Illustration by Yuta Onoda
The biggest environmental victory of the past 20 years is one most of us don’t see. It is hidden, dispersed in smaller, seemingly unrelated events that have occurred in different parts of our culture, often in places that are not the normal terrain of environmentalism. Only the parent of a 10-year-old might notice that children’s films no longer portray the killing of a beloved pet as a necessary step toward adult maturity, as with Old Yeller (1957), but instead feature heroes who choose to remain forever in the animal kingdom, like Brother Bear (2003). There’s no obvious relation between the story of a Vermont woman who coped with the grief of her husband’s death by spending the next 15 years building nests for osprey, and that of a Missouri spelunker who used his life savings to buy land containing a cave with a rare, endangered snail population. “I felt responsible for them,” he told a reporter. “This was their home and I owned it. It was my job to take care of them.” Similarly, few know that in West Los Angeles, a rag-tag coalition fought for a decade to save the scruffy, trashed out Ballona wetlands – the last large open space on the basin floor – from being developed, or paid attention to the curious reports of a respected marine biologist who told The New York Times that tropical grouper need to be saved from overfishing, because “they are as individual as dogs…. And quite intelligent.”
The sum of these stories – and there are literally hundreds more like them – points to a vast, important cultural change. In recent years, relatively nonpolitical, unorganized publics have radically reformed their relationships with nature. Ordinary Americans have rejected modernity’s reduction of animals, plants, places, and natural forces like winds and ocean waves to utilitarian resources – what sociologist Max Weber once called the “disenchantment of the world.” Instead, wild animals and landscapes, even degraded ones, are becoming re-enchanted. A spreading “culture of enchantment” that restores a sense of close kinship with animals and portrays places as connected to a larger cosmos is making nature sacred once again.
This movement is both a resurrection and a radical expansion of several that came before. In the mid-19th century, a literary subculture arose in New England to protest the rampant killing of wild animals and ecological devastation accompanying westward expansion. Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau challenged both the Protestant concept of a God who was indifferent or even hostile to nature’s creatures and the nation’s dominant frontier-capitalist mentality. For Emerson, nature offered continual revelations of a divine power. For Thoreau, animals and places had value in their own right, each with its own spirit or mystery. “Can he who has discovered the true use of the whale and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale?” he asks in an 1864 essay.
By the 1890s, the political and spiritual heirs to Emerson and Thoreau began to exert real pressure on national politics. John Muir and the newly formed Sierra Club successfully lobbied to make Yosemite a national park and expand its boundaries to nearly 1,200 square miles. Muir also became a highly influential writer, popularizing a kind of “hybrid” discourse that alternated lyrical descriptions of a landscape with scientific references to geology and ecology. This break with accepted conventions separating science and poetry buttressed the idea that nature was neither inert nor dead, but on the contrary alive and awe-inspiring – in a word, enchanted. Generations of nature-writers and landscape photographers (among them Aldo Leopold, Ansel Adams, and Rachel Carson) followed his lead.
After the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, a new generation discovered environmental activism. Native American spiritualism, with its emphasis on sacred places and symbolic or totemic relationships with wild animals, exerted another influence. But despite some significant victories, the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s remained a fringe, dissident formation.
The current movement of re-enchantment is not marginal at all. Today, enchantment takes place on a grand scale, and so many people are involved that it can no longer be dismissed as strange or extreme. Why then, hasn’t the change gotten more attention? In part, because it occurs in such diverse, fragmented ways. Political psychology comprises a second major kind of mental block. Much of the environmental movement remains shell-shocked by the ravages caused by the Bush administration, with its nonstop efforts from 2001 to 2008 to gut the nation’s anti-pollution laws, approve wholesale mountaintop removal in Appalachia, and open up the nation’s public lands in the Rocky Mountains for oil and gas drilling. The Obama administration’s modest environmental agenda, and its failure to rescind many Bush administrative rulings, have helped to sustain a sense of despair. And despair limits awareness.
The truth is, however, that major cultural progress has been made. Consider science and theology, two complex, sophisticated fields. Western science emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries with a call to make nature subordinate to man: “Nature must be ‘bound into service’ and made a ‘slave,’ ‘put in constraint,’ and ‘molded’ by the mechanical arts,” declared Francis Bacon. This paradigm informed science for centuries. By the 1990s, however, increasing numbers of scientists imagined the land and its creatures as equals to themselves in important ways, in the process calling for a new way to frame scientific research. In a typical story, for three years a team of Long Island researchers studying terrapin reproduction made counts of turtle hatchlings on regional beaches and noted how they died – boat propellers, beach sweepers, cars. By 2003, they had come to care so much for the creatures they could no longer remain detached. First the researchers, and later a whole corps of auxiliary helpers, began to move the turtle eggs, sometimes to better locations on the beach, other times to incubators in a laboratory. One leading team member explained: “I started as a scientist. Then I evolved.” Leading biologists came to stress humanity’s common kinship with other species. In E.O. Wilson’s words, “we are literally kin to other creatures,” implying humans have moral obligations to their extended family members.
During this same period, major religions shifted the way they saw God’s relation to the natural world. In 1967, historian Lynn White published “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in the journal Science. White argued that monotheism developed a notion of God far removed from the world and discredited the animistic idea, long present in hunting and gathering societies, that every animal and place (like a mountain or river) was in some way spiritually alive. When Christianity rejected and repressed animism as demonic heresy, White argued, it “made it possible to exploit nature in a mode of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” White’s short essay provoked an intense, decades-long controversy within the Jewish and Christian communities. Religious scholars and theologians began to research their traditions. They found doctrines that supported White’s thesis, such as the notion that salvation is a personal fate, and takes place in a heaven distant from Earth, but also stories in Jewish and Christian literature that showed God more involved with the planet and its life. Ultimately, liberal theologians developed a doctrine stressing Earth as God’s sacred creation, and by the early 1990s it had won many adherents – including Al Gore. His 1992 book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, discusses the divinity of Earth at great length, and endorses a variety of spiritual traditions, such as Native American thought, under an ecumenical Christian umbrella.
This greening of religion terrified both the business establishment and conservative fundamentalist leaders, and soon sparked a sort of counterrevolution. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal decried beliefs that “the earth is sanctified,” noting with disdain that the idea originated with the Religious Left and was the product of “a secular, or even pagan, fanaticism that now worships such gods as nature and gender with a reverence formerly accorded real religions.” Pat Robertson agreed. “At the very minimum, in treating parts of the Earth as sacred, environmentalists committed the sin of idolatry, violating several important Biblical [sic] injunctions,” he wrote. Robertson also reported that God personally told him to stress man’s authority over the Earth – “He wants him to rule the way he was created to rule…. God gave man a sweeping and total mandate of dominion over this planet and everything in it.” Robertson and his conservative evangelical allies subsequently formed a close alliance with Republican politicians and backed the Bush campaign and presidency, mobilizing their considerable media resources to reach the roughly one-third of adult Americans – some 45 to 50 million people – who consider themselves to be “born again.”
But over time the Republican-Evangelical coalition frayed from internal disputes. Robertson discredited himself by calling for the assassination of Venezuelan president Victor Hugo so as to obtain oil, and declaring 2005’s Hurricane Katrina divine retribution for legalized abortion. A new theology among moderate and some conservative evangelicals called “creation care” emphasized that oceans and forests, fish and tigers, all reflected divine glory. No longer were the harsh concepts of dominion and apocalyptic visions of Earth’s destruction the only evangelical vision. In 2006, some 86 leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals – the most important evangelical organization – formed a new group, the Evangelical Climate Initiative, and issued a call to action for evangelicals to become more engaged in environmental protection. The accompanying report agreed with the scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is a threat, rejecting the Bush administration’s denials. Theologically, the evangelical leaders declared, “This is God’s world, and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself.”
By that time Reform Judaism, most Protestant denominations, and both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches had also embraced a version of sacred Earth and this theology permeated secular culture. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, also released in 2006, begins with photographs of Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts from 1968-1972, beautiful images of a sparkling blue and white planet – Eden – then tells a spiritual drama of how God’s sacred creation has been damaged by human recklessness or sin (paradise lost), and how good works can bring about renewal and salvation: paradise regained.
Similar ideas can be found throughout the culture. Repeatedly, ordinary men and women have made ritual quests or pilgrimages in an effort to establish a new relationship with a place, a tree, or an animal.
In the swamplands of Arkansas and Louisiana, teams of ornithologists searched for a bird thought extinct and not seen for 50 years, the ivory-billed woodpecker, known as the Lord God bird because it was so beautiful people would exclaim “Lord God!” when they saw it. Three years of hunts ended in failure, but in 2005 a team announced that they had a videotape of an ivory-billed woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp. By that time, the Nature Conservancy and government agencies had bought thousands of acres near the location of the original sighting to increase the bird’s chances for reproduction. Although to this date it’s not certain if the Lord God bird survives, the quest to find it – trying to bring back life from death’s grasp – brought renewed public attention to the South’s few remaining old growth forests and swamps.
Every spring, hundreds of eco-tourists journey to Baja California’s San Ignacio lagoon to encounter its gray whales; eye-to-eye contact occurs frequently, and sometimes the whales want to be touched. People report being transformed by the experience. In all of these stories about individuals and small groups looking for “contact” with nature, people’s personal boundaries either gradually or suddenly shift and open up, and they become connected to other species and places. After such experiences they then become even more committed to preserving the tree, the swamp, the woodpecker or whale.
Whereas once the death of a bear, elk, or mountain lion would have either been ignored or celebrated, now such deaths are occasions for public mourning.
Popular culture also offers people access to a utopian vision of human and animal community and spiritually charged places. When the heroes of Free Willy (1993) and The Whale Rider (2002) save their whales, uplifting music and dramatic special effects of whales bursting free from jail-like enclosed bays or beaches make it clear that something sacred has occurred. Later, when the whales are gone, the heroes and their families feel intimately connected with them – and closer to each other. A human-animal family tie or totem is confirmed. Similarly, filmmaker Ken Burns recently told an interviewer that by standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon “you feel instantly your insignificance in the face of the eons of time exhibited before you. But that has a strange way of making you feel bigger, connected to everything, a part of everything else.” Burns captured experiences like this in his PBS series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea”; through his lens the parks and their wildlife became re-enchanted.
Even ordinary newspapers create kinds of enchantment. Whenever whales become stranded and die, it’s news. When a bear, elk, or mountain lion strolls into town and is killed for just being there, it’s news. Often the articles tacitly make an accusation, blaming humans for their deaths – ship sonar drove the whales mad; the mountain lion asleep in a suburban backyard tree wasn’t doing anything threatening. Obituaries for wild animals stress both their innocence and the failure of humans to return them to their home lands or waters. Whereas once such deaths would have either been ignored or celebrated, now they’re occasions for public mourning.
Environmentalists must acknowledge the change created by the culture of enchantment. If we don’t, we risk being co-opted. Already corporations are selling destructive “green” energy plans, such as stimulus funded massive solar facilities in western deserts that will drain groundwater supplies needed to sustain regional life – including endangered species like desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. Public utility commissions propose wind turbine farms in areas without thinking of how much land will be destroyed or of their potential impacts on raptors. Sacrificing wild lands and creatures in the name of “saving” the planet is a contemporary equivalent of the U.S. bombing and shelling in Vietnam – “We had to destroy the town to save it.” Some “green” magazines and Web sites portray rampant consumerism as virtuous. The introduction to E Magazine’s “Tools for Green Living” advises readers to “Go solar with your phone charger; march to the beat of recyclable boots; put your money where your toothbrush is; take your lunch in a sustainable tote; show your commitment in a new message tee; and give the all-natural cleaning power of essential oils a try.” And occasionally, some environmental writers and activists make a deliberate point of rejecting bonds with animals as passé, irrelevant, even silly. The Grist.org reviewer of The Cove documentary about Japanese dolphin capture and slaughter said the film “ultimately commits one of the greatest enviro-activist sins: It is, in essence, just another save-the cute-animals plea…. And when the film ended, in my most cynical heart of hearts, I still had not been convinced of why this atrocity should matter to me personally.”
Of course, to many other people, the atrocity does matter, and in a quite visceral way. People are responding to the idea of enchantment because it offers them something they need and cannot find elsewhere in consumerist America: transcendence, a sense of mystery and meaning, glimpses of a numinous world beyond our own. The cultural re-enchantment of nature has altered the fundamental meaning the West gives the natural world, and it’s impossible to overstate the significance of this change. Cultural shifts on this scale don’t occur often, but when they do, profound political change often follows – think of the spread of abolitionism in the 19th century, or the decline of Communism’s legitimacy a century later.
By acknowledging the success of enchantment, we gain confidence that more people can be won over and give ourselves courage to dream even more: of large-scale restoration of wilderness and degraded open spaces, of radically reduced carbon emissions, of laws that give ocean life the chance to recover. Sustaining this vision will help us cope with the inevitable setbacks and disappointments that political movements face. It will strengthen our will to push harder to create the world we really want, a world full of wonder. n
James William Gibson is the author of A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature (Metropolitan Books), from which this essay is adapted.
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