|Original image at jameswilliamgibson.com|
Author: James William Gibson
Tree-huggers have a negative connotation in today's culture. Somehow, they've acquired this stereotype of long-haired, smelly, poor, bleeding-heart liberals, and we look down on them as a handicap to progress. They strap themselves to bulldozers for the sake of a few trees, and that's ridiculous, right? Why defend a few trees?
It's more than the trees. It's a kinship with nature itself, according to James William Gibson's book A Reenchanted World. With detailed journalism and observations on sociology, Gibson explores the modern yearning for a connection with nature amidst the expanding suburban world of chain-link fences and asphalt. While he does address the whole world, he mostly focuses on America, which deserves all the discussion it gets.
The book begins with the story of John Quigley, who received national attention for his two-month-long tree-sit in California in 2002. The local developers wanted to tear down the tree in order to expand a road into a subdivision, and the local environmentalists howled in protest. Quigley climbed into the tree and refused to move, much to the chagrin of the developers, and was supported by other environmentalists in the LA area. "Old Glory," as he named the tree, remained standing.
This fierce love for nature is not new to the world, but it's new to us, according to Gibson. For nearly 200 years, Americans have been recklessly and aggressively taking hold of the New World, blazing fields and drilling oil rigs in the name of progress, and the victims have been endangered species, our natural environment, and the climate. Odd, considering that the Native Americans are some of the most naturally-connected people on the planet, and it is from this that Gibson draws his beginning.
Native Americans believe in the spirituality of nature, and the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s stemmed mostly from a revival in tribal traditions amongst Native American chieftains. As we know, it spread quickly through the youth because of the anti-war sentiments at the time, taking the world in great strides with movements like "flower power" and Greenpeace. Yet, despite all the positive effects that a more natural environment has been proven to have, these hippies have been blacklisted by modern society as radical, liberal, and dangerous.
Gibson takes this movement in hand and explains the desire for a connection with nature in both scientific and spiritual terms. The very title refers to attaching a holiness to the natural world, which seems ridiculous to us. But if you look at it, we do anyway. Gibson's primary example is our reverence for whales. People come from around the world to the great oceans to take a cruise liner out into the middle of the sea just to see whales surface for a moment, and it changes them. This doesn't just apply to biologists or whale experts; ordinary people have been reduced to tears by simply watching a whale surface out of the water for a moment, blow water at them, and disappear majestically once more. Any whale stranded on a beach makes national news as hundreds of people rush to its rescue, and there was recently a film entitled Big Miracle based on the true story of the drastic attempts to rescue a whale family marooned in the ice. Shamoo, the performing whale at SeaWorld, is more famous than many humans.
Gibson's point is not that we are coming back to nature worship, or that people will soon revert to worshiping ants or grass. No, instead, he outlines the reasons that we are still attached deeply to our world, and that environmentalism is merely an expression of the love and responsibility that we must bear for our planet.
This book was remarkably similar in topic to The World Without Us, which I reviewed earlier this year. However, Gibson doesn't have Weisman's writing charisma, and A Reenchanted World reads like a scientific article. The facts and points are well laid-out, the theme is relevant, and the ideas that he shares are true and thought-provoking, but it still feels dry. Scattered with words like "dispensationalism" and "counterculture," Gibson might have reached a wider audience by simplifying his ideas into layman's terms.
Addressing environmentalism's place in politics is necessary for any ecology book, but because of the stiff relations between the two, the discussion can become awkward. Gibson devotes two chapters for politics and religion, and while they make excellent points, they both feel a bit like rants against the right wing and conservatism. Although the men he refers to are radicals and usually known as such, he does not address the moderate right wing, nor the average American view of environmentalism, which leaves a big gap in our ideology. It is easy to pick out the red threads in the weave, but all the ones that blend together make the big picture and are equally important.
Altogether, this book makes an important contribution to the picture of today's environmentalism: it's not just a sense of misplaced duty, but a pure connection to the world that motivates us to save it. Rife with excellent examples and pithy quotes, Gibson has provided us with a guidebook for why we love nature and how to responsibly go about conserving it as long as we can. There are more details about the book on his website.
The book is only two years old, so it's available for $9.99 from the Kindle store or $10.80 in hardback from Amazon. The library might have a copy, so check there first, but do read this. Even if you're not an environmentalist, it can't hurt to understand what drives them, and it might help to make you understand our world and its people a little better.