Why I Am Not an Environmentalist


Rock Island, IL

It is fairly well known on The Porch—and also on other surfaces—that the Mitchell/Schlueter volume on Wendell Berry is flat-out lighting it up. Last I checked, its meteoric rise registered an impressive 186,555 on the list put out by The Giant Foe of Publishers.

Being a contributor to this book, and either knowing or knowing of the other contributors, I have an interest in its success. I haven’t read the whole thing ass-to-eyeballs yet, but what I’ve read so far has the certain and welcome effect of not displeasing me.

That sounds like a back-handed compliment or a thinly veiled condemnation. It is neither. Books that displease proliferate—nay, like foul toads knot and gender–and aught but give us assurances that there will be combustible material aplenty for the day of wrath. But a book you haven’t finished yet and that so far does not displease has this advantage: it is poised to please. I’m fairly certain that The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry will prove to be such a book.

Gamboling through it the other night I decided to give Anthony Esolen’s essay, “What if Dante Were a Kentucky Barber,” a little look-see. The reason is that about five or six years ago I participated in a symposium on Berry for the journal Christianity and Literature. When asked what topic I might like to write on, I proffered two suggestions, one of which was a piece on the influence of Dante on Jayber Crow.

I’m glad I was persuaded to pursue my other suggestion. (The piece I eventually wrote was titled “Wendell Berry’s Vindication of the Flesh.”) And the reason I’m glad is that Professor Esolen has written an essay that would have made whatever I might have written look like Alpo or Chuck Wagon or maybe even Kibbles & Bits.

Here is a real contribution to the growing body of work on Berry—a contribution, I might add, that is also graceful and elegant. I mean this. A fair number of manuscripts on Berry cross my desk, either for review or peer review, and many of them displease. But this does not. This is real work.

My point in saying this, however, is neither to sing the praises of Professor Esolen (though he deserves them) nor to congratulate Professors Mitchell and Schlueter for soliciting and bringing into print this fine essay (though they deserve it). My purpose is to draw a kind of intermediate attention to a sentence in the essay and then, ultimately, to draw attention to myself, because that, of course, is what academics—and here I must quote Tigger—do best.

In discussing Mattie Chatham, the Beatrice of Jayber Crow, specifically her muted pleasure in natural beauty, Esolen says, “She is not an environmentalist, if by that we mean someone with a program for making herself feel righteous and her neighbors uncomfortable.”

This is a remark that gets a lot done in just a few syllables. It’s a real bargain. There’s a lot of bang per buck in it. It goes quickly to the heart of what’s wrong with the Prius-driving Planet Savers: they tend to forge their clamorous righteousness on the anvil of someone else’s discomfort.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m pro-planet and I would have efficient rather than inefficient use of energy, though I think the only thing increased efficiency can do, ultimately, is provide an alternate route to depletion (and maybe demonstrate, at long last, why the market can’t be counted on to solve any energy problems).

But I would reiterate Esolen’s point: too many people who account themselves “green” seem to get caught up in shades of greenness. They end up looking like light greens telling dark greens to get to the back of the bus, and that’s not okay.

Now I mention the word “green” here mainly to ridicule it. As an adjective it is, quite simply, insufficient to the task at hand. A “green technology,” to use but one example, is merely a new thing flaunting certain credentials that elide all kinds of other problems. Wind power is a “green” technology if you ignore how much petroleum goes into making, transporting, constructing, and maintaining turbines. “Green” is not a comprehensive enough word in the world of wind power.

“Green” as a verb is likewise insufficient to the task at hand. (It is also an ugly verb, like “text” or “gift.”) For example, I’ve seen people attempt to “green” the curriculum. Someone should text these people and tell them that they have been gifted with other talents. There can’t be much sense in greening a curriculum for students who have been recruited from around the globe. And as long as colleges and universities have their sights set on training (and being!) global citizens, they should give up the green and continue to brown the curriculum.

To brown. Verb infinitive. To muck up.

But probably the worst word in circulation is “environment,” that thing the “environmentalist” (the second worst word) tries to save by means of (third worst word) “environmental” strategies. And here I come at long last to the self-serving business of discussing my own contribution to the Mitchell/Schlueter volume. It is a piece titled “The Third Landscape: Wendell Berry and American Conservation.” (I confess it was written in haste: I was asked late in the project to pinch-hit for someone else. If you read and dislike it, do as I do and blame someone or something else.)

One purpose I proposed to myself in that piece was to make plain Berry’s discomfort with the word “environment,” which “suggests something that surrounds us, a thing separate from us, and so confers upon us a certain permission to stand at several removes from it. ‘We tend to think,’ Berry told an interviewer in 1991, ‘that there can be a distinction between people and the air they breathe, for instance, or people and the food they eat, or people and the water they drink.’ He called this an ‘absurd distinction.’”

[T]here is no line that you can draw between people and the elements they depend on [Berry said in that interview]. That is why the term “environment” is so bothersome to me. “Environment” is based on that dualism, the idea that you can separate the human interests from the interests of everything else. You cannot do it. We eat the environment. It passes through our bodies every day.

Berry has been bothered by this word pretty much from the beginning, and for reasons that are good: it doesn’t get at the stubborn (and, I might add, sacramental) fact that we are what we eat; we are what we drink. We don’t have a word available to us, when we talk about the health of the world, for what is. If we did have one, and if we understood its implications, we would quickly become uncomfortable with “green technology” or “saving the environment.” Such phrases would suggest to us a certain fragmentation of thought that would be intolerable because it falsifies the facts of existence.

But it would be intolerable to us only insofar as we understood how decidedly unfragmented, how seamless, our lives really are–notwithstanding all the man-made seams we’ve stitched into the very fabric of them.

For the other side of this, the other side of thought and speech, is life. Our thought and language are fragmented because our lives are, and our lives are fragmented because our thought and language are. “Environment” is the perfect word for a people who live, and are able to live, at the far end of a broken connection.

We must correct our thought and language if we wish to correct our lives, and we must correct our lives if we wish to correct our thought and language. We can’t do some of the work only. We must do all of it. There’s no room for half-assed work. (This is a point Berry took up to some extent in “Word and Flesh” in What Are People For?)

In the 1970s, in a long essay titled “Discipline and Hope” (A Continuous Harmony), Berry said there is really only one concern: “the life and health of the world.” Perhaps we could abstract ourselves from that phrase as easily as we have abstracted ourselves from “the environment.” But our own life and health are intimately caught up with the life and health of everything else. We are what we eat and drink and breathe. When the honeybee ceases to thrive, we will cease to thrive. (True: our life and health are caught up with the life and health of “the environment,” but that still carries with it the sense of something that surrounds rather than passes through us. We talk about it like it’s an air freshener rather than the air.) No amount of fragmentation, whether articulated or experienced (there being no difference between the two) will change that.

It would be inelegant of me to call myself a “life-and-health-of-the-worlder,” or to be an advocate of “life-and-health-of-the-world” policies, or to support “life-and-health-of-the-world” law. But we need a word sufficient to the task. And then we need lives that will answer to it.

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