PUBLISHED:September 21, 2009

Looking at how we perceive nature

In his latest scholarly article, Professor Jedediah Purdy examines the evolution of American thought about the natural world. His stated goal in “The Politics of Nature: Returning Democracy to Environmental Law,” forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal, is to broaden and deepen the ongoing discussion about the environment from the purely legal and narrowly-defined political template that he perceives is constricting the current public discourse on such issues as climate change.

“I think everyone who is engaged in an issue like this can benefit by knowing where their attitudes come from — the ideas and the sources and the history that they’re actually formed out of, that are often invisible to them [and] to us,” he says.

The paper had its genesis in an environmental law class Purdy took a decade ago at Yale. He found a disconnect between the attachment to nature that led him to enroll in the class and the “extremely technical nature” of environmental law, one he found he shared with others. “Not that we had a problem with the technical character of it, but it was like there was no relationship,” he recalls.

Along with a friend, Purdy developed a complementary syllabus of material on the history of environmental attitudes and politics, which their professor allowed them to teach as an extra-credit option to the course. “People were very responsive to it, and the students who took it seemed to have the same feeling we had — that there was a lot to gain from integrating the larger cultural and political picture into the legal portion.”

His new scholarly article builds on the ideas he first traced in that seminar, with the addition of insight gained from a yearlong seminar on climate change and the law he taught at Duke with Professor Jonathan Wiener. Purdy says he found a lot of the legal scholarship on climate change failed to acknowledge how basic values sometimes change as a result of cultural argument and political mobilization.

“It seems to me that if climate change turns out to be as big an event as the mainstream forecasts have it being, it could be the kind of thing that we can’t address without changing our values and our language in the process of dealing with it,” he says. “And for that reason, it’s important to try to anchor our sense of it in an historical picture of how we’ve changed to get where we are.”

Evolution in environmental thought
In his article, Purdy traces the evolution of American thinking about natural resources. He observes that Romantic and Progressive-era ideals formed a pivot point for the pub¬lic discussion of these ideas.

“The earlier view emphasized the utilitarian value of natural resources and the individual right to expropriate unused or unclaimed lands, which was often invoked as a mark of equal political membership and thus an emblem of the democratic character of the polity,” Purdy writes.

He describes the transformative Romantic and Progressive ideals, expressed through such public figures as Sierra Club-founder John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, which brought about a new language and framework for the national understanding of conservation and the experience of nature generally. These were epitomized, he writes, by “two ideas that later became central to environmental public language: that of nature as repository of non-utilitarian values, and that of a permanent public domain, subject to expert management and embodying a set of civic interests either distinct from aggregate individual interests or, if reducible to those, nonetheless best pursued through public governance.”

A shift in values
Tracking the evolution of political and legal discourse about nature has given Purdy a guarded optimism about the current state of public debate, as limited as it may some¬times seem, he says.

“I think that, in some cases, where there is basic change in public values, people are actually very aware of it,” he remarks. “That’s been markedly true in debates about social membership and political membership — slavery, race, civil rights.

“I think in some other cases where there has been very significant cultural change, it’s been more incremental and invisible. There has been a sea change in attitudes toward sexuality in the last 20 years … primarily due to what people see on TV, who people know at work, who people go to school with, who’s in people’s families. I think that the environmental changes have frequently been closer to the second type.”

Professor Jim Salzman thinks this will prove to be a significant publication for the environmental community. “Jed benefits from a unique combination. He not only understands the climate issues, but he also has a deep understanding of the history of American democratic values and public discourse, as evidenced by his books on the subject,” he says. “Lots of people have been arguing at a very general level that our value structure will change and be changed by the magnitude of the climate change challenge. Jed explores this issue at a fundamental level that is historically rooted. He brings a new level of sophistication to this topic.”

In addition to following the public debate about climate change going forward, Purdy hopes to write a book on the history of the idea of nature in America, he says. That story, he adds, is likely to take him abroad.

“To really dig in to this question with the attention it deserves would mean learning in two directions: Back toward the European roots of Romanticism and the parallel developments in England and Germany particularly, and then forward in the development of new environmental movements in countries like India and China,” he says.