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Ecologies of the Mind

By Keith Kloor
Mar 8, 2013 1:50 AMNov 20, 2019 3:48 AM


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As a child of the suburbs, my first real contact with raw nature was in 5th grade, when a friend and I built a treehouse in the woods behind the apartment complex we lived in. (This was a two-year pit stop after my parent's divorce.) No adults helped us. It was pretty awesome. I used to roam around a lot in these overgrown woods and soon found a shortcut to the nearest 7/11 (total travel time: 20 minutes), where I picked up baseball cards and the latest Jonah Hex and and Swamp Thing comic books. Being a latch-key kid had its upsides. I don't recall ever stopping to smell the proverbial roses in my newly discovered jungle, but I do remember pulling plenty of thorns and ticks off myself in the summertime. (This was pre-Lymes disease.) During this period of my life--and like a lot of non-city kids in the days before every hour of children's lives were scheduled--nature was somewhere I played and escaped to. In high school, my 10th grade english teacher introduced the class to Emerson and Thoreau. I was smitten. Nature took on a whole new meaning for me. I didn't know about ecology yet, so Emerson and Thoreau served as my intellectual guides to an eco-philosophical world that I found intoxicating. Some years later, when I discovered John Muir and and Edward Abbey, my stoic romanticism (so precious for a well-off suburbanite) evolved into a lusty affair with wilderness. While my ensuing dalliances with nature in national parks and forests were enjoyable (and still are), they never developed into a religiosity that others came to embrace. Eventually, I learned enough environmental science and environmental history to recognize that I had fallen victim to what I would call ecologies of the mind--modes of thought that are culturally and socially constructed. This life-long journey with nature I've been on is real, but at numerous junctures along the way I've had to stop and reflect on where it's taken me. Where I am currently should be pretty obvious to anyone who has read my stuff in recent years. Anyway, I got to thinking about all this after reading a fascinating new paper by Matthew Nisbet, a scholar of climate and environmental discourses. In it, Nisbett explores the influential role of several leading writers in the environmental arena. (He calls them "knowledge journalists.") The ones he closely examines--Thomas Friedman, Andrew Revkin, and in particular, Bill McKibben--all differ in their philosophies and communication approaches. Here's a short excerpt from the introduction:

Over the past two decades, a unique class of journalist and public intellectual has gained prominence. Rather than straight reporting, these "knowledge journalists" specialize in the translation of complex subjects, often championing specific policy positions or causes. As public intellectuals, they tend to view the world deductively, immersing themselves in the synthesis of complex areas of research, offering analysis across cases and events. Through their best-selling books and commentary, they influence how we think and talk, infusing the abstract with meaning, and turning the complex into a common vocabulary.

I have some thoughts about the paper that I'd like to share. But before I impose my own commentary on you, have a read of Nisbet's paper and check back late tonight or tomorrow morning for my follow up post.

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