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here's been some talk on this list lately about how we should distance
environmentalism from the Unabomber, and foil attempts by the media to unite
the two. Shouldn't we also look inward, and see if in any way a love of ature
does or can lead to antipathy to humans?
he relationship between environmentalism and violence had been on my mind
prior to Ted Kaczynski's arrest, because I had been reading _MindHunter_, John
Douglas's memoir of his career heading the FBI's serial crimes unit. In passing,
Douglas mentions a number of cases in which the killers were ardent
environmentalists or living back to nature. It was hard to know what, if
anything, to make of this (or of the author's contention that an inordinate
percentage of serial killers drive Volkwagen Beetles).
atching the FBI take Kaczynski away as the prime suspect in the Unabomber
case, I thought, of course, of Henry Thoreau. Both were Harvard graduates who
chose to remove themselves from industrial America to go it alone in a simple
wilderness retreat. Thoreau is America's most famous recluse -- isn't it likely
that Kaczynski is familiar with Thoreau's writing, even that he was emulating
him to a degree?
If Kaczynski is the Unabomber, then an intellectual connection to Thoreau is
even more possible. After all, Thoreau is the father of North American
environmentalism, and the Unabomber is most definitely an environmentalist.
In his manifesto, after an exceedingly long discussion of how technology had
overwhelmed society and smothered persnal freedom, he writes, But as an
ideology, in order to gain support, must have positive ideals well as a negative
one; it must be FOR something as well as AGAINST something. The positive
ideal that we propose is Nature. That is, WILD nature; those aspects of e
unctioning of the Earth and its living things are independent of human
management and free of human interference and control. Such sentiment would
not be misplaced on the ASLE list. Of course, most of us would take issue when
he wrote, In order to get our message before the public with some chance of
making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people.
There have been, as we know, strands of the environmental movement that have
been too often linked to an anti-human mindset. Regardless of his renunciation
of EarthFirst!, Dave Foreman did at one time oppose famine aid to Ethiopia,
saying the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let
the people there just starve.... Up here in Canada, naturalist John Livingston, in
his Governor General's Award-winning _Rogue Primate_, refers to AIDS
dispassionately as a natural response to human overpopulation.... I think
environmentalists are people who understand that humans are part of nature,
and they seek to live accordingly. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that we
are impatient for the rest of humanity to figure this out, and pessimistic tht
we as a species are smart enough to make it happen. Some environmentalists, I
think, find other humans (the more, the less merry) as basically troublesome.
All this led me back to Thoreau. Was there anything in his writing that could
have led Kaczynski (if he is the Unabomber) -- and maybe all environmentalists
astray? On first glance, of course, Thoreau can be seen to be radically
pro-nature and anti-society. He looked around his America and saw a
civilization in which everyone was so intent on business, trade, and industry,
so intent on eking out a living, that they forgot how to live. _Walden_ is a
back-to-the-land how-to book, a carefully-crafted naturalist's diary, a witty
response to Ben Franklin-industriousness, and a philosophical treatise on
self-reliance. A Ted Kaczynski could draw inspiration from it. But Thoreau does
not renounce society in _Walden_; he takes a trip from it to experiment with
isolation, to learn more about himself and his surroundings. When his
experiment is completed, he moves back to Concord and announces, I left the
woods for as good a reason as I went there.
The publishers of my edition of _Walden_ put Civil Disobedience at the end. I
wondered if Kaczynski (if he is the Unabomber) also united the two. In this
essay Thoreau defends opposition to unjust governments and describes a night
spent in jail for refusing to pay taxes, protesting the American war with
Mexico. Thoreau argues that one who wishes to be true to himself may need to
live outside of government. Again, a Ted Kaczynski could draw inspiration --
some environmentalists certainly have. Though Foreman left EarthFirst!, in
Defending the Earth_ he continues to draw inspiration from the story that
Emerson came to bail Thoreau out of jail, and asked, Henry, what are you doing
in there? Thoreau replied, Ralph, what are you doing out there? I worry that
some environmentalists see civil disobedience as in itself a sufficient
political act, and not only that but an act of allegiance to Thoreau's gospel. In
fact, Civil Disobedience is not a monkeywrencher's guide to bringing down a
government or changing society. It encourages people to take responsibility for
their actions, and instructs them not to succumb with blind approbation to a
government that acts wrongly. The point is that you have to learn about
yourself and your beliefs and act accordingly.
I wonder if Kaczynski, if he is the Unabomber, felt that _Walden_ shows how to
appreciate nature, and Civil Disobedience shows how to behave against a
society that does not appreciate nature. I hope this was not the case. Thorea
stresses that ultimately we have to save ourselves. The result may be that we
are geographically or psychically separated from society, but what of it?
Thoreau writes, If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is
because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he
hears, however measured, or far away. But just as important, in the passage
preceding this, Thoreau writes, Let every one mind his own business, and
endeavour to be what he was made.
Admittedly, this is an incomplete political philosophy. Environmental problems
will not disappear by minding our own business. But neither will they disappear
by sneering at society or threatening violence against it. Any environmentalism
that works will necessarily be one that accepts human beings and seeks to accommodate them in nature. I take from _Walden_ that I must live principally in nature, I take from Civil Disobedience that I must live principally in society. But as Thoreau might say, hey, that's just my opinion.
Word Count: 1085
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