Book review: On the Nature of Ecological Paradox

Oct 26th, 2021 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Geoffrey Holland, writer for Transition Earth.


I have been a follower of the authors, Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison, for a long time. They have written dozens of books that focus on science, nature, and the human condition. All of their books reflect an exceptionally high standard of scholarship and intellectual rigor.

On the Nature of Ecological Paradox is a stunning achievement in so many ways. It takes their scholarship into rarified territory. Packed into its 100 chapters and 869 pages – with nearly two thousand references, and hundreds of photos, artworks, and illustrations – is a remarkable compendium of reflections on the human story.

The authors write, “In these pages, we find optimism, we believe in hope, we want to believe the prime dualisms driving the world to ecological ruin can be worked out.’

The first part of the book looks at ‘places, individuals, and moments in history’ that evoke the contradictions that emerge from the human record relating to the natural world.  The second part is a series of ‘personal divagations’ that are focused on aspects of the humanities and the sciences. The third part is a sobering dance with the doomsday that lurks ominously on the human horizon.

On the Nature of Ecological Paradox is a painful warning that demands our attention, but also encourages with signs that are hopeful.

It seems as though the authors have sifted through every historical nook and cranny of literature, song, classical painting and sculpture art to reveal the nuances and particularly the paradoxes that stand out in our relationships with each other and with the natural world.

Though nature has gifted humans with by far the most sentience of any intelligent animal species, we are also the youngest, the most recent to evolve. The paradox that is at the root of our being is a reflection of our struggle for maturity.

The authors state that, ‘No one agrees on the language to describe human nature,  let alone the principles that guide us.’ (83).

They often employ personal experience in extreme situations to illuminate the paradox that underlies so much of the human condition.

In chapter 22, the authors focus on a set of contradictions at work in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. The brand of compassionate Buddhist ethics practiced by 75% of Bhutan’s population has resulted in the embrace of a new constitution that codifies ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an economic indicator that puts the needs of the people and the welfare of the nation’s natural heritage ahead of all else. Despite this noble aspiration, Bhutan finds its self-identity threatened by the rapacious cultural inclinations of the outside world. The authors highlight the paradox in this by recounting the construction of a paved road to Bhutan’s Sakteng National Park that allows easy access and the invasive impact of traditional economic pressures.


[Photo: -Kinshuk Bose, Unsplash]

Bhutan [Photo: -Kinshuk Bose, Unsplash]

Another chapter in the mid-section of On the Nature of Ecological Paradox is a ‘personal divagation’ that reveals much that I did not know about the life of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) and his seminal work of fiction, Don Quixote. Published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote is considered by many to be the world’s first novel. It should be noted that Cervantes was a contemporary of William Shakespeare.

Here is a view of Cervantes work through the narration put forth by Tobias and Morrison. ‘Miguel de Cervantes alone suggests that the creative imagination is humanity’s response to its own annihilatory  impulses… but it can be easily argued that our compulsion to rectify and ameliorate; to save and be saved; and to restrain, exert tenderness, speak of compassion, formulate town halls, vote, assist, and engage in all those actions of kindness with which our myriad prophets and saints have been absorbed dates most recently to the quixotic in human nature.’

There is a wonderful thread of awareness that connects author Tobias with Cervantes. Tobias’ engaging and richly nuanced 1,800 page novel, The Adventures of Mister Marigold is a deeply satisfying quixotic adventure that finds its inspiration stylistically in Cervantes’ masterwork.

Many of the chapters of On the Nature of Ecological Paradox are a compendium of reflections on the paradox evident in the lives and works of some of history’s most engaging luminaries. Others are like chapter 52, which focuses on examining probability theory and the use of very sophisticated analysis tools to influence the economic, social, and environmental direction of the culture.  The paradox lies hidden in the assumptions at the root of the analysis and the agenda of those presenting the analysis. Assumption and agenda are often unknown to those targeted for influence, which potentially makes for a lot of paradox.

One idea that emerges abundantly in On the Nature of Ecological Paradox is that humans are still trying to find a worthy path as the dominant species on Earth.

In the final chapter, the authors write, ‘Our one species has no monopoly on creation, only on destruction, although our prolific presence in the world has persuaded many of us that we alone command and control. Our fertility rate exceeds that of any large vertebrate, undermining all other biological codes of ethics and efficacy.’   This leads to a profound question. ‘How do we solve problems when we are those very problems?’


[Photo:-Hans Isaacson, Unsplash]

[Photo:-Hans Isaacson, Unsplash]

There is no denying our Earth is in very big trouble. There is no denying that we humans are entirely responsible.

In the early part of the 21st century, what we have is a human population that has more than doubled in just the past 50 years to 8 billion, on the way to 10-12 billion.  That is simply untenable.  We already have too many people, making too many demands on the planet’s shrinking store of every kind of essential resource.  The living biodiversity of planet Earth is teetering and in very real danger of collapsing. As more and more humans become trapped in a personal struggle for survival, they lose sight of the bigger picture.

What this comes down to on the one hand is a mindless culture inertia cultivated and maintained by a small number of humans that feed successfully on the ‘status quo’.  They are blind to the destructive consequences of their exploitation.   These are the bankers, business moguls, and political arsonists, who are addicted to their financial wealth, blind to reality, and resistant to meaningful change.

On the other hand, we have a growing cadre of thoughtful humans, who are aware of the bigger picture.  The future of life on Earth depends on these enlightened individuals turning their awareness and concern to genuine commitment.

The authors tell us, ‘Perceptions and behaviors…can be rapidly altered through the free-will of a versatile and eusocial ethics consolidated in each and every individual.’  That logic works for me.


[Photo: Photo by Alicia Perez on Unsplash]

[Photo: Photo by Alicia Perez on Unsplash]

On the Nature of Ecological Paradox is a powerful, deeply nuanced collection of reflections on the human condition: who we are, where we came from, and what we have become.

The question now is how humans will deal with the ecological reckoning we find ourselves immersed in.  Will we remain stuck in a downward cultural spiral that destroys nature? Will we stay with a course that mindlessly shreds the fabric of life on Earth in service to a ravenous economic system?  Will we wait until it is too late to turn the tide against the tiny fraction of humanity, who wield wealth and power to defend their right to plunder?   This is where we find ourselves.

The authors warn us we do not have a lot of time left to save ourselves from ourselves. With this book, they do leave us with hope; hope that enough caring and concerned individuals, alarmed by the burgeoning threats to nature, people, and planet, will come together and do the right thing.

Congratulations to Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison for delivering a cultural study of, in my experience, unprecedented depth and magnitude.


Geoffrey Holland is a writer/producer and the author of The Hydrogen Age. He currently coordinates the Dialogue series for the Stanford University Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere.



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