Marvin Gaye at Walden Pond

An eco-anthology with breadth and depth

Jun 4, 2008 at 12:00 am

The reality of climate change is now beyond doubt in the scientific community. We also now know that it will take more than technological innovation to stave off its potentially devastating environmental consequences. As academic and laboratory squabbles about our planet's ills begin to fade, the arduous task of correcting past and current negligence becomes, to a significant degree, an effort of rhetoric. Environmentalism today is in large part a campaign for the world's hearts and minds, which makes the present a useful time to think deeply about the literature that addresses these concerns. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, a 1,000-page anthology, represents a Herculean effort on the part of author and activist Bill McKibben, its editor, to bring together the texts most relevant to an audience unfamiliar with the topic. It is matchless in its heft, generous in scope (included are Sierra Club founder John Muir and Marvin Gaye), and, with a detailed chronology in its back matter, serviceable in its depth.

Environmental writing today stretches from detailed meditations on particular places, such as those written by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, to assessments, by writers active in the environmental justice movement, of the social and economic inequalities that cause environmental burdens to be distributed unequally (think of Erin Brockovich's lawsuits). The bulk of McKibben's anthology leans marginally closer to the wonder-of-nature end of this spectrum, and likewise skews toward the present. But nearly all of the writers we associate with the movement, from the middle of the 19th century to the present, appear here, including Henry David Thoreau, Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez and Michael Pollan. So do a handful of unexpected figures, from P. T. Barnum to Philip K. Dick to R. Crumb. A library that included this volume and Thomas J. Lyon's utilitarian 2001 book This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing would offer fragments from or information about many of the books important to mainstream discourse on the topic.

The environmental writer and transcendentalism scholar Lawrence Buell, who is not included in McKibben's volume, has discussed the split in environmental writing mentioned above, between rapturous sighs and demands for equity, in sequential terms: the former is a "first wave" concerned solely with the natural world, and the latter a "second wave" that acknowledges the interdependence of natural and built environments. By choosing Thoreau as his starting point, McKibben may be subtly acknowledging this second-wave criticism, despite the shortage of it in his anthology's table of contents, for not only was the Concord resident a naturalist and keen observer of his surroundings, he was also an ardent abolitionist, a tax resister and a development critic. Thoreau was one of the first in America to understand that environmental concerns are political concerns.

The writer Rebecca Solnit, whose brief essay closes McKibben's volume, is an inheritor of both Throeauvian traditions, and she suggests that compartmentalizing him, as many contemporary thinkers do, "is a microcosm of a larger partition in American thought."

"Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused," she writes, "have undermined the connections for all of us." In thinking of what a future rhetoric of environmentalism might sound like, Buell and Solnit's words seem like a guiding light. Such writing would be persuasive but not hectoring, reach the ears of politicians and poets, and comprise ecologies and economies. Wendell Berry's essay "Faustian Economics," in the May 2008 Harper's, is exemplary in this regard. That the public has been slow to recognize what confronts us is confirmed by the fact that Berry's essay "The Making of a Marginal Farm," originally included in a 1981 essay collection and reprinted in American Earth, shares the same kernel of insight as his most recent work: "The true remedy for mistakes is to keep from making them. It is not in the piecemeal technological solutions that our society now offers, but in a change of cultural (and economic) values that will encourage in the whole population the necessary respect, restraint and care."

Brian Sholis is a freelance writer and editor of Send comments to [email protected].