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Humanities on the Edge Book Review: Ursula Heise

Heise, Ursula. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

In a world in which networks of transportation and communication operate globally, environmental thought needs to find more complex ways to engage a planetary scale. This is the core argument of Heise’s 2008 book, which helped further cement her position as a leading ecocritic.

With measured contrarianism, Heise tries to find a concept that can balance the competing claims of two critical responses to globalization. On the one hand, she argues that a romanticizing localism has dominated US environmentalism. On the other hand, identity studies have critiqued local and national power structures. She frames her argument by noting,

the theoretical debate has arrived at a conceptual impasse: while some theorists criticize nationally based forms of identity and hold out cosmopolitan identifications as a plausible and politically preferable alternative, other scholars emphasize the importance of holding on to national and local modes of belonging as a way of resisting the imperialism of some forms of globalization. (7)

In addition to canonical ecocritics such as Greg Garrard and Lawrence Buell, Heise draws on a wide range of theoretical sources ranging from the work of Frederick Jameson to disciplines such as anthropology and geography. In doing so Heise presents a critique of environmentalism’s “excessive investment in the local” (10) and instead tries to conceptually imagine what an “eco-cosmopolitanism” could look like, with literary examples mainly from science fiction authors of the past generation. In the second half of the book, Heise links this cosmopolitanism to risk theory and an understanding of what risks cultures foreground and interpret.

Heise’s critique of environmentalism’s local tendencies provides a genealogy of environmentalist preference for the local. Still, her embrace of globalism is nuanced. She notes that the rise of global thinking in the 1970s, famously precipitated by the “blue planet” photos of NASA, erased and ignored the complexities of a global system, yet was at the same time linked with calls to foster a “sense of place” through slogans like, “Think global, act local.” Such privileging of a sense of place is what earns the most criticism from Heise. She maintains that a sense of place is based on a false premise: what she terms an “ethic of proximity.” This ethic, espoused by environmental heroes such as Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold—but also founded on the philosophical arguments of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—believes that the perceptual and cognitive limits of humans render them more likely to create affective bonds on a small, local scale. Following from this premise, environmental rhetoric often values personal care and local knowledge as the proper basis for environmentally sensitive politics. Heise points out that this conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premise, as local interests may just as often exploit nature as preserve it—proximity does not necessarily lead to care. While the critique is sound, it relies on what seems to me a superficial reading of the these environmental thinkers, even if such a reading is partially justified as it is often just such a reading which underlies popular environmental discourse.

Heise proposes that instead of focusing on something essential to local perception and knowledge we would do well to remember that global structures and relationships are important in constructing perceptions of the local. This makes the local as epistemologically difficult as the global, bound up in one another as they are. Citing anthropologist Arjun Appandurai she notes that “local citizenship, far from coming naturally, is painstakingly established and safeguarded” (46). This embattled position shows that locality is just as constructed and mediated as globality, and introduces her key concept of cosmopolitanism.

Heise imagines eco-cosmopolitanism as “an attempt to envision individuals and groups as part of planetary ‘imagined communities’ of both human and nonhuman kinds” (61). In showing how such imagined communities might be created and sustained, she turns to investigations of the forms and metaphors of globally oriented texts with ecological themes. Her arguments in this section explore how high modernist narrative forms such as collage and multiple protagonist are taken up to explore the complexities of an interconnected globe or the Amazon rainforest rather than early 20th century cities.

In the second part of the book, Heise introduces the concept of risk society: an “important interdisciplinary area in the social sciences…for the most part unknown to literary and cultural scholars” (122). Drawing on the work of German sociologist Ulrich Beck, Heise imagines “shared risk and shared cultural assumptions” as the basis for a global community. In doing so she seeks to resolve a tension between “risk theory” and environmental justice movements. According to Heise,

Environmental justice advocates tend to see the current global ecological crisis in its manifold manifestations as a logical consequence and exacerbation of a socioeconomic organization based on capitalism, and an approach to knowledge shaped by the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Only a genuine social revolution against these existing structures in their perspective, will remove the underlying causes for the destruction of the natural environment. Beck, by contrast, sees in the same ecological crisis a sign of the disintegration of the capitalist class society and of modernist approaches to knowledge. (149)

In unfolding the tensions she introduces here, Heise continues her calls for relocating the environmental critique from clichés of connectedness and pastoral visions to “new forms of solidarity emerging out of global risk scenerios” (159). The shortest chapters of her book work to identify such new solidarities and global risk scenarios in DeLillo’s White Noise and several other German texts focused on the Chernobyl disaster.

Heise’s book, and her focus on how literary form can organize conceptual understanding, will appeal to ecocritics. Her critiques of localism and bioregionalism are useful in spurring further thought about the basis of these movements and their need to overcome the constant charges of parochialism—of which Heise’s is a thoroughly consistent example. Furthermore, Heise’s introduction of Beck’s framework of risk is a novel and potentially useful tool, though one that probably requires more investigation to be fully integrated into the existing ecocritical, and especially popular environmentalist, discourse. Some notable thinkers are absent from Heise’s critique, especially current Marxist thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. The concepts of both the “state of exception” and “the multitude” have potentially rich conceptual harmonies with Heise’s cosmopolitanism and her understanding of risk society.

We can all hope that her admonitions to “reterritorialize” our world in more ecologically and socially sound principles will be heeded, and her application of theories of globalization no doubt enriches the conversation around this defining political issue of postmodernity.

-Daniel Clausen

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