Ruskin, Re-enchantment, and the Representation of Nature — In Court

Conference: The European Conference on Arts & Humanities (ECAH2022)
Title: Ruskin, Re-enchantment, and the Representation of Nature — In Court
Stream: Science, Environment and the Humanities
Presentation Type: Oral Presentation
Jeffrey Spear, New York University, United States


Since I first wrote about John Ruskin and the environment forty odd years ago, the climate crisis ecologists predicted has arrived, and Ruskin’s economic credo, “there is no wealth but life,” seems as relevant and challenging an assertion today as it was in 1860. My presentation has three sections. The first deals with Ruskin’s anticipation of a whole systems approach to the consequences of industrialization. Briefly stated, he combined a secularized form of evangelical religion with what Adam Smith said about the negative social effects of the division of labor, thus linking industrial degradation of the environment with the immiseration of the working class. As Ruskin anticipated, the issue of climate change lies outside the conventional left/right political divide. The second section features the contemporary literature of “re-enchantment,” which has both religious and secular streams. It combines the realization that that systems of communication and “awareness” once thought uniquely human extend beyond even animals (to trees for example) with research on the permeability and bio-complexity of the human body, implicitly a neo-animism – the paradigm Jane Bennett calls Vibrant Matter. The final section argues (in a USA context) that a regulation cycle limits the effect of environmental legislation, and that the best way to translate the re-enchantment or vibrant paradigm into direct action is by way of the “Rights of Nature” doctrine. If corporations, abstract entities, can have the legal rights of a person, so should ecosystems, which like our bodies combine many forms of life into living entities.

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