See Disclaimer Below.

Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

Thoreau, Environmentalism, Economy

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Writing on May 22, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This post first appeared here at The Literary Table in 2010.

Turning to the works of Henry David Thoreau might provide a “third way” and go some length toward resolving debates about the Environmentalists’ Dilemma.  I borrow the words “Environmentalists’ Dilemma” from Bryan G. Norton, who uses the phrase to refer to the competing discourses of two environmentalist camps: the economists and the moralists.  These camps would, Norton submits, provide very different answers to the question, “What is the value of biodiversity?”  Economists would emphasize “the actual and potential uses of living species” whereas the moralists “do not believe our obligations to protect nature can be traded off against other obligations” (Norton 29-30).  Economists would state the value of biodiversity in quantifiable, utilitarian, and anthropocentric terms whereas the moralists “insist that we have an obligation to protect all species, an obligation that transcends economic reasoning and trumps our mere interests in using nature for our own welfare” (Norton 30).  The dilemma for the environmentalist is which of the two realms, economic or moral, to heed.  Norton’s argument is that the two realms are not in fact mutually exclusive and that Henry David Thoreau supplies proof of their mutual reinforcement.  That Thoreau titles the opening chapter of Walden with one simple if unsuspecting word, “Economy,” is no coincidence.  The Environmentalists’ Dilemma, for Thoreau, is no dilemma at all: “most commentators have assumed that we should give one answer or the other,” but an absolute, totalizing separation is neither necessary nor accurate (Norton 31, my italics).  I agree with Norton and would like to extend his reasoning in this brief post, which draws its analysis from Thoreau’s Walden.

If economists first measure value “as contributions to human welfare” and then promise “an aggregation of values”—i.e., if they promise a calculation of “the contribution of nature to human welfare” as “commensurable and interchangeable with other human benefits”—then Thoreau was something of an economist (Norton 30).  As implied by the title of his opening chapter, Thoreau uses nature as an occasion to opine about human affairs, often in purely economic terms; he transforms the humble, small, and common scenes of nature into grand meditations about labor and profit.  “When my hoe tinkled against the stones,” he says of a day in the bean field, “that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop” (247).  Here, Thoreau’s profit—his “yield”—is not quantifiable in monetary terms but in vague moral insight:  “It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios” (247).  Thoreau appreciates the value of labor (minimal physical input for cost-effective output—free food) while recognizing that such value goes far beyond the fiscal benefit of planting crops rather than purchasing food at a store: the labor becomes valuable for what it teaches about solitude, individualism, and freedom from materialism, and not just for its potential for monetary savings.  In this respect, Thoreau marries economics and morality.  Or, as Norton, looking elsewhere in Walden, puts it, “Thoreau describes the benefits of the transformation to higher values in terms of human maturation and fulfillment of potential, as improvements within human consciousness, not in terms of obligations to nature and extrinsic to human consciousness” (32).  In other words, in his celebration of nature, Thoreau takes pains to privilege human economy over natural aesthetic, although the former is dependent upon the latter for its “proceeds.”  Nature is a vehicle for arriving at virtue, thrift included.  It is good—and a good—but humanity is essentially of higher importance.

The merger, as it were, of economics and morality finds its most obvious expression in Thoreau’s various price listings: the costs of building a house; the profits turned from harvesting corn, potatoes, turnips, and beans; the expenses of food and clothing; and the overhead in maintaining a self-sufficient lifestyle.  Of these, John Updike writes,

The long opening chapter, “Economy,” joyously details just how to build a house […] down to a list of expenses totaling $28.11 1/2.  Briskly marketing to the world his program of austerity and self-reliance, he itemizes the few foodstuffs he paid for and the profits he obtained from his seven miles of bean rows.  (xiv, my italics)

Updike’s choice of the word “marketing” is important, revealing as it does that Thoreau’s economics did not stop at savings and cutbacks, but actively advertised a lifestyle at once economic and environmentalist.  Thoreau sold his routine and persona to a curious public, a few of whom bought—and bought into—the ultimately published and publicized form (the book).

On the one hand, Thoreau’s frugality is a lesson about simplicity and prudence; on the other hand, it offers a more environmentally friendly approach to architecture and construction while simultaneously warning about the destructive effects of what today we might call “the tragedy of commons.”  I have neither the time nor space to fully hash out my ideas about the tragedy of commons.  I will, however, quickly supply Steven C. Hackett’s definition for the term and then offer a short justification for my reference to it.  According to Hackett,

The tragedy of the commons is most likely to occur under the conditions of open-access or other poorly designed and enforced property rights regimes.  The tragedy of the commons outcome results from strategic behavior—behavior that an individual takes based on how other people are expected to behave and respond.  At the heart of the tragedy of commons is the belief that if one were to conserve the CPR, others will take what was conserved, and the CPR will degrade (116).

Thoreau’s worries about the tragedy of commons are evident in a few abrupt asides.  Take, for instance, these lines regarding hunting:

Almost every New England boy among my contemporaries shouldered a fowling piece between the ages of ten and fourteen; and his hunting and fishing grounds were not limited, like the preserves of an English nobleman, but were more boundless even that those of a savage.  No wonder, then, that he did not oftener stay to play on the common.  But already change is taking place, owing, not to an increased humanity, but to an increased scarcity of game, for perhaps the hunter is the greatest friend of the animals hunted, not excepting the Humane Society (329).

It seems abundantly clear that Thoreau refers here to the phenomenon—now known as the tragedy of commons—whereby people acting in their own self-interest use up a limited shared resource, in this case animal prey, despite their knowledge that doing so will be bad for everyone.  [Consider this point in light of another sentence by Thoreau: “By avarice and selfishness, and a groveling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives” (257-58).]  Perhaps the tragedy of commons motivates Thoreau’s declaration that “if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown” (269-70).  After all, thieving and robbery “take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough” (270).

Economics and morality also apply—albeit more tenuously—to what Michael Berger calls Thoreau’s “study of ecological dynamics in forests,” a “vigorous program of research” about seed dispersal and its spontaneous generation (381-82).  Although Berger does not explicitly say so, he implies that Thoreau’s scientific forays lend authority to his literary works.  This authority allows Thoreau to promote himself and his philosophical vision.  Berger analyzes Thoreau’s The Dispersion of Seeds, which was not published until 1993.  Nevertheless, Berger’s observations apply almost as aptly to various passages in Walden.  Setting out to show that Thoreau’s somewhat Darwinian ideas were not only sophisticated but also pioneering, Berger posits, “Thoreau’s seed dispersal ecology was […] rich in significance regarding the various kinds of complicated mechanisms, principles, and patterns by which species of plants succeed one another in local ecosystems” (382).  To substantiate this point, Berger quotes the following from The Dispersion of Seeds:

In this haphazard manner Nature surely creates you a forest at last, though as if it were the last thing she were thinking of.  By seemingly feeble and stealthy steps—by a geologic pace—she gets over the greatest distances and accomplishes her greatest results.  It is a vulgar prejudice that such forests are ‘spontaneously generated,’ but science knows that there has not been a sudden new creation in their case but a steady progress according to existing laws, that they came from seeds—that is, are the result of causes still in operation, though we may not be aware that they are operating. (383)

This passage recalls Thoreau’s claim in Walden that “where a forest was cut down last winter another is springing up by its shore as lustily as ever” (302).  Thoreau’s point, at any rate, is, in both cases, that forests (in all their various manifestations—trees, plants, etc.) will spring up as if on their own: independent of the botany or vegetation that preceded them.  In the “big picture,” the economics and morality at issue have to do with Thoreau’s ability to market himself and his ideas.  If he could pit himself as both scientist and writer, his writings would gain both cultural and actual currency as well as popular credibility.  This coupling of scientific sophistication with moral sensitivity produces, in Updike’s words, Thoreau’s thinginess: “the thinginess of Thoreau’s prose […] still excites us, the athleticism with which he springs from detail to detail, image to image, while still toting something of Transcendentalism’s metaphysical burden” (xxii).  Without science, Thoreau is little more than a gushing nature enthusiast; without science or the metaphysical burden, he “comes close to being merely an attentive and eloquent travel writer” (Updike xxii).  Fortunately, Thoreau recognizes the need to economize while moralizing, and to do the former well required a certain scientific literacy.  Norton is more generous than I because he casts Thoreau’s scientific observations about the forest as having nothing to do with self-promotion and everything to do with the Environmentalists’ Dilemma.  Thoreau’s self-promotion notwithstanding, Norton’s praise does tend to demonstrate the manner in which Thoreau yoked science to economics and morality:

Thoreau quite explicitly recognized that the forest, a dynamic system, had a ‘language of its own, and that the transition form the immature state was both literary and scientific. […]  He saw that one learns more important things by relating an organism to its environment than by dissecting an organism into parts.  This indicates that Thoreau was on the right track, seeking the secret of life and its organization in the larger systems in which species live.  Especially, he thought we learn more important things about human behavior, and the evaluation of it, by observing organisms in environments.  He believed that if he could unlock the code of nature’s language, it would provide the key to a new, dynamic and scientific understanding of nature.  The key prerequisite for this change to a more contemplative consciousness was development of a new ‘language’ of human values based on analogies from the ‘language’ of nature. (40)

If Norton is right, as I believe he is, then the Environmentalists’ Dilemma is not so paralyzing as some would suggest.  Indeed, Thoreau’s Walden shows how economy and morality can participate with each other in unique and even scientific ways.

For further reading, see the following:

Berger, Michael.  “Henry David Thoreau’s Science in the Dispersion of Seeds.”  Annals of Science.  Vol. 53 (1996:  381-397).

Hackett, Steven C.  Environmental and Natural Resources Economics:  Theory, Policy, and the Sustainable Society.  M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

Norton, Bryan G.  Searching for Sustainability:  Interdisciplinary Essays in Philosophy and Biology.  Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893.

Updike, John.  “Introduction.”  Walden.  Princeton University Press, 2004.

Advertisements

Rugged Individualism in Slave Narratives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on August 1, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The transcendental idealism of Emerson and Thoreau found its most illuminating expression and drew its most ardent followers before the Civil War would temper the spirits of many Americans.  Emerson and Thoreau both advocated for removing oneself from the constraints of society and for realizing an inner drive and power for epistemological, spiritual, and political purposes.  This individualism had more credence in New England than it did in the Southern states, and it is therefore not surprising that 19th century slave narratives would seek to appropriate that discourse of individualism in order to explain and condemn the realities of slavery.  Slavery could be cast as a symptom of the collective mindset, an evil that clearly could be seen as such if only individuals would separate themselves from conformity with the social unit and prevailing ideology.

Frederick Douglass, in both Narrative of the Life and his later work My Bondage and My Freedom, reveals that his childhood in slavery was relatively relaxed compared to that of other slaves, yet as he moved from master to master and was denied education—that is, as he grew into a man—the regulation of his body became harsher and more violent.  Douglass, who, as a lecturer, impressed upon his listeners a sense of rugged masculinity, uses his narratives to show how an individual can stand up to an entire institution.  In both narratives he vividly depicts his battle with Mr. Covey, a vicious overseer who was determined to train Douglass into docile submission by means of overwhelming violence.  It is an inner will as much as brute strength that brings about Douglass’s triumph over Covey, and it is Douglass’s determination to read and to learn that allows him to circumvent white law to achieve the literacy that made both of these works possible.

As an anti-slavery advocate in the North, having attained his freedom, Douglass expressed his individualism in a variety of ways, not least of which in his insistence to remain independent of William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists with whom Douglass had, as it were, a falling out.  Douglass also articulated a desire for blacks to embrace the ideal of personal responsibility and to look to their own personhood as a means for pulling themselves out of their unfortunate condition.  His enabling rhetoric was intended to be inspirational and to imitate the rhetoric and values of New England whites, without whose support neither he nor other slaves could mobilize political action.  Other authors of slave narratives such as William Wells Brown (who, it should be mentioned, had a falling out with Douglass) employ similar tactics and strategies regarding the appeal to individualism.  Brown also promoted himself as a masculine figure who realized his autonomy and drew strength from his own will to deliver himself from bondage.

Harriet Jacobs’s narrative couches individualism in more ambiguous terms.  She gives herself the name Linda Brent in the narrative, which is addressed explicitly to the “women of the North.”  Her narrative is replete with apostrophes to these women readers and, therefore, with signals and coded references meant to gain sympathy and provoke anger at the institution of slavery.  When Linda’s master attempts to take her in as his sex slave, she goes so far as to have an affair with a white man, Mr. Sands, as a form of resistance.  Knowing the decorum of her audience and the precariousness of her status as a freed slave, Linda repeatedly acknowledges the sinfulness of her act but stresses, too, that she cannot be held to the same standards as white women, who enjoy the freedom to make moral choices.  In a system of slavery, Linda suggests, there are no moral choices because one is reduced to selecting between one bad act or another.  Like Douglass, Linda finds freedom in the North, and, like Douglass, she spends time in England, where, she indicates, freedom flourishes, at least in relation to the United States.  Jacobs’s narrative can be taken as an urgent statement on the agency of slaves in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and the image of the strong woman that she cultivates (not just in herself but in the person of her grandmother) resonates as a powerful trope that others would pick up on. Read the rest of this entry »

How I Taught Sustainability

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Emerson, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on January 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

Allen Mendenhall

Last spring I learned that I had been assigned to teach a freshman writing course on sustainability.  I don’t know much about sustainability, at least not in the currently popular sense of that term, and for many other reasons I was not thrilled about having to teach this course.  So I decided to put a spin on the subject.  What follows is an abridged version of my syllabus.  I owe more than a little gratitude to John Hasnas for the sections called “The Classroom Experience,” “Present and Prepared Policy,” and “Ground Rules for Discussion.”  He created these policies, and, with a few exceptions, the language from these policies is taken from a syllabus he provided during a workshop at a July 2011 Institute for Humane Studies conference on teaching and pedagogy.

Sustainability and American Communities

What is sustainability?  You have registered for this course about sustainability, so presumably you have some notion of what sustainability means.  The Oxford English Dictionary treats “sustainability” as a derivative of “sustainable,” which is defined as

  1. Capable of being borne or endured; supportable, bearable.
  2. Capable of being upheld or defended; maintainable.
  3. Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level.

Recently, though, sustainability has become associated with ecology and the environment.  The OED dates this development as beginning in 1980 and trending during the 1990s.  The OED also defines “sustainability” in the ecological context as follows: “Of, relating to, or designating forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.”  With this definition in mind, we will examine landmark American authors and texts and discuss their relationship to sustainability.  You will read William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others.  Our readings will address nature, community, place, stewardship, husbandry, and other concepts related to sustainability.  By the end of the course, you will have refined your understanding of sustainability through the study of literary texts. 

Course Objectives

I have designed this course to help you improve your reading, writing, and thinking skills.  In this course, you will learn to write prose for general, academic, and professional audiences.  ENGL 1120 is a writing course, not a lecture course.  Plan to work on your writing every night.  You will have writing assignments every week. Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: