Back to Earth Essay - Critical Essays

Back to Earth

In BACK TO EARTH: TOMORROW’S ENVIRONMENTALISM, Anthony Weston calls for a new environmental ethic, beyond laws and mandates, based on a sense of reciprocal relations with the rest of life. Too often people’s environmental attitudes are shaped by their sense of human separateness. What is needed, according to Weston, is a profound change in human awareness to reawaken the sense of living in close connection with the earth. The environmental crisis may ultimately be a crisis of human perception, language, and technology, through which people have become progressively more anthropocentric in their thought and behavior.

For Weston, human transformation contains the promise of tomorrow’s environmentalism. Weston is particularly interested in the study of ethology, or animal behavior, for the guidance it can provide in shaping what he calls “transhuman etiquettes,” or enlightened ethical behavior towards other forms of life. In “Animals Next to Us,” he cites many examples of close human interactions with domestic and working animals, and speculates on the richness of whale songs and the possibilities of human communication with other species such as dolphins or primates. In “Animals on the Borderlines,” he insists on the need for people to coexist in mixed communities with other species, even learning to empathize with them as closely as aboriginal cultures do.

Weston also urges the extension and enrichment of the human senses through a more attentive awareness of the natural world. He cites many instances of the numbing effects of modern technology, especially automobiles and television, which insulate people from nature except on those rare instances when a storm or power failure forces them out of their homes or cars and into closer cooperation with their neighbors. Human technology is radically reductionistic, but to simplify nature is to distort it.

BACK TO EARTH calls for a new environmental ethic based on people’s capacity for individual transformation and closer contact with other species. It is a thoughtful and optimistic book that offers important new insights for American environmental thought.