'Being Ecological' is a book with admirable aims and a tangled execution

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'Being Ecological' is a book with admirable aims and a tangled execution

Prioritizing data over action can be counterproductive – but so is a muddled message

Ecology books are sometimes just a disheartening litany of what Timothy Morton, an English professor at Rice University, calls "factoids" – facts packaged into easily digested pieces of information – splashed against a backdrop of nature imagery and adventure stories. With his new book, Being Ecological, Morton makes an admirable effort to expand the genre into something more appealing to a wide variety of readers. However, the book lacks a clear take-home message, preventing Morton from fulfilling his promise to give the reader a greater understanding of what it really means to be ecological.

Morton's distaste for factoids appears to be rooted in the idea that scientists and writers use them to manipulate the audience's feelings, telling them what to think through a manipulative framing instead of allowing them to come to their own conclusion.

MIT Press

I disagree. I see factoids (I prefer to just call them "facts") as a way to distill complex ideas into easily understandable content and make scientific concepts more accessible to everyone. Yes, the simple act of even choosing which facts to include in a piece is inherently biased, but they do allow people to understand information that may be otherwise inaccessible. Part of me wondered if Morton's detailed and emphatic explanation of his opposition to factoids was his own way of controlling his audience and priming us to buy into his philosophical approach.

Still, as an ecologist and conservation biologist, I struggle with the question of how to motivate people to be more environmentally friendly, and I agree that overwhelming people with depressing facts is generally not the best way to persuade them. So I was initially intrigued and eager to read about the environment through Morton's point of view. After all, he makes an astute point that prioritizing data over action can be counterproductive: if only we had that one perfect fact, we think, then we would know how to solve climate change (or deforestation, or overfishing, or any other major ecological issue), so we continue to endlessly gather information instead of taking action to stem the consequences of environmental destruction. This phenomenon is often referred to as "analysis paralysis."

On the contrary, Morton argues that we don't need to learn any more about ecology to be ecological – we already are ecological, just by living in the world. That is, we are all natural beings that cannot live without the natural world, and this should be enough to push us to live more sustainably. If we are to escape the environmental catastrophe (Morton's words) that we currently find ourselves in, we must internalize the fact that our survival is inextricably tied to the planet's health.

But Morton fails to really drive this key main point home to the reader. Instead, he gets lost in long philosophical expositions that are only tangentially connected to ecological issues. He fails to tie ideas together, which forces the reader to work hard to understand his worldview. And for all of the emphasis at the beginning of the book about how urgently we need to take action – any action – to begin to extricate humankind from the ecological messes we have created, I turned the final page without any idea of what I should do. Nor, despite Morton's assurances that I "am already a symbiotic being entangled with other symbiotic beings," did I feel more ecological.

  Jason Blackeye / Unsplash

I see what Morton's goal was in writing Being Ecological. Humankind currently faces a daunting list of ecological problems: rising temperatures, shortages of fresh water, species loss. I agree with him that our neglect and flat-out abuse of our environment is rooted in the fact that we see ourselves as somehow separate from nature. We wear technology as armor to protect ourselves from things like predators, viruses, and famine that would kill us otherwise. Yet, we must still breathe oxygen, drink clean water, and coexist with the bacteria and microbes that enable life on Earth.

This is Morton's point: our basic needs and the fact that we are biological beings tie us to nature. Knowing this should make us more willing, motivated, and empowered to address environmental issues. I would have liked to see him spend more time building up these ideas and the philosophy behind them to make the reader not only understand his point, but to feel it in their guts and bones by the time they closed the book. But in the end, I just felt a bit confused, still unsure of how to translate the myriad of philosophical principles that Morton touched on into a more ecological worldview.

Although this book was not the inspiring guide to ecological thinking that I wanted, I did find some useful nuggets in the text. I particularly appreciated Morton's contention that, even with the most vigorous scientific effort, we can never know anything for certain. Our interpretation of the world is fundamentally flawed, "entangled with prefabricated concepts about what interpretation means." While this might be a terrifying concept for some, I find it strangely freeing.

Instead of anxiously trying to troubleshoot all of the hypothetical ill-effects of proposed environmental action or policies – a futile effort in our complex and dynamic world – Morton gives us permission to embrace the uncertainty. We must act now to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss based on the information we have, and deal with potential stumbling blocks as they arise, he argues, instead of being frozen in place, just waiting for the right piece of data to tell us what do.

In other words, it's OK to act in good faith, based on sound science, and to do the wrong thing. It's just not OK to do nothing.