Remaking American Environmentalism

By Daniel C. EstyDecember 6, 2015

After Nature by Jedediah Britton-Purdy

JEDEDIAH PURDY has written a big book, taking up a set of profound environmental questions and offering sweeping answers. As with any volume of this scope and ambition, some of the ideas he spells out and the direction he proffers will resonate broadly. Other dimensions of his analysis will be jarring to many readers. But the strengths of After Nature are significant and make this a must-read book for all who are struggling with how to reinvigorate environmental protection in the face of political breakdown in America and troubling global trends, including the emerging risk of climate change.

At the heart of Purdy’s inquiry is the question of what becomes of Nature in our human-defined 21st century. He starts with the recent observation from the world of geology that we appear to be entering a new epoch — the Anthropocene era — defined as a time when human resource consumption and pollution are pervasive and fundamentally shape the world in which we live. Purdy’s core claim is that, while politics has long been recognized as a human construct and thus “artificial,” we now need to recognize that our economic system is also human defined and built on a framework that represents societal choices and assumptions. He takes this idea further by arguing that we must now also acknowledge that our ecology is no longer natural or immutable but must be understood as another “created order.”

In the face of persistent environmental degradation and the array of related challenges that our ongoing act of “collective self-creation” poses, Purdy calls for a new American “politics of nature,” which forces us all into a conversation about the world that we want to make. He quite rightly argues that, absent an active focus on the way human activity shapes our environment, we end up with our life prospects defined inadvertently. In suggesting that we as individuals need to take responsibility for the world as it is emerging, Purdy’s analysis is on solid ground. But as I explain below, his prescription for a sustainable future — that we lean harder on democracy — will be difficult for many readers to swallow, especially in light of the current political moment, with near-total gridlock in Washington.

Purdy’s hoped-for democratic transformation is multilayered. He wants expanded public dialogue and debate as part of a more robust discursive democracy. A deeper conversation about our economic system, consumption patterns, and the values these entail will produce, he anticipates, better outcomes as informed citizens demand stronger environmental protection. The further expectation that broader voter engagement, which he calls sovereign democracy, will deliver greater sustainability appears as more of an assertion than a fully developed argument. A skeptical reader would be right to ask for more evidence that America is capable of the political reform that would be required to establish a willingness to bear burdens today to avoid environmental harms in the future.

Even more challenging is Purdy’s call for an exemplary democracy that connects us to the “wildest creations of ecological imagination.” Indeed, Purdy puts great stock in the role of imagination in creating a “new consensus on national values.” But he provides little clarity about the process by which environmental imagination might translate into a political program that commands support sufficient to overcome the pathologies of modern American politics and the dysfunction that marks our governmental processes.

Some of Purdy’s analysis seems promising. He wants a broader ecological vision that celebrates “ordinary” places as well as the special experience of wilderness. He highlights the excesses of our consumption-oriented modern life and makes clear that our economic system cannot be counted upon to properly balance material gains and other values. Purdy goes on to stress “self-restraint” as one key to a more sustainable future. Surely a stronger principle of reciprocity — a Golden Rule–style willingness to manage resources within limits in return for others in the community and across the world making the same commitment — offers a solid foundation for sustainability. Likewise, his concern about the role of money in politics and the corrosive effect that campaign cash and special interest lobbying have on Congressional decision-making in general and environmental policy in particular will be widely shared.

Purdy also seeks transformation in other realms, such as agriculture. His call for “a kind of farming that preserves, even enhances natural processes, rather than exhausting them” goes to the heart of one of the big sustainability concerns that we face in modern life. The focus, however, quickly turns from the elements of sustainable agriculture to a critique of the technocratic focus of our current structure of environmental law and a wish for an environmental ethic that offers “a new practice and identity — and a new way of interacting with the natural world and a new image of one’s self in that encounter.” But the hope for better personal values among voters and citizens never gets connected to a real pathway for change.

Other suggestions are even less well grounded. Purdy reveals, in particular, a deep skepticism about the prospects for technologically driven progress. He suggests that technology brings neither “restraint nor purpose.” But this is a bit facile. Careful analysts have long recognized that technological development is a two-edged sword. It can lead to increased natural resource consumption and more pollution. But it can also generate sustainability breakthroughs such as renewable power generation. Technology cannot, therefore, be dismissed as if it were a unified thing. A more nuanced analysis of the details is required.

More importantly, Purdy misses the point that today’s leading sustainability thinkers focus not on technology development but rather innovation, which includes new policy approaches, sharpened incentives for ecological care, creative financing for environmental infrastructure, new resources for expanded energy efficiency as well as scaled-up renewable power, and fresh ways of engaging the public on sustainability.

Beyond misunderstanding the scope of innovation that might be brought to bear, Purdy dismisses the value of “getting prices right” as a way to structure incentives so that decision-makers from multinational companies to individual households deliver improved ecological outcomes as they optimize their own purchasing and behavioral choices. He insists that “political judgment must precede economic pricing.”  

But policies aimed at making harm causers pay for their externalities, from water pollution to greenhouse gases, do not need to get prices exactly right to have an effect. The nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (known as “RGGI”) have put a very modest price of about $4/ton on CO2 emissions from their power plants. But in doing so, they have sharpened the focus of utilities on ways to improve energy efficiency and toward lower-carbon electricity. And they have generated resources to invest in expanded clean energy projects. Emissions have come down faster in these states than in the rest of the nation. Would the effect have been greater if the price of carbon were fully internalized and set at $40/ton (the federal government’s “social cost of carbon”)?  Sure. But a directionally correct price signal still works.

Moreover, while Purdy rejects price signals and technocratic benefit-cost analysis, he never really offers an alternative way to make the tradeoffs that are fundamental to environmental decision-making. In fact, too often he seems unaware of these inevitable tradeoffs. While calling, for example, for laws that promote “eco-pastoral farming,” Purdy never grapples with the implications of “small-scale participatory food-raising” on the cost of food.

To hope, as Purdy does, for a political conversation that achieves agreement on the value of a planet protected from climate change and other environmental burdens looks like a much bigger lift than strengthening the analytic underpinnings of benefit-cost calculations. Indeed, I am not sure that any democracy at any time or in any place has delivered results that make self-restraint the central pivot of public policy. Thus, while acknowledging the possibility that he is wandering toward utopianism, Purdy still holds out hope for a politics that would “limit, together and legitimately, the scope of human appetites.” I think we are going to have an easier time getting a political compromise that puts a price on pollution that is roughly right.

Purdy’s wish for a better democracy will seem like a reach to many, but at least a reach in the right direction. His further desire for a “post-humanism” ethical starting point for a new politics of nature will strike many as off-base. Indeed, his call for an eco-centrism that would assert a principle of interspecies egalitarianism runs hard against the critical insight of sustainable development: environmental efforts that prioritize nature above human needs are politically difficult to advance, not to mention ethically dubious from the perspective of most people and most societies.

Even if one does not go with Purdy to the logical end of his philosophical vision, the journey he maps is illuminating. In fact, perhaps the greatest strength of After Nature is its intellectual history of American environmentalism. Purdy traces “generations” of evolving attitudes toward Nature from the providential ideology of the early Puritans who desired to build a world in their new land that honored God to Thoreau’s call for “reform of the world” through a Transcendentalist belief in the authenticity and value of Nature as a means to self-creation and a contrast to the corruption of government and public institutions. While honoring the commitment of Teddy Roosevelt and his technocratic Progressives, such as Gifford Pinchot, to land conservation and the principles of rational natural resource management, such as benefit-cost analysis, which remains an important foundation for environmental policy, Purdy finds much to fault in their personal elitism, devotion to free markets, and other character defects. He clearly aligns more naturally with the romantic preservationism of John Muir or Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. While the political correctness with which the story is sometimes told can be grating, the depth and breadth of Purdy’s history lesson is compelling.

With this book, Purdy shows himself to be a deep thinker on the nature of Nature. While his hope to offer a “prophetic strain of environmental politics” that would help Americans (and others) figure out how to live together may not be fully successful, Purdy offers a provocative ecological vision and ethical argument that deserves to be reckoned with. He has established himself among the top tier of environmental philosophers of our day.


Daniel C. Esty is the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University and co-author of the prizewinning book Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage.

LARB Contributor

Daniel C. Esty is the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University and co-author of the prizewinning book Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage.


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