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To Go Green, Go Dark? Environmentalist Turns to Postwestern Politics

To Go Green, Go Dark? Environmentalist Turns To Postwestern Politics

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.[1]

— Wendell Berry


“To Know the Dark,” as Wendell Berry presents it, has become a principal project of green politics.  For environmentalists, it means proceeding in places and ways strikingly apart from our modern ideologies of enlightenment and our modern implements of industry.  Yet political theorists of green politics usually focus on attempts to meld environmentalism with modern ideologies such as liberalism, socialism, and conservatism.  They fit it for institutions and policies of modern states.  They suit it to aims and technologies of modern businesses both global and local.  Or they turn it toward causes and crises so demanding as to trump modern claims for staying light, sweet, moderate, deliberative, or scientifically rational in our politics.

Green theories of politics often appear in forms and venues slighted by political theory as an academic field.  Environmentalist classics come from scientists writing works as public intellectuals (Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson), poets (Ursula K. Le Guin and Gary Snyder), essayists (Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard), journalists (Elizabeth Kolbert and Michael Pollan), and novelists (Barbara Kingsolver and Kim Stanley Robinson).  Hence our political theories of green politics underplay the environmentalist reliance on aesthetics, rhetorics, cultures, even ethics.  They neglect a green drive to transcend civilization of a western sort.  If political theories explore the creation of a home in the world, to paraphrase John Gunnell, their green challenge can be to learn how environmentalisms address this project more amply and adequately than ideologies that trace to the European Enlightenment.  It can be to learn how environmentalists often turn away from modern government and humanism, modern science and industry, even western order and justice.[2]  In short, it should be to learn how to go green can be to go dark.

There is much to appreciate in scholarly theories of green politics.[3]  They give keen attention to issues of democracy, ideology, science, and policy.  They debate liberal, socialist, anarchist, fundamentalist, and feminist environmentalisms.  They ponder wilderness needs, land ethics, deep ecology, plus the rights of animals and plants.  They analyze agriculture, silviculture, and ecologies from oceans to deserts.  They rethink principles of energy, food, recreation, and transportation.  They address aspects of climate change, resource exhaustion, species extinction, pollution, erosion, and more.  Yet academic accounts give scant attention so far to the postwestern ambitions prominent in many classics of environmental politics.  In fact, political theories often ignore the green classics that continue to move many environmentalists.

As Hugh Stretton has shown persuasively in Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment, many green principles of politics tend to undo modern ideologies.[4]  Political theories that work to adjust environmentalism to liberalism, socialism, capitalism, and conservatism are bound to miss or twist many of the most vital and distinctive projects of environmentalism.  In these respects, ecological politics are decisively postmodern unto postwestern in their sensibilities and trajectories of action.  This is why green politics fit cultural movements more than interest groups or modern institutions that promote action through centralized and federalized states.  Accordingly our political theories should be investigating how green politics might transcend modern institutions and processes of democracy and representation.  Especially our political theories should be exploring how green politics might sideline western figures and horizons of civilization.  Green classics raise such possibilities in their arguments, structures, and styles.

Here I examine implications of the postmodern and postwestern tropes of green classics for political theories of environmentalism.  Initially I evoke several of the insistent sensibilities and tropes that go dark to go green.  Eventually I survey some relatively recent classics for their versions of going dark.  The main aim is to provoke renewed attention to works of nonacademic political theory slighted by scholars.  Another aim is to start refiguring theories of green politics.

Green Classics

What is a green classic?  It’s a work repeatedly prized and praised by environmentalists for giving them especially good senses of key concerns and directions for green politics, or even for spurring them to green deeds.  In green politics, deeds reach from everyday routines or peak experiences in personal lifestyles to local projects, national initiatives, various global campaigns.  The work could be an essay, a novel, a poem, a drama, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, or other product of public “art.”  (Typically it’s something that could be taught in class.)  The producer is eventually recognizable as a “public intellectual,” perhaps marking that breed as less scarce and susceptible to imminent extinction than ideology- and policy-oriented scholars usually discern.[5]

An annotated roster of green classics would run longer by far than the essay at hand.  (It could read better too.)  But examples are easy to give, and the contents of green anthologies are filled with them.  Along with others mentioned here, the writers would include Edward Abbey, Carol Bly, Murray Bookchin, William Cronon, Jared Diamond, Loren Eisley, Dave Foreman, Al Gore, Garrett Hardin, Wes Jackson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Barry Lopez, James Lovelock, Bill McKibben, John Muir, Roderick Nash, David Orr, Judith Plant, Stephen Pyne, Kirkpatrick Sale, Paul Shepard, Henry David Thoreau, Paul Watson, and David Worster.  Generally their reports from the field, analyses, meditations, and calls to action are categorically better as literature — and as politics — than political scientists and theorists even aspire to do in books and articles.  In going dark, many of these classics broach tropes and possibilities helpful to political theory.

To recognize green activism as politics has been easy; and green argumentation often gets mentioned, if seldom emphasized, as political theory.  This holds especially for arguments about policies and ethics.  Yet green essays, novels, poems, movies, and such get slighted, even though they have been highly important to environmental politics.  Perhaps this is because they are typically as evocative as they are analytical — and as personal as they are policy-oriented.  Yet they insistently rework the western grounds for political theory as creating a home for man in the world.  Just as feminists examine how the home is for all humanity, ecofeminists explore how the home is for all nature; while environmentalists of many stripes pursue a home for all creatures great and small — or at least vast and varied fields of them for many sustained times.

Environmentalist classics by activists, essayists, and poets reach from early politics of agrarian republicanism and wilderness conservationism to recent ecofeminism, ecopopulism, and ecoperfectionism.  Their turns become as much eastern as western, less causally linear than chaotically nonlinear, and more Dionysian than Apollonian.[6]  Along with many green classics, therefore, theories of environmentalist politics should augment western civilization with “going wild.”  They should complement western reflection with “leaping before looking.”  They should supplement modern mechanism with “going organic.”  Indeed they should even implement modern enlightenment more fully and effectively — if paradoxically — with “going dark.”

Dark Paths

In general, green classics go dark in several ways.  The most drastic yet least surprising is a turn to politics for dark times of terrible troubles.[7]  Green classics see dark ages looming in environmental catastrophe and collapse due to climate change, population explosion, resource depletion, or crossing other environmental thresholds into ecosystems hostile to humans.  In a “polar night of icy darkness and hardness,” as Max Weber put it, politics too go dark and hard.[8]  As people try to order themselves to resist potentially overwhelming conditions, the politics in green classics of apocalypse range from hardball to authoritarian or totalitarian.[9]  Green films that go dark and hard are Clearcut (1992), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), The Happening (2008), The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), Quantum of Solace (2008), Avatar (2009), Godzilla (2014), Noah (2014), and Snowpiercer (2014).

Many visions of apocalypse mean to warn us away rather than invite our embrace; but some green classics insist grimly on near inevitability or considerable value of cataclysm, while others seem to relish the need for iron discipline and enforcement in facing dark times forming — let alone in surviving them with minimal humanity remaining.  A few environmentalists of note even seem to summon catastrophe — apparently to chastise us in ways severe enough to humble our imperial industrialism, domineering scientism, and arrogant humanism.[10]  Except for critics, political theorists of green politics slight this craving for apocalypse as punishment, although they admit related troubles for staying democratic throughout crisis and stringency. [11]

A second dark path eminent in green classics runs to the grounds and roots of western civilization in republican politics.  Before modern governments and ideologies or even medieval courts, western politics brought members or their representatives together in “public” places for managing the home, the community, as a commonwealth.[12]  Agrarian republicanism that traces to Thomas Jefferson is prominent in Berry’s works, including his tour de force argument against industrial farming, monoculture, and urbanization in The Unsettling of America.[13]  Berry portrays this “radical-ism” of returning to republican roots as “The Way of Ignorance,” as contrarianism, and as “going dark.”[14]  So does ecofeminist Ursula K. Le Guin when she makes the mole her totem because it is “light blinded” and a “shaper of darkness” with its “tooth at the root.”  In “Sleeping Out,” she likewise cautions, “Don’t turn on the flashlight, we won’t see . . .”[15]  Berry has also taken green inspiration from his own scholarship on the blind, modern republican John Milton.[16]  Eco-poet and –essayist Gary Snyder similarly learns from Milton to “meet” his poetry and perhaps his politics “outside the / Range of my campfire / . . . at the / Edge of the light.”[17]

If the first green path into the dark is apocalyptic, the second is chthonic.  It goes back, down, underground, into the earth, to the root.  Aldo Leopold “grounded” green politics in a strikingly postwestern way when he taught “Thinking like a Mountain” to greens.[18]  Michael Pollan then took this underground and to the root in teaching greens as gardeners to “think like a carrot.”[19]  In the recovery of republicanism by environmental politics is a dark turn away from enlightenment ideologies and modern governments.  Abbey, Berry, Le Guin, Snyder, Pollan, and many others present modern governments and sciences as more impediments than aids to greening politics.  Some greens celebrate republicanism, some libertarianism, some anarchism.[20]  Green films that go dark and chthonic by turning republican feature The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) and A River Runs Through It (1992) directed by Robert Redford as well as Silent Running (1972), The Tailor of Panama (2000), Rango (2011), A Dark Truth (2012), and The Lone Ranger (2013).

To go underground, to the root, is figurally to “go deep.”  So we might suppose that the self-identified green radicals who follow Arne Naess into “Deep Ecology” go even darker than green republicans as chthonic environmentalists.  But if so, the deep ecologists tend to go so far that they pop out another side of the planet.  For theirs remains largely a western, metaphysical, essentialist, and enlightenment project.[21]  The insistence on acknowledging the “intrinsic value” of every other being is meant to undercut the utilitarian and capitalist calculations that feed all objects into the maw of modern industrialism; and the concept sometimes sounds a bit eastern:  Buddhist to be specific.  Yet it’s pointedly objectivist (as well as essentialist) in ways that sound emphatically western.  Deep talk of identification, rights, and self-realization seems modern to the hilt; and the Naess embrace of “deep” rather than “shallow” ecological movements repeats western metaphysics of depth, truth, and reality versus mere surface, falsity, and appearance.  None of this need make deep ecology unenvironmentalist or otherwise undesirable, but it does mark deep ecology as an enlightenment endeavor of western civilization.  This deep is not dark.

The activists who pursue ecotage do go dark in a distinct, third direction.  Some greens defend ecological sabotage as a project of political radicalism for desperate times.[22]  Yet it’s not only chthonic but also apocalyptic, pursuing judgments and projects different from the first two paths into darkness.  Acts of ecotage make sense as last-ditch alarms and other devices to stop humanity — or at least the planet’s biosphere — short of self-destruction.[23]  Yet their burden of plausibility is formidable, because defenses of the desperation that drive it usually undermine any reasonable expectation of good results.  Therefore critics, including many greens, condemn ecotage as terrorism unto nihilism.  Still it remains a “dark” aspect of environmentalist politics; and films that engage ecotage typically treat their dark politics from more than one perspective:  see Dune (1984), Fight Club (1999), Black November (2012), The East (2013), and Night Moves (2013).

Others go dark by redirecting environmental practices from ways modern and western to paths provided by cultural Others.  Often these Other paths go dark.  The cultural Others are the Shadows of the modern, masculinist west; and some green classics go into such Shadows.[24]  For green politics, these dark alternatives are currently feminist, oriental, or both.  Ecofeminists usually reject the masculinism, mechanism, militarism, and imperialism of modern civilization; often they omit its metaphysics and naturalism too.  More than the western light of cold reason, ecofeminists feature the warm darkness of emotional action:  caring, healing, loving, forgiving.  Among ecofeminists, the most prominent scholar has been Carolyn Merchant.[25]  Movies in this mode include Pocahontas (1995), A Thousand Acres (1997), and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012).[26]  Like deep ecology, ecofeminism gets substantial attention from political theorists who address green politics.  Unlike deep ecology, ecofeminism often goes dark; and it often reaches beyond western tropes and practices.  Thus feminist environmentalists leave ideological feminisms far behind.  This seems widely recognized by theorists of green politics, but it has seldom provoked them to the larger interrogations of western politics that dark environmentalisms clearly invite.

Other green classics take a path to the east:  to Darkest Africa and the Mysterious Orient.  Figures from Zen Buddhism spice Snyder’s green poems and shape some of his green essays.[27]  Perspectives of Tibetan Buddhism inform the environmentalist science fiction by Kim Stanley Robinson.[28]  And with parents who were cultural anthropologists, Le Guin has gone east as well as feminist in her poetry, fantasy, and science fiction.[29]  Books by all these writers have claimed major awards in their literary fields, another measure of classics.  But the point here is that such writers develop their environmental politics by exploring the Orient in some of its own terms in addition to investigating it as a Shadow projected by the Occident and taking its tropes as lenses for examining western ways too.[30]  If there are films of this kind, though, I have yet to see them.

Evoking science fiction can remind us of the Star Wars sense of going to “the Dark Side,” which turns Jungian Shadows into epitomes of evil as well as into emblems of the unconscious or unknown.  This is the terror-tory of horror and noir.[31]  Tropes from these genres occasionally configure green classics:  William Cronon’s “Kennecott Journey” is something of a ghost story, Robinson’s Wild Shore is a dystopia, and David Fincher’s Fight Club is a noir.[32]  These forms suit apocalyptic and chthonic paths for green politics more than a largely separate way for greens to go dark.  Mainly, though, western politics find darkness incarnate and political hell on earth in “chaos” as complete or roiling disorder.  In recent decades, the development of “chaos theory” as mathematics for nonlinear systems, where sensitive dependence and self-similarity generate turbulence in flow, is reworking ecology and environmental biology.  In turn, they are redoing green takes on ecosystems.  With “chaos” a kind of order, not its absence, they are going dark.

Leopold’s classic essay on “The Round River” presents ecosystems as mechanical, and some of his more memorable maxims underscore this:  “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”[33]  But already Leopold was edging beyond mechanism into the “flow” of nonlinear systems, insisting that ecologies elude our mechanical analysis, let alone control.[34]  As the “chaotic” characters of biologies, climates, ecologies, and geologies loom larger in green politics, a fifth green path into darkness beckons stronger and reaches farther.  Neither eastern nor feminist, neither chthonic nor apocalyptic, it is specifically “scientific” yet “chaotic.”  An early green classic of chaos is Robinson’s Science in the Capital, which shows political theories of environmental figures and strategies how to go dark by going chaotic.  It suggests a stress on tropes as well as principles and policies can turn Leopold’s “land ethics” into green aesthetics.[35]

Green aesthetics point to the dark path of perfectionism, tracing back through Friedrich Nietzsche to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.[36]  This branch of perfectionism is anti-foundational and anti-metaphysical.  It urges strength, vigor, individuality, and leaping to great heights.  It reveres genius.  It prizes peak experiences.  Yes, it has been spun into myths of Aryan Overmen and defenses of fascism; yet it also powers American transcendentalism plus Just-Do-It excellence in popular, electronic culture and diversity in personal styles.  Especially it emphasizes exertions and experiments in everyday lives attuned to biology and community.  It pursues adventurous sensibilities that could turn predatory, and sometimes do, but that should stay acutely responsive to the many Others forming our Environments.

Green classics often provide green perfectionisms as striking counters to such perverse perfectionisms as social Darwinism, vampire capitalism, or industrial nihilism.  From Nietzsche onward, perfectionisms often begin in aesthetics or even aestheticisms.  This often gets them dismissed as hollow, shallow, and superficial:  fast-passing fads.  But they readily and rapidly become cultural tides; and this is what green classics sometimes provoke as political action to supplement legislation, litigation, or other devices of modern government.  Also starting with Nietzsche, such cultural action has been appreciated as Dionysian by contrast with Apollonian.  It favors revelry over revelation, impulse over planning.  It is wild not tame, restless rather than settled, ritualized yet not civilized in a western sense.  To go green, it goes dark more than light.

Some greens generate their perfectionisms more from Buddhism than western sources.  Snyder is an example.  But even then, the sustained attention of environmentalism to politics of aesthetics in general and its penchant for politics of perfectionism in particular keeps Thoreau, Emerson, and Nietzsche prominently on the scene.  Like going apocalyptic, chthonic, or chaotic, going perfectionist tends to transcend modern politics rather than adjust (to) them.  The same often goes for perfectionist environmentalism in relation to western civilization.  For greens, to transcend does not mean to ignore, abandon, or undo whatever is western.  Instead it means to deemphasize western politics in a liberal manner, to augment them in a conservative way, to decenter them in a postmodern sense, even to supplement them in a Derridean mode.

Many a green classic pursues more than one of these dark paths.  Seldom in these works — or at least, in their full bodies of work — do the dark, postwestern politics eclipse completely the enlightenment politics of government, ideology, and policy.  But in political-theory accounts of green politics, such modern preoccupations usually eclipse the postwestern provocations that make green classics so distinctive and intriguing.  Especially the modern, enlightenment tropes of politics favored by recent political science and political theory miss the peculiarly republican and perfectionist politics prominent in green classics.  There is room for two telling examples.

Dark Figures

The most prominent environmental writer of the moment is Michael Pollan, who lately presents his green principles and provocations as treatments of food politics.  For several years now, Pollan has become the go-to green for television interviews:  on the evening news, on late-night talk shows, and so on.  He started in New York as an editor and writer, became a green journalist, and now enjoys a faculty appointment in Berkeley’s fascinating Rhetoric Department.  His green path reaches from the republican-rhetorical tradition to Nietzschean perfectionism.

Pollan’s green education begins with his self-development as a gardener, producing an enduring classic of green philosophy and politics.  Second Nature defends an anthropocentric environmentalism of stewardship according to a “garden ethic” that faces the impossibility of Earthly wilderness untouched by human activity.[37]  The concept of stewardship is distinctively republican.  Furthermore the emphasis on ethics (rather than morals) is a specifically republican way to redirect principles of conduct from public affairs to personal conduct in everyday life.[38]  This move is more important to environmental politics in general than surfaces in treatments of green principles by political theorists.  To explain his principles of green action, Pollan uses the traditional republican device of telling several brief stories — often about his experiences — to clarify, justify, and make memorable his concise, sometimes catchy maxims of gardening.[39]  He analyzes the green thumb of a gardener as an inventive, prudential, republican intelligence for thinking like a carrot — or a weed or a woodchuck — as needed.[40]  As a republican, he praises the best gardening knowledge as local, gained by action responsive and responsible to personal situations.[41]  He also refigures our sciences of environment and politics in republican-rhetorical terms.  In a chapter on diverse types of environmentalist trees, he shows etymologically as well as epistemologically how trees are truths are tropes.[42]  Elsewhere he makes closely related moves with roses and gardening catalogs, spotlighting their lessons for environmentalists.[43]

The next book from Pollan turns from environmental matters to architecture.  A Place of My Own reflects on The Education of an Amateur Builder, and it’s neither on green action nor on its way to lasting attention.[44]  But it keeps Pollan wrestling with truths.  It leaves him impressed by how hard and important it is to square joints — and how important it is for truths to square with the world’s hard realities.  Pollan seems a bit modern and objectivist, a little postmodern and constructivist, and more than a little conflicted when tilling grounds of epistemology.  He even has moments of postwestern perspectivism, and these politics loom larger as he proceeds.

The Botany of Desire offers a provocative take on the historical Johnny Appleseed as “the American Dionysus.”  It proceeds to a chaotic episode of “tulipomania” in seventeenth-century Holland.  It analyzes marijuana to make a Dionysian pitch for intoxication and a Nietzschean, perfectionist case for kinds of forgetfulness that enable us to Just Do It, without incapacitating self-criticism or reflection.  Then it talks potato famine and genetic engineering to conclude with an existentialist-unto-perfectionist argument against modern politics of control.[45]  This book has become a multi-part special on PBS; and it sustains longer, stronger stories than before.  Still its most remarkable aspect is the full turn into perfectionist environmentalism.  The overarching project, from the introduction onward, is to decenter humanity from its own evolutionary tale.  Yet rather than undoing the anthropocentrism of Pollan’s earlier garden ethic, this morphs the human steward — the green gardener — into “the human bumblebee.”  We’re busy, busy, busy responding to plant incentives that induce us to serve plant interests.  Our evolution is shaped not only by other animals but also by the supposedly passive, unintelligent plants — every bit as much as we shape their evolutions.[46]  Hereafter Pollan’s environmentalism is co-evolutionist in a way that’s much more fully Darwinian — and Nietzschean perfectionist — than before.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan brings his in-principle, philosophical perfectionism into provinces of daily, personal affairs.  He addresses several issues of food production and policy that matter enormously to environmentalists, reporting case studies to demonstrate his conclusions.  Next he explains how these issues should matter in our everyday eating.  Along the way, he reworks some of the cultural and agricultural terrain addressed by Wendell Berry in republican terms, but Pollan now brings a co-evolutionary and perfectionist sensibility to them.  He tells how corn has conquered Americans, especially, making them into “corn people” who live in “corn cities.”  He shows how this corn culture inflicts discomfort and disease on herds of cattle, then he spins Nietzsche’s move of recognizing humans as cattle herds into the case that we suffer related discomforts and diseases in a “Republic of Fat” fed by fast food.[47]  The co-evolutionist Pollan then asks what would happen if we were to respect the biological impulse of cattle to eat grass.  Could we undo the debasement of corn people?  Could we figure out how to coordinate elevation of our diet with grass-fed cattle, free-range chickens, wallowing pigs, diversified farms, city ties, humane kills, local foods, and other green priorities?  Consider Polyface Farm in Virginia, Pollan reports, for it practices a kind of chaotic complexity that melds all this and more.[48]  Its arrangements might not be perfect, but they are far more perfectionist than the industrial, monocultural farming promoted by America for more than a century.  Then the Nietzschean noble savage emerges, much to Pollan’s surprise, when he goes out to hunt for a meal.  Pollan’s perfectionist presentation of the hunt as a high that spills over into the ensuing meal echoes José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Hunting, or “hunter porn” as Pollan says with a humanist sense of embarrassment but also a human sense of fulfillment at how far his journey into perfectionist politics of everyday life has gone.[49]  Indeed Pollan portrays his forest hunting of a boar as a descent into darkness that thrills with senses extended and skills quickened into impulsive moves that turn out to be strangely attuned to the prey and their shared situation.

In Defense of Food attacks the modern, analytical science of nutrition in much the same incipiently postwestern way that Aldo Leopold found limits in the modern, mechanistic science of ecology.[50]  In this book and Pollan’s next on Food Rules, the dietary advice emerging from The Omnivore’s Dilemma gets presented as practical guides — almost as handbooks — for everyday eating.[51]  Yet the attack on modern, western civilization is explicit, ample, and amply evidenced for In Defense of Food, especially by standards of popular books.  The western diet is our disease, argues Pollan.  In fact, the postmodern unto postmodern platform for both books is a green expectation that western ways are their own undoing when it comes to food, farming, and political responses — by governments, yes, but especially by people in their daily lives.  All this gets a perfectionist philosophy in Pollan’s Cooked.  It starts with the familiar anthropological contrast between the raw and the cooked — as the mark of civilization most readily affirmed in the west.  It proceeds, though, to treat the chemical “magic” of cooking as the “transformation” that beckons and beguiles perfectionists in the mode of Emerson and Nietzsche.[52]  It’s too soon to say if Cooked has the classic potential of several earlier Pollan books, but it’s clear that we who want to understand green politics have a marked progression in Pollan from the chthonic to the chaotic and the perfectionist.  For Pollan, as for Berry and Le Guin and Snyder and others, to go green is to go dark.

Dark Deeds

This is turning out to hold also for Kim Stanley Robinson.  In my experience, Robinson is the most ample, subtle, and inventive analyst of the full gamut of environmental politics.  That his efforts are little known to scholars who analyze and theorize green politics is presumably because Robinson mainly writes science fiction rather than scholarship or theory.  By now, he has authored several handfuls of novels that dramatize environmentalist movements, policies, and lifestyles.  To me, at least, it’s hard to see how theorists of green politics can ignore novels by Robinson yet aspire to be respected for addressing important contributions to green politics.

Robinson has published two or three series on environmental conditions and politics, at three novels each.  He’s also published another handful of associated or stand-alone novels that resonate with green politics.  (He’s issued still other novels, too, some with green motifs and some not.)  Like his current journalistic equivalent, Pollan, Robinson began with emphatically republican approaches to green politics.  And like Pollan, Robinson’s green work has become more and more perfectionist of late; and it pays greater attention to “chaotic,” nonlinear systems too.  Like Snyder, Robinson seems to find perfectionism suited to green lifestyles first in eastern figures from Buddhism.  Yet Robinson has turned intensively of late to Emerson and Thoreau for perspectives and devices of perfectionism attuned to American culture and industry on the eve of environmental crisis.  In addition, Robinson seems intrigued by green contributions from sociobiological principles and paleolithic cultures, with both rooting his environmentalism in pre-western resources.  Thus Robinson is another environmentalist who goes dark to go green.

A child of Orange County, California in the middle of the twentieth century, Robinson published Three Californias to envision three versions of his home a hundred and more years hence.[53]  All three face degraded environments in southern California; but the third novel is set in a possible ecotopia — an ecological eutopia — that has been painstakingly raised from earlier debasement, and only that third book focuses on green politics.  The first book is a dystopia that explores possible perversities of perfectionist politics made totalitarian.  The second is a thriller about the military-industrial complex, replete with conspiracies, revolts, and other republican politics — as thrillers are apt to be.[54]  These initial novels establish a context for the third as an environmentalist republic adjusted beautifully to local needs and global technologies.  But the argument is that no “pocket utopias” are possible, so global complications intrude and local development leaves the environmentalists with a symbolic victory.  Is it pyrrhic or potent?  The predominant republicanism of the novel can leave readers hoping that the symbolism is strong.

The Mars Trilogy is hard science fiction that imagines the human settlement of Mars as a stage for probing many conditions and kinds of environmental politics.[55]  In these novels, the republican politics are entirely explicit, handsomely detailed, carefully criticized, then creatively amended.  The epic scope of this series makes room to explore how republican politics are at the root of the scientific civilization on Earth that has colonized the Red Planet.[56]  It also enables the novels to consider competitors to republican environmentalism:  green versions of capitalism, liberalism, anarchism, socialism, Islam, and so on.  For the first two novels, green republicanism nonetheless prevails by providing a Mars constitution and many, many important institutions.  The last and longest novel is different, though, for it could be said to experiment with turning some republican devices and principles into perfectionist styles and provocations.

Robinson’s latest green trilogy is Science in the Capital, the only science fiction novels I know to focus on politics of the National Science Foundation.[57]  Still these are where Robinson goes fully perfectionist.  The second novel features excerpts from as the internet font of ruminations by prolific transcendentalists.  The third novel uses similar clips to tell the sad and sobering but somehow heartening story of how Thoreau and Emerson viewed each other as Emerson lost his five-year-old son and soon Thoreau to wildly premature deaths.  Added to these are snippets of Tibetan Buddhism, experiments in paleolithic living adapted to American cities, blog entries imagined for a fully environmentalist President of the United States as he leads efforts to cope with abruptly chaotic climate change around the globe, etc.  Robinson includes characters giving their all to projects of geoengineering and policies of political adjustment, yet the emphasis throughout is on people adjusting their styles of life.  Some adjustments are radical and wrenching, some are small.  But predominantly the changes are perfectionist.  (For Americans of late, small changes can be perfectionist too, in part because there are so many strong strains of perfectionism already evident in our popular cultures of the twenty-first century.)

Maxims and slogans attract Robinson too.  His characters learn to leap before they look, but peek first.  They find that weather is landscape.  They pursue better legislation even as they seek Dionysian “release into shamanic transcendence.”  They revive paleolithic ways and join the voluntary simplicity movement, but they also appreciate and practice “the technological sublime.”  They seek “good correlations” in their scientific and political work, while they make time for “life outdoors as a value in itself.”  They discover to their surprise that permaculture implies permutation.  Even the literalists among them learn to trope.  And to cultivate their most profound and precious resource of imagination, they go dark — to go green.  Will our theories of green politics follow their lead?



[1]     Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark,” Collected Poems, 1957-1982 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 107.

[2]     John G. Gunnell, Political Philosophy and Time (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), 40.

[3]     See William Leiss, The Domination of Nature (New York: George Braziller, 1972); William Ophuls, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1977); Andrew Dobson, Green Political Thought (New York: Routledge, 1990, 1995); Adrian Atkinson, Principles of Political Ecology (London: Bellhaven Press, 1991); Robyn Eckersley, Environmentalism and Political Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992); David Pepper, Eco-Socialism (New York: Routledge, 1993); John S. Dryzek, The Politics of the Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Andrew Jamison, The Making of Green Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); John M. Meyer, Political Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001); Andrew Dobson and Robyn Eckersley, eds., Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Peter F. Cannavò and Joseph H. Lane Jr., eds., Engaging Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).

[4]     See Hugh Stretton, Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

[5]     See Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals (New York, Basic Books, 1987, 2000).

[6]     On political implications of “chaos theory” for nonlinear systems, see N. Katherine Hayles, ed., Chaos and Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); John S. Nelson, Politics in Popular Movies (Boulder: Paradigm, 2015), 31-54.

[7]     See Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: Norton, 1997); Jared Diamond, Collapse (New York: Viking, 2005); Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead (New York: Random House, 2004); Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (New York: Henry Holt, 2014); Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[8]     Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” From Max Weber, eds. and trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 77-128 on 128.

[9]     See Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: Norton, 1974, 1991).  Also see Neal Stephenson, Zodiac:  The Eco-Thriller (New York: Bantam, 1988); Neal Stephenson, seveneves (New York: William Morrow, 2015); David Brin, Earth (New York: Bantam, 1990); Edan Lepucki, California (New York: Little, Brown, 2014).

[10]    See David W. Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978, 1981); Wendell Berry, “We Who Prayed and Wept,” Collected Poems, 211.

[11]    Critics are quicker to discern and insist on this dark strain of craving green catastrophes.  See Michael Crichton, State of Fear (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).

[12]    See J. A. O. Larsen, Representative Government in Greek and Roman History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955); Paul A. Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, three volumes, 1994).

[13]    See Wendell Berry:  The Long-Legged House (Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard, 1965, 2004); A Continuous Harmony (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972); The Unsettling of America (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977); The Gift of Good Land (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981); Home Economics (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987); What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990); Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (New York: Random House, 1992); Another Turn of the Crank (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1995); Life Is a Miracle (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000); Citizenship Papers (Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003); Bringing It to the Table (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009); It All Turns on Affection (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012).

[14]    See Wendell Berry, The Way of Ignorance, and Other Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2005), 53-67; Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, 121-2 and 151-2.

[15]    Ursula K. Le Guin, “Totem” and “Sleeping Out,” Buffalo Gals, and Other Animal Presences (New York: New American Library, 1987), 134 and 136.

[16]    See Wendell Berry, Standing by Words (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983).

[17]    Gary Snyder, “Milton by Firelight,” Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1965), 7-8; Gary Snyder, “How Poetry Comes to Me,” No Nature (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992).

[18]    Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain (1949),” A Sand County Almanac (New York: Ballantine, 1949, 1966), 137-41.

[19]    Michael Pollan, Second Nature (New York: Dell, 1991), 139-59.

[20]    Libertarian environmentalism is prominent in the work of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana.  Murray Bookchin has been the premier anarchist green:  see Remaking Society (Boston: South End Press, 1990).

[21]    See Arne Naess, Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Arne Naess, The Ecology of Wisdom, eds. Alan Drengson and Bill Devall (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008).  Also see Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985); Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue, eds., The Deep Ecology Movement (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1995).

[22]    See Peter C. List, Radical Environmentalism (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993).

[23]    See John S. Nelson, Tropes of Politics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 205-30.

[24]    See Carl G. Jung, Psyche and Symbol, ed. Violet S. de Laszlo (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958; Carl G. Jung, The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York: Viking Press, 1971).  Also see Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz, Projecting the Shadow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[25]    See Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature (New York: Harper and Row, 1980); Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology (New York: Routledge, 1992); Carolyn Merchant, Earthcare (New York: Routledge, 1995).  Also see Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein, Reweaving the World (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990); Greta Gaard, ed., Ecofeminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).

[26]    The related, Pulitzer-Prize-winning classic of ecofeminist literature is Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991).

[27]    See Gary Snyder, Myths and Texts (New York: New Directions Books, 1960, 1978); Gary Snyder, Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1965); Gary Snyder, The Back Country (New York: New Directions Books, 1968); Gary Snyder, Regarding Wave (New York: New Directions Books, 1970); Gary Snyder, Axe Handles (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983); Gary Snyder, Left Out in the Rain (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986).  Also see Gary Snyder, Passage Through India (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1972, 1983); Gary Snyder, The Old Ways (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1977); Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990).

[28]    See Kim Stanley Robinson, Icehenge, (New York: Ace Books, 1984); Kim Stanley Robinson, ed., Future Primitive (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1994); Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt (New York: Bantam, 2002); Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (New York: Orbit, 2012); and Kim Stanley Robinson, Shaman (New York: Orbit, 2013).

[29]    See Ursula K. Le Guin, Sixty Odd (Boston: Shambhala, 1999); Le Guin, Buffalo Gals.  Also see Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World Is Forest (New York: Berkley, 1972); Ursula K. Le Guin, Annals of the Western Shore (New York: Harcourt):  Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), Powers (2007).

[30]    See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978).

[31]    See John S. Nelson, Popular Cinema as Political Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 83-193.  Also see Nelson, Politics in Popular Movies, 24-30, 56-68, and 106-72.

[32]    See William Cronon, “Kennecott Journey:  The Paths out of Town,” Under an Open Sky, eds. William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin (New York: Norton, 1992), 28-51.

[33]    Aldo Leopold, “The Round River (1953),” A Sand County Almanac, 188-202 on 190.

[34]    Leopold, “The Round River,” 196.

[35]    See Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic (1953),” A Sand County Almanac, 237-64.

[36]    See Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983); Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (New York: New American Library, 1973).  Also see Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Francis Golffing (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956); Ecce Homo, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Baltimore: Penguin, 1979); Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982).  And see Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Stanley Cavell, Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1989); Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Stanley Cavell, Philosophical Passages (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995); Stanley Cavell, Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, ed. David Justin Hodge (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[37]    See Pollan, Second Nature, 209-38.

[38]    See Nelson, Tropes of Politics, 138-9; Politics in Popular Movies, 55-104.

[39]    See John S. Nelson, “Prudence as Republican Politics in American Popular Culture,” Prudence, ed. Robert Hariman (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 229-57.

[40]    See Pollan, Second Nature, 45-64 and 116-59.

[41]    See Pollan, Second Nature, 153.

[42]    See Pollan, Second Nature, 178-208.

[43]    See Pollan, Second Nature, 93-115 and 241-68.

[44]    See Michael Pollan, A Place of My Own (New York: Dell, 1997).

[45]    See Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire (New York: Random House, 2001), 1-58, 59-110, 111-79, and 181-238.  Also see Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind (New York: Penguin, 2019).

[46]    See Michael Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant:  Scientists Debate a New Way of Understanding Flora,” New Yorker, 89, no. 42 (December 23 and 30, 2013): 92-105.  Also see Pollan, The Botany of Desire, xiii-xxv.

[47]    See Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 13-119.

[48]    See Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 121-273.

[49]    See Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 275-411.  Also see José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting, trans. Howard B. Wescott (New York: Scribner, 1972).

[50]    See Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food (New York: Penguin, 2008).

[51]    See Michael Pollan, Food Rules (New York: Penguin, 2009).

[52]    Michael Pollan, Cooked (New York: Penguin, 2013).

[53]    See Kim Stanley Robinson, Three Californias (New York: Tom Doherty Associates):  The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988), and Pacific Edge (1990).

[54]    See Nelson, Politics in Popular Movies, 18-23, 106-37, and 150-72.

[55]    See Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy (New York: Bantam):  Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), Blue Mars (1996), plus The Martians (1999).

[56]    See John S. Nelson, “Humanism, Materialism, and Epistemology:  Rhetoric of Economics as Styles in Action,” Humanism Challenges Materialism in Economics and Economic History, eds. Roderick Floud, Santhi Hejeebu, and David Mitch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 224-55.

[57]    See Kin Stanley Robinson, Science in the Capital (New York: Bantam):  Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007).  Related are Escape from Kathmandu (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1989); Antarctica (New York: Bantam, 1998); and Red Moon (New York: Orbit, 2018).

John S. NelsonJohn S. Nelson

John S. Nelson

John S. Nelson is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa. He is author and editor of several books, including Popular Cinema as Political Theory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Politics in Popular Movies (Paradigm, 2015); and Cowboy Politics: Myths and Discourses in Popular Westerns from The Virginian to Unforgiven and Deadwood (Lexington Books, 2017).

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