Communing with Nature: Continuing Our Series on History and the Environment, Thomas Dunlap Explores the Development of Quasi-Religious Environmentalism in North America

By Dunlap, Thomas | History Today, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Communing with Nature: Continuing Our Series on History and the Environment, Thomas Dunlap Explores the Development of Quasi-Religious Environmentalism in North America


Dunlap, Thomas, History Today


ANY MOVEMENT THAT BRINGS people out to lie in front of logging trucks, risk jail by tearing up survey stakes, or risk life and limb by running a small boat in front of a whaling ship deserves the attention of historians. Environmentalism has always done that. It has roused particularly strong passions in the last forty years, since the denunciations of DDT that followed the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, and they show no signs of dying down.

Reformers of all kinds have commonly been zealous -- in the early years of the twentieth century British suffragettes chained themselves to fences, and in the 1960s American civil rights demonstrators marched up to club-wielding cops -- but the fight for the vote and other civil rights reflected issues of daily life and everyday freedoms, which the campaigns to protect old-growth forests and whales do not. Environmentalism spoke in different tones and to different ends. Rather than justice and social change it appealed to a sense of morality and called on us to save the planet. In researching environmentalism in Australia, Canada and New Zealand I have found that the passionate element, though perhaps equally powerful elsewhere, is expressed in the United States in an unusual way. This difference is rooted in the American experience, but also in European culture. Americans borrowed and adapted ideas of conservation and natural beauty from Western Europe, and even their distinctive fascination with wild lands and wilderness drew on Romanticism and British pastoral poetry. (Europeans also drew on reports about American conditions).

The particular passion behind the American movement arose from the way in which its environmentalism has appealed to the human impulse towards religion. By religion, I do not mean a creed or a church but the sort of thing the philosopher and founder of pragmatism William James (1842-1910) talked about in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In this work he defined religion as the `belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.' It was, he said, the common human response to:

   ... a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
   The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making
   proper connection with the higher powers ... At bottom the whole concern of
   religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe.

Environmentalism, in common with such beliefs as nationalism, progress, science, the free market or scientific socialism, holds, as an article of faith, that its beliefs are not faith but knowledge. They speak not `the language of the heart or of the emotions, but of serene, impartial reason'. Despite these claims, these movements do serve as religions in the Jamesian sense: they give people an explanation of the world and how human life fits into it and so guide them as to how they should live.

The religious impulse within American environmentalism can be traced back way beyond the counterculture of the 1960s, to the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). When American environmentalists appeal to nature's spiritual values they may mention Emerson but they focus on Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) Transcendentalist author of Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) and and John Muir (1838-1914) the pioneer advocate for national parks and founder, in 1892, of the Sierra Club, an organisation concerned with nature preservation. Thoreau, though, was Emerson's protege and Muir his loyal disciple. Emerson led -- by the force of his writings, the passion of his commitment to ideas, and his then scandalous departure from orthodox Christianity -- the first generation of American intellectuals, people determined to question their new country and its ideas but also to establish American greatness before the world. With compelling metaphors and striking aphorisms, Emerson showed nature to Americans as a refuge from society, a source of wisdom and ultimate reality. …

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