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Throwing Away Typical Environmentalist Assumptions

Sara Lazarovska's picture

            If you are a young urban denizen pursuing higher education that lives in the city and is up-to-date with the environmental news of this century, you have been fed information by a number of ecological writers, given “environmentally conscious” advice to get yourself out of your home and “experience nature.”

            One such example is Timothy Egan’s article for The New York Times, “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” which mourns how little time Americans spend outside, which affects their health. He cites some studies about how “exposure to the randomness of nature may actually boost the immune system” (para. 10), but what he does not mention is that the studies were done on babies, whose immune system differs from ours. Egan then continues to highlight a plethora of different examples that include human-nature interaction, but falls short in connecting them to his argument, which is difficult to ascertain since he begins his article with a seemingly fictive narrative and ends with citing Emily Dickinson in relation to Michelle Obama’s garden planting initiative, getting tangled up in “scientific data” in the middle with over-eagerness to convince his readers that Americans nowadays suffer from “nature deficit disorder” (para. 6), a term he borrows from Richard Louv. Not only is Egan’s argument obnoxiously vague, it also does not take into consideration the effects of having more people “in nature” on the natural environment.

            American ecologist Aldo Leopold writes in his essay “The Land Ethic” that “[w]e can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Furthermore, he considers that in order to have “land ethic” we must a personal relationship with nature. If one takes that into account, then the assumption that environmental sustainability (and whatever that entails) is dependent on environmentalists spending time in nature (and actually enjoying it), which in turn will prompt their involvement with environmental causes, will arise. However, one does not need to be “at one with nature” or even surrounded by it in order to “understand” nature, as Leopold puts it, or to support and be a part of the environmental movement; similarly, “enlightenment in nature” is not needed to produce ecological writing of note, a crucial source of education about present environmental issues for the urban citizen.

            In the past fifty years, a new, urban wave of environmentalism has emerged and caught the attention of millions of people worldwide. As the name of the movement so aptly suggests, it supports and promotes environmental sustainability in urban settings, making it accessible and convenient—so attractive it almost seems easy. But only almost. Urban environmentalists still are passionate about the natural environment and preserving it, and have been successful in spreading the movement. Therefore, there must be a benefit to addressing environmental concerns in the city, since urban environmentalism seems to be working so far.

            On the other hand, living in the information age where science and knowledge of every kind are highly appreciated, you are probably wondering about the credibility of the eco-writing sources, since bias has been  a cause to call the objectivity of the author into question. It is widely known that viewing a situation objectively will help you assess its pros and cons with a clear head and make a decision wisely. This largely abstract theory has a very specific use in natural sciences—objectiveness aids scientists in making unbiased discoveries about the natural world with us humans as a part of it. By eliminating bias (or keeping it to the minimum), one can reach conclusions based on fact, not opinion, and therefore make well thought-out decisions. As humans, we form opinions unconsciously and by instinct. However, opinions sometimes cloud our judgment and keep us from seeing the truth. That is there is a difference in science between a hypothesis and a law: a hypothesis is someone’s assumption or idea about how things in nature are (which is sometimes true), whereas a law is a hypothesis that has been proven time and time again to be true in the natural world. What’s more, if science discovers new evidence that might change the outcome of an experiment and therefore modify or disprove a previous law, it is of course taken into consideration by adjusting the original hypothesis and redoing the experiment. The same applies to you—you need to view the natural environment with the right balance, of your own measure, of attachment and detachment to it, with just the right amount of care that is still based on reality, not overly hopeful optimism.

            While Timothy Morton, an English professor at Rice University, agrees on the point of the importance of objectivity, he also argues, in his book Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, that not taking solely nature’s point-of-view in ecological writing does not necessarily indicate selfishness or even anthropocentrism. His argument is based mainly on  the great variety of ideas of “what precisely counts as human, what counts as nature” (7). Instead, he “choose[s] to lodge [his] criticism in the fissures between such categories” (7), something you should consider should you wish to employ appropriate critical thought about “nature” and “conservation,” especially regarding ecological writing.

            Another ecological writer, Terry Tempest Williams, has a completely different idea than Morton on the matter. Her book An Unspoken Hunger, albeit demonstrating excellent writing, is still quite biased—in it she sees nature the way she wants to see it, not the bioecological reality of nature. One very specific example is her relationship with the Bronx River Wetlands: even though the “nature” in them is mostly gone due to infrastructure, she still sees it as present and has a connection to it by associating previous memories of the place with its current appearance. Hence, Williams highlights the fact that sometimes attachment and connectedness to nature is not beneficial for just judgment of the reality of the situation.

            Of course, I myself speak with bias, which can readily be discerned from my writing, but that is because I have been overwhelmed with ecological writing that has advised me to “get outside.” That is something that goes against my own instinct and makes me feel uncomfortable. After trying to change myself to be more “outdoorsy,” I realized that it was not necessary—it did not make me care more about the environment or be more involved in the environmental movement. Also, even though I am biased on the topic whether or not placing oneself in nature is necessary for raising environmental consciousness, I try to view nature as objectively as I humanly can, which differs at times.

            Therefore, do not let yourself be convinced that you have to have “hands-on” participation in nature-related events in order to be a part of the environmental movement—supporting it and spreading the word is just as important. After all, today’s most successful campaigns owe a lot of their success to social media and word-of-mouth, which you, with your knowledge of the city and the workings of its current urban culture and society, are largely responsible for. So forget those campaigns that tell you what you need to do or who you need to be in order to “help the environment”—you already have all the tools you need just by being true to yourself. If you do not want to be “in nature” and think spending time in/with nature will not be beneficial for you or nature (i.e. your interest and care in the natural environment will not increase), then you are not obliged to do so.


Works Cited


Egan, Timothy. “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 29 March 2012. Web. 7 December 2012. <>.

Leopold, Aldo. “The Land Ethic.” A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.

Williams, Terry Tempest. An Unspoken Hunger. 1st ed.. New York: Random House Inc., 1995. Print.




wanhong's picture


I strongly agree with you ! I also think that it is crucial for us to support nature&environment--but not necessarily in SOME ways. It is possible that every one has a unique way to perceive nature or participate environmental movement.

ZoeHlmn's picture


Yay I like how you integrated more concrete examples of authors to support your claim! I definately think it strengthened your arguement! If there was a like button I would be clicking it multiple times.