Divining Nature

Exploring the spiritual side of environmentalism.

By Keith Kloor


Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest
By Thomas R. Dunlap
University of Washington Press, 206 pages, $24.95

There has always been a deeply spiritual side to America's love affair with nature. Henry David Thoreau sought life's meaning at Walden Pond and discovered—in an oft-quoted phrase—that "in wildness is the preservation of the world." John Muir walked the Sierras in a similar quest and was moved to champion them as "God's temples," sacred havens for those seeking refuge from a coarse, industrialized society. Muir's contemporary, Catskills essayist John Burroughs, referred to his body of work as the Gospel of Nature. President Theodore Roosevelt and other early 20th-century conservationists revivified themselves by fishing, hunting, and hiking. Since then, tens of millions of Americans have flocked to national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas to deepen their own physical and spiritual bonds to nature.

The biologist Edward O. Wilson has called this affinity for nature "biophilia," a concept he defines as "the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms." He considers it an evolutionary instinct that has predisposed us toward a "conservation ethic."

Thomas Dunlap, a historian at Texas A&M University and the author of Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest, offers the metaphysical flip side to Wilson's thesis. His is an ambitious undertaking, one that results in a thoughtful, scholarly journey that is surprisingly accessible to the lay reader, thanks to its brisk, jargon-free prose. Yet if all Dunlap had attempted to do was ascribe a "religious impulse" to popular 19th-century nature writing and, by extension, the eventual preservation of wilderness and wild animals (which he does), he would not have broken any new ground.

But Dunlap thinks he's on to something much grander. After surveying its emergence during the past 150 years, Dunlap has concluded that environmentalism is part of the "human impulse towards religion."

Unfortunately, this assessment misreads a movement historically fractured into two main camps: ecological defenders and public health advocates. For a brief period in the 1960s and 1970s, after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the two wings found common ground. Till then, wilderness and wildlife protection were the dominant concerns of environmental groups. But ecological issues merged with social and political ones when agricultural pesticides and industrial pollution began harming the environment and people's health. Thus it was not a purely religious impulse that roused 20 million Americans to take to the streets on the first Earth Day in 1970 and volunteer to pick up trash and plant trees. Nor was it a religious impulse that spurred President Richard Nixon and Congress to establish a raft of landmark environmental laws safeguarding the nation's air and water.

Still, in the era's nature-inspired "back-to-the-land" movement, Dunlap sees a larger religious yearning. This tumultuous period also produced famously bleak environmental tracts, such as Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb and the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth. But Dunlap finds a different religious meaning here. "People spoke of these works as jeremiads, and they were apocalyptic literature, in the classical sense of the term," he writes. "Put in conventionally religious terms, these works pointed to a hell that would result from our sins, called us to change our ways, and in some cases described the new heaven before us."

At every juncture in environmentalism's ascendance, Dunlap detects theological parallels. Sometimes it's warranted, as in his insightful examination of the emotional power of images and prose animating the mid-20th-century wilderness campaign. "People hung prints on the wall and displayed the Sierra Club's coffee-table books in much the same spirit and with the same fervor as immigrant Catholics placing the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the dining room wall," Dunlap notes.

Much of the time, though, he overreaches. For example, some down-to-earth readers might be surprised to learn that their recycling and participation in environmental causes "look very much like what Christian spirituality referred to as the 'conversion of life,' " and that these actions have become "as detailed as religious guides to moral living."

The book is also marred by repetition. Influential canons, like Aldo Leopold's "land ethic," and key submovements, like bioregionalism, are explained over and over again and dissected for religious influences, sometimes only pages apart.

At the book's end, Dunlap sheds his scholar's skin to discuss how environmentalism's proponents could better advance their cause by incorporating an even deeper "religious perspective." For instance, he considers the mission-driven science of ecology part of a greater pursuit for order and meaning in the universe, one that could attract new converts in the religious community if it were more spiritually based. But in a glaring omission, Dunlap neglects to mention how religious faiths have become increasingly "green" on their own. Last year, for example, one Christian denomination organized a widely publicized anti-SUV advertising campaign, titled "What would Jesus drive?"

Other scholars of environmentalism, notably Robert Gottlieb, have argued that the movement could broaden its appeal by paying as much attention to low-income, polluted communities as it does to the high-minded causes of old-growth forests and grizzly bears. For Dunlap's vision to really change the way of the world, the "religious perspective" he embraces in environmentalism must also extend beyond nature's defense to everyday concerns.



Smart Alliance: How a Global Corporation and Environmental Activists Transformed a Tarnished Brand
By J. Gary Taylor and Patricia J. Scharlin
Yale University Press, 278 pages, $30

Once the arch-nemesis of environmental and human rights groups around the world, Chiquita Brands International has since become a shining example of corporate responsibility. By the mid-20th century, the authors note, the banana behemoth formerly known as the United Fruit Company owned 2,700 square miles of land in Latin America, and in 1954 backed a coup of the Guatemalan government, orchestrated by the CIA. In addition to the banana republic legacy, Chiquita, a poster child for environmental villainy, was accused of poisoning workers and tropical ecosystems with agricultural chemicals long outlawed in the United States. Struggling to repair its image while beset by worker strikes and consumer protests in the late 1990s, Chiquita turned to one of its biggest critics, the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance. These unlikely allies established the Better Banana certification program, making human rights and environmental concerns central to banana production. Gary Taylor and Patricia Scharlin chronicle the painful transformation. Smart Alliance is more than fascinating history; it is a compelling case study of collaborative success between environmentalists and a global corporation, and points to a more hopeful future.

—Dan Porras


Water Culture
By SKeGROUP and Ocean Futures Society
Phaidon Press, 216 pages, $49.95

"The biggest problem is that we use the ocean as a garbage can," notes environmentalist and film producer Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau and president of the Ocean Futures Society, in Water Culture, a striking coffee-table book that focuses on the glories of and environmental threats to the water around us. With donated artistic photography from more than 80 international photographers, Water Culture aims to raise awareness about water pollution, destruction of coastal habitat, and overfishing through images both sublime and austere. From breathtaking depictions of marine life, such as the undersea ballet of California sea lions; to people drinking water and bathing, farming, and playing in it; to a stark, oil-coated seabird, a casualty of the 1991 Gulf War, this collection successfully makes its point: We are all interconnected by water and, as Cousteau writes, "in its absence, all life stops." Additional commentary is provided by Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and other notable, concerned voices on the environment.

—Michele Wolf

An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana, Uncovered a National Scandal

By Andrew Schneider and David McCumber
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 440 pages, $25.95

Investigative journalists often dig in dangerous dirt. For Andrew Schneider and David McCumber of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, that dirt contained a deadly concentration of asbestos fibers, which blanketed the small community of Libby, Montana. In An Air That Kills, the authors retrace the cover-up of a malignant mining operation, weaving a gripping tale of American industrialization, deadly deception, and unsung heroes. The companies running the six-decade vermiculite mining operation—it closed 10 years ago—near Libby knew that hundreds of miners were getting sick with deadly lung ailments and cancers but concealed reports and issued no warnings. Tragically, the dust carried home by miners was breathed by their families, causing asbestos-related ailments in their wives and children. An Air That Kills is a compelling—albeit tragic—tale that we wish weren't true.

—Dan Porras

© 2004 National Audubon Society

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