Soper is a humanist in the best sense. Her contribution to socialist theory, her commitment to the green movement, and her struggle as a feminist, are informed by a deeply considered notion of the human good, and one that seeks to keep up with the times. What is Nature? is a political book, the application of philosophical technique to real-world issues.footnote1 And nature being above all the concept against which Western culture has defined its human credentials, the central question Soper explores here is that of humanity in relation to nature: what, in the world we have not made, is it important to keep and to cherish?
Soper’s book brings into sharp focus a crucial fact of political life that has been with us for the last three decades, but with which we are still struggling to come fully to terms. No sooner had the New Left of the sixties got into its stride than it was assailed in short order from two contrary directions. Second-wave feminism and gay liberation demanded change in the field of gender and sexuality that even revolutionary Marxism still saw as the natural substrate of social relations. The burgeoning environmental movement, by contrast, diagnosed an ecological crisis developing from the achieved industrialism that socialists had assumed was their legacy from capitalism, to be used for building the new society.
Soper writes as a thinker and activist who has long grappled with both horns of the dilemma. The destruction of nature by industrial development, whether governed by capitalist, bureaucratic, or even welfarist goals, is a genuine threat to the quality of human life, and in this respect nature must be defended. At the same time, the ‘defence of nature’ is the classic weapon against women and gay people oppressed by gender and sexual relations with the weight of millennia behind them. How can the discourse of nature be disentangled, and rewoven, so that there is no longer a contradiction in being apparently both ‘for’ nature in one domain and ‘against’ it in another?
In recent years, the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ nature positions have reinforced themselves with various complex and sophisticated theories, which are today a prominent feature of the philosophical scene. Soper writes with the ‘specific aim of staging an encounter’ between ecophilosophy and
On the postmodern side, so closely associated with recent developments in feminist and queer theory, Soper finds the denial of nature ensuing from postmodern pantextualism a slippery slope that forecloses the critical perspective feminism had opened by drawing a clear divide between nature (biological sex, taken as given) and culture (gender, socially ascribed and malleable). If the specificities of the body are denied a natural foundation, so that sex and gender are conflated this time on the side of culture, then there is no longer a ‘basis either for justifying [the] critique of existing practice, or for defending the more emancipatory quality of the alternatives they would institute in its place’.footnote3 While these antinomians may well insist on the arbitrary character of existing sexual arrangements, their ontological anti-realism makes any proposed alternatives equally unfounded.
Staunch realist as she is in arguing with the postmodern, Soper resists on the other side the reductionist naturalism that has so strong an appeal for defenders of the environment. If humans were animals like any other, it would be impossible to make a distinction between good and bad environmental practices; precisely what ecologists bewail would have its compelling necessity. ‘All ecological injunctions. . .are clearly rooted in the idea of human distinctiveness. . .Green arguments are addressed to humanity’s destruction of a nature from which it is distinguished, and impute responsibilities to human beings of a kind that it is presumed to be meaningless to ascribe to the rest of nature, organic or inorganic.’footnote4
Soper rather overlooks, in my view, the practical ideological function of the theoretical positions she criticizes. Struggle on the front line, whether of monkey-wrenchers against loggers, or for a lesbian space in the inner city, seems quite generally to require a characteristic one-sidedness at odds with the cool detachment of the philosopher’s study. The same tension is well enough known in the history of Marxian socialism. But what is understandable illusion at ground level is less forgivable when dressed in the language of theory, and in so far as it presents itself as such, Soper does no more than her duty in rebutting it.