Ecologies of the Mind

By Keith Kloor | March 7, 2013 2:50 pm

As a child of the suburbs, my first real contact with raw nature was in 5th grade, when a friend and I built a treehouse in the woods behind the apartment complex we lived in. (This was a two-year pit stop after my parent’s divorce.) No adults helped us. It was pretty awesome.

I used to roam around a lot in these overgrown woods and soon found a shortcut to the nearest 7/11 (total travel time: 20 minutes), where I picked up baseball cards and the latest Jonah Hex and and Swamp Thing comic books. Being a latch-key kid had its upsides.

I don’t recall ever stopping to smell the proverbial roses in my newly discovered jungle, but I do remember pulling plenty of thorns and ticks off myself in the summertime. (This was pre-Lymes disease.) During this period of my life–and like a lot of non-city kids in the days before every hour of children’s lives were scheduled–nature was somewhere I played and escaped to.

In high school, my 10th grade english teacher introduced the class to Emerson and Thoreau. I was smitten. Nature took on a whole new meaning for me. I didn’t know about ecology yet, so Emerson and Thoreau served as my intellectual guides to an eco-philosophical world that I found intoxicating. Some years later, when I discovered John Muir and and Edward Abbey, my stoic romanticism (so precious for a well-off suburbanite) evolved into a lusty affair with wilderness. While my ensuing dalliances with nature in national parks and forests were enjoyable (and still are), they never developed into a religiosity that others came to embrace.

Eventually, I learned enough environmental science and environmental history to recognize that I had fallen victim to what I would call ecologies of the mind–modes of thought that are culturally and socially constructed. This life-long journey with nature I’ve been on is real, but at numerous junctures along the way I’ve had to stop and reflect on where it’s taken me. Where I am currently should be pretty obvious to anyone who has read my stuff in recent years.

Anyway, I got to thinking about all this after reading a fascinating new paper by Matthew Nisbet, a scholar of climate and environmental discourses. In it, Nisbett explores the influential role of several leading writers in the environmental arena. (He calls them “knowledge journalists.”) The ones he closely examines–Thomas Friedman, Andrew Revkin, and in particular, Bill McKibben–all differ in their philosophies and communication approaches.

Here’s a short excerpt from the introduction:

Over the past two decades, a unique class of journalist and public intellectual has gained prominence. Rather than straight reporting, these “knowledge journalists” specialize in the translation of complex subjects, often championing specific policy positions or causes. As public intellectuals, they tend to view the world deductively, immersing themselves in the synthesis of complex areas of research, offering analysis across cases and events. Through their best-selling books and commentary, they influence how we think and talk, infusing the abstract with meaning, and turning the complex into a common vocabulary.

I have some thoughts about the paper that I’d like to share. But before I impose my own commentary on you, have a read of Nisbet’s paper and check back late tonight or tomorrow morning for my follow up post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.evans.102977 James Evans

    Thank you for that description. You are an environmentalist writer looking for a rationale. I thought you were a “science writer”.

    The confusion was mine.

    • kkloor

      Huh? I’m just letting you know about how my early thinking on nature was influenced and how it has evolved since then.

      • http://www.facebook.com/james.evans.102977 James Evans

        Keith, in the interest of honesty… I edited my comment very shortly before your response. So your response may have been to the earlier version. Just saying. Not trying any tricksy moves here. :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/james.evans.102977 James Evans

        Yes, you have told us about your early thinking. Your early thinking on nature was of an environmental slant. The link that you gave to “Emerson and Thoreau as American Prophets of Eco-wisdom” was utterly cringe worthy. I might have been seduced by that kind of nonsense as a teenager if environmentalism was my thing. As it happens, I was seduced by other kinds of nonsense at that age.

        But this is where you came from. This is the angle that you came to the issue of CAGW from. It’s relevant to know that. So thanks for letting us know.

  • bobito

    “I used to roam around a lot in these overgrown woods”…”never developed into a religiosity”

    As someone who has lived with acres of undeveloped land around me for most of my life, I’ve often wondered if that background gives one a more balanced view on the environment than one who lives in a concrete jungle.

    In rural areas, it’s easy to see how vast nature is, and how easily nature accepts the modern world. But in a city, you only see how the modern world can obliterate nature.

    Not sure if there is any study on this, it’s just a notion of mine, but I think there is something to it. Nature must be much more precious to those that don’t see it every day, and because of that, living in a city could help garner that religiosity about nature.

    • Tom Scharf

      It is a strange contradiction that it seems the most strident environmentalists come from and spend most of their time in urban areas. People who grew up and around unrestricted “nature” tend to not see it as being threatened. In fact they have probably spent a lot of time and effort beating the unrelenting advance of “nature” back and keeping it at bay.

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    it seems like a bias that most of these writers have is still thinking that we can do anything meaningful to stop GW. I don’t believe we can – it’s gonna happen and there’s no stopping it so I don’t understand why there’s so much attention focused on it. we’ve literally gotten to the point where “pollution” and CO2 have become interchangeable.

  • Tom Scharf

    I grew up in WV and my fondest memories are of roaming around in the woods and exploring the surrounding territory. How are things now when I go back?

    It is the best of times…(there is a lot less dumping and litter) and it is the worst of times (way too many no trespassing signs everywhere).

    I get the impression kids just don’t (or aren’t allowed) to wonder freely around in nature like I did when I was a kid. Yes there still are snakes, poison ivy, ticks, getting lost, and accumulating cuts and bruises.

    But that was part of the fun.

    A sad statement of where environmentalism is today is that the vast majority of the biggest nature preserve near my home is off limits to humans. I kid you not, you will literally get arrested if you “trespass” there. A full time Sheriff’s deputy is paid to keep humans away. It’s insane.

    • jh

      Hmm…

      I visited a favorite state park over the weekend. The area has a rocky shoreline and this particular park has some outcrops that are well exposed at low tide with all manner of invertebrate fauna.

      Or at least there used to be all manner of invertebrate fauna. Hordes of nature lovers have crunched it to death. There’s still some neat stuff there. You can see some of it from the marked and patrolled trail. Fortunately for me, few people bother to walk across the spit to the neighboring bay, where a modestly adventurous wader can still get an up-close look at the craze of invertebrate fauna.

      I also detest the closing of wildlife areas. But in some places it’s necessary. Without those closed areas, there’d be nothing left to enjoy in the surrounding areas

  • jh

    Interesting how people come about their “nature” experience. Mine is almost all as an adult, working on geological research projects, mining exploration projects, or hiking on my own.

    For a while I tried to read Walden and Sand County Almanac and the like. I just find that kind of nature writing boring. Give me a tale of exploration (Into Africa) or shipwreck survivors (Skeletons on the Zahara) – that’s nature writing to me.

  • jh

    As I read through Nisbet’s paper, here’s a line that caught my eye:

    the “alarmed public” are

    are more likely to be female than male, identify as liberal Democrats, are older and middle-aged (55-64 years old), highly educated with substantial incomes.

    One thing I’ve noticed in the climate debate: poor people don’t care. Since they’re worried about where their next buck is coming from, the price of gasoline and the cost electricity, they’re not especially worked up that (supposedly) in X years they’ll be no more snow at Whistler-Blackcomb or Vail or Aspen, or that their beach house will be lost to rising sea level or eroding beaches.

    I’m surprised that women are more concerned than men, but I’ll save my explanation for that for fear of starting an entirely different argument.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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