Environmental writing since Thoreau.

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 12 2009 6:55 AM

Move Over, Thoreau

Rationalist environmentalism better prevail, and fast.

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau by Bill McKibben.

I have just swallowed my greens—1,000 pages of them—and I am torn. If the planet warms by 6 degrees in my lifetime, as the climatologists say it really could, we will face vast and violent weather of mass destruction. The last time the world warmed so much, so fast, was 251 million years ago—and almost everything on Earth died. So I have no doubt environmentalism is the most urgent ideology left standing, reducing every other disagreement to a second-rank squabble. Yet it is—as an intellectual tradition—muddled and messy.

Bill McKibben—who is himself one of the most literate and talented environmentalists working today—has captured the great sprawling contradictions of the environmentalist tradition by locking the great greens of the past two centuries of U.S. history together in the pages of American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. As I pored through the extracts of enviro-speeches, books, and letters, I could see them all massed together in the Library of America's lobby. Henry David Thoreau, the mud from Walden Pond drying on his heels, smiles and offers Al Gore a huckleberry; Al Gore smiles back and offers him a BlackBerry. Theodore Roosevelt makes them jump by taking potshots at the endangered owl Edward Abbey has brought along. Paul Ehrlich announces with a shriek that there are too many people in the room and chases Rachel Carson out. Everyone begins to shout.

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What unites this cacophony? What makes them all environmentalists? McKibben says they all focused on "the collision between people and the rest of the world"—and together they as Americans gave the world the genre of environmental writing. When Europeans and Asians were destroying their forests and burning away their lush ecosystems, nobody was writing books. But the deforestation hinted at in the ancient epics of the old continents was witnessed firsthand by some of America's greatest writers. They smelled the smoke, and it stung their eyes.

But it isn't often noted that American environmentalism splits early into two contrasting schools—and I can see no way to reconcile them. In the 18th century, there was a dramatic shift away from viewing the world through the prism of faith and spirit and God toward understanding it through empirical data gathered and sifted and rationally analyzed. This movement, the Enlightenment, made it possible for humanity to understand the world far better—and to log and build on and conquer it, for a time.

Environmentalists are still divided between those who blame the Enlightenment for our environmental crisis and those who think it offers us the only map to safety. This is a showdown between romantics and rationalists.

The romantics—a tradition you can peel back to Wordsworth's daffodils—see environmental crises as primarily spiritual. They believe concrete and cities and factories are fundamentally inhuman, alienated habitats that can only make us sick. They cut us off from the natural rhythms of the land, and encourage us to break up the world into parts and study them mechanistically—when, in fact, everything is connected.

American environmentalism was midwifed into the world by a romantic, Henry David Thoreau. His decision to live for two years, two months, and two days alone in the woods—to hear the earth—has become part of American mythology. He scorned the supposed inauthenticity of the city and its technologies: Appalled, he said, "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. This tendency ripples on through the following centuries of environmentalism as an ache and a lodestar. You don't have to spend long among the lead-belching factory-cities of China—or on a snarled-up freeway in Los Angeles—to feel the tug of these back-to-the-trees tropes.

McKibben includes a close-to-parody piece by Alice Walker taking this tendency to its logical extreme. As part of an "intense dialogue" with them, she "feels" the trees angrily shout: "That we are alive and have feelings means nothing to you!" The trees tell her Americans should return to being a hunter-gatherer society: "The new way to exist on the Earth may well be the ancient way of the steadfast lovers of this particular land," they mutter through their leaves.

The rationalist wing of environmentalism comes from an entirely different direction. Its members fully acknowledge that early Enlightenment thinkers like Francis Bacon or Rene Descartes thought of nature as so much booty for humanity to pillage and condoned eco-cidal acts. But these thinkers also set in train the practice of empirically observing the world and following the evidence wherever it led—and this inevitably punctured their rape-the-natural-world mania. If you are rigorous, you soon find that there are limits to what the environment can endure without collapsing.

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