After Copenhagen Chaos, A Bit of Emerson for the Soul

For the many millions around the globe who have hoped that deliverance from the evils of an ineffectual Kyoto Protocol would come through a grand Copenhagen climate bargain, there has to be a feeling of deflation.

Yes, there have been steps toward progress on curbing greenhouse gases at Copenhagen. But the reality is that planet's future may be lost in a virtual Babel of infighting, in a quarrel that revolves around insoluble moral questions over rich and poor and who shall inherit, and clean up, a destabilizing Earth.

Having seen and endured all the politics and mud-slinging of the past two weeks, perhaps it's time for all of us to step back, take a breath, clean off.

The quest to preserve the biosphere, the only dwelling place we have, and where our children and their children will need to live, began well over a century ago. The beginnings of environmental consciousness came as the ravages of unenlightened, primitive-stage industrialization were made plain and called out for concrete remedy; and they came out of an evolving philosophy, seeded by thinkers around the planet, that explored humankind's spiritual relation to the natural world.

Environmental thinking, in other words, has always had a practical and a philosophical side.

In Copenhagen, we have seen the artists of the practical struggle mightily, and likely fail at the immediate task before them: preventing the atmosphere from eventually measuring 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide; stopping the global temperature average from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Those things we may not be able to prevent, though doubtless more attempts will be made to thwart them in follow-up talks in Mexico City a year from now, and in efforts in years beyond.

There are many valid reasons to want to cut greenhouse gas emissions, most of which involve health and safety and the flow of money. They have been articulated loudly in the run-up to, and during, Copenhagen: to protect coastal cities from rising seas and powerful hurricanes; to ensure justice for the island nations, to those vulnerable to drought and unpredictable, weird weather patterns; to wean ourselves off of oil and protect our national security; to create a brave new economic world of cleantech manufacturing and jobs.

The brilliantly original Stewart Brand, in his new book "Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto," has a whole chapter on the environmental movement's age-old divide between the "romantics" and the "scientists." He also sees a new category emerging: the "engineers." His view: the environmental movement now needs more problem-solving engineers, fewer idealists or detached scientists. And his point is well taken as we look to mitigate climate change in the coming years. The hard-headed engineers of the future may be the last best hope for a green energy revolution.

But at this difficult moment - one that feels almost funereal for many, the very winter of climate discontent - there is still some consolation in recalling the philosophy that got the discussion going. It has a way of clarifying things and maybe bringing renewal.

When I reflect on what brought so many people to this issue in the first place, whether through journalism, policy, or activism, I can't help but be drawn back in time, to when two kinds of influences began to shape my own thinking as a young person: the direct experience of wilderness, woods, mountains, meadows, rivers, seas; and the experience of reading the "greats" who articulated an ethic of care for the natural world. Here I mean the more contemporary giants like Leopold and Dillard and Abbey; but also, the "founders" like Thoreau and, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose seminal book "Nature" was published in 1836, and which found its way into my hands as a boy some century and a half later.

It sounds strange, but it's true: Emerson has been on my mind as the promise of Copenhagen fades. Thoreau is always the more obvious environmental patron saint to invoke - What would Thoreau say? He would be outraged! - but to me, Emerson's sweeping ideas have a way of cutting through the clutter of our moment.

Perhaps my thoughts of him were triggered by walking out again recently into nature, as Emerson encouraged his readers to do. I was hiking with some friends in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, plodding up the trail at a pitifully slow rate, then snowshoeing my way back down. I was thinking about the rifts at Copenhagen, and about what it would mean to live in a world where Emerson's "Nature" - this "web of God," as he once put it - is diminished dramatically.

I know I'm not alone in being swept away like this: When you look out on wind-blasted peaks that sweep down into valleys of frosted trees - when you are "out there" among the eloquence of the elements - thought of this "romantic" type comes in purer form. So does deeper reflection. What is nature? Why is it valuable? What is our relation to it? Where are we going together?

For me, it is always somehow easier to think get a little more philosophical in the natural world. Maybe even closer to truth. There's something to be said for a strong sense of "place" and our capacity to think, I believe. Sitting in a cubicle, commuting to work, hunkering down in the house, just doesn't cut it.

And then a half-serious thought occurs to me in the wilderness: I wonder if they should have held the Copenhagen talks in a forest, or on a mountain. Would there have been any difference?

Emerson recognized this connection between nature and a certain elevation of mind, and he explains it in the title essay from "Nature":

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel nothing can befall me in life - no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground - my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance.

As prose goes, purple, yes; double divinity fudge to our postmodern sensibilities. The passage is a product of its time, the experimental 19th century Romantic period when poets and essayists were thinking hard about what nature really meant to us. But here are the origins of environmentalism, laid bare. Consider what Emerson is elucidating here - the opportunity to move beyond our daily humdrum lives, if only for a moment, to sample some higher state of being, to be a "transparent eyeball." What is this worth to us?

The grand media and public relations framings of Copenhagen have been: Can humankind come together and collectively save itself? Can we acknowledge the sinews and fibers that connect us, morally and ecologically? Can we meet our obligations to other nations?

There is another important thread, however, that perhaps got inevitably lost at Copenhagen, one that involves, as Emerson's famous "transparent eyeball" passage suggests, only the individual.

Just you. And the beauty of the natural world. No need for the "disturbance" of ties to humanity, to nations, to IPCC or G-77 or whatever. There, in wilderness, available to all who still have it, rich and poor, is the transcendental possibility. That is where much begins, and where much value inheres.

This may all sound hokey to the skeptic, even like some confused mash-up of neo-paganism - and Emerson the preacher was scorned for his sentiments by more orthodox clergymen of his time - but it's worth thinking about for those who still hold out hope. Is it time rewind, to remember what came before the million policy proposals and plenary sessions and the multi-party international deal-making at Copenhagen? Is it time to get back to the spiritual and aesthetic basis for preserving the planet?

What, Emerson might ask, of nature's intrinsic value for humanity? After all, he saw the natural world as, in a sense, feeding the soul:

All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.

An infinitely valuable system, one whose parts are inextricably linked.

If such thinking is wooly-headed, it is a wooly-headedness that has found itself attracting adherents from all walks of life through the years: rugged frontiersmen and mountaineers; hunters and fishermen; evangelicals interested in honoring God's gift and demonstrating responsible stewardship; policymakers in Republican administrations like those of Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and in liberal ones like those of FDR and Bill Clinton.

So, a final question, one for our melancholy moment: What would Emerson, who thought that nature was so crucial to the wholeness of human experience, make of a world warped by man-made climate change?

The answer is, of course, unknowable with any precision. It's worth noting, though, the following: just down the road from Emerson's home, Walden Pond and its surrounding flora are being affected by climate change, the spring blooming times increasingly early for many plants (as Boston University scientist Richard Primack has been demonstrating.) So climate change is indeed hitting home for the "Sage of Concord."

The cerebral Emerson would not likely have policy answers, nor anything practical to bring to the Copenhagen follow-up conference in Mexico City a year from now. He wouldn't know what to tell the EPA about bringing down the regulatory hammer on coal factories, or how to get the U.S. Senate to ratify whatever final treaty the international process eventually produces.

But at this moment of confusion, at the difficult end of a year, the bookend of a wearying decade, I'm remembering these words of his:

The misery of man appears like a childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? This zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year? Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve him. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, his bed.

If nothing else, Emerson would still marvel at our ever-diminishing "green ball." And of this "striped coat of climates," he would surely say it is worth keeping.