Thoreau to the Rescue: Practical Questions for an Environmental Life
July 12, 2016
Happy birthday to Henry David Thoreau! His groundbreaking book Walden, first published in 1854, continues to influence generations of readers and inspire anyone with an open mind and a love of nature. His writings about a simpler life attuned with the natural world are more relevant than ever for the new millennium. As environmentalist Bill McKibben points out here in his introduction to Walden, our propensity for rampant consumerism has a direct impact on our environment. Now, more than ever, Thoreau’s philosophy can serve as a guide not only for climate justice, but also for a more balanced lifestyle.
The hawk sat on a limb three feet above my head and did not stir as I walked under—that was the first sign.
I’d been off hiking for about a week, a long solo backpack through my home mountains, the Adirondacks of upstate New York. The first few days out I might as well have been back in my room—I strode purposefully along the trail, eyes fixed on focusless middle-distance that you stare at when you drive. My mind chattered happily away—my own little CNN delivering an around-the-clock broadcast of ideas, plans, opinions: What was I going to work on next? Who would win the presidential election? What were some neat things I could buy? My mind was buzzing, following all its usual tracks though I was deep in the woods.
The days wore on. The imposed input lessened—no radio, no paper, no conversation. I could feel the chatter in my head begin to subside. Either the peace of the forest was beginning to penetrate, or the stocks of mental junk food were starting to dwindle; whatever the cause, the buzz turned to hum, and once in a while to quiet.
And so I was not completely surprised when the hawk kept his perch, or a few minutes later when I passed a pair of grazing deer and they merely looked up a moment, didn’t spook. I was still wearing the rustling fluorescent uniform of the modern hiker, but I’d begun, perhaps, to give off fewer, calmer vibrations.
I’d been walking through rain for days; it had long since penetrated my Gore-Tex hide, and so that afternoon when the sun finally came out I made an early camp by the lake. I hung out my clothes in the branches to warm; held my white and wrinkled feet up to the sky to toast; unfolded in the lovely heat like a snake on a stone. Soon a band of merganser chicks, trailing their mother, circled the small cove by which I lay, paying no attention to me. My aura of invisibility lasted all day, soothing one creature after another, until I was feeling part creature myself. Naked, hidden by the fringe of birch leaves, I watched canoeists paddle chattily by, and they seemed nearly to belong to another race. That night I was aware of every second of the endless sunset: the first long rays of the sun as the afternoon turned late, the long twilight, the turn of the sky from blue to blue to blue to—just as it turned black, a heron came stalking through my cove, standing silently and then spearing with a sudden spasm; I couldn’t see her, not really, but I knew where she was. The sky darkened, the stars in this dark place spread across the sky bright and insistent. We were unimaginably small, this heron and I, and extremely right.
I tell this memory—one of my happiest—as a way of plunging into that great sea called Walden. Understanding the whole of this book is a hopeless task. Its writing resembles nothing so much as Scripture; ideas are condensed to epigrams, four or five to a paragraph. Its magic density yields dozens of different readings—psychological, spiritual, literary, political, cultural. To my mind, though, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is most crucial to read Walden as a practical environmentalist’s volume, and to search for Thoreau’s heirs among those trying to change our relation to the planet. We need to understand that when Thoreau sat in the dooryard of his cabin “from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house,” he was offering counsel and example exactly suited for our perilous moment in time.
He had, of course, no idea that he was doing so. Although he wrote often about the natural world, Thoreau lived at the very onset of the industrial age, and so knew nothing about parts-per-million, or carcinogenesis, or chlorofluorocarbons. One reads him in vain for descriptions of smog. Mass extinction seems unthinkable—instead, he is gratified and reassured by the profligacy of the living world: “I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can afford to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another, that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp—tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road.” His world was not used up, suffering—he was in the sixth party of white people to climb Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, on an expedition that took him through the heart of that then-mighty wilderness. And though he could perhaps foresee the ruination that greed might cause (the East would soon be logged so bare that “every man would have to grow whiskers to hide its nakedness”), he had no inkling that we could damage the ozone or change the very climate with our great consumer flatulence. “Thank God the sky is safe,” he wrote.
Furthermore, even if Thoreau had realized the challenges facing the modern environment, there’s no good reason to think he would have pitched in to help. Reformers, he writes, “are the greatest bores of all,” and I doubt a few hundred fundraising appeals from the Audubon Society would have changed his estimation that he’d received but one or two letters “that were worth the postage.” More crucially, he was aggressively uninterested in the prospect of community that sage environmentalists now hold out as our great chance for salvation. The prospect of, say, abiding more closely with his fellows so that they could pool resources, live more efficiently, take pleasure in rubbing shoulders would not have appealed to a man who thought “the old have no very important advice to give to the young,” who considered that two people ought not to travel together, who found it “wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.” Were Thoreau a modern third-grader, his report card would doubtless note his lack of social skills; it is no accident that he never married, and to imagine him with a child is a joke. There is a great deal he can’t teach us.
You could even lay at his door, I think, some particular environmental problems. In his day, much to his disgust, people clustered together in Concord town and ventured out to Walden to cut ice; partly under his intoxicating influence, many many more of us have come to make our homes on the lake and ocean shores, in the scenic spots, far from places where we work. There’s hardly an unprotected shoreline in the lower forty-eight not lined with cottages and cabins; wilderness is now a selling point for the enterprising realtor. Even the suburb owes something to him; though clearly a corruption of his vision, in its splendid isolation the subdivision colonial retains a bit of his rude cabin.
So to call him an environmental prophet—in many ways the environmental prophet, a writer of the highest value to the twenty-first century—requires that we think more deeply about what it might mean to live an environmentally sane life. It means recognized the precise nature of the problems that we face. If those questions are technical, then he is of no help. If our largest environmental problems are the result of something going wrong, some pollutant spewing unchecked from smokestack or exhaust pipe, then he’s simply an interesting historical curiosity. Confronted with a smoggy city, I’d choose a catalytic converter over a pocket copy of Walden. And indeed we’ve nearly solved smog no thanks to Henry David. New equipment scrubs carbon monoxide from the exhaust stream of your car, which is why Los Angeles is cleaner now than a generation ago. New filters on factory pipes clean up rivers and lakes—that’s why fish again swim in Lake Erie.
But what if those are not the largest environmental problems we face? What if we’re really in trouble because things are going right, just at much too high a level? Consider the tailpipe of the car once more. It’s not just carbon monoxide that comes spewing out, it’s also carbon dioxide, carbon with two oxygen atoms. And this time there’s no filter you can stick on the car to cut the CO2; it’s the inevitable byproduct any time you burn fossil fuels. It also turns out that carbon dioxide represents an even greater threat than smog: its molecular structure traps heat near the planet, triggering climate change. The sky’s not safe after all; the sky is heating up. And the answer has defied the technologists. They’ve managed to double the fuel efficiency of our cars in the last thirty-five years, but we’ve doubled the number of cars, and the miles they drive, spewing out ever larger clouds of CO2. Scientists tell us they can see the extra heat, watch it melt glaciers and raise sea levels. To prevent it getting worse won’t require some technical change; it will require doing with less, living more lightly. Our other biggest problems—overpopulation, habitat destruction, and so on—present the same challenge: they’re inevitable if we keep living the way we do, thinking our same thoughts.
And it is here that Thoreau comes to the rescue. He posed the two practical questions that must come dominate this age if we’re to make those changes: How much is enough? and How do I know what I want? For him, I repeat, those were not environmental questions; they were not even practical questions, exactly. If you could answer them you might improve your own life, but that was the extent of his concern. He could not guess about the greenhouse gas effect. Instead, he was the American avatar in a long line that stretches back at least to Buddha, the line that runs straight through Jesus and St. Francis and a hundred other cranks and gurus. Simplicity, calmness, quiet—these were the preconditions for a moral life, a true life, a philosophical life. “In proportion as he simplifies his life…he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.” Thoreau believed in the same intense self-examination as any cross-legged wispy-bearded Nepalese ascetic.
Happily, though, he went about it in very American ways—he was Buddha with a receipt from the warehouse store. And it is that prosaic streak that makes him indispensable now.
About the Author
Bill McKibben is the author of Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age as well as The End of Nature andThe Age of Missing Information. He lives with his family in the Adirondack Mountains. Follow him on Twitter at @billmckibben and visit his website.