What Is Environmental Writing?


Rachel Carson

Let me first establish, like a surveyor, the boundaries of this piece, with some verbal fences.  I’m going to be discussing environmental writing in the United States.  Certainly, there has been, is, and will be, fine environmental writing by writers from all over the world.  But we only have so much time and space.  Most—but not all—of the books and writers I’ll discuss will be from this, and the previous, century.

So, what is environmental writing?

I think you would be hard pressed to find a common definition—that is, one that would instantly come to everyone’s mind when you ask the question.  Wags would be tempted to reply, “Well, it’s writing about the environment,” and they wouldn’t be wrong.  Up to a point.  And, in fact, this is what Bill McKibben, the great and tireless advocate for the well-being of our earth, says.  In the introduction to American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, the anthology that he edited, he writes, “As defined broadly by the pieces in this book, it [environmental writing] takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of the world, and asks searching questions about that collision: Is it necessary?  What are its effects? Might there be a better way?”

Then he makes a distinction that I would also like to make.  But since he makes it so well, I’ll let him continue talking, “To a considerable degree,” he writes, “environmental writing can be said to overlap with what is often called ‘nature writing’…but it subsumes and moves beyond it, seeking answers as well as consolation, embracing controversy, sometimes sounding an alarm.  While it often celebrates nature, it also recognizes, implicitly or explicitly, that nature is no longer innocent or invulnerable.”

So, I would say that one of the hallmarks of environmental writing is that often it is activist writing.  It seeks not only to inform the reader about, and to impress the reader with, nature’s beauty, but it seeks to rouse the reader.  You can look at it this way: it’s hard to imagine an anthology of nature writing including a long essay on Louisiana land loss.  But you’d have no problem imaging those pieces, and others like them, in an anthology of environmental writing. Put another way, environmental writing does not hesitate to talk about a sick or wounded earth—even a dying earth—while nature writing most often speaks about a brilliant, beautiful earth at its healthiest, most cheerful and robust.  The nature writer often describes the earth at its most vibrant, mysterious and inspiring.  Many times these reveries come from solitary walks or solitary residencies in wood outposts.  Environmental writing, these days, describes an earth with the flu in bed, with a high temperature, groaning with aches and pains and looking miserable.  Nature writing often calls for a poet.  Environmental writing often calls for a doctor.

It’s telling indeed, and informing, that both The Norton Book of Nature Writing and American Earth include writing by Rachel Carson.  American Earth has a selection from Carson’s most famous book, the highly influential Silent Spring, which is about the use of pesticides and their grave effects.  The Norton book includes a short lyrical selection from Carson’s book The Edge of the SeaAmerican Earth gives her ten pages; the Norton Anthology gives her five.  It’s clear where her major influence lies.

Same writer, different goals.  In fact, most often when the two anthologies include the same author—take Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry, for instance—the works selected are different.  As they would be, given the two disparate missions.

I would say there is something else that distinguishes the two genres from one another—though of course there are exceptions to this “something else,” and sometimes glaring ones.  And that difference is pronounal.  I would associate the pronoun “I” with nature writing while I would associate the pronoun “we” with environmental writing.  Nature writing is often about the individual writer’s encounter with nature and his or her reactions—often lyrical—to that encounter.  Environmental writing has a collective sense to it.  McKibben brings in the idea of community when talking about this difference.  Indeed, it’s much easier to think of movements, of people joining together to effect change emanating from an environmental writer’s words than from a nature writer’s words.  The nature writer has a reverence for the earth, to be sure, but many of these writers—at least to my mind—are solitary beings, near hermits—even I would say, misanthropes.  They often seem not to want to be with other people but to be by themselves, on the ice, on the water, in the forest, on the trail, in the canyon, on top of the mountain.  While the nature writer stands in solitary awe of a sunset, the environmental writer wants the reader to join him or her, to look at that sunset together.  Or, as is often the case, to look at that threatened, smog-covered sunset together.

The nature writer often asks you to look inward in response to what you see.  The environmental writes often asks you to look outward, to think and act collectively. Both approaches are important.  This is not a matter of one being better or more important than the other, but a matter of distinction.  It’s safe to say that environmental writing wouldn’t exist without the precedent of nature writing, of the recognition of the commune between nature and ourselves.

Charles Darwin.

Let me further distinguish environmental writing from scientific or academic writing. They may cover the same subjects, but scientific or academic writing makes no effort to reach, gives no concession to, the everyday reader.  The communication is among fellow scientists or academicians.  Reading one of these articles can be an exercise in deciphering a difficult foreign language, like Japanese—at least for someone like me with a liberal arts bent.  Environmental writing is, to put it at its most reductive, science writing, whose subject is the earth, made accessible.  Those writers who can do this are rare. I mean writers like Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, Stephen Jay Gould, Barry Lopez, Elizabeth Kolbert, Bernd Heinrich, Peter Matthiessen, Kathryn Schulz and Bill McKibben—these writers have the rare ability to convey the most complex issues that require a deep understanding of science in a graceful, accessible manner.

I don’t believe you can claim to have a firm grasp of any big subject like environmental writing unless you know about its past, its origins.  This idea of environmental writing as distinct from nature writing I think can be traced to Charles Darwin.  Before Darwin, monkeys—to cite one of the more controversial issues in Darwin’s work, On the Origin of Species, prompted—had nothing to do with human beings, except when human beings gaped at them in a zoo.  The only thing the two had in common was, according to believers, that God created them both.  The idea that the two were linked in any other way?  That a human being—an Oxford graduate, say, and a member of the Royal Society—was directly linked to a tree-climbing, howling, hairy and publicly defecating—among other unspeakable acts—monkey?  Unimaginable!  Absurd!  But then this remarkable man, who made passage on the circumnavigating HMS Beagle by the skin of his teeth, changed all that.   Not only did he claim that we were linked to monkeys, he said we were descended from them.  Further, every living—and dead—creature was, and is, linked. Because we all of us arose from the same primordial slime.  “Jeeves, bring the smelling salts for Aunt Gertrude, please. She’s been reading that lunatic Darwin.”  Such was the radical and astonishing nature of this concept that even today, nearly 160 years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, it is still not fully accepted. It is contested even in some schools here in America where creationism is taught as an alternative.  The Scopes trial in 1925, in which a teacher was accused of teaching Darwin’s theory—illegal in that state—was famously called “The Monkey Trial.”  After the publication of On the Origin of Species, the British papers were full of caricatures of Darwin’s head with a monkey body.  You can Google them.

This distinction Darwin so brilliantly made is important here, because it makes unavoidable one of the lynchpins of environmental thinking and writing: that it is not us and them.  Rather, it is one collective us.  In other words, if Darwin was right—and we know he was—you cannot separate yourself from your fellow creatures in the way you did before.  Part of them—part of all of them—is part of you.  This then, if the first step toward one of the great underlying principles of environmental writing—responsibility.

By the way, Darwin published an account of his five-year journey on the HMS Beagle titled, The Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1839.  It is as readable and accessible as the On the Origin of Species is not—at least for the everyday reader.  I recommend it highly.  There is no better companion than Charles Darwin—the book shows him to be curious, brilliant, sweet-natured, tolerant and tireless.  Read this book, and you can follow him all over the world—including that most consequential stop at the Galapagos Islands where he encounters the famous finches—as he makes the preliminary discoveries on which his major opus will be based.

The second great realization that opened the doors to the development of environmental writing is that not only are we creatures linked but everything is linked—animate and inanimate.  That our fate, and the fate of the land, the sea, the skies, the rivers and lakes, the mountains and all those who inhabit these environs are connected.  This idea is clearly present in Thoreau’s writing, especially in Walden, published in 1854, just five years before Darwin’s great book. “The pure Walden water,” he writes, “is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”  Crusty, judgmental, arrogant—called “the terrible Thoreau”—he nevertheless did not elevate himself above the animals of the world, or, for that matter, even above the trees.  By the way, Thoreau read and admired Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle.  I consider Thoreau an environmental writer, despite his distaste for humankind, because he knew so much about his environment and because he wrote so well about it.

The influence of Thoreau’s book, however, is not as wide, I don’t think, as some people imagine.  He never was and I suspect never will be a national literary icon, like, say, Mark Twain or Robert Frost.  E.B. White wrote that he did not find Walden well-liked among his acquaintances.  White thought it might be the “oddest of our distinguished oddities.”  But within a narrow, focused group, the influence was, and is, strong.  By the way, the author of Charlotte’s Web wrote one of the best essays about Walden ever written, in my opinion.  It’s called “A Slight Sound at Evening.”  Try it.

But it really wasn’t until the writers Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry and Rachel Carson wrote so compellingly and directly about the idea of responsibility in our encounters with the world that environmental writing was truly born.  Leopold, as McKibben points out, urged that we develop an ethic that “includes everything, even the land.”  These writers championed the idea that everything we do affects everything and everybody else, even if it’s at a hardly distinguishable level.  The earth is our home, with emphasis on “our,” not on “my.”

This sense of responsibility has produced a generation of writers who are expert diagnosticians.  Environmental writers will use science and facts—that is, proof—far more than lyrical feelings in their writing.  They come prepared.  They don’t tell you the earth is wounded or ill.  They show you the wounds, the illnesses.  So, they are, in fact, diagnosticians of the earth.  They have to know what they’re talking about, because almost every issue worth talking about is complex, sometimes mind-bogglingly so.

Of course, the idea that everything is linked is every day becoming more and more dramatically apparent.  We can now see all too clearly, for example, that the plastic bottle we drink from could kill a porpoise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  That the extracting of oil to make the gasoline we require for our cars might cause an earthquake.  Though, yes, I know some would disagree with this last claim.  Environmental writers show us how these things have come to be, and why.

So, environmental writing, as I said, is often a call to action.  And that call to action can produce results.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to the eventual banning of DDT.  McKibben’s own heroic, unstinting efforts in the form of articles and films were a major reason why the Keytstone Pipeline was not approved by President Obama. (Alas, that decision has been reversed.)  This is not to say that nature writing doesn’t “do” anything.  In fact, to be made aware of nature’s beauty, delicacy, strength, and variety is more than enough for one genre’s mission.

I want to talk a bit about a real American hero I mentioned earlier, Rachel Carson, and her book Silent Spring.  I doubt it’s read much these days or taught in schools.  As I said before, her book was revolutionary.  It was published in 1962, fifty-eight years ago, just seventeen years after the end of World War II and a mere three years after the gray decade of the 1950s.  It is hard to imagine what it was like back then, but I am going to try here and now to conjure that era.  It’s important to understand the cultural atmosphere at the time this book came into being.  I was seventeen years old when Silent Spring was published.  I’d grown up in southeastern Virginia.  It was very apparent that two crops—tobacco and peanuts—were not just important to Virginia, but almost religiously iconic.  The growing of tobacco and peanuts were noble enterprises.  DDT was often used to keep these crops pest-free.  The world I lived in was still under the sway of post-World War II optimism.  People had fought and defeated tyranny, and now they wanted peace and, most of all, prosperity.  The idea was implied, or even overtly declared, that America’s resources were inexhaustible.  There was no environmental movement.  The first Earth Day wouldn’t be until 1970, eight years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s book.

So here she comes, this marine biologist from Springdale, Pennsylvania, who in Silent Spring wrote about the dangers of the popular and widely-used pesticide, DDT.  When the book was published—and even before—chemical companies like Dow tried very hard to discredit Carson’s claims and her science.  I can actually remember my father—not a farmer himself but a proud Virginian and an Eisenhower-loving Republican—sneering at Carson’s book and at the author herself and offhandedly dismissing both.  He was not alone.  I was a self-involved teenager only concerned with having a good time, so I remember thinking, well, Carson must be a menace, because everyone says so.

Bill McKibben.

But Carson was right.  Her claim that, as an article published by Stanford University titled, “DDT and Birds” says, “DDT and its relatives alter a bird’s calcium metabolism in a way that results in thin eggshells. Instead of eggs, heavily DDT-infested Brown Pelicans and Bald Eagles tend to find omelets in their nests, since the eggshells are unable to support the weight of the incubating bird”—was true.  And eventually there came to be a ban on the use of DDT—just one of the pesticides Rachel Carson called out.  She died just two years after the publication of Silent Spring, in 1964, at the age of fifty-six.  I would say that she, as much as any individual, is responsible for the birth of American environmental writing as distinct from nature writing.  Her writing is both learned and lyrical.  No scientific article, written in inaccessible scientific jargon, and with the same information and claims, would have had, I would say, the impact Carson’s book had.  It took the combination of knowledge and grace to move the American public. Those who are concerned with the fate of the earth owe Rachel Carson a huge debt for her courage and her persistence and for Silent Spring.

I think environmental writing itself might be divided into two big categories.  In one category, I would put the call-to-arms writers, those who, like the fine Louisiana writer, Bob Marshall and Vermonter Bill McKibben, tell us cogently and authoritatively about an imminent ecological problem that must be given attention—immediate attention.  Both McKibben and Marshall publish articles of essays of this sort on a regular basis.

In the other large category, I would put the writers who give us, in great, fascinating detail, a picture of how something in nature works, whether it be a peregrine’s flight or the movement of tectonic plates.  I would put writers like Elizabeth Kolbert, and Nathaniel Rich—another brilliant local writer—in that category.  If you want to read a good example of writing in this latter category, read Nathaniel Rich’s remarkable New York Times piece, “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.”  I would also put writers like E.O. Wilson—though Wilson straddles both in his various books—Bernd Heinrich and Barry Lopez in the second category as well.  If you want a good example of writing from that second category, I would turn to Barry Lopez’s book, Arctic Dreams.  Check out his mesmerizing pages on the myriad kinds of ice in the Arctic and how each behaves, in a chapter of that book titled, “Ice and Light.”

I don’t think you can help but feel a sense of attachment, of awe and even pride, after reading those pages of Lopez’s.  And that can lead to a sense of responsibility.  You say to yourself, “I live in this amazing place.  I’m part of this astonishing world.  I should probably do something to protect it.” This is writing based on science, based on great erudition.  It’s not writing based on simple awe of ice, though that seems implied to me.

Now, to bring close to (my) home the why of environmental writing. There is no better illustration of that than in southeastern Louisiana where I live.  The environmental issues concerning land loss, for example, are layered and intricate, and cannot be understood and conveyed without a knowledge of science, history, business, culture and politics—to name a few of the influences.  That’s why great environmental writers who can distill all this very different kind of information and write about it lucidly and authoritatively are few.  One such writer is the aforementioned Pulitzer Prize-winner Bob Marshall, who lives in New Orleans, and who writes about pressing environmental issues here in southeast Louisiana in a way that the ordinary reader can easily access but who in no way sacrifices the solid science and research on which he bases these insights.  I refer you to his online piece for The Lens and Propublica called “Losing Ground.”  Marshall writes, “Scientists now say one of the greatest environmental and economic disasters in the nation’s history is rushing toward a catastrophic conclusion over the next 50 years, so far unabated and largely unnoticed.  At the current rates that the sea is rising and land is sinking, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists say by 2100 the Gulf of Mexico could rise as much as 4.3 feet across this landscape, which has an average elevation of about 3 feet. If that happens, everything outside the protective levees — most of Southeast Louisiana — would be underwater.”

Time is at our back now, and we need to be educated in a compelling and deep way about what is occurring to the world that we live in.  The seas are rising.  The storms are getting more ferocious.  The ice caps are melting.  This we are experiencing.  This we can see.  McKibben makes the point that environmental writing now has to become a larger sphere.  He writes that “If it isn’t as much about economics, sociology, and pop culture as it is about trees, mountains and animals, it won’t in the end matter.”  In other words, as he says about his anthology, “the insights expressed by the writers in this book will need to become mainstream, no longer a dissident creed.”