"You Say You Want a Revolution": Environmental Reform in the Literature of the 1860s and 1960s
Michael Branch, English Department, University of Nevada at Reno
This essay was originally presented at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax, VA.
I wish to begin by offering a paraphrased description of a remarkable social reform movement which we associate with an entire generation:
Although it functions rather well as a representation of the counterculture of the 1960s, this is in fact a description of transcendentalism, the movement of intellectual rebellion and social reform which flourished during the middle of the nineteenth century.
We often forget that the United States has had two "sixties generations," both of which were marked by a cultural revolution that sparked social reform and social protest. In this very brief survey I do not wish to explore deeply the historical circumstances which engendered specific cultural events; instead, I simply wish to suggest that there is a remarkable correspondence between the decade of the 1960s and the comparably tumultuous decade that preceded it by a century. The correspondences I will offer are hardly coincidental, for the climate of social protest which characterized both periods also produced strikingly similar political, legislative, educational, environmental, and even dietary reforms.
Let me begin, then, with a broad sketch of the pattern of social reform which characterizes both the eighteen- and nineteen-sixties. Most obviously, both decades were torn by controversial and divisive wars: like the Viet Nam war, the Civil War resulted in social unrest, draft-dodging, and antiwar protests. The draft riots of 1863 left 1,200 dead and thousands injured in New York City alone, while New York was also the gathering site of more than 100,000 antiwar protesters in 1967. And more so than any other conflict in our history, the Civil and Viet Nam wars divided the loyalties of the American people in particularly painful ways.
Both periods were also marked by intense civil rights activism on behalf of African-Americans and women. A powerful abolition movement encouraged Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and equal rights activists persuaded President Kennedy to call for far-reaching civil rights legislation in 1963. The difficulties which attended the sweeping cultural change of the two decades is nowhere more apparent than in the fact that both Presidents were assassinated, victims of the change which they had attempted to enact. Likewise, both decades became battlegrounds for citizens seeking social and legal equality for women. In 1869 Susan B. Anthony formed The American Women's Suffrage Association, which campaigned for a Constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote. And it was in the 1960s that the modern women's movement made its start, first with the publication of Betty Friedan's influential book The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and later with the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.
Perhaps the most revolutionary cultural changes shared by the two sixties generations were catalyzed by new technologies. For purposes of comparison, we might take the intercontinental railway and the lunar landing as examples. In 1869, at Promontory Point in the Utah Territory, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads joined to form an unbroken band of rail across the U.S. Travel time between New York and San Francisco, which formerly varied from three to nine grueling months, was suddenly reduced to eight days of relative comfort. In 1969, with much of the world watching on television, astronauts Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin walked, planted flags, and played golf on the moon. In the case of both the railroad and the lunar landing, a technological achievement changed our sense of time, space, and control, and radically altered how we were to perceive and enact our relationship both to the landscape and to the cosmos.
Despite our dominant culture's ongoing movement toward the exploitation of nature, both the 1860s and the 1960s were also rich in environmental critiques of hegemonic and anthropocentric industrialism. For example, the wedding of social and environmental reform visible in nineteenth-century experiments in communal living such as Brook Farm and Fruitlands is mirrored in the "back to the land" movement that began in the 1960s. Both are marked by an attempt to redefine community in ways that account for humanity's physical and spiritual dependence upon the natural world. In fact, the modern animal rights movement, which is an attempt to expand the moral community to include nonhuman beings, had its roots in the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, formed in 1866. In addition, an interest in nature mysticism and in Asian understandings of the natural world is evident in the work of the New England transcendentalists, just as it is in the work of the Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsburg, Alan Watts, and Gary Snyder. In short, both sixties generations attempted to reforge their bonds to the earth, or, as Theodore Roszak put it in his 1969 classic, The Making of a Counter Culture, "[to] transform this disoriented civilization of ours into something a human being can identify as home."2
This idea of the earth as home--an idea we might simply call environmental consciousness--has long been associated with the series of insights we gather under the term ecology. But few of us recall that the ecology movement of the 1960s was a revival of the environmental concern that had its first voice in the 1860s. A landmark in ecological thinking, George Perkins Marsh's pioneering environmental study, Man and Nature, was published in 1865. Marsh provides a scientifically reputable account of human civilization's destructive impact upon the land, but his book is also informed by a particularly modern environmental ethic. "Man has forgotten," wrote Marsh, "that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste."3 Indeed, it was also in the 1860s that the word "ecology" was actually coined. Zoologist Ernst Häckel, who was the first German advocate of Darwin's theory of organic evolution, created the neologism in 1869 to express the notion of environmental balance which eighteenth century naturalists had referred to as "the economy of nature." Finally, the 1860s also saw the beginnings of environmental preservation, both with the establishment of large city parks, and even more importantly, with the federal protection of Yosemite Valley in 1864.
The work of ecological thinkers such as Marsh and Häckel, largely ignored during the intervening years, sprouted again in the substantial environmental reforms of the 1960s. Beginning with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, environmental concern was catalyzed as a popular social movement, founded on the ecological principles of interrelationship, sustain-ability, and ecosystemic health. In the conclusion to Silent Spring, Carson called upon human beings to share the earth with nonhuman beings, and she forcefully denounced the arrogance of the human pretension to dominance over the natural world.4 Largely as a result of the ecology movement's critique of destructive land use patterns, the decade was also rich in legislative reforms, the most important of which were the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Endangered Species Act of 1967. These acts signaled a new era of environmental consciousness because their philosophical underpinnings were subversively non-anthropocentric: in the case of the Wilderness Act humans were to be no more than "visitors" on the preserved land, and in the case of the Endangered Species Act, nonhuman beings were, in effect, granted the legal right to exist. In short, the 1960s movement for environmental preservation on grounds other than those of human use was an ecologically informed approach which had its roots in a in a nineteenth-century tradition of environmental awareness.
Both decades were also marked by a rich literature of environmental concern. Although Thoreau died in 1862, The Maine Woods (1864) and other writings were published in the sixties, and Emerson, Whitman, Bryant, Whittier, Olmsted, and other writers who found nature congenial were active. By 1869 John Wesley Powell was recording his famous exploration of the canyons of the Colorado River. John Burroughs was working on the first of his twenty-three books of nature writing, and John Muir was spending that first, baptismal summer in the Sierra. The 1960s was also a banner decade for the literature of nature, producing such classics as Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire (1968), Wendell Berry's The Long-Legged House (1969), John Hay's In Defense of Nature (1969), and Gary Snyder's Earth House Hold (1969). In these and other important books of the period, the rich sense of place which we associate with the work of such writers as Henry Thoreau and John Burroughs was finally wedded with a distinctly modern environmental sensibility.
I wish to conclude my observations on this pattern of correspondence with a brief comparison of the sentiments expressed by two important nature writers, each working at the end of a "sixties generation." First John Muir, radical ecophilosopher, founder of the Sierra Club, and father of the preservationist wing of the American conservation movement. I quote from the journal Muir kept during his famous thousand-mile walk to the Gulf in 1867:
And finally, from Wendell Berry's The Long-Legged House, published in 1969:
Standing a century apart, Muir and Berry are each confronting what they see as the monstrous pretension of human superiority over nonhuman nature. In an intuitive way, each is rejecting the dominant anthropocentric paradigm for an ecological vision of the natural world as community and as home.
Unfortunately, the revolutionary environmental ideas of a John Muir or a Wendell Berry are often received as insightful but solitary outbursts--as the wisdom of a voice crying in the wilderness. On the contrary, the larger context of social reform which characterized both the 1860s and the 1960s helped to make such ideas possible then, and continues to help make them possible today. Just as we hope that Americans of the twenty-first century will remember the lessons of the Vietnam generation, we should recognize that the roots of environmental reform run deeper than Earth Day. I wish only to suggest that the ecological revolution of the 1960s may also be seen as a product of the revolving century--as the flowering of seeds sown in the 1860s.
1 Paraphrased from C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 3rd edition (New York: Bobbs-Merril) 1972: 535-537.
2 Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture (Garden City, NY: Doubleday) 1969: xiii.
3 Roderick Frazier Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) 1989: 38.
4 See Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (New York: Cambridge University Press) 1977.
5 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Fawcett Crest) 1962: 261.
6 John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 1916: 136, 139.
7 Wendell Berry, Recollected Essays (San Francisco: North Point Press) 1981: 51, 52.