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  • Sustainability and Critique
  • Philip E. Agre
Wright, Will. Wild Knowledge: Science, Language, and Social Life in a Fragile Environment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Attend any public hearing about a local environmental controversy, and almost the first thing you’ll notice is a clash of contrasting discourses. Some participants, particularly from industry, will speak the language of technical reason: risk factors, powers of ten, bureaucratic procedures, the costs and benefits of industrial facilities. Many other participants, particularly from the communities around those facilities, will speak the language of experience and democracy: stories of past misfortune, fears about a world that doesn’t make sense to them, and the right to control their own lives (see Cone et al. 1992, Downey 1988, Gismondi and Richardson 1991, and Killingsworth and Steffens 1989). Beneath each discourse, typically, is a highly evolved practice of orchestrating or subverting the established mechanisms of social legitimation, as well as a worked-out view of scientific knowledge and its place in society. Community by community across the United States—and increasingly around the world—organizations such as the Chemical Manufacturers Association equip factory owners with rational arguments and soothing rhetoric at the same time as organizations such as the Citizens’ Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste equip community activists with coalition-building tactics and a nearly absolute rejection of experts and their expertise (Greider 1992). Immediately evident in these encounters is what we would be fully justified in calling a crisis of reason, occasioned in thousands of separate instances by concerns about the sustainability of industrial society.

This is the political background against which Will Wright has written his ambitious new book, Wild Knowledge. Wright’s goal is a critique and reconstruction of both scientific knowledge and institutional legitimation around the ecological imperative of sustainability. The fascination of Wright’s enterprise is immediately apparent: understanding and practicing the notion of sustainable society requires us to reopen some long-standing and painful questions about the relation between society and nature. In what sense are human beings part of nature? To what extent is human history conditioned by natural history, and what role does human history play in the biological and physical evolution of the earth? Wright’s concern is not the substantive answers to these questions—he does not assess the reality of global warming, much less the utility of any given regulatory approach to preventing it. Instead, he wishes to dig deeply into the concepts of humanity and nature in order simply to make intelligible the notion of a social-natural history (cf. Cronon 1991), and in particular the notion of sustainability as an attribute and a goal of social action.

His book defies classification. If it stands in any single tradition, it is the feminist and otherwise radical critique of science by authors such as Merchant (1980) and Easlea (1980). Although it is reasonably lucid and self-contained, it will probably not be appreciated by anybody who is not already sympathetic to such ideas; for example, one must pretty much accept a priori that science and technology, as a mindset, are the cause of our environmental problems—and not, in particular, the cure for them. His book is not a work of historical or otherwise empirical inquiry, but rather a wholly—even austerely—conceptual analysis. And although it addresses central issues of social theory, its treatment of that tradition is shaky, as will become clear in a moment. Nonetheless, Wright’s book is important and challenging, and required reading for anybody with a conceptual interest in environmentalism as social practice.

Let us now consider Wright’s argument in roughly the order in which he presents it. His point of departure is the argument in his previous book, The Social Logic of Health (1982), in which he points out that the notion of “health” transcends the bounds of any particular scientific-medical theory of disease, and as such stands as the always-available social-natural grounds for contesting the legitimacy of medical institutions and their practices and expertise. Alternative health-care practitioners (midwives, acupuncturists, herbalists, and others) may not have an easy time acquiring official sanction for their activities, but they do have, in discursive and social terms, somewhat...

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