Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities.
Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999. 305 pp. $39.95 cloth (0774807245).
Nuclear weapons, radioactive waste, depletion of the ozone layer, global climate change, gender benders, antibiotic resistant bacteria, superpests, factory farms, and other such things originated in the West, not in the Orient nor in Aboriginal societies. Hence some academics have postulated that i) Western culture is exploitative of animals and nature whereas Oriental and Aboriginal cultures are characterized by a oneness with nature, and ii) the latter exemplary cultures provide models for the West to emulate if we are serious about solving environmental problems. This book examines these inferences by carrying out a rigorous, systematic comparison of Western, Oriental, and Aboriginal cultures concerning animals and nature.
Preece concludes that the inferences are false. They have been propped up by lifting quotations out of context, by a biased selection of quotations, by ignoring naturalist thought in the West and anti-nature thought in Oriental and Aboriginal cultures, and by comparing the worse practices of Western culture with the noblest ideals of Oriental and Aboriginal cultures. These latter cultures do not have a homogeneous benevolent orientation toward animals, and practice has differed greatly from ideals. They are similar to Western culture in this regard, since the West also has a current of thought respectful of animals and nature.
In Oriental and Aboriginal cultures the oneness with nature ideology has been used to justify rather than prevent the killing of animals. The notion that the animal sacrifices itself to the hunter is an obfuscation contradicted by its desperate attempt to escape. Preece documents the killing practices of Orientals and Aboriginals that go well beyond the amount of meat they can eat. He also points out that killing is necessary only in the harsh environment of the Inuit where vegetarianism is impossible. The widespread practice of animal sacrifice demonstrates that the ritual is sacred, but the animal is not inviolable: "The buffalo's carotid artery is cut with a long knife and the sacred animal is allowed to bleed to death" (179). Animals are thereby mere instruments of human ceremonial ends. Practices such as cockfighting still exist in Oriental and Aboriginal societies, long after they were banned in the West. Domination of other species did not originate from imitation of European practices: Aztec and Mayan emperors had enormous collections of birds and beasts when the Spaniards arrived. After contact, the one-with-nature culture proved to be no barrier to the use and abuse of animals. When Amerindians had the opportunity to use the horse as an instrument of transportation, they seized it. Revering the animal did not prevent the use of steel-jawed leghold traps and gillnets. "We must be forever wary of treating Buddhism or Hinduism or Aboriginal society as some utopian ideal" (106-7).
Why then has the West provoked global environmental problems that did not exist in Oriental and Aboriginal societies? Preece argues it is because of the type of technology developed in the West. The technologies used in Oriental and Aboriginal societies had a devastating impact on their ecosystems in many cases, but the destruction was limited to the locality because of the character of the technology rather than because of the constitution of the culture.
Preece concludes that our fixation with cultural differences has led us to ignore commonalities among cultures that have operated to the detriment of animals. All cultures have an ambivalent relationship with nature, consisting of a combination of respect and abuse, some ideal discourse and less-than-ideal practice. Divisions and contradictions are present in both West and East. Castigate the West for its treatment of animals and nature, but use the same standard for Oriental and Aboriginal culture, with behaviour being more important than pious prose for influencing our judgment. The error of the West is its refusal to acknowledge how we are bound by nature, not its refusal to return to an even less fulfilling state. Wisdom means balance: "knowing what can be changed and what is best left alone" (263). He argues that we should build on the best of our own culture and of other cultures and reject the worse elements of both, rather than constructing an utopian illusion of other cultures.
Advocates claim that the self-esteem of Aboriginals needs to be increased by telling only positive stories about their culture. Preece replies that it is better to tell the whole truth. Anything less is condescending. After all, Aboriginal culture has not been more harmful to animals and nature than Western culture, just harmful in a different way. He contends that the role of the intellectual is to speak the truth, not to make up a story to advance the cause of a particular group. Such dishonest advocacy in the long run threatens the very goals it advocates.
The book also demonstrates the complex relationship between discourse and practices. It refutes the over socialized conception that practices straightforwardly follow storylines. Practices can be at odds with discourse. Storylines can be interpreted to justify seemingly contradictory practices, for example, the myth of being at one with animals or respecting them has often been used to sacrifice animals.
This is a persuasive book, based on rigorous logic. Preece realizes he is writing against the prevailing intellectual current, so he presents massive documentation concerning Western, Oriental, and Aboriginal cultures and practices. He goes to great lengths to be balanced and fair in his treatment of Oriental and Aboriginal societies. Unfortunately, these intellectual strengths become a literary weakness. The book is repetitive and tedious to read, the same point hammered home so often the reader is tempted to stop at the half-way mark. At the end Preece hopes he saved "the reader from being drowned in evidence" (265), but that is uncertain. Closing the floodgates sooner and saving material with only indirect relevance for another book would have likely increased the readership of this one. Pity there are impediments to readability, because the book constitutes excellent scholarly research that should be read.
University of Ottawa