I have been thinking recently about how we value nature. What the natural world means to people, what makes it worth preserving, has always been part of what makes our own lives valuable. I've been thinking particularly about how ideas about nature are involved with ideas about freedom, that key and vexed American idea. This seems important in a time when both nature and freedom are the objects of intense fights. Is nature going to destroy our civilizations through climate change, or is the whole idea a globalist-socialist hoax? Does increasing freedom mean same-sex marriage or staying in Iraq and Afghanistan? Although I can't prove it here, the thought behind these reflections is that our answers to these questions may be tied up together.
In connection, with this, I've been imagining a way of looking at American geography as a physical map of ideas about nature, freedom, and what makes life worth living. American law shapes different tracts of the country to different ideas about nature's value. The wilderness idea (more about this just below) has its acreage. You can hike into that idea, spend the night, get to the highest point of it, get lost and frustrated or rapturous in it. The parks system consecrates some astonishing places to the capacity for wonder, which, along with personal vigor and mental health, became a touchstone of federal lands policy around the beginning of the 20th century. The national forests, managed by a professional corps of scientist-bureaucrats, are a 190 million-acre set-piece of the idea of productive nature rationally managed in the public interest, and of the limits of that idea. These are the easy cases, but already they cover a huge amount of land, a legal and practical geography that is also a taxonomy of ideas.
The less obvious examples may also be the more interesting ones. The farmland of the Midwest is private property, but it, too, is a kind of landscape architecture, expressing an idea of nature, with law as the architect's tool. By subsidizing certain crops (notably corn and soybeans), declining to regulate much of the often-severe pollution from large-scale and conventional agriculture, and permitting enormous concentration of economic power in companies that sell agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) and process farmers' products (slaughterhouses, factories for cereal and corn syrup), the law has modeled a landscape devoted to serving human appetite with the vigor of a providential machine. Moving east, the strip-mined hills of southern Appalachia are now landscapes of pure extraction, with no pretense of regard for the (beautiful) shape of the hills before they are wrecked. Because of the language of the Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Act and courts' interpretation of the Clean Water Act (which are instances of the country's larger embrace of cheap energy regardless of its carbon content and other "incidental" harms), this is very nearly a one-time-only landscape, used as people would use a world they intended to use up before they and their children outlived the chance to enjoy it.
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Nature and Freedom: Some Touchstones
Thoreau, who famously wrote that he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately, was too much a punner to miss the false etymology: de libere, to live from freedom, freely. Even if the pun were unintended, the opening pages of Walden are about freedom, not nature. These are the passages where the author justifies the book's existence, tells readers what it has to do with their lives and how it might help them to understand, or solve, problems they know, or suspect, that they have. What Thoreau said there was that we could not know yet what it meant for us to be free: in an era of technological revolution, we might soon find forms of consciousness as revolutionary as steam power, as revelatory as opening a continent. And because experience obediently answered the ideas that came before it in our minds, we would have to change our minds, first, to enter a new world. He offered his account of a year in the woods as a sojourn with the mind, dedicated to uncovering ways in which it might become different, and carry us — and the world — with it.
Senator Frank Church, a progressive Idaho Democrat (and, in that, a reminder that even the recent past is sometimes another country), explained his support for the 1964 Wilderness Act, which eventually preserved more than 107 million acres of federal land from logging, drilling, mining, and development, in this way: without wilderness, the country would "become a cage." Church's phrase was stark, but the idea was not new. For more than three decades, advocates for wilderness had been calling the experience they sought to keep alive "wilderness freedom:" the chance to be alone in a place mostly unmarked by human action. Without wilderness freedom, Church seemed to say, there would be nothing that would count as freedom. He almost certainly did not mean that; but he did seem to mean that something alive and important would die, some necessary potential give way to blank impossibility, and that freedom was the word for what would disappear.
The wilderness idea was a radicalization of the case for preserving the most spectacular places as national parks, open to all. John Muir, the most important early publicist of this idea, called it a consequence of the discovery that wildness was a necessity, without which most Americans in the industrial, democratic society of the later 19th century could not hope to be among "the sane and the free." Muir had learned a lot from both Thoreau and Emerson — he deliberately sought to claim their prophetic mantles as bard of the California landscape — and the strand of freedom that he and Frank Church both announced seems to have been one that Emerson had proposed as an American ideal: to honor no constraints except those indigenous to one's constitution, one's self. (That is the definition of freedom that Emerson gave in his well-known address, "The American Scholar.")
That idea, of freedom as authenticity — a loaded word, but let it have Emerson's meaning for now — attached itself to nature in the Transcendentalists. Both Walden and Emerson's first major work, Nature, elaborate the idea that the whole organic world is a mirror, a homologue, a symmetrical answer to the mind, not simply because we project our ideas onto it, but because we and it body forth the same ur-principle of order and intelligence. To encounter it is to encounter ourselves. And not only ourselves as we are day to day, but ourselves in a purified, clarified, vivified form — as we were meant to be, as we would be if we could shake off all the accretions of convention and habit. To free the mind and learn what it could be, as Thoreau urged doing, an American had to go to the woods. And America, for the same reason, had to ensure that there would be woods to go to.
It is generally recognized that, at different times, Americans have imagined nature in different ways: as a boundless stock of wealth; as a threatening and alien power to be conquered; as a stable and harmonious whole, peaceably existing in a climax condition of maximum fecundity; as a vulnerable and unstable system, easily disrupted or wrecked; or as an avenging force, punishing our sins like the avenging God of a jeremiad. And it may not surprise most thoughtful people that a Romantic strand in American life, with some kind of tie to the Transcendentalists, embraces an adamant ideal of freedom as authenticity and is uncommonly fond of big trees and bigger rocks. One point of this essay is to suggest that this Romantic idea of freedom has had more than an affinity with conservation and environmentalism: again and again, one of the reasons to preserve and value nature has been that it helps us to be free in this way. Another point is larger: that all of these historical ideas about nature have been very basically involved with ideas about freedom. Not surprisingly, what matters most in nature has recurrently been what the observer thought most important in his own life and relations with others. All the American natures have also served American freedoms.
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What the continent meant to its early European claimants was almost literally utopian — utopian made topographic, no-place suddenly rendered as a continental landscape. It was the chance to make real, for some generations, a fantasy of unbounded wealth and orderly freedom.
To appreciate this, consider the use that John Locke, writing toward the end of the 17th century, made of his State of Nature. That was, he wrote, a condition of perfect freedom and perfect equality. But its purpose was not to vindicate either value in the England of Locke's time. Rather, it was to show how political order, with all its hierarchy and constraint, could legitimately have arisen from a condition of freedom and equality. Of course, Locke wanted to show the limits of legitimate government, partly to justify certain forms of Parliamentary resistance against the Crown; but the right of resistance that he embraced and elaborated was there to protect life, property, and constitutional arrangements in an orderly society — something much more straitened and unequal than the freedom and equality that prevailed in the State of Nature.
Locke's famous account of property has the same logic. He imagined the State of Nature as a world of plenitude, unowned and open to all comers. In that condition, anyone could enclose a plot of land and make it bloom, without detriment to the interests of others — for there would be "as much and as good" left over for the next person. Here, too, the point was to show how a system of unequal private property could arise, with no harm to anyone's rights, from a world in which all things were held in common. In the England where Locke wrote, the natural right to acquire open land was extinguished by the law of property, and the duty to leave enough for others was an archaic memory, or imagination, of a time before political society. That, too, was as Locke intended. The utopia of freedom, equality, and plenitude lay somewhere behind the known world of scarcity, inequality, and constraint, and, as Locke presented it, justified the known world.
Then the utopia became real, for those who could seize a share of it. Locke had observed that, "In the beginning, all the world was America," thinly populated and unclaimed (as he imagined the continent), but he seems not to have considered seriously the converse: in America, so understood, the world was "beginning" again — a beginning that takes quote marks because it was, specifically, the origin that Locke portrayed, and which many settlers came to embrace.
This history is too large and complex for a short essay, so accept a brief formulation. People born into a world already owned, where everything was someone's property, could now make (as it often seemed to them) something from nothing, wealth from sheer will and labor, married to the yielding and unoccupied earth. And, in time, people born into a world already ordered discovered that, with an ocean on one hand and a continental interior on the other, they could make good the other Lockean fantasy and rewrite the terms of political order itself — a revolution in which political order was not inherited but made, law not interpreted but written. (It was a refrain of British debates on restive New England that the colonists, if driven too hard, would simply retreat westward, as if withdrawing into the State of Nature itself.) Interpersonally, in the vast space between man-and-nature and man-and-sovereign, the new continent seemed to mean the freedom of a practical equality: escape from the world of lords, farmers, tenants, and servants, enforced by the finitude of acreage and its private ownership, into a world of freestanding yeomen. A possibility dawned of threefold freedom: in relation to a land one whose riches one could claim and use; to government, now imagined as the creation of a shared political will; and to others, joint venturers in a rebirth of natural liberty, equality, and, yes, natural property.
Of course I am describing an imaginary, a shared way of understanding social and political life, and I trust readers to trust me to remember how many kinds of people were left out of this ideal, both as practiced and as imagined. But the point is that it became a viable imaginary, not just the narrative and conceptual prop it had been for Locke, because there was a continent for it. For the imaginary to work, that continent had to be seen as Locke had described nature, as evidence that God wanted us to be rich and happy but also wanted us to work for it, and had accordingly granted the world to "the industrious and the rational." Under this conception of nature the Declaration of Independence invoked a right to settle land west of the Alleghenies; that jurists and theologians claimed that Native Americans could have had no more legal claim than deer or wolves on lands they merely inhabited, but did not improve; and the Supreme Court, faced with Indian land claims, washed its hands and settled its conscience as best it could by observing that the alternative to genocide would have been "to leave the continent a wilderness." More colloquially, it was in this vision that settlers and their governments came to call their development "reclamation," as if the fallen world were restored when Americans made it bloom.
When the federal government created national forests, parks and, later, wilderness, it imposed other landscapes — Progressive and Romantic — on this earlier one. It is no surprise that Westerners resisted by invoking the Declaration of Independence and denouncing Washington for making them colonists rather than citizens. Living on a providential landscape of citizen labor was a part of what it meant to be free in a way that seemed then to be coming under threat. It was also part of the meaning of living under a government you recognized as your own, and to whose community you could be central, rather than a (geographically and psychically) faraway manager. The first colonists had become citizens partly by insisting that their woodlots could not be reserved for the King's ships, and their westward movement would not stop at a line drawn in London. Westerners of the 19th and 20th centuries sounded these themes again as competing conceptions of American freedom laid incompatible claims on a single terrain.
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In the last paragraph, I referred to a "Progressive" landscape. Here's what I had in mind. A place to begin is with a geographic and ecological idea: waste. In older use, including for early American settlers, that word meant an empty space — not empty of natural features or species, that is, but unredeemed by human labor. Most of the tracts we now call wilderness would have counted as waste. But where today's wilderness is aesthetically and even spiritually charged (John Muir described it as "full of divine lessons") waste is etymologically close to vastness, emptiness, a void. A waste could be open heath outside English village lands, uncleared jungle in Bengal, or most of North America. The opposite of waste was settlement, cultivation, making the land bloom — or, as Thoreau wrote, making the land say beans, rather than tall trees.
Waste got a new meaning in the thinking of reformers in the later decades of the 19th century. Broadly speaking, these were people who believed that the economic theory on which the continent had been settled — every man the author of his own fate in a land of plenty — had produced a festival of exploitation and destruction. Some thought those broadly Lockean and free-labor ideas had been wrong from the beginning, others that they had suited a frontier society but not a crowded, industrialized democracy. (The second, less radical formula was the go-to in political argument: it is a major theme, for instance, in the speeches of both Teddy Roosevelt and FDR.) Either way, they saw in their time a landscape of fever-ridden slums, factories housing machines that broke workers' bodies, and, in the countryside, erosion, soil exhaustion, and massive looting of the timber and minerals of the federal public lands. They called all these things waste, and it tied together their complaints about public health, labor conditions, and the use of land. The word comes up again and again in addresses by the pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot, but also in the first inaugural address of Woodrow Wilson, where it stands for all the social harms and human neglect of the laissez-faire old regime that the Progressives saw themselves as repudiating. (Incidentally, in praising the divinity of the high Sierra, Muir explicitly denied that it contained any "waste," and contrasted it on that score with the ruinous factories of the lowlands.)
The opposite of waste — the remedy for it — was conservation. In its best-remembered sense, this meant managing land in ways informed by scientific expertise and, for federal lands, moving from handing out acres to settlers and railroad companies to retaining them for management by trained bureaucrats. (This is the origin of the U.S. Forest Service, which Pinchot ran and shaped in its early years.) But, like waste, conservation was a broad word. TR called it a great moral principle that defined the relations among generations of a polity — the way the present ensured survival into the future. Even more important, he called all of Progressive economic and social regulation ‐ again, public health, labor law, and city planning — applications of the "the principle of conservation."
In one way, "waste" remained for the Progressives what it had been for earlier settlers: a wrong use of nature. But there had been an important change. The old sense of waste arose from passivity, neglect, or incapacity — failing to bring land under the axe and plow. The new sense arose from use of land, human labor, or the power of industrial organization (including its literal power sources, such as coal and steam) in selfish, short-sighted ways that diminished its health and/or productive capacity.
The new sense of waste treated people as a part of nature, part of what was to be managed, along with soil and canals. In this spirit, Wilson's inaugural address was the first ever to describe citizens as women and children, rather than only upright men, and as having bodies vulnerable to injury and sickness, rather than only masterful wills. But, unlike the settlers of the Lockean utopia (which, by the way, gets model expression in Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address), they were not the agents of American history. Agency lay in the panoptic eye of government and the heroic democratic leader — in that case, Wilson himself. In this respect, the idea of conservation was central to development of the American version of what some academics today would call biopolitics, the political management of biological life. It was also a key event in a major rhetorical and imaginative problem in American politics: how to think of the dignity of citizenship after the settler ideal of self-mastery was eclipsed by an (ideally) all-seeing, all-shaping state, and individual Americans became, in part, resource problems to be managed.
It seems to me that the idea of conservation, with its touchstone of land and forest management in the long-term public interest, was ideologically very important for Progressives who were trying to navigate a social landscape of labor conflict and the heterogeneity carried by waves of migration. The ideal of meliorist reformers like TR was to calibrate the economic system so that each citizen got what he deserved, measured by talent and effort — the old frontier idea, recast by regulation for a complex economy. That meant that capital and labor had no essentially opposed interests, only conflicts, like soil exhaustion and timber looting, that arose from failures of conservation. Social conflict was avoidable waste. This was not always the easiest case to make about capital and labor. It was more easily said of, say, public forests. They made the principle concrete — the word made not flesh but cellulose and soil. With that anchor in place, it was much easier to assert that something like rational resource management could extend from forests and grazing land to cover the whole social landscape.
In Progressive hands, the conservation idea was also tied to a visionary way of talking about legitimacy. Let's say that one of the ways nationalism (meaning the word in a morally neutral way) works is by enabling citizens to recognize themselves in their country — a recognition that depends on seeing both oneself and one's country in a certain way. In a political culture shaped by nationalism, this recognition becomes a criterion of legitimacy for the state. Of course, what it means for people to recognize themselves in the country could imply many tasks for the state, from ethnic cleansing to protecting the frontiersmen's right to expropriate land (these two went together in U.S. history, obviously) to securing the negative liberty of the laissez-faire state. In Progressive thought and rhetoric, this kind of nationalism — self-recognition in an idea of the country, a concept Charles Taylor has associated with "authenticity" — became much more important. So Woodrow Wilson, in the same inaugural in which waste plays such a large role, also announced that, for the first time, the country had been "vouchsafed a vision of our life a whole," a shared moral self-understanding. One anchor of that vision was a landscape of conservation, where mutuality and public interest were secured by benign and expert management.
The ideal of conservation was thus not only about prudent use of resources: it was also about achieving a country that could support "a vision of our life as a whole." It's easy to lose sight of this Romantic aspect of Progressive conservation and suppose that reformers were just interested in promoting well-being; on that view, the Progressive project can seem to begin and end in rational management. But the Progressive program was also one of political authenticity, and conservation was key to that dimension of it. Regulating resource use and economic life to reconcile otherwise hostile interests and serve posterity meant adopting a model of a great community, in which citizens could see their own ideals of generosity and caretaking.
The ideal supposed not just an image of the country, but also a way of seeing that could contain such an image. A striking aspect of this era of Progressivism is how recurrently conservation rhetoric returned to the image of the "civilized" or "cultured" man who could perceive the interest of the whole community, not just his selfish interests. The common interest included the well-being of all members of the national community and of future generations. One knows in the abstract that it's unfair to think of utilitarianism as selfish and instrumentalist, that it was a morally inspired program of egalitarian social reform; but it's striking nonetheless to see in the Progressive reformers an explicit ideal of character, the (usually elite) citizen-manager whose moral excellence lay in a certain quality of vision and refined moral sentiment. The utilitarian manager and reformer, and the public-minded citizen who would support him, were offered as civic aristocrats for a democratic age. Although much of their aim was social, their paradigm was the management of nature, and the two were closely connected.
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This is basically an essay in the history of ideas and, to some extent, their influence on politics and lawmaking. I think it does show that images of nature and ideas about freedom were closely tied together in much of American history, and that we still live in a legacy of those interwoven influences. It doesn't say anything — about what we might do with these ideas going forward. I think, though, that it does begin to sketch the ground we're starting from.