The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment. 2nd ed.


172 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-2962-0
DDC 128




Reviewed by Patrick Colgan

Patrick Colgan is associate director of programs at the Canadian Museum
of Nature in Ottawa.


To the growing literature on all aspects of environmentalism this
provocative book contributes a philosophical analysis of the fundamental
problems underlying the topical issues—namely, the impact of the
relation of mind and nature on human ecology. Upon reviewing the general
objectives of environmentalism, and the roles of academic ecology and
critics, Evernden argues that the enlightened self-interest implicit in
impact studies, coupled with scientific reductionism, lead to management
of global resources and “sustainable development,” which inevitably
omit the very values held by environmentalists. He maintains that the
latter are allied to 19th-century romantics and to phenomenologists,
citing such similarities as the reflection of inappropriate concepts of
distinct beings, the acquisition of esthetic values, and the emphasis on
total experience replacing Cartesian abstracts and enabling a genuine
appreciation of nature. Support for a phenomenological approach in which
facts and values are not distinct is variously sought in a mélange of
phenomenological psychology, visual art, and social interactions.
Evernden concludes that humans are an exotic species, or natural alien,
for which environmentalism must define meaning as well as value, and
that direct beliefs and a sense of wonder characterize true
environmentalism. In a manner reminiscent of such philosophers as
Wittgenstein (and very frustrating to more normal folk), he is, by his
very analysis, unable to provide “a solution” to “the problem.”

The text is succinct and lively, and certainly an examination of the
roots of, and possibilities for, human attitudes to nature merits
careful attention. Evernden acknowledges that there is diversity within
each of the intellectual approaches he discusses. While detecting
commonalities among them, he is not convincing in his argument that
earlier traditions pose the best basis for a valid environmental ethics.
His thesis can be challenged on numerous points: contemporary science is
neither as close to Cartesianism nor (primarily due to quantum physics)
as distant from phenomenology as he maintains; confusion of the
categories of truth, good, and beauty by scientists or environmentalists
who accept them is not that extensive; biological and anthropological
evidence and concepts invoked are marginal or incorrect; and pressing
practical considerations demand earthy pragmatism. Nonetheless, this is
a book very much worth reading, digesting, and discussing.


Evernden, Neil., “The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment. 2nd ed.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 13, 2024,