Environmentalism Evolving

Andrew Light makes a confession in a recent essay, “The moral journey of environmentalism: From wilderness to place.”  He says:

I never had a profound wilderness experience.


This is odd because, as Light puts it, “environmentalism is seen as a calling not unlike the ministry.  We answer in this case not to a holy spirit but to nature itself…”

So why is Light an environmentalist?  Because there are reasons to be.  Light worries that “the formidable experiences of the environmentalist are to be found in the realm of feeling or emotion rather than rational thought.”

Still, he had a formidable experience.  He spent his childhood afternoons playing with friends in Flat Rock Creek, which ran between suburban houses and a soon-to-be-developed farm.  He wasn’t alone like John Muir, reveling in untrammeled wilderness.  But the place mattered.

[I]t didn’t take me outside of myself but rather became the first place that I ever cared about.

Light wants environmentalism to embrace a “sense of place,” rather than “wilderness.”  He and others think that the movement’s focus on wilderness has created a special interest of the well-to-do, disconnected from the lives of most people and the problems they face.

He quotes professor Dorceta Taylor:

If it is discovered that birds have lost their nesting sites, environmentalists go to great expense to erect nesting boxes and find alternative breeding sites for them. When whales are stranded, enormous sums are spent to provide them with food…But we have yet to see an environmental group champion human homelessness or joblessness…

There are other problems with “wilderness.”  For instance, North America prior to European arrival was not “untrammeled” nature; the land had already transformed by millions of American Indians.

Light and others want to see environmentalists expand the idea of wilderness or nature – or invent new words altogether – to include a broader meaning of “the environment.”  Perhaps one that would include Flat Rock Creek, where Light and his childhood friends played.

We’ve seeing signs of this in academic philosophy.  Check out my earlier posts on re-thinking the meaning of “nature.”  But at a practical level, it’s not so easy.  William Cronon, whose 1995 essay in the NY Times Magazine launched this debate, said that:

even though he loved Manhattan and Yosemite, when he is in either of these place “it’s hard to see how Manhattan is implicated in Yosemite or how Yosemite is implicated in Manhattan.”

So how do we blend the two to re-make our idea of “the environment”?

Light wants us to focus on a “sense of place.”  But that begs the question, what part of that place do we focus on?  Light’s worry is that we’ve been focusing on a place’s degree of wilderness.  What should we focus on instead?

We should focus on the human community which the place supports.  

Light wants us to raise our sights from “the preservation of bits of nature on the periphery of civilization” to…

…the creation of an intentional community of people dedicated to the places around us as an extension of themselves.


An extension of themselves.

I’m reminded of an earlier post about our alienation from the environment.  Andrew Light seems to be resisting that alienation by emphasizing our connection to local environments – not abstract wilderness.  He envisions a project of community building that deepens our “sense of place” and promotes belonging.  I think that’s what may be missing from a environmentalism based on wilderness.

But does Light see “sense of place” as an end or a mean?  I can’t quite tell.  He says that creating a sense of place is necessary for broadening environmentalism:

I believe that such local connections…are a necessary first step to building the critical mass of those across ideological lines which will be necessary to get traction on global environmental challenges that we currently face.

But it also seems like he finds some inherent value in it too.

This view is clearly anthropocentric because it locates the environment’s value in relation to human valuers.  Light says:

As opposed to the more abstract language of wilderness, wildness, or natural value, when we say that a place is important in this context we cannot divorce it from an understanding of how it is valuable to some people…

I’m still torn between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric views.  I’m not ready to abandon the idea that nature has some intrinsic value separate from its value to humans.  But I also want to expand “environment” to something to which humans belong and in which we can participate as creative beings.  I think that Andrew Light has this vision, too.

I’m reminded of my grandfather’s house.  After he died, my family mourned the house’s death.  It was a big house, 100 years old, surrounded by a vast garden of vegetables and fruit trees.  My mom and her siblings grew up in it, and I spent my vacations there, rambling through the maze of plants and climbing the avocado tree in the backyard.  It was a special place, a magical place.  But my family had to sell it, and when we discovered that the buyers were going to tear it down, uproot the trees, and build a modern McMansion, we were heartbroken.  Whenever we visited the area, we drove by to check up on it, to pick some of the fruit, to see what had been destroyed or vandalized as it awaited the bulldozers.  We tried unsuccessfully to get it registered as a historic building.  In the end, though, we had to accept its loss – just like my grandfather’s a year earlier.

We experienced a powerful sense of place in that house and in that neighborhood.  I wonder how environmentalism would be different if everyone felt this way about their local environment.

Yet to really love a place seems a hard thing to do nowadays. My grandfather’s house had a story to tell – involving dozens of characters, and over sixty years to tell it. Who has time anymore for that?

And I worry that my family’s connection to that place was…self-absorbed.  It was a private loss, even more private than the loss of our grandfather, whose death was mourned by hundreds of people.  We never took our connection to the next level – to larger social issues, such as the preservation of historic homes or urban gardens.

How can a sense of place – so deeply felt – translate into social action?

Moreover, as we spend more time in cyberspace, we should ask whether people are more likely to find a sense of place online, in virtual worlds.  Andrew Light’s longing for sense of place might not be so much a evolution of environmentalism away from the romantic, 19th century notion of wilderness, as a return to an even earlier past.

As we struggle to redefine “environment,” we may realize that the human connection to place is even more illusory than nature untrammeled by man.


Photo by Lousfi.
Photo by Lousfi.





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