Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You do not need to consider worst-case scenarios to become alarmed.

In normal times, the apocalypse bored me. Any discussion of catastrophic events put me in a mood of defensive skepticism. This was true whether I was considering an asteroid, a supervolcano, or rampant artificial intelligence—events that are so far out of my control that I would immediately dismiss them from my mind. However, the current coronavirus situation prompted me to read a book by epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, which includes a detailed prediction of what the next pandemic could look like. The experience of reading a scientist predicting, with considerable accuracy, what I was living through was profoundly eerie. And as a result, I was prepared to take a book about how climate change will play out a little more seriously

The picture is not rosy. Much like a pandemic, climate change it not localized, but strikes everywhere at once. If a bad hurricane hits one city, we can rush resources to the area. But if we are battered by massive hurricanes, destructive floods, severe droughts, raging wildfires, and deadly heatwaves, in many different parts of a country, over and over again, then we cannot effectively respond. To put it mildly, dealing with ever-escalating natural disasters will take an increasingly severe economic toll—measuring in the hundreds of trillions, by Wallace-Wells’s calculation—and will also put huge pressure on political systems, thus further reducing our ability to respond.

Wallace-Wells paints this coming future in such vividly chilling detail that even the most stoic reader will have an elevated pulse. Indeed, in this future world, the term “natural disaster” will start to lose its meaning, since disasters will be so common as to become simply become “weather,” and they will be, in part, caused by human activity. Millions may be displaced because of rising sea levels, at a time when we face food and freshwater shortages from drought and desertification. This is not a world that any of us would freely choose.

The tone lightens somewhat—from pitch-black to ashen gray—in the third section, where Wallace-Wells shifts from painting the looming threat to making some predictions about how our culture might respond. His conclusion, in a nutshell, is that the scope of the threat is so all-encompassing that we cannot psychologically come to terms with it. For example, many Americans are tempted to blame climate change on Republicans; but this obscures the fact that the Republican party is the only major climate-change denying party in the world, and the United States does not produce the majority of the world’s carbon emissions—not by a long shot.

Other common reactions to the crisis come in for criticism as well. One is to focus on individual behavior, trying to reduce consumption and to purchase the most eco-friendly items possible. But individual choices do not, Wallace-Wells thinks, have the potential to make more than the tiniest difference. For example, though there is much scolding of people, say, watering their lawns during a drought, personal water consumption is only a small fraction of the society’s total. Only large-scale changes in infrastructure can make the difference, and that must come from political pressure.

In both of these above cases, the common thread is the inability of our normal moral circuitry to deal with the problem. We want to tell a story with heroes and villains who are directly responsible through their personal choices for the crisis we are facing. But the reality, as Wallace-Wells says, is that culpability is widely-dispersed and our responsibility is collective, not individual. This goes sharply against the grain of our psychology, which I think partly accounts for our inaction.

One more common reaction is to think that technology will save us. There is, of course, very little evidence for this, and what it amounts to is using a blind faith in timely innovation to justify inaction. At the moment, carbon-capture technology is so inefficient that we would need hundreds of acres of such plants to make a difference. One other option is to start pumping ammonia into the air, in order to make the atmosphere more reflective of sunlight. But of course this would have quite awful effects on the environment and human health. And as Wallace-Wells points out, we have reached quite an odd stage in history when these ideas strike people as more practicable than reducing consumption of fossil fuels—as if the market were a more unbending force than the climate itself.

Advocates have a variety of emotions to choose from if they wish to motivate people—hope, outrage, and fear being the most common. Wallace-Wells leans heavily on fear, which arguably puts this book in the same tradition as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But is fear the right choice? Certainly Carson was effective; and since Uninhabitable Earth was a #1 best-seller, it seems that Wallace-Wells achieved his goal. However, the challenge of getting rid of pesticides pales to nothingness in comparison with the challenge of reconfiguring our economies, infrastructures, and ways of life. Can fear propel us through this great transition? Personally, I found the tone of the book so bleak that I was exhausted even before reaching the end. But I suppose everyone will react their own way.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic make us more inclined to trust the warnings of scientists? I hope so, though perhaps that is asking too much. And as we collectively recover from the economic downturn, will we use the opportunity to pass something like the Green New Deal? I hope so, too, though I very much doubt it. Indeed, for me, one of the biggest lessons of this pandemic has been that we need not resort to selfish evil as an explanation for climate inaction. Virtually nobody had anything to gain from the pandemic, and it came anyway, catching every Western nation with its proverbial pants down—despite repeated warnings from epidemiologists. Human stupidity, then, is a sufficient explanation for our climate inaction. And, unfortunately, that will be around until the earth truly is uninhabitable.

[I did not scrupulously check for errors, but I still caught two. Well-Wallace says that “1 in 6” people die from air pollution, but the true figure is about 6-7%—still a lot, but much less than 1 in 6. Later on, Wallace-Wells says: “H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, which depicted a distant future in which most humans were enslaved troglodytes, laboring underground for the benefit of a pampered and very small aboveground elite…” But of course this is an incorrect description of the book: most humans are not enslaved, but prey; and they live above ground, while the predators live below. It seems odd to me that he would reference a book that he clearly did not read. I am sure there are more errors lurking about.]

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Review: Mosquito

Review: Mosquito

Mosquito: A Natural History of Our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe by Andrew Spielman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a thoroughly fascinating book about one of my least favorite things in the world. And I am one of the lucky ones. Even when those around me are getting eaten alive, I am normally spared the worst of the mosquito onslaught, for reasons that are largely elusive. Indeed, when I was an undergraduate studying in Kenya, one of my classmates did a small study on us, counting our bites and trying to see if they correlated with blood-type or other variables like perfume or shampoo. Since all of us had the same schedule, it seemed a promising study. But, alas, no insight was gained, though I was surprised to find that some of us had well over 60 bites, while I had less than 10.

Yet mosquitoes are more than annoyances; they are major vectors of disease, as I was reminded of daily when I took my malaria prophylactic. And after giving the reader some basic facts of mosquito biology, the book switches focus to disease control. There was much I did not know. For example, I had no idea that malaria was once present in New Jersey and New York, until aggressive government policies in the early 1900s eliminated the scourge. Similarly, I had no notion of the role that the Tennessee Valley Authority had in freeing America’s south from the malarial menace, largely by destroying mosquito nesting sites.

I also learned more about the story of Yellow Fever in the Americas. Though it may seem obvious to us nowadays that a disease can be transmitted by a mosquito bite, this was quite a controversial claim in the year 1900. It took careful work by a team of doctors in Cuba to prove that mosquitoes, not blood or bile, communicated the illness. This insight quickly led to the program of insect control that was instrumental in the building of the Panama Canal—a project that had proven impossible for the French, who labored under ignorance of the disease’s cause, and had to abandon the project as thousands of workers succumbed.

The authors of the book also have much to say on the subject of DDT. Having only read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I had only been exposed to the argument against this popular pesticide. But Spielman and D’Antonio make a good case that, when used responsibly, the potential benefits of DMT far outweighs its health risks. Unfortunately, the pesticide was used to such a huge extent during the anti-malaria wars of the 1950s that it has lost much of its efficacy via accumulated resistance in mosquito populations. Spielman (the book’s entomologist) believes that this effort was ill-conceived, since it aimed for the impossible goal of total vector elimination, and it only resulted in the blunting of DDT, our most powerful weapon (not to mention decreased resistance in the human population from temporary reduction in malaria rates).

Malaria remains a major problem in vast areas of the world. We do not have an effective vaccine, and the plasmodium which causes the disease can evolve in response to drug treatments in just the same way that mosquitoes can evolve in response to DDT. And while those in temperate climates may be inclined to view it as a distant concern, this may soon prove not to be the case, as global warning expands the range of malaria-carrying mosquitoes northward. For my part, I think we are due for another big anti-malaria push, this time using smarter methods. But like the mosquito itself, the malaria parasite is one of our oldest enemies, having evolved with us for millions of years; so it may not be easy.

The authors close with a modern example of a tropical disease making it to a temperate zone: the 1999 West Nile outbreak in the New York City region. Surprisingly, I can remember this, even though I was only eight years old at the time. My mother told me that I had to stay inside on a beautiful summer night because they were spraying for mosquitoes. Soon, the helicopter came roaring by, dusting the area with insecticide. My brother remembers the entire playground in his Kindergarten being covered in a tarp to avoid getting sprayed. Such efforts did not succeed to eliminate West Nile in the United States, and now it circulates in the local bird and mosquito populations, closely monitored.

If the current pandemic helps to spur us to more aggressive public health measures, then I think mosquito control should be close to the top of the agenda. As Spielman himself notes, the mosquito does not serve any crucial functions in ecosystems—not as pollinators or even as prey—and are the most significant animal vectors of disease on the planet. Indeed, the mosquito is so perfectly useless and so perfectly dreadful that you wonder how anyone can maintain their faith in an almighty and infinitely loving God when faced with such a horrid product of blind evolution. They really are awful little things. And though we can never hope to eliminate them entirely, there is hope that we can break the chain of disease transmission long enough to at least make their bites mere itchy annoyances rather than a harbinger of doom.

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Review: The Mountains of California

Review: The Mountains of California

The Mountains of CaliforniaThe Mountains of California by John Muir

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Few places in this world are more dangerous than home.

It is difficult to spend any time in northern California without coming across the name of John Muir. He is the patron saint of the state’s wild beauty. The John Muir Trail, passing through Yosemite Valley and the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, and Muir Woods, home of the majestic redwoods, are just two of the most prominent monuments to his life’s work.

I picked up a copy of this book on a recent trip to North Cali, while visiting the Donner Museum—near Donner Lake, up in the Sierra Nevada—which commemorates not only the unfortunate party of lost pilgrims, but some of the other epochal events of the region, such as the goldrush, the building of the North Pacific Railroad, and construction of the major highways. Not many years after the Donner Party lost themselves in the Snowy Range, this infrastructure tied the previously isolated region to the rest of the country.

Perhaps it would have seemed grimly ironic to the Donner survivors that, a generation later, people would be fighting to keep this dangerous place pristine, resisting the encroachment of civilization. Yet in hindsight we can only regard this effort as prescient. That there is any nature left at all is largely thanks to Muir and his ilk, who not only directly intervened to preserve wilderness, but through his writings helped to evoke a groundswell of appreciation for natural beauty.

This book is a piece of propaganda on behalf of wilderness. Though Muir was highly knowledgeable in botany, geology, and in the study of glaciers, the information he presents is strictly secondary to his fundamental purpose: to evoke the beauty of the place. Few people in history, if any, had such a sensitivity to nature. Squirrels sent him into ecstasies, bird calls lifted him into mystic regions of delight, and mountain scenery brought him close to death with pleasure. Indeed, one quickly gets the impression that he could be equally happy in the rainforests of South America, the deserts of Arabia, or the bogs of Scotland. This, ironically, makes the book rather monotonous. Since the bees and birds, the flowers and ferns, the pine trees, fir trees, cedars, sequoias, and all the rest are equally majestic, noble, exquisite, etc.—in every season and all times of day—the descriptions become difficult to attend to. The emotional tone is endlessly euphoric.

Muir’s writing comes most alive when he switches from descriptions of nature to first-person accounts of his explorations. For he was not a note-taking Darwin or a rhapsodizing Wordsworth with a walking stick, but a serious adrenaline junkie. He describes, for example, climbing to the top of a 100-foot tall tree during a heavy storm, and clinging to the end while it got whipped about in the wind, and assures us that “never before did I enjoy so noble an exhileration of motion.” He goes on to describe the experience:

The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed… I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past. … from the chafing of resiny branches against each other, and the incessant attrition myriads of needles, the gale was spiced to a very tonic degree.

Passages like this are entirely typical. Never is there even a hint of discomfort or fear. Everything he does is unselfconsciously joyful. Muir gives us a (perhaps unwitting) self-portrait in his description of the Water Ouzel: “he never calls forth a single touch of pity; not because he is strong to endure, but rather because he seems to live a charmed life beyond the reach of every influence that makes endurance necessary.” The rest of the descriptions applies equally well: “For both in winter and in summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent.”

So must Muir sing his cheerful tune, whether hanging from cliffs, being buffeted in snowstorms, or crawling through thick brush on all fours. It is hard not to envy a man so seemingly impervious to all negative feeling, sensation, or thought. One suspects that Muir is not giving us the whole picture; but he could not have lived such a life if it did not fulfill him. And, as Bill McKibben states in the introduction, in many ways Muir falls comfortably within an American cultural tradition, running from the exhuberance to Whitman, the nature-worship of Thoreau, and the transcendental enthusiasm of Emerson, on through Muir to the drug-fueled ravings of the Beats and beyond. Muir is a shining exemplar of the outdoorsy woodsman, actuated by individual grit and positive thinking, that is so dear to the national myth. And, in truth, he did a lot of good.

All this being said in his praise, I still must give this book a middling rating. Muir is a prime example of a writer who excels on the level of sentences—writing lyrical, poetic descriptions of all he sees—but who falls short on the level of the whole book. The enthusiastic tone and passionate descriptions drift off into homogenous yelps of beauty. And, while evocative and impressionistic, Muir fails to give a fleshed-out, coherent picture of the mountain wilderness. Still, in his best moments Muir is unforgettable; and I confess that he did inspire in me some faint longings to go out hiking myself—though I would prefer a well-marked trail.

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Review: Silent Spring

Review: Silent Spring

Silent SpringSilent Spring by Rachel Carson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Advocacy is tricky. When you’re trying to motivate people to take action, you need to decide whether to appeal to the head, to the heart, to some combination of the two, or perhaps to some more delicate faculty. Upton Sinclair miscalculated when he wrote The Jungle, aiming for the heart but instead hitting the stomach; and as a result, the book was interpreted as an exposé of the meat industry rather than a plea for the working poor. Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, eschews appeals to expediency, and instead focuses on the spiritual joys of wild nature; but his book didn’t result in any legislation. Rachel Carson seems to have found the right formula: an urgent and multifaceted appeal to self-interest.

Silent Spring is often grouped along with Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which came out just the year before, in 1961. The comparison is apt, for both books were written by academic outsiders, by women working independently in male-dominated fields, and both books created a sensation. In subject matter, too, the books are surprisingly close. Jacobs describes how top-down city planning, which doesn’t take into account the needs of city-dwellers or the complex economies of cities, only causes ruination. Carson describes how indiscriminate use of pesticides destroys ecosystems and fails even to permanently kill the pests. Both books, in other words, criticize a practice taken for granted, a practice that attempted to mold the world using brute force while remaining ignorant of the systems it attempted to shape.

Even today, Carson’s book retains its moral urgency and its morbid fascination. Not only is Carson a knowledgeable scientist, but she is quite a gifted author. She knows how to drive home her point using vivid—and often frightening—examples, detailing case after case of poisonings, in animals and humans. And she supplements her examples with scientific explanations, showing us how poisons spread through the environment, are absorbed into the body, and disrupt natural processes. She knew that the chemical industry was going to fight her tooth and nail, so she did not leave any stones unturned in her research. She systematically goes through the effects of pesticides on soil, water, birds, and plants, offering case after case in support of her thesis. Now that we take it for granted that pesticides shouldn’t be applied with such wholesale zeal, this can actually be a little tedious. When advocacy is effective, it renders itself obsolete.

But Carson does not make the mistake of focusing only on the environment. She emphasizes again and again how pesticides can enter foods, can combine in the body, can kill livestock and desolate fish, can enter the skin through commercial lawn products—in other words, she emphasizes that this problem is not abstract and distant, but is one that closely affects the reader. It is this focus that makes the book so effective: she appeals to the stomach, the heart, the head, and also to Aldo Leopold’s spiritual values—but most of all, she appeals to self-interest, the strongest motivator of all.

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Review: A Sand County Almanac

Review: A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round RiverA Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River by Aldo Leopold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a dull world if we knew all about geese!

Nature is refreshing. Even a short walk in a park can powerfully clear one’s head. For whatever reason—perhaps because our ancestors lived in trees—surrounding oneself with birches and maples produces in nearly everyone feelings of warmth, comfort, and peace. And for many people, nature is more than refreshing: it is awe-inspiring, even divine. Natural environments are, for some, more uplifting than cathedrals. Emerson might have captured this strain of mystical naturalism best:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. … Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being flow through me; I am part or particle of God.

I myself have had comparable experiences in the woods. Yet both Emerson and I are pure amateurs next to Aldo Leopold.

Leopold was a pioneering conservationist and forester. He was also a superlative writer, and in this brief book he covers a lot of ground. He begins with a month-by-month account of Sand County, a poor farming region in Wisconsin. This was my favorite section, since Leopold’s sensitivity to his environment is nearly superhuman. He has a keen sense of both the history of environments—how they change with the seasons, how they have evolved through time, how they have been warped by human activity—and the close-knit interdependence of ecosystems, how each organism shapes and is shaped by every other organism, forming a perfect whole.

As a stylist, he manages to be lyrical and poetic while sticking scrupulously to what he sees and hears. His sentences are short, his diction simple, and yet he manages to evoke a densely complex ecosystem. This is because, unlike Emerson or I—and more so than Thoreau—Leopold really understood his environment. He can name every species of plant, and tell what soils they prefer and what plants they like as neighbors. He can identify every bird by its call, and knows where it roosts, what it eats, when it migrates, and how it mates. Scratches on a tree tell him a deer is nearby, his antlers fully grown; the footprints in snow tell him a skunk has passed, and how recently.

All this is described with exquisite sensitivity, but no romantic embellishment. To borrow a phrase from E.B. White, Leopold had discovered “the eloquence of facts.” And, like White, Thoreau, and Emerson, his writing has a pleasing, folksy, rambling, ambling quality, wherein each sentence is nailed to the next one at an oblique angle.

In the rest of the book, Leopold puts forward a new philosophy of conservation. This train of thought reminded my very much of another book I read recently, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In that book, Jane Jacobs explains how top-down approaches to city planning killed neighborhood vitality. Just so, when Leopold was a young man in the forestry service, he participated in the policy of removing predators—bears, wolves, and mountain lions—to protect livestock and to increase the supply of hunting animals, like deer. When hunting became necessary to control population, parks began building more and more roads to make access easier; and meanwhile the exploding deer population prevented new trees from growing. Thus the park was encroached upon by cars, and the ecosystem thrown off balance—in the same way that blindly building highways and public housing can destroy neighborhoods.

Leopold was, I believe, one of the first to popularize the idea that ecosystems act like one giant organism, with a delicate balance of cooperating and competing components. Every healthy ecosystem is a harmony that cannot be disturbed without unpredictable results. To again borrow from Jacobs, an ecosystem—like a city economy or a human brain—is an example of “organized complexity.” Thus ecosystems baffle attempts to understand them by thinking of their components separately, as a collection of individual species, or even statistically, as the average behavior of interchangeable parts. Complexity like this tends to be a product of historical growth, with each distinct component making minute adjustments to each other in a dense network of influence. Leopold doesn’t say this in so many words; but he does something even more impressive: he illustrates this quality using short anecdotes and schoolboy vocabulary.

His most philosophic contribution to the environmental movement is what he called a “land ethic.” Previous arguments for conservation were couched in terms of expediency: how national parks and nature reserves could benefit us economically. Leopold believed that this approach was too narrow; since hunting lodges and mechanized farms are always more profitable in the short term, this would eventually result in the destruction of wild ecosystems and the disappearance of species. We needed to move beyond arguments of expediency and see the land—and everything on it—as valuable for its own sake. Leopold believed that we had an ethical duty to preserve ecosystems and all their species, and that the aesthetic reward of wild nature was more valuable than dollars and cents could measure.

I want to go along with this, but I thought that Leopold was unsatisfyingly vague in this direction. It is simply not enough to say that we have an ethical duty to preserve nature; this is quite a claim, and requires quite a bit of argument. Further, aesthetic value seems like a slender reed to rest on. For every Emerson and Thoreau, there is a Babbitt whose tastes are not so refined. To his credit, Leopold does argue that a great part of conservation must consist in elevating the public taste in nature. Otherwise, conservation will consist of little more than the government using tax dollars to purchase large swaths of land. Individuals must see the value in wilderness and actively participate in preserving it. But molding tastes is no easy thing; and, more importantly, if we are to do so, there must be compelling reasons to do it.

The most compelling reasons for conservation are, I believe, expediency—but expediency in the widest sense. The difference between folly and wisdom is not that the former is preoccupied with expediency and the latter higher things; it is that wisdom considers what is expedient on a grander scale. Leopold comes close to making this same argument. He was, for example, ahead of his time in being deeply concerned about extinction. Every time a species disappears it is an irreplaceable loss; and considering that our medicine partly depends on new discoveries, extinctions may have terrible consequences for us down the line. (I saw a PBS special the other day about scientists trying to discover new antibiotics by shifting through raw soil.) Since Leopold’s day—long before Silent Spring or An Incovenient Truth—we have learned plenty more ways that environmental destruction can be equivalent to self-destruction.

Carping aside, this is a deeply satisfying book: lyrical, descriptive, educational, and innovative. Leopold realized what Orwell also realized: that winning converts requires both argument and propaganda. He does not only argue for the value of nature, but he really captures the beauty of unspoiled environments and serves it up for his readers’ consideration. We are not only convinced, but seduced. This is propaganda in its noblest form—propaganda on behalf of nature.

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Review: Walden

Review: Walden

Walden & Civil DisobedienceWalden & Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!

This month, two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau made his way into the world. Thus it seemed like a good time to revisit his thorny classic, which filled me with such contradictory feelings the first time around.

This time, I was struck first by how current Thoreau’s book reads. A vegetarian before it was fashionable, or even respectable; a pioneer of nature writing and conservationism; a godfather of activism and protest; an author of lines that, even now, wouldn’t be out of place in any self-help book; and the originator of the “stunt-book”—doing something unusual and then writing about it—anticipating both performance art and reality television in his classic account of his life “in the woods.”

It is very easy to dislike Thoreau, or even to despise him. Thoreau took himself very seriously. He comes across as pretentious and magnificently condescending, while at the same time as naïve as a child. For all his practicality, he was astoundingly impractical. His insistence that everyone in Concord learn enough Latin and Greek to read the classic texts is characteristic of him—a snobbish and pointless piece of advice, delivered with disdain. His authorial personality is so often prickly and misanthropic, rebuking the world at every turn, and this mood is never lightened by an easy humor. There is no Montaigne in this self-chronicler; instead, like Iago, he is nothing if not critical. You wonder if anything but loons and books ever pleased him. He was, in a word, a dour man.

The case against Thoreau is more serious than just his off-putting authorial personality. The most common charge made against him is that of hypocrisy. His book purports to be the record of a bold experiment in living in the woods. He describes how he built his own house, grew his own beans, baked his own bread, and rhapsodizes about the solitude and isolation he created for himself. But in reality he was living just 20 minutes from his ancestral home, squatting on land lent to him by his friend Emerson, and receiving frequent and plentiful visitors. Apparently he went home weekly to get cookies from his mother, who also kindly delivered doughnuts and pies to our hero. It is not reported whether he ate his cookies and doughnuts with milk.

This is a damning fact, considering that Thoreau carefully documents all of his expenses and goes into excruciating detail as to his eating habits—without mentioning a single cookie. He gives the impression that he was a hermit on the very edge of society, living on the produce he created, savoring his lonely retreat from the world. And all this is recorded with the stated intention of showing that self-sufficiency is possible. But if Thoreau himself can bear neither a diet of pure beans nor the stark isolation of true life in the woods, his whole experiment is a sham. It is one thing for an ordinary citizen to be hypocritical; it is another thing for a moralizing philosopher who repeatedly stresses the necessity of living in accordance with one’s tenets.

The case against Thoreau goes ever further than this. For, if his practice didn’t align with his preaching, his preaching didn’t align with his preaching either. Walden is a baffling bundle of contradictions. Did Thoreau like the steam engines or hate them? He excoriates them one moment, and the next he goes into rhapsodies about the locomotive. He praises hunting as a way of bringing oneself closer with nature, and then he condemns all killing and eating of animals. Here he is enjoining us to ignore fantasies and pay close attention to reality: “If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.” And here he is telling us to do the opposite: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.”

The perplexing thing about this inconsistency is that Thoreau never admits to hesitation or doubt. He rattles off his opinions with the fervor of a zealot. And yet even his zealotry is inconsistent, for it was Thoreau who famously said “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.” This famous paean to self-determination is ensconced in a book filled with biting scorn for those who do not agree with Thoreau. In all likelihood, Thoreau himself was the least tolerant man in Concord. Considering both his inconsistency in action and speech, it is difficult to know what exactly Thoreau, who is always urging us, is actually urging us to do.

But I think that a strong case can be made for Thoreau, too—especially now. For Walden has aged remarkably well. If anything, Thoreau’s classic has become even more relevant in our harried age.

Thoreau flees to the woods because of a growing horror with every aspect of his contemporary society—the unjust government, the growing consumerism, the obsession with technology, the increasing specialization of labor, the absorption of all leisure by work, the constant petty conversation, the disregard of wild nature. The sources of this horror are, I think, in part mysterious to even himself, which might be one explanation for his inconsistency. He is like a boxer swinging wildly at an invisible enemy, or a doctor prescribing medicines for an unknown malady. But to be fair, we haven’t gotten much closer to solving the problems that Thoreau tried to tackle with such spirit.

For my part, I think Thoreau’s instincts are right, even when his diagnoses and his cures are wrong. His abhorrence of economic exchange, of interdependence, is an excellent example. Modern society obviously could not exist without exchange; the economy would collapse if we all chose to live like Thoreau advocates, and technological innovation would come to a standstill. Yet Thoreau’s abhorrence of intedependence is neither political nor economic, but moral. He recognized quite clearly, I think, that in a complex economy, we are enmeshed in processes that have moral implications. When we buy a product, for example, we don’t know who made it or how they were treated. When we patronize a shop, we don’t know what the owner does with our money. When we throw something away, we don’t know where it ends up.

Since the morality of any action is partly determined by its effects, and since many of those effects are hidden from view in a complex economy, to a certain extent we can’t even know the morality of our own life. This is why it was so inspiriting for Thoreau to build his own cabin and farm his own food; he could be sure of his “ethical footprint,” so to speak, and so could take full responsibility for his actions. Now, I don’t think Thoreau wanted to do this for the sake of others—he is extremely wary of do-gooderism—but for himself, since we cannot live authentically if we cannot know the effects of our actions.

To borrow an idea from the philosopher John Lachs, this state of ignorance as to the sources and causes of our moral lives is one part of that modern alienation that Marxists have described. When jobs become highly specialized, we might not be completely sure about our own effects within the organization in which we work. I myself have been in that situation, churning out data to be used by unknown people for unknown ends. Everyone in a complex economy, even a commercial farmer, is in this situation. Thoreau’s solution, isolating oneself in the woods, is I think undesirable—since it consists in dissolving society completely (which the misanthropic Thoreau might not have objected to)—but his experiment does at least help us to identify the causes of our “quiet desperation.”

Thoreau is also refreshing on the subject of work and leisure. The glorification of works carries with it the denigration of leisure, which Thoreau realized. When we consider only those activities as worthwhile that can make money for us, we spend our free hours in thoughtless relaxation or idling. And yet working, even if it is remunerative, is too often degrading—largely thanks to excessive specialization, which demands that we do the same thing over and over again, neglecting the full range of our capacities. Work consumes our time and energy and leaves us few moments for reflection and self-improvement. And because we consider leisure only a respite from work—since free time doesn’t pay, it is not for serious exertion—we do not even use what moments we have to achieve perspective and to develop our latent potential.

Again, Thoreau’s prescription for excessive work—to squat on someone else’s land and farm only the bare minimum—is disappointing and (pardon the pun) unworkable. And his advice for how to spend one’s free time—reading ancient books in the original language—is, at the very least, limited. But once again, his thrashing responses at least point the way to the malady that ails us, and his deadly seriousness can remind us to take our free time seriously and not squander it.

Thoreau is perhaps most valuable for his insistence on the time and space to think. Often it seems that the modern world is a conspiracy to prevent thinking. We work until we’re bone tired, and spend our free time in endless, meaningless small talk. Thoreau said: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Imagine if Thoreau could see us now, ceaselessly connected to each other with mobile telegraphs in our pockets, with scarcely anything more to say. The point, of course, is not that the telegraph is inherently bad—nor are smart phones for that matter—but that these things can easily become distractions, distractions in the existential sense, allowing idle chit-chat to intrude into every corner of our lives.

News also comes in for abuse. Too often we read the news, not with a genuine desire to learn about the world or to help us change it, but out of habit, worrying about distant problems that seldom affect us and that, in any case, we seldom try to solve. Sure, it is easy to dismiss Thoreau when he makes such dogmatic pronouncements as “To a philosophers, all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.” Yet I know many for whom the news is an addiction, and consuming news is the full extent of their political engagement. (And I don’t think I’m any better in this regard.) Again, the point is not that we shouldn’t read the news, but that we should not let ourselves develop a false sense of urgency that prevents us from examining our own lives.

Thoreau demands space for genuine thought. But what is genuine thought? I think this is what Thoreau had in mind with his famous lines “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Genuine thought, in other words, is thinking about the best way to live—what is deeply and lastingly important to us, and what is only temporarily or superficially important. I personally have found that even a week of relative isolation can be clarifying. It is amazing how fast anxieties and problems melt away when we remove ourselves from our usual environment. We spend so much time worrying about how to get things that we don’t stop to wonder if we really want them. It is easy, too easy, to accept goals and priorities from our environment without scrutiny.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Thoreau was reacting against problems of the modern world, problems that have only become more pervasive. His solution, which I find extremely unconvincing, is to reject society completely—and in practice, his solution is only viable for well-connected, single men with no children. Thoreau achieves a kind of purity at the expense of advocating something that is totally non-viable for the vast majority of humanity. But reading his book was, for me, a clarifying and a rejuvenating experience—a reminder to consider the more important questions of life, and also a reminder that these questions can perhaps never be definitely answered.

You may disagree completely with me about the philosophical merit of Thoreau. But his skill as a writer is indisputable. This book is a magnificent monument of prose. Whether he is describing his beloved pond or narrating a battle of ants, his writing is clear, forceful, and direct; and his fingertips occasionally touch the sublime:

If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

Thoreau’s power as a writer, combined with his undeniable originality—anticipating all the things with which I opened this review, and more—will make this book last until Thoreau’s next centennial, even if sometimes he’s an insufferable teenager.

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