The Struggle Over Thoreau

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 1: 1837-1844

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 702 pp., $75.00

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 2: 1842-1848

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 602 pp., $70.00

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 3: 1848-1851

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 620 pp., $70.00

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 4: 1851-1852

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 787 pp., $70.00

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 5: 1852-1853

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 715 pp., $65.00

Consciousness in Concord: The Text of Thoreau’s Hitherto “Lost Journal” (1840-1841) Together with Notes and a Commentary

edited by Perry Miller
AMS Press, 243 pp., $42.50

Deep Ecology for the 21st Century: Readings on the Philosophy and Practice of the New Environmentalism

by George#tedited by Sessions
Shambhala, 488 pp., $30.00

‘Tis said that the views of nature held by any people determine all their institutions.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson,English Traits

Ecocentrists are the Puritans of today’s environmental movement. Dedicated to changing the way we think about humanity’s relations with nature, they are critical of anyone—whether an environmentalist or a despoiler—who assumes that the chief reason for protecting the environment is its usefulness to human beings. “No intellectual vice is more crippling,” writes the Harvard sociobiologist and outspoken ecocentrist E.O. Wilson, “than defiantly self-indulgent anthropocentrism.”

The transformation of consciousness envisaged by the ecocentrists is, they believe, comparable in scope with that initiated by the discoveries of Copernicus, Newton, or Darwin. Beginning with the unarguable fact that Homo sapiens is only one of the myriad interdependent species on Earth, they are convinced that we have no right to reduce this diversity of life, or to gauge the worth of other forms of life, or, indeed, the entire realm of inanimate nature, merely on the basis of their value to ourselves. To satisfy our basic needs, of course, we would continue to kill some animals, consume plants, and use nature in other ways. But these activities would be restricted by the ruling ethic of ecocentrism: to live lightly on the earth, to limit the scope of technological innovation and intervention, and to treat all forms of life with reverence and responsibility.

Like radical feminism and so much else, radical environmentalism emerged from the Sixties. The two events most often credited with having crystallized it are the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the first Earth Day in 1970. Yet Carson herself traced the origin of her thinking to an earlier event: Hiroshima, which led her to contemplate “the possibility of the extinction of mankind.” The first chemical she alludes to in Silent Spring is not DDT but strontium 90, a byproduct of nuclear explosions.

To Carson Hiroshima demonstrated that humanity now had the unprecedented power to contaminate the entire earth. (It would be two or three decades before scientists discovered global warming, ozone depletion, and the accelerating rate of species extinction.) Beginning with John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), a series of vivid, well-documented, and widely read books—among them Silent Spring, Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine (1967), Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle (1971), Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982), Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989), and Albert Gore’s Earth in the Balance (1992)—have given continuing plausibility to the fear of a coming ecological apocalypse.

The doctrinal lineage of ecocentrism may be traced, by way of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, back to nature writers like Carson, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir, as well as to poets and novelists like Gary Snyder, Robinson Jeffers, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy, and further back to the Romantics—Rousseau, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, Goethe—and especially to the two prominent …

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Letters

An Exchange on Thoreau December 2, 1999