Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press)


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The idea of leaving the atmosphere alone is no longer an option. Similarly, the dream of mastery is unpromising to the degree that it was the aspiration to mastery that brought us climate change in the first place. Applying simply more conquest as a way to rid ourselves of the adverse effects of conquest seems particularly troubling. The chapter ends with ideas about how to fashion a postnature orientation to climate change.

Chapter 8 concludes the volume. It articulates what I have been calling the middle path. This path is not an answer to our ecological woes or even a set of principles to inform environmentalist policies. Rather, it is a sensibility that one cultivates to live through the paradoxes of a postnature age.

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A postnature age is one in which neither nature nor humanity has a singular essence or fundamental nature. It is an epoch in which we are adrift from the theological categories that have long provided intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual insight and comfort. The middle path is an environmentalist trail through such posttheological terrain. Like all paths that lead to uncertain futures, it has no single map nor even a clear trajectory. Such awareness does not bleach out past theological categories but instead removes such categories of their theistic authority, and thus opens our eyes more widely to the tensions that mark our world.

It involves maintaining a love for wild things and recognizing the impossibility of sustaining that love in a straightforward manner. Such is the challenge of any act of love. Such is the future of American environmentalism. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. It cares about the biological foundations of life, works to protect both present and future generations from ecological harm and environmental injustice, and extends its sense of care to the nonhuman world.

Translating this sensibility into a political campaign has not been easy. Politics eschews complexity. In the heat of competing interests, actors and movements must find ways of simplifying their message—a requirement that calls on them to conceptualize their concerns in broad strokes and package their public outreach in digestible ways.

Like other social movements, environmentalism does this by drawing boundaries. It differentiates its agenda from others and articulates a distinctive view of things that is at odds with its opponents. Such distinctions, to be sure, while required of political participation, are not mere public relations; when expressed well, they reflect deep-seated insights.

The most important distinction that American environmentalism draws is between humans and nature. Nature provides the biological requisites for all of life and the medium through which much injustice is transmitted. The empirical end of nature and social constructivist ecocriticism cast doubt on the human-nature divide. As our species has extended itself across and into every ecological niche, and as we have come to understand nature as a realm onto which we project meaning, it is increasingly hard to maintain faith in and work politically with the boundary between the human and nonhuman worlds.

Can the movement let go of it without risking philosophical coherence and political efficacy? If so, how much should it release its grip, and what gain can it expect? Since its beginnings, it has enshrined the human-nature boundary as the central fulcrum of its politics. The divide has given expression to essential principles and guideposts of the movement—like preservation, conservation, and sustainability. Absent the divide, the movement will be at some loss in its political positioning and conceptual intelligibility.

It does so by identifying the formative events and thinking that crowned the divide as a central premise in the movement. While the end of nature and ecocriticism suggest that we rid ourselves of the boundary, it is worth recognizing the many benefits the divide has provided and the virtues it has made available, and how these have served the movement over its long history. Before explaining the evolution of the human-nature divide in American environmentalism, it is important to delineate the scope of this chapter and, by extension, the focus of the book more generally.

Americans often think of themselves as living at the center of the world. American hegemony has extended its reach far and wide over the past century, and this creates the illusion that the rest of the world is merely playing cultural and institutional catch-up with the United States. Many observers tell the story of American environmentalism as if the movement originated solely on American soil and possesses distinct U. To be sure, there is much that is unique about American environmentalism. In fact, as I will explain, the human-nature divide itself is relatively exclusive to the American environmental tradition.

Nonetheless, the movement is not self-originating. It emerged out of a broader geographic context in which various environmentalist sensibilities have been expressed, activist campaigns have been waged, and practices have been developed. For this reason, while my concern is to explain how the boundary between humans and nature evolved within the American environmentalist tradition, it is necessary to cast the historical and conceptual net beyond U.

American environmentalism is a subset of environmentalism more generally. While it is necessary to cast a wide net to appreciate the evolution of American environmentalism, it is also important to recognize the variegated character of American environmentalism itself. Such characterization is obviously simplistic as it bleaches out significant differences within the movement. Not only has the movement always been rift with differences of outlook and political engagement, it continues to be so divided today.

As mentioned, so-called light greens disagree with dark greens on everything from political strategy to philosophy. Grassroots groups take issue with national organizations, and urban-based activists often focus on radically different issues than their rural counterparts. Indeed, the environmentalist landscape in the United States is vociferously divided as the environmentalist agenda in general has broadened over the years to include issues of social justice, war and peace, corporate globalization, the rights of indigenous people, and sustainability in the broadest sense of the term.

Given this, it is probably more accurate to talk about American environmentalisms these days than a singular movement. This is especially the case when analyzing the human-nature divide in American environmentalism. Plenty of formative thinkers and activists as well as many contemporary figures in the movement do not see themselves as protectors of the nonhuman world per se, and would take issue with viewing the movement as a whole as overly concerned with the fate of wildness.

It is nevertheless the case that a concern for the wildness or otherness of nature has long coursed through and continues to animate the predominant wing of the movement. Thus, to ignore this element is to miss something critical about the evolving identity of American environmentalism. It would dismiss the challenges that the ends of nature pose to the movement and foreclose avenues of insight for thinking about the movement in a postnature age. The Boundaries of Early Environmentalism It is difficult to say exactly when environmentalism first emerged.

The ancient Hebrews, for instance, created laws to prevent air and water pollution, and took measures to avoid destroying trees and nonhuman habitat in times of war. As well, Hesiod, of ancient Greece, expressed reverence for the earth, and recorded prohibitions against contaminating rivers and springs, and Plato wrote of severe deforestation, and lamented the loss of fertile soil and defaced landscapes. Indeed, a steady, if understated, discourse runs through history in which people have worried aloud about and taken actions to minimize environmental degradation.

Notwithstanding this, most observers locate the first inklings of the modern environmental movement in the rise of industrialization in the West. Starting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, societies harnessed oil, gas, and coal in large quantities, replacing manual labor with steampowered manufacturing, and expanding trade through a growing network of rail lines and roadways. Workplaces became mechanized, and trades were broken up into specified tasks. Together these allowed large accumulations of capital, which spurred further investment in manufacturing along with the emergence of financial markets through which goods and services could be bought and sold.

Expanding markets drove demand and created consumer societies within which people had the means and manufacturers supplied the products to satisfy increasing material needs and desires. Novelists such as Charles Dickens wrote about the inhuman working and living conditions in the cities of industrial Europe, and others like Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, portrayed the dangers of a machine world gone awry.

Poets such as William Blake and William Wordsworth complained about how the noisy and dirty factories, mills, and railways of industrialization were degrading rural landscapes and agrarian life. Further, political figures in the global south such as Mahatma Gandhi deplored how industrialization was fueling colonization—turning the developing world into a vulnerable source of raw materials, enabling the exploitation of large swaths of humanity, and bringing the economistic logic of the global North to the South.

This first expression was not, to be sure, an ideological bloc, singular school of thought, or coherent movement. Rather, it was a diverse set of criticisms leveled against an emerging array of social forces associated with the Industrial Revolution. As such, environmentalism was a set of social and moral criticisms. Romantic poets, transcendental philosophers, Victorian and gothic novelists, and other intellectuals recognized that the technological, economic, and political changes that industrialization was bringing in its wake threatened the quality of life for humanity and the natural world itself.

This is the idea of limits. Emerson, Thoreau, Wordsworth, Gandhi, and others saw industrialization as a powerful force that threatened to deface beautiful landscapes, obliterate traditional ways of life, and reformat the way that people think about and experience the world. Their environmentalism, as it were, was a matter of trying to hold back, resist, or otherwise minimize the life-changing power of industrialization. They sought to preserve wild places, rural lands, the values of more simplistic ways of life, and the kinds of experiences that nature offers for transcending the self and its urban-inspired preoccupations.

Put differently, they tried to draw a boundary around the engines of industrialization while protecting the rest of the lifeworld and natural environment from being so colonized. They railed against this. They sought to preserve the untamed, the feral, and the rawness of life. Early environmentalist inklings involved erecting a conceptual boundary, policing the barricades, and trying to set limits on the mastering impulses of humanity.

On one side of the divide was nature or at least nature as largely unformatted by humans—the wild, self-willed, or other-than-human-willed world that operates independent of human intention. On the other side was humanity—the tamed realm of human artifact, culture, and sociability. Early environmentalists sought to circumscribe and protect the former.

Limits were a form of cordoning off and consecrating the wildness of the earth. While not a movement per se, these early voices spawned activist efforts. More empirically minded, this second group of thinkers erected a different set of boundaries. Their voices, and the borders they fought to establish and protect, have nonetheless also become central to contemporary environmentalism in general and American environmentalism in particular. To this second set of thinkers, industrialization threatened not simply the quality but the viability of life.

Nature was not just a place that offered unique experiences or harbored the essence of wildness but also a set of biophysical entities and relationships on which humans fundamentally depend. Nature provides resources, in the form of food, wood, fuel, and minerals, and absorbs biological and technical waste. To many, industrialization seemed to have an endless appetite for natural resources, and with the harnessing and burning of fossil fuels and industrial-size production processes, was generating a seemingly incessant amount of waste.

Some people started to realize that such a system was unsustainable. The earth is capable of producing only so many resources and only at a certain pace, and can absorb only so much environmental assault. An insatiable appetite for resources and an out-of-control production process would eventually run up against limits. To this second set of thinkers, these limits were not ideational but physical.

They involved matters not of ideals but survival. One of the first and most forceful voices to raise the specter of sustainability and set into motion broad concern about the biophysical limits of nature was the political economist Thomas Malthus. In his often-referenced Essay on the Principle of Population, which Malthus continually revised between and , Malthus worried that the gifts of industrialization, including advances in medicine and sanitation, were enabling people to live longer, have more children, and reduce infant mortality.

He predicted that this would create significant problems as accelerating growth in population would eventually outpace increases in food production. Malthus foresaw a world of much misery as people would begin to fight over dwindling food supplies, pestilence would spread as a result of unhealthy living conditions, and famine would visit increasingly larger parts of the world.

To Malthus, the earth had only so much fertility to it, and while this could be unlocked and partially taken advantage of through human ingenuity as well as enterprise, it could only be done at a certain pace and up to a definite limit. At some point—Malthus predicted the middle of the nineteenth century—humanity would rub up against the limits of material productivity and thus face dire consequences.

His thought has served as a foundational message for much of the environmental movement, especially in the United States. After Malthus, people started to see multiple edges or boundaries that—no matter how brazen humans were—could not be crossed without harmful consequences. Throughout the colonies, rain forests were converted to tea, cotton, and sugarcane plantations to feed the growing appetites of those in the metropole.

Within the United States and Europe, the effects of industrialization on forests were equally felt as railroads opened up whole new tracts of land and intensified ongoing deforestation. Concerns about these took on a Malthusian tone as nineteenthcentury scientists like Alexander von Humboldt and Dietrich Brandis of Germany witnessed intense deforestation in South America and South Asia, and warned that while cropland is important, such deforestation robs people of needed firewood, erodes the land, and diminishes fresh water as trees no longer provide shade, hold moisture, or otherwise protect creeks, rivers, and lakes from wearing away.

Similar thinkers in various parts of the world expressed related fears as they saw vast tracts of verdant land fall under poor cultivation methods and suffer the consequences of unmindful resource use.

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These people understood that you can push nature only so far. At some point in time it will buckle under too much assault, and when this happens, the foundations that keep life alive will falter. On the romantic side, later environmentalists shared the view of Wordsworth, Blake, Thoreau, and others that wildness is something to be prized and protected for aesthetic, spiritual, and moral reasons. This tradition of thought and concern continues to course through the American environmental movement.

It constitutes what many see as the preservationist wing of American environmentalism. Likewise, a tradition has grown out of the work of Malthus, Humboldt, and Marsh focused on sustainability. Gifford Pinchot, the first secretary of the U. Forest Service, Henry Adams, historian and grandson and great-grandson of presidents, and Harold Ickes, the interior secretary under Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, all embodied this trajectory in their focus on the scale and pace of resource extraction and waste production.

Thinkers and activists of this ilk refuse to draw a hard-and-fast line dividing nature and humans, or wildness and civilization, and seek instead a dynamic boundary across which humans can travel, but importantly, only up to a point. The modern American environmental movement emerged as an amalgamation of these two streams of thought.

While American environmentalism can be traced back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and while it gained greater sophistication and development throughout the early twentieth century, it really came into its own in the s and early s. Silent Spring describes the ecological effects of widespread and growing pesticide and herbicide use. When it was first published, Silent Spring sounded the environmental alarm as it explained how industrial pollutants were literally poisoning the environment as well as endangering humans and all forms of life.

Carson dramatized environmental dangers by writing about them in warlike terms. To her, the sheer amount and extensiveness of poisons poured on to and throughout the earth resembled a battle between humans and the natural world. It was a matter of overextending ourselves into the nonhuman world. Indeed, Carson did not reject pesticides or herbicides outright.

She believed that they could be used in small, targeted quantities to destroy weeds, protect crops, and assist in diminishing insect-borne diseases. She understood that the residues of herbicides and pesticides would bioaccumulate up the food chain—killing worms, insects, and birds—and disrupt the healthy functioning of creatures including people and ecosystems in general.

Carson identified a boundary beyond which she thought human beings should not go. We can interact with the natural world: use its resources, count on it to absorb our waste, and enjoy the recreational and aesthetic opportunities that it offers. Yet if we delve into and disrupt its workings too deeply, as she envisioned we were in our chemical war against nature, we alter its reproductive, chemical, and biological abilities. For Carson, doing so is not only unwise but ultimately suicidal. Silent Spring remains one of the most forceful warnings about human intervention into natural processes.

At the time it was published, it started a virtual revolution in thought, and was soon followed by other clarion calls of concern.

Carl Sagan at MIT - Management in the Year 2000: Sloan School Symposium 1987

Like Carson, Ehrlich recognized real material limits across which humanity cannot tread with impunity. Similar warnings came out of the Club of Rome report—written by a group of systems analysts, natural scientists, and engineers, and published as The Limits to Growth—which envisioned burgeoning population and consumption pressing the generative capacity of the earth to produce resources and absorb waste. They foresaw a pattern of growth in almost all dimensions of the human world, and saw this in conflict with the finitude of the natural one.

Throughout the s and s numerous books, articles, films, and popular songs alerted society to the dangers of ecological overshoot and planetary fragility. Moreover, American society began actually witnessing and experiencing resource scarcity and environmental harm throughout this same period. In the early s, for example, in response to U. Likewise, a number of events brought the dangers of pollution into high relief. A huge oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, the bursting into flames of the Cuyahoga River, the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, and reports of contamination of Love Canal underlined the stakes of ill-managing industrial society and the problems associated with exceeding amounts of waste.

Following in the footsteps of Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Emerson, and later Muir, Roosevelt, and Leopold, quite a number of thinkers and activists arose in the late s and s to protect natural places and nonhuman creatures. This wing of the movement continued to insist that wild places have not only biological significance but also moral, spiritual, and aesthetic value.

This dimension of the movement gave voice to animal rights, the importance of biological diversity, and the notion of intrinsic value to things other than humans, and helped establish organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and Earth Island Institute. Like other dimensions of the modern American environmental movement, it identified the divide between humans and nature, and tried to staff the barricades between them. Conclusion The environmental movement has changed in many ways since its early days in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its modern incarnation in the s and s.

It has grown tremendously in size and geographic reach, and enlarged its agenda to focus on everything from wilderness protection, toxics, and climate change, to social justice, peace, and indigenous people. The American environmental movement is still fundamentally animated by a set of principles, emerging out of its early years, which guide its sensibilities, frame its policies, and in general orient it to the broad task of pursuing environmental well-being. At the heart of these principles is the human-nature divide—a distinction that implicitly calls on people to preserve, conserve, and sustain the viability, functionality, and wildness of the earth.

Environmentalism has offered much to the world by analytically separating humans from nature and recognizing how much the latter means to us. American environmentalists have won many victories and advanced the cause of environmental protection based on the dichotomy. In this chapter, I have briefly traced the evolution of the distinction as it emerged within the American environmentalist tradition.

This hopefully helps one appreciate the long historical reach that the concept of nature has had in the movement and the political efficacy of distinguishing nature from humanity. Boundaries do not simply separate but also encourage people to privilege one side of a divide over another. By separating nature from humanity, early environmentalists did not merely draw analytic distinctions but left their descendants a legacy of preference as well.

They implicitly called for later environmentalists to choose the realm of nature over that of humanity and work on behalf of nature in contrast to the human-made world. In the following chapter I explain this legacy, and what it has come to mean philosophically and politically for the movement. I do so by explicating the dream of naturalism and the role nature has played and continues to play in the American environmental movement. Disillusioned by the glitz of urban life, they built farms, grew their own food, and attempted to reconvene with nature.

The back-to-the-land movement, as it became known, sought a way of cutting through the affectations of the times, digging below the surface of social cues, and discovering a deeper sense of self and life. In nature, the back-to-the-landers found what they thought was a route to more authentic living. Nature, in all its seeming purity and nakedness, appeared as an uncontaminated realm in which one could experience life unadorned by the corporate, consumer-based pretentiousness that characterized American society at the time.

They saw the good life epitomized by living close to nature, and in conformity with its ecological imperatives and limits. The back-to-the-landers did not, of course, invent the valorization of nature or the search for authenticity. Nature, in this sense, has long been associated with all that is good, beautiful, true, and right in the world. By returning to the land, and dedicating themselves in both thought and action to nature, they showed that there is something fundamentally attractive about the natural world. What is the urge toward nature, and how does it inform American environmentalism?

How does the love of, trust in, and respect for nature animate the thought and politics of the movement? In the following, I explain that nature serves as an object of aspiration for many environmentalists. It is a good toward which a sizable number of American environmentalists gravitate. The back-to-the-landers did not melt into the landscape when they left the city; they did not become nature. Rather, they oriented their lives toward an ideal of harmonizing with, rather than imposing themselves on, nature. Nature, as such, disciplines practice and provides a direction for policy.

Many environmentalists use it as a trajectory for thought and action. In doing so, they embrace what I have been calling the dream of naturalism. It is a dream insofar as we never fully integrate into the natural world but nonetheless maintain the desire to do so. The dream of naturalism is not simply the sensibility at the heart of environmentalism but also represents one of the poles in environmental politics.

As mentioned in the introduction, environmentalists and their critics square off over the place of nature in our lives. While many environmentalists subscribe to the dream of naturalism, environmental skeptics aspire toward the dream of mastery. Skeptics see human beings as superior to the natural world, and thus believe that humanity can and should outsmart, manipulate, and ultimately subdue nature in the service of human betterment.

The dual dreams of naturalism and mastery have polarized environmental politics for decades, and continue to do so. Coming to terms with the dream of naturalism, then, provides not simply a deeper understanding of American environmentalism but also helps articulate the rifts within environmental politics and opens lines of thought for envisioning a postnature environmentalism. It is essential to note one thing before proceeding. At the beginning of the last chapter, I mentioned the variegated character of the American environmental movement.

I explained how light greens disagree with dark greens, grassroots groups take issue with national organizations, and many wings of the movement are animated by issues that only tangentially have to do with protecting wildness. It was only after noting this that I identified the dominant line of thought and practice in the movement that divides humans from nature, and tries to protect the wildness of the latter from the former. The same qualification is relevant for this chapter. In the following, I will suggest that deep down, most American environmentalists subscribe to the dream of naturalism.

Most recognize the necessity and desire to harmonize human life with the natural world. There are many thinkers, activists, and organizations within the movement that approach environmental challenges from a different orientation. Nonetheless, the dream is real enough and pervasive throughout the movement. The American environmentalist imagination has long seen nature as representing much that is true, good, right, and beautiful in the world.

It means that no matter what human beings do, sooner or later the laws of nature will express themselves and take precedence over human activity. For example, people can build houses in floodplains, pump excessive amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, or wipe out species at inordinate numbers. At some point in time, however, human activity will be vulnerable to the patterns of nature—patterns that are blind to the intentions or well-being of human beings. Environmentalists tout the slogan to remind people that while humans can try to control nature— and have done so in truly remarkable ways—ultimately nature is sovereign.

In the end, nature sets the limits of human activity. People can, of course, come to appreciate or at least tolerate these changes, but the ultimate authority is nature itself. Today nature is speaking rather loudly. For instance, the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere represents the planet saying that it has reached its limit for absorbing carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases.

I can absorb no more. In these cases, the sovereignty of nature is apparent. Humans cannot continue business as usual, expecting the earth to be forever pliant. That nature has limits is not to say that it is always in a homeostatic balance or somehow does not change. Nature, like all else, changes all the time. Creatures grow, species evolve, and ecosystems alter in the face of exogenous and endogenous forces. This is what environmentalists mean by limits. They focus mainly on two dimensions of environmental harm. First, they are concerned with resources. The earth produces, by its very aliveness, a vast array of animals, plants, and minerals that we use to feed, shelter, and fuel ourselves, and that the earth cycles through its systems to maintain ecological health.

All of these are renewable in the sense that they regenerate over time; the earth can replenish resources. The problem is that the natural rate of regeneration for most resources is slower than the speed at which humans are consuming them. Timber, fish, topsoil, and freshwater renew themselves relatively quickly; oil, coal, and various minerals obviously regenerate at much slower rates. Depletion of resources has long preoccupied various wings of the environmental movement. Today, concern about resources still animates the environmental movement.

Environmentalism has always concerned itself not simply with resources but also with sinks. Every process of production and consumption generates some type of waste. The earth has the capacity to absorb much of this waste without compromising its ability to provide ecosystem services or simply maintain ecosystem health.

The earth can neutralize waste only at a certain rate. When we dump too much byproduct into our water, air, or soil, the sink stops up. This is why environmentalists worry not simply about running out of raw materials but also about the waste stream that accompanies the extraction, processing, distribution, and consumption of materials we already have at hand. So while environmentalists fear peak oil, they also worry about the risks associated with waste generated by actually burning known oil reserves.

These risks include increased air pollution, smog, and the dangerous buildup of greenhouse gases. Similarly, environmentalists worry about not only deforestation but also the waste stream dioxins and other effluents generated by the process of turning timber into processed materials like paper. Overloading sinks, like overusing resources, has been a longstanding concern.

Charles Dickens wrote of fouled air, Carson about the bioaccumulation of harmful pesticides, and McKibben of the buildup of greenhouse gases. Our overgeneration of waste fouls not simply our nest but the nests of every creature on earth as well. And when it does, we witness something veritable about the world. Nature is not something imaginary but rather something genuinely real. Indeed, because it sets the biophysical constraints on life, it represents the most real, as it were.

It thus becomes something on which environmentalists ground their perceptions of the world. Nature is the most certain of things. The Good: Biomimicry The sovereignty of nature is a powerful idea. It means that something else, something other than humans, sets the conditions for human life. No matter what we think or want, the natural world will unfold not as we would necessarily like but rather as it needs to. That nature operates according to necessity leads environmentalists to endow it not only with empirical weight but also normative significance. The natural world not only operates in a certain fashion but seemingly should operate in this manner, and we would do best to follow its cues.

Here the idea is not that we must fear nature because it is an unforgiving force but that we should actually emulate it as a standard for living authentic, spiritually rich, and ethically upright lives. We thus follow nature not because it threatens our biophysical well-being per se but also because doing so offers a more meaningful life. At the heart of naturam sequi is the view that nature is of a higher dignity than human life. The ancient Greeks distinguished between physis nature and nomos law, custom, or convention. It represents the way things would be if human beings were out of the picture.

It therefore has a primacy to it that is missing from human laws, customs, and the like, because the latter are matters of human interpretation and sociality rather than characteristics inscribed in the very essence of the world. What is curious is that physis enjoys this primacy not simply because nature seems to operate according to necessity—where one must respect nature or else—but rather because physis is unblemished by the imperfections and incongruities that often mark human life, and thus stands as a model for those seeking to live in the highest ways possible.

Put differently, naturam sequi represents the age-old aspiration to seek extrahuman sources of value, inspiration, and philosophical foundation for human life. Not to stray far from Nature and to mould [sic] ourselves according to her law and pattern—this is true wisdom. Environmentalists have taken this in multiple directions. Social ecologists, for instance, argue that nature works according to principles of equality not hierarchy , differentiation not uniformity , and cooperation not competition.

They thus call on humans to fold these same principles into our institutions and personal relations. Curiously enough, it is not simply the nature lovers who express a type of naturam sequi. Today, the most technologically minded environmentalists are also seeking fundamental insight from nature. Architects such as William McDonough are designing buildings that work like trees—turning solar energy into power, neutralizing waste, and providing habitat for diverse species.

She tracks such attempts to show that following nature will not only protect us from grave environmental dangers but also enhance our experience of the world. This normative attraction to nature differs from the prudential one in that it sees nature not strictly as a realm of necessity but rather one of choice and tendency. As the Cicero quote suggests, we have the choice to follow nature or not.

For environmentalists, we can fully realize our essence by modeling our lives after nature. In its grandest sense, this involves formatting society and human practices on ecological principles—an enterprise that privileges the natural over the artificial, the given over the made. To be sure, not all environmentalists share this sensibility, but the idea that human life is best lived by following nature is central to many manifestations of American environmentalism.

Yet many American environmentalists embrace nature as a matter of not only principle but also moral practice. This involves not emulating nature per se but instead letting nature be—that is, letting it evolve or otherwise develop independent of human needs and desires. This is one expression of the preservationist tradition in the movement. Shielding nature from human manipulation is, in other words, a moral act. Interacting with nature is inevitable for human beings. Almost everything we do involves using nature in some capacity.

Simply meeting our physiological needs requires us to use nature—and often in extensive ways. Environmentalism is largely about complaining that our exploitation of nature need not be as intense or expansive as it tends to be, and offering ways to restrict our excessive interventions. Advancing this message, however, has been challenging, as the viewpoint takes issue with the longstanding Western tradition of seeing nature as inferior to humans.

When we see nature as less important than ourselves we take license to treat it as we see fit. For many environmentalists, this predicament is at the root of our environmental woes and thus combating it is central to environmentalist efforts. Environmentalists give different explanations for the belittling of nature. The Judeo-Christian tradition, modernity, patriarchy, capitalism, and the like understand nature as existing for humans or at least being so subordinate to us that we are given free moral reign to treat it as we deem appropriate.

In the language of environmental ethics, our institutions, structures, and ideologies make us anthropocentric: they animate us to privilege human life above all else, and relate all that happens in the world to human interests and concerns. Such privileging denies any sense of intrinsic worth to plants, animals, mountain ranges, or ecosystems. These entities are not regarded as ends in themselves but rather matter only to the degree that humans can use them. As a result, humans are able to exploit nature endlessly because, from an anthropocentric perspective, nature enjoys no inherent moral significance.

Most schools of ethical thought start with the premise that morality is reserved for rational beings who can make conscious choices about their lives. That is, something must have the ability to reflect, sense its own autonomy, or otherwise reason about its existence for it to deserve moral consideration.


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Most of us give little thought to manipulating a car, for instance, because cars lack autonomy or a sense of self. Much of the Western tradition has looked at nature in this same way. It has seen plants, rocks, waterfalls, and animals as devoid of reason, and thus ineligible for genuine moral regard. Different environmentalists over the ages have resisted this assessment in various ways.

For example, the animal rights movement, which has played and continues to play an important role in environmentalism, has consistently argued that animals have discernible levels of consciousness that enable them to feel pain, act with volition, or otherwise experience a sense of self. The minimalist position here has been expressed by those like ethicist Peter Singer, who contends that animals are sentient beings that experience pleasure and pain, and therefore our treatment of them is a matter of moral significance.

This makes them, along with children and people who are cognitively impaired, deserving of moral worth. The animal rights movement seeks to expand the circle of the moral community to include animals. Others go further by claiming that people should extend moral consideration to all forms of life including plants and other organisms—a form of biocentrism. Biocentrism holds that human beings are not the center of the universe but simply one species among others, and therefore are undeserving of special status.

Biocentrists believe that nonhuman entities have a right to exist simply because they are alive in the world. The aliveness of nonhuman entities endows them with intrinsic worth, and affords them rights independent of how human beings might use them, what they mean to us, or any level of consciousness they may display. Those concerned with biological diversity, habitat preservation, and wilderness protection usually subscribe to some form of biocentric thinking, and thus see environmentalism as basically a nature-centered type of moral practice.

Environmentalists of this ilk are often challenged when deciding what moral consideration entails, since as mentioned, being human requires us to interact and use nature in instrumental ways. While biocentrism offers no singular hard-and-fast rules, it does provide a general receptivity to the existence of other living entities on earth.

It celebrates the sheer otherness of nature, and argues that this in itself calls on people to treat nature with moral respect. It provides elements of the moral foundations for environmental legislation such as the U. Biocentric and ecocentric orientations also inform some of the more so-called radical environmental groups such as Earth First!

The rejection of anthropocentrism—whether in its animal liberation, biocentric, or ecocentric variety—revolves around criticizing the way humans place themselves at the center of things and lord over the natural world. Leopold articulated this critique over fifty years ago when he envisioned extending moral worth to the nonhuman world as simply the latest phase of a centuries-long effort to expand the boundaries of the moral community.

In ancient times, according to Leopold, moral consideration was reserved for property-owning males. Eventually, women were welcomed into the fold as were all types of people—including children and people with disabilities—who were formerly considered somehow less than human. Leopold argues for extending moral consideration beyond the boundaries of humanity to include all entities. It implies respect for his fellow members and also respect for community as such.

At the heart of all such expressions is the idea that humans are not the only and arguably not the most important species or sentient organism on earth, and therefore must respect the autonomy of the nonhuman world. Their actions and explanations suggest that they intuitively sense that nature has intrinsic worth, and as such is deserving of our respect and fair treatment.

To be sure, many environmentalists might argue about what fair treatment implies. Yet behind such disagreements is a general sense that nature has a right to exist and flourish independent of human beings. Nature is not something irrelevant to human ethical life but rather provides a pivotal focus for cultivating moral principles for living. Nature, to put it differently, offers an ethical foundation for humanity. It is a realm in which justice and virtue can be sought after and exercised.

Many care simply because they enjoy the experience of visiting or immersing themselves in nature. Nature is beautiful to many people. Natural places, exotic species, dramatic landscapes, unique ecosystems, and various soundscapes provide many with a strong sense of pleasure and well-being.

Paul Wapner: Living Through The End Of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism

This aesthetic dimension involves the enjoyment, love, and what some may call the soulful enrichment many people experience in nature. Many people point out that widespread enjoyment of the natural world is a relatively new human experience insofar as most of our ancestors perceived nature as a frightening or at least threatening realm that had to be resisted, overcome, or mastered.

They had to work to secure food and shelter against the elements, and lived in a more naturalistic setting in which wild animals as well as the unpredictability of weather and disease constantly threatened human well-being. This has permitted individuals a newfound capacity to experience nature as a source of aesthetic pleasure—something they choose to enjoy rather than fear or struggle against.

This sensibility has been given a more distinct voice by modern-day American environmentalists, but its initial articulations stretch far back into history. The Sierra Club is one of the largest and most influential environmental organizations in the United States. Established in , with Muir as one of its founders, the organization still retains his vision of environmental protection. He once walked from Indiana to Florida, and after he discovered the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley, immersed himself in the California wilderness on and off for years. He enjoyed climbing trees during rainstorms and swaying in the wind.

He scaled rocky mountain cliffs and would walk for days through unexplored terrain. Part naturalist, Muir studied the structure of flowers, habits of animals, and undulations of the land. He felt constantly moved by what he saw and experienced. For Muir, nature was not simply a stock of natural resources but rather a place for the most satisfying recreation and a source of rejuvenation. He counseled preserving nature in large part so people could experience the joys of being in the wilderness. Wilderness to Muir was the perfect antidote to the staid living in so-called civilization.

It believes that getting people into nature is good for them, and strategically it counts on people to work for nature preservation once they have experienced the joys of hiking, biking, kayaking, or otherwise immersing themselves in the natural world. Appreciating the aesthetic and rejuvenating qualities of nature is apparently not only a good to be enjoyed but also a psychological necessity.

Author Richard Louv points out, for instance, how increasing numbers of children around the world, but especially in the United States and Europe, no longer experience nature in a day-to-day sense. To Louv, the aesthetic dimension of nature is not some luxury that we can choose to experience but is instead essential to our psychological health.

One of the most eloquent to express this sentiment was, of course, Thoreau. Thoreau was not an environmentalist in the modern sense of the word. As mentioned, he lived before there were organized groups concerned with environmental protection and before a set of coherent ideas could be articulated on behalf of nature protection.

It differs, however, because, as Thoreau himself makes clear, it looks to nature for a certain type of experience rather than a model of how to live all the time. Although Thoreau lived at Walden for two years, he eventually left to live among his friends and family in Concord, Massachusetts, and even left Walden occasionally while in residence. For Thoreau, nature fundamentally represented a realm of spiritual evocation. Like his colleague Emerson, he believed that the divine spirit is present throughout nature and that humans can more fully experience the divine within themselves when they have intimate contact with the natural world.

For Thoreau, Emerson, and other transcendental-minded philosophers the pull toward divinity was primarily aesthetic. It is probably no accident that the stories of many religious figures relate how such people experience their most profound insights in the wilderness. For example, we are told that the patriarchs of the three Abrahamic faiths—Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed—each felt the presence of God in the wilderness.

Likewise, the Buddha gained enlightenment under the bodi tree, and Confucianism, Jainism, and Taoism have always encouraged practitioners to experience nature as a form of religious devotion. The important point is that the relationship between nature and divinity, especially because of the sublime qualities many find in nature, has long informed environmentalism and continues to do so. A final dimension of this aesthetic sense is offered by sociobiologist Edward O.

Wilson in his concept of biophilia. Wilson claims that each person is hereditarily predisposed to feel a deep affinity with nature. This comes from spending the bulk of our evolutionary past on the African savannah and in contact with other species. According to Wilson, at some level everyone derives a sense of profundity and aesthetic pleasure by experiencing certain landscapes and interacting with other species.

For our purposes it is less a matter of whether the insight is true than understanding what it implies. The biophilia hypothesis seeks to explain why so many of us feel deeply drawn to nature. For Wilson, it is a matter of genetics; for others, it is a question of historically and socially acquired tastes.

Either way the intent is to explain the appeal nature has for humans and further illustrate the important role of nature in environmentalism. Noting that so much of the so-called natural world is already human designed—he was thinking of the parks of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—Krieger recommends that we could come to appreciate, find genuine meaning in, and experience authentic pleasure in landscapes that are artificially created rather than encountered.

Environmentalists reacted strongly to the article and its suggestion. Although they could not articulate it in an abundantly clear way, many felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with creating forests of artificial trees even if, from a visual perspective, such forests might be indistinguishable from the original ones.

This sense of wrong is primarily aesthetic. Nature, unto itself, carries too much weight for environmentalists. Deliberately getting rid of it thus appears as a sacrilegious act. Conclusion The idea that humans should follow nature is ancient. It has to do with the general notion that we should look outside ourselves, toward the more-than-human world, to grasp the limits of human possibility as well as find the source of wisdom, ethical instruction, and beauty. In this chapter, I have been suggesting that this sensibility can be understood as naturalism.

Naturalism recommends that we align ourselves with, rather than impose ourselves on, the natural world. The natural world is seemingly superior to or at least sufficiently separate from the human one, and this is why it offers insight into human life. It is uncorrupted by the contingencies and interpretative plurality of human life, and thus represents a trustworthy ground for informing our lives and societies. This is why I refer to naturalism as an aspiration or dream as opposed to a realized reality.

Environmentalists orient their policies and actions toward nature. The key is the orientation. Realizing the dream may be impossible, but holding on to the aspiration is essential. Environmentalists have certainly had their share of campaign failures and disappointments.

Environmental Ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The dream of naturalism insists that the goal, however, is still worthwhile. Nature—as the true, good, right, and beautiful—is not something to give up on just because one loses a few battles. The longer and broader campaign still goes on. The new urbanites wanted none of this. Cities supplied a different kind of life. Here, one could live many steps removed from nature, free from its dictates and able to experience the many offerings of an urban environment.

In the s and s, much of the world moved from the countryside to the city, and the trend has continued. Today, more than half of humanity lives in cities. This is greater than the entire world population of To be sure, migration to cities is about more than evading nature. It also has to do with escaping rural poverty, the bonds of traditional family life, and the perceived narrow culture of many rural communities.

The crowds, density of buildings, diversity of people, cultural intensity, and varied artistic expression of the city turns on the ability of people to gain control over and thus minimize the forces of nature in their lives. To many this is a high in itself. It suggests that the good life— and as we will see, the moral, aesthetic, and safer life—can be found not in the woods or on the farm but rather in the concrete, made world of humanity. We have so tamed, colonized, and contaminated the natural world that safeguarding it from humans is no longer an option. One person's endangered species is another's dinner or source of income.

Wapner argues that we can neither go back to a preindustrial Elysium nor forward to a technological utopia. He proposes a third way that takes seriously the breached boundary between humans and nature and charts a co-evolutionary path in which environmentalists exploit the tension between naturalism and mastery to build a more sustainable, ecologically vibrant, and socially just world. Beautifully written and thoughtfully argued, Living Through the End of Nature provides a powerful vision for environmentalism's future.

He is the author of Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics, winner of the Harold and Margaret Sprout Award for the best book on international environmental affairs. Given the state of the world today, it is clear: nature doesn't have a design problem, people do. As the 'dominant' species our design question now encompasses the entire world and takes us to the essential places of human intention and natural experience and their interdependence. Paul Wapner, with this book, takes us on a richly informed exploration of these essential places so that we may divine a path forward worthy of our promise as a species.

For me, as a designer, the fundamental design question remains: 'How do we love all the children of all species for all time? Wapner is one of the world's leading scholars of environmental politics and his latest book, Living Through the End of Nature , is a sophisticated exploration of the future of the environmental movement. If you dream of a better tomorrow, Wapner's book will lead the way. Design is the first signal of human intention. Anyone who grapples with the slippery semantics of 'nature' is practicing a form of intellectual bravery few of us seem willing to endure.

And for good reason. As we discover in Paul Wapner's deep and poignant treatment of the subject, there is no easy resting place between an environmentalist's love of nature and his mastery of it. See All Customer Reviews.

Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press) Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press)
Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press) Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press)
Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press) Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press)
Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press) Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press)
Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press) Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press)
Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press) Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press)
Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press) Living Through the End of Nature: The Future of American Environmentalism (MIT Press)

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