Is the natural world, all by itself, a good thing? You might find yourself saying ‘Of course!’, immediately thinking of all the benefits that come from nature that human beings enjoy, ranging from the materials for our basic physical sustenance to those that, with our tinkering, enable us to do things like fly to the moon. Or you might find yourself inclined to the opposite position, that nature is in fact a bad thing, citing the violent history of evolutionary development that includes the sacrifice of an exorbitant number of organisms, ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’, or the havoc wreaked upon human beings from ‘natural disasters’ like earthquakes or hurricanes. Or you might find yourself thinking that this question is misguided, that nature isn’t good or bad, but morally neutral. My primary aim in this essay is to explore what kind of resources there might be for affirming that the natural world is indeed good, but for reasons other than those that appeal to the material benefits that we harvest from nature.
Harvard University Archives, HUP Emerson, R.W. (15a)This distinctive answer to the question of whether nature is good arises from focusing a bit more on the ‘all by itself’ part of the question with which I began. What we’re interested in here is whether there is value in nature, moral value, in itself, rather than being valuable merely for something else. Another way to put this distinction is whether nature is merely instrumentally valuable, only valuable as a means to the achievement of some other good, or whether it is what philosophers call intrinsically valuable, valuable in itself. If you think there’s any value in the world at all, you’re likely to think that there’s intrinsic value floating around somewhere – it would be quite odd to think that everything that’s good is only good as a means to something else, but that this chain of instrumental goods doesn’t reach an endpoint where we can find the intrinsic goods. Potential candidates for these intrinsic goods could be things like the bare existence of human persons, or certain human activities, such as compassion or artistic creation, or certain experiences, such as pleasure or awe. Focusing on the last candidate, and on pleasure in particular, has led many to extend the circle of beings worthy of moral consideration beyond our own species to other animals that can experience things like pleasure and pain. In a way, the question of intrinsic value is a question about how far to extend the circle of moral consideration – to all human beings? to all sentient creatures? to all animals, all living things, or even to ‘things’ we don’t normally think of as individuals, such as ecosystems?
Emerson seems to have alighted upon this distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goodness in the natural world long before it became the central point of debate that it is today. Regarding commodity derived from nature, which is Emerson’s correlate for instrumental value, he says that it is “the only use of nature which all men apprehend”. This focus on utility, or the usefulness of nature for some further end, is met with disapproval from Emerson, illustrated by his claim that with such an exclusive focus
nature is debased, as if one looking at the ocean can remember only the price of fish.
So if Emerson seems to think that there is more to nature morally than mere instrumental value, what kind of positive account of intrinsic value might he have the resources to offer? Somewhat cryptically, he writes that
the idealism of Jesus…is a crude statement of the fact, that all nature is the rapid efflux of goodness executing and organizing itself.
Putting aside the interesting reference to the teachings of Jesus, and how that might tie into his philosophy of nature, what we see here, I think, is a connection between goodness and truth in nature. Why does nature possess intrinsic value? Because it is intelligible, organized in accordance with rational principles, and this intuitively strikes us as a better state of affairs than complete and utter chaos, randomness, and disorder. And this value doesn’t rest on the fact that this characteristic of nature enables us to understand it – that would make it just another kind of instrumental value. Instead the intrinsic value of nature rests on the fact that its intelligible structure enables the existence of organisms that posses an internal principle of development toward higher forms of complexity, and that can therefore flourish in their particular ways. So what is intrinsically valuable are things that can undergo this kind of development, that can flourish, that can become good or excellent things of their kind. And this supports the extension of that circle of moral consideration beyond just the sentient creatures – the creatures whose flourishing is closest in kind to ours – to things whose flourishing might be radically different, such as plants, a species, or an ecosystem.
Drawing by Jonathan Popejoy
If this is too abstract to get the intuition going that nature possesses intrinsic value, consider a scenario in which you have the power to completely destroy an ecosystem and all the living things in it, some of which are unique to that area, but it doesn’t contain any sentient beings, and you can somehow be sure that its destruction won’t have any negative consequences on any sentient beings, including yourself. Would there be anything wrong with going ahead and destroying it, just for the heck of it? Intuitively, most of us think that there would be. And perhaps the best explanation for this intuition is that we think there is some intrinsic value in that ecosystem, one that goes beyond any economic value that it might have. The act would unnecessarily destroy swaths of encoded biological information that is the result of a long evolutionary history, in addition to ending the potential of individual living organisms to flourish, and for their descendants to continue to do so indefinitely. And that seems wrong – morally wrong.
Although my emphasis so far has been on the issue of intrinsic value in nature, I’d like to finish by talking about one of nature’s instrumental goods, but one that is of great value to us: what we can learn from nature that can enable us to become better people. Emerson seems to think that this fruit is ripe for the picking from nature’s bounty. He writes:
Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form.
So what kinds of things might we learn from nature about what kind of a person to be, or about what kind of character to nurture? Emerson provides us with the following brilliant example:
Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman?
Maybe you’re not a fisherman, and maybe firmness isn’t the lesson you need. But ask what it is from your experience of nature that you can learn from, that speaks to you, that might help you to flourish in your distinctively human way. Nature can offer us wisdom on how best to live, on how to be virtuous, if only we will do our part by reflecting upon it.
Reflection upon nature, both upon its intrinsic value and what it might have to offer us by way of moral instruction, makes the conservation of nature imperative for the well-being and flourishing of all living things, ourselves included. This reflection allows us to combine the two emphases of traditional moral philosophy – doing moral actions, and developing a moral character. If we don’t value nature, if we continue to be species-selfish, we’re almost sure to deprive future generations, and likely even our future selves, of a great good; and that good is not merely the commodity use of nature, but includes practical goods like virtue, as well as the experiences of awe and wonder arising from interacting with nature. It is this experience of beauty in nature that we take up in the final essay.
Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at email@example.com. His series "Emerson and the Environment" is part of a larger project which was awarded a Student Sustainability Grant. Quotations taken from Emerson’s first book, Nature, and his essays "Method of Nautre," "Circles," and "Nature." He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.
Henry David Thoreau is considered by many to be the environmental father of the green movement. As a teacher, scientist, historian, student, author, and naturalist, Thoreau has made a number of contributionsto the ecological movement, his most significant including his own personalpublished reflections on conservation and his search for the meaning of life through the relationship he had with nature. His published works have “helped to launch the American environmental movement that continues to this day,” (Weiner, 30) and understanding Thoreau is key to conservation efforts today. Thoreau offers counsel and example exactly suited for our perilous moment in time: By studying Thoreau and putting his ideals into practice, we can overcome the challenges facing the modern environment.
Henry David Thoreau, disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson, sought isolation and nearness to nature. In his writings he suggests that all living things have rights that humans should recognize, implying that we have a responsibility to respect and care for nature rather than destroying it. Thoreau proclaims, “Every creature is better alive than dead, men moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it” (Neimark, 94).
Centuries of farming, logging, mining, dam building, and rapid population growth have created a serious ecological crisis. Pollution, overpopulation, and deforestation are just a few of the consequences — and they are killing our environment. It is important that humanity transcends it’s centrism and works together to save our environment here on Earth. The Earth is our habitat, our surroundings, everything we interact with. It is home to more than justpeople – it is home to plants, animals, and microscopic organisms alike, all of which the humanrace relies on for survival.
Associated with the transcendentalists, Thoreau uses nature to understand the meaningof the soul. Seeking experience, Thoreau uses nature as a tool for learning, making thewilderness his role model and reference point. The language Thoreau chooses creates acomparison between apples and the divine, appealing simultaneously to transcendentalist andreligious beliefs. In “Wild Apples” Thoreau reflects on the ethereal quality of apples “whichrepresents their highest value, and which cannot be vulgarized, bought and sold.” (Westling,141)Similarly, in “Solitude” Thoreau reminds us that one is never alone in solitude withnature, praising the benefits of nature and his deep communion with it.
Transcendentalism of the nineteenth century taught that divinity pervades all nature andhumanity; transcendentalism attempts to raise awareness about the existence of nature and thespirituality that pervades in nature, and therefore, the spirituality and nature that exists withinthe self. Transcendentalism implies movement: an intellectual and spiritual wakening, a rise in consciousness, a transcendence of one’s boundaries. Among the transcendentalists’ corebeliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. They believed that society and itsinstitutions (eg. organized religion or political parties) ultimately corrupt the purity of theindividual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” andindependent. “Self-reliance” refers mainly to an intellectual independence that makes onecapable of generating completely original insights with as little deference paid to past mastersas possible.
Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” promotes self-reliance as an ideal, even a virtue.Frustrated with society, he turned “more exclusively than ever to the woods, where I wasbetter known” (Thoreau, 17). Thoreau implies that a of solitude and distance from ourneighbors may actually improve our relations with them, but by moving away from townentirely we liberate ourselves from our slavish adherence to society. Self-reliance suggeststhat we are influenced by our surroundings; therefore, the essential aspect of the person isfound in solitude, devoid of outside societal influences. Influenced by Emerson, Thoreau’sselected essays in Walden leads readers through a self-reliant existence, lived in balance withnature and the individual self. In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” Thoreau asserts hisdecision to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learnwhat it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Thoreau, 85). His record of what it means to live a humble, simple existence present a contemporary modelfor living.
Thoreau’s Walden promotes a philosophy of simplicity derived from Emerson’sphilosophy of “self-reliance” that could inspire people to live in better connection with natureand, if followed, that could help to save our planet. It is imperative for people to form anindividual bond with nature in order have respect and love for their environment. We must putThoreau’s ideals into action in order to understand his message better.
Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond fostered his love for nature and reaffirmed theimportance of preserving the wilderness and furthermore living in harmony with nature. Hislater essays reiterate and reinforce Walden, drawing inspiration from experience.
Thoreau continues to inspire environmentalists who study his principles in an effort tochange our current relation to the planet. In modernity, people have shaped nature to fit humanenvironments, which has created an interplay between technological advances and pure natureitself. By studying the writings of Thoreau, we can begin to understand nature and furthermorework in conjunction with nature, rather than in opposition to nature. His writings about the“importance of leaving nature undisturbed, the need for all humans to have contact with nature,and the relationship between humans and other living things” (Neimark, 94) advocates forpeople to get away from urban, industrialized areas. According to Thoreau, “modern life,whether in the nineteenth or twenty-first century, robs people of their best selves, and strong medicine is needed to restore that sense of individualism” (Weiner, 11). Like his mentor RalphWaldo Emerson, Thoreau not only acknowledges the benefits of humans coexisting withnature. but believes that living in harmony with nature is essential.
Truthfully, the human condition requires some degree of disconnect from the naturalworld in order to survive in a livable environment, but as humans we have the capacity to forma relationship between the two opposing ideas of human nature and the natural world. Theproblem in modern society is rooted in the disconnection people have to the natural world.Population growth, increasing pollution, and deforestation are serious problems facing theworld today. By studying Thoreau and putting his principles into practice, we could get muchcloser to reaching equilibrium between humankind and our environment.
The dictionary defines nature not only as “the material world, especially as surroundinghumankind and existing independently of human activities,” but also as “the phenomena of thephysical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features andproducts of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.” In other words, nature iseverything. Nature is the universe as a whole, in its entirety; to be a human is to be a spiritualbeing having a human experience. To be human is to be a small part of nature itself —everything and everyone contribute to the never-ending cycle of life and energy that ultimatelymakes up the universe (nature).
The universe itself and everything it is comprised of, from the smallest grain of sand tothe wide expanse of space and each and every human in between, can be considered nature. Ashumans, we tend to separate nature in our minds, creating some distinction between the outsideworld and our inner worlds. Human nature has always been inherently disconnected withnature in this sense: we form communities for protection, shelter from the elements, and toshare our emotions and experiences. There is a fear embedded deep into the humanconsciousness — a fear of nature and an inherent need to establish a boundary between the selfand nature. Thoreau, inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, attempts to deconstruct this stigma inan effort to influence people to be “self-reliant,” to embrace their connection to nature, and tocreate harmony between the outside and inner worlds. Throughout the collected essays inWalden, Thoreau invites us to find a sense of meaning, direction and purpose in life throughimmediate contact with nature.
Modern ecologists acknowledge the critical need to recognize and address the spiritualdynamics that exist at the root of environmental degradation. In order to resolve issues such asspecies depletion, global warming, over-consumption, humanity must examine and reassessour relationship to nature and furthermore our responsibility to this planet. The works ofThoreau present us with a social mandate that demands the readership to consider their ownrelationship with nature and attempts to persuade readers to foster a harmonious balance.
Throughout his works, Thoreau questions his audience, encouraging existential thoughtand consideration. His methodical questioning forces readers to be introspective anddiscerning, encouraging and ethical approach to ones engagement with nature. Thoreau hashelped readers began to recognize the need for environmental conservation. Of course,Thoreau could never have predicted the severe degree of degradation that our environmentcurrently faces. He preceded his time, thankfully, and has left behind his legacy for us to studyas a guide for how to approach environmental conservation.
Thoreau’s essay “Walking” aims to identify the importance of engagement with
Nature, claiming that “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” (Westling, 4). We needto sustain the vital resources that can only be found of the Earth in order to secure our ownsurvival. Humans depend on trees to produce oxygen and clean rainwater to grow healthy food;if our atmosphere gets too polluted, clean air to breathe and food to eat will be seriouslythreatened. We need to care for the Earth in order to preserve it and us.
Thoreau advocates the “need to get away from urban, industrialized areas” (Neimark,79), sensing the danger associated with urbanization. Crowded cities contribute tooverpopulation, which facilitates overconsumption and pollution. Because we have too manypeople to feed, we deplete natural resources (like fields for farming), which forces factories towork harder and therefore pollute more. It is a vicious cycle that only creates more problems.In order to save our environment, we must return to wildness as Thoreau suggests.
Thoreau sounded the call for environmental awareness and helped launch a movementthat has continued to this day. Twenty-first century environmental issues can be resolved bypaying more attention to Thoreau’s practical nineteenth century methodology. Pollution,overpopulation, and deforestation are just a few of the serious issues contributing to the currentecological crisis. Despite the severe amount of degradation that the Earth has suffered in thename of “progress” the works of Thoreau present us with a social mandate that demands theaudience to consider their own relationship with nature and attempts to persuade readers tofoster a harmonious balance with their environment. By studying Thoreau and putting hisideals into practice, we can overcome the challenges facing the modern environment.
“Nature” Def. 1-7. Merriam Webster Online, Merriam Webster, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
Neimark, Peninah, and Peter Rhoades Mott. The Environmental Debate: A documentary
history. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.
Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. Boston: Beacon Press, 1854. Print.
Weiner, Gary. Social Issues in Literature: The Environment in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
Farmington Hills: Greenhaven Press, Gale Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.
Westling, Louise, ed. Literature and the Environment. New York: Cambridge University Press,