Unibomber here’s been some talk on this list lately about how we should distance environmentalism from the Unabomber, and foil attempts by the media to unite the two. Shouldn’t we also look inward, and see if in any way a love of ature does or can lead to antipathy to humans? he relationship between environmentalism and violence had been on my mind prior to Ted Kaczynski’s arrest, because I had been reading MindHunter , John Douglas’s memoir of his career heading the FBI’s serial crimes unit. In passing, Douglas mentions a number of cases in which the killers were ardent environmentalists or living back to nature. It was hard to know what, if anything, to make of this (or of the author’s contention that an inordinate percentage of serial killers drive Volkwagen Beetles). atching the FBI take Kaczynski away as the prime suspect in the Unabomber case, I thought, of course, of Henry Thoreau.
Both were Harvard graduates who chose to remove themselves from industrial America to go it alone in a simple wilderness retreat. Thoreau is America’s most famous recluse — isn’t it likely that Kaczynski is familiar with Thoreau’s writing, even that he was emulating him to a degree? If Kaczynski is the Unabomber, then an intellectual connection to Thoreau is even more possible. After all, Thoreau is the father of North American environmentalism, and the Unabomber is most definitely an environmentalist. In his manifesto, after an exceedingly long discussion of how technology had overwhelmed society and smothered persnal freedom, he writes, But as an ideology, in order to gain support, must have positive ideals well as a negative one; it must be FOR something as well as AGAINST something. The positive ideal that we propose is Nature.
That is, WILD nature; those aspects of e unctioning of the Earth and its living things are independent of human management and free of human interference and control. Such sentiment would not be misplaced on the ASLE list. Of course, most of us would take issue when he wrote, In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people. There have been, as we know, strands of the environmental movement that have been too often linked to an anti-human mindset. Regardless of his renunciation of EarthFirst!, Dave Foreman did at one time oppose famine aid to Ethiopia, saying the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve… Up here in Canada, naturalist John Livingston, in his Governor General’s Award-winning Rogue Primate , refers to AIDS dispassionately as a natural response to human overpopulation… I think environmentalists are people who understand that humans are part of nature, and they seek to live accordingly.
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that we are impatient for the rest of humanity to figure this out, and pessimistic tht we as a species are smart enough to make it happen. Some environmentalists, I think, find other humans (the more, the less merry) as basically troublesome. All this led me back to Thoreau. Was there anything in his writing that could have led Kaczynski (if he is the Unabomber) — and maybe all environmentalists astray? On first glance, of course, Thoreau can be seen to be radically pro-nature and anti-society. He looked around his America and saw a civilization in which everyone was so intent on business, trade, and industry, so intent on eking out a living, that they forgot how to live.
Walden is a back-to-the-land how-to book, a carefully-crafted naturalist’s diary, a witty response to Ben Franklin-industriousness, and a philosophical treatise on self-reliance. A Ted Kaczynski could draw inspiration from it. But Thoreau does not renounce society in Walden ; he takes a trip from it to experiment with isolation, to learn more about himself and his surroundings. When his experiment is completed, he moves back to Concord and announces, I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. The publishers of my edition of Walden put Civil Disobedience at the end.
I wondered if Kaczynski (if he is the Unabomber) also united the two. In this essay Thoreau defends opposition to unjust governments and describes a night spent in jail for refusing to pay taxes, protesting the American war with Mexico. Thoreau argues that one who wishes to be true to himself may need to live outside of government. Again, a Ted Kaczynski could draw inspiration — some environmentalists certainly have. Though Foreman left EarthFirst!, in Defending the Earth he continues to draw inspiration from the story that Emerson came to bail Thoreau out of jail, and asked, Henry, what are you doing in there? Thoreau replied, Ralph, what are you doing out there? I worry that some environmentalists see civil disobedience as in itself a sufficient political act, and not only that but an act of allegiance to Thoreau’s gospel. In fact, Civil Disobedience is not a monkeywrencher’s guide to bringing down a government or changing society.
It encourages people to take responsibility for their actions, and instructs them not to succumb with blind approbation to a government that acts wrongly. The point is that you have to learn about yourself and your beliefs and act accordingly. I wonder if Kaczynski, if he is the Unabomber, felt that Walden shows how to appreciate nature, and Civil Disobedience shows how to behave against a society that does not appreciate nature. I hope this was not the case. Thorea stresses that ultimately we have to save ourselves.
The result may be that we are geographically or psychically separated from society, but what of it? Thoreau writes, 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, or far away. But just as important, in the passage preceding this, Thoreau writes, Let every one mind his own business, and endeavour to be what he was made. Admittedly, this is an incomplete political philosophy. Environmental problems will not disappear by minding our own business.
But neither will they disappear by sneering at society or threatening violence against it. Any environmentalism that works will necessarily be one that accepts human beings and seeks to accommodate them in nature. I take from Walden that I must live principally in nature, I take from Civil Disobedience that I must live principally in society. But as Thoreau might say, hey, that’s just my opinion. Social Issues.