As a political and social reform movement, environmentalism has stalled. Since the 1970s, environmental regulations, policies, and ideas have addressed some sources of ecological degradation and loss, but, argues Thomas R. Dunlap, environmentalism has yet to transform American society. To foster deeper change, says Dunlap, a distinguished historian of science, the movement needs to rethink its premises. American environmentalists are so committed to science as "the only acceptable source of understanding" that they have lost sight of the movement's roots in emotional, spiritual, and moral connections to nature.
Dunlap, a devout Catholic, suggests that environmentalists jettison their discomfort with religious belief and religious questioning and acknowledge their environmentalism for what it truly is -- a faith, a passion, a religious perspective, a way to ask big questions about the human relationship to the universe. Environmentalists love and worship nature, and seek meanings within it beyond those that science can provide. If they would only acknowledge this, the movement might harness its true power through a fusion of science and spirit, reason and reverence.
Dunlap points out that environmentalism has deep roots in American Protestantism, replete with ideas of a fallen paradise, sin, conversion, self-abnegation, and salvation. Its long tradition of jeremiads predicts doom and calls sinners to repent and reform. It exalts solitary pilgrimage to sacred space, the wilderness. Environmentalism has, as well, a pantheon of prophets and saints: Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, Carson, Snyder, Berry, and above all Aldo Leopold. It has a core set of beliefs, articulated most powerfully in Leopold's land ethic. It demands humility and the discipline of daily practice through recycling, gardening, energy conservation, green consumption, and proper wilderness travel. And it has a righteous passion, evident in the writings of its prophets and the fervent activism of committed believers.
This environmentalism grew from two distinct traditions that often stand opposed to each other: a Romantic embrace of nature, and an Enlightenment-based belief in rational, objective knowledge of natural systems. American nature writers and environmental thinkers have negotiated the tension between the two traditions for more than a century, and much of this book is a concise review of those writers' attempts to synthesize reason and faith, science and feeling. Their works are a major source of the environmental movement's strength. However, Dunlap argues that this fruitful and ongoing struggle for synthesis is weakened by modern environmentalism's overreliance on objective knowledge of nature. Statistics and case studies are all well and good, but environmentalists must cast off "the armor of 'reason' and 'data' " and engage their opponents, and Americans in general, on a more fundamental level.
Dunlap thus asserts that environmentalism as religious quest might stand a better chance in the broader battle against that other secular religion: the American faith in individualism, free markets, the conquest of nature, and the endless material progress of a chosen people. A debate between two sets of true believers -- environmentalists versus free-market nature-conquerors -- would at least be a fair fight, both sides stripped of any claim to a single objective, scientific truth. It would push environmentalists to confront the historical roots of their own beliefs, to create new alliances with conventional religions, and to learn from the long history of debate between science and religion. Perhaps then, Dunlap suggests, environmentalism could settle in for the long haul.
-- Kathryn Morse