Spiritual Lives of Great Environmentalists: John Wesley Powell and John Lane

By Johnson, William Ted | Electronic Green Journal, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Spiritual Lives of Great Environmentalists: John Wesley Powell and John Lane


Johnson, William Ted, Electronic Green Journal


How many \environmentalists. were there in the 19th century? Probably the same number as in the 18th century, 17th, etc., all the way to ancient times: none. It is problematic to apply a contemporary concept to the culture of a previous time. The context is entirely different. Americans in the 19th century flowed across the continent with the power of a flood and John Wesley Powell was in that flow. The expansion of industrializing America framed his childhood experience, inspired his adult career, and became, as it were, a personal religion, not only for him but for many of his fellow citizens (Worster, 2001). Yet, Powell's perspectives on the land were distinct from those of most of his contemporaries. He was a prophet indeed, a voice crying from the wilderness. Unfortunately, many of his efforts to conserve the environment fell on deaf ears. Even today, there are those who deny his wisdom, acting as though there are still no limits to our natural resources. Will we ever learn?

Inquiries have been made to such prominent environmental organizations as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) listserv for contacts and persons interested in sharing their environmental/spiritual views. To date, few have come forth. Perhaps there is skepticism as to the bias with which this series of essays is presented. However, there is no prescribed view that is acceptable while that of another is unacceptable. As is evidenced here and in previous issues, any and all views are acceptable. Nothing is edited save for that done by the computer's spell check program. Some may view their spiritual perspective as personal. Does that mean it is private, also?. Others may hold to the opinion that environmental science and spirituality are incompatible. Yet, recent to ancient scholarship suggests otherwise (D'Souza, 2007).

Regardless of your own bias, this series has made two things clear. First, individuals can and do make a difference when it comes to improving the environmental health of a small place, large region, or the entire world. Second, the individual's spiritual perspective influences their environmental behavior. What is your environmental legacy, large or small? How has your spiritual perspective influenced that legacy? I appreciate John Lane's willingness to share his environmental legacy and the spiritual perspective he holds, which is making the world an environmentally healthier place for us all.

The Environmental Legacy of John Wesley Powell (1834-1902)

Perhaps the most significant work of an environmentalist, regardless of the century when the individual was born, is to march to the sound of a different drummer, to stand apart from the tide of the times, and work to make the world a more beautiful and healthy place rather than sell one's soul in the marketplace of convenience and commercial exploitation for self-centered motives. Powell's biographers differ in their assessment of Powell's environmental insight and contribution, yet they agree that his approach to addressing America's environmental problems was unconventional because he was a revolutionary. Stegner (1953) said Powell pierced through the misconceptions held dear by the majority of his fellow citizens. 'Environmentally. speaking, Powell was probably one of the most powerfully original and prophetic individuals of the latter 19th century. Practically speaking, his importance as a conservationist is entirely related to the differences in natural conditions between the West and other regions of the country. He seems to have been the only national figure to have noticed these differences and responded with meaningful policy recommendations appropriate to the situation on the ground.

Stegner (1953) went on to say that his positions were so unlike that of his contemporaries that he was as David against Goliath or Beowulf against Grendel's dam. He challenged the odds and he met the enemy on their own ground. …

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