Environment: Why Read the Classics?

Edgar Vaid reviews a compilation of six essays by leading environmental thinkers, including Ecologist editor-in-chief, Satish Kumar. Each essay is based on a book that has become an environmental classic.
The environmental classics range in tenor from the romantic to the pragmatic

Just as with “literary classics”, so with “environmental classics” such as the six examined here, we are more likely to be aware of them, than to have actually read the books. The themes of Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, and Moby Dick for example, have seeped into our collective folk-memory through a kind of cultural osmosis. Hence, many of us who may know the title of an epic story about the obsessive hunt for a great white whale will be less familiar with the name of its author (Herman Melville). Analogously, Small is Beautiful seems in some contexts to have almost metamorphosed into a green movement catch-phrase - out-shining its author's name (the economist, E.F. Schumacher)

But what is an “environmental (or green) classic”?

To answer this the Foreword to this collection of essays helpfully nominates several criteria, suggesting that all the works must have universal appeal, artistic quality, and have stood the test of time; additionally they should encourage connections with other people/the world around us and persuade/inspire their readership. Of course, based on these criteria, dozens of other “qualifying” works published since the Industrial Revolution might have staked a claim, e.g. George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature (1864), Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet (1948), James Lovelock’s Gaia and A New Look at Life on Earth (1979).

However, the organisers of the Lisbon conferences - from which these essays originated - chose them because “individually and collectively, they tell the most important green narratives regarding what we need to know about relationships between nature, the environment and ourselves”.              

An early yet quintessential example of the genre, dating from 1854, is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or Life in The Woods, reminding us “that humankind is neither superior nor inferior to nature but .... an integral part of it”.  Indeed, he echoed the sympathies of his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson in criticising the spiritually impoverishing effect on people of urban environments, an early precursor of what contemporary eco-bloggers and author Richard Louv (the man who coined the phrase) might more prosaically describe as “nature deficit disorder”.

Living in a wilderness-girt cabin by a Massachusetts lake for two years, where his detailed knowledge of the natural world melded with attendant ethical ponderings, Thoreau emphasised the extent to which people are encompassed by nature. In gauging Walden’s cultural reach, we may gracefully accept the suggestion that his descriptions of the sunsets over Walden Pond so moved subsequent generations of American statesmen as to favourably influence their environmental policies.

The environmental classics range in tenor from the romantic to the pragmatic

Published posthumously almost a century later, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949), echoed Thoreau’s concerns in a series of essays opposing the “non-respectful relationship of humans with nature”.  Significantly, some 40 years earlier whilst working for the United States Forest Service, Leopold had been less interested in its timber production remit than the forests’ sylvan landscapes; he was already manifesting greater consciousness of beauty than utility. His writings have the unifying ambition of remedying his contemporaries’ view of the World (dubbed “worldview remediation”), which allowed land to be abused because it was regarded as an owned commodity, an historically resilient paradigm inherited from a Western Biblical tradition.

This theme of humankind’s depredations on the natural world is revisited by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962).  However, the “silence which she evokes is actually quite loud”, as it highlights the adverse effects of chemical pesticides in agriculture at a time when they were regarded uncritically as part of beneficent technological progress supporting our planetary custodianship. Especially in the United States, the pervasive zeitgeist of the mid 20th Century accepted that “part of a project in which nature submitted entirely to humanity” involved the application of agrochemicals such as DDT.  

The incidental effects of DDT - via the food-chain - led to the near extinction of several species such as the Mauritius Kestrel.  In addition to challenging the mega-agricultural status quo, Carson’s book also promoted the potential for science to help people work with nature, rather than against it, alongside the (then) relatively novel notion that the public had a right to know about the consequences of risky decisions for their health and the environment.

A decade later, the incompatibility of a healthy environment with unlimited economic growth became the siren cry of The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al, 1972).  Its vital yet unpopular message has been claimed as initiating the era of raised consciousness about adverse anthropogenic change to the global environment, and the ensuing sustainability debates. However, this isn’t a doom-mongering book. It suggests different possibilities for human stewardship of the planet – alternatives which would enable us to avoid colliding with the limits predicted from our continually skewed relationship with nature.

A key factor in fostering this imbalance is the sheer scale of human activities, a concern taken up the following year by E F Schumacher in Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered (1973). Satish Kumar’s  description and analysis of its genesis, contents, and influence, benefits immensely from the fact that he was inspired by Schumacher, whom he knew personally.  They share concerns not just about the physical effects of huge scale activities on the natural environment (“the unsustainable ecological footprint of societies based on large scale mass production and consumption”), but on the psychological effects on individuals of enormous cities, organisations, and structures.  A core argument is that in a globally distorted three-cornered tussle between money, natural resources, and human well-being, the second and third deserve greater attention.

The relationship between humanity and the natural environment also forms the over-arching subject of Our Common Future, published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development.  More simply and popularly known as the Brundtland Report, it is widely credited with instituting the concept of “sustainable development”.  That this phrase has since been absorbed into common parlance outside the green cognoscenti is tacit acknowledgement of the report’s lasting influence.  Its particular strength is an emphasis on the future of humankind accepting that the environmental, material, societal, and psychological welfare of our great-grand children is as important as ours.

Spanning more than 130 years of global upheaval, these environmental classics range in tenor from the philosophical/romantic through the strident/visionary to the overtly pragmatic. As Italo Calvino perceptively observed in Why Read the Classics?, each qualifies as a classic work because it “persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway”.

In her thought-provoking introduction, Sofia Guedes Vaz characterises the essence of their collective “background noise” as the need for a more respectful and responsible relationship between nature and humanity.  Encouragingly, the six are admirably brought to life by the corresponding essays, a hallmark of their inherent quality being the impetus driving us to reach for the original titles. 

Edgar Vaid is a freelance book reviewer.

This book is published by Greenleaf publishing, £15.96.




More from this author