Politics and Arcadia

Arcadia When I commented about the way Earth Day had changed over the years, I hadn’t yet read an article on the subject by Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker (April 15, 2013). The pile of unread magazines and books grows very tall over the year and only begins to shrink dramatically when I pare it down as I am about to leave for the summer in Maine. Lemann paints a disappointing picture of the current state of environmental action in the US through his review of two books and a report.

The first, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-in Unexpectedly made the First Green Generation, by Adam Rome, argues that the original idea and power of the first event has largely evaporated today. The mobilization of millions led, Rome claims, to the wave of environmental legislation in the 1970s that legitimated the issue as deserving of public policy address. It was truly a social movement, local in structure. Congress recessed for the day and a majority of the members spoke during the day. Try very hard to imagine that happening today.

Even as the environmental issues community has grow over the years, it has become less effective compared to the early days. Maybe partly because there is now a raft of laws in place that have created a record of accomplishment, positive and negative depended on who is speaking. The results are largely invisible to the public but are claimed as a deterrent to growth by business. Rivers no longer catch on fire, people living in cities like Pittsburgh do not have permanent rings around the collar, and far fewer suffer from air pollution induced illness and death. But when it comes to the biggest issue of today, climate change, the green establishment has had little or no successes in the US. Rome argues that it is largely because the institutionalized remnants of Earth Day 1970 have lost their ability to mobilize s popular movement and failed to gain the position of insiders that matter in Washington politics so essential to getting the Congress to act on their issues of concern. Both Rome and Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist point to a lack of political smarts and power as the cause of failure in the climate change arena. Skocpol authored one of two reports, sponsored by the Scholars Strategy Network on the failure to pass any carbon-restricting legislation during Obama’s first term of office.

The second book, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition, by Aaron Sachs, a historian at Cornell University. Lemann includes it as a foil to the political themes of the other sources. Sachs presents an environmental history of America that exposes the Arcadian view that could be found in the architecture and literature of earlier periods. Central was theme of living together in harmony with nature, defined more or less as that world undisturbed by human settlements. I will order the book that read it completely, but now rely on the Lemann article and a few other sources I found on the internet. The small piece that Lemann quotes was what caught my interest.

My hope, for all future generations, is that they will have (in addition to sunshine, fresh air, clean water, and fertile soil) a somewhat slower pace of life, with plenty of time to pause, in quiet places … haunted places—everyday, accessible places, open to the public—places that are not too radically transformed over time—places susceptible of cultivation, where people can express their caring, and nature can respond—places with tough, gnarled roots and tangled stalks, with digging mammals and noisy birds—places of common remembrance and hopeful guidance—places of unexpected encounters—places that breed solidarity across difference—places where children can walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before—places that are perpetually up for adoption—places that have been humanized but not conquered or commodified—places that foster a kind of connectedness both mournful and celebratory.

There is no risk-benefit or cost-benefit analysis here to place a value on nature as we do in our present and potential environmental legislation. Sachs sees the world, even as transformed by human activities, as a source for flourishing although he does not use that term as I do to reflect the fullness of human existence. Two critical distinctions are present in the paragraph: caring and connectedness. Both are essential to sustainability. Connectedness, in a way, precedes caring. We care only for what we perceive. Caring is an intentional action and intentions are always directed to something we perceive. Connection is a metaphor for the tie that our senses make with the world, include our own selves. But it is a tie that is active, not simply description. There is an understanding that the tie is meaningful, that we draw our existence as being a part of the world we are connected to. And because the tie is active, we must care for that to which we are connected. We cannot simply expect the world to gratuitously provide for us, as did the utilitarian philosophers. The world of nature is not merely a resource to exploit; it provides part of what makes our mere existence meaningful. Without meaning we are just another animal species.

I come to these thoughts by a somewhat different path than Sachs does. Not surprising since he is a historian and I am an engineer turned something else. I hope, as he does, that we start to get it straight and stop playing politics with flourishing. Being fully human is the only way to express whatever genetic differences created us as a species different form all others. We do a good job with those aspects of living we have acquired since the onset of the Modern era, but Sachs and I are talking about aspects we have lost at the same time. I am also hopeful about regaining then and finding our way to flourishing.

(Image: “Dream of Arcadia” by Thomas Cole (1838))

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