The Love of Nature and the End of the World—
The Unspoken Dimensions of Environmental Concern

By Shierry Weber Nicholsen
Copyright 2002
The MIT Press

Reviewed by Richard Walthers


Johns Hopkins scientists recently revealed, with much fanfare, that they discovered that the universe was green in color, a shimmering blue-green to be exact. When I read this I thought that it was too good to be true - what a great story; the universe is trying to tell us that all creation is green. Well sure enough it was too good to be true and several weeks after their first announcement they stated that a computer error read the data wrong and that the universe is indeed actually beige, of all colors.

Nevertheless, nature on this planet has been trying to tell us something for a very long time, but we just haven’t been willing to listen. But perhaps it is more than just an unwillingness to listen to the message. Perhaps the message is too terrible to contemplate and therefore we ignore it in an attempt to insulate ourselves from the shock of the truth. This is the area that is explored in a recently published book from MIT Press, The Love of Nature and the End of the World, The Unspoken Dimensions of Environmental Concern by Shierry Weber Nicholsen.

This book is an inspired and beautiful meditation on our present predicament. It approaches the underlying emotional issues that are usually avoided in the debate about the impending catastrophic loss of the natural environment. It creates awareness via an intelligent examination of why we generally remain silent in the face of the overwhelming destruction that is taking place even as we profess love for certain favorite aspects, animals or places in nature that we hold dear.

In the paradox that is modern life, the love of nature and our unwitting mass destruction of our natural heritage exist side by side, and this book explores the implications of this disastrous disconnection. Drawing on literature, art, psychoanalytical thought, perceptual ecology, religious writing, and poetry, Nicholsen weaves together the work of many brilliant thinkers. She has fashioned it into an ecopsychology incantation to awaken us from our stupor. Its beauty lies in its ability to describe the negative side of our ecological indifference while at the same time promoting what the author calls "perceptual reciprocity" – the interpenetrating and interrelated web of perceptions and sensations of the natural world.

When Nicholsen writes about our lack of willingness to openly talk about the destruction of the environment, she equates it with our diminished ability to experience awe which itself is a form of involuntary speechlessness. It is precisely a sense of awe that the author believes we should develop in order to understand what is happening to our environment. The question becomes can we teach a sense of wonder for the natural world in our schools in a technologically transfixed culture.

Technologically our society is not as powerful as we think it is, however at the same time we are able to cause global environmental changes that we fail to recognize. We have come to identify with machines and technology more readily than the natural world because machines offer the promise of omnipotence and the denial of death, when death is an integral part of nature that constantly reminds us of our frailty and fragileness. This is why we tend to immediately seek out technological fixes that we deem permanent when faced with an environmental problem.

The urgency of the question of "What should we do?" is answered by Nicholsen’s abiding faith in our capabilities for repair and restoration. She believes our collective capacity to think, speak and write about these issues is a form of action in itself that becomes empowering by overriding the sense of ecological despair that at times hampers transformation. However the author is quite clear in attempting only to illuminate conditions that would prevent us from moving forward into the future rather than suggesting what our next steps should be.

The author writes "When we talk these days of sustainability and the seventh generation, we mean the far future. What will be sustained into that future will be not something preconceived but the continued possibility of new birth and unfolding. If extinction means an end to birth, the possible future means the continuation of generativity."

And isn’t that the best we can hope for the future – that there will indeed be a future in which to let things unfold naturally. Perhaps if we make some enlightened decisions along the way we can remain green and avoid becoming part of the great universal beigeness.