Emerson & Thoreau on Environment


Editor’s Note: This post has been written by Peter Jokubauskas, a student in Dr. White’s American Literature class at Lewis University.  Dr. White’s students were to submit some of their public posts for the class to the Jet Fuel Review Blog as an assignment. Peter has written his post on the environmental opinions of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

One of the great questions of today’s world is the status of the natural environment. Between global climate change, pollution, deforestation, and any number of other man made assaults upon nature, many question whether the environment should be protected closely or simply left to be harvested and divided up for profit. Were they still alive today, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau would have much to say on these issues. Both Emerson and Thoreau found a deep connection between themselves and nature, and they would surly argue that the natural world must be preserved and protected. The writings of these nineteenth century men are important to modern audiences because contain the idea that within nature, man truly finds himself, and as such, nature and the environment must be preserved and protected.

In his famous text “Nature,” Emerson discusses the importance of nature and how one can benefit greatly from experiences with it. Emerson says, “in the woods, we return to reason and faith” and become “part and particle with God” (Emerson 494). He describes the wonder of nature and how experiencing nature can greatly improve a person. This message is just as relevant today as it was in the 1830s when Emerson was writing. People today lead high stress lives filled with technology and noise, experiencing nature as Emerson descried it would benefit a modern person greatly.

Thoreau would agree with Emerson that the modern person of today could benefit from nature. He says, “The better part of the man is ploughed into the soil for compost” (Thoreau 846). The idea that Thoreau presents in this quote is that for most of a person’s life, they work for no personal gain, or as the modern person might say, often find themselves working in dead end jobs. People today seek escape from the cycle of work not usually in nature, but rather in technology and other consumer goods. Thoreau would argue that, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (851). Thoreau would be appalled by the modern obsession with obtaining the latest and greatest technologies and he would stress the idea that in simplicity one truly finds happiness. He would argue that nature should be protected because in nature, as his mentor Emerson often said, one can find the peace of mind and spirit that one often searches for.

The modern person is faced with the question of whether or not nature should be protected and preserved, or whether doing so is worth the effort and it should rather be neglected. If one understands and accepts the arguments of Emerson and Thoreau, they may quickly find themselves supporting the protection of natural environments. These two men truly help a person to see the problems with their own lives, and offer a possible solution to these problems within nature. One may feel powerless however, when it comes to changing the policy of nations in order to protect the natural environment, but Thoreau says the government “has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.” (829). Thoreau is adamant that through peaceful protest and resistance an individual has the power to effect change on a global level. Emerson and Thoreau agree on many points such as self-reliance, and the sanctity of nature, and the messages of both of these men are still applicable to modern audiences. Modern people should read Emerson and Thoreau closely because what these men said is still extremely relevant and important in today’s world.

— Peter Jokubauskas

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