One of the first and best critiques I read of contemporary environmentalism appeared in a well known progressive magazine. The author took the green movement to task for its romanticization of nature and “its deep suspicion of all things technological.” He also criticized environmentalism’s demonization of biotechnology and the “crusade” waged against it, which he said was built on “a tangle of misperceptions, flaws, and half-truths.”
This essay was published in the Sept/Oct 1996 issue of Mother Jones magazine. What’s fascinating about the piece is 1) how far ahead of its time it was, and 2) how much of its critique remains just as relevant today.
The author, Walter Truett Anderson, challenged the same green dogma in 1996 that today’s eco-critics, such as Mark Lynas and Emma Marris, have been poking a stick at. It’s amazing to consider how little the green movement has progressed since then. Naturally, greens were as allergic to self-reflection in the mid-1990s as they are today. Read the responses in the letters page from some of the representative voices of environmentalism (at the time).
When Anderson’s piece was published in the mid-199os, he seemed to anticipate the Anthropocene, or least aspects of it that eco-pragmatists have tried to highlight:
The world is changing very quickly, and we desperately need a vision that engages this new world honestly and creatively, with daring and hope and perhaps even a touch of optimism…The world is becoming more densely populated, not less; more urbanized, not less; more technological, not less. Most important of all, human beings are exerting ever more — not less — power in nature, having a greater impact on ecosystems. This is our world, and this is our work.
And this is where we live. Do we still need Mother Nature to help us find our way?
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. Read More
Last week, my Slate piece on environmentalism was read by many people who care (and write) about green issues. Some (okay, many of them) didn’t particularly like what I wrote. I felt the rumblings on Twitter and elsewhere. And I had planned on responding, but then the horrific tragedy on Friday happened, and I just didn’t have it in me to wade back into the nitty gritty of eco-narratives that still dominate our discourse.
I still plan on responding in full to the main rebuttals. Look for that in this space near the end of the week.
Meanwhile, I see that Bryan Walsh of Time magazine has just published a really thoughtful take on my piece. Which doesn’t surprise me, because it was Walsh’s thoughts on Twitter last week (in reaction to the essay) that got me thinking the most. He articulated implications of my argument that I hadn’t addressed (or much considered) and I’ve been brooding over them since.
In his Time piece, Walsh talks about the refreshing new strain of environmentalism modern greens have created. But he also wonders about the tradeoffs that come with eco-pragmatism. Go read his piece.
I’m pretty sure I’ll have it in the back of my mind today, as I wander around the American Museum of Natural History with my 8 year old son and his classmates during a school field trip. His class is currently learning about ecology, so we’ll be looking at exhibits on ecosystems and biodiversity.
Discover magazine readers familiar with my byline know that I tackle science-related issues that are often controversial and that sometimes my take hits a nerve.
For example, in recent months I’ve written a few pieces for Slate on genetically modified foods (see here and here) that got a fair amount of play (at least in the enviro/science sphere). This week, I published another piece at Slate that generated some waves on the internet. It’s called, “The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement.”
Reaction to it has been strong and varied and has kept my twitter feed busy. Many seem to think the piece is a breath of fresh air, others have at least found it interesting, but many also have been greatly angered by it.
On Monday, I will be discussing the diverse responses to my piece and addressing the main criticisms leveled against it. Until then, have a read and let me know what you think.
Henry David Thoreau famously wrote:
In wildness is the preservation of the world.
Since the late 1800s, the notion of wilderness as nature incarnate has been an animating force in American culture. A host of seminal, hugely influential environmental writers and activists, from John Muir and Aldo Leopold to David Brower and Edward Abbey, have idealized and championed wilderness.
In the 20th century, the wilderness ethos gave rise to the Sierra Club and the first wave of nature-centric environmentalism, energized the nascent conservation movement and influenced the emergent science of ecology.
The ideal of nature as undisturbed by humans and civilization was codified in the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined the characteristics of wilderness as
an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain; an area of underdeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation and which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.
Before going any further, let me just say that I’m as big a fan of wilderness protection as anyone. So is environmental historian William Cronon, who sits on The Wilderness Society’s Governing Council, but who also published this provocative 1995 essay. Here’s his thunderclap of an opener:
The time has come to rethink wilderness.
This will seem a heretical claim to many environmentalists, since the idea of wilderness has for decades been a fundamental tenet””indeed, a passion””of the environmental movement, especially in the United States.
And indeed, such a claim was treated as heresy of the highest order. Cronon argued that wilderness, while intrinsically valuable, was nonetheless a cultural construction that encouraged a romanticized view of nature.
The blowback at the time was fierce (which Cronon responded to here), foreshadowing a similar outcry that followed ten years later, after this larger critique of environmentalism appeared. To me, the respective environmentalist tantrums of 1995 and 2005 exhibited a green movement stuck in a state of arrested development. (For more on why this is still the case, look for a follow-up post later today that will serve as a bookend to this one.) Alas, in the uproar over Cronon’s demythologizing of wilderness, this other important point he made in his essay got lost:
…the convergence of wilderness values with concerns about biological diversity and endangered species has helped produce a deep fascination for remote ecosystems, where it is easier to imagine that nature might somehow be “left alone” to flourish by its own pristine devices.
What’s the problem with this, you ask? Later on in his piece, Cronon writes:
Without our quite realizing it, wilderness tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others.
Fortunately ecologists have matured, as I noted last year in a discussion of this article on urban ecology. More evidence of an important paradigm shift underway comes in this NYT piece on Emma Marris and her newly published book: The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.
In the NYT interview, Marris says:
We’re at a moment in ecological and conservation thinking where this notion of the “wild pristine” gets pulled apart, and we see that wild and pristine are almost opposite. You can never have 100 percent pristine, you can only approach the pristine. It’s a little bit of any empty concept in some ways because it presupposes that there was some sort of magical moment when everything was right.
And because everything has been a moving target forever, there was no real magical moment. So “pristine” is a word that we use when we mean things looking like they did at the beginning of our cultural memory, which tends to be very short.
I’m thrilled that we’ve finally arrived at this moment in time, where our ideas of nature and ecological restoration have become more sophisticated. I just wish there was more public discussion accompanying this shift in cultural and ecological consciousness.
Nature in the twenty-first century will be a nature that we make; the question is the degree to which this molding will be intentional or unintentional, desirable or undesirable.
As I see it, anything that enlarges our understanding of nature and our role in shaping it (as urban ecology has done in recent years), is a good thing.
Bob Simon, the wildlife correspondent for 60 Minutes, offers an unvarnished perspective on naturalists and wildlife biologists, and why he loves animals. Earlier this week, he was interviewed by Ann Silvio, an editor with 60 Minutes Overtime. Check out the short video segment. Meanwhile, here’s the good stuff.
Silvio: Is there something about doing animal stories that is more pleasurable than doing a people story?
Simon: An animal is never duplicitous. An animal will never get involved in gratuitous cruelty. And it’s very refreshing to go see them after you’ve spent a lot of time interviewing politicians.
Talk about nailing both human and animal nature in one punch! In another exchange towards the end of the short segment he makes another interesting observation:
Silvio: You’ve met a lot of people who devote their lives to a particular species, but also a particular small community of animals.
Simon: That’s right. These are wonderful people. I’ve never met one of these people who have devoted their lives to animals that I didn’t like. And they’ve all got quite a bit in common.
Silvio: Like what?
Simon: They don’t like people very much.
People are rarely what they appear to be. This seems odd:
Even though I write about environmental issues a fair bit, I don’t care much for nature, personally. Never go on strolls through the woods or hikes through the hills. The snippet of green space inside D.C. traffic circles is about as much as I can handle.
And this seems shocking:
He talks about the new house he’s going to buy now that the kids are bigger and he’s making money. He wants it to be in the country “” in the mountains maybe, with trees all around, a place where he can fish off his own dock. That would be ideal, your feet in the water and nothing in sight but trees. The truth is, blankety blank really loves nature.
Jackson Lears has a must-read essay in the current issue of TNR that leads off:
In contemporary public discourse, concern for “the environment” is a mile wide and an inch deep. Even free-market fundamentalists strain to display their ecological credentials, while corporations that sell fossil fuels genuflect at the altar of sustainability. Everyone has discovered how nice it is to be green. Will popular sentiment translate into public policy? There is reason to be skeptical.
After all, we have been here before.
There’s much to chew on in the Lears essay, and you’ll likely find yourself alternately agreeing and disagreeing as you read through it. For example, some of you Joe Romm acolytes may applaud the whacks against the Breakthrough Institute boys, then wince at the spanking Lears administers to Bill McKibben.
I’d like to return to the essay in another post, after I’ve fully digested it, especially because some of the “cautionary lessons” that Lears discusses from the 1970s and 1980s speak to the heated, contemporary debate over climate change politics and policy.
But a few quick observations. I noticed that Lears annoints Donald Worster as the top dog in the field of environmental history:
Over the last quarter of a century, he has played the leading role in creating the field of environmental history, producing a series of pathbreaking books on ecological thought and its consequences (or lack of them). Now he has turned his talents to Muir, the iconic mountain man.
That passage is mostly true; it would be more accurate to say that Worster played a leading role. For my money, William Cronon, Carolyn Merchant, Richard White, Alfred Crosby, Patty Limerick, among others, have also played leading roles in the emergence of environmental history as compelling sub-discipline of history.
Finally, if you want a hint of where Lears stakes his own meta-argument, read this passage, which comes near the end:
The history of electric cars is a green parable for our time. It raises subversive questions about roads not taken. It shows that, without adequate public backing, green entrepreneurs–no matter how shrewd–cannot successfully buck the corporate consensus. And above all it challenges the fundamental dogma of development, technological determinism. For decades if not centuries, critics of development have been told that the capitalist (and for a while, the socialist) version of progress is simply unstoppable–a neutral, inevitable, and beneficent process that is beyond politics and policy debate. For a moment, in the forgotten 1970s, this dogma came under scrutiny. But the cyber-revolution of the last thirty years revived it. Techno-determinists from Thomas Friedman to Bill Gates have repeatedly told us that we must choose to do what we have to do anyway– re-organize our lives in accordance with the dictates of technology. The rhetoric of inevitability conceals the business interests it serves, and negates the possibility of challenging them.
I hope the Lears essay engenders a lively debate over the eco/societal roads taken and not taken.
Maybe it’s all the cold medication I’ve been on the last few days, but this reference to “fake plastic trees” as one potential geo-engineering solution to global warming, triggered a memory of Martin Krieger’s classic 1973 essay in Science magazine, entitled, “What’s Wrong with Plastic Trees?”
I remember my head nearly exploding as I read it over ten years ago, while studying environmental policy in graduate school. One of Krieger’s numerous provocative passages:
What’s wrong with plastic trees? My guess is that there is very little wrong with them. Much more can be done with plastic trees and the like to give most people the feeling that they are experiencing nature. We will have to realize that the way in which we experience nature is conditioned by our society””which more and more is seen to be receptive to responsible interventions.
The notion that our conceptions of nature are culturally constructed (as in Bill Cronon’s Wilderness critique) is anathema to most environmentalists. That doesn’t negate the intrinsic value of nature, but it does make you queston (at least for me, it does) some of those cherished (and mythical) ideas about nature. But hey, that’s not me talking, it’s the NyQuil and Benadryl.