No Heaven on Earth

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau edited by Al Gore, Bill McKibben. Library of America. Hardcover, 900 pages. $40.

The cover of American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

This is an anthology of many voices—from Henry David Thoreau, writing from Concord in 1837, to Bill McKibben, the editor of this volume, composing his introduction high in the Yosemite backcountry last year. American Earth contains essays, speeches, and poems by roughly one hundred contributors. Everyone in this book is strong-minded, strong-willed, and strong-stomached, and every piece in this anthology is committed at heart to being useful, instructive, and reasonable. There are no Lear-like screams here, nothing like the final dementia of someone who realizes he’s traded his birthright for nothing.

Most of the authors in American Earth would agree in principle with Wendell Berry when he explains that he doesn’t like having to choose sides in a debate between extremists who believe that returning to nature will save us and extremists who think that technology will. “I would prefer to stay in the middle,” Berry writes, “not to avoid taking sides, but because I think the middle is a side, as well as the real location of the problem.” Since those words were written, twenty-one years ago, the edges have closed in. In the late ’90s, the middle of the debate looked to Julia Butterfly Hill like two years living in the crown of a redwood tree. From the bitter end of the Bush administration, Hill’s middle looks like a surprisingly sweet-natured place, as middling as Thoreau’s cabin outside Concord.

This is an anthology, then, of the writing that gets produced when reasonable men and women fight off the extremes of protest and despair to which they’ve been driven by the devastation of this planet. That makes this a practical-minded collection, commendably light on the vaporous spirituality, the blank stare, found in so much nature writing. This is literature for a cause, a cookbook for getting something done, a partial archive of the documents that shaped ecological awareness as we know it. It is also, in some sense, a philosophical and political primer, a reminder of the principles that ultimately bind the disparate, fractious environmental movement together.

A few of the pieces in American Earth are the verbal residue of complicated public lives: William O. Douglas’s dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton in 1972, César Chávez’s 1986 Wrath of Grapes Boycott speech, Al Gore’s talk at the Kyoto Climate Change Conference in 1997. Some are cultural lodestones: the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970) and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (1945). Many are excerpts from the gospels of environmentalism, like Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). An alternative subtitle for the book might well have been Why Things Aren’t Worse than They Already Are, honoring the way these writers have changed their world. But its epigraph might also be the line that Jonathan Schell quotes from Kafka: “There is infinite hope, but not for us.”

For all the differences among the writings gathered in American Earth, there are essentially two projects in its thousand pages. The first is to make us see. The second is to sort out the conclusions that come from having seen. We get glimpses of environmental atrocities: the decimation of the bison in the nineteenth century by sportsmen and market hunters, the killing for the feather trade (women’s hats, mostly) of some three hundred thousand seabirds on a single, small Pacific Island in 1909, the 1918 slaughter of pelicans and herons by the Utah Department of Fish and Game because they competed with anglers, the extermination of wolves throughout the American West to make way for cattle and sheep. But we’re not mainly asked to witness devastation. Devastation is a given. Instead, we’re encouraged to perceive our connection to the habitats and species in distress, to overcome, in short, our sense of separation from nature. Witnessing a tragedy is one thing. Recognizing that it is our tragedy is something entirely different.

After a day or two, I found myself reading this anthology as if it were a series of reports from a distant planet in a distant time—as an appendix, perhaps, to Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos novels. Reading American Earth in that light helped make several things clear. First, each document in the volume is a minority report—sometimes a minority of one. The assumptions, the hopes, the arguments in nearly every one of these pieces, no matter when they were written, are contradicted by the way the vast majority of Americans live and by the political and economic structures that determine that lifestyle. Second, the fundamental environmentalist arguments—the fundamental perceptions—are unchanging over time; only the details vary. We are still catching up to Thoreau, still coming to terms with the outrage George Perkins Marsh expressed in 1864, his worries about “climatic excess” and our “restless love of change.” Third, writers in every generation take a crack at finding the crystalline argument that will induce an epiphany in skeptical readers—for nothing less than an epiphany will do to persuade them to change the way they go about living. Yet every generation fails, in part because skeptical readers so seldom pick up this kind of writing or submit to its evidence.

Above all, I conclude, these are the documents left behind by a species reporting on itself and feeling unhappy with the job. “Perhaps the greatest immediate danger,” Berry writes, “lies in our dislike of ourselves as a species. This is an understandable dislike—we are justly afraid of ourselves—but we are nevertheless obliged to think and act out of a proper self-interest and a genuine self-respect as human beings.” This is true—and ethical. But it’s also a rhetorical position, a way of assuring the reader that the author remains implicated in the common fate of mankind. Most of the writers in this volume are careful to identify the ground they share with all other humans and to speak from within its bounds. There is virtually no exceptionalism here. No one has broken with his species and condemned it. No one sounds as prophetic as Isaiah or even as melancholy as Ishmael. The language is mostly the sort used among reasonable individuals, not the sort shouted from rooftops or from balconies overlooking a faceless horde. And yet it’s clear from the start that something is terribly wrong with our kind.

For one thing, we are the last wild species on this planet—by which I mean the last species that breeds without control or limit, unconstricted by management goals or shrinking habitats. We are not even aware of the fact of our wildness. Berry expresses the fear that lurks behind every discussion of population—that one set of humans will one day decide who is superfluous and who is not. (It would be hard to think more conscientiously, more fairly about these issues than he does.) He argues that the problem of overpopulation may be caused by thoughtless patterns of population, not overall numbers. “Before we conclude that we have too many people,” he writes, “we must ask if we have people who are misused, people who are misplaced, or people who are abusing the places they have. . . . I would argue that it is not human fecundity that is overcrowding the world so much as technological multipliers of the power of individual humans.” In other words, technology—think SUVs, if you like—allows Americans to have a far greater impact on the environment than do people living in underdeveloped countries.

But Berry misses the point by trying to frame it so carefully. There is a stern counterargument going on in these pages—a minority of the minority—articulated most sharply by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” What worries Hardin most is what he calls “the commons in breeding.” A subheading within the essay says it all: “Freedom to Breed Is Intolerable.” This may sound like a Mao-ism or an edict from a dystopian novel, but the environmental movement—especially the effort to conserve wild places and biological diversity—is meaningless unless it faces the population problem more squarely than it likes to at the moment. Hardin doesn’t shrink from his logic: Trying to reduce population by appealing to conscience and responsible parenthood won’t work, he says, for Darwinian reasons. If population control is left up to individual choice, then only the conscientious will forgo breeding, with dire effects. “An appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run,” he argues. Hardin’s doomsday vision is the extinction of humans with a reproductive conscience and the triumph of unthinking fecundity.

Which project is more likely to succeed on this strange, benighted planet? Will this rampant species find a way to control its numbers? Or will it try to tell its members where and how they can live, how much they can own, how large their environmental impact can be? Which task is harder? And can we accept the political implications of undertaking either of these? Can we, in other words, stomach living in a society where either kind of population control is effective? And if we can’t, then what?

It’s worth remembering that human numbers haven’t always been a problem. When European settlers arrived in America, they found a population of Native Americans who lived in balance with their environment. This is not an idealization. It’s a harsh fact. They were bound by the natural cycle of the year, with no way to escape it. That meant low population densities, according to the environmental historian William Cronon. “The ecological principle known as Liebig’s Law,” he writes, “states that biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year. Different species meet this restriction in different ways, and the mechanismconscious or unconscious—whereby northern Indians restrained their fertility is not clear.”

What is clear, however, is that they did restrain it. This is one of several important conclusions in Cronon’s “Seasons of Want and Plenty,” an excerpt in this anthology from his groundbreaking study Changes in the Land (1983). Low population density sounds like an end in itself, a way of automatically preserving the balance between human numbers and the natural resources needed to sustain them, but low population density also prevented damage to the North Woods ecosystem. The traditional view is simply that Indians lived in an unmanaged environment—that is, by nature’s grace. Yet Cronon argues the opposite, showing how carefully managed their world really was—and how far beyond the ken of European settlers the management skills of Indians really were: “People accustomed to keeping domesticated animals lacked the conceptual tools to realize that Indians were practicing a more distant kind of husbandry of their own.” One of the ways they practiced it was by limiting their numbers.

Compare that distant husbandry—a lovely concept—with where we will be soon. The best summary of our likely future in American Earth comes from David Quammen in his 1998 essay “Planet of Weeds.” He is looking ahead (as Cronon looks back) to a different time, the end of the twenty-second century, when 9.7 billion people will be living in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia—the very regions where biological diversity is greatest. It may sound unfair to compare precontact northern Indian tribes with life in the tropical zones at the end of the next century, but the one is where we came from, the other is where we’re going. Quammen writes, “Those 9.7 billion people, crowded together in hot places, forming the ocean within which tropical nature reserves are insularized, will constitute 90 percent of humanity. Anyone interested in the future of biological diversity needs to think about the pressures these people will face, and the pressures they will exert in return.” There will be no room for distant husbandry on that planet—not even the kind we practice now by establishing national parks and reserves and World Heritage Sites.

The picture that emerges from these pages is worse than stark. Over billions of years, life has elaborated itself in every direction, into every niche, with a vigor and a profligacy—a “terrible pressure”—that give Annie Dillard nightmares. And yet that terrible pressure has resulted in an extraordinary mosaic of life, which we are in the business of destroying. According to E. O. Wilson, most species on earth“imposed a kind of prudent discipline.” He is speaking of the species living on a single tree in the Amazon rain forest, but they stand in for all the rest. “They unconsciously halted their population growth before squeezing out competitors, and others did the same. No altruism was needed to achieve this balance, only specialization. Coexistence was an incidental by-product of the Darwinian advantage that accrued from the avoidance of competition.” The trouble is that humans are specialists only within our species, not among others. Coexistence is meaningless. Just ask the gray wolf.

“Evolution,” Dillard writes, “loves death more than it loves you or me,” because death is the diversifier, the agent of Darwinian selection. Humanity is the antidote to evolution. We eliminate biological diversity wherever we multiply, which is everywhere, by eliminating species as well as individuals. “Death cuts off life,” says Schell, “extinction cuts off birth.” One could argue that extinction is a natural process, that the biological complexity of the earth at this moment has been shaped by a series of prehuman extinctions. Yet the fact remains that the current, ongoing extinction event is anthropogenic, and it is only gathering steam. The earth is becoming more of “a sucked orange” than naturalist John Burroughs ever imagined it might be. In 1899, one of Burroughs’s correspondents, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote, “When I hear of the destruction of a species I feel just as if all the works of some great writer had perished; as if we had lost all instead of only part of Polybius or Livy.” More than a century later, this sounds simply narcissistic, a comment from a species obsessed with itself.

One of the earliest chapters in American Earth is an excerpt from George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, which was published in 1841. It is a melancholy piece of reporting on the extirpation of the buffalo by white hunters. In most respects, Catlin is no romantic, despite his language. He believes “the buffalo’s doom is sealed, and with their extinction must assuredly sink into real despair and starvation, the inhabitants of these vast plains.” He allows himself a momentary will-o’-the-wisp —the notion of an enormous separate reserve for Indians and bison—if only settlers could be kept out, if only “a system of non-intercourse could be established and preserved.” But he knows it’s just a daydream. Nonintercourse—abstinence, if you will—is not even a possibility. The terrible pressure of nature is nothing compared with the terrible pressure of humanity.

Abstinence and fecundity—these are the critical terms in this anthology. To the extent that humans can withhold themselves, can abstain from destroying everything they come in contact with, the fecundity of nature will set things right. The trouble with abstinence (as we know from our own sexuality) is that it requires constant consciousness, the perpetual awareness of purpose. The beauty of fecundity is its blindness. Any real change in our fate depends on a species-wide change in consciousness, a new alertness. Again, Berry sums it up well. What we need, he writes, is not “the piecemeal technological solutions that our society now offers, but . . . a change of cultural (and economic) values that will encourage in the whole population the necessary respect, restraint, and care.” Berry is no romantic, either, for he adds, “Such possibilities are not now in sight in this country.”

The question, really, is whether such possibilities are in sight within the human character itself. I’ve been haunted for several years by a passage from Kant’s Critique of Judgment, a passage that suggests the outline of our fate and the practical limits of the environmental movement’s efficacy. Kant argues that man’s “own nature is not so constituted as to rest or be satisfied in any possession or enjoyment whatever.” He says that “even with the utmost goodwill on the part of external nature,” our species will never find happiness in “a system of terrestrial nature, because our own nature is not capable of it.” I do not know how to refute Kant, not when we’re talking of humanity in the mass. This is perhaps the grimmest of what writer Henry Beston calls nature’s “grim arrangements”: to set loose on the planet a species incapable of rest or happiness or coexistence, infinitely adaptable and capable of doing grievous damage to the global ecosystem by means of what is called “ordinary life.”

It would be easy to fill an anthology with such glum assessments, and American Earth doesn’t shy away from them. The great cockroach Archy, the poetic creation of Don Marquis, steps up to say,

it wont be long now it won’t be long
till earth is barren as the moon
and sapless as a mumbled bone

dear boss I relay this information
without any fear that humanity
will take warning and reform

Ecologist Aldo Leopold follows suit, noting that “all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” Dillard registers her “squeamishness” at the fecundity of nature and glances across at the unconscious “happiness” of other species, acknowledging as she does what has become one of our cardinal duties. “Our excessive emotions,” she writes, “are so patently painful and harmful to us as a species that I can hardly believe that they evolved. Other creatures manage to have effective matings and even stable societies without great emotions, and they have a bonus in that they need not ever mourn.” We are, of course, mourning now, whenever we talk about the environment.

There is joy, exuberance, illumination, and commitment to be found throughout American Earth. It is too realistic and too practical to be a tent-revival meeting, but there is the hope of redemption everywhere in these pages. From Burroughs, the great call goes up: “We shall never be nearer God and spiritual and transcendent things than we are now. . . . The doors and windows of the universe are all open; the screens are all transparent.” The reader had better be standing and shouting, “Amen!” Another call, this one from John Muir: “How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies! how blind to the rights of all the rest of creation!” And again, “Amen! Amen!”

I am shouting, too, with tears in my eyes. For the feeling this anthology leaves in me—the great emotion—is that it has been entirely superseded by events. It describes a distant and middle and recent past that has been engulfed in spiraling environmental crises. We will never have the terrible opportunity to watch the extinction of the passenger pigeon or the near extinction of the American bison. We have a much more grievous opportunity: to watch multiple, successive extinctions as the sky overheats and the oceans go pale and habitat vanishes. I would say something different if I could. I have every faith in nature’s recuperative powers, even though, as Schell points out, “the reappearance of man is not one of the possibilities.” What I doubt is our ability, as a species, to see and, having seen, to continue to pay attention.

Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the New York Times editorial board and the author, most recently, of Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (Knopf, 2006).