Does Anti-Environmental Literature Exist?

Paradise, For Some

If you check out any list of top environmental writing (ours, for instance), you’ll notice that it is less a list of writing about the environment, and more a list of writing concerning how to protect the environment.  In other words, at some level it takes an explicit normative view.  Now, that normative view is a big tent: Edward Abbey detested cities, and David Owen thinks that they are greener than rural areas.  But all seem to think that protecting the environment is important in some sense.

So what would anti-environmental literature look like?  And does it exist?

It would be unrealistic to expect anyone to say explicitly that the Earth should be trashed.  Authors hostile to the poor rarely say so explicitly (although some do) and probably do not consider themselves to be so.  Rather, anti-environmental literature would argue that environmental protection just isn’t that important either because 1) the planet’s resources are so plentiful that we can never run out of them; or 2) the earth’s capacity for regeneration is more than sufficient to ensure whatever lifestyle we want.  (Perhaps another variation is that The Rapture will soon be upon us, so it doesn’t matter: that certainly exists, but it isn’t common).

So…any ideas?  What are the classics of anti-environmental literature?  Any other way to define it?

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Reader Comments

10 Replies to “Does Anti-Environmental Literature Exist?”

  1. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead:

    “You’ve never felt how small you were when looking at the ocean.”

    He laughed. “Never. Nor looking at the planets. Nor at mountain peaks. Nor at the Grand Canyon. Why should I? When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man. I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all that senseless space. When I look at mountain peaks, I think of tunnels and dynamite. When I look at the planets, I think of airplanes.”

    . . .

    “I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pesthole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage. Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window–no, I don’t feel how small I am–but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.”

    (May not be “literature” in the sense you were using that word, or, actually, in any sense of the word, but it is anti-environmental.)

    Compare the “small beside the ocean” bit to Lee Ann Womack, “I Hope you Dance.”

  2. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead:

    “You’ve never felt how small you were when looking at the ocean.”

    He laughed. “Never. Nor looking at the planets. Nor at mountain peaks. Nor at the Grand Canyon. Why should I? When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man. I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all that senseless space. When I look at mountain peaks, I think of tunnels and dynamite. When I look at the planets, I think of airplanes.”

    . . .

    “I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pesthole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage. Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window–no, I don’t feel how small I am–but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.”

    (May not be “literature” in the sense you were using that word, or, actually, in any sense of the word, but it is anti-environmental.)

    Compare the “small beside the ocean” bit to Lee Ann Womack, “I Hope you Dance.”

  3. I was also going to suggest Ayn Rand, though I would not have been able to identify the specific passage. What’s striking about her is that she explicitly states a preference for human domination of the natural world, whereas other authors would simply ignore or overlook environmental concerns. She was the rare writer who viewed the despoilation of nature as a positive good, which is distinct from the more common view that environmental degradation may simply be an acceptable cost of technological progress, economic growth, etc.

    With that caveat in mind, I suspect some science fiction would qualify as “anti-environmental” in the same way that, say, Kim Stanley Robison’s “Red Mars” could be seen as a work of “environmental” literature. I’m sure some sci-fi writers have celebrated technological domination of the earth in a way that would strike most environmentalists as quite dystopian.

    And insofar as one might see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as “environmental” insofar as it suggests the dangers of amoral scientific inquiry and messing with the natural order of life, literature that celebrates scientists as Promethean figures could be seen as “anti-environmental,” insofar as it is anti-precautionary.

  4. I was also going to suggest Ayn Rand, though I would not have been able to identify the specific passage. What’s striking about her is that she explicitly states a preference for human domination of the natural world, whereas other authors would simply ignore or overlook environmental concerns. She was the rare writer who viewed the despoilation of nature as a positive good, which is distinct from the more common view that environmental degradation may simply be an acceptable cost of technological progress, economic growth, etc.

    With that caveat in mind, I suspect some science fiction would qualify as “anti-environmental” in the same way that, say, Kim Stanley Robison’s “Red Mars” could be seen as a work of “environmental” literature. I’m sure some sci-fi writers have celebrated technological domination of the earth in a way that would strike most environmentalists as quite dystopian.

    And insofar as one might see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as “environmental” insofar as it suggests the dangers of amoral scientific inquiry and messing with the natural order of life, literature that celebrates scientists as Promethean figures could be seen as “anti-environmental,” insofar as it is anti-precautionary.

  5. With all due respect, no one has attempted to construe my commentary on this forum as somehow “anti-environmental,” so please accept my gratitude for fair play. This give us hope that someday soon we can get beyond the distraction of climate and on to more important issues.

  6. With all due respect, no one has attempted to construe my commentary on this forum as somehow “anti-environmental,” so please accept my gratitude for fair play. This give us hope that someday soon we can get beyond the distraction of climate and on to more important issues.

  7. How about “The Moral Equivalent of War?”

    Social justice and civic bonds though “a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.”

    As Jimmy Carter demonstrated, the ideal of shared sacrafice as a means to a stronger society does not need to be wedded to an anti-environmental campaign. But that’s certainly the approach that James took:

    “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

  8. How about “The Moral Equivalent of War?”

    Social justice and civic bonds though “a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.”

    As Jimmy Carter demonstrated, the ideal of shared sacrafice as a means to a stronger society does not need to be wedded to an anti-environmental campaign. But that’s certainly the approach that James took:

    “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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