associated social problems, are some of the most determinant characteristics of life in the late Holocene. At the outset of the 21st century, the causes of these current crises are now articulated in terms that reflect particular human-Nature relationships and prevailing images of Nature that replicate the historical organisation and processes dominant in the global market; we live in the Capitalocene. The question ‘what is Nature’ is conceptualised through the ideological and cultural premises of this period. According to Gerber, the concepts of Nature and human-Nature relationships “are formed out of the historical contradictions of bourgeois society” that, at the same time, “reify the very logic underlying the social ideologies responsible for the crisis” (Gerber 2019: 3). The representation of a reified Nature by the dominant (Western/capitalist) modern society, offers a rather comforting view that the ecological problems are ‘out there’ and detached to one’s self. This is the point of departure from which Damian Gerber articulates a project to think critically about the particularities of the assemblages in which social organisations and the ecologies of the world take place. In The Distortion of Nature’s Images: Reification and the Ecological Crisis, Gerber creatively and critically examines humanity’s relationship with Nature by challenging reified thinking, drawing from critical social theory, social ecology and articulating his own project of a particular dialectical naturalism.

Throughout the three chapters that make the book, Gerber reflects on some of the most dominant arguments and ideas about Nature in Western thought, and how these have limited humans in the Capitalocene to achieve their more ‘positive’ ecological potentialities. With his narrative, Gerber asserts that a reframing of human-ecological relationships is needed and possible. Indeed, he argues that “the survival of human civilization depends on the development of its own ethical sensibility through revolutionary rethinking of its institutions” (Gerber 2019: 179), processes, and relationships that are the forces behind the current social and ecological circumstances.  For us to be able to achieve such a positive reframing, there is a need to attend to political, ethical and aesthetic questions, he contends.  The book responds some of these questions by presenting deep discussions on deep philosophical ideas. In the first two chapters, Gerber traces the ontologies of the Nature-concepts, drawing from the philosophical projects of Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Marx. Gerber also brings into the discussion anarchist ideas through the works of Bakunin and Kropotkin. In these chapters, he critically highlights the way in which, historically, images of Nature have been distorted. Essentially, Gerber argues that the reification of Nature is the product of multiple social mediations including the capitalist society and intellectual ideas that produced a false human/Nature binary. Together, the human Nature dichotomy and the mainstream capitalist culture have, in effect, captured the internal logic of society in terms of its rationality and morality. These ideas presented in the first two chapters work as a springboard to the third chapter where Gerber eloquently elaborates on the work of Murray Bookchin, specifically Bookchin’s ‘dialectical naturalism’, to suggest ways in which social ecology and dialectical naturalism can present opportunities to not only express the shortcomings of current society-Nature relationships but overcome them.

Gerber’s undertaking is not an easy one. He is not only engaging with very complex philosophical ideas he is also thinking through them, redrawing a world of possibilities through speculative thinking. This is extremely important as he opens a door that permits to escape the status quo of dominant rationality (that is, reified thinking), to envision different political and ethical sensibilities that could steer humanity from self-destruction. I cannot agree more with Gerber’s intent here. Throughout his book, there is an underlying call to action for transforming the reification of nature that coproduces both the social and environmental problems we face. Gerber’s ideas and arguments cut across the important need to respond to complex socio-ecological problems but from a different system of ethics, politics, and knowledge as an antidote to the current dominant social rationality that has generated the problems in the first place.

It is important to note that Gerber is not providing us here with some solution. His arguments are also against any romantic road maps to ‘utopia’, and presenting a panacea is not his intention. Gerber’s intent here is to align himself with one of the key tenants in social ecology. That is, to be pedagogical (Gerber 2019: XV) and to encourage readers to think very critically about the ecological (and social) consequences of our own ways of living. Perhaps, Gerber’s difficult undertaking in his book, beyond the elaboration of challenging concepts or the critical study of complex philosophical ideas, is to contribute to what Friere called the awakening of the critical consciousness.To this end, I believe that Gerber’s prose and narrative has indeed achieved that pedagogical aim to a large extent; it offers the reader tools to enlighten the many ways in which the environmental problems are not ‘out there’ but very much part of our everyday existence requiring us to reframe our thoughts and actions.  His contribution adds to debates in radical political ecology and to the growing body of scholarship in social ecology, radical geography, and critical theory, amongst others. At the same time, Gerber demonstrates how dialectical naturalism “is a way of looking critically at humanity’s relationship to nature that resist reified thinking and expands our consciousness about new configurations of human-ecology relationships” (p. IX)

Damian Gerber has a beautiful and provocative writing style. His command of the concepts and complex ideas is clearly evident. Despite his clear explanations and unpacking of other authors arguments, however, I believe that the readers do require a high level of previous knowledge on themes such as negative dialectics, Marxist ideas, and Hegel’s writings. I understand and recognise the need to use such ponderous writing, but if one of his goals is to revolutionise ethics and politics, such revolution should be accessible to many more. His ideas, I believe are needed beyond experts and intellectuals. Whether this is an issue of the book, is debatable. Perhaps, having complex ideas is not a problem of being accessible, that is symptomatic of the same systems of education and culture that Damian Gerber is analysing.

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