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For two years beginning in 1845, Henry Thoreau lived in the Walden woods where he wrote the book that established him as one of America’s first environmentalists. Though coming from a time when conservation of the environment was far to the back of most people’s minds, Thoreau was ahead of his time in his respect and admiration of nature. Nearly two hundred years later, environmentalism is an ever present issue in today’s society, as we have apparently not heeded Thoreau’s warning. This essay will examine how Thoreau would react to the environmental problems in modern times.
Environmentalism was not a major concern of most people in the beginning of the 19th century. The 1800s were a time of expansion across the country, powered by America’s newly adopted idea of Manifest Destiny, despite it being detrimental to the environment. While some worked toward environmental protection, such as Benjamin Franklin’s fight to stop waste dumping in 1739, it wasn’t until 1863 when the first environmental laws, the British Alkali Acts, were passed. (Feel Friendly) Modern environmentalism didn’t start taking shape for another century around the time that the United States established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and the term “Global Warming” was coined. During Thoreau’s time, the majority of the population gave no thought to preservation of nature.
Through his work in Walden, it is evident that Thoreau cared deeply about nature. In the section titled “Spring”, he states that “we need the tonic of wildness,” describing it as “indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.” However optimistic about nature, Thoreau recognizes the strain that humans are putting on nature, that creatures are being “serenely squashed out of existence like pulp,” and urges that we make account of the “[rain] of flesh and blood,” (Thoreau, Walden). Thoreau was ahead of his time with regards to environmentalism, and left a resounding impact on the future of conservation.
Thoreau’s work paved the road for contemporary environmentalism. His writings and ideas about nature influenced countless environmentalists, and he is widely considered the “father of this century’s environmental movement,” (Bowdoin). Richard B. Primack’s book, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods examines climate change by tracking the changes occurring in Walden woods. Primack compels his audience to reduce our impact on the environment by “living simply and wisely” as Thoreau himself described (Primack). By studying his impact on modern environmentalism, it is clear that Thoreau was not only one of the first environmentalists, but an icon with a conclusive influence on climate change as we see it today.
If Thoreau were alive today, how would he play into environmentalism? With increased industrialism and deforestation, the state of wildness has changed greatly since Thoreau’s time. When Thoreau died in the 1860s, cumulative deforestation levels were at 0.8 billion hectacres (1 hectare = 100 acres) worldwide, and as of 2010, the numbers have risen to 1.8 billion hectares worldwide (Williams). The ozone layer has depleted significantly since the 1980s, and most records of ozone depletion do not date back to the 1800s, suggesting that Thoreau wouldn’t even know that the ozone was an issue. Were Thoreau to see our globe’s current state, it is plausible to think that he would be appalled, and perhaps he would even feel as though his works failed to alert the masses, as most people did not heed his warning. Nevertheless, this would likely not stop him from continuing to combat climate change.
In modern times, Thoreau would be a strong voice for environmental advocates. I envision him giving speeches and making use of social media to continue spreading his ideas through writing. His beliefs stated in Civil Disobedience may even lead him to advocate tree sitting, the act of sitting on, and in some cases chaining oneself to trees to them from being cut down, as “tree huggers” have been known to do. Some people argue that in nature it is not meant for all animals to thrive, as natural selection dictates for some animals to die out, and therefore extinction of certain species isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Thoreau may concede that it is natural for some animals to be “sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another,” but now humans are the ones who need to make a sacrifice and revert to simple living so as to preserve the environment. After all, nature has been left to “the mercy of man.”
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