Sunday, November 29, 2009

Michael Pollan exists because of Wendell Berry

Maybe it’s because it’s my birthday, and Wendell Berry was the first writer I ever met, about 30 years ago. (My dad introduced me to him at a draft horse auction.) Maybe it’s because I just bicycled past the organic dairies outside the small North Carolina town where I’m living this fall, and remembered groups of hippies (no disrespect! – including my parents!) laboring to sell bushels of vegetables from under the interstate overpass in Charleston, WV, 50 miles from home and a lot of gas in a (then!) ancient flatbed truck. But I’ve been noticing how one generation makes the next possible.

Really, it’s mostly because in the last two weeks I’ve re-read two important and very different books about food, land, and people: Berry’s “The Unsettling of America” (1977) and Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (yesterday, today, and tomorrow in every bookstore). Pollan’s writing has crystallized the energy around local, regional and sustainable food, brought it squarely into public awareness, and probably helped make it bigger (maybe helped a lot – it’s hard to say). They’re vastly different books. Berry’s is a jeremiad by a literary Appalachian farmer (and English professor, plus former student of Wallace Stegner’s and friend of Ken Kesey’s): its major sources include William Blake (“energy is eternal delight”), Shakespeare (a beautiful reading of a scene from King Lear), and, not especially explicit, but pervasive, Berry’s Christianity, centered on the goodness of Creation and the sin of division from it. Pollan’s, which needs less introduction, is systems theory and vicarious gourmandizing, courtesy of a somewhat faux-naif narrator who manages, with enormous energy and ingenuity, to trace the ecological sources and effects of industrial, local (and Whole Foods’ “industrial organic”), and hunter-gathered foods.

They exemplify totally different cultural styles. Berry has a lot to say about how WE SHOULD LIVE. Pollan has some information and suggestions that YOU MIGHT LIKE. One, that is, addresses a congregation, or an audience of earnest seekers after righteousness. The other speaks to a loose affiliation of the curious and well-intentioned, who would prefer to do right if it were not too hard, but would really rather not be hassled about it. So it is not surprising that Pollan has his own shelf-end display about my local chain; Berry’s publisher claimed in August that it didn’t have his book at all, then dug up some copies in October.

But without Wendell Berry, there would be no Michael Pollan. Pollan’s book sets out the same core arguments as Berry’s, with more detail and detail of a different kind. Some of the difference is just the difference between the two writers. Some is the knowledge created by thirty years of people, some inspired by Berry, who have been working closely with land since he wrote, learning things they can now display for Pollan and, by way for him, for everyone.

The premise of Berry’s book is that eating is a cultural, ethical, ecological, and political act, because producing and consuming food is the basic link, the metabolic tie, between a living thing and the rest of life, as well as the so-called inanimate nature that sustains it. Logically enough, he says (and this is equally the core of the book) the same about agriculture, how we get food from the world. He claims that a single moral logic follows through how we treat land, how we treat one another in producing food, and how we treat our own bodies in eating what we do (and how we do). He says at various points in The Unsettling of America that whatever degradation we visit on the health of the land and the plants and animals that we eat we will ultimately turn up in the health of our bodies.

Pollan’s astonishing chapter on corn, subsidies, chemical fertilizer, and human health makes Berry’s point afresh, irresistibly. By making fertility from fossil fuels, driving industrial agriculture overtime to produce mountains of cheap calories, American farm policy, with plenty of help from agribusiness (and there’s not much difference between those two), has sacrificed land health and human health to abstract, short-term maximization: more corn! more calories! more profits! He is equally disturbing on our “successful” attempt to raise meat on the industrial model, which takes animals off the land, turns them into antibiotic-filled breeding grounds for superbugs, generates big-time pollution, and spins off a beastly truckload of pain and suffering on the way to the slaughterhouse.

Berry contrasts two ethics: that of the abstract maximizer and that of the nurturer. If you already believe him, it’s lovely; if you don’t, it probably seems sentimental. Pollan shows that the balance sheets of companies (and the sometimes desperate farmers who produce commodity corn) can be blossoming while land and human health veer toward collapse. At least in the present food economy (partly thanks to gross subsidies, economists will rightly point out), maximizing profit and “maximizing” anything like health are aim that seem to pull in opposite directions.

An environmental economist would say, sensibly, that you just have to get big ag’s balance sheets to reflect health and environmental externalities, such as fertilizer runoff, increased diabetes rates, and so on, and then the market will do its magic. Maybe (any move in that direction would help). But Berry argued, or poetically asserted, that the most health-promoting forms of agriculture couldn’t be abstracted into generalized techniques, that (like good manners – one of Berry’s lovely formulations and unlikely to persuade doubters) good farming required close attention to context and judgment about what will best keep any piece of land in productive health. The more Pollan examined the farming of the book’s hero, land restorer and eccentric sustainability artist Joel Salatin, the more he concludes that no accounting or regulatory formula can make fungible what this guy does: he knows his land very, very well, and he will not do anything with that doesn’t contribute to its long-term health.

Berry drew on William Blake, mainly, to contrast biological energy, the annual intake from the sun, turned into nutrition and fertility by photosynthesis and digestion, with fossil energy. The first, Berry argued, tends to harmonious cycles. The second tends to runaway hubris, with the poetically ordained result. This contrast was as basic to Berry’s book as the ideas of health and nurturance. Pollan spells out the system effects of each source: fossil fuels are a kind of distorting ecological subsidy, enabling us to live beyond our long-term planetary means, and potentially locking us into unsustainable ways of doing things. At every point, reliance on these fuels enables industrial agriculture to ignore soil health, land-friendly scale, and the virtues of mixed agriculture in favor of super-concentrated, industrial-style food production. (Return to the beginning for the effects of this on health.)

I am huge admirer of both these writers. I think their differences are important and telling. Berry is, in a deep sense, a conservative with doubts about whether modernity, mobility, consumerism, and individualism, let alone secularism, are compatible with a living world. Pollan, as far as I can tell, is hoping that we will decide to buy the good stuff, and that what Berry wants is good. I recognize that Berry’s view is one of the really serious conservative arguments. And I hope that Pollan, who ignores such arguments, is right.

And, of course, neither writer is a demiurge. Berry was drawing on more than a generation of ecological thinking and agricultural neo-traditionalism, though his was one of the first serious attempts to think through the revolution in environmental ideas that happened in the 1960s and and 1970s, and to tie it to a serious look at how we live. And Pollan was drawing on many people who came after Berry (though, as I mentioned, a lot of them had read Berry).

But. There is a Michael Pollan only because there was a Wendell Berry. Today that makes me happy. Someday maybe I’ll tell the story to a child, in the course of explaining why people write books, and why they plant seeds.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Can the wilderness spirit help to address climate change?

It has become conventional to say that the conservation tradition associated with the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society has nothing to offer in confronting climate change and today’s other environmental problems. This assertion depends on a few other claims. One is that “environmentalism” is unsuited to the nature and scale of today’s problems, especially climate change, because environmental values are negative and defensive on the one hand, and, on the other, reliant on a na├»ve and untenable contrast between humanity and nature. The second challenged claim is that, whatever its more specific defects, such language is vague, motivationally weak, and thus a presumptively poor resource for addressing the next generation of environmental challenges.

But this is almost entirely wrong. The American environmental tradition has always been centered on human values and engaged in the ever-shifting politics of democratic life. It has been, in fact, a politics of consciousness, aimed at enabling people to encounter the natural world in ways that both perceive its objective features more exactly and induce experiences such as sublimity and harmony. Aldo Leopold’s account of the purpose of public-lands management as achieving new levels of “receptivity” and “lovel[iness]” in the human mind captures exactly the human-centered and culturally innovative character of this program.

In earlier posts I began sketching the Romantic and Progressive traditions in American environmental politics. This is a reflection on how the resources of each might bear on our current problems.

What might be productive in the Romantic tradition would require making two elements of that tradition more explicit, basic, and thoroughgoing—in a word, radicalizing them. The first radicalizing development is to make explicit a basic but elusive idea. What is finally valuable in nature, according to this tradition, is not specific individuals, species, or places, nor even an ideal, undisturbed condition, but qualities of natural systems. Leopold, again, captured this idea when he made “integrity, stability, and beauty” the struts of the “land ethic” that emerged from decades of work in wilderness advocacy and other conservation politics. Even though this phrase is now sixty years old, it repays careful attention. These are not qualities of unchanged, “wild” nature, but goals for active management, both of wilderness and of densely inhabited places, such as farming regions. Moreover, these qualities blend objective characteristics of natural systems with attitudes and experiences of the human beholder. Integrity here means, roughly, resilience, and describes a system that can persist through both endogenous and exogenous changes. Beauty, by contrast, is a quality made actual only in a person’s culturally mediated encounter with a part of nature. So understood, these qualities are not at all obsolete as guides in engaging climate change. Instead, they address questions of just the kind that managing a global atmospheric system (within the considerable limitations of human competence to do so) must raise: questions of what qualities are valuable in our eyes in such a system, and what is necessary to maintain those qualities.

The second radicalizing development follows closely on the first. It is a sharp counterpoint to simplifying and nostalgic tendencies. It requires an embrace of the fact that environmental politics is centrally about a choice of futures. Such politics poses values to guide those choices, and so points, not backward to a lost idyll, but forward to human decision. It differs from more familiar techniques for steering toward the future, notably cost-benefit analysis, in that it engages not just the choice of means, but centrally the choice of ends, of what we value and why. Democratic politics has repeatedly changed both the set of viable alternatives and the metrics by which they are evaluated.

Carrying forward the Romantic tradition into climate politics might also require deepened engagement with another basic theme: identification of the qualities of mind and experience in which encounters with the natural world enrich human consciousness. Two issues have often made this question elusive. One is the tendency to confuse the touchstones of aesthetic experience with the values they embody and evoke, so that conservation has seemed to be simply about Yosemite Valley or the blue whale, rather than an attitude toward the natural world that is associated, but not identical, with conservation of such places and species. The other difficulty is that the natural world’s meaning for the human mind has figured in quite diverse ways across the history of environmental values. For the Transcendentalists and certain early Sierra Club figures, including Muir, nature’s patterns revealed those of the mind, which participated in the same ordering principles. From the Wilderness Society forward, encounters with the natural world have mainly been seen as unique opportunities for insight, but not access points to metaphysical principle. The Romantic tradition itself, then, contains temptations both to lose sight of the issue of consciousness altogether and to dismiss it as intractably vague.

The version of this tradition with the most to offer in climate change takes the direction of the Wilderness Society, leaving metaphysics aside in favor of the quality of mind that appreciates natural systems. This approach concentrates on two rather opposite facts. One is that the natural world is deeply intelligible, composed of principles and relationships that, once grasped, enrich perception by making it patterned and significant. The other is that the world outstrips human understanding, both at its largest and smallest scales and the furthest reaches of complexity, so that intelligibility is always bounded by mystery. Taken together, the experience is simultaneously of beauty—an orderly world which we can understand and in which we belong—and of sublimity—a world beyond us, in which we are always in some degree alien and potentially overwhelmed.

Recall the version of this idea that emerged from the work of Aldo Leopold and the Wilderness Society: that nature is at once deeply intelligible and basically mysterious, and appreciating this enriches the mind. This account may seem abstract, but just such ideas, worked into habits of perception, have provided key motives for the major conservation episodes of the last two centuries. Moreover, it may be that climate change brings home precisely this set of qualities in the natural world: that the earth is familiar and alien, subject to our mastery but also, past a certain threshold, able to overwhelm us. This description captures changes in which the same technology that for now makes the planet so serving of human ends threatens soon to make it terribly inhospitable to human life. It almost surely expresses something about atmospheric processes whose basic logic a child can understand, but whose systemic implications are beyond confident prediction by a civilization’s worth of computer-enhanced climate science. And, maybe most important, it resonates with the image of a planet astonishingly rich in life yet shielded from deadly radiative heat and endless cold by a thin layer of air that is now ineluctably something humans have made.

This attitude might provide the motive for political demands to create a carbon-neutral economy, as earlier changes in views of human beings, economics, and politics spurred demands to replace slavery with free labor, and the rise of Sierra Club culture drove a new agenda for conservation. It might cast compliance with the strictures of such an economy as a feature of a good life, not just a nest of inconveniences. It might, for instance, tilt political judgments between very different alternatives, such as relatively costly carbon-neutral policies and relatively inexpensive “geo-engineering” proposals to do such things as launch orbiting mirrors to reduce the earth’s solar exposure or seed the atmosphere with sulfur particles to the same effect. It is one thing to compare the relative expenditures for these competing approaches. It is quite another to experience a basic discomfort in imagining a carbon-choked atmosphere kept cool only by mechanically fending off solar radiation, knowing that, if the satellites failed, the planet would almost immediately enter a period of drastic and unpredictable climatic instability. That prospect, of course, represents a bundle of probability-discounted costs; but one might also experience discomfort because she believed such an engineered atmosphere lacked beauty, integrity, and stability, or whatever parallel terms emerged as public language for a healthy and desirable atmosphere. This perception of the costs of a geo-engineering solution to climate change would extend to the global atmosphere a way of valuing nature that has importantly motivated earlier conservation and environment regimes: a marriage of ethical, prudential, and aesthetic regard for complex and resilient natural system.

The second great theme of American conservation politics, interwoven with Romanticism, is the Progressive ideal of expert management in the public interest. These two themes have sometimes seemed at odds, and they draw on undeniably contrasting aspects of the modern temper: the self-transcending and rapturous on the one hand, and the calculating and instrumentally rational, on the other. The contrast is easy to overdraw, though. Romantic developments have frequently provided the goals that Progressive management has served, while managerial expertise has not been narrowly instrumental, but has engaged such purpose-guiding questions as the character and scope of national community.

Progressivism is, among other things, an approach to economic regulation based on the claim that economic life is, at its core, a matter of qualitative values. At least since Pinchot and Roosevelt put “conservation” at the center of a national program of economic management, environmental values have figured not just in the functionality of the economy, but also in its legitimacy. These values have included the intergenerational solidarity that Pinchot demanded and an idea of using resources in a way that enables natural systems to reproduce themselves indefinitely. By analogy, in a liberal market regime, the numerus clausus principle of property law and the Thirteenth Amendment (to take two examples with somewhat different emotional resonance) are not restrictions on markets, but building blocks keyed to the purposes those markets serve. Regulations aimed at atmospheric health might play the same role, serving not as exogenous constraints, but as endogenous constituents of markets.

To develop this distinction conceptually: markets are defined by both constitutive regulation, which makes them what they are, and exogenous regulation, which adjusts them, as it were, from outside. The contrast, however, is not natural or otherwise fixed. Constitutive regulation describes those features that we regard as intrinsic to a certain form of economy, as if they were “just there,” such as the prohibition on involuntary servitude and the fixed number of estates in real property. Political developments can change the domain of constitutive regulation by putting new principles, such as atmospheric health, at the center of legitimate markets. The Progressive tradition in environmental values has done just this with conservation principles in the past, and the idea of an economy constituted and assessed by a standard of atmospheric health would extend that tradition.

Note that there is a basic complementarity between the Romantic and Progressive developments sketched here. The two traditions might coincide in the same set of values: systemic qualities such as beauty, health, and integrity. As argued earlier, these are the kinds of values that the Romantic tradition might lead Americans to embrace in climate politics. They are also the qualities that Progressive developments might place at the center of a new generation of constitutive economic regulation.

Monday, October 19, 2009

what fieldwork is doing

[an aim]

These essays aim at a landscape ethics – a version of environmental ethics that begins from how people imagine and live amid nature. For a working definition, you could say that a landscape is an inhabited terrain, and, like anything humans inhabit, an imagined one. The further hope is that this project might say something general about ethics, because landscape has been central to the big and recognized themes of American life, and in ways that are often neglected or simplified. (That’s the rough burden of the last two posts.)

Here are a few points about how I mean to do this, and what partial success might look like.

1/ The method is a certain kind of phenomenology: to try to identify, express, and to some extent trace (and here it shades into genealogy) certain feelings and experiences – resonances, if you like the word – that some Americans feel about themselves and their terrain. I suppose that these resonances often precede explicit ideas, and do a lot to shape which ideas people will embrace. Once these resonances are more explicit and articulate, it may become possible to assess them, recognize their contradictions or, more hopefully, the unrealized wishes they may point toward. (A caveat that I hope would be obvious: in this project, I don’t speak for anyone who doesn’t recognize their own experience in what I describe, nor am I trying to prescribe American experience; I’m just trying to set out strands of it.)

2/ Part of the argument is that there are more kinds of American landscapes than most people ever see, and that they mark fissures in ideas and blind places in awareness. Seeing some of the major public ideas, such as wilderness and settler pastoral, can highlight what a wilderness area is all about; but it can also throw into relief the meaning of feudal landscapes in the migrant-labor fields of agriculture across the South and West (let alone the plantation landcapes of the slaveholding South), and of the mostly invisible destruction of strip mining. A project like this should help some readers to put more clearly what they love, and it should also discomfort them, not by simple reproach, but by making it harder to ignore what is often invisible. The more those discomforting and ignored landscape practices are integrated into a larger picture, the better.

3/ I want to think about how law expresses ideas about nature’s value and creates landscapes in line with what it expresses – again, from the national cathedrals of the Parks to the hidden zones of destruction, implications of values and practices whose consequences are easier not to admit. Law crystallizes diffuse ideas and interests into formulas that make things happen. If you want to talk about ideas written onto a landscape, law is one of the shaping instruments. This means it’s key both to tracing the story and to thinking about what could change.

4/ The ideal is something like reclamation (doing for scattered and fractured ideas and practices of landscape what the westward movement of development claimed to be doing for the continent): saying something about which ideas of freedom and order, freedom and community, make sense and are worth pursuing, not just as abstractions, but as landscape practices, ways of living on and seeing our terrain.

I like to work with stones – mostly, as it has turned out, the irregular sandstone rocks that punctuate the steep slopes where I grew up. I don’t carve them, but stack them one on another, weighing and shifting them in my hands to find the spot where one will settle snugly into another, turning two rough lumps of sediment into a single line of force against the earth. Sometimes the result seems to soar toward flight; more often it is just a squat, capped megalith. Either way, there seems to be some inclination in the shape of the stones, so that they will consent to be joined in a form that surprises and, if you’re inclined that way, seems just a little revelatory. That is the real method of these essays.

a progressive terrain

In my last post, I referred to a “Progressive” landscape. Here’s what I had in mind.

A place to begin is with a geographic and ecological idea: waste. In older use, including for early American settlers, the word meant an empty space – not empty of natural features or species, that is, but unredeemed by human labor. Most of the tracts we now call wilderness would have counted as waste. But where today’s wilderness is aesthetically and even spiritually charged (John Muir described it as “full of divine lessons”) waste is etymologically close to vastness, emptiness, a void. A waste could be open heath outside English village lands, uncleared jungle in Bengal, or most of North America. The opposite of waste was settlement, cultivation, making the land bloom – or, as Thoreau wrote, making the land say beans, rather than tall trees.

Waste got a new meaning in the thinking of reformers in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Broadly speaking, these were people who believed that the economic theory on which the continent had been settled – every man the author of his own fate in a land of plenty – had produced a festival of exploitation and destruction. Some thought those broadly Lockean and free-labor ideas had been wrong from the beginning, others that they had suited a frontier society but not a crowded, industrialized democracy. (The second, less radical formula was the go-to in political argument: it is a major theme, for instance, in the speeches of both Teddy Roosevelt and FDR.) Either way, they saw in their time a landscape of fever-ridden slums, factories housing machines that broke workers’ bodies, and, in the countryside, erosion, soil exhaustion, and massive looting of the timber and minerals of the federal public lands. They called all these things waste, and it tied together their complaints about public health, labor conditions, and the use of land. The word comes up again and again in addresses by the pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot, but also in the first inaugural address of Woodrow Wilson, where it stands for all the social harms and human neglect of the laissez-faire old regime that the Progressives saw themselves as repudiating. (Incidentally, in praising the divinity of the high Sierra, Muir explicitly denied that it contained any “waste,” and contrasted it n that score with the ruinous factories of the lowlands.)

The opposite of waste – the remedy for it – was conservation. In its best-remembered sense, this meant managing land in ways informed by scientific expertise and, for federal lands, moving from handing out acres to settlers and railroad companies to retaining them for management by trained bureaucrats. (This is the origin of the US Forest Service, which Pinchot ran and shaped in its early years.) But, like waste, conservation was a broad word. TR called it a great moral principle that defined the relations among generations of a polity – the way the present ensured survival into the future. Even more important, he called all of Progressive economic and social regulation – again, public health, labor law, and city planning – applications of the “the principle of conservation.”

In one way, “waste” remained for the Progressives what it had been for earlier settlers: a wrong use of nature. But there had been important change. The old sense of waste arose from passivity, neglect, or incapacity – failing to bring land under the axe and plow. The new sense arose from use of land, human labor, or the power of industrial organization (including its literal power sources, such as coal and steam) in selfish, short-sighted ways that diminished its health and/or productive capacity.

The new sense of waste treated people as a part of nature, part of what was to be managed, along with soil and canals. In this spirit, Wilson’s inaugural address was the first ever to describe citizens as women and children, rather than only upright men, and as having bodies vulnerable to injury and sickness, rather than only masterful wills. But, unlike the settlers of the Lockean utopia (which, by the way, gets model expression in Jefferson’s first inaugural address), they were not the agents of American history. Agency lay in the panoptic eye of government and the heroic democratic leader – in that case, Wilson himself. In this respect, the idea of conservation was central to development of the American version of what today we would call biopolitics, the political management of biological life. It was also a key event in a major rhetorical and imaginative problem in American politics: how to think of the dignity of citizenship after the settler ideal of self-mastery was eclipsed by an (ideally) all-seeing, all-shaping state, and individual Americans became, in part, resource problems to be managed.

It seems to me that the idea of conservation, with its touchstone of land and forest management in the long-term public interest, was ideologically very important for Progressives who were trying to navigate a social landscape of labor conflict and the heterogeneity carried by waves of migration. The ideal of meliorist reformers like TR was to calibrate the economic system so that each citizen what he deserved, measured by talent and effort – the old frontier idea, recast by regulation for a complex economy. That meant that capital and labor had no essentially opposed interests, only conflicts that arose, like soil exhaustion and timber looting, from failures of conservation. Social conflict was avoidable waste. This was not always the easiest case to make about capital and labor. It was more easily said of, say, public forests. They made the principle concrete – the word made not flesh but cellulose and soil. With that anchor in place, it was much easier to assert that something like rational resource management could extend from forests and grazing land to cover the whole social landscape.

In Progressive hands, the conservation idea was also tied to a visionary way of talking about legitimacy. Let’s say that one of the ways nationalism (meaning the word in a morally neutral way) works is by enabling citizens to recognize themselves in their country – a recognition that depends on seeing both oneself and one’s country in a certain way. In a political culture shaped by nationalism, this recognition becomes a criterion of legitimacy for the state. Of course, what it means for people to recognize themselves in the country could imply many tasks for the state, from ethnic cleansing to protecting the frontiersmen’s right to expropriate land (these two went together in US history, obviously) to securing the negative liberty of the laissez-faire state. In Progressive thought and rhetoric, this kind of nationalism – self-recognition in an idea of the country, a concept Charles Taylor has associated with “authenticity” – became much more important. So Woodrow Wilson, in the same inaugural in which waste plays such a large role, also announced that, for the first time, the country had been “vouchsafed a vision of our life a whole,” a shared moral self-understanding. One anchor of that vision was a landscape of conservation, where mutuality and public interest were secured by benign and expert management.

The ideal of conservation was thus not only about prudent use of resources: it was also about achieving a country that could support “a vision of our life as a whole.” It’s easy to lose sight of this Romantic aspect Progressive conservation and suppose that reformers were just interested in promoting well-being; on that view, the Progressive project can seem to begin and end in rational management. But the Progressive program was also one of political authenticity, and conservation was key to that dimension of it. Regulating resource use and economic life to reconcile otherwise hostile interests and serve posterity meant adopting a model of a great community, in which citizens could see their own ideals of generosity and caretaking.

The ideal supposed not just an image of the country, but also a way of seeing that could contain such an image. A striking aspect of this era of Progressivism is how recurrently conservation rhetoric returned to the image of the “civilized” or “cultured” man who could perceive the interest of the whole community, not just his selfish interests. The common interest included the well-being of all members of the national community and of future generations. One knows in the abstract that it’s unfair to think of utilitarianism as selfish and instrumentalist, that it was a morally inspired program of egalitarian social reform; but it’s striking nonetheless to see in the Progressive reformers an explicit ideal of character, the (usually elite) citizen-manager whose moral excellence lay in a certain quality of vision and refined moral sentiment. The utilitarian manager and reformer, and the public-minded citizen who would support him, were offered as civic aristocrats for a democratic age. Although much of their aim was social, their paradigm was the management of nature, and the two were closely connected.

PS: The use of landscapes to support claims to aristocratic status is its own very important theme, which I hope to give independent treatment at some point: the wilderness idea, a refined perception of nature, and a sense of the community interest have all served as markers of superiority in contrast to democracy’s perceived tendency to produce selfishness and mediocrity (perceived particularly among those whose status was threatened by the social churn of capitalist democracy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

first pass on landscape and freedom

[an assertion]

I want to propose a way of looking at American geography: as a physical map of ideas about nature, freedom, and what makes life worth living. American law shapes different tracts of the country to different ideas about nature’s value. The wilderness idea (more about this just below) has its acreage. You can hike into that idea, spend the night, get to the highest point of it, get lost and frustrated or rapturous in it. The parks system consecrates some astonishing places to the capacity for wonder, which, along with personal vigor and mental health, became a touchstone of federal lands policy around the beginning of the twentieth century. The national forests, managed by a professional corps of scientist-bureaucrats, are a 190 million-acre set-piece of the idea of productive nature rationally managed in the public interest, and of the limits of that idea. These are the easy cases, but already they cover a huge amount of land, a legal and practical geography that is also a taxonomy of ideas.

The less obvious examples may also be the more interesting ones. The farmland of the Midwest is private property, but it, too, is a kind of landscape architecture, expressing an idea of nature, with law as the architect’s tool. By subsidizing certain crops (notably corn and soybeans), declining to regulate much of the often-severe pollution from large-scale and conventional agriculture, and permitting enormous concentration of economic power in companies that sell agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) and process farmers’ products (slaughterhouses, factories for cereal and corn syrup), the law has modeled a landscape devoted to serving human appetite with the vigor of a providential machine. Moving east, the strip-mined hills of southern Appalachia are now landscapes of pure extraction, with no pretense of regard for the (beautiful) shape of the hills before they are wrecked, and none that this is, like the ideal farmland, meant to be an inhabited place. Because of the language of the Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Act and courts’ interpretation of the Clean Water Act (which are instances of the country’s larger embrace of cheap energy regardless of its carbon content and other “incidental” harms), this is very nearly a one-time-only landscape, used as people would use a world they intended to use up before they and their children outlived the chance to enjoy it.


[some touchstones]

Thoreau, who famously wrote that he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately, was too much a punner to miss the false etymology: de libere, to live from freedom, freely. Even if the pun were unintended, the opening pages of Walden are about freedom, not nature. These are the passages where the author justifies the book’s existence, tells readers what it has to do with their lives and how it might help them to understand, or solve, problems they know, or suspect, that they have. What Thoreau said there was that we could not know yet what it meant for us to be free: in an era of technological revolution, we might soon find forms of consciousness as revolutionary as steam power, as revelatory as opening a continent. And because experience obediently answered the ideas that came before it in our minds, we would have to change our minds, first, to enter a new world. He offered his account of a year in the woods as a sojourn with the mind, dedicated to uncovering ways in which it might become different, and carry us – and the world – with it.

Senator Frank Church, a progressive Idaho Democrat (and, in that, a reminder that even the recent past is sometimes another country) explained his support for the 1964 Wilderness Act, which eventually preserved more than 107 million acres of federal land from logging, drilling, mining, and development, in this way: without wilderness, the country would “become a cage.” Church’s phrase was stark, but the idea was not new. For more than three decades, advocates for wilderness had been calling the experience they sought to keep alive “wilderness freedom”: the chance to be alone in a place mostly unmarked by human action. Without wilderness freedom, Church seemed to say, there would be nothing that would count as freedom. He almost certainly did not mean that; but he did seem to mean that something alive and important would die, some necessary potential give way to blank impossibility, and that freedom was the word for what would disappear.


[one big idea]

The wilderness idea was a radicalization of the case for preserving the most spectacular places as national parks, open to all. John Muir, the most important early publicist of this idea, called it a consequence of the discovery that wildness was a necessity, without which most Americans in the industrial, democratic society of the later nineteenth century could not hope to be among “the sane and the free.” Muir had learned a lot from both Thoreau and Emerson – he deliberately sought to claim their prophetic mantles as bard of the California landscape – and the strand of freedom that he and Frank Church both announced seems to have been one that Emerson had proposed as an American ideal: to honor only the constraints indigenous to one’s constitution, one’s self.

That idea, of freedom as authenticity – a loaded word, but let it have Emerson’s meaning for now – attached itself to nature in the Transcendentalists. Both Walden and Emerson’s first major work, Nature, elaborate the idea that the whole organic world is a mirror, a homologue, a symmetrical answer to the mind, not simply because we project our ideas onto it, but because we and it body forth the same ur-principle of order and intelligence. To encounter it is to encounter ourselves. And not only ourselves as we are day to day, but ourselves in a purified, clarified, vivified form – as we were meant to be, as we would be if we could shake off all the accretions of convention and habit. To free the mind and learn what it could be, as Thoreau urged doing, an American had to go to the woods. And America, for the same reason, had to ensure that there would be woods to go to.

It is pretty generally recognized that, at different times, Americans have imagined nature in different ways: as a boundless stock of wealth; as a threatening and alien power to be conquered; as a stable and harmonious whole, peaceably existing in a climax condition of maximum fecundity; as a vulnerable and unstable system, easily disrupted or wrecked; or as an avenging force, punishing our sins like the avenging God of a jeremiad. And it may not surprise most thoughtful people that a Romantic strand in American life, with some kind of tie to the Transcendentalists, embraces an adamant ideal of freedom as authenticity and is uncommonly fond of big trees and bigger rocks. One point of this essay is to suggest that this Romantic idea of freedom has had more than an affinity with conservation and environmentalism: again and again, one of the reasons to preserve and value nature has been that it helps us to be free in this way. Another point is larger: that all of these historical ideas about nature have been very basically involved with ideas about freedom. Not surprisingly, what matters most in nature has recurrently been what the observer thought most important in his own life and relations with others. All the American natures have also served American freedoms.


[settler freedom]

What the continent meant to its early European claimants was almost literally utopian – utopian made topographic, no-place suddenly rendered as a continental landscape. It was the chance to make real, for some generations, a fantasy of unbounded wealth and orderly freedom.

To appreciate this, consider the use that John Locke, writing toward the end of the seventeenth century, made of his State of Nature. That was, he wrote, a condition of perfect freedom and perfect equality. But its purpose was not to vindicate either value in the England of Locke’s time. Rather, it was to show how political order, with all its hierarchy and constraint, could legitimately have arisen from a condition of freedom and equality. Of course, Locke wanted to show the limits of legitimate government, partly to justify certain forms of Parliamentary resistance against the Crown; but the right of resistance that he embraced and elaborated was there to protect life, property, and constitutional arrangements in an orderly society – something much more straitened and unequal than the freedom and equality that prevailed in the State of Nature.

Locke’s famous account of property has the same logic. He imagined the State of Nature as a world of plenitude, unowned and open to all comers. In that condition, anyone could enclose a plot of land and make it bloom, without detriment to the interests of others – for there would be “as much and as good” left over for the next person. Here, too, the point was to show how a system of unequal private property could arise, with no harm to anyone’s rights, from a world in which all things were held in common. In the England where Locke wrote, the natural right to acquire open land was extinguished by the law of property, and the duty to leave enough for others was an archaic memory, or imagination, of a time before political society. That, too, was as Locke intended. The utopia of freedom, equality, and plenitude lay somewhere behind the known world of scarcity, inequality, and constraint, and, as Locke presented it, justified the known world.

Then the utopia became real, for those who could seize a share of it. Locke had observed that, “In the beginning, all the world was America,” thinly populated and unclaimed (as he imagined the continent), but he seems not to have considered seriously the converse: in America, so understood, the world was “beginning” again – a beginning that takes quote marks because it was, specifically, the origin that Locke portrayed, and which many settlers came to embrace.

This history is too large and complex for a short essay, so accept a brief formulation. People born into a world already owned, where everything was someone’s property, could now make (as it often seemed to them) something from nothing, wealth from sheer will and labor, married to the yielding and unoccupied earth. And, in time, people born into a world already ordered discovered that, with an ocean on one hand and a continental interior on the other, they could make good the other Lockean fantasy and rewrite the terms of political order itself – a revolution in which political order was not inherited but made, law not interpreted but written. (It was a refrain of debates on restive New England that the colonists, if driven too hard, would simply retreat westward, as if withdrawing into the State of Nature itself.) Interpersonally, in the vast space between man-and-nature and man-and-sovereign, the new continent seemed to mean the freedom of a practical equality: escape from the world of lords, farmers, tenants, and servants, enforced by the finitude of acreage and its private ownership, into a world of freestanding yeomen. A possibility dawned of threefold freedom: in relation to a land one whose riches one could claim and use; to government, now imagined as the creation of a shared political will; and to others, joint venturers in a rebirth of natural liberty, and equality, and, yes, natural property.

Of course I am describing an imaginary, a shared way of understanding social and political life, and I trust readers to trust me to remember how many kinds of people were left out of this ideal, both as practiced and as imagined. But the point is that it became a viable imaginary, not just the narrative and conceptual prop it had been for Locke, because there was a continent for it. For the imaginary to work, that continent had to be seen as Locke had described nature, as evidence that God wanted us to be rich and happy but wanted us to work for it, and had accordingly granted the world to “the industrious and the rational.” Under this conception of nature the Declaration of Independence invoked a right to settle land west of the Alleghenies; that jurists and theologians claimed that Native Americans could have had no more legal claim than deer or wolves on lands they merely inhabited, but did not improve; and the Supreme Court, faced with Indian land claims, washed its hands and settled its conscience as best it could by observing that the alternative to genocide would have been “to leave the continent a wilderness.” More colloquially, it was in this vision that settlers and their governments came to call their development “reclamation,” as if the fallen world were restore when Americans made it bloom.

When the federal government created national forests, parks and, later, wilderness, it imposed the Progressive and Romantic landscapes on this earlier one. It is no surprise that Westerners resisted by invoking the Declaration of Independence and denouncing Washington for making them colonists rather than citizens. Living on a providential landscape of citizen labor was a part of what it meant to be free in a way that seemed then to be coming under threat. It was also part of the meaning of living under a government you recognized as your own, and to whose community you could be central, rather than a (geographically and psychically) faraway manager. The first colonists had become citizens partly by insisting that their woodlots could not be reserved for the King’s ships, and their westward movement would not stop at a line drawn in London. Westerners of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sounded these themes again as competing conceptions of American freedom laid incompatible claims on a single terrain.