Telling the Better Story


Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times . Coates, P. 2005 . University of California Press , Berkeley . 254 pp . ( 246 + viii ). $18.95 (paperback) . ISBN 0-520-24478-8 .

The lawyer for the weevils accused of devastating the vineyards of St. Julien, France, in 1587, appealed to Genesis in defending his clients. “God had blessed and commanded all creatures to be fruitful and multiply,” argued Pierre Rembaud, and “the Creator would not have given this command had he not intended these creatures should have suitable and sufficient means of support… It is therefore evident that the accused, in taking up their abode in the vines of the plaintiffs, are only exercising a legitimate right conferred upon them at the time of their creation” (p. 51). The plaintiffs' advocate urged a different interpretation of scripture and then suggested a compromise allocating an area outside the vineyards to the weevils. The defense rejected the area as too barren. Unfortunately, the outcome of the trial is unknown because “vermin destroyed the last page of the official record.”

This is just one of many fascinating stories told in Peter Coates' lively, well-written history Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times. The book “aims to provide undergraduates and the general reader with an accessible introduction to some of the central features and debates of environmental history” (p. viii). In this it succeeds, covering many of the central issues in environmental history and reproducing both the excitement and the conceptual confusion common among environmental historians.

Although Coates' view of environmental history includes both ecological and ideological change, Nature focuses squarely on the latter. Readers looking for scientifically informed ecological history are advised to look elsewhere, but for those interested primarily in Western attitudes toward nature, the book's nine chapters adequately summarize those attitudes, from the ancient Greeks and Romans up through current “postmodern” whimsies.

One strength of this book is its insistence on the great diversity of ideas about nature exhibited throughout Western history. The author warns against identifying the Greek or the medieval conception of nature. In contrast to the world-denying idealism of Plato may be set both Aristotelian science and Pythagorean animal rights advocacy; against mainstream scholastic theology's anthropocentrism may be set the nature mysticism of St. Francis. Coates also challenges single-factor or “single period” explanations for Western environmental misdeeds, such as Lynn White's “dominion hypothesis” or Carolyn Merchant's too exclusive emphasis on ideological changes in early modern Europe. A chapter titled “The World beyond Europe” chides an earlier generation of scholars such as Kirkpatrick Sale for naïve views concerning native Americans as conservationists. In most of these debates, Coates does a good job presenting opposing sides fairly and arguing intelligently for his own positions.

Nature is well grounded in the historical literature; at times, perhaps, too well grounded. It is fine to have G. K. Chesterton's opinions on St. Francis, but not so fine to get more Chesterton than Francis (p. 53). Similarly, we have Fritjof Capra on Newton, not Newton himself (p. 77), and “eco-socialist” critics of sociobiology, not E. O. Wilson's own account (p. 146). Granted, the author disclaims any attempt at original scholarship and asserts that he is giving us “a synthesis” of recent work in environmental history (p. viii); grant, too, that how ideas are received and developed by succeeding generations is itself an important matter for historical study. Still, Coates sometimes loses sight of his Gullivers underneath the noisy swarms of Lilliputians.

Nature is strongest when the author writes of what is closest to him: modern English history. His account of evolving aesthetic standards for English gardens is fascinating. He is particularly good at unmasking the economic biases conditioning English and American attitudes toward landscapes. His account of “the Romantic re-evaluation of nature” breaks no new ground, but tells an important story nonetheless. Coates writes: “Today's glass-domed observation cars,”

provide maximum exposure to mountain glory for the nature pilgrim as trains cross the North American Rockies. But in pre-Romantic times, gentlefolk traversing the Pennines or the Alps drew the curtains across their carriage windows to protect themselves from offensive sights. For when they did not ignore mountains, poets and travelers disparaged them as boils, warts and blisters that disfigured the fair face of Nature, expressing mighty relief upon descending into friendly lowlands. In 1681 Charles Cotton, the Derbyshire poet, reviled his native hills as ‘Nature's Pudends,’ and quite a few English peaks were dignified with the name ‘Devils-arse’ at this time (p. 130).

The author goes on to show how theologians, writers, painters, and others made shift over the next few centuries to find beauty and value in the sublime and the wild.

On the other hand, Coates is less versed in the sciences than in literature. He provides insufficient account of changing scientific attitudes toward nature, and when he does discuss them, he does not appreciate that these changing attitudes may sometimes better mirror reality. The views of hands-on conservationists are also given short shrift. At one point, after discussing some of the complexities in specifying natural ecological conditions, Coates blurts out that “attempts to restore past environments may be psychologically soothing and emotionally satisfying but they are vainglorious and fatuous from an ecological standpoint” (p. 93). Well, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Just as those working to further human rights around the world cannot wait to reach universal agreement on the exact number and specification of human rights, or answer every philosophical cavil posed against them, so those of us who care about wild nature have no choice but to wrestle with these ecological complexities and continue on with our efforts. Environmental history can help here, but only if we embrace a view of historical truth as tentative, open to correction, evolving, and open-ended but still real and valuable, for all that.

Nature contains no “meta-narrative”: no sweeping account of where we came from, where we are going, and what it all means. Is this a strength or a weakness? In one sense, such modesty is good. The author is less likely to squeeze his sources to fit a preconceived mold. Diversity and quirkiness are preserved, and he does not claim to know more than he does know. If history is less cohesive then we have usually thought, then an incoherent history may better “fit the facts.” On the other hand, the book sometimes seems like that caricature of history, “one damn thing after another,” and it is hard to judge whether the figures and episodes Coates chooses to focus on are the right ones. I have a sense, for instance, that he makes a mistake in devoting more space to the environmental attitudes of Richard Walther Darre, an obscure Nazi official, than to those of Goethe, Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold combined. But without an accepted, shared meta-narrative, who is to say what is important?

When I was a college student, one of the most popular and influential world histories in English was William McNeill's The Rise of the West: a History of the Human Community (1963. University of Chicago Press, Chicago). Without condoning Western imperialism or intellectual hegemony, or making predictions as to how long they would last, McNeill recognized them as realities. Because so much of world history post-1500 fit a conquest and response mold, McNeill could build a coherent history around this idea.

What sort of grand meta-narrative fits world environmental history over the past 1,000, or 10,000, years? There is only one plausible candidate: the story of progressively greater human domination over nonhuman nature. People and our domesticates, domiciles, and detritus have replaced other species, and humanity asserts an ever-more ubiquitous, intense, and conscious control over nature and nature's powers. Whether we view it positively or negatively, this is the story that must be told. Even Coates winds up telling this story, in bits and pieces.

An important part of this story of dominance, at least over the past 300 years, has been played by science, with an interesting twist. As scientific knowledge has increased humanity's ability to control and displace nature, it has also knocked the props out from under an anthropocentric worldview. Honest thinkers now know that human happiness is not the goal of the universe and that we are late-coming kin to the animals with no special importance or exclusive claims to value. As we write the next chapter in Earth's environmental history, we will do so consciously, choosing to preserve wild nature or to reduce the world to a human life-support system and eliminate wild nature forever. Scientists will play an important role. On the one side stand the biotechnicians, servants of commerce and industry, intent on reducing nature to its lowest common denominator in return for power and prestige. On the other side stand, among others, the conservation biologists, who find beauty and value in wild nature's own stories and are determined that they be allowed to continue. Theirs is the better, more generous story. Let us do all that we can to see that this is the story that gets told. Let us leave as much as we can for the weevils.