Guilford Harbor

Remaking American Environmentalism

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

This piece1,2 by writer Jenny Price in Environmental History (subscription required) is an interesting take on the ongoing battle for the soul of environmentalism. I recommend getting access to and reading the entire article.

A few excerpts:

Environmentalism, in sum, has taken some very serious hits. Many of its most familiar and cherished icons have come under a veil of suspicion. Thoreau? Inspiring—but urged us to see nature as the antidote to the places we live. Yosemite? Spectacular, and essential for many reasons—and a site of violent conquest. And a white refuge from the troubles of cities. And culturally constructed to boot. Silent Spring? Indispensable to the ensuing 1960s and 1970s legislation—but apocalyptic, the reapers complain, with a millennial, paralyzing vision of nature as the pure true world that humans by definition violate. What would have happened with the civil rights movement, they ask, if Martin Luther King had given an “I have a nightmare” instead of an “I have a dream” speech? Ditto for the Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland in 1969 and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. The earth from space? We may all live on one planet together, but environmental justice advocates have pointed out also that we are not entirely all in this together….

Post-environmentalism, the fourth wave, post-post-environmentalism, post-wave environmentalism?—or Lewis MacAdams says he’s an infrastructuralist. I’m not sure I care that much. I’m happy with just plain “environmentalism.” But I don’t agree with the reapers that we should jettison the word and category altogether—because I think that applying new definitions to the words people know is more effective than creating a new language. To use the reapers’ own metaphor, what if Martin Luther King had avoided the words “freedom” and “rights” rather than articulating them in new ways?

Let’s take nominations for what to call it—But this twenty-first-century environmentalism emphasizes as its absolute fundamental principle not that we save or destroy nature but that we inhabit nature for better and worse. It pays a great deal of attention to how we inhabit nature in cities, where most of us live—and tells us that the quality and equality of life in the places we make our homes depend fundamentally on how sustainably and equitably we use, move, change, manage, and preserve nature inside and outside of cities. It puts all this activity at the core and center of our social and economic lives. So being an environmentalist means being one in the course of producing and consuming wealth as much as, or much more than, in the course of giving money away. This environmentalism locates its heart and soul in sustainable and equitable economic and social systems—and in sound and equitable public policies and investment—as much as, or much more than, in individual personal virtue.

An environmentalism inspired by this river’s revitalization appreciates, and understands the tremendous ecological significance of, wildness, but it does not embrace wilderness as a way to ignore or escape, rather than to grapple with, the use of nature to sustain our lives.

It does not leave other people facing the worst consequences of how we use nature. It emphasizes that we may all be in this together, but also that we are not all in this together—and makes clear the essential connections between socioeconomic and environmental inequities, and between using nature equitably and using it sustainably.

It emphasizes compromise and negotiation, and process over solutions. It is less apocalyptic than alarmed, less utopian than optimistic, and less religiously dogmatic than pragmatic and full-souled and whole-hearted.

It connects preservation and conservation, and muddles them energetically. It proclaims that in wildness is the preservation of the world. It proclaims with equal enthusiasm that in the world is the preservation of wildness.

A twenty-first-century environmentalism, with the L.A. River as icon, argues for a world in which channeling and intensively managing a flood-prone river can be a wondrously environmentalist thing to do—and where the important questions are not whether you manage nature but how sustainably and fairly you negotiate to do it.

On the banks of the L.A. River, a once and future environmentalism takes joy in wild nature. It takes joy in our everyday connections to nature. It is an environmentalism, all told, in which our joy in wild nature is widely and deeply informed by the great joy of using nature well.

1Price, J. (2008) Remaking American Environmentalism: On the Banks of the L.A. River. Environmental History, 13(3):536-555.

2Bowdoin people can link to article here.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bowdoin College

Bowdoin College web site:

Search | A - Z Index | Directory