By Aubrey Tingler
Since the industrial revolution, humans have grappled with their place in nature as their impact on it began to appear increasingly detrimental. As I write, I sit staring out at the smoke from wildfires both near and far, unable to leave my house because the air quality is so unhealthy. With this backdrop, it’s hard not to feel like humans are a detriment to this living earth, as our failure to address climate change, poor forest management, and decades of fire suppression cause hundreds of thousands of acres of forest to burn out of control3.
This tension of humans questioning their impact on the natural environment began to assert itself in Western thought
among the work of the Romantic Poets
. In 1812, Lord Byron wrote:
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more”2
During this period, a strong pastoral appreciation for nature developed. As coal was burned for fuel, making work more efficient but also leading to increasingly crowded and smog-filled cities, people began to long for nature experiences and natural surroundings4.
As a senior in high school, I did my senior project on Romantic poetry and painting, attempting to understand the roots of the contemporary relationship between humans in the Western world and nature. Our readings for last week undertook a similar task, familiarizing us with foundational pillars of environmental thought in America, and then providing it a contemporary context through our class discussions.
One of the major themes of our class discussion was how our personal relationship to the outdoors has changed or cemented during the pandemic, as well whether or not the arguments and themes of the authors we read remain relevant in today’s society. Before the lecture, we read a section of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” from his Sand County Almanac (1949), and a chunk of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). When the most recent of these writings was published over 55 years ago, it is reasonable to question to what extent these ideas are still relevant and to what extent their impact has shifted over time.
For many of us in the environmental field, I think we wonder what the impact of our work will be. We look around at the largely unchecked, global problems of climate change, plastic pollution, and unsustainable resource use and wonder how anything we do can possibly have a meaningful impact. Leopold discusses a need for a shift in the public consciousness, not just action-centric environmental education5. How can such a shift in consciousness be created? How can we cultivate a world where everyone sees and understands the value in the nature that the Romantic poets and painters saw: a world of New Romantics.
Our discussions wondered if the pandemic could help in this shift in attitude. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused lockdowns and quarantine protocols to be put in place around the world1. In the United States, even as many businesses reopen, large crowds and gathering places are still unsafe as the virus remains uncontrolled in many places. In our discussions, we first touched on people’s individual experiences with the pandemic. Among the class, people had varying experiences of isolation. Some self-professed introverts found it a nice reprieve from the business and pressure of usual day to day life. One student said the isolation during COVID felt like a “hole in my heart”, while others expressed anxieties about the dangers of being too near to other people or the loneliness of not being able to gather together with friends or strangers, even in public spaces like restaurants and city parks.
The outdoors and relationships to natural spaces came into play because, through it all, outside was one of the places you were allowed to go. In more densely populated countries, people were often barred from leaving their homes at all except for essential activities1. However, in the United States, most lockdowns did permit people to recreate outside in some capacity. The point was raised in our discussion of whether or not parks and public lands being the only place to go would increase public appreciation for them, and cause people to realize that perhaps we need more of them. Perhaps more people would understand that undeveloped land provides fresh air, space, the smell of the earth, and deserves our respect.
Perhaps, it takes one disaster to drive mitigation for another. Maybe the COVID pandemic will remind humans that we are not so in control of nature as we like to believe we are. Nature, while beautiful and pastoral, can also be destructive and chaotic. As the impacts of climate change increase, we are going to see more and more the destructive and chaotic side of nature—as a system out of balance that thus behaves in unbalanced and destructive ways, such as the current wildfires.
However, as the smoke from these massive wildfires obscures my usual view of a blue lake and majestic mountains, I cannot help but wonder if destruction is enough to motivate alternative action. If we still lack the land ethic Leopold proposed in 19495, is it even achievable? I often wonder if the ability of human society to change is too slow to outpace the crises we have created. Still, in moments of despair, we must remember what is worth fighting for. I remind myself of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, and how we must remind ourselves of the good that has come with the 21st Century as well as confront the bad. If we give up hope, then the world is truly lost. I challenge my classmates to continue the discussion by exploring two ideas: Do crises create action or inaction, and it is possible to instill an intrinsic value for nature into human society to such an extent that it changes the way we globally interact with natural resources and the environment?
1 Coronavirus: A visual guide to the world in lockdown. (2020, April 6). BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-52103747
2 George Gordon Byron. (2006). Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Teddington: The Echo Library. (Original work published 1812)
3 Irfan, U. (2020, August 21). What makes California’s current major wildfires so unusual. Retrieved September 13, 2020, from Vox website: https://www.vox.com/2020/8/21/21377181/california-wildfire-2020-scu-lnu-...
4 K. Jan Oosthoek. (2015, August). Romanticism and nature. Retrieved September 13, 2020, from Environmental History Resources website: https://www.eh-resources.org/romanticism-and-nature/
5 Leopold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York.