The Future of Environmental Essay: A Discourse


Alison Hawthorne Deming

Let me start by offering a variation on our panel’s title: the future is an environmental essay.  We don’t know the magnitude of what’ve done, or what it means for those who will follow, or which actions are best to stop ourselves from bleeding the Earth of its vitality and turning it into a laboratory for the study of human arrogance and folly.  Now that green is the new black, capitalism taking up the cause, it’s a good time re-assess what writers have had to contribute to the consciousness of Earth justice and to finding our way out of our perilous trajectory.  Language, for good and ill, has the power to shape people’s experience of the world, and the environmental essay makes a strong case in point.  So I will make a hasty reassessment here of the three major phases of the genre’s evolution to locate us and see where we are headed. 

The first great wave of environmental essay came in the 19th century as an act of witness.  Rich with field observation, it was an aide-de camp on voyages of discovery from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle to the expedition reports of Lewis and Clark, John Wesley Powell, and George Catlin.  Catlin’s descriptions of bison on the Western prairie are painterly and appreciative accounts of animal behavior.  No one again will see the spectacle of wildness that he witnessed, but what a record he left.  His account of a buffalo wallow and its effect on the landscape, found in his Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, is a small documentary masterpiece. The horrible turn of the screw is that such works, written in one age with the motive of introducing readers to the wonders of the world, have become reliquaries for lost tribes and species.        
Darwin’s travel journals show his careful attention to documenting specimens and observing natural phenomena—and the quality of mind that led to his Earth-changing work.  He is constantly asking questions about deep time, about deep cause, a passionate curiosity he carried with him everywhere—along with a copy of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”  In 19th century New England, where love of learning slow-danced with love of the land, Thoreau and Emerson were also engrossed in witnessing nature, but their approach leaned more toward the philosophical.  What is the effect of nature on consciousness? they asked.  They answered by making the active experience of nature a contemplative practice.  

Berry, Berry, Barry, and Terry (a.k.a., Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, and Terry Tempest Williams) continue this tradition today. Witness for them is both material and interior, a desire to feel wholeness of being, the wholeness of being a part of something larger than ourselves to which we belong.        

The second important wave of environmental essay writing came in the mid 20th century as a period of advocacy.  In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold penned the most quoted two sentences in the 20th century environmental movement in his land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  His effort to extend the sphere of human ethical consideration beyond the confines of the human is an aspirational benchmark for moving toward a harmony with nature.  Whether we are capable of actualizing the aspiration remains an open question, but having a crystal clear principle to invoke certainly helps.  Even his baggy euphemism of “the biotic community” can be pressed to open the floor to the imperatives of social and environmental justice. Rachel Carson belongs to this wave of advocacy, whose writing combined personal narrative with science journalism, laying a foundation on a single metaphor: What would happen if there were a spring with no bird song?  The grammar of this metaphor—giving the enormity of the threat presented by pesticides a home in one beloved manifestation of Earth’s beauty and diversity—brought the point into the public arena and into policy.  Both Carson and Leopold were scientists who combined the lyric and the scientific imperatives, writers for whom the craft of attentive witness strengthened an activist aesthetic.  This legacy of environmental advocacy is routinely picked up these days by grassroots organizers such as Terry Tempest Williams and Stephen Trimble who edited and placed a literary anthology of place-based writings in the hands of every member of Congress when they were advocating preservation of the Escalante Wilderness in southern Utah. 

But this level of advocacy and activism seems pallid to me when compared to the severity of our malaise and instability. We live in a pathological culture.  It is sick with violence, greed, waste, contentiousness, cynicism, and a sense of futility.  We live in cities that we despise for their ugliness, menace, and lack of community (though it’s mean, at such a moment, to deny the pleasures of this city). We have poor people whom we ignore, leave stranded on their roofs in a flood, or cast out onto the street.  We ask their children to die in a senseless war. We have leaders who have no business leading, so lacking are they in wisdom and the capacity for reflective thought or empathy.  Whatever sympathy our nation earned from the world community when we were assaulted by violent fanatics has been squandered with bullying, warmongering, arrogance, and lies.  The disdain for learning and scientific research, the absurdly simplistic posturing about the state of religion in a pluralistic democracy, would make such leaders laughable, if their actions were not causing so much anguish around the world and erosion of our national pride at home.  This too is our environment, and writers who wish to do more than bear witness to human suffering or add to the overburden of entertainment have a responsibility to advocate for justice, humility, and compassion.  As Neruda advised, the artist’s sympathies must always be on the side of the disadvantaged and oppressed. 

This principle bridges us to the third wave of the environmental essay, on which I’ll hang the shingle “re-framing.”  If there is any unassailable truth remaining in the postmodern period, it is that all things are connected, as are all versions of history.  It will do us no good to protect the rivers and air of North America, if global warming imperils the whole show.  It will do us no good to engineer our way out of global warming, if we build a wall along our border to keep out people upon whose labor our entire economy depends, people dying of thirst on the path out of poverty.  “Re-framing” means enlarging the context of the environmental story.  While devotees of environmental causes might once have cried, “Not in my back yard!” they do so now at peril of ignoring whose backyard the offending presence will inhabit. Certainly part of this re-framing is the flourishing of literary science writing.  Sandra Steingraber’s exploration of the toxic maternal body in Having Faith re-contextualizes motherhood, and ironically detoxifies maternity from piety and sentimentality.  Big science books (David Quammen, Jared Diamond, and most recently Alan Weisman) are surprise bestsellers.  Re-framing means it’s the age of “both/and” not “either/or.”  So imagination meets science in Alan Weisman’s bracing journalistic fantasy The World Without Us.  So conservationist and urban planner meet in “the new urbanist” publications, scientist and philosopher and poet meet in the experimental forest to search for new language to convey the forest’s complexity, and the stories of migrant agricultural workers (as told so eloquently by Ruben Martinez in Crossing Over) begin to make their mark on the land and in our consciousness. But the mark is small compared with the need.  American literature, in general, can celebrate a richer palette of cultural voices than we knew fifty years ago, but environmental writing has remained, for the most part, lily white—a concern, it would appear, primarily of the privileged and not of the disadvantaged or oppressed.  Of course, we writers defend, we are the voice for those who have no voices.  And that may ring true for the other-than-human citizens of Earth.  But we should know by now that to speak for others can too often serve to drown out their own voices.

The future of the environmental essay lies in making new connections and feeling our way beyond the constraints of the polarized arguments (nature versus culture, science versus religion, aesthetics versus politics, jobs versus owls, them against us) that plague our public life.  It’s a time for making connections across the borders that separate us, rather than standing on respective sides and firing salvos.  It’s a time when a voyage of discovery may take us to the far reaches of the wild or, through the miracle of interplanetary robotics, to the surface of Mars, but also to the dining table at which our environmental policies and choices come home to settle into our gut.

The ultimate re-framing, I think, is to see the human story in a much larger timescale, so I will close with a two-paragraph essay:

The Next 10,000 Years

I was captivated a few years ago by news of the little Lucy-like hominids whose bones turned up on the Indonesian island of Flores.  An artist’s rendering of Homo floresiensis depicted him walking home for dinner with a golden retriever-sized rat slung over his shoulder. How many millennia had passed since his ancestors migrated away from Africa and Asia?  There were three or four or five species of old world hominids living at the same time.  Homo erectus was the first colonizer, making it to Java around 1.8 million years ago, according to evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala.  Modern humans are not descendents of those early migrants.  The diaspora of Homo sapiens from Africa to Asia came much later, starting about 100,000 years ago.  Homo floresiensis appears to have had a long and relatively peaceful tenure on Flores—lasting there until as recently as 10,000 years ago—and they represent a different branch on the tree of life than our ancestors.  They make one contemplate the possibility that rather than a tree of hominid life, there was a thicket—many starts, many entanglements, many failures, and only we survived.  Unless, of course, you believe in Bigfoot.  Somehow this time-deep story grows more fascinating as the fear increases that our story may be growing short and that our species’ resume may show us to have been terrible animals, heedless devourers of the beautiful Mother and Father that gave all Earth’s beings their lives. 

But thinking backwards in such a time frame also calls the question of a symmetrically long future.  What if we make it?  What if this sensitivity to brokenness is tweaking our intelligence to make the next leap in our evolutionary history?  A leap that turns the runaway force of human culture toward restraint and mutual aid, toward the acquisition of knowledge rather than junk, toward a ten-thousand-year project to restore Earth to a state as close to Eden as we could come, and to grow an outlying garden on Mars?  Is that not a technological dream that we could love?  I want this to be as possible as our doom.  Ten-thousand years from now, I want someone to say of us, “What amazing courage they had, what spirit, how smart they were, how inventive, and how profoundly they must have loved Earth.”


Alison Hawthorne Deming




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