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ENVR 102 Lecture 2 (b) Henry David Thoreau. Craig Callender Naomi Oreskes Winter 2008. Two major understandings of issues at stake in environmental protection…. Beauty. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). American writer, essayist, poet

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ENVR 102 Lecture 2 (b) Henry David Thoreau

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Envr 102 lecture 2 b henry david thoreau l.jpg

ENVR 102Lecture 2 (b)Henry David Thoreau

Craig Callender

Naomi Oreskes

Winter 2008

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Two major understandings of issues at stake in environmental protection…

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

  • American writer, essayist, poet

  • Abolitionist family, Mother and sisters were founders of Women’s Anti-Slavery Society of Concord.

  • Advocate of “simple life”

  • “Patron saint” of American environmental movement

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Many champions of “civilization,” boasted over American “improvements.”

Thoreau would champion the value of leaving things alone…

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Thoreau’s life

  • Born in Concord Massachusetts

  • Graduated from Harvard 1837

  • Worked for time in family pencil company.

  • Invented the modern pencil: technique of baking graphite into cylinders, then inserting into hole drilled into wood

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Concord, Massachusetts

Home to numerous influential American writers, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Emerson, Hawthorne

  • Transcendentalist movement: finding spiritual truths in nature…

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For Thoreau, the more nature, the better…

Nature elicited all that was best in man, all that mattered most in life

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1839 trip to White Mountains with brother

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Wildness source of vigor, inspiration, strengthCities and towns made men weak and dull.Excess of civilization perhaps even explained collapse of civilizations (Rome: Romulus and Remus suckled by wolves…)

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Wildness source of beauty, inspiration“Not only for strength but beauty the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger’s path and the Indian’s trail…”

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Wilderness source of inner strengthBy traveling outwards into nature, away from distractions of civilization, man could traveled inward into his own soul. Peace and solitude of nature allowed one to find oneself.Thomas Wolfe: To find oneself one had to leave the world.

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Wilderness as reality checkIn nature, away from towns and cities, we “settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slosh of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion…till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we call reality.”

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Thoreau’s experiences with nature

  • 1839, River trip on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in boat he built with (with rother John (died of tetatnus two years later)

  • Hikes in Maine: 1846, first of three trips

    • Ascent of Mt Katahdin

  • Life on Walden Pond, beginning 1845

  • “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

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Life on Walden Pond

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Went to Walden 1845

  • 1 room cabin

  • Lived alone

  • Grew vegetables in 2 1/2 acre farm, lived mostly as vegetarian

  • Rowed boat on pond

  • Recorded life, particularly details of pond, woods, changes of season, his thoughts

  • Wrote “A week on Concord and Merrimack Rivers”

  • Wrote Walden later

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Not exactly wilderness, only a couple of miles from his family home…

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More like an experiment in simple living

  • Still, he lived without many “creature comforts”

  • Ate very little meat

  • Paid great attention to his surrounding, environment

  • Focused his attention on the natural world, rather than affairs of men

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It wasn’t very long…

  • 2 years, 2 months, 2 days. (1845-46)

  • Yet, people didn’t treat it as short.

  • Treated it as something very significant, substantial.

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Extremely influentialWalden, or Life in Woods, sold wellThoreau became famous. Paid off his debts, earned reasonable living from writing (essays, poetry)Survey in 1990, Walden most commonly taught book in American literature courses

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Idea of living deliberately highly influential…

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…beyond just living in a hut

  • 1849: On Civil Disobedience… Essay on responsibility of men to refust to support unjust governance

  • I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, "That government is best which governs not at all

  • A call for anarchy? some government necessary?

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Citizens have obligations

  • Obligation not to support unjust acts or laws:

  • It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.

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“Passive resistance”

  • To refuse to support injustice or to obey an unjust law

  • Therefore, refused to pay taxes to state of Massachusetts until slavery abolished ( and also in opposition to Mexican war)

  • Called on all abolitionists to do same.

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Willingness to go to jail

  • “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison”

  • Six years, refused to pay poll tax

  • July 23 1846, arrested, served one night in jail.

  • “The night in prison was novel and interesting enough”

  • Released when someone paid (his aunt? Emerson?) the tax on his behalf.

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Also supported justness of breaking law actively when moral situation made it clearly right

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Thoreau’s support of John BrownSpeech: “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859)

  • John Brown, violent abolitionist who led raid on federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, with goal of arming slaves…

  • Advocated armed insurrection

  • Tried for treason, hanged 1859

  • Spark for civil war

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Most Americans horrified by Brown

  • Including most abolitionists

  • Essentially saw him as “terrorist”

  • Lincolm called him a “misguided fanatic

  • Thoreau’s support changed views of many abolitionists,

  • Brown’s death began a spark, viewed as helping to trigger Civil War

  • Later became American hero, martyr…

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On Civil DisobedienceIncredibly influential work

  • Cited by Danish resistance movement during Nazi occupation

  • Inspiration for on Mohandas Gandhi. Always carried copy in his luggage, read it in jail.

  • 1950s, Censored by Senator Joe McCarthy (removed from US Information Service Libraries)

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Inspiration to war resisters in 1960s:Reverend William Sloane Coffin (1967) quoted Thoreau“I would remind my countrymen that they are to be men first, and Americans only at a late and convenient hour.”

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Most famously, Martin Luther King"I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest." - Martin Luther King, Jr, Autobiography, Chapter 2

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What does environmentalism have to do with abolitionism?


A man who could live independently could also think independently

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Thoreau’s fame tied to his identity as independent thinker, but also as a reflection of his age, and a uniquely American spirit, tied to American land

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Memorial in 1946 (centenary of his time at Walden)

  • “American genius…at once truly American and at the same time a free lance…an inspiration for courage and independence…

  • “He presents as idealism and acceptance of a form of justice, a moral code, an ethica conduct, that bears the hue and tinge of Americanism…the thought-form of the 19th century at its best.

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Cast as an American hero

  • Independence

  • Freedom

  • Love of liberty

  • Self-sufficiency

  • Individualism…

  • But… Hostile to many aspects of American life, commercialism, industry, materialism…

  • Support for John Brown would look today like support for terrorism.

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Paradoxes of Thoreau’s life

  • Amount of time at Walden was very short

  • He did not live his life in wilds.

  • He “visited” wild nature.

  • “Man as visitor” … idea with lasting resonance.

  • Not an argument for living in nature, using nature for human ends.

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What he came to advocate was rather modest:

  • Every community should have a “park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.

  • Idea of nature left alone, but as a place for man to relax, recreate, and be “Instructed.”

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Found Katahdin desolate and frighteningLater in life, concluded man needed a balance

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Died of Tuberculosis in 1862, age of 44

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Thoreau highly influential to later development of environmentalism in USA

  • Idea that preserving some wild nature is essential.

  • That areas must be set aside to as preserves

  • Wilderness will disappear if we don’t.

  • But not so we can live in nature, but rather so we can visit it.

  • In hindsight, not really at that radical….

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But it seemed radical at the time… because of the dominant ideology that civilization = “improvement”That wilderness was bad, scary, nasty, punishment…And, because of the connection between independent living and independent thinking

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