Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Wendell Berry, Deep Ecology, and Hermit Studies

Free Photo: Posing Lumberjacks

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading some writing on the environment recently. It’s my first significant exposure to the field of environmental studies, and I’m still sorting out some of the basic categories. The term “environmental studies” seems to refer to the interdisciplinary study of the environment not only through natural science but through the social sciences and the humanities. It’s a major or concentration in some colleges. But if you read an anthology of “environmental writing” in America, it will probably have few contributions by natural scientists. Most of the writings will take a more or less humanistic (philosophical, historical, literary, journalistic) approach, in the tradition of Thoreau, although these writings will often make reference to or draw upon the writings of natural scientists in a non-technical way.

Then there’s the term “ecology,” which seems to be used by many different people to mean many very different things. (The unusually disorganized entry on “ecology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may reflect this confusion.) On the one hand, ecology might simply refer to the work of natural scientists — such as biologists — who study ecosystems. On the other hand, ecology might refer to a philosophy of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, sometimes accompanied by a commitment to the inherent value of all living things: biocentrism, as opposed to anthropocentrism or (what I called in the last post) animacentrism. This biocentric commitment is sometimes associated with the term “deep ecology.” There also appear to be a number of uses of the term ecology that aren’t primarily focused on the study of the natural environment as we usually think of it — urban ecology, social ecology, molecular ecology, and so on.

I’ve mostly been reading the non-technical, humanistic variety of environmental writing — especially by American writers like Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. In the last post, I mentioned my concern that ecology in the second sense above appears so dominant in environmental studies that competing perspectives may be excluded. Now I’m less concerned. Ecology in the sense of the scientific study of ecosystems appears to be no different than any other natural science, and does not appear to be dominated by any problematic methodological orthodoxy. Ecology in the philosophical sense of “deep ecology” may represent a problematic orthodoxy in humanistic environmental studies — but the orthodoxy doesn’t appear to be enforced in a problematic way. In fact, nearly all of the key figures in American environmental writing have worked outside the academy, with very few tools to enforce orthodoxy.

Oddly, I couldn’t help but noticing that a surprisingly large number of these figures also lived at various times in isolated wilderness cabins as hermits: Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard… The rumor is that even Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the classic literary study Forests (1992), lives in a cabin in someone’s back yard in the Stanford area. Then, of course, there’s Heidegger, whose later writings have profoundly influenced deep ecology and green parties in Europe, and who sometimes lived in a cabin in the Black Forest. And any list of environmentalists living in cabins would not be complete without mention of the Unabomber.

The relationship between environmentalism and living like a hermit may deserve further exploration. Why should environmental studies so often end up resembling hermit studies? This is especially puzzling once concepts like “the environment,” “nature,” and “wilderness” are viewed in historical perspective. One can imagine an alternate history in which environmental studies and the environmental movement were not associated with the preservation of wilderness. Environmental studies could instead be about the relationship between human beings and the conditions in which they live. This version of environmental studies might be focused much more on where human beings are today — cities.

In fact, the most valuable insight I’ve gained from my environmental readings has been the historicization of the idea of “nature.” Most of us, at least in America, uncritically inherit a basically Romantic idea of what nature is. When we think of nature, we tend to think first and foremost of majestic, sublime wildernesses — isolated mountain peaks, deep valleys, dense forests, towering waterfalls. If there are human beings in these wildernesses, they are individuals or small groups hiking or kayaking, hunting or fishing, having what a sociologist might categorize as “peak experiences” of communion with the natural world.

But in the not-so-distant past, before the Romantic movement, and especially before the Enlightenment, such isolated wildernesses were not generally viewed in the West as beautiful objects of meditative enjoyment, but as places of danger, lawlessness, enchantment, and the blurring of civilized lines. In classical Greek and Roman culture, natural beauty was located not in a terrifying forest outside of civilization but in the harmoniously cultivated agricultural land of Theocritus’s and Virgil’s pastoral poetry. I’d note that the same applies in the Chinese Classic of Poetry. The positive references to nature there are almost entirely to the land producing bountiful food so that no one goes hungry.

It is so natural for us, today, to think of isolated wilderness as powerfully beautiful that it can be startling to look back at ancient writings and discover that virtually no one shared our post-Romantic sentiment. They viewed wilderness with hostility, as something to be avoided, tamed, or destroyed.

At least, this is the general historical narrative of the cultural imagination of nature that I’m picking up from books like Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind. William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” offers a useful condensed summary of the received narrative — although he leaves out the pre-Romantic ideal of natural beauty as pastoral harmony, and also fails to cite those who developed the narrative before him, as J. Baird Callicott and Michael Nelson have pointed out. Harrison’s Forests offers another masterful presentation of the narrative, although (naturally) his is focused on the history of the cultural imagination of forests, rather than nature in general. Finally, Jedediah Purdy provides a good summary of the narrative that helpfully cites the canonical sources.

There’s so much to say about the history of the cultural imagination of nature — in America, in the West, in the world, in the last hundred years, in the last two thousand years — I won’t try to offer any further thoughts here. It’s always thrilling to discover that an important constellation of concepts, assumptions, and associations is not fixed once and for all. Not only can we imagine our conception of nature being different. It has been different in the surprisingly recent past, and could be made different again. This is, I guess, the recurring thrill of historicism.

In retrospect, I’m surprised that I didn’t encounter the historicization of nature earlier. Perhaps college students today learn the story of the cultural construction of “nature” and “wilderness” just as students used to learn the story of the cultural construction of sexuality from Foucault. It seems to me they should be learning both.

I’m beginning to have the sense that the time is a ripe for another change in the cultural imagination of nature. The Enlightenment idea of nature as merely a storehouse of natural resources to be exploited for human benefit is generally seen as having been discredited, although it once dominated American culture and government, including at the U.S. Forest Service, and apparently continues to dominate industrial agriculture and its proponents at the USDA. Among other things, this vision of nature neglects how the use of one natural resource can affect the availability of others. It tends to neglect ecology in the down-to-earth scientific sense.

The contemporary post-Romantic idea of nature (or “the environment”) as an unchanging wilderness to be preserved against disturbance or pollution has also been called into question, as Callicott and Nelson summarize in their introduction to The Great New Wilderness Debate. For one thing, this vision has been criticized for erasing indigenous peoples from the historical landscape and excluding them (and others) from a sustainable position in the present landscape. It frequently ignores the instability of nature throughout history, as well as the changes that human beings have already caused in wilderness landscapes. (As Raymond Williams points out in The Country and the City, each generation seems to feel that nature was sufficiently intact just around the time of its childhood, but has since been devastated and may soon be lost.) Also, by focusing on the solitary enjoyment of sublime wilderness landscapes, the Romantic tradition leads to bizarre consequences like the preservation of particularly majestic landscapes and the neglect of less picturesque but no less biodiverse ecosystems such as prairies, deserts, and wetlands. Finally, the idea of “pollution” as the evil to be opposed — an idea that apparently pervades the environmental movement in the United States, starting with Rachel Carson’s condemnation of toxic pesticides in Silent Spring — just doesn’t fit particularly well with the greatest threat to the environment today: climate change.

What conception of nature could come next? What do we want this conception to do?

Cronon seems to want to get away from an emphasis on wilderness altogether, and instead to focus on the health of human surroundings wherever human beings are. I’m wary of this approach, because I’d hate to cede any ground in the battle over wilderness preservation — an important goal, although one whose relation to other environmental goals is not always clear. Cronon is aware of this risk, but I’m not sure how he avoids it.

As for how “wilderness” should be defined in the anthropocene (our era of nuclear fallout, plastics, and carbon emissions), I’m sympathetic to Callicott’s suggestion that we think of the habitable earth as divided into three categories: city, agricultural hinterland, and wilderness. Wilderness is simply whatever is not city or agricultural hinterland — whatever is not civilized.

My guess is that many of the most frequently read environmental writers in the humanities — like Thoreau, Leopold, and Berry — would suggest that what should come next is something like what I have associated with deep ecology: a biocentrism focused on the interconnectedness of all things.

What continues to trouble me about many of these writers is their lack of pragmatism, at least at first glance. Their concrete environmental goals are often my goals, but rather than carrying out an open-ended, open-minded exploration of the most plausible route to achieving those goals, they often seem committed to one approach, regardless of its plausibility or likely effectiveness: whatever approach follows from deep ecology. Rather than being guided by pragmatism, they seem guided by this ideological commitment.

Consider two of Berry’s seven principles for the preservation of wilderness, which he presents in Home Economics (1987) as a middle ground between the “nature extremists” and the “technology extremists”:

5. It is not possible (at least, not for very long) for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively. We cannot intend our good, in the long run, without intending the good of our place — which means, ultimately, the good of the world.

This principle stuck out to me because if it is true, then it makes deep ecology into a kind of pragmatism. If it is true that the only way to successfully protect human beings in the long run is to aim to protect all living things — or even all things, period? including rocks? including industrial wastes? what does it mean to protect a rock, or an atom? how does one protect (or intend the good of) a “place” in general, or decide what deserves protection, and what protection means? — then biocentrism is anthropocentrism, and pragmatism without biocentrism isn’t actually pragmatic after all.

But on what basis does Berry believe this principle to be true? Faith? It certainly would be pleasing for a deep ecologist to believe that principle number 5 is true. But what is the evidence, and is the evidence persuasive?

6. To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently impractical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical way that we can intend the good of the world; practice can only be local.

Again, Berry craftily tries to reframe his own seemingly impractical approach to things as, in fact, the only practical approach. Rather than, say, protecting the environment by living efficiently in a city, earning money and using it to fund environmental protection, or influencing the powers that be in government and business through targeted political activism (like Bill McKibben today), Berry dedicated a large part of his life to reclaiming a marginal farm — through enormous effort, and in a way that may never have become economically self-sustaining.

Of course, the world needs provocations from people like Berry, just as antebellum America needed both abolitionist activists and moderate anti-slavery politicians, outsiders and insiders and all varieties in between. This is the way that social change works. Without Berry’s personal example and his writings, farmer’s markets might not be what they are becoming today, and so on.

Still, I’m tempted to ask: someone might want to believe that “practice can only be local” — but is this actually true? Do we need to evaluate monoculture, pesticide-driven factory farming on a case-by-case basis, investigating the locality of each farm to see if it makes sense here? Surely even Berry would not agree with that.

Localism has its place, but national and international approaches have their places too. It might be comforting to think that the best or only way to change the world is to retreat to a hillside farm in Kentucky, or a cabin in the woods, and to live a life of isolated ethical purity. But not everyone can live as a hermit. Most human beings today live in cities, and the future of human living may very well rest in sprawling coastal megaslums. I’m not sure what an adequate response to all of this is. An ideology with an exclusive focus on localism, accompanied by a proud rejection of the practicalities of contemporary political and economic power, does not seem promising.


One thought on “Wendell Berry, Deep Ecology, and Hermit Studies

  1. Pingback: A hierarchy of political needs? | Against the Logicians

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