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Our World, Beyond Walden

Karbank Symposium explores Thoreau’s environmental philosophy

Click on the slide show above to learn how CAS Biology Professor Richard Primack uses Henry David Thoreau’s notations of plant flowering cycles and bird migration patterns as a basis for research into the local effects of global climate change.

 

Henry David Thoreau is known mainly for his writing, but he was also one of the first great environmentalists. Lately, in fact, he’s been involved in some conservation controversies. “Was he an ecocentrist or an egocentrist? A preservationist or a conservationist?” asks Alfred Tauber, Zoltan Kohn Professor of Medicine at the School of Medicine, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of philosophy, and director of the Center for Philosophy and History of Science. “Thoreau’s placement in this debate is testament to his authority as a seer of environmentalists.”

Thoreau’s perspective is the main topic of the Fall 2007 Karbank Symposium in Environmental Philosophy: Thoreau and Environmentalism, to be held this Friday, November 16. The annual event offers a forum for discussing issues in environmental philosophy, broadly construed, and is named in honor of philosophy department benefactor and series sponsor Steven Karbank (CAS’79). Symposium topics range from biodiversity and transgenic respeciation to global warming and nature aesthetics.

This year’s Karbank Symposium features four highly regarded thinkers and writers. Richard Primack, a CAS professor of biology, will discuss Thoreau as a Climate Change Scientist. Max Oelschlaeger, a professor of humanities, arts, and religion at Northern Arizona University, will talk about Thoreau’s Anticipations of Human Agency in Ecological Context, and William Rossi, an associate professor of English at the University of Oregon, will speak on Thoreauvian Science and the Environmental Subject. Finally, Tauber will lecture on Thoreau’s Pantheism and the Birth of American Environmentalism. The symposium moderator is Charles Capper, a CAS professor of history.

BU Today caught up with Primack to ask a few questions about his research on Thoreau and New England’s climate change.
 
BU Today: What do Thoreau’s journals teach us about climate change?
Primack:
In the 1850s, Thoreau constructed a calendar of nature for Concord, Mass. He recorded the first flowering time of more than 300 plant species and the first spring arrival time of dozens of species of migratory birds. And so what my students and I have done over the last four years is to repeat these same observations in Concord, and we’ve found that the plants are flowering about eight days earlier than they were during the time of Thoreau. Similar studies have been done throughout the United States, but this one is unusual because the time span that’s covered is very long. Most important, it links climate change research with the name of Henry David Thoreau and his work at Walden Pond, so it’s an example that Americans can understand very readily.

How has the environment around Walden Pond changed since Thoreau’s day?
Concord was a farming town then, and most of the landscape was cleared for agricultural farming and cattle and sheep grazing. When Thoreau was alive, there were only a few patches of woods, but that area is now forested. During Thoreau’s time, people began abandoning agricultural life, and it underwent a very dramatic decline after the Civil War. Now there’s relatively little agriculture left in New England, and it means that the whole pattern of wildflower and animal distribution has changed very dramatically. It’s not really good or bad; it’s simply a change that is being driven by the economics of agriculture and logging. The part that you could say is not good is that a lot of the wildflowers need open habitats to survive, so many of the wildflowers that Thoreau saw can’t be found anymore because they require open meadows to survive. When Thoreau was alive, there were a lot of orchid and lily species, and those are hard to find today. There’s also been a change of animal population. In Thoreau’s time, there were no deer in Concord because they were all hunted out. Now there are a lot of deer in Concord, which also contributes to the decline of wildflowers because the deer graze on the plants. 

Why should these changes concern us?
These changes are direct indications that climate change is here and it’s affecting the natural world, even in New England. A lot of the evidence for climate change that people hear about seems very far away — ice sheets in Greenland, polar bears in northern Canada, and glaciers on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Americans don’t appreciate the fact that climate change is affecting them, too. But we’re experiencing changes in weather patterns in the eastern United States, and it’s something we need to take seriously. Whether the plants flower a week earlier in New England probably isn’t all that important to our natural world, but it is an indication that climate change is already happening, and there are other, more serious consequences of climate change.

What types of consequences?
As temperatures increase, it’s highly likely that a lot of our rare wildflower and animal species will go extinct. A lot of rare New England species grow only in the alpine meadows on the tops of the Presidential Range and Mount Katahdin, and as temperatures warm, they will dry up and die or they will be competing with plants that start migrating up from lower in the mountains. And in a place like Boston, the sea level will rise, resulting in coastal flooding. Places like Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket will look very different as the oceans rise.   

Is it too late to reverse global warming?
No. Certainly the conditions are going to get warmer for the next few decades, or even centuries, no matter what we do. But if we start implementing policies to make changes, then temperature increases will be more moderate, and we’ll probably be able to adapt. But if we continue our present trend, both in the United States and in rapidly developing countries like China and India, then the impact will be quite severe, and the conditions will result in a massive increase in sea level and temperature increases that will cause agriculture to fail in many parts of the world. It’s in our long-term interest to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and the United States has a double advantage, because if it reduces use of fossil fuels, it also reduces dependence on oil and foreign governments to sustain it.

Do Thoreau’s writings offer any insight on what can be done to halt species extinction?
One of the most important themes of Walden is being satisfied with simple things. People don’t need elaborate lifestyles to be happy. Thoreau lived in a simple cabin at Walden Pond, and he had great enjoyment of life. I think that in the United States especially, we see this tendency where people are living in bigger houses, driving bigger cars, buying more clothes, and eating bigger meals, but it’s not making people any happier. We need to live in the opposite way — we need smaller houses and smaller cars and smaller meals. And if we did that, people would be just as happy and our impact on the environment would be so much less. And I think that would be something Thoreau would argue very passionately for if he were alive today.  

If Thoreau were alive today, what other stands would he take?
Thoreau was a big believer in taking unpopular stands as long as he thought he was right. I think if he were alive today, he would be speaking very eloquently about things that we need to do. If we had a very strong leadership in the national government, we could start very quickly implementing plans that would force Americans to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. So, politically unpopular things I believe Thoreau would argue for would be increased taxes on gasoline, special taxes for very large houses, and the rationing of fossil fuels.     

The Fall 2007 Karbank Symposium in Environmental Philosophy: Thoreau and Environmentalism is being held on Friday, November 16, 2007, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Castle, 225 Bay State Rd. To see the schedule of lectures and colloquia, click here.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu. Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.