Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.
There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.
Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.
Purdy is a law professor at Duke, and as such, he feels most at home in American history. His book is, among other things, a panoramic tour of what he calls the “American environmental imagination.” In Purdy’s telling, European settlers initially took a providential view of North America, seeing it as a wild land set apart by god for human cultivation. The Romantics that followed saw America’s landscapes as “secular cathedrals,” meant to inspire awe and reflection. In the late 19th century, a new utilitarian cast of mind took hold, and America’s wild lands—especially its forests—became resources to be managed.