Historical Eye on Environmental Movements

Cornell Professor Aaron Sachs searches through history environmental issues and quality of life...

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Professor Aaron J. Sachs, History, College of Arts and Sciences (Jesse Winter)
Professor Aaron J. Sachs, History, College of Arts and Sciences (Jesse Winter)

By Jackie Swift via Cornell Research

We tend to view the environmental movement as a modern development, but if you think people in the past didn’t worry about things like pollution, natural resource scarcity, or environmental justice, think again. There was an awareness of environmental issues that goes back centuries, says Aaron Sachs, History. In his latest research projects, Sachs is looking through history for those who questioned the effects of modernity on the environment and quality of life.

Lewis Mumford, a Historical Environmentalist

Sachs’ biggest project is a study of Lewis Mumford, an intellectual in the first half of the twentieth century, who focused on the key issues of modernity in that time period. Sachs' book will cover Mumford’s career from 1920 to 1950. “Mumford is very clear about the disadvantages of modernity at a time when people were very positive about it,” says Sachs. “They looked at the new skyscrapers, new medicines, and new machines and said, ‘Isn’t this amazing? Aren’t we great?’ And Mumford’s position was that there’s a cost to all these advances. He said, ‘Look at the great cities and look at all the people crammed into tenements, breathing polluted air.’”

While Mumford pointed out the ill effects of modernity, he differed from many environmentalists who advocated a back-to-nature approach, Sachs says. “He criticized the city, but he was completely committed to it. His position was that we’re not going to dismantle the city, so let’s try to make it better. Let’s make it more humane and livable for more people.”

Mumford looked for inspiration on dealing with the environmental problems of modernity from a surprising source: Herman Melville. These days Melville has a reputation as a metaphysical writer. Moby Dick, in particular, is seen as a search for God and a universal confrontation with nature, full of symbolism. In 1920, that interpretation of Melville hadn’t yet happened, and Mumford perceived the writer in a completely different light. “He saw Melville as someone who was engaged with nineteenth-century society and the things that were transforming it,” says Sachs. “For Mumford, Moby Dick is about the rise of capitalism, a new scientific way of going about whaling, and new mixes of people in America as evidenced by the wide range of races and backgrounds of the whalers on the ship. All of these forces of modernity are juxtaposed against older ways of being, of engaging with nature, animals, and the sea—and with each other.”

Mumford was encouraged by looking back at Melville, Sachs says. “Mumford is experiencing the trauma of modernity, and he sees Melville as a tragic figure who heroically confronts the massive transformations of modernity and tries to carve out a humane space within it.”

The Search for a Positive Definition of Environmental Justice

In another project, titled Environmental Justice: History of an Idea, Sachs is casting even further back in time for the roots of environmental justice. “The difficult thing about the environmental justice movement is that people have struggled to define it in positive terms,” he says. “It got started as a toxics movement, and it is defined as the opposite of all these injustices we can list that have to do with toxins and those who are most vulnerable to them—usually the poor and minorities of various kinds.”

Hoping to identify a positive way to define environmental justice, Sachs is looking for inspiration from earlier Western thinkers, as well as from the experiences of various community resistance movements in the past. “I’m interested in how Western thinkers put together questions of land use and social justice, and whether they articulated those connections in a way that is meaningful to us today,” he explains. “And I want to unpack resistance movements as well, cases where communities bonded together to resist what they saw as environmental injustice.”

He has found meaningful discussions stretching all the way back to eighteenth-century England on the legal process of enclosure (enclosing of a number of small landholdings to create one larger farm for the benefit of one land owner). He has also uncovered discourses in France on the fairness and justice of land allocation and land theft in the new colonies. Sachs is exploring the arguments of nineteenth-century geographers who founded a movement known as anarchist geography and of Native Americans who resisted Western notions of land use.

The Search Continues: Murray Bookchin, Humor

One of Sachs' main inspirations for a positive definition of environmental justice comes from Murray Bookchin, anarchist, socialist historian, and political theorist. In the 1960s, Bookchin developed the concept of social ecology, which focuses on reconstructive, transformative ways to deal with social and environmental issues. “Bookchin’s idea of social ecology was the immediate intellectual root of environmental justice,” Sachs says, “even if people haven’t heard of Bookchin or the phrase social ecology. I like that phrase because it opens up big questions that might lead to a more positive definition of what environmental justice is.”

Sachs' quest for positive ways to inform the environmental movement also led him to the third book project he is working on, Decline Comedy: a Lighthearted Tour Through the Purgatory of Climate Change. Using a humorous tone, Sachs plans to look at the use of humor in the context of climate change. Specifically, he seeks to understand why the environmental movement has traditionally eschewed humor—and what might be gained by embracing it. Along the way he plans to explore the history of dark humor as a way to deal with serious problems.

“Humor is not only a coping strategy,” he says. “If you look at the history of satire, for instance, you’ll see that humor also can have a political edge, and that’s how it’s beginning to play out today in the environmental world. I will give some examples of environmental humor and suggest why this is something worth pursuing, especially in the context of climate change.”

Humor may give the environmental movement added appeal and may make it easier to reach more people, but at this point the impact is unclear. “I would ask, though, has the tragic mode worked?” Sachs says. “There are still a lot of people who aren’t listening to the conversation. Humor tends to open people up. It puts them in a more unsettled space. This can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it can also spur them toward new thought and new action.”

Ultimately Sachs hopes all his various projects jolt people into a different mindset. “I’m interested in shaking people up,” he says. “I think that’s one of our jobs as scholars.”

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