In a recent review that fairly gushes with enthusiasm, Elizabeth Abbott, Dean of Women at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, says: “Livingston's lyrical prose and relentless pace underscore the urgency of his message. His theory of man as Rogue Primate in a universe that belongs to all its inhabitants is so compelling, so tightly reasoned, so justified by appeal to natural phenomena, that it appears irrefutable.”
She is not far wrong. For those familiar with Livingston through his work as a leading naturalist, his previous books-notably The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation-or his public speeches and lectures, his characteristically measured tone, unfailingly good humour and profoundly radical message are all here in force. Livingston is one of the few academics who stand well upon the stage. His mellifluous voice, splendid sense of comic timing and wholly engaging personality make him a pleasure to hear and a pleasure to read, especially when doing so with his timbre and cadence clearly in mind.
His message? Human beings were the first domestic animals and we domesticated ourselves. Since then, a story of disaster has unfolded. The development of agriculture was (here he approvingly quotes Jared Diamond) “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” We abandoned our wildness, exchanged a natural for an artificial existence, and became slaves to the two most dominant prostheses now mediating between us and reality-ideology and technology.
We have also domesticated other species, leading to their systematic sensory and behavioural deterioration, and we have additionally destroyed the habitat of those species that were not brought within our fabricated space. We have initiated a process of extinctions rivaled only by the great “kill-offs” of our geological past, such as the late Permian extinction (which set the boundary between the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic eras 225 million years ago), and the Cretaceous dying (that, among other things, extirpated the dinosaurs and left some space for our mammalian ancestors to grow).
As for the present and the future of our species, Livingston is firm in his analysis. Our pathologies, tied as they are to his concept of “zero-order humanism” (our intense and exclusionary chauvinism), are almost totally resistant to treatment. So deeply rooted is our hubris that we literally cannot think in any terms or see from any perspective other than our own. So, when we notice that all is not well in our environment, we dream up ideological palliatives like "sustainable development" to help us rationalize our continuing assault upon nature. Sustainable development is, says Livingston, "a full-blown oxymoron." Or, as I heard him tell an enchanted audience at a conference critical of residential, commercial and industrial development atop southern Ontario's Oak Ridges moraine: "When you hear the phrase, 'sustainable development,' you can be sure of one thing: it is development that will be sustained!"
Is there hyperbole here? Certainly. Does he make unsubstantiated generalizations? Sometimes. Is his view balanced? Decidedly not, for it is hard to balance in the maelstrom of modernity, to say nothing of the postmodern vortex of hypertechnology. But the core of his argument is so close to the mark that, as Farley Mowat reports, despite providing opportunities for quibbling: “John Livingston tells us the naked truth.”
It is a truth more unsettling than easy ecologists would like to hear. Rogue Primate wastes no time raising issues such as “animal rights” (an exclusively human idea conceived for uniquely human purposes) except to mock them. The AIDS epidemic he regards as “a natural response to human overpopulation and hyperdensity.” Most of modern ethology he dismisses as a “pervasive,” “pernicious” and “gratuitous anthropomorphism.” The language is uncompromising. The views expressed clash with the fundamental beliefs of our culture. No matter that we now use blue boxes to discriminate among various types of trash: “That we, the educated, the informed, the well nourished, the affluent, do pathetically little to stall the human juggernaut (consisting of equal measures of fecundity, exploitive commercial growth, and anthropomorphic belief systems),” says Livingston, “is testimony perhaps to our physical comfort, perhaps to our domesticated apathy, perhaps to our arrested ontogenies, perhaps to our evolved, intrinsic askewness.” Perhaps to all of the above.
The remedy? A change of ideology, rooted in the experience of wildness. Livingston reminds us that Percy Shelley spoke of freedom as “sweet bondage” and asks that we “see wildness similarly-a state of being in which one is an autonomous organism, yet bonded and subsidiary to the greater whole.” Such a shift is tremendous, yet it builds-perhaps na•vely-upon guileless moments of connectedness, upon the sight of “a child gently holding an unfledged young robin that has fallen from its nest.” Livingston lately owns that the “sweet bondage of wildness is recoverable.” Those who agree in principle with John Livingston's message, yet go on to demand a clear mission statement, a practical blueprint, an itemized budget, and a phased plan (after having duly consulted the relevant “stakeholders”), just didn't get it.
Howard A. Doughty is Editor of The College Quarterly.