Stoekl on Smith, 'The Threefold Struggle: Pursuing Ecological, Social, and Personal Wellbeing in the Spirit of Daniel Quinn'

Andrew F. Smith. The Threefold Struggle: Pursuing Ecological, Social, and Personal Wellbeing in the Spirit of Daniel Quinn. Suny in American Philosophy and Cultural Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2022. xiii + 379 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-8871-4

Reviewed by Allan Stoekl (Penn State University)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

Andrew Frederick Smith’s The Threefold Struggle is a philosophical investigation into the problem of, for want of a better word, a sustainable future. It is based, loosely, on the essays and fictional writings of Daniel Quinn (1935-2018), an American polymath. But the text really stands on its own; it is less a critical reading of Quinn than an eloquent elaboration of a number of his positions. As such, one can approach it without necessarily being familiar with Quinn’s own writings, but certainly the rigor of Smith’s fictions and arguments could very well inspire one to return to read Quinn’s own texts. That said, at a number of points Smith goes off on his own when he finds moments in Quinn’s arguments that deserve elaboration.

The title says it all: this book is concerned above all with the connections between ecological, social, and personal well-being. This is a welcome moment in American (and indeed world) philosophy: this discipline—at the basis, we might argue, of all other disciplines—is now directly confronting not just social questions, or personal ones, but ecological ones as well. Political philosophy, epistemology, ontology, are all related, precisely through their connection to questions of the environment, in the largest sense.

Following Quinn, Smith separates the world into two camps: the Takers and the Leavers. The Takers, as Quinn writes, constitute a culture that is about “man rising above nature and mastering it as a workman masters a tool” (p. 40). All that follows flows from this basic determination: nature for Takers is an object to be used; other people, too, are expendable objects; the self, isolated, is concerned mainly with profiting, on an individual level, from this appropriation. Agriculture, as it arose in the last four thousand or so years, is concerned above all with putting “natural resources” to work in order to produce food that can be bought and sold. Land is a commodity, food is a commodity, and a newly stratified society will use workers (often enslaving them) to produce food and thus wealth, for the few. Society becomes hierarchical, with the division of labor: religions, and economies, are retooled to serve this new version of society. Agricultural-era religions (the religions of the book) are also conceived hierarchically: there is now only one God, a he (and it’s always a he), who gives the earth to Man as a usable commodity. Religion is about the self, and its salvation or punishment; it rewards Man for controlling others (members of the family, women, children), serving and revering the one God, and for controlling the products of the earth that Man “produces.” The earth is God’s gift to Man, under the latter’s stewardship, to be sure, but it’s a stewardship that is focused on maintaining the supremacy of Man. This logic of intensive agriculture spawns modern-day capitalism, which also takes raw materials as mere commodities, exploits labor, creates and takes advantage of class (social) divisions, and affirms a rapacious self. The inevitable result of all this is social alienation, seemingly ineradicable poverty, and catastrophic ecological degradation. The central problem in all this is that separating the world from the human and objectifying it, and necessarily seeing the earth as worthy of conquest, results in a profound dissatisfaction: the environment, in the largest sense, always eludes this total control; it always poses intractable problems (alienation, poverty, ecological degradation). It retains a bad autonomy that is part and parcel of the separation-objectification through which it has been defined. Man, then, is not only all-powerful, but also profoundly vulnerable and inherently flawed. The solution usually proferred is the return of a messiah, a miraculous person or idea or social theory that will solve every problem—hence monotheistic religion, as well as toxic revolutionary social doctrines, become all the more important. Smith writes, “Whiteness, settler colonialism, Taker culture. One and all, they’re mutually reinforcing domination systems. Each in its own way is an expression of the death urge” (p. 183).

Smith (and Quinn’s) critique is therefore an all-encompassing one, tying together ecological, economic, religious, and social issues. It is both commonsensical and profound. Everything is connected: the rapaciousness of both agriculture (from its very origins) and modern capitalism; the psychology of social domination in all its forms (ethnic, colonial, gender-based, capitalist); the complicity and indeed the larger responsibility (and culpability) of organized religion. As one would expect, Leaver culture is the alternative, which necessarily entails a non-objectifying relation to the natural world (e. g., stewardship as gifting), the refusal of exploitative hierarchies, openness to indigenous knowledge and cultures, and acceptance of difference in all its guises. “A convivial society is supported by a form of economic democracy that privileges community ownership alongside public and private ownership. Ecologically minded small and medium societies flourish” (p. 231). Leaver culture entails, therefore, a completely different relation with the “natural” world; our environment is no longer there to be exploited; humanity itself is inextricably bound to nature: we as humans are nature.

As one can gather from this brief exposition, the basic genre of Smith’s (and Quinn’s) philosophy is utopian, in a good sense. Leaver culture announces the optimal future through which industrial exploitation and its attendant ecological degradation ends; oppressive monotheism is replaced by liberating polytheism; alienating consumerism is replaced by a joyful social integration; and racism and sexism are superseded by a life-affirming social engagement in which personal liberation is now political as well. One can only accept this analysis with a full-throated affirmation; the pieces fit together perfectly, and one is happy to be convinced. This is how the earth with us on it can be, and must be, to survive. Utopianism meets realism, in other words—it is the current Taker conjuncture, going back only a few thousand years, that is unrealistic, phantasmic, and not the utopian critique. But how to get there from here? Here Smith’s book leaves us a bit frustrated; he has sketched out an ideal future perfectly, but we still long to imagine how the transition can really take place.

We are tempted to recall the conventions of the classic utopian genre: a perfectly formed and coherent world, but without any possible indication of how one world, our fallen one, morphs into another one, perfect, or, as in this case, on the way to perfection. This disjunction between the real, fallen world, and the ideal, inaccessible one, and the unthinkable transition between them, is, according to the critic Louis Marin in his canonical work on utopias, precisely the space of ideology: the space in which capitalism proffers an imaginary critique, resolving its problems (its contradictions) without confronting the fact that its imaginary solution is unattainable.[1] With that said, we should nevertheless note that Smith makes it clear that this ideological turn is, paradoxically, the only possible escape from ideology—from the obfuscations and phantasms of capitalism—because it is the only future that is imaginable as future. That is because any realistic future of capitalism (or its avatar, communism) itself has now become unthinkable. If we don’t embrace the utopian future of the Leavers there is no future at all. But, as in any utopia, that (now) necessary future remains infinitely remote, a textual space. Hence the famous dictum of Fredric Jameson: “It's easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” But a future of capitalism is equally unthinkable. The end of the world and the end of capitalism are coterminous.

Perhaps what is most at stake in all this is our notion of time. Leaver eschatology is paradoxically based on a perfect eternal return; time is both unidirectional, headed to a final (happy) end, but also, and crucially, circular. That is because Leaver ecology presupposes perfect recycling. As Smith writes, paraphrasing Aldo Leopold: “The molecules and nutrients that are our building blocks are cycled and recycled. All outputs are used also as inputs. Waste for one is a life source for another. We members of the community of life borrow, use and return nutrients over and over again” (pp. 118-119). Time passes, to be sure, but all materials are recycled, as, of course, are we. Everything is born and reborn, but nothing fundamentally changes. The transition from dystopia to utopia is unique, definitive. Nothing new can happen. There are no remainders—of materials, or for that matter of fragments of lived time that don’t themselves fit in.

The implications of this circularity, and atemporality, go well beyond the cycles of physical processes. Community itself partakes of the same closed economy. It is animated by the sacred, which is defined by Smith as “that which defines, vitalizes, and sustains a people” (p. 158; Smith’s italics). The gods are “the animating fire of the living community that embodies this place” (p. 159; Smith’s italics). Replacing monotheism with polytheism, Smith (rightly, in my opinion) imagines what used to be called locally grounded paganism as an ecological alternative to the monoculture-based religions of the book. There is a little of Emile Durkheim in this, who also argued for the sacred as the animating “effervescence” of the community, guaranteeing the continued strength of the collectivity, and, in its modern guise, potentially leading individuals out of the dreaded anomie of modern culture. [2] But I would also note Smith’s emphasis on “a people” and “this place.” Even with all that fire, this is a strangely static view of society. There are peoples, in locales. A people is in a sense wedded to its locale, its place, and the people in their place remain constant, over time. But what is a people? What is a place? Does the people exclude others who would like to be part of it? How does the people defend its place when it is encroached upon by others? Could the people choose another, more desirable place? Could it become nomadic? What would a nomadic Leaver culture be like? Could a people decline with time and attempt to reaffirm itself through violence? The people and the place (sometimes construed as the race and the land) have had, as is well known, tragic implications throughout the twentieth century. How to avoid these? How to posit a permanent, changeless people and place, secure from the temptations of the reestablished hierarchy (our people and place over all, in the world)?

Smith’s laudably all-encompassing model, in my reading at least, does not foresee any excess to the closed ecological or social economy it posits. Its temporal stasis is strangely consonant with the imagined timelessness of Taker culture (which assumes it will go on forever, world without end, amen). In Smith’s version of Leaver culture, nothing is wasted in nature, and nothing is wasted in society. Time is static, and presumably members of society go about their activities glorying in their sense of the polytheistic sacred, but only being reaffirmed by it, never challenged. One could, however, imagine another model of the future. This is a model that certainly affirms Leaver culture as outlined by Smith, but also recognizes the tragic in the environment, and in human culture itself. There is death, eroticism, violence, and extinction in nature, and in the sacred that affirms it. Stars and species die off, and have been passing through time in this way from time immemorial—certainly before humans came on the scene. Humanity itself will certainly go extinct, and things will continue as before (at least for a while). Planetary ecologies are ultimately the product of the energy wastage of the sun (which in the long run will extinguish it). And the sacred, it can be argued, puts us as humans in contact with this finitude. The erotic ecstasy of St. Theresa was a moment of the sacred that affirmed desire, discontinuity, the horror and pleasure of being overwhelmed by the sacred. Until Leaver culture recognizes itself in and through this finitude one can well imagine that any transition to it will remain unthinkable. But trying to think the finitude of the sacred might be impossible as well.


[1]. See Louis Marin, Utopics: Spatial Play, trans. Robert Vollrath (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1984 [1972]).

[2]. See Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Karen Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995 [1912]).

Citation: Allan Stoekl. Review of Smith, Andrew F., The Threefold Struggle: Pursuing Ecological, Social, and Personal Wellbeing in the Spirit of Daniel Quinn. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.

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