Naomi Klein Shows What’s Right and Wrong about Environmental History

I self-identify as an environmental historian, so you might expect that I’d have something to say about Naomi Klein‘s article, “A Hole in the World” in The Nation (sidenote digression: You are a subscriber to The Nation, right?  Because if those folks aren’t out there doing the work, nobody will.  It’s the right thing to do and it’s cheap.  /sidenote digression).  As a matter of fact, I do have some things to say.  Namely, that the piece shows us what’s great about environmental history as well as what needs work in the field.

Klein’s thesis is in the article’s subtitle: “The BP disaster reveals the risk in imagining that we have complete command over nature.”  There are two arguments here, both of which feature prominently in environmental history.  First,  humans fool themselves if they think they completely understand the non-human natural world (note this phrase, which is a bit more precise than “nature”).  Oil spewing into the Gulf now is having and will have consequences that our feeble minds can not begin to grasp.  Second, the non-human natural world is powerful, defying human efforts to have “complete command” over it.  Beyond the obvious power of things like tornadoes and earthquakes, the non-human natural world limits/shapes/structures (we’ll return to this in a moment) in ways that we can not completely control: from the ways in which climate shapes human settlement to the bacteria that live inside us and make our lives possible.

What Klein does well is make the first theme relevant to contemporary events and regular people.  What’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico shows how little we actually know (about how much oil is in them thar oceanbeds, for instance).  Klein goes beyond observing that to explaining the political and economic forces that have revealed our ignorance.  BP’s hubris; the “political class eager to believe that nature had indeed been mastered” (Republicans, especially, but also Obama and other liberals); and (implicitly in the piece) an economic system predicated on continual growth fed by consumption of natural resources.  In short, Klein names names.  She assigns blame.  And environmental historians, in their attempts at “objectivity” (so as to be taken seriously be the academy) often don’t assign blame.

Klein runs into trouble with the second argument about the power of the non-human natural world.  She writes that one of the lessons we should take from this is “our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash.”  There’s a bit of a conceptual knot here.  On the one hand, the non-human natural world has power over humans: the geysers of oil, the collapsing ecosystems, etc. that will shape–“diminish,” as Klein puts it–human culture in the Gulf.  True.  But humans also have power over the non-human natural world: human beings started the mess in the Gulf, and “unleashed” those natural forces. In the final analysis, then, nature only has the power to bleed (Klein’s preferred metaphor) in reaction to human agency.  Humans have power; the non-human natural world has something less.

This conceptual knot stems from an unreflective use of the concept of power.  Humans act; nature reacts; humans act again in response to that reaction; nature reacts to the reaction’s reaction, and so on.  Humans and the environment are two opposing players, separated and against each other.  This concept of power comes from a particular concept of human agency: the notion that people can and do act independently of the forces outside of them.  But if there’s one thing we see in the Gulf, it’s that humans do not act independently of the non-human natural forces outside of them; human imagination and activity are rooted in and shaped by our relationship to the environment around us.  Humans and the non-human natural world necessarily act together, even when they seem to be pulling in two very different directions.  There is no way to think about human action without thinking about the environments in which humans act.

This is complicated stuff, and I’m obviously still struggling with it.  But a couple of environmental historians have tackled this theoretical subject with some success.  My favorite is Linda Nash‘s short article, “The Agency of Nature or the Nature of Agency?” from the January 2005 issue of Environmental History.  Nash argues that environmental historians are uniquely positioned to “think about agency in altogether different terms” and,

put the human mind back in the world. Perhaps our narratives should emphasize that human intentions do not emerge in a vacuum, that ideas often cannot be clearly distinguished from actions, that so-called human agency cannot be separated from the environments in which that agency emerges.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.  Humans acting with and within the environment and vice-versa.  One might also consult William Cronon‘s “The Trouble with Wilderness” (you should read this.).  Cronon takes apart the idea that there is such a thing as a separate, untouched, pure nature (wilderness); in fact, it is impossible for us to live outside of nature.  Therefore, “if living in history means that we cannot help leaving marks on a fallen world, then the dilemma we face is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.”

Thinking about human action in these ways might help us better understand what’s going on the Gulf.  Today, as BP engineers struggle to plug the “hole in the world,” we can think of what they are doing as an action shaped by and shaping the environment, and the imaginations that dreamed it up as similarly shaped/shaping.  We can see the oil flowing into marshes as a result of humans actions coming out of and taking place within the environment.  And instead of an “embrace of the cautionary principle”–Klein’s solution, which is essentially human agency checked–we can embrace an understanding of human agency as rooted in, shaped by, and shaping, the environment.  That’s the sort of concept of human and non-human power that might lead to a long-lasting and livable relationship.


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