Harold Fromm, The Nature of Being Human

Harold Fromm, The Nature of Being Human: From Environmentalism to Consciousness (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). x+299 pp. £18.00 hb. ISBN 9780801891298.

Walter Benjamin maintained that the writer should use ‘I’ only in personal letters, but in The Nature of Being Human Harold Fromm does not hesitate to personalise his eco-critical discourse, producing a volume which is by turns eloquent, passionate, idiosyncratic and occasionally hyperbolic. Fromm is a highly articulate, well-informed and persuasive advocate, and his book, which is in essence a series of essays, makes a trenchant contribution to current eco-thinking, both literary and environmental. He is a convinced Darwinian and argues cogently that current environmental concerns, with issues such as pollution, the widespread application of chemical food additives and the activities of the drugs industry, are part and parcel of species survival. At the same time, he acknowledges, the relation between ecology and the philosophy of mind remains a ‘terra incognita’, and it is this gap in our knowledge that he seeks to repair.

Fromm makes a lively companion and his response to the eco-crisis is anything but theoretical. To the contrary, he turns repeatedly to his own personal experience of the polluted environments in the landscape around Chicago which led in the first instance to his seminal Yale Review article ‘On Being Polluted’, first published in 1976 and reproduced here. This is a powerfully obsessive account of the ‘banquet of sense’ Fromm and his wife encountered when they moved to a rural location within the ambit of Gary, Indiana. Fromm’s directness of address, his role as witness, is almost palpable in passages such as this:

Almost every day in January we awoke to find ourselves out of sorts, with severe burning eyes, curious oppressive headaches, and a general feeling of strangeness. This took place four or five days a week for perhaps two months. And on each of these days upon arising we could look out of our bedroom window to the north to see the gray, murky sky spilling over upon us from Gary and East Chicago and floating onto miles and miles of land to the south. (25)

There is a great deal in this vein, and the effect is both overwhelming and occasionally tedious. In subsequent chapters Fromm observes the disengagement from nature which characterised twentieth-century modernity in the USA, whilst justly stressing that he is no primitivist seeking a mythicised ‘return to nature’ in a Thoreauvian mode. The notion that technology is now ‘responsible for everything’ and has replaced the natural world is a potent ideological weapon embodied in, and promulgated by, major corporations.

Fromm is wonderfully literate, informed and alert in his deeply contextualised understanding of these strategies of denial and obfuscation. He provides the reader too with a clear and often witty account of the birth of eco-criticism. He argues rather pugnaciously that unlike Marxism or feminism, eco-criticism ‘will be around for a long time’, whilst tenaciously dismissing the trend towards what he terms ‘Heideggerian moonshine’ (62-3)—though in reality this volume might well have weighed up the serious issues addressed in Heidegger’s essay ‘On the Question of Technology’. But it is certainly clear that Fromm is no eco-sentimentalist; as he notes with beady-eyed clarity, the destruction of the planet by the demand for every greater economic output ‘is not circumvented or even addressed by extolling…the lives of hunter-gatherers’ (70). As Adorno remarks in Minima Moralia, ‘The more tightly the world is enclosed by the net of man-made things, the more stridently those who are responsible for this condition proclaim their natural primitiveness’. Indeed it has to be said that Adorno is more perspicuous than Fromm in diagnosing the way ‘the discovery of genuineness’ as a last bulwark of individualistic ethics functions purely as ‘a reflection of industrial mass-production’. But Fromm is surely justified in arguing that the claims of extreme eco-warriors to, for instance, ‘think like a mountain’ are in fact deeply anthropocentric—indeed, as he plangently remarks, ‘everybody is an anthropocentrist, except corpses pushing up daisies’ (79).

In his relation to other leading eco-critics, such as Laurence Buell, Fromm maintains a properly quizzical stance, finding Buell’s landmark study The Environmental Imagination the product of ‘an overstocked mind that struggles throughout to rise to a truly useful level of generalisation’ (92). In his bluff literary approach Fromm may be justified in calling for a ‘naïve’ reading of, say, Wordsworth or Thoreau, arguing against the post-modern predisposition to see these texts as ‘nothing more than formal or symbolic textual patterns’. He is certainly a stimulating reader, shaking us out of our conventional responses, as in his excellent chapter on Emerson, ‘Overcoming the Oversoul’, which brilliantly traces the evolution of Emerson’s thought and its impact on later existentialist currents and the ‘new theology’. Fromm also offers a suitably agnostic response to John Searle’s ‘biological naturalism’, arguing that ‘with all his analytical powers Searle ends up sounding like a religious conservative evoking intelligent design’ (250). To this set of ideas Fromm’s response is unreservedly Darwinian, and he adds a similarly combative response to the theories of consciousness propounded by Daniel Dennett, concluding that, if we are to some extent robotic in our relation with the environment, ‘experience and rhetoric’ can still effect remarkable changes in humanity. Nonetheless, Fromm insists, we must give up our overweening claims to exercise the chimerical notion of ‘free will’.

In sum, whilst the origins of this book as individual essays and occasional pieces militates against a sense of cohesiveness, The Nature of Being Human is a lively, opinionated, impressively learned and always readable contribution to the current debate on the human and natural costs of the dogma of ‘progress’.

Roger Ebbatson, University of Worcester