Here is an excerpt from my most recent book,
Writing a New Environmental Era: Moving Forward to Nature (Routledge, 2019)
Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
I never thought I’d write this book. For the whole of my twenties and thirties, I made my living as a furniture maker, the trade that I learned from my father. My path in life seemed clear. If you had told me I would be entering a Harvard Ph.D. program in my forties with the goal of reevaluating humanity’s relationship to our planet, I would have questioned your sanity.
My little workshop stood on the last remnants of a family farm – land that my mother’s side of the family had worked for three generations. The farm had once produced eggs, dairy, and dozens of different kinds of produce. Though my family embraced technology like mechanical seeders early on, we also tenaciously held on to tradition: I was 6 when we retired our last two draft horses. Having worked in the fields as a child and teenager, I know firsthand that farming is unromantic, backbreaking work. Still, it’s hard not to look back on it every now and again with nostalgia, even though (as we’ll soon see) nostalgia can be a worrisome impulse.
Eventually my family, like scores of others at the time, accepted a sobering reality: in an era increasingly defined by corporate agribusiness, small-scale farms like ours were no longer practical. With the exception of the little plots of land on which my house and workshop stood, it was all sold to a real-estate developer who bulldozed it into a retirement community in the 1980s.
The loss of family farms became an obsession of mine for decades. In many ways, the book that you are reading came out of my efforts to understand just what happened and why. In this Introduction, I’ll explain how this obsession took me from my life as a woodworker to become a professor of the environmental humanities. It was a strange road. But first, I want to explain my somewhat cryptic title and what this book is about.
This book has two parts. The first introduces an idea that may make little sense on first hearing: For the good of our planet and the life that lives on it, including human beings, we need to work at moving forward to nature, rather than longing to get back to it. As we shall see, the notion that human beings once lived at peace with nature is little more than a myth, a story repeated so often that we have come to believe it’s true. It’s not. This myth and its dangers for the modern world will be taken up in the first chapter of this book.
We need to stop thinking about going back to what never was and instead work at moving forward to forge a more harmonious relationship with nature in the future. Doing so won’t be easy. It may well be the greatest challenge humanity has ever collectively confronted. Nonetheless, now that we are faced with a host of pressing concerns, including a rapidly changing climate, we need to rise to the challenge of moving forward to nature.
Before taking up the issue of how to move forward, Chapter 2 considers back-to-nature thinking and its problems and proponents, such as early environmentalist Henry David Thoreau. What’s so wrong with Thoreau? Fifteen miles (just a day’s walk) north of Walden Pond, where Thoreau famously went back to nature to live for two years, lies Lowell, Massachusetts. By the time Walden was published in 1854, Lowell had become the largest industrial center in the country. Its expansive textile mills made it the closest thing America had to Manchester, England’s great industrial city, which Charles Dickens scathingly critiqued in Hard Times, also published in 1854.
The problem is that Lowell is not mentioned in Walden—not even once. Yes, there are a few references to factory life, but it is clear that Thoreau did not share the same sorts of concerns that Dickens and others had over industrialization and emerging modernity. This is not to say that Thoreau was unaware or unaffected by what was happening at Lowell. To the contrary, Walden arguably owes its existence to this factory city, as Thoreau’s response to it (and the industrial juggernaut steaming through his era) was to turn away from them and flee to the imagined simplicity of a bygone way of life on the quiet shores of Walden Pond.
Although I have great respect for Thoreau, that was a cop-out. The proper turn is toward technology, urbanization, and the future, not away from them. This isn’t to say that we should simply accept all this in some unthinking, wholesale way—certainly and absolutely not—but we need to face it head on, rather than turn our back to it, à la Thoreau. As we shall see, coupled with sweeping cultural changes (and only when coupled with them), technology and urbanization are needed to move us forward to our greenest possible future. In contrast, Thoreau’s path doesn’t lead back to nature at all, but rather to environmental devastation.
If a large swath of the population took Thoreau’s lead and moved away from cities and out to rural locales it would, with absolutely no doubt, be an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions. Why am I so sure? Because, as we’ll see in Chapter 3, it actually happened and was. It began in the U.S. in Thoreau’s era, motivated by likeminded individuals acting on the same back-to-nature impulse that gave birth to his Walden experiment. In a sense, it became the largest (and to my mind most regrettable) cultural movement of the 20th century. Hundreds of millions of people across the globe fled cities for the dream of simpler, rural lives. They ended up far short of the goal in suburbia. At first, in Thoreau’s era, they left in trains. A century later, the process sped up dramatically, as automobiles became the preferred way to get out of the city and then around in the suburbs. It soon became an environmental disaster on a global scale.
In contrast, today human beings by the billions are moving back to urban areas. By 2050, nearly three out of four people on the planet will live in cities. It may well be the greatest cultural movement of the 21st century. Though not without problems, this is, as we shall see in Chapter 4, by and large a good thing.
This book also argues that we need to turn to technology in order to craft a greener future. However, even though I have great respect for the sciences (I’ll explain why throughout the first half of this book), science-based solutions are rarely sufficient in themselves. The problem is that they often fail to attend to the root cause of problems.
In one sense, climate change is caused by a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and other so-called greenhouse gases (GHGs). Science can address this cause. However, approached in another way altogether, climate change is caused by a range of troubling human activities that require the release of these gases, such as our obsessions with cars, lavish houses, air travel, endless consumer goods, etc. The natural sciences may be able to tell us how these activities are changing our climate, but not why we are engaging in them. That’s a job for the humanities and social sciences. We need to see anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) climate change for what it is and address it as such: a human problem brought about by human actions. While this may be a sobering realization, it should also be empowering. If we take a long hard look at why we are doing what we are doing, and are willing to act on what we learn, together we can (aided but not guided by the technology of the applied sciences) craft a future that moves us closer to nature.
The second half of this book explores how the humanities can help by introducing what may seem like another nonsensical idea: that we can write the future into being. This may sound like the stuff of fiction. A character in a novel writes something down in her journal, only to discover the next morning that it has come to be. (The plotline of the 2012 indie movie Ruby Sparks was based on this idea.) Although it sounds like fantasy, something of the sort can—and in fact desperately needs to—happen. Humanity’s many beliefs and practices, including those that impact the earth, its climate, and all its myriad forms of life, have been written into being over the centuries. Given that more than a few of these beliefs and practices are downright destructive in environmental and other ways, we now need to take up the formidable challenge of writing new, more environmentally sound and socially just ones. Seriously, we all need to get writing, now. If we succeed, our children will one day wake up in a better world that we have written for them.
So, how do we go about writing a new environmental era into being? Ever since I began introducing the notion of moving forward to nature in talks at various universities starting in 2012, I have repeatedly been asked this question. We can start by exploring how our era came into existence, which we will do in Chapter 5.
Consider how the humble automobile was written into ascendancy, in spite of its considerable shortcomings. If you own a car in the U.S., it is likely responsible for a quarter or more of your individual greenhouse gas emissions. Consuming that many fossil fuels doesn’t come cheap: as much as a quarter of an average American’s income goes to owning, fueling, and maintaining a car. And, of course, they are deathtraps, killing and injuring as many as 50 million people worldwide every year.
Why do we go along with this lose-lose-lose proposition? For nearly a century now, automobile manufacture has played a crucial role in the world economy. By 1960, it was not only the largest industrial segment in the U.S., it had become the largest industry on the planet by a long shot, dwarfing anything anywhere that had ever come before it. One in six Americans were, either directly or indirectly, employed by this industry. Consequently, because its health was of paramount importance to the nation, the public was convinced to finance this endeavor through a remarkable feat: the linking of our very sense of personal identity to the automobile. The message was simple: you are what you drive. This extraordinary state of affairs was written into being by a broad range of texts. Some, like car ads, did so directly; others did it in a roundabout way, such as by selling us on suburban living, which demanded the use of cars.
Our love of the car is just one example of an environmentally disastrous practice that was written into being. If you put your mind to it, I’m sure that you can come up with dozens more. The real challenge is to imagine new and better ones to supplant these and then write them into being. If we commit ourselves to this project, we can rewrite the world into a better place.
Before we can take up the formidable challenge of writing a new environmental era into being, we need to confront the fact that a great many Americans are either unsure that it is necessary or outright deny that it is. Chapter 6 takes up the issue of climate change denial literature and why it stands between us and the future—and how we can remove it from our path. Perhaps surprisingly, the solution again involves the humanities. In order to write a new world into being, we first need to hone our skills at reading, as we need to successfully read through the campaign of disinformation waged by fossil fuel interests. In the age of fake news, this is easier said than done. Sadly, as poll after poll has revealed, many Americans lack the necessary skills to read through to the truth about our changing climate.
Once we get past denial, what can any of us to do help write us forward to nature? For years (decades really), this question has nagged at me. The concluding chapter of this books lays out an answer and recount my personal efforts to do something. Not through the application of science, but again by way of the humanities.
The sciences can apply what they have learned to solve real-world problems. We generally refer to such applied-science approaches as “technology.” What if we similarly used an applied-humanities approach to solve problems? What if, after studying a problematic cultural practice, we then attempted to directly intervene by writing a new practice (or at least a new variation on an old one) into being? Conducting a cultural analysis of an existing practice would help explain why it came into being and what social needs it fulfills. Having learned this, we would be in a position to use this knowledge to propose something new that also addresses these needs, but in a better, more environmentally sound and socially responsible way.
Once I turned my attention to this idea, I began wondering why humanities scholars do not do this—or at least attempt it—more often, even as a routine matter of course. It is often said that the humanities, especially when compared to the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), have little to offer the world. To the contrary, the applied-humanities approach that I am suggesting promises to have a great deal to offer. In many cases, as much or even more than the applied-sciences.
I see this applied-humanities approach as a form of technology. When talking about technology, we generally mean an application of knowledge (i.e. applied knowledge) that brings about a change in the world. Usually, this knowledge is scientific. But must it be? The applied knowledge, the technology, can just as easily come from the humanities.
Let’s again take the automobile as our example. Using an applied-science approach, we could work on technologies to make cars more energy efficient and emit fewer greenhouse gases. Alternately, using an applied-humanities approach, we could study something like commuting by bus in order to find out why it is so undesirable—let’s face it, nearly everyone hates it. If we could crack this nut (by exploring how mass transportation was largely written out of American culture as cars were written in, which did not happen to such a degree in any other country) and then apply what we learned to help make buses more appealing, we could advance a form of transportation that is a whopping 14 times more energy efficient than cars with a single occupant.
Approached from the perspective of the applied sciences, a 1400 percent increase in automobile efficiency is utterly unthinkable (even 14 percent would be quite an achievement). However, an applied-humanities approach could pull off such a feat by seeing this as a human problem brought on by human actions, which can be rewritten. This is why I suggested that an applied-humanities approach can offer as much or more than the applied-sciences. This is not to say that rewriting transportation practices would be easy. Indeed, it is arguably easier to change cars (such as by making them electric) than to change people’s actions. Nonetheless, it is time for specialists in human culture (like me) to devote ourselves to developing such humanities-based technologies to help with real-world problems.
Intrigued by the idea, I resolved to pull up a seat at the game, the culture game, to see if I could in some small way, using what I learned by studying a cultural practice, work at rewriting it for a better future. Although I first thought about addressing our love affair with the automobile and alternatives to this disastrous form of transportation, I soon realized that it was just too big of a job. So, I took up the issue of air transportation, specifically all the flying that academics like me do as part of our jobs. Astonishingly, this accounts for a third of the carbon footprint for the campus where I teach (55 million pounds of CO2 or equivalent gases every year). My idea was a simple one: make a study of the traditional academic conference and the cultural role that it serves and then write a new version of it into being that would not only be more environmentally sound, but also more accessible and egalitarian. At the time of this writing, we have now conducted five such events, which all had carbon footprints less than 1 percent of traditional conferences. Chapters 7 and the Appendix explore this “nearly carbon-neutral” (NCN) conference model in detail.
Will my modest efforts make much of a difference? Honestly, I don’t know. I do know, however, that each of us needs to at least try to intervene in climate change. Big interventions, small interventions, even failed ones matter (such as those that draw attention to a problem even though they do not succeed at solving it).
A few years ago, I gave a talk entitled “Why the Environmental Humanities Matter” at Stony Brook University. This could easily have become the title for this book. As you have no doubt gathered, I am decidedly of the opinion that the humanities can, in immediate and pragmatic ways, help build a better world. This is especially the case with the emerging field of the climate humanities, which is my specialty. My fondest hope is that by the end of this book you’ll agree with me.
A short Epilogue concludes this book. It explains why I took the unusual step of writing it for everyone—and not, as might be expected for a book of this sort, just for academics.
So, what motivated me to write this book? As noted above, it began decades ago with the loss of my family’s farm. Within a single lifetime, mine, an entire region (the southern half of New Jersey, which was originally christened the “Garden State” in celebration of its extraordinary market gardens) largely turned from farm to suburb. And what was more, no one really seemed too upset about it, except, of course, for all the families who lost their farms. I couldn’t understand why more people, especially environmentalists, seemed so indifferent to the loss of such extraordinary farmland.
To be fair, environmentalists and ecologists at the time didn’t seem too concerned with any of the places that humans inhabited—farms, cities, and suburbs included. Instead, what mattered most to the environmentalists of that era was preserving the wilderness areas that were (seemingly) untouched by human hands. This is nearly as true today as it was when I was a child.
In 2010, researchers at Cornell University reviewed over 8000 scholarly papers published in the preceding five years in order to determine “the extent to which ecologists devote themselves to pristine wilderness at the expense of inhabited regions.” They reported that “between 63 and 83% of studies are being done in areas without people,” even though these places only constitute one-fourth of the earth’s ice-free land mass. As one researcher noted in exasperation, “suburbs, villages and agricultural lands…are being [almost] completely left out of the picture.” In light of these findings, an article published in Nature—widely regarded as the preeminent journal in the sciences—concluded that “the world’s top ecologists are failing to study the landscapes that most need work, and they risk delaying conservation efforts and making their subject irrelevant.”
“Risk delaying conservation efforts”? By 2010, the northeast corridor of the U.S. where my family’s farm once stood had already been developed into what feels like a single, sprawling suburb. It stretches from Boston to Washington, D.C., punctuated by a handful of major cities and the last scattered remnants of once thriving and productive farmland. From an environmental point of view, the difference between small family farms, which distributed their produce locally, and scores of tract housing units (many of them lavish, environmentally disastrous McMansions) now sprawled across the same communities are striking in a host of ways. Although conservation of farmland in the area is currently underway, it is a case of too little too late. When New Jersey is now called the Garden State, more often than not it is meant as a joke.
So why weren’t more environmentalists also focusing their attention on farms, suburbs, and cities? Surely, this wasn’t about valuing a place because it is free of human encroachment or ignoring it because it is not. Or was it? Certainly, a wildly disproportionate amount of attention was (and in many ways still is) focused on wilderness rather than human-inhabited spaces. It seemed so obvious to me: the places we inhabit, and how we inhabit them, have to be just as important as the places we choose to keep pristine and untouched.
For many years, while my hands were occupied working wood, my thoughts kept returning to this issue. To be honest, it became an obsession. At night and on weekends, I spent long hours reading and studying nearly anything I could get my hands on, trying to understand why people felt the way they did about both the natural world and man-made landscapes. Given the nature of my obsession, I was born at a good time: Silent Spring was published when I was a toddler, and I grew up alongside the modern environmental movement.
When I was about 40, all of that reading led to a series of radical changes in my life. Ultimately, they led to the book you are now reading.
I had been a woodworker for decades, as my father began apprenticing me into the trade even before my teens. After a while, crafting one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture by hand—nearly the opposite of the repetitive drudgery we associate with mass production and factories—gradually became routine and slowly lost its luster for me. True, each day presented new challenges, but, as I had often faced variations of them before (there are only so many ways to cut a dovetail joint in wood), they were no longer proving to be all that interesting.
I also faced up to the fact that ever since I first read Walden early in my teens—Thoreau was one of my first and greatest heroes—I had become obsessed with nearly anything relating to the environment. Is “eco-geek” a species of nerd? If so, count me among them. Not only had I read, reread, and studied all the milestone thinkers (like Muir, Leopold, and Carson), I burrowed deep into the history of environmental thinking with obscure books like George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 Man and Nature.
More than anything else, I wanted to better understand how humanity had gotten itself into our current environmental predicament. If we knew more about the road that we have taken, and how it brought us to our current situation, then we just might, with a little luck, be able to glimpse unexplored avenues not yet closed to us.
As I watched modern environmentalism unfold during the closing quarter of the 20th century (from the sidelines, in a little room of my house made claustrophobic with overflowing bookshelves), I had the nagging feeling that something essential was being ignored. In some basic and crucial way, our understanding of nature, and our relationship with it, seemed to be confused and conflicted.
In the minds of many people, nature and wilderness are synonymous, or nearly so. Because nature is by definition often imagined as being separate from the human world, uninhabited wilderness is frequently seen as its last great stronghold. For that reason, wilderness preservation has been an urgent preoccupation of environmentalists for over a century now.
But, what about the cultivated fields where I, along with all sorts of produce, was raised? Because culture has been placed in opposition to nature for thousands of years of Western thinking, cultivated fields also risk being seen as separate and apart from nature. Indeed, in the most extreme form of this view, anything made by human beings risks being seen as unnatural by definition—and often inferior by contrast.
Could the relative indifference that many environmentalists felt toward cultivated places (which not only included farms like my family’s, but cities, towns, industrial centers, and many other built environments) be related to the way that we imagine nature? If so, then the manner by which nature and culture are often understood in the West—as a binary structure in opposition, with the cultivated imagined as an active threat to the natural—could be playing out in modern environmental thinking, with consequences as worrisome as they are widespread.
As unlikely as it seemed, the loss of a seemingly insignificant family farm hinted at something far bigger and more consequential than farmland. It suggested that an ancient view of nature was still alive and well in the modern world, influencing environmental researchers, policymakers, and, in a variety of ways, each of us.
Although this occurred to me while I was making my living as a furniture maker, I knew that I had neither the training nor expertise to impact modern environmental thinking. Nonetheless, like many people, I desperately wanted to make a difference.
But how to begin? Going back to school seemed like a step in the right direction. I started by taking a few evening graduate courses at the same local commuter college where I had received my undergraduate degree. But it soon became clear to me that if I wanted the best possible training and preparation for my modest educational goals—namely, a protracted study of the history of our Western attitudes toward nature and the environment—I would need the best education available, which meant a Ph.D. from a first-rate university.
There’s an old joke about a man who stops his car to ask for directions. After much musing and a few false starts, he’s told, “You can’t get there from here.” The joke (it is admittedly not very funny) is that you can, of course, get to pretty much anywhere from anywhere else on earth. True, the directions may be confusing and the path circuitous, but getting there from here is almost always possible.
It was, however, not at all clear that a woodworker in his forties, with an undistinguished undergraduate degree earned over more than a decade by taking night classes, could find his way into a topnotch graduate program. Quite the contrary: as I discovered when I arrived as a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, no one in my department could recall anyone anywhere near my age, let alone from circumstances as unusual, ever having found their way in before.
Graduate programs of this sort are grueling, even for energetic twenty-somethings. They usually take twice as long as law school, around six or seven years, to complete. Universities typically enroll fewer than ten students per year into Ph.D. programs like mine.
Such a program would be intimidating for anyone, but for me it was extraordinarily so. About the time I finished my undergraduate degree (I was in my thirties: completing 128 college credits at the rate of one or two evening classes per semester is a painfully slow process), I realized that I was seriously dyslexic. An observant friend, noting the sorts of mistakes that I made in my writing, brought it to my attention. Having grown up in an era before this condition was well understood and screened for in elementary school, it had escaped everyone’s notice.
Of course, I knew that something was wrong. Because distinguishing left from right was confusing, getting and giving directions was a nightmare (it was impossible to get anywhere from anywhere with my directions). The bigger problem, however, was that, even though reading was my passion and I lavished time on coursework, I was an abysmal high school and college student. I didn’t even finish in the top third of my high school class. As an undergraduate English major in college, my GPA was a 2.7 (that’s not a typo: a 2.7, not a 3.7). Because I was attending overfilled night classes, instructors rarely had the time to read lengthy take-home assignments. Instead, grades were almost exclusively based on essay exams hurriedly written in class. Mine, as you might imagine, were riddled with just the sort of errors that cause English professors to wince. It didn’t help that I had a habit of offering up new readings of texts rather than making clear that I had assimilated the professor’s approach. I fear this may have given the impression that I was something of an arrogant oddball. In retrospect, perhaps I was.
Those were enormously frustrating years. It sounds like a cliché, but it is indeed difficult to keep believing, day after day, month after month, decade after decade, in your abilities and yourself when hardly anyone else does. Of the many challenges I’ve faced in life, this was perhaps the most difficult. At times, wondering how it could possibly be the case that everyone else was wrong about my abilities and potential, I deeply despaired. I do not regret my years as a woodworker; however, I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had my dyslexia been identified as a child.
Now that I am aware of my strengths and limitations in writing, I have come up with a range of techniques, such as word-processing software that I modified for the purpose, which helps me recognize what would otherwise escape notice. It also helps that I now have a loving partner who has a gift for proofreading.
Realizing that gaining entry to a Ph.D. program would be extraordinarily difficult for someone like me, I knew that I needed to do something altogether out of the ordinary to get my foot in the door. Considering my options (let’s face it, I didn’t have many), I came up with an outlandish plan: I would prove that I could write a dissertation, the ultimate goal of a Ph.D. program, by writing one before I even filled out the application for admission.
Now, after having spent three years as the director of a university Ph.D. program, I would strongly advise against trying a similar stunt. Scholarly writing is a world all its own, with conventions that follow subtle trends that may not be at all clear from outside of academia. To succeed at such an outlandish undertaking, you would need to be very lucky.
I was very, very lucky. One of the evening courses that I took was taught by a respected scholar, Diane McColley, who was interested in an emerging field of literary study: ecocriticism, a contraction for “ecological literary (or cultural) criticism.” In the previous decade, the 1990s, ecocritics had begun to look carefully at writers like Thoreau and Wordsworth in order to better understand modern environmental thinking. Diane was interested in pushing this approach back to the era of Shakespeare and Milton, hoping to reveal more of our deeply-held beliefs about the natural world.
Shortly before Diane left for a yearlong sabbatical, I asked her if she would oversee my M.A. thesis: an ecocritical approach to the poet John Milton. We agreed that each month I would send her an installment.
The thesis was supposed to be 30 pages long. After 12 monthly installments, it ended up being 300. Diane suggested that I submit it for publication. I was really just hoping to prove to prospective Ph.D. programs that I could write a reasonably coherent dissertation-length work, but, at her insistence, I sent off the manuscript for consideration. To my shock, Cambridge University Press, which had published Milton’s first major work in 1630, offered to buy it. The book, my first, was Milton and Ecology.
How did it happen that one of the world’s premier university presses came to publish a book written by an obscure woodworker without a graduate degree? The simple fact is that they didn’t realize who I was—or rather wasn’t. Starting with the acquisition editor, who was the first to read my manuscript, everyone simply assumed that I was a professor. Academic presses rarely receive submissions from anyone else. Although made anxious by the fact, I didn’t set the record straight. Whenever addressed as “Professor,” I instinctively responded by asking to be called by my first name. While I have to admit to being self-serving in not correcting them, I was also curious to see how long it would take before someone figured it out.
As luck would have it, no one did. However, when faced with a final publication contract to sign with “Professor” before my name, I finally fessed up. Perhaps because things were so far along, no one said anything. They simply changed the signature line.
Milton, who wrote one of the finest long poems in the English language, Paradise Lost, fascinated me because I saw him as the harbinger of a new attitude toward the environment in Western thought. Prior to his writing, most Europeans saw the Earth as fallen and debased, an inferior realm that paled in comparison to an imagined celestial one (Heaven). Because it was associated with the lesser, physical self, the earth was seen as the home and playground of evil. This is potentially an environmentally disastrous way to imagine the earth.
Milton, however, would have none of this. He saw the earth and most earthly things (including rivers, mountains, and flowers, along with many of the tempting things in life, like good food and sex) as proper and right. He went even further by boldly declaring that these earthly things are a manifestation of the divine and should be celebrated as such. For Milton, and other religious thinkers who adopt this attitude, in looking at a pristine mountain we see the handiwork of a divine creator, who is immanent and at work in nature, rather than removed, transcendent, and disinterested. To this way of thinking, if the earth has become corrupted, it is the result of human action. Thus, abuse of the creation (which includes the earth and all its many places) can be seen as a form of sacrilege.
This startling shift in thinking laid the groundwork for writers like John Muir, who two centuries later argued that wilderness is indeed nothing short of a holy temple, the home of the divine. When it was suggested that Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley be turned into a reservoir to supply water to San Francisco and elsewhere, Muir railed that “these temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature…for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
In Milton’s writings I found the early emergence of an attitude toward nature that we tend to associate with later thinkers like Muir. Here was the ideological groundwork that underlies the deep reverence that we feel for wilderness.
Instead of looking to some far-off place (as Muir did to the Yosemite Valley) for an uncorrupted, magnificent example of divine creation, Milton looked back to a distant time. Paradise Lost, which is an expansive retelling of the biblical story of Adam and Eve set in Eden, afforded Milton the opportunity to imagine a profoundly harmonious relationship that human beings once had with nature, now lost. Milton is thus a notable link in a long line of back-to-nature thinkers who held that nature and our relationship to it was once edenic and perfect, or nearly so. A generation after Milton, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau would take this ball and run with it. As we’ll see in the first chapter, belief in an edenic past (i.e. a harmonious relationship with nature we once had and lost) is still alive and very well today.
While considering Milton, it began to dawn on me that back-to-nature thinking and the religious reverence that we feel toward wilderness—what I see as two of the poet’s greatest legacies—might have unsettling implications. This realization planted the seeds for this book.
However, I’m jumping ahead in my story. With my Milton book in press, I was offered admission to a number of Ph.D. programs. In the end, it came down to Princeton and Harvard. Although I chose Harvard, a decade later I began to write this book during a year that I spent as a visiting professor at Princeton, where I held a joint chair in the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) and the English Department.
Why study English literature? Why not directly tackle pressing environmental issues (like climate change) by studying something like geoscience or ecology? While I have enormous respect for the sciences—this book will repeatedly stress their essential role in our future—my primary interest was, and still is, in better understanding the beliefs and attitudes we have toward the environment. I wanted to know the history behind these ideas: where they came from and where they seem to be going.
Why, then, study literature rather than history? As it turns out, I study both. These days, most literary scholars do. Allow me to explain by way of an example, which should help clarify the rationale for this book and its approach.
In 1945, an amateur archaeologist made a discovery a mile outside of a sleepy New England town. It was the foundation of a cabin, which had been about the size of a modern garden shed and where someone had lived about 100 years before. Had a thorough excavation of the modest site been made, not much would have been learned about who lived there and why. However, we happen to know a great deal about the person who dwelled there, as he left behind a written record chronicling his time in that cabin and its surrounding woods. His name was Henry David Thoreau and that record took the form of a book: Walden.
The physical remnants of our lives that we leave behind, things like houses, furniture, cookware, and even our trash, can often tell archeologists and historians much about who we were and how we lived. But they can only tell so much. While it is possible, with varying degrees of success, to infer from these artifacts what the day-to-day lives of their owners were like, these objects are not the only windows into what they felt and believed.
For over 5000 years, people have been writing about their lives, dreams, fears, beliefs, and just about anything else that you can imagine (the brilliant essayist Montaigne once wrote a treatise on thumbs). In a few cases, these writings have survived, opening up their worlds to us in ways that shards of pottery and the foundations of crumbled buildings never could.
As a cultural and literary historian, I look to these works in order to better understand what these authors—along with the cultures in which they lived—believed. My specific goal is to understand more fully our modern posture toward the environment.
When people think about literary study, words like “metaphor,” “plot,” and “symbolism” often come to mind. Armed with these and similar concepts, generations of high school and college students have searched for deeper, hidden meanings in poems, novels, and all sorts of literary genres. However, among scholars, this approach to literature has been largely outmoded for decades now.
In the first half of the 20th century, a number of writers argued that what really mattered in literature was what a writer had to say that transcended his or her particular culture and historical moment. This approach to literary study was dubbed New Criticism in the 1940s (so it hasn’t been “new” for quite some time). Great writers, it was argued, captured the essence of humanity, which has remained unchanged throughout history. Hence, they often took up human preoccupations, such as pride, love, ambition, and so forth. Love, whether it was written about 2700 years ago in ancient Greece by Sappho, 400 years ago in Elizabethan England by Shakespeare, or a poet last year in Brooklyn, was seen as cutting across time and space for all of us human beings. Writers were celebrated for their insights into the shared, timeless human condition, as well as their ability to express these thoughts poignantly. Judged by this standard, writers like Milton and Shakespeare were (and still are) considered among the greatest of all time.
There are, however, significant limitations to this approach.
First, even the most fundamental human feelings, like love, are influenced by the cultures in which we live. New Critics, living in a time where heterosexuality was a widely policed norm, had difficulty understanding, much less appreciating writers like Sappho, who wrote about same-sex love. Even Shakespeare, who alternately wrote love poetry to a Dark Lady and to a beautiful young man, posed problems for them. If we do not understand an author’s particular culture and historical moment, we will likely assume that what he or she means by love is what we mean by love. And we may well be wrong in this assumption.
One of Shakespeare’s sonnets may be a beautiful celebration of love, but it is also a chronicle of how love was seen and interpreted during Shakespeare’s time. For this reason, it is exceptionally valuable, as it can tell us an enormous amount about the culture that created it. While learning about past cultures is certainly interesting in its own right, in some cases, we can go further and learn about our own culture, and even ourselves, in the bargain. To me, this is literature’s most valuable payout.
If a text is an influential part of our literary tradition, as are Shakespeare’s sonnets and Thoreau’s Walden, then it made some sort of impact on future thinking. In the century following its publication, scores of thinkers were influenced by Thoreau’s ideas. They may have read Walden directly, or they may have encountered other writers and artists familiar with the book and its ideas. That includes not just obvious candidates like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, but also George Eliot, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gustav Stickley, John Burroughs, B. F. Skinner, George Bernard Shaw, and many more. And these were just in the first hundred years after Walden’s publication. Since the 1960s, with the rise of the back-to-the-land movement, interest in Walden has exploded.
If we only read Walden as celebrating truths that cut across time, we may well overlook the book’s significant contributions to America’s cultural history. If we assume that the love of nature that Thoreau espoused in Walden is—like the way that the New Critics imagined the love of another person—somehow innate and shared by any human being anywhere at any point in history, we risk ignoring how Thoreau, along with writers before and after him, reshaped the relationship that we have with the environment.
To better understand how they did this, it is worth pausing to consider the impact that past books can have in the present world.
Books and writings of all sorts can tell us much about the people that gave birth to them and their culture. However, some, like Walden, don’t just reflect the beliefs and values of a culture (as do mountains of thoroughly ordinary books that annually appear on the shelves of booksellers). Instead, they play a role in renewing their cultures by revising existing attitudes and sometimes by even writing entirely new ones into being. To my way of thinking, these are “great books,” even if they aren’t recognized as such when they first appear. In some cases, as with the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the true greatness of the work was not revealed until well into the future. Even today, the world that Douglass worked to create (one intent on freeing itself of not only slavery but also racism) is still painfully attempting to emerge. Like Douglass’s book, Walden also helped generate something new in American culture. In a general way, we can call it an environmental ethic.
What makes writers and artists like Thoreau and Douglass so extraordinary is that they venture out ahead of the rest of us to glimpse the future, imagining what it might be like. Through their work, they relate what they envision to a world still living in the present. In time, if they prove to be true harbingers of the future, the world eventually catches up. Mainstream America began to catch up to both writers sometime in the 1960s, more than a hundred years after the publication of both the Narrative’s and Walden’s world-changing ideas.
Perhaps the most interesting and important thing about ideas is that they live not only in books, but in each of us. Surprisingly, we often simply assume that these ideas are natural and correct. For example, because we are heir to the environmental ethic imagined by Milton, Thoreau, and Muir, it has become ingrained in our beliefs. Consequently, many Americans are firmly of the conviction that wilderness should be respected and valued with religious reverence. However, a few hundred years ago this attitude largely did not exist, as most people in, say, Shakespeare’s England neither cared about nor particularly respected wilderness.
Although it may be a disconcerting thought, people that we may never have read—we may not even recognize their names—long ago played a role in writing some of our deepest, seemingly most personal beliefs into existence. The philosopher Martin Heidegger observed that at birth we are all “thrown” (werfen) into a particular culture at a particular moment in history, which influences both who we become and many of the beliefs that we hold. The culture and era into which we are born is entirely random and obviously beyond our control. Had we been born a few generations ago, we, like most Americans, would likely not have been environmentalists. In part because of writers like Thoreau, this has changed considerably since his time (in particular the last fifty years), as ideas are constantly shifting and being challenged. Douglass challenged the idea of slavery, Thoreau prevailing attitudes toward nature.
Once we understand that our beliefs and ideas are culturally influenced and often in a state of flux, it becomes clear that they have a history that can be explored. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the historian Michel Foucault was obsessed with tracing the origins of our cultural ideas. Much influenced by Heidegger, Foucault reasoned that if our ideas are culturally constructed over time, then it should be possible to find our way back to their first appearances, along the way witnessing how they shifted and grew. He did this in a variety of different ways, such as by focusing on our perceptions of sexuality. Foucault drew attention to the fact that our attitudes toward complex topics like this were culturally constructed over time. His historicism promised extraordinary insights into both the cultures that created the ideas handed down to us, and, even more importantly, the present-day cultures and individuals that are heir to these ever-changing beliefs and ideas.
It was, in part, this promise that brought me to Harvard.
In the late 1970s, Foucault’s thinking had considerable impact on a young literary scholar, Stephen Greenblatt, who was a professor at Berkeley at the time. Greenblatt realized that adapting Foucault’s approach to literary study could open up old texts in entirely new ways. What he may not have realized was that he was inaugurating a revolution in literary analysis. Literature could provide unique insights into the ideas and values of past cultures—and perhaps even our own beliefs in the bargain. Greenblatt christened this approach “New Historicism.” Like New Criticism, it is now far from new, but it is still enormously influential, and one way or another plays a role in much of the literary criticism that is done today.
Using texts to understand what a culture believes can often be a little tricky, as writers do not always well understand their own culture and times, or even what it is they are writing about. In addition, writers are often not the best representatives of a culture, as historically only a select, privileged few have had the benefit of an education and enough leisure for writing. People like my parents, who lived in an era when their eighth-grade educations were the norm for farmers and woodworkers, rarely left behind writings that have traditionally been of much interest to posterity. In the past few hundred years of European and American history, the most influential writers have generally been wealthy, white, heterosexual male members of the dominant culture.
Nonetheless, insofar as they record beliefs and ideas, texts can be enormously revealing. These include not just works of high literature, but texts of all sorts, written by people of all sorts. An obscure Renaissance farming manual, which no one (not even its author) would likely have considered a work of art, can reveal more about contemporary attitudes toward the environment than any of Shakespeare’s plays. For people who value texts for their beauty and aesthetic value, this may be a disconcerting thought: it seemingly puts such a work on an equal footing with Shakespeare’s. Still, New Historicism doesn’t require us to devalue beautiful literature; on the contrary, most scholars of literature do what they do because they love literary texts. Rather, it underscores that literature’s beauty and worth are more than skin deep. It also means that texts that have traditionally been ignored—for example, if my grandfather had left behind his thoughts on farming and his relationship to the land that he worked—may prove to be of great interest to future generations.
By the time I had embarked on an academic career, Greenblatt had moved from Berkeley to Harvard. While his interests were not largely environmental, as he fortuitously worked in the same period that interested me most, he was an obvious choice to become one of my dissertation advisors. The goal of my Ph.D. dissertation was to use New Historicist tools on early modern texts in order to trace the emergence of modern attitudes toward the environment. Although other scholars had been adapting the methods of New Historicism to environmental issues (notably Lawrence Buell, who, as luck would have it, was also a professor at Harvard), they were generally working in later periods.
I have to confess to being more than a little intimidated when I arrived at Harvard. The seven Ph.D. candidates entering the program with me were altogether impressive. Two had done their undergraduate work at Harvard, one at Yale, another at Amherst. They were, without exception, all wunderkinds. On average, I was nearly twenty years their senior.
Is there a word for former wunderkinds who reach the height of their powers in later life? If there is, it applies to many of the professors I had at Harvard. In certain fields, like mathematics, geniuses make their marks early in life. In a single year, his twenty-seventh, Einstein published four epoch-changing papers, including one that introduced special relativity to the world, another that would win him a Noble Prize, and a third containing a pithy little formula regarding the equivalence of energy and matter: e=mc2.
In the humanities, by contrast, many scholars are still in school when they are thirty. While a few, like Stephen Greenblatt, produce groundbreaking works before they reach forty, he is an exception. Lawrence Buell, for example, was in his fifties when he published his watershed book on Thoreau.
Like my peers, my Harvard professors were intimidating. However, in an unexpected way, they were also reassuring.
Tennyson has a wonderful poem that imagines Homer’s hero Ulysses (Odysseus) as an aging king. Content to leave the rule of his kingdom to his son Telemachus and realizing that the legendary, epic deeds of his youth are now behind him, he nonetheless wonders if “some work of noble note, may yet be done.” Answering in the affirmative, he startles everyone by sailing off on a bold new odyssey, leaving one life behind in search of a new one.
Had I embarked on the study of mathematics in my forties, my decision may have been laughable. However, at Harvard I encountered a range of individuals who had, at my age, not yet fully realized their potential. In some cases, their best work was still a decade or more ahead of them. Of course, I had quite of bit of catching up to do, having started on my Ph.D. in my forties rather than twenties. However, my ambitions seemed a lot less ridiculous, perhaps even possible.
To my delight and even greater surprise, my luck continued. Because I entered with a clear plan for my dissertation, I was able to complete the Ph.D. in four years. Immediately after receiving the degree, I accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). In addition to being an extraordinary research center that has six Nobel laureates among its faculty, the UCSB campus is one of the most beautiful in the country, as it is situated on a striking ocean promontory. Because I had already published a book, my department voted to promote me to tenure thirteen months after I started teaching.
In the end, I suppose there are three main takeaways from my story, the first being less useful than the other two: Be lucky, be very lucky. Second, as life expectancy and middle-age vitality have been dramatically increasing over the past few decades, so too has the possibility for new beginnings and meaningful contributions later in life. Third, getting nearly anywhere in life, regardless of your starting place, is probably more possible than you might think. Sometimes you really can get there from here.
The remainder of this book (which won’t linger on the details of my life—I promise) aims to challenge conventional environmental thinking. As noted above, Henry David Thoreau was once a hero of mine. Because I still find a number of things to admire in Thoreau, I have been highlighting the positive aspects of Thoreau’s enormous influence. It would be too simplistic to say that modern environmental thinking emerges fully formed with Thoreau, but many of its American roots trace back to him. This isn’t necessarily a good thing.
While Thoreau is often seen as the harbinger of modern environmental thinking, Walden is also the culmination of thousands of years of writings celebrating the idea that we can get back to nature. For over 5000 years, a range of Western thinkers and texts have argued that human beings once lived at harmony with the earth. Some even hinted that it might just be possible to get back to that state of nature. Thoreau is striking because he, in a very literal sense, actually tried to make the return. He is likely remembered and influential because he eloquently confirmed for many readers the ancient suspicion that life was, and still is, better there.
This is a comforting sentiment, which no doubt helps account for its continued appeal, even in the 21st century. However, this book argues that, as dangerous as it is comforting, this idea has wrought widespread damage environmentally while also keeping us from moving in the opposite but I believe urgently necessary direction: forward to nature.
The first half of this book will explain in detail just what I mean by “forward to nature” and why I am convinced that we need to reorient ourselves from past to future, abandoning the false hope that we can somehow get back to nature. We need to envision a more harmonious relationship with nature as a future goal, not waste energy trying to recapture something that never existed. Indeed, this needs to be one of humanity’s greatest ambitions, especially as we are presently hurling toward a future relationship with the planet that threatens to be anything but harmonious.
Turning from the Past
Environmentally, when did it all begin to go wrong? This question, which I am asked frequently, strikes me as fair and well intentioned. It is, however, deceptively complex, as it often carries with it a series of related (though sometimes unspoken) questions: What, exactly, went wrong? Why did it go wrong? Who is to blame? These in turn are often just prerequisites for an even more pressing question. Once we better understand our situation and how our environmental problems began, how might we turn back the clock to repair, or at least mitigate, the damage done? Even this, however, is often not the end of the line, as it can raise the most worrisome and urgent question of all: Is there still time to make a successful intervention? Now that our environmental problems are global in scale, perhaps some sort of irreversible “tipping point” has been reached and passed.
Instead of looking for answers to our opening question, I would like to respond to it with one of my own: Environmentally, why do we think that anything was ever right? Although it may sound a little flippant, I believe this question to be a better response than any answer I could muster. Why, indeed, do we believe that human beings once had some sort of harmonious relationship with the earth, now lost? As we shall see, there is little in the historical record to suggest that such a blissful time ever existed. Why, then, is this belief so common? Before tackling this question head on, it will be helpful to briefly take up the issue of how environmental beliefs emerge and change over time.
Imagine a coal-burning power plant, complete with billowing smokestacks, being built not far from where you live. What do you imagine would be your impression of it? Would it strike you as good? Beautiful? Probably not. To the contrary, it would likely seem the opposite of both. Yet, in the U.S. in the late 1940s, signaling postwar prosperity, it may have seemed like a very good thing, perhaps even beautiful. Although the power plants themselves didn’t change, they surprisingly went from being seen as beautiful to ugly in a single generation.
How did this happen? In various ways, we forcibly became aware of the consequences of certain of our actions. For example, the “Great Smoke” of 1952, during which more than 12,000 Londoners died as the result of smog inhalation during a single week, made clear the horrific dangers that come with unchecked burning of fossil fuels (and led to the creation of England’s Clean Air Act in 1956, a milestone in clean-air legislations). Not every influence need be this direct. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published a decade later, had little to say about fossil fuels and urban air pollution; nonetheless, because it alerted millions to the dangers associated with the wholesale release of toxic materials into the environment, it too changed our ideas toward coal-fired power plants. Because Carson’s work was so influential, you did not even need to read Silent Spring to know its basic environmental position, which was discussed in a range of media outlets, as well as around countless water coolers. Ideas and beliefs can spread even more subtly, without a single word spoken. A child notices her parent wince or sigh discontentedly as they pass the smokestacks of a power plant. Nothing need be said or explained to the child for her to clearly get the idea: this is a bad and ugly thing. The next time they pass, she too winces.