Henry David Thoreau
(Preface and Introduction by Ken Hiltner)
This website contains some free Thoreau: two of Henry David Thoreau’s most influential works, Walden; or, Life in the Woods and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, are available here in their entirety, free of cost. If you would like to share this e-book (which, as it is browser-based, can be read directly from this website), please use the URL FreeThoreau.com.
There are plenty of editions of Walden available online. However, the goal of this edition, which is detailed in the Introduction, is to frame the material in a different way, one that does not focus on Thoreau’s back-to-nature experience, but rather his call to dramatically reevaluate how we live our lives. Now that we are in the midst of a global climate crisis, this is arguably more important than Thoreau’s turn toward nature.
Navigating this material is straightforward. Simply scroll or jump down to the Table of Contents for links to each of the individual chapters. Alternately, in the upper right corner of any page on this site is a “hamburger menu” – i.e three horizontal lines. If you click the burger and select Walden, a Table of Contents will appear. Pick any chapter to be taken to its webpage.
In the lower right of any page (including this one), note the faint box with a small chevron in it. Click the chevron at any point and the page will quickly scroll up to the top. At the top of every chapter page is a “Back to TOC” link that returns you to the Table of Contents.
Here’s a tip for viewing this e-book on mobile devices: if you are reading it on a smartphone, hold your phone horizontally (i.e. in landscape mode) and scroll down to read through the chapter at hand. If you are reading on a tablet, do just the opposite: hold the device vertically (portrait mode).
Reading on a smartphone turned sideways may initially feel a little odd (especially if you, like most people, are used to holding your phone in portrait mode), but this edition was designed so that doing so replicates the width and line length, and hence in some ways the general feel, of a print book. Note that some mobile browsers display this e-book better than others. Safari works well on iOS, Chrome on Android.
That’s really all you need to know about how to navigate this edition of Walden. So, feel free to begin reading! I recommend starting with the Introduction.
If you are interested, the Preface contains a little background on this e-book edition and its rationale.
Walden; or, Life in the Woods
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors
The Pond in Winter
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
For a number of years, I had planned to release an edition of Walden in EPUB and Kindle formats. Because I assign portions of the text for two large lectures every year, my primary reason for doing so was environmental, though I also wanted to provide a version of the book for my students that was free of charge.
Regarding the environmental costs, each year I assign Walden to just over 1700 students in two large lectures. Depending on how you calculate it, around 62 books can be made from the pulp of one tree in a typical commercial logging operation. Hence, a minimum of 27 trees would need to be cut down annually in order to make enough copies of Walden for my students. I doubt that Thoreau would approve
In addition to my students, the idea was to provide this material and the Introduction free of charge (or nearly free in the case of Kindle) to anyone interested. However, a conventional e-book would have presented a challenge in this regard: someone would need to have enough interest in Thoreau to commit to installing an e-book app before they even read a single word (assuming that they did not already have such an app installed, which is unlikely, as fewer than one in five books sold in the U.S. are e-books).
In 2018, Kindle introduced the infinite scroll as an option on its apps for mobile devices. This provides a rewarding experience on both smartphones and tablets (more on the scroll below). Consequently, at the time I began wondering if a browser-based e-book might deliver a similar experience for anyone with a mobile device and an Internet connection. Since the majority of Americans the age of my students mostly go online through a smartphone, I resolved to put together an edition of Walden as a web-based e-book principally designed for a smartphone.
Please don’t misunderstand; I am in no way claiming to be a web innovator. Indeed, there is hardly anything new here at all, as this is just a scrolling website stripped of nearly everything but some very prominent text. It is, in fact, just an effort to apply Thoreau’s core imperative (“simplify, simplify”) to an online book.
On a smartphone or tablet, this book should look pretty similar to an e-book on a Kindle or similar app, assuming that the app is set to scroll. While e-book readers and apps originally used the metaphor of a print book, with its turning pages, both the Kindle and Apple Books apps for tablets and smartphones now offer the scroll as an option. The reason for doing so was likely because the long or “infinite scroll” has become a common interface element for smartphones. Scrolling down through material with just one hand is a fast and effective way to navigate on a small screen.
Depending on how you look at it, this is either a very old or very new way for a book to appear and work. Long before the Romans invented our modern book with its facing pages, also known as the codex, parchment scrolls had already been in use for thousands of years in Egypt and elsewhere. Although the codex largely supplanted the scroll two thousand years ago, it has come roaring back with computers.
If you would like to highlight interesting text, there are browser extensions, like Liner, that let you do just that. Alternately, if you would like to heavily annotate this material, you can use the “Print” function of your browser to save any chapter (i.e. webpage, including this one) as a PDF.
This edition of Walden is also designed to work well with browser extensions, like Font Changer, which allow users to view the site text in different sizes and in specialized fonts, such as Open Dyslexic.
Although it may sound awkward, scrolling through this edition of Thoreau on a smartphone turned sideways can actually be a surprisingly pleasant experience. Seriously, try it. I read everything that I can this way (albeit using an e-book app), as it is exceptionally convenient.
If you find the experience of reading this edition of Walden rewarding, you might consider reading this way more often. By that I mean reading books on your smartphone turned sideways. Aside from being incredibly convenient, it can also be comforting to always have an entire library with you – literally, in your back pocket.
Reading this way can have real environmental benefits. An early study suggested that someone who purchases three print books per month, would, over a four-year period if they read e-book versions instead, keep over a metric ton of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. The manufacturer of a dedicated e-reader releases, according to this study, an additional 168 kg of CO2.
Hence, reading on a smartphone that you already have in your possession is, environmentally, a terrific idea. It’s also nice to not have yet another device cluttering your life.
It is also noteworthy that smartphones consume very little electricity in their operation when compared to other devices that you might use for reading, such as a laptop or desktop computer. A smartphone only consumes around 2 watts of electricity, compared to 50 or more watts for a laptop and 1000 watts or more for some desktop gaming setups.
The bandwidth (i.e. electricity) required to download a typical text-only book is fairly negligible, as just one second of 4k video can require more bandwidth than it takes to download an entire e-book. In other words, using the same resources that it would take to stream one full-length 4k motion picture, you could download a library of 5000 e-books, which should easily fit on most smartphones. Even if you managed to read one book per day, that would keep you busy for the next 14 years!
There are a range of free reading apps for iOS and Android devices, as well as plenty of free e-books. Most public libraries now let you borrow e-books. If you need to purchase a book, electronic versions are often less expensive than their print counterparts and you can even share certain e-books that you purchase (such as Kindle versions) with friends.
So, think of this as an experiment to see if you enjoy reading on your phone. If so, and if you find compelling Thoreau’s sweeping injunction to “simplify, simplify” (more on this in the below Introduction), here is a place to start.
One downside to reading books on a smartphone is that their screens tend to be a little reflective for reading, especially when compared to a dedicated e-reader. But this is easy enough to remedy; matte screen protectors are inexpensive (mine is made of tempered glass and cost under $10) and have the added benefit of helping to protect your phone from the #1 source of damage: cracked screens. Hence, even though I am not a fan of buying unnecessary gadgets (let alone accessories for my gadgets) on environmental grounds, a screen protector may be more of a plus than minus – at least that is what I like to tell myself.
As a website, this e-book was authored with simple HTML and CSS in order to ensure cross platform and browser compatibility, as well as interactivity. In other words, you should be able to read it on any desktop or mobile device, even one from a decade ago. Moreover, there’s no need to keep accessing this website, as you can simply have your browser save chapters locally to your device as either a PDF or HTML – which could come in handy if you find yourself out of Internet access.
This edition of Walden is an effort to free Thoreau from his own legacy.
You may, quite naturally, be wondering why this is necessary. After all, in the past century and a half, Henry David Thoreau has emerged as one of the most important early environmental thinkers in the U.S. Why attempt to free Thoreau from such an extraordinary legacy?
Environmentally, Thoreau’s legacy largely comes from the fact that he went “back to nature” for two years by living a rustic life on the quiet shores of Walden Pond. It is an important legacy, as it helped inspire generations of people to appreciate wilderness and the natural world. John Muir is a classic example.
You may be another, even if you have never read Walden. Thoreau was enormously influential on generations of environmentalists, some of whom may have left their mark on you. Perhaps a teacher you had. Perhaps through an article or book that you read. Most likely, through quite a bit that you have encountered in all sorts of ways. Thoreau’s legacy is that great.
There is nothing wrong with appreciating wilderness (obviously), especially as this can help lead to its preservation. After all, why would we bother to protect something that we didn’t value? As he helped us value wilderness, and as a consequence prompted us to work toward its preservation, Thoreau’s legacy should most certainly be applauded.
But let’s shift from endangered wilderness to an entirely different sort of environmental issue: the climate crisis. True, wilderness has a role to play here, as plants, and forests in particular, pull CO2 out of the air and thereby sequester carbon. The more they sequester, the less the climate changes, which is obviously a good thing. However, regardless of what you may have heard, planting trees and saving forests is not going to be enough to mitigate the climate crisis. True the preservation of forests will help – we should thus do everything that we can in this regard – but it’s not sufficient. Not by a long shot.
Instead, we need to take a long hard look at a range of human practices that are releasing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other so-called greenhouse gases. These activities are rarely taking place in pristine forests, but in towns, suburbs, cities, factories, farms, and, generally speaking, wherever you find people. In terms of human habitation, these places, which bear the mark of people, are just the opposite of uninhabited wilderness.
It may sound a little counterintuitive (or just plain wrong), but wilderness is in certain respects of less importance environmentally than places that human beings inhabit, like cities. Although cities occupy a small fraction of the area taken up by wilderness (just 2% of our planet’s total landmass), they are responsible for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions from human beings. Hence, everything else being equal, they should, environmentally, be receiving the lion’s share of our interest.
Please do not misunderstand what I am saying: it is terrific that Thoreau and others pointed us toward wilderness. The modern environmental movement would not have emerged when and how it did without their efforts. However, we need to realize that, right now, given the nature and urgency of the climate crisis, we need to focus our attention on other places as well.
The difficulty with Thoreau, as I have argued in my most recent book on writing a new environmental era and moving forward to nature, is that, in focusing on wilderness, he seemingly ignored the environmental problems of technological modernity emerging around him. Even though he lived just a day’s walk from the largest industrial center in the United States at the time (Lowell, Massachusetts), Thoreau seems to have turned his back to it, instead fleeing to an imagined, bygone way of life on the quiet shores of Walden Pond. As I have noted, that was a cop-out.
Thoreau’s legacy, at least with respect to environmentalism, is largely based on that turn toward wilderness – which, unfortunately, was also a turn away from the pressing issues of his era. In contrast, other writers of the time, such as Elizabeth Gaskell, squarely took on the problems of technological modernity and a range of social justice issues. Her novel Mary Barton, published in 1848 while Thoreau was living at Walden Pond, imagined the horrific life of workers in the factory city of Manchester, England (Lowell’s British counterpart) in extraordinarily disturbing and vivid detail.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, when the preservation of wilderness was a central issue for U.S. environmentalists, Thoreau’s turn toward wilderness and its appreciation was rightfully important and understandably revered.
However, now that we are facing a whole new type of environmental problem, which emerged as an issue well after his death, it might seem that Thoreau, on the basis of his wilderness legacy, would be of less importance in the era of the climate crisis. Consequently, perhaps the time has come for teachers like me to stop assigning him. If we do not free Thoreau and Walden from his formidable legacy, there is a real danger that this may happen.
Fortunately for Thoreau (and us), his time at Walden Pond can be approached in another way altogether. Although it may sound a little perplexing on first hearing, this involves us largely ignoring the fact that the book Walden took place at Walden Pond. In other words, we need (provisionally, at least) to bracket off the fact that Thoreau’s experience took place in a wilderness-like setting, even though – thanks to that formidable legacy of his – many readers are under the impression that his wilderness sojourn is the point of the book.
That’s right, for now, let’s forget that whole back-to-nature thing.
Instead, let’s do a little thought experiment that I proposed in my book on moving forward to nature: let’s “imagine what Thoreau’s Walden experiment would have been like had it not been conducted in its semi-wilderness setting, but an urban one instead.” Doing so nicely cuts us off from Thoreau’s wilderness legacy. In the process, it allows us to look at Thoreau with fresh eyes.
Approached in this way, what is interesting about Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond is not so much where he lived (i.e. a wilderness-like setting), but rather the manner by which he lived. As we shall see, his call to radically reassess and simplify our lives may well have profound environmental consequences in the 21st century.
However, before moving to the extraordinary contribution that Thoreau may be poised to make in the era of the climate crisis, we need to acknowledge that his legacy is a bit of a mixed bag. This fact is hardly lost on readers. Having annually taught Thoreau for many years now, I know from experience that readers, even passionate environmentalists, can quickly cool to both Thoreau and Walden.
Why? To be honest, each is a bit of a mess. Even if you have never read Walden, you may well be aware of some of the issues, as they frequently come up even in casual discussions of Thoreau. Let’s address them at the onset, so that we can then move past them to consider how Thoreau can help us see our way through the climate crisis.
Thoreau talks about Walden Pond as if it were wilderness. In fact, it is just a mile outside of Concord, Massachusetts, the town where he lived. Hardly wilderness. More like a rather inviting local park. A great place to go camping.
Thoreau goes on and on about solitude, the wilderness solitude of Walden Pond. In fact, he had visitors nearly every day and walked home frequently (which took less than half an hour) for his mom’s home-cooked dinners – which also makes clear that he was hardly “roughing it.”
Thoreau talks quite a bit about why he chose to live his life at Walden Pond. In fact, he lived there for just over two years, then spent the rest of his life in a pretty conventional way. By all accounts, his later life in Concord was pretty much like the life of his Concord neighbors that he repeatedly rails against in Walden.
In short, the life of wilderness solitude that Thoreau paints in Walden is…well… let’s be kind and just say, not quite accurate.
And then there is the whole issue of “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau made much of the fact that while living at Walden Pond he was arrested and put in jail as a result of his protest of slavery. In fact, he spent just one night in jail. While Thoreau’s heart was certainly in the right place, in a century where millions of Americans were born and died in slavery, it’s hard to sympathize with the hardship that Thoreau experienced during his solitary night in jail.
In general, it’s hard to sympathize with Thoreau, as, in so many ways, his life was one marked by privilege. He never tires of drawing attention to the fact that at Walden Pond he lived a life that was essentially one of poverty. In fact, Thoreau came from a relatively wealthy family. He was educated at Harvard.
If you read between the lines, Thoreau draws attention to this fact in the very first sentence of Walden, where he notes that while living at Walden Pond “[I] earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” In a century when the overwhelming majority of Americans earned a living through the work of their hands, only a wealthy person would likely have felt the need to make such a declaration. Thoreau’s opening statement thus sounds a little like saying “brace yourself for a shock readers: even though I am hardly the sort of person that needs to work for a living, I actually got my hands dirty. Read about my extraordinary adventure!”
A few years ago, a student of mine wryly noted that bookstores are littered with how-to-get-rich manuals for people without much money. Walden is also a how-to manual: how to live like you don’t have any money when in fact you have (or at least your family has) quite a bit. Poverty was a game that Thoreau played at, rather than an inescapable reality of life, as it was – and still is – for so many Americans.
Thoreau was privileged by more than virtue of the fact that he came from money. True, Walden Pond was hardly wilderness, but it was secluded some distance from any neighbors. One hundred and seventy years ago, it would simply not have been safe for a woman, a person of color, a member of the LBGTQ+ community, or any number of people to live alone in such an isolated place. (I’m not sure things have improved that much in this regard in all the intervening years.)
Walden is, of course, also ableist. How, exactly, do you live Thoreau’s Walden lifestyle in a wheelchair? Or with certain medical conditions? Or if you are elderly?
In short, Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond was a sort of game that could, for the most part, only have been played at the time by a relatively small, select group: healthy, wealthy, young white men.
Let’s also not ignore Thoreau’s personality. As journalist Kathryn Schulz provocatively argued in an article in The New Yorker a few years ago, Thoreau was, by all accounts, a jerk. Not someone with whom you would want to spend much time.
And then there are the problems with Walden, the book. It can be difficult to get through the text, as the writing is…well… rather unreadable in places. I keep kidding that one day I will do a translation of Walden. The joke is that, as Walden is just 165 years old, its modern English should present few challenges. And yet, hardly a pleasant read, it can be downright difficult to get through at times. Still, I encourage everyone to persevere, at least through the first two chapters, as it should prove well worth the effort.
In fairness to Thoreau, his prose bears the mark of his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose cryptic essay style would also be enormously influential on Friedrich Nietzsche, who in turn would influence the writing style of philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Jaques Derrida. This approach to writing, which is designed to present the reader with interpretive challenges, is arguably just the opposite of clear and simple prose. In other words, Thoreau’s writing is not clear and straightforward because he didn’t want it to be – which is a vexing state of affairs for those of us who are looking for clear help with our climate crisis.
OK, by now you are no doubt wondering why in the world I am suggesting that you read Walden, when I am unabashedly of the opinion that it and Thoreau are a mess.
The fact is that Walden is one of the most important books that I have ever read. In some ways, perhaps THE most important. That’s why I keep reading and assigning it, year after year. Incidentally (as you may have gathered from the above discussion), for me, even though I read it under the influence of Thoreau’s formidable legacy when I first picked up Walden in my teens, its importance for me now has far less to do with its back-to-nature approach than the future that I believe it can help us forge.
In order to make clear Walden’s significance for the 21st-century, first imagine that you are looking at me and that I am using my hand to point at something, let’s say to a cloud in the sky, directing you to examine it. Once you see where I am pointing you and begin examining it, my hand can be largely forgotten. You might be grateful to me and my hand for pointing you there, but that’s pretty much where it should end.
Similarly, it’s all too easy to focus on Walden’s faults, Thoreau’s faults. It’s also largely a waste of time. Instead, we need to attend to where Thoreau is pointing us, to what he wants us to examine.
Where Thoreau is pointing us is – in a real twist – back to ourselves, as he is asking each of us to step out of our lives so that we can examine our lives, in detail. In short, while reading Walden, we need to stop thinking about Thoreau and start thinking about ourselves.
I know, this can sound pretty facile. Writers and thinkers have been encouraging self examination for thousands of years. Socrates did it, as have plenty of people since. But Thoreau is different; this is not a thought experiment, this is a call to change nearly everything about how your life is lived. Even more than that, Thoreau is in some sense asking you to change who you are.
Think of life like a play (a theatrical performance) that has been scripted for you. When you were born, you stepped into a role, exceptionally intricate, that was written long before you were even conceived. Where you would live, how you would get around, what you would eat, all this was spelled out for you, in detail.
It’s not that you aren’t given some latitude in playing the role. For example, you can choose the particular house that you want and can afford; however, you can’t choose to go live in a garden shed out in a nearby park (à la Thoreau) without being seen as an oddball. Fearing that we might seem that way, most of us succumb to powerful social pressures to conform to the role.
Hence, like most people, we live the life scripted for us. Thoreau is urging us to step outside of the role and carefully examine the script, even at the risk of appearing to be a little odd. Moreover, he is urging us to do something that few people can muster the courage to do: to script our own lives.
How to begin? Thoreau began by disrupting his life. He stopped living the way that had been scripted for him, so that he could step outside the role and take some time to carefully examine it and life itself. In the middle of the play that was his life, Thoreau yelled “cut,” jumped off the stage, and wandered off to find a quiet place to first examine the script, then to get down to writing his own.
While an enormous amount of attention has been given to where Thoreau went (the semi-wilderness of Walden Pond), in focusing on the place, we risk losing sight of the fact that he went there to reflect on his life. In other words, Thoreau is generally remembered – thanks to that formidable legacy – for where he did his project of self-examination, rather than the project itself. It is time to shift focus back to that highly personal project.
This is not, of course, to say that the place is unimportant. However, a generation of scholars, folks like Lawrence Buell in The Environmental Imagination in 1995, so foregrounded the importance of Thoreau’s semi-wilderness setting that Buell suggested that Walden Pond can be understood as a character in the text rather than just a setting. Perhaps, but let’s not forget that it was also a setting, and just one of many possible places that Thoreau could have conducted his journey of self discovery and transformation. True, it would have been a different journey if conducted elsewhere, but perhaps every bit as revealing and transformative, though no doubt in other ways.
After he walked away from his cushy life to a spartan one on the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau spent the next two years reflecting on his life. In other words, after the day-to-day life that he took for granted was disrupted, he was able to turn in on life itself to ask if he, in fact, wanted that life back.
Although the opening of Walden is taken up with quite a bit of musing on the subject of life, the title of the second chapter really underscores Thoreau’s project: “Where I lived, and what I lived for.”
This is incidentally where a good translation of Thoreau would come in handy. After listening to him ramble on about himself in his opening chapter, readers may well groan when turning the page and reading that heading, as it makes clear that he is going to continue going on and on about himself for another chapter.
A far better approach would be to title that second chapter “Where do YOU live, and what do YOU live for?” After all, this book is – as far as I am concerned – really about the reader, not Thoreau, the writer. The problem is that Thoreau is so self-involved that he has trouble getting out of the way. Unfortunately this seriously detracts (by turning off many readers) from what I see as his central project: to turn us inward on our own lives, which is a personal matter for the reader that has little to do with the writer, Thoreau, once he points us in the right direction.
Let’s jump to that second part first: do you, really, know what you live for? Is it wealth? Leisure? Fame? Pleasure? Prestige?
While you might expect Thoreau’s discussion of what he lives for to take a philosophical turn (and Thoreau certainly does his fair share of philosophical musings), he instead focuses on something that few philosophers in the Western tradition had spent much time doing: he returns to the day-to-day.
Thoreau not only takes a long hard look at the seemingly mundane issue of where he lives, but what he eats, what he wears, how he gets around, the stuff he makes or buys, and so forth.
As he quickly concludes that his life is excessively complicated and bloated, he is able to offer up a prescription for a better life. This takes the form of an imperative, a command to the reader that Thoreau has – amazingly – reduced to a single word. For emphasis, he repeats it: “Simplify, simplify, simplify!”
In so doing, Thoreau is in many respects the great grandparent of the modern minimalist movement. In order to underscore how, allow me to quote three paragraphs from my book on moving forward to nature that take up how Thoreau urges us to simplify where we live, what we wear, and what we eat:
“Distressed by his neighbors, who even in the 1850s were building increasingly lavish houses, Thoreau pondered what would be the simplest dwelling possible for a single person. His answer? A wooden version of a single-person tent, with a floor just big enough for a bedroll. To keep things simple from the start, he proposed recycling a used railway storage box, which could be purchased at the time for a dollar, for the purpose. Ultimately, he settled on a larger structure, which at 150 square feet may seem lavish by comparison but is nevertheless about the size of an average garden shed (which his cabin at Walden Pond resembled).”
“When Thoreau turned his attention to clothing, he railed against the fashion industry, which even then was centered in Paris, for encouraging us to buy into fleeting trends: ‘The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveler’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.’ Because ‘every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new,’ clothing was (as it is even more today) being discarded as unfashionable when it was still quite usable. To simplify things, Thoreau suggested not giving in to the whims of fashion. Instead, own just a few pieces of sturdy clothing and, for good measure, ‘beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’”
“With respect to food, Thoreau made repeated appeals for the simplicity of vegetarianism: ‘I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals.’ As early as Walden, he also rejected imported foodstuffs, like coffee and tea. His last work, unpublished in his lifetime, was a celebration of local and seasonal wild fruit, which he extolled as superior to their imported counterparts, such as oranges and bananas that were being shipped into U.S. ports (like nearby Boston) by way of sailing ships.”
Thoreau argues that a simpler life is a better life, a happier life. In part, this is because having less means that we do not need to work nearly as much in acquiring ever more. In Thoreau’s era, the standard work week was six days with one day (Sunday) off. By living a simple life, Thoreau suggested that you could work just one day and have the rest of the week for…well…living and enjoying life.
As Thoreau argued with respect to fashion, a range of industries convince us to buy and consume tons of stuff with one goal in mind (and these are Thoreau’s very modern sounding words, not mine): the goal is “unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched.”
In other words, although all sorts of corporations, through careful marketing, try to convince us that we will profit from the things that they sell us, it is actually – as Thoreau clearly saw – the other way around: they are the only ones who really profit. Consumerism doesn’t make us happy, rather just the opposite.
I should confess to why Thoreau particularly resonates with me on this count, as I am, to be honest, obsessed with the climate crisis. If you take Thoreau’s prescription to simplify, not only might it (as he suggests) make you happier, it can make for a far happier planet.
If you are an average American, a third of your carbon (climate) footprint comes from your house. A quarter comes from transportation, principally having a car. Another quarter comes from all the stuff that we relentlessly consume. And yet another big chunk comes from the food we eat.
If we all took Thoreau’s prescription to “simplify” by reconsidering where we live, how we get around, the stuff that we buy, what we eat, and so forth, we could reduce our carbon footprint by a factor of 10. I’m not talking about moving out to a cabin somewhere. People can and have done this in cities and even suburbs.
If you would like an example, see Peter Kalmus’s splendid book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, which is now available free online. In it, Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recounts how he dramatically reduced the climate footprint of his suburban life.
What is the magic key here? Well, I teach whole courses that take up this question, but I can cut to the chase and (following Thoreau) give an answer in two simple words: “simplify, simplify.”
But, with respect to the climate crisis, is this enough? In other words, is personal action sufficient? Unfortunately, as we shall see, it’s not – not by a long shot.
But, not to worry, as Thoreau can be of great help here too.
In his essay on “Civil Disobedience,” anthologized here with Walden, Thoreau shifts his focus to politics, which is where we also need to turn our attention if we hope to sufficiently mitigate the climate crisis.
In order to understand why politics is so important in the climate crisis, let’s consider methane, which, as you may know, is in many respects a far more worrisome greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). In fact, it’s warming potential over a 100-year period is 34 times greater than CO2.
You may also know that, when it comes to methane emissions, the beef industry is a prime culprit. The EPA notes that 28% of U.S. methane omissions comes from the digestive process (enteric fermentation) of livestock, principally cattle.
Consequently, through the sort of personal action that Thoreau is advocating (and he specifically is arguing that we “leave off eating animals”), we could significantly cut U.S. emissions of methane by foregoing animal products, which would be absolutely terrific.
The problem is that, as the EPA further notes, another 28% of U.S. methane emissions comes from the energy industry. The lion’s share of this comes from hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”), which is an environmentally disastrous way of extracting gas and oil from the Earth that often releases methane as an unavoidable byproduct.
We cannot, practically speaking, end fracking through personal action alone, as we need practical and affordable alternatives (i.e. alternative, renewable energy) for the fracked gas and oil. In short, we need sweeping legislation to ban fracking, as well as to fund and promote alternatives.
How, then, do we stop fracking? Clearly, the answer is through political action. However, someone needs to bring issues like this to the attention of politicians and the public. Indeed, someone needs to make it a thorn in the side of politicians. Enter activists.
For example, in 2016 actor and climate activist Mark Ruffalo produced a short documentary called Dear Governor Brown that urged the former Governor of California to ban fracking (which, incidentally, he refused to do, in spite of Brown’s commitment to mitigating the climate crisis).
You do not need to be a famous actor to be an activist. After all, Greta Thunberg was in many ways a pretty average high school student before she began her work as a climate activist (though in other ways, an altogether extraordinary one with the ability to see the climate crisis as a black-and-white issue and sustain a laser-like focus on the problem).
Thoreau is useful here, as his essay on “Civil Disobedience” laid out a seminal form of activism and political action that would become enormously influential on Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). In turn, contemporary activists like Thunberg, by way of her Skolstrejk för klimatet (“school strike for climate”), are clear heirs to this tradition.
The first of many times that Gandhi was arrested and put in jail, he spent part of his time behind bars reading Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience.” Profoundly influenced by the work, some years later he remarked to Roger Baldwin, Chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union, that Thoreau’s essay “contained the essence of his [Gandhi’s] political philosophy, not only as India’s struggle related to the British, but as to his own views of the relation of citizens to government.”
With respect to MLK, in the second chapter of his autobiography, he lays out the importance of Thoreau to his own political philosophy and specific activism:
“During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’ for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.”
“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.”
Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” will, quite rightly, always be linked to slavery in particular and social justice issues more generally. It is a sad irony that, while Thoreau formulated his strategy of passive resistance in response to slavery, it was most famously deployed in the U.S. a hundred years later by MLK to fight the extant legacy of slavery. Sadly, it hasn’t stop there. As racial injustice is unfortunately still alive and well today, a whole new generation of activists are using Thoreau’s approach to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter” by “advocating for non-violent civil disobedience.”
Thoreau was arrested and put into jail while living at Walden Pond. Just a few months after he moved back to town, he delivered the speech that would become the essay on “Civil Disobedience.” That essay and Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond are closely related.
Incidentally, viewed in this light, Thoreau should hardly be condemned for leaving his life at Walden Pond. He was arguably, after taking two years to reflect on life, returning to the world with the goal of improving it. In his book Advice Not Given, Mark Epstein relates the story of a reclusive Buddhist hermit who had somehow managed to arrange a meeting with the Dalai Lama, presumably in order to discuss theological issues. He was shocked when instead the Dalai Lama told him (and I quote) “Get a life.” In other words, it was time for him to again join the world and work to do good in it. Because, as Epstein notes, the “hermit had a sister who had been taken in the sex trade. The Dalai Lama’s advice motivated him to emerge from his cave and begin providing education and health care for local village women.”
Thoreau’s return to the world can be seen in a similar light. In other words, after seemingly turning his back to the problems of the world while working on self transformation, Thoreau leaves Walden Pond in order to transform the world. Astonishingly, he succeeds.
How do you fight slavery? According to Thoreau, you need to withdraw your support from it. As MLK concisely expressed it, by simply “refusing to cooperate with an evil system.”
We can also send a clear message to (borrowing Thoreau’s words) the “corporations…enriched” by our consumption by dramatically cutting back on what we consume, thereby withdrawing our support.
The approach that Thoreau advocates is different than “voting with our dollars,” as we are not just carefully choosing which corporation to enrich with our dollars, which still serves the interests of one corporation or another (and hence the general system). Rather, Thoreau models a form of protest that dramatically cuts back on the number of dollars that we earn and ultimately spend, thereby undermining unchecked rampant capitalism itself.
And when we do get around to spending the few dollars that we have, Thoreau endorsed buying things like good sturdy clothes that will last, rather than fleeting fashions that often fall out of use before they even show signs of wear or, alternately, simply begin to fall apart because of their poor construction. Translated into the 21st-century, this can also mean buying responsibly made garments, both with respect to environmental and social justice concerns.
If you are familiar with the contemporary issue of fast fashion and the horrific problems that can come with it, as vividly exemplified by the Rana Plaza disaster, you know that social justice issues are intimately intertwined in this industry. This was also the case in Thoreau’s era.
In both England and the U.S., the so-called Industrial Revolution began with the textile industry. While we often associate this revolution with machinery that made textiles, there is another aspect that we sometimes forget. In the U.S., the Industrial Revolution was made possible by cotton. Machinery in the North made fabric out of Southern cotton, which was produced by slave labor. For all practical purposes, no slavery, no Industrial Revolution in the U.S.
Thoreau was, of course, not only aware of this problem, but clearly saw the horror of its efficiency. Throughout human history, most people (i.e. all but the very wealthiest) were lucky if they had adequate clothing, let alone an excess of it. The Industrial Revolution changed that. Because of its brutal efficiency – which both brutalized slaves in the South and proletariat factory workers in the North – the textile industry in the U.S. was able to produce more garments than people actually needed. Many times more.
The fashion industry then succeeded at the formidable task of convincing people that they needed excessive and (frankly altogether) unnecessary clothing. If it sounds a lot like fast fashion, it is. Or at least the great-great-grandparent of fast fashion.
Thoreau’s response? It is, in essence, the same approach that he set down in the essay on “Civil Disobedience.” In MLK’s concise formulation, it centers on “refusing to cooperate with an evil system.” In practice this meant that Thoreau refused to cooperate with a system that was wildly over producing clothing. Instead, in consuming just what he needed – and not many times more than he needed, as was encouraged by the fashion industry – Thoreau modeled a kind of non-violent resistance that, if enacted by enough people, would have transformed the textile/fashion industry. A simple, yet brilliant act of consumer disobedience.
So, while at Walden Pond, Thoreau 1) consumed less in an effort to disrupt an industry that he found problematic and 2) modeled this behavior for others to see. There is a quote often attributed to Gandhi that sums up this two-part action: “be the change that you want to see in the world.”
The problem is that Gandhi did not actually say this. Instead, his argument is subtler and even more applicable: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
Brian Morton, who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College, nicely unpacks what Gandhi is getting at: “Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.”
Gandhi’s perceptive understanding of non-violent, social transformation is, I would argue, a spot-on reading of Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience.” It is not just that Thoreau embarks on activism shortly after leaving Walden Pond by giving a talk on civil disobedience that will ultimately become the essay. What he does is even more extraordinary: he formulates a vision of how profound social transformation – the kind that used to happen through bloody revolutions – can be effectively yet peacefully be brought about. It might sound like an impossible dream, but both Gandhi and MLK proved that it could be achieved.
In short, Thoreau not only invites us to personal action by radically reconsidering our lives, he goes further by encouraging collective activism. Even more extraordinary, he lays out a model for social transformation that can and has changed the world. Make no mistake, this is political activism. Although Thoreau didn’t spend much time in jail for his act of resistance, Gandhi and MLK certainly did (as have many others).
Returning to the climate crisis, taken together, Walden and the essay on “Civil Disobedience” lay down some extraordinary precepts for bringing about change. Although it begins in a personal way with each of our lives, it cannot stop there, as we need (à la Gandhi and MLK) to enlist others, many others, in our fight to transform the world. By necessity, this will involve cultural upheaval and political change. But, on the other side of all this, lies more just and happier lives, as well as a healthier planet.
It is, however, important to remember that in Thoreau’s approach this all begins with personal transformation. In other words, “if you want to change the world, start with yourself” (to again borrow a phrase from Gandhi). The good news is that this inner transformation is of great value in its own right.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the architects of modern mindfulness, nicely sums up Thoreau on this count. Allow me to quote him:
“Henry David Thoreau’s two years at Walden Pond were above all a personal experiment in mindfulness. He chose to put his life on the line in order to revel in the wonder and simplicity of present moments…Thoreau would often sit in his doorway for hours and just watch, just listen, as the sun moved across the sky and the light and shadows changed imperceptibly…When Thoreau says, ‘it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished,’ this is waving a red flag in front of a bull for go-getting, progress-oriented people…Thoreau was singing a song which needed hearing then as it does now. He is, to this day, continually pointing out, for anyone willing to listen, the deep importance of contemplation and of non-attachment to any result other than the sheer enjoyment of being…”
If that sounds a little Buddhist, it is, as both Thoreau and Kabat-Zinn were much influenced by the Buddha’s approach to life and turning in upon it.
Look, Thoreau was certainly a flawed person. Walden is a flawed book. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable and important book. Not because of what it does or Thoreau did but because of what it encourages each of us to do.
You really don’t need to read the whole book. The first two chapters (which, combined, can be read in two or three hours) are, in my opinion, the most important. I definitely think that they are worth your time.
Jump to Chapter #1 of Walden: “Economy”