Timothy Morton


On his book The Ecological Thought

Cover Interview of April 30, 2010

The wide angle

Since I was quite little I wanted to be a biologist; then I wanted to study ecology.  I grew up in the UK and I saw David Attenborough’s Life on Earth series.  I got the book—I must have been about ten years old.  Somehow Harvard University Press telepathically echoed the little green tree frog on the cover for the cover of The Ecological Thought.

Ecology was the new progressive kid on the block in the 1970s and in semi-socialist London there was an amazing ecology exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which has since sold out to big oil.  But in those days it was amazing.  In another part of the Museum was the new human biology exhibit (still up and running pretty much in the same form), and the combination of intimacy and strangeness about these two new exciting exhibitions left a big impression on my mind.

During my university years (1989–1992) I started writing about vegetarianism and poetry—Percy Shelley mostly (Shelley and the Revolution in Taste).  This was quite naturally an ecological theme.  While I was doing it, “Romantic ecology” started happening: Jonathan Bate gave a very influential talk at a conference I went to and all of a sudden this new field opened up.  I wasn’t quite sure how to relate to it, so I kept on thinking about food, which is ecological anyway.  I wrote a book on spice (The Poetics of Spice), which argues that the first “global awareness” poetry wasn’t hippie-ish at all, it was sort of capitalist advertising language, kind of Archer Daniels Midland stuff you can find in Milton and all those early commercial capitalist era poets.

So I slowly started thinking about how to write about ecology, because I thought it was incredibly important but I didn’t buy into how people often write about it.  It took a long time to figure out what I really wanted to say—about ten years.  In the end I wrote Ecology without Nature in about five weeks!  By that time I’d figured out what the title basically tells you: being ecological means, at some point, dropping the concept of nature.  That book really surprised me, even while I was writing it.

Various people became quite interested in the idea of ecology without nature, and I realized that there was another book project, which explains what kind of thinking process is thinking ecology without nature—the ecological thought.  So The Ecological Thought is the prequel, if you like, hopefully not in the Star Wars sense.

I poured everything I could think of into The Ecological Thought.  A whole lot of it is about Darwin. The book uses Darwin’s original texts, plus a lot of neo-Darwinism, Richard Dawkins and so on.  I thought it would be fun to have the most seemingly empiricist, reductionist, conservative and narrowly utilitarian (to some eyes) views, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jacques Derrida, and basically saying the same thing.  Most progressive-type writing on evolution doesn’t engage with that stuff or it slams it.  I think you shouldn’t be afraid of it.  Pretty sad how some humanists think that science is all about some kind of hardcore essence; in fact it’s quite the opposite.

I’m a deconstructor, sort of—at least I’ve been called one—so you’ll see Derrida’s spirit throughout this book.  But honestly the book is written pretty much in the same style I’m using right now.  There are no abstruse jargon filled parts—well there are, I can’t help it, but mostly they’re in the footnotes.  The Ecological Thought is a lot easier to read than Ecology without Nature but I think it’s more profound.  Derrida is a very moving writer, really. Once you get used to him, you see he’s writing about incredibly personal things, like death. And he’s so not a nihilist—don’t believe anyone who says he’s all about “nothing means anything.” He’s much more like Buckaroo Banzai, that 80s cult film hero: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

I’m also a meditator (Buckaroo again), and I believe that we need more contemplation on this planet.  The immense suffering of life forms in the world we’re heating up (one of those life forms is us) should cause anyone with a nervous system to reflect quite seriously on what it all means.  Meditation doesn’t mean disappearing up your metaphysical backside into some realm of bliss.  It means becoming painfully aware of your entanglement with all other life forms, an entanglement you can’t just peel away from your existence: you’ve got them under your skin—they are your skin.  Think of your mitochondria, the energy cells within your cells.  They’re bacteria with their own genome, symbiotically wedded to you.  Plants are green because of chloroplasts, another form of symbiotic bacterial life.

There’s a lot of art and literature and music in the book.  I’m trained as a literary analyst, so obviously art gets in.  But I also agree with Shelley that art has a utopian energy in it, and it’s our job to find out what that is and experience it, maybe harness it.  So at points where the philosophy needs it, some of the thinking is done through music and poems and movies, like Blade Runner, Solaris, AI and so on.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is in it.  Wordsworth is in it.  The Romantics figured a lot of things out, but not quite in the way that “Romantic ecology” thinks.  Funnily enough, it’s the Romantics’ love of irony that I see as most helpful for the ecological thought, not their supposed fondness for big mountains.  Remember, if we’re all intimate with all other life forms, there’s a lot of strangeness there.  Think about your long-term partner if you have one. When you wake up next to him or her, doesn’t s/he seem like the strangest person in the world? (Paging Freud…)