Lecture #25: That Which We Tame

Suggested Readings:

Bill McKibben, ed, American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (Library of America, 2008)
Michael Pollan, Second Nature (1992) (extraordinary book about environmental history & ethics)
Thomas R. Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest (2004)
Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (2011)
Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (2015)
Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways (2012)


I. Searching for Lessons

Remember where we began with that opening lecture on Kennecott, Alaska: environmental history integrates 3 broad perspectives on the past:

  • the ecology of people as organisms sharing universe with other organisms;
  • the political economy of people as social beings reshaping nature and each other to produce collective life; and
  • the cultural values of people as self-reflective beings trying to find meaning of lives in world

Can we extract any lessons from environmental history? Possible answers are endless, but here are a few that seem to me reasonable to draw as conclusions from what we've studied this semester:

  • A landscape is among most profound and complicated of historical documents, reflecting extraordinarily diverse ecological and cultural processes: history is everywhere around us waiting to be read. (This is the grounding premise of my other big lecture course, History/Geography/Environmental 469, "The Making of the American Landscape," which I encourage you to consider taking if you're interested:
  • When people migrate from one ecosystem to another, other organisms do too (plant, animal, bacterial, viral), with far-reaching effects.
  • When people exchange things in a market, they link together ecosystems and encourage change, often without fully understanding the effects they are setting in motion. Markets both connect and disconnect us from the other people, beings, and places with which we're in relationship even when we're unaware of those connections.
  • People often mismanage fish and other common property resources when economics and ecology conflict, often responding to market incentives that may be in some tension with our individual and collective self-interest.
  • Tools and technologies powerfully reshape natural environments, but their effects are always mediated by the complex cultural systems in which they are embedded.
  • If you want to understand people's environmental values, watch what they eat and throw away.
  • Early conservationists were concerned mainly with questions of economically efficient production, while later environmentalists have often been equally concerned with ecologically responsible consumption (or no consumption at all).
  • The protection of nature raises profound questions about our attitudes toward government and market, regulation and incentives, freedom and constraint. The proper role of state power has become a powerfully contested question in environmental politics.
  • We can never encounter nature at first hand, but experience it always through the lens of our own cultural preconceptions--which always contain an extraordinary amount of human history.
  • Nature often expresses not just our idea of the non-human world, but of humanity and God as well.
  • Scale matters, and the processes on which environmental history operates are fractal, from the global to the local, entire ecosystems to our own bodies, macrocosm to microcosm, big to small:
  • To see a world in a grain of sand,
    And a heaven in a wild flower,
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
    And eternity in an hour.
    ---William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

II. On Wonder and Responsibility: A Few Articles of Faith

Time for me to stop and reflect on relationship between environmental past, present, and future: is there room for hope?

There are complicated moral problems associated with historicizing nature. Doing so may demystify relations we might prefer to keep sacred--and yet it may be equally dangerous to believe in myths that ultimately distort our actual relationships with non-human nature.

Notice the subtle effects of human power: technology has become for us a kind of Faustian bargain, giving us many wonderful things but also the power to destroy ourselves and modify any ecosystem, raising at least the possibility that nothing wild untouched by us will survive, on scales ranging from the grand to the small, from the atomic bomb to an eggshell shattered by the thinning resulting from DDT.

But never forget: power over nature is not at all the same as controlling nature. Just because we can destroy something doesn't mean we understand it or now how to use it wisely. One of history's deepest and most chastening insights is that we can never know the full consequences of our own actions ahead of time.

To paraphrase a remark by Francis Bacon at the dawn of the scientific revolution: "Nature, to be commanded, must first be obeyed."

One fundamental lesson of history (not just environmental history, but all history): every action yields proliferating effects and unexpected consequences. We've seen myriad examples this semester:

  • energy-saving interventions like insulating houses can produce indoor air pollution;
  • saving Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument meant flooding Glen Canyon;
  • a brilliant solution to the hazards of ammonia in early refrigeration systems -- freon -- led to the ozone hole over Antarctica; and so on.

Unexpected problems like these could provoke us to despair or cynicism...or the could encourage self-critical humility in the face of mysteries of nature and history both. If so, they could offer antidotes to the intellectual arrogance and moral complacency that human beings all too commonly fall into.

To repeat a point I've made more than once in this course: prophesies of doom are usually intended to bring about their own failure. Their goal is to paint a picture of future disaster an effort to avert that disaster by changing people's values, intentions, and actions. That's why it's not wrong to regard Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as one of the great acts of secular prophecy of the twentieth century. True prophets aspire to make their own prophecies false.

The success of Rachel Carson's prophetic intervention is surely among the best reasons I know for studying environmental history. Although we've repeatedly hard prophecies of doom in this class, we've also heard stories of people struggling to respond to those prophecies by changing themselves and their ideas to avert disaster. And they have often succeeded in so doing:

  • The cholera that was so devastating for cities in the first half of the nineteenth century no longer haunts our cities.
  • Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon remain free of the floodwaters.
  • Lake Erie has not died.
  • International cooperation has taken remarkable steps to reduce the threat of CFCs to atmospheric ozone.
  • Lois Gibbs and Florence Robinson and others have engaged in heroic efforts to defend their families and their neighborhoods from toxic poisons.
  • Caribou herds still migrate across the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.

We can make a difference, and the earth can be remarkably robust in the face of our best (and worst) efforts.

Our perceptions of facts are as important as the facts themselves in producing historical change: ideas matter.

A seeming environmental disaster can thus contain the seeds of its own reversal: small victories may not seem like much, but they may be all that we as mortal beings can ever hope to have.

There is no one big problem called "the environment," just an infinitude of problems, large and small, all associated with the great challenge of living justly and responsibly on this precious, beautiful planet.

That's why this course hasn't had -- and cannot have -- a single grand theme or narrative. No one metanarrative -- about technological progress, or the horrors of capitalism, or about human greed or indifference, or about the oppression of nature (and other people) by people, or about the struggle to build a more just and sustainable society -- can do justice to the complexity of the world we know, both human and natural.

Accepting this means accepting the particularity of history itself, accepting that we make history individually and colletively by the ways we lead minute of our day-to-day lives. The brick in the toilet is in fact a political and moral act...a kind of small victory.

That is why the details matter: history without texture, and details, and lived reality, isn't history at all. We live our lives in the details.

The lines and shapes we draw on the land reflect the lines and shapes we imagine in our heads. In lecture, I show a photo that for my symbolizes this beautifully, showing the shadow of Aldo Leopold's hatted head on the stump of the tree on which he based his essay "The Good Oak." Environmental history tries to reconstruct the endless layers of change that we and the earth have traced upon each other.

  • It is the history recorded in the tree rings of Leopold's good oak;
  • It is the history recorded by the marks of his saw upon that tree;
  • It is the history recorded by the memories in that hatteded head with its shadow on that stump;
  • It is the history recorded in the essay he crafted from all of these, all inextricably bound together in history and nature both.

This leads to a powerful insight of environmental history: to live on earth is to change it. People cannot live outside nature; they can only think themselves outside it. Neither can nature now be separate from us and our lives. We are in this world together, and must find our way forward together.

The material history of environmental change is thus also a spiritual history of human consciousness and a political-economic history of human society. They are all inextricably entangled in fascinatingly complex whole.

Even the most abstract patterns we trace on the landscapes around us reflect economic and ecological relationships that also represent competing visions of community, a community we share with other human beings, with other creatures, and with the earth itself. Discovering how to understand the common good under such circumstances remains an open question, and is among the most challenging such questions that any of us can ever confront.

No matter how the abstract the pattern or or how distant the landscape, it's important never to lose track of the faces in the crowd: the individual people, the individual plants and animals, both for their own sake and for what they can teach us as embodiments of the larger processes for which we need to take responsibilty.

The values we teach our children are distilled expressions of our cultural beliefs about nature, history, and ourselves, often at their most idealized: the brick in the toilet gains power when seen through a child's wondering eyes.

Patterns in one place are tied to networks of connections elsewhere: city/country, market relations, religious beliefs, values. Tracing out these interconnections both in space and in time -- understanding their histories -- is crucial if we wish to understand ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Take for example the implications of human population growth, which raise questions not just about environmental harm but also about social justice.

The problem we face is not whether to leave marks on the earth, but what kind of marks we wish to leave. This moral dilemma which is inescapably human, since we care far more about our legacy than nature does.

The garden can serve as a symbol of the tamed earth that we now serve as stewards.

Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder: "I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity admiration or love—then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate."

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: "We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in."

Wendell Berry, Home Economics: "A culture that does not measure itself by nature...becomes destructive of nature and thus of itself. A culture that does not measure itself by its own best work and the best work of other cultures...becomes destructive of itself and thus of nature."

Taming the wonderful for love, as Antoine St. Exupéry put it so beautifully in The Little Prince: "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."