For years, political divisions over the environment have had the seemingly odd feature that Americans farthest from the open country have tended to be most supportive of protecting the environment, while those nearest to it—farmers and other rural residents—have been most resistant. This split has been muddled in recent years as nature lovers have retired to the countryside, country folk have realized the business advantages of environmental tourism, and political polarization has increasingly subsumed specific issues. Still, when contentious topics such as the Keystone Pipeline or expanding national parks come up, the nature purists tend to be upscale urbanites. The General Social Survey asked how willing respondents would be to “accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment”; highly educated, white liberals in metropolitan areas were the most willing.
The urban left’s eco-puritanism takes many forms. Well-educated, secular Americans in particular pay extra for organic products, explore “natural” alternatives to Western medicine, and join environmentalist campaigns as donors and participants.
Whatever the virtues of each practice, running through all of them is the exaltation of nature. This cult of the natural has deep roots in America. Nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir praised the “glory of God’s wilderness” and described the Sierra Mountains as “God’s first temples.” Muir’s most enthusiastic heirs, often religious skeptics, have removed God from the praise songs, leaving nature alone on her mountain throne. Similarly, progressive public schools, having purged formal religious indoctrination from their curricula, have put Mother Nature into that worship space. Nature, not God, defines the good.
Food is one arena where the natural trumps all, as illustrated by the fierce but unwarranted controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The sorts of Americans who endorse the science in global climate change or in teaching evolution—say, the NPR demographic—seem the most hostile to GMO science. Food historian Harvey Levenstein tells this larger story in Fear of Food (2012). He starts with the myth that fueled diet crazes a century ago—villagers in remote northern Pakistan whose natural foods supposedly invigorated them well into their nineties—and ends with the recent co-optation of the term “natural” by food corporations. Today natural food advocates look back yet further to the “stone age diet,” and academics debate the proposition that the domestication of plants and animals millennia ago was so unnatural as to be, in the words of best-selling anthropologist Jared Diamond, “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Historically, it was unnatural food—canned, packaged, refrigerated, enriched, railroaded, trucked, and industrially farmed—that fed more Americans at vastly lower costs and was essential in securing modern standards of living.
The quest for the natural extends, of course, to medicine. Interventions, first in public health and later in personal care, greatly extended human life. Now many of these interventions, such as water treatment, hospital childbirths, vaccination, and antibiotics, are resisted in part because they seem unnatural. The campaign against male circumcision, despite strong evidence of its health benefits, also draws in part on resistance to any violation of nature.
There are two major ironies about this adoration of nature. One is obvious: Mother Nature can be a cruel goddess. For all her bounty and beauty, nature is also disease, people being vectors for parasites; nature is danger from turbulent weather; nature is savaging by predatory animals, still feared by hundreds of millions around the globe; nature is aging not gracefully but painfully. We moderns have protected ourselves from much of this cruelty. We can hike the wilderness, fearlessly exposing ourselves to nature’s glory—with clean water, nutritious food, thermal clothes, and cell phones in our packs.
Another irony is that this love of nature arose from industrialization. (I distinguish modern ideas from animistic notions that spirits inhabit natural objects.) Even as nineteenth-century Americans were cutting forests, damming rivers, and paving roads, leading thinkers were sanctifying nature. Environmental historian William Cronon writes, “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, [the wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation”—in particular the creation of nineteenth-century romanticism. “Wilderness fulfills the old romantic project of secularizing Judeo-Christian values so as to make a new cathedral not in some petty human building but in . . . Nature itself.” That people “who regard themselves as agnostics or even atheists nonetheless express feelings tantamount to religious awe when in the presence of wilderness . . . testifies to the success of the romantic project.”
As nineteenth-century Americans cut forests and paved roads, leading minds sanctified nature.
Wild nature was once the dark side of God’s creation. His miracles usually entailed interfering with nature—starting and stopping floods, halting the sun’s progression, healing the blind, and raising the dead. The Bible represents heaven on earth as cultivated vines and fig trees, “the wolf [dwelling] with the lamb.” For romantics, however, nature is not danger to be controlled, but beneficence.
Generations of pastoralism in English literature, recounted by Raymond Williams in The Country and the City (1973), presaged the romantic move, but the American sources are largely the transcendentalists, particularly Emerson and Thoreau. Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), the prototypical text, describes nature as heavenly and industry as hellish. But New England eggheads alone could not reshape American culture; they tapped and reinforced the sentimentality of an emerging, urban, bourgeois society.
Romanticism helps explain Americans’ misunderstandings about nature. One misunderstanding is embodied in the assumption that, before the depredation of the white man, the continent was a “forest primeval” gently stewarded by natives. In fact, the natives had greatly reshaped the New World’s flora and fauna long before Columbus. Indian fire practices, for example, created the southern pine forests.
Another common misunderstanding lies in the conflation of wilderness with pastoralism—herding and farming—a mistake paleo-dieters would never make. Emerson provides an example. In his influential 1836 essay “Nature,” Emerson sentimentalizes the “state of the crop in the surrounding farms.” Yet the longest-lasting war is that of the farmer against the wilderness. Even organic farmers clear trees, divert water, destroy weeds, fight pests, breed plants, butcher domesticated animals, and curse the weather. As Cronon puts it:
Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen [e.g., Teddy Roosevelt] projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image.
Nineteenth-century elites not only projected but also constructed this fantasy. They built great nature parks such as New York’s Central and San Francisco’s Golden Gate, which were meant to mimic the wilderness—no rectangular flower gardens à la Paris’s Luxembourg—and thereby to elevate morally the urban working class. (Many workers, un-elevated, used the parks instead to party and to play ball, provoking a culture war.) Americans started interring their loved ones in “natural” cemeteries, where winding paths and shading trees evoked the tranquil and sublime emotions fitting for modern grievers. Middle-class parents put their children in the Scouts to experience nature and took them camping in the new national parks. All that happened long before the modern environmental movement.
We are the inheritors of that antebellum romanticism, multiplied in force by the emergence of evolutionary thought in the late nineteenth century and evidence today of the degree to which humans are altering the planet. The question “What is nature’s will?” has replaced the quest for God’s will among many in the cultural avant-garde. The prospect arises, as Cronon implied, that this logic, taken to an extreme, could displace concern for the human good for that of nature.
Photograph: Trey Ratcliff