This book is a response to a new world, the world that comes after the end of nature. It is a try at making sense of a new time, when people, for the first time, have become a force in the history of the planet: the chemistry of the atmosphere, and of the oceans, the cycles of weather and the seasons, and the DNA that give life its shapes, all carry our mark. It is a map of an earth that we have made, as surely as we make our cities, highways, housing tracts, and cornfields. Some call our era the anthropocene, the age of man. If you like that word, then this is a book about living in the anthropocene.
It is, partly, a book about what we lose in this new world, what is no longer possible. The idea of environmentalism, for one, has to change or die. As the word itself shows, it is about the relation between humans and our habitat, our environs. The spirit of environmentalism, its beating heart, has been about honoring and preserving the natural world, a nature that was here before us and goes on, whatever we do – unless we harm it past repair. But in this new world, there is no nature that is separate from us, no border to preserve between humanity and its habitat. The question is we will, unavoidably, shape the places where we live, a problem that shares more with landscape architecture than with respecting the ancient and permanent nature that envelops us [like a starry sphere surrounding the earth in some medieval cosmological map].
We also have to give up on the idea that we can control the earth. In this way, the comparison to landscape architecture is misleading: we must face its questions, but without its tools. Human power is incomparably greater than it has ever been before; but human control, control over the planet our power makes, is terrifyingly weak. Climate change distills this dilemma to its essence: we brew the storms, bring the droughts, and raise the seas, but we cannot decide, or even understand, the shape these will take. It is as if we had re-created the ancient pagan world, in which nature was populated by arbitrary, violent gods – one for the thunderbolts, one for the sea – who warred with one another and made human destinies their playthings.
Just as important, we must give up a thought that has been terribly important to environmentalism: that nature has lessons to teach us, a moral point of view, that we can live well by “following nature” or “honoring nature.” It is like realizing that the wooden idols we are asking for guidance were in fact carved by our ancestors, that it is we and neighbors who are imagining what they tell us: in trying to listen to nature, we are only finding ways to listen, indirectly, to ourselves.
The reason for this goes beyond the physical fact that we shape the world, chemically, biologically, and geologically. The reasons are also philosophical. It is inescapable today that, when people throughout history have talked about “nature,” they have meant something they valued and thought important, human values that they conveniently found in the natural world. Presidents, preachers, and activists have called on nature to justify nearly anything one can think of: monarchy and democracy, slavery and universal freedom, saving wild places and turning them into settlements and fields. Women, in particular, have been subject to seemingly endless accounts of how nature distinguishes them from men and assigns them a separate place in social life. The lesson of all of this is that the natural world gives us no model for our shared lives, no social or political or moral blueprint. There is no getting out of the human standpoint, the human attachment to ideas about who we are and how we should live. If – by a kind of miracle – we could ever see through the eyes of another species, it would be overwhelmingly, gloriously alien, and utterly unconcerned with what freedom, equality, or progress might mean to human beings. As for nature, the whole world, even before our powers overtook it, it was never the kind of thing that could have a point of view. There is other consciousness in the world, intensely and mysteriously different from our own, but the world, sea, air, and living things, is not consciousness. [It is even more different than that.] It is something else altogether. [This only really made sense as a version of the idea that God made the world to instruct us.]
This change has drastic meaning for the ways that environmentalists have talked and thought. Environmental themes have grown out of two very old ways of imagining human experience, two basic kinds of stories. One is the apocalyptic story, a tale of how the world ends. Born from Christian religious imagery and a long tradition of sermons, the apocalyptic story forecasts a series of disasters that, taken together, form a judgment on humanity. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring put the end of the world at the center of modern environmentalism, where it has remained ever since. Carson’s prophecy of “a poisoned world” was not just a scientist’s prediction of what pesticides would do to living things; it was also a kind of sermon of how an arrogant species had strayed from nature’s path and must return or face the punishment it had brought on itself. Generations of ministers and secular prophets had laid Carson’s path, inveighing against those who had broken their compact with God or with justice. It was not hard to transfer that transcendent authority from God to nature, while the story remained the same. That story lends its moral impulse to scientific forecasts of the effects of climate change, which read like a parade of biblical judgments – flood, drought, pestilence, and plague. Nature, though, does not exist to pass judgment on us. It could do no such thing. It is not even an “it,” not one thing that we could coherently imagine as passing judgment. Nature is the dissonant symphony of forces, processes, and materials, some alive, many not, which we dwell in, are shaped by, and shape.
The whole apocalyptic tradition, which has done so much to make environmentalism intuitive and familiar, is a religious inheritance, misapplied to something – the natural world – that we only distort by interpreting it as having a moral point of view. This point suggests something I strongly suspect is true: the long habit of seeing nature as having a moral standpoint, whether to pass judgment or to guide us, is a side-effect of monotheism. We could see this vast, wildly diverse web of phenomena as having one meaning, a meaning directed to us, only because we already imagined nature as the work of a creator who was intensely interested in us, as a text from the hand of God, written in soil and stone. If nature is not the work of a divine mind, there is no other serious way of seeing it as able to instruct and judge us.
There is a similar problem, though not exactly religious, for the other kind of story that has made environmental themes so easy for many to accept and absorb. This is the pastoral, the morality tale of the man who leaves the city and learns to see more clearly in the simple life of the countryside. The pastoral was already a literary device for social criticism in classical Roman poetry, and Horace’s Eclogues, with their virtuous shepherds set against the corruptions of sophistication, remain the taproot of the tradition. Thoreau was not a simple thinker, but he used the pastoral image of simplicity to make his cabin at Walden Pond a staging-ground for one of the most enduring pieces of American dissent. A pastoral writer claims that nature takes sides in human arguments, between militarism and pacifism, luxury and austerity, and, for Thoreau, freedom and slavery. But just as nature does not judge or guide us, it does not take sides. Again, it is not the kind of thing that could.
Pastoral and apocalyptic themes, then, were a kind of cocoon in which environmental ideas took shape. They sheltered new ideas about people and nature, let them grow until they could live on their own. To live now, though, environmental ideas must become quite different from the shape that fitted the cocoon. They will have to change from the forms that enabled them to grow, and give up conceits that have drawn much of their power. That is, if environmentalists want to be serious today, they will have to find new ways of talking about the things that are most important to them. [So will everyone who thinks, talks, and cares about the human relation to the natural world.]
Some people say that, for all these reasons, environmentalism as we know it is over, and the sooner the better. They say that it carries on religious and philosophical ideas that artificially divided humans from the rest of the living world, ideas that echoed other artificial divisions, such as those among races or between the sexes. They point out that much of environmental politics has grown up among mainly white elites, and especially that “nature” has been a balm for the neuroses of white men who wanted to escape the complexity of effeminate civilization, from Thoreau to Teddy Roosevelt. “Nature” has been the opposite of the households, the cities, and the democratic politics where people of different sorts have to deal with one another, and so it has been a kind of idyll of boyhood escapism, carried poisonously into the cultural politics of adulthood. They say that defining problems like climate change as “environmental,” rather than simply as challenges for humanity, gives special authority to these parochial and antique attitudes, when we should be opening those issues to full, open, and democratic disagreement about how to share the burdens of the harm we have caused.
There is something to all of this, but it is more wrong than right. The task is not to get rid of environmental ideas, but to remake them. The thing is not to discard our inheritance because the past was morally flawed and philosophically confused, but to sort through it and begin to understand what we cannot or should not believe anymore about ourselves and nature, what we can still believe but only in a different way, and which old ideas we can still live by. Of course, this is not straightforward. It is certainly not a matter of holding abstract ideas about “us and nature” up to some political or philosophical standard. Ideas, at least the ideas discussed in this book, are distilled out of life. Their raw materials are experience, activity, and feeling. The real question about environmental ideas is whether we can find ways to live by them, ways that they can be true descriptions of where and how we live, and even what we live for. Nonetheless, we can begin.
Here is an example. Apocalyptic and pastoral stories do not need to disappear, but they will have to become something else: not stories about what nature wants from us, how nature takes sides in our arguments, but instead ways that we engage the natural world through our human arguments. That is, we will have to grasp that these stories really are what they have always been: ways of talking to one another, ways of challenging how we are living and seeking better ways to be. When we talk this way, we will have to be able to admit to one another, and to ourselves, what we are doing. If we learn to talk about nature this way, it cannot have the same meaning as when it was a stand-in for an absent God or a social critique that the speaker did not feel able to make in her own, unauthorized voice.
Here is another example. There is strong criticism of the part that wilderness has played in environmental ideas. Incisive critics have argued that wilderness is the ultimate set-piece of a “nature” that is separate from humanity, the opposite of civilization, a perfect screen for projecting whatever we want (or fear) the natural world to be. Again, there is something important to this. There is really no such thing as a wilderness, if that word means a part of nature we have not touched, and the very idea that there could be grows out of ways of thinking that put nature on one side of a stark and artificial divide, humanity on the other. As if to prove the point, the “wilderness” that environmentalists have pressed to create and preserve is often in places whose indigenous inhabitants were cleared from the land not long before white aesthetes and adventurers discovered them as temples of unspoiled nature. These critics urge that a wilderness-based environmentalism is a license to ignore the messy, in between places, in no way pure, where we live, in favor of loyalty to the imagined purity of wilderness, a faraway elsewhere where our real selves await.
It is just as important, though, to ask what has been the value of wilderness, and whether some of that value survives the criticisms. Preserving wilderness has always been a way of relinquishing mastery, a deliberate acceptance that human uses will not govern every place. Not every tree will be timbered, not every mineral will be mined, and not every vista will become a house site or a highway overlook. Of course it takes human will to create and preserve wilderness, and the values that lead us to do so are human values; but what they express and cultivate in us is very different from the human qualities that come forward when everything goes to economic uses. A choice to practice these values is part of the meaning of wilderness, part of why it has mattered so much to so many people.
Here is another thing about wilderness, and an essential one. Preserving it does not just elevate certain ways of being human. It also brings alive one kind of relationship with a part of the natural world. Preserving wilderness puts people in a posture of relinquishment toward specific valleys, ridges, forests, and rivers, and everything that lives there. Similarly, when a writer like Thoreau, or Annie Dillard a century and a half later, takes on a pastoral voice, she is not just telling a story from the culture’s grab-bag. She is entering a relationship with a landscape, paying it a quality of attention that, over time, becomes more nearly inseparable from her own ways of seeing and of speaking. The features of the place become the patterns of her eye, the images of her voice. If she succeeds, her seeing and her speaking become ways of understanding the place, of showing it a kind of regard. A subtle part of that regard lies in her recognizing what she cannot entirely understand, what remains obscure to her, what is the only the dance of her imagination, and the borderline between what she can know and what must be a mystery. What is beholding us when an animal looks back – that is a mystery. What to make of the incorrigible instinct that a landscape, closely attended, becomes a metaphor for consciousness, and shows us things about ourselves that we had not seen directly – that, maybe, is not just projection, but a mystery too.
That, anyway, is the argument of this book. The meaningful relationships that we form with nature are not just superstitions, fancies, or philosophical mistakes. Nor, however, are they what they have often been imagined as being – communion with a divine or indwelling intelligence, lessons in morality or how to live, or the sentimental ties of Disney movies. The challenge is to say what they are, what way of understanding these relationships can be consistent with living in the anthropocene.
Here, for a start, are two basic kinds of reasons for taking nature’s meaning seriously, treating it as part of reality. First, it is impossible to imagine most of our environmental law, politics, and culture without these meanings. These are all rooted in ideas about how nature matters: what wilderness can show us about ourselves, why it is important for rivers to run clean, how it is better for the world to be full of species than to be cleared by extinction. It is true that parts of the laws regulating pollution are keyed only to straightforward human interests, such as health; but these are a small portion. Second, the meanings we find in nature have a basis in fact. The world around us really is full of awareness, experience, perception, that is like and unlike our own. It is also full of pattern, order, life that tie us to it, chemically and biologically, but also aesthetically and symbolically. To try to clear the world of meaning would be as serious a mistake as naively trusting every meaning we imagine in it. The old, sentimental, superstitious mistake was believing in a world that was excessively humanized, full of minds, or one vast mind, like our own. But trying to drive all meaning out of our relations to nature would be a mistake in the opposite direction. It would be an attack on an essential part of being human.
This book, then, is both an argument about nature and an argument about humanity. The heart of the argument about humanity is that we are meaning-making creatures; we live and move in the medium of meaning, just as surely as we move in three-dimensional space. We argue, act upon, and sometimes die for competing interpretations of – to take a few examples – freedom, equality, Islam, or America. All of these are, in one sense, pure fictions, but if we somehow forgot them, we would be unrecognizable to ourselves. Without some version of some such things, we would not know, indeed, would not know how to know, how to live. We act together in vast, consequential ways because we treat meanings like these as real, as tying us together or dividing us over principle. This does not mean, by any stretch, that everything we believe, we must believe. Maybe religion in its familiar forms is unnecessary and surmountable; maybe patriotism, at least as a form of tribalism worth killing for, is a terrible and unnecessary affliction. Try, though, to imagine a world with no picture of what matters in life, or no vision of solidarity to say what ties people together. We must, inescapably, steer our way through certain unavoidable problems: how to spend, or hope to spend, our short time alive on earth; how to make sense of our sharing this place with so many other people, who are our unavoidable competitors, our possible enemies and allies, and our best collaborators. In webs and communities of meaning, we navigate these problems, and turn the raw terrains of our lives into halfway intelligible landscapes. The natural world is just as much a field in which we must act, and so which we navigate by meaning. In some ways, we make or create this meaning; but in other ways we encounter it as something apart from us, and it is only because it is real in this way that it enables us to choose, to act together, and so to live. [Maybe look at formulations elsewhere.]
These are large, abstract ideas, and stated briefly and sweepingly. A large part of this book is dedicated to vindicating them in more concrete ways. This happens through a history of the interplay between ideas and the most practical of actions, lawmaking and politics. Americans have been able to act as they have toward the natural world because of how they have imagined it – as a wilderness designed by God to become a garden, as a piece of symbolic art with the power to bring spiritual insight, as a storehouse of essential resources to be dedicated to increasing national wealth. Each image has created a circuit between humans and the rest of the world, a way of seeing it, of knowing how to act toward it. As a matter of meaning, each image creates a world. More concretely, each image has inspired laws that channel human energy, shaping the natural landscape to resemble influential images of it: from parks and wilderness areas to subdivisions and the corn-and-soybean rectangles of the Midwest, we spell out the logic of our imagination in the landscapes that we create.
A history of environmental law is also a history of American democracy. Social movements, national political leadership, and cultural innovation have all generated new ideas about nature and helped put those ideas into practice as law. Later chapters describe, for instance, how the Sierra Club at the end of the nineteenth century took fairly abstract and literary ideas from the Transcendentalists and turned them into the concrete basis of a social movement, a new style of environmental politics, and a widely accepted story about the value of open lands and national parks. President Theodore Roosevelt once claimed in a major speech that his whole reform agenda, from labor law to antitrust, was best understood as the principle of natural-resource conservation writ large. In other words, this is not a history of ideas in any straightforward way. Instead, it is a history of how ideas have made action possible, how they have tied together bands of activists, given presidents the language to explain and justify their programs, and lent their shape to laws institutions that mold the country as surely as landscape architecture.
These ideas about nature have been closely involved in the broader issues of American history. They were integral to frontier settlement and the ideology of free labor that defined the political identity of the North before and during the Civil War and became dominant themes in the Manifest Destiny ideology of the later nineteenth century; they were key to the first Progressive movement and the rise of the regulatory state; and they tied Transcendentalist cultural and literary dissent to the creation of the national parks and the US wilderness system. And all of this was before the modern environmental era began, politically in the 1960s and legally with the passage of most of federal anti-pollution law and the law of biodiversity between 1970 and 1977. Regulating nature has never been a narrow, specialized task, or at least not for long, and ideas about nature have never remained just literary and aesthetic conceits. The imaginative and practical dimensions, vision and action, have been like two spirals in a double helix. The history of law, politics, and power is incomplete the history of imagination. Our landscapes, natural and human, bear the shape of both. [Introduce terms, environmental imagination and environmental language, or not?]
The history, then, is a philosophical argument. It is the kind of argument that succeeds best through fact and narrative, because the claim is that this philosophical perspective, with its emphasis on meaning and ideas, is necessary to make sense of the facts and history. The history reveals the present world as the joint creation of power and imagination, including the power – sometimes but not always democratic power – that imagination makes possible.
That is not its only purpose. The history is also a sorting-through of inherited environmental ideas, a start to judging which strands we can keep, which we should discard, and which we must transform if we want to live by them. Because the book approaches history as a trove of living ideas, elements of imagination and compasses for power and action, it pays special attention to those that are most disturbing. One chapter examines the role that racism, xenophobia, and obtuse privilege have played in American environmental imagination and asks what dangers these might show in the ideas we still hold. Another addresses the case “against nature” much more fully than this Introduction does, engaging John Stuart Mill’s powerful argument that the very idea of nature is philosophically useless at best, politically vicious at worst, and that intellectual honesty should lead us to throw it out altogether. All of this is a stress test of the integrity of environmental ideas, an inquiry into whether they are sound and, where they are not, whether they can be repaired.
The history points to the present and beyond. If ideas and action are woven together in all the past of environmental law and politics, there is every reason to expect that their braiding will also make the future. The problems of the anthropocene confound traditional ideas of humanity and nature, and they do so even as those old ideas become implausible. However we engage climate change, by overcoming our for-now boundless appetites or by engineering the earth from pole to pole, we will become different people in the course of it, and will inhabit a different world. The same is true of the judgments we reach about engineering life, or about how to shape a global food system for nine billion people and a living planet. This prospect may be just a little less daunting when we consider that these are new instances of what we have always done. We are the species that becomes different people, partly by inventing new ideas, partly by wrestling together with practical problems – and these, again, are two spirals in the same helix. It is especially worth remembering this in a time that tends to forget it, assuming “realistically” that ideas do not matter, when human reality is a composite of facts and ideas.
What kinds of environmental ideas and imagination will serve us in the problems of the anthropocene? How will these shape a new environmental law, politics, economics, aesthetics, and ethics? Although it is impossible to give the answers that the future will have to generate, we can know something about the questions.
Take environmental law. Its modern form, particularly the anti-pollution laws of the 1970s, is a scheme for managing natural systems. It is highly technical, even technocratic, involving chemistry, medical statistics, and economic projections that numb most minds and tempt decision-makers and scholars to imagine that their job is to reach the one, technically best answer to complex problems. Older forms of environmental law, such as the laws of the national parks and wilderness systems, are very different. Essentially continental zoning in service of aesthetics, they explicitly dedicate tracts of nature to ideals of beauty, sublimity, or adventure. In those laws, regulating the human relation to nature is a part of cultural politics, a way of sustaining certain human values and experiences. But those laws, and the people who made them, served mainly spectacular, dramatic, “wild” places, and had little regard for all the places where people worked and lived, where nature and humanity were palpably merged – as they are everywhere today. Moreover, they had little concern for managing complex systems: drawing boundaries around a region and preserving what lies within them is not simple, but it is vastly simpler than governing the interplay of economy and ecology, people and the rest of the world, that make up our lives outside those preserving boundaries.
Neither of these approaches is enough. Our cultural concern for nature now needs to reach much farther than the secular temples to beauty and sublimity that were once its touchstones. Our cultural interest in nature needs to match the scale of our power, which means asking how we wish to shape it at every point and in every dimension. This is the only way we have a prayer of generating principles of responsibility that can match the scale of our power. If these are the questions we are asking, the answers cannot be technocratic. They will unavoidably be answers about kind of world we wish to inhabit and the kinds of lives we wish to make possible. Environmental law will have to work on the scale of whole ecosystems, even on the scale of global systems such as the atmosphere, while openly taking sides on issues of value, beauty, and imagination. [This taking of sides is not for the sake of partisanship, but because it is inevitable, once we acknowledge the scope of our power and try to expand our conceptions of responsibility accordingly.] Its questions will still be those of chemistry, economics, and public health; but they will also, quite unavoidably, be the questions of landscape architecture, of shaping experience by shaping a physical world. One later chapter sets out how we might begin reimagining our food system as a response to these questions.
Environmental politics, too, will have to take a new shape, perhaps even develop a new language, for the anthropocene. If this seems overblown, consider what a recent development the very idea of the environment is, and how far its elements are from being obviously parts of one thing. Before sometime in the 1960s, it would hardly have occurred to anyone to say that wilderness, industrial pollution, litter, extinctions, zoning, and the health of waterways were elements of something called “the environment.” The new environmental movement that helped to create environmental politics and law also, in a real way, created the very thing that defined, “the environment” as a concept that could unify these rather diverse problems. There is no reason to expect that a concept formed around this particular cluster should serve us well now.
Environmentalists will have to consider which values are theirs in questions like genetic engineering, where the familiar impulse to defend “natural” life runs up against the new fact that nothing is wholly natural, that every question is about how, not whether, to shape the world and the other life that shares it with us. They will also have to take seriously the challenge that climate change, which many see as the defining environmental problem of the time, is not specifically “environmental” at all. It involves the whole energy economy, all of transport infrastructure, massive public engineering near the coasts of rising seas, public health crises associated with higher temperatures, and acute questions about how to distribute the burdens of a disrupted world among rich, poor, and newly rich countries. It seems, on the one hand, that environmentalism must have something to say about both genetic engineering and climate change, and, on the other, that if these are environmental questions, then there is little in technology, economic life, or much else that is not environmental. Becoming all things brings the risk of being nothing at all.
The heart of environmental politics will not be the specific problems it engages, but the questions it asks about all these problems. The questions are the ones at the heart of environmental meaning. What is the value of the natural world? How should we live with respect to it? What kinds of people will living well with the rest of nature enable us to be, and what is that worth to us? What relationships do we want to cultivate with specific places, species, and systems, and how should those help us to understand our place in the larger living world? In the anthropocene, environmental issues overrun their inherited, topical boundaries. We need to remember, now, that we can give up those boundaries. They are not ancient but recent, and there is little to protect in defining them as environmental. There is everything to protect, however, in the question, in asking how we want to live in relation to the world.
There are later chapters dedicated to environmental ethics and economics, and for now I will make a few assertions, which are spelled out further there. Ethics is more basic than economics because, whatever its technique, economics takes its values from outside its own method. When it serves as a guide to action, economics depends on ethics twice over. The judgment about which outside values to take into account is an ethical one, built into the techncrat’s formulas. At the same time, those outside values – whatever they are – always come from the ways that people have come to prize or despise some part of nature. Economic technique is an ethical judgment about which ethical judgments to count, and it cannot generate the standards for either judgment on its own power.
But ethics is very far from being a master science. Much of environmental ethics has tried to identify objective value in nature, or disprove the possibility of doing so, as if we could get the ethical facts right, then proceed to deduce the right laws and policies from those truths. This strikes me as unconvincing philosophically, but even if it were persuasive in the abstract, it would be little help in orienting law and politics. Environmental values that shape those areas grow out of the interplay of imagination and practical struggle, and ethics is most useful when it takes them a little further, states them somewhat more clearly, or shows difficulties, potential, or connections in them. The environmental ethics that is most in the spirit of this book is a part of a democratic political, legal, and cultural argument about the meaning of the natural world and our place in it.