Review of Vital Reenchantments: Biophilia, Gaia, Cosmos, and the Affectively Ecological

Vital Reenchantments: Biophilia, Gaia, Cosmos, and the Affectively Ecological
Lauren Greyson

Punctum Books, Santa Barbara, CA, 2019
276 pp. Paper, $21.00
ISBN: 978-1-950192-07-6.

Reviewed by
Jane Hutchinson
June 2019

The three books at the heart of Lauren Greyson’s Vital Reenchantments: Biophilia (1984), Gaia (1979) and Cosmos (1980) are considered as works of popular science, a term that has unfairly acquired rather derogatory connotations associated with dumbing down scientific content for a lay audience. However, the best popular science, exemplified by these three books that are the focus of Vital Reenchantments, relates science to our lived realities. Furthermore, when written by such “poet-in-scientists” (p.13) as the chemist and environmentalist James Lovelock, who “embodies an alternative, more affectively informed science” (p.139); the scientist and naturalist, E O. Wilson, whom she describes as an ecological magician; and astrophysicist and science communicator, Carl Sagan, we are directed to the affective wonder and enchantment we can experience by paying attention to the here and now (p. 29). Greyson explains how the poetic-science writing of Wilson, Lovelock, and Sagan reveal to us the complex entanglement of the ecological mesh of which we are part. It also encourages us to act in our ecological present rather than directing our efforts toward some always vague and nebulous future: a present in which hope is not always invested in children and images of the ‘last’ polar bear [1] encourage a problematic sentimental ecology in which solutions are “endlessly deferred” (p.234).

Although the focus of Vital Reenchantments is upon Biophilia, Gaia, and Cosmos, Greyson’s analysis is informed by a comprehensive range of sources drawn from the “scientific elite” in their “ivory tower” (p.233) to widely accessible works of popular science, art-pop, performance, television and film. She draws our attention to the wonders of the biosphere, Gaia and the cosmos and our place in and as a measure of these through discussions of, for example, Sagan’s telling of the real and imagined instruments of the Hubble space telescope and the dandelion seed ‘Ship of the Imagination’; E. O. Wilson’s imaginary ‘motion picture projector of magical versatility’ which enables an affective experience of ecological time by speeding up the projected image (p.123), and Bjork Guðmundsdóttir’s multimedia creations that were inspired by her reading of Biophilia. [2] These allow us to experience the enchantment that arises from affective wonder as we encounter the umwelten of things that are normally out of the sphere of our experience in scale and complexity.

In Vital Reenchantments Greyson defines affective wonder as “an intense engagement with the present”, describes its relationship to enchantment as “the experience of and attunement to novel effects” (p.14) and explains its value to an affective ecology. She acknowledges the difficulty of describing concepts that arise from intensity and sensation (p.105) and explains how wonder expands the world-view and affect involves change: a difference between two states (p.109) and an aesthetic excess from which spirit – immanence rather than transcendent – arises (p.103). Greyson draws upon the work of social philosopher Howard L. Parsons to explain how all three texts draw science and poetic sentiment together to reveal a spectrum of wonder, from the “signifying interest” of an active fully conscious subject to the profound, mystical and ineffable wonder that involves innovation or novelty (p.79). Yet all three present an anti-sentimental environmentalism: in the terms of the biosphere, Gaia, and the cosmos, human life is no more special than any other (p.243) and affective wonder is not sentimental either (p.183), hence the problematic portrayal of polar bears facing imminent extinction. [3]

One chapter each in turn is devoted to analysis of Biophilia, Gaia, and Cosmos and their contribution to the enchanted materialism of an affective ecology. These follow an extensive introduction and contextualisation of the Greyson’s project in which she sets out her themes of wonder, affect and enchantment, popular science and ecological ethics, explains the pertinence of Biophilia, Gaia, and Cosmos to current debates about climate crisis, [4] and reviews a diverse range of influences, drawn from science, literature, philosophy and politics, upon her analysis of the three texts. The three-part conclusion, Enchanted Popular Science and Its Afterlives, neatly draws the chapters together.

A discussion of Weber’s formulation of the term ‘disenchantment’, and his attribution of it to agency and power, scientific understanding and technological know-how, and rationalism and intellectualisation begins chapter two. This is followed by a critique of the disenchantment fantasy, which Greyson explains is now inseparable from modern science and its fusion with technology, and our alienation, even total separation, from nature. The discussion moves on to consider the entanglement of vital, incorporeal and agential materialisms and explores how these may offer a possible way out of the disenchantment fantasy. Greyson draws the chapter to a close with a review of sources from the seventeenth century through to the present to examine the phenomena of affective and scientific wonder, and how these are expressed in order to bridge the worlds of the readers with the world being discussed by each of the poet-in-scientist authors of the three texts.

Chapter three offers a thoughtful and thorough analysis of Wilson’s Biophilia. The book and its author are clearly held in high regard by Greyson, who describes Biophilia as both an evolutionarily driven hypothesis for solving the problems of modern life and an explanation of the depth and breadth of human affiliation to all life that alerts us to the sheer destructiveness of a single species (ours). Greyson illustrates Wilson’s scientific humanism through his use of biological metaphors, for example, his descriptions of leaf-cutter ants as superlative athletes, how a handful of earth holds an infinite number of unseen “beings of another order” (p.120), and how the richness and order of energy flowing through the forest in Surinam is illuminated with an intensity of light in which every living thing becomes an incandescent point (p.112). An anthropocentric conservation ethic in which affective wonder is the “luxuriance and excess” that is woven in the mind from the evidence of life (p.104). Such an ethical ecology, she says, has a key role in our ability to re-think our ecological situation and its consequences. The chapter concludes by examining an eco-system conservation project in the Galápagos Islands to eradicate thousands of goats descended from those left behind by sailors in the sixteenth century. Greyson discusses the ecological ethics of decision making when we attempt to redress the balance of human influence upon other life by creating “reservoirs of wonder”, (a term coined by Wilson) or, as the Darwin Foundation declared, by turning “back to Eden” (p.132).

Chapter four explores Lovelock’s formulation of Gaia, the only concept, she notes, that has the status of a heavenly body (p.152), and a hypothesis that was ridiculed by some notable academicians and scientists (including those who write for lay readers) as pseudoscience and as a work of metaphor. Her analysis of its significance and influence is illustrated through reference to Bruno Latour’s lectures, Kosmokolos and his Gaïa Global Circus project, and the BBC series The Edge of Darkness.

Cosmos, chapter five, begins with an account and analysis of Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record project and the book and TV series that followed in which he is portrayed as our tour guide on a voyage through the universe. Greyson explains how Cosmos makes apparent the affective connection we have to that beyond the Earth. She goes on to examine the sentimentality (alleged by Dawkins) of Sagan’s cosmic perspective that allows us, through his evocation of affective wonder, and our primordial experience (p.208), to regard life on earth as something in need of nurturing.

Vital Reenchantments is a reminder of the value of reviewing and re-examining the claims and interpretations of earlier work in the altered circumstances of current contexts and the problems affecting us now. Greyson considers Biophilia, Gaia and Cosmos as works of reenchantment (p.231) and none of their liveliness is lost through her analysis. Vital Reenchantments does just what Greyson praises the authors of Wilson, Lovelock, and Sagan for doing; it turns what might otherwise be cold examination into animated exploration and critical evaluation of the capacity of science, in the hands of poet-in-scientists, to mobilise wonder and enchantment not only as instruments of understanding and action but also as ends in and of themselves (p.89).

Greyson’s text is structured as a report, with headings and numbered sub-headings to guide the reader through the discussion although, as she writes with clarity, the reader would have no difficulty without them. Each chapter provides a rich analysis of its respective theme. The only thing missing for this reader is an index. Vital Reenchantments will fit neatly on an Ecological Humanities shelf in an academic library and also, as befits its concern for recognising the value of popular science, in a public library. In addition, six months after publication, the book is made available to download or read online by its publisher, Punctum, who provide open access to the writing and intellectual enquiry of researchers working across the sciences and the humanities.

Notes

[1] Notable among a number of books for children about the ‘last’ polar bear is the story of a young boy and his grandmother who paddle their kayaks out to sea to save a polar bear cub drifting away on an ice floe, (The Last Polar Bear, 2009, written by Jean Craighead George & illustrated by Wendell Minor) and an adventure story told through a grandfather’s letters to his grandson about his journey to fulfill his dream of seeing how polar bears really live before it’s too late. (The Last Polar Bears, 1993, written and illustrated by Harry Horse).

[2] https://biophiliaeducational.org.

[3] https://www.arctictoday.com/narrative-polar-bears-become-problem-arctic-environmental-groups/.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/17/why-the-guardian-is-changing-the-language-it-uses-about-the-environment.