Move Over, Thoreau

Rationalist environmentalism better prevail, and fast.

I have just swallowed my greens—1,000 pages of them—and I am torn. If the planet warms by 6 degrees in my lifetime, as the climatologists say it really could, we will face vast and violent weather of mass destruction. The last time the world warmed so much, so fast, was 251 million years ago—and almost everything on Earth died. So I have no doubt environmentalism is the most urgent ideology left standing, reducing every other disagreement to a second-rank squabble. Yet it is—as an intellectual tradition—muddled and messy.

Bill McKibben—who is himself one of the most literate and talented environmentalists working today—has captured the great sprawling contradictions of the environmentalist tradition by locking the great greens of the past two centuries of U.S. history together in the pages of American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. As I pored through the extracts of enviro-speeches, books, and letters, I could see them all massed together in the Library of America’s lobby. Henry David Thoreau, the mud from Walden Pond drying on his heels, smiles and offers Al Gore a huckleberry; Al Gore smiles back and offers him a BlackBerry. Theodore Roosevelt makes them jump by taking potshots at the endangered owl Edward Abbey has brought along. Paul Ehrlich announces with a shriek that there are too many people in the room and chases Rachel Carson out. Everyone begins to shout.

What unites this cacophony? What makes them all environmentalists? McKibben says they all focused on “the collision between people and the rest of the world”—and together they as Americans gave the world the genre of environmental writing. When Europeans and Asians were destroying their forests and burning away their lush ecosystems, nobody was writing books. But the deforestation hinted at in the ancient epics of the old continents was witnessed firsthand by some of America’s greatest writers. They smelled the smoke, and it stung their eyes.

But it isn’t often noted that American environmentalism splits early into two contrasting schools—and I can see no way to reconcile them. In the 18th century, there was a dramatic shift away from viewing the world through the prism of faith and spirit and God toward understanding it through empirical data gathered and sifted and rationally analyzed. This movement, the Enlightenment, made it possible for humanity to understand the world far better—and to log and build on and conquer it, for a time.

Environmentalists are still divided between those who blame the Enlightenment for our environmental crisis and those who think it offers us the only map to safety. This is a showdown between romantics and rationalists.

The romantics—a tradition you can peel back to Wordsworth’s daffodils—see environmental crises as primarily spiritual. They believe concrete and cities and factories are fundamentally inhuman, alienated habitats that can only make us sick. They cut us off from the natural rhythms of the land, and encourage us to break up the world into parts and study them mechanistically—when, in fact, everything is connected.

American environmentalism was midwifed into the world by a romantic, Henry David Thoreau. His decision to live for two years, two months, and two days alone in the woods—to hear the earth—has become part of American mythology. He scorned the supposed inauthenticity of the city and its technologies: Appalled, he said, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. This tendency ripples on through the following centuries of environmentalism as an ache and a lodestar. You don’t have to spend long among the lead-belching factory-cities of China—or on a snarled-up freeway in Los Angeles—to feel the tug of these back-to-the-trees tropes.

McKibben includes a close-to-parody piece by Alice Walker taking this tendency to its logical extreme. As part of an “intense dialogue” with them, she “feels” the trees angrily shout: “That we are alive and have feelings means nothing to you!” The trees tell her Americans should return to being a hunter-gatherer society: “The new way to exist on the Earth may well be the ancient way of the steadfast lovers of this particular land,” they mutter through their leaves.

The rationalist wing of environmentalism comes from an entirely different direction. Its members fully acknowledge that early Enlightenment thinkers like Francis Bacon or Rene Descartes thought of nature as so much booty for humanity to pillage and condoned eco-cidal acts. But these thinkers also set in train the practice of empirically observing the world and following the evidence wherever it led—and this inevitably punctured their rape-the-natural-world mania. If you are rigorous, you soon find that there are limits to what the environment can endure without collapsing.

The rational environmentalists stand at the midpoint between the utopian delusions of the global-warming deniers—something will come along to save us!—and the utopian fantasies of the romantics. They believe our crisis is not spiritual at all, but physical. Human beings didn’t unleash warming gases into the atmosphere out of malice or stupidity or spiritual defect: They did it because they wanted their children to be less cold and less hungry and less prone to disease. The moral failing comes only very late in the story—when we chose to ignore the scientific evidence of where wanton fossil-fuel burning would take us. This failing must be put right by changing our fuel sources, not altering our souls.

Diagnose the problem differently, and you end up with fundamentally different solutions. You can see this most clearly if you look at the environmentalist clash over cities, over how we should live: Is the way forward to build more cities or to try to get people to flee to the countryside?

In American Earth, farmer and plant geneticist Wes Jackson ventures into the ring for the romantics by presenting a utopian vision of the United States in 2030. The major cities have experienced “drastic declines” because people finally became aware of “the spiritual dangers which arise when people no longer know or feel their rootedness in the land.” They figured out “the only people who really liked the big city life were merchants and [boo! hiss!] intellectuals.” The people have returned to the land and been healed.

A few pages later, sociologist Jane Jacobs struts into the ring and jabs back: “It may be romantic to search for the salves of society’s ill in slow-moving rustic surroundings, but it is a waste of time.” Human beings are part of nature, not some alien species—so “the cities of human beings are as natural … as are the colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters.” Far from being free and somehow mystically complete, “in real life, peasants are the least free of men—bound by tradition, ridden by caste, fettered by superstitions, riddled by suspicion and foreboding of whatever is strange.”

So for Jacobs, cities are ineradicable and set you free—and, crucially, they are the greenest way to live. The area with the lowest carbon emissions per person in the United States is not rural Alabama or icy Alaska. It is New York City, with its mass transit system and easy walking. If we are to deal with global warming, there need to be more densely populated cities and far fewer tree-lined suburbs.

Here are two sincere environmentalists with completely different answers for how we should live. Why? Because they are asking different questions. Jackson is asking about a supposed spiritual crisis; Jacobs is talking about an imminent physical one. I’m with the rationalists. And yet this division—which seems so plain and irreconcilable to me—keeps being muddied by the contributors to this collection. Wes Jackson offers the most romantic fantasy of the book—but he is a distinguished scientist. Al Gore offers the most lucid popular summary of hard climate science we have—and then attributes the disaster, in an unexplained leap of logic, to a “spiritual crisis.” Almost all the rational accounts here let romantic tropes seep into their writing as rousing quasi-religious end lines. Why? It feels as though the rationalists don’t have enough confidence in their own intellectual tradition to inspire and rouse people. It’s an old Enlightenment fear: Are we too irrational and poorly evolved a species to respond to neat reason?

I don’t think so. Rationalist environmentalists are close to finding a language that can rouse people to the great global game of Russian roulette we are playing without descending into cause-discrediting voodoo. You can glimpse this voice in the writings of the best environmentalists: people like George Monbiot and Mark Lynas and Jared Diamond. It locates its rock-solid facts in a compelling narrative about our species: where we can from and what we can still be if our best instincts prevail.

Yet rationalist environmentalism doesn’t have a lot of time to prevail. As American Earth progresses, from the 1830s to the noughties, the scope of environmentalism grows wider and wider, as though it were a snowball tumbling downhill. If saving our species—with all its poetry and pathos and pathologies—isn’t an urgent cause that inspires the kind of hardheaded passion that can sustain a determined political movement, then what is? As Denis Hayes—co-founder of Earth Day—says in this collection, “If environment is a fad, it’s going to be our last fad.”