Henry David Thoreau and the New Model of the Human Being Michael Forest Visiting Fulbright Lecturer Beijing Foreign Studies University Michael Forest • Visiting Fulbright Lecturer 2014-2015 Beijing Foreign Studies Univ. • Associate Professor & Chair Canisius College Buffalo NY USA Structure of the Presentation • • • • • Henry David Thoreau Environmental Concerns Today A Theory of Civilization Collapse Growth and Increase Thoreau Redux: Future Primitives Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) • A key figure in American nature writing and environmentalism. Thoreau is foremost a moralist. • Key texts are: “Civil Disobedience” (1849) Walden (1854) “Walking” (1862) Thoreau Chronology 1817 born in Concord, MA 1833 attends Harvard College 1837 graduates, meets Emerson, begins journal 1841 moves into Emerson’s house for 2 years 1842 brother dies; writes “A Natural History of Massachusetts” 1845 moves to Walden Pond, July 4 1846 arrested & jailed; trip to climb Mt. Katahdin 1847 leaves Walden Pond 1849 publishes A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers 1854 publishes Walden 1862 dies May 6 [age 44] Essays published posthumously “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” Opening Sentence of Walden Critique of Progress • Certainly in Economy, Thoreau critiques material acquisition, what we today would call “consumerism”. • He casts the whole chapter in ironic economic language. • Most pointedly, he gauges all expenses by ‘costs’ – “and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run” (p. 26). Consumerism “What is the nature of the luxury which enervates and destroys nations?” (Walden) •Critique of Consumer Debt •Critique of Status [esp. clothing ] •The Virtue of Simplicity The Retreat of the Hero • After a brief opening, the first large section of Economy is a castigation of his fellow citizens. In effect, it is a harsh assessment of the contemporary American life. • Immediately after that, Thoreau retreats into the woods to heal himself. His experiment is a re-grounding in the source of life – the natural world and its life-giving spirituality. • In effect, his cabin in the woods is a retreat that provides his needed time to recover his power before he returns to town. Thoreau as Neophyte Naturalist • One of the interesting features of Thoreau as a naturalist is that he had no formal or family training. • His education was a classical education – languages, poetry, philosophy, literature. • His family did not farm or work in the natural environment. His father was a shopkeeper and had a small pencil factory. • Thoreau learned to identify and cultivate the plants, locate fish and animals and gauge the seasons by self-training through books, conversations, journaling and many long walks. Thoreau on Primitive Peoples of the Tierra del Fuego: “Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of these savages with the intellectualness of the civilized man?” Henry David Thoreau, Walden Thoreau on ‘Savage’ in The Maine Woods Thoreau gave the derivation of ‘savage’: Latin: ‘slyva’ meant “woods” ‘selvaggia’ meant “woods-person” Old French/Middle English: ‘salvage’ meant “woods” ‘sauvage’ meant "woods-person" Source: Robert F. Sayre, Thoreau and the American Indian (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); p. 8. Thoreau on Primitivism • Thoreau uses primitive societies – or sometimes the idea of primitive societies – as a critique of his own society’s excesses. • Thoreau especially valorized, sometimes as a stereotype, the Native Americans whom he read about and met. Thoreau’s Environmental Concerns • Thoreau’s concerns were slightly different than ours: (a)A concern for the moral health of individuals (b)A concern for the moral health of societies (c)A concern for the use of nature as mere resource to be exploited. Thoreau presents a virtue based position. Current Environmental Concerns • Our concerns are larger in scale. We are concerned not only for the moral health but also the biological health of individuals and societies. • Increasing Population + Increasing Consumption • Freshwater shortages, ocean acidification, global climate change, biodiversity loss, air quality, etc. A Theory of Civilization Collapse Environmental Degradation as a Key Factor in Civilization Collapse. Example: Ancient Sumer Source: Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. Rev. Edit. Penguin: 2007; pp. 36-86. Artist Rendering: Sacred Precinct of Nanna in Ur Artwork by Balage Balogh, Archaeologyillustrated.com The Human Defined as a Member of Civilization • Aristotle – civilization is the true nature of humans • Thomas Hobbes and the ‘state of nature’: “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Key Features of Hobbes’s Reduction (1) Reduction of pre-civilized life to bestial terms; (1) Reduction to the antithesis of all that is hoped for in civilized life; (2) It necessarily involves insufficient resources; (4) His view that it is constant warfare. Each one of these points is rejected by contemporary anthropological studies on primitive peoples. The “Future Primitive” • A term from at least the 1990s used to signal a future (hoped) return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. • The Future Primitive ideal is generally an anticivilization movement, arguing that civilized humans are more dangerous and barbaric to the earth than the ecologically sustainable hunter-gatherers. Re-Wilding Re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in 1995 after 70 years. • ‘Rewilding’ is a conservation term introduced in the 1990s to promote large scale conservation in North America including the re-introduction of large predators. • Rewilding seeks to connect fragmented natural areas and return them to wilderness in a scientifically credible manner. Pleistocene Rewilding Re-Wilding Human Beings • Humans were slowly domesticated. Our bodies changed since domestication – another word for civilization – and we overshot our ecological capacity. • Returning to simpler forms of life, foraging for foods, and slowly reducing overpopulations as humans re-integrate into the natural environment are main goals of human rewilding. • In part, this development of ideas in conservation, rewilding, and the future primitive are all pre-figured in Thoreau. • Thoreau returns from the woods to report that an educated person can re-wild themselves. Thoreau advocates the simplicity of a primitivist style of life and seeks to advocate the integration of primitivism back into American society. The Return of the Hero The Future Primitive • “Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of these savages with the intellectualness of the civilized man?” (p. 13). • The answer is no, it is not impossible to combine these two qualities, since Thoreau is that person. • The key to his “rewilding” is that Thoreau was not a naturalist. He was a bookish son of a local small business man. He learned to integrate himself into nature. Conclusion: Future Primitives • Thoreau, writing for his own time and generation, anticipated contemporary proposals and advanced himself and his book as an image of the new human being. • “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World” (from “Walking” 1863).