Of Nature & Society

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorOct 7, 2009 8:39 PM


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Jackson Lears has a must-read essay in the current issue of TNR that leads off:

In contemporary public discourse, concern for "the environment" is a mile wide and an inch deep. Even free-market fundamentalists strain to display their ecological credentials, while corporations that sell fossil fuels genuflect at the altar of sustainability. Everyone has discovered how nice it is to be green. Will popular sentiment translate into public policy? There is reason to be skeptical. After all, we have been here before.

There's much to chew on in the Lears essay, and you'll likely find yourself alternately agreeing and disagreeing as you read through it. For example, some of you Joe Romm acolytes may applaud the whacks against the Breakthrough Institute boys, then wince at the spanking Lears administers to Bill McKibben. I'd like to return to the essay in another post, after I've fully digested it, especially because some of the "cautionary lessons" that Lears discusses from the 1970s and 1980s speak to the heated, contemporary debate over climate change politics and policy. But a few quick observations. I noticed that Lears annoints Donald Worster as the top dog in the field of environmental history:

Over the last quarter of a century, he has played the leading role in creating the field of environmental history, producing a series of pathbreaking books on ecological thought and its consequences (or lack of them). Now he has turned his talents to Muir, the iconic mountain man.

That passage is mostly true; it would be more accurate to say that Worster played a leading role. For my money, William Cronon, Carolyn Merchant, Richard White, Alfred Crosby, Patty Limerick, among others, have also played leading roles in the emergence of environmental history as compelling sub-discipline of history. As I've commented before on this blog, though, I still believe that cultural geographers beat environmental historians to the punch, pioneers such as Carl Sauer, David Lowenthal, and J.B. Jackson. Finally, if you want a hint of where Lears stakes his own meta-argument, read this passage, which comes near the end:

The history of electric cars is a green parable for our time. It raises subversive questions about roads not taken. It shows that, without adequate public backing, green entrepreneurs--no matter how shrewd--cannot successfully buck the corporate consensus. And above all it challenges the fundamental dogma of development, technological determinism. For decades if not centuries, critics of development have been told that the capitalist (and for a while, the socialist) version of progress is simply unstoppable--a neutral, inevitable, and beneficent process that is beyond politics and policy debate. For a moment, in the forgotten 1970s, this dogma came under scrutiny. But the cyber-revolution of the last thirty years revived it. Techno-determinists from Thomas Friedman to Bill Gates have repeatedly told us that we must choose to do what we have to do anyway-- re-organize our lives in accordance with the dictates of technology. The rhetoric of inevitability conceals the business interests it serves, and negates the possibility of challenging them.

I hope the Lears essay engenders a lively debate over the eco/societal roads taken and not taken.

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