It was interesting to read about your history online and a little more about the motivations for this project. I sincerely hope this project leads you to the interactions you are looking for. With that, let’s move in the direction you’re wanting to go. You’ve asked some excellent questions!
So, treehugger. First we must digress into the terminological. “Tree hugger” is, of course, a word used for environmentalists, but I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist per se. I think of myself as something like an animist. An animist is, in the well-received words of Graham Harvey, someone who recognizes “that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship to others.”
Environmentalism, to me, feels more purely political. Another variety of activist. And I love activists! I have been one at points in my life. But when I think about what forms my actions from day to day, the belief crystallized in Harvey’s definition is far deeper and central than any particular political identity. To live in an ongoing relationship with the Cosmos around and within me is my goal, however imperfectly realized.
Notice that this situates me in a web of relationships. This brings up another uneasiness I have with the term “environmentalist” (and I picked this up from an animist writer named Gordon White). The “environment” is something which surrounds you and from which—crucially—you are separated. It is out there. And the thing out there must be preserved. But for the animist, there is no out there as opposed to in here. Everything is connected in a living relationship and any damage done to one is done to all and to one’s self. To be clear, I’m not saying that environmentalists would disagree with this; I’m only pointing out a weakness in the term.
At this point I think it would be useful to answer your question about how I arrived here, because the answer will lead me to your other questions. The short answer is Wendell Berry twenty years ago and Richard Power’s The Overstory three years ago.
If you’re not familiar with him, Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer from Kentucky. He has been immensely influential over the last half-century—his writing is a thread woven throughout the ecological movement, farm to table cuisine, technological criticism, regenerative agriculture and more. When I encountered his writing, I was a young libertarian who believed that capitalism was a liberating force that may cause pain in the short term but would, in the end, be an engine of human flourishing. Berry dissolved that illusion and replaced it with something much more humane. One of his key ideas is “local knowledge”, but more on that in a moment.
Berry has been a figure that has been central to my life at times and at other times he has moved to the periphery. By the time I picked up The Overstory, Berry was on the periphery for me. By the time I finished reading The Overstory, he started moving back to the center. I’ve said before—and I don’t know how much I mean this literally and how much metaphorically—that the trees called to me through Richard Powers’ novel. I got back out into the woods and started paying attention to that web of relationships again. The web of relationships, moreover, in the woods near my house and, eventually, my own backyard.
And here we arrive back at local knowledge. In Berry’s way of thinking (and also according to indigenous people, though I’m far less familiar with them), we must act in accordance with local conditions. One of the main reasons we are in the mess we are in is that we have imposed our wills on the land upon which we live, rather than learning from it how we ought to live. And, crucially, the land asks different things from its humans in different places.
So my response to your point about urban versus suburban and the various fractures in the environmental movement is, therefore, that the land of Manhattan Island asks different things of its people than that of Lawrence County, Indiana. I cannot say what ought to be done in other places. The responsibility for those places falls on those places’ biotic communities. This is, importantly, not a dodge but a fact of life.
So how do we all become treehuggers? Again, Wendell Berry tells us: we do not set out to save the world—that is a task beyond the scale of our competence. We learn from our land and work within our web of relationships. When we do that, we become part of a community based on mutual love.
Hello there Jeremy,
At first, I was delayed in responding because I wanted to try and spend a little time with the thinkers you’ve introduced me to in this letter. Then I was delayed because the week just got away from me, so I didn’t have time for that. This was our last week in Mexico after a two and a half month sojourn there, and in fact, I’m writing this response from somewhere over Georgia on my way home.
For the last week, I’ve been in Tulum. It’s a contradiction. It’s very white, and very wealthy when you’re an American tourists. But it’s also very much not white, and has incredible poverty and inequality if you go slightly off the beaten path. Those who are looking to sell foreigners on their new playground will insist on certain ideas– this is a place that is still very much a part of the jungle. We have large ecological zones and restricted areas for building. Our architecture and many decisions, down to the winding roads and the decor, are about listening to this lands that we’ve been stewards of for so long. You can almost see, if you squint real hard, a kind of idea of respect for the indigenous people and culture of the Yucatan.
At the same time, you’ll see the concrete that creates so much carbon. You’ll notice the stacks of diesel generators along the eco-friendly beach hotels and restaurants. You’ll notice the incredibly car-oriented infrastructure that makes no sense.
Don’t get me wrong, I like spending a short time in Tulum. I appreciate how much it caters toward the upper and upper middle class foreigner and brings me comforts with just the right tinge of exoticism. In many ways, the architecture and landscape avoid the Shoppy Shop and Blands of the single global culture. There’s honestly still something distinct about Tulum, which is more than I can say for most places I’ve visited. In reality, Tulum, like much of the “Riviera Maya” is an economic project catering to foreigners to lift people out of poverty. It’s a playground in a jungle that has been occupied for a long time. It is a place that is very much alive, quite unique, filled with traditional foods and languages that is developing in ways that very much are not listening to the land.
I admit though, while I find this kind of animism appealing, my consequentialist insides bristle a little. What do I think all the land is telling us? Go away. Our world, the population and life styles we expect, are not consistent with any place. There’s an element of the push for density, urbanism, and my environmentalist politics which is all about a simple fact: human lives of health, flourishing, and dignity are inherently destructive, and the best harmony we can achieve requires collective action to minimize that destruction. I’m not quite ready to leave Lawrence County to Lawrence County. Not because I don’t believe in local knowledge (hell it’s the one Hayekian idea that as a former bureaucrat I cannot escape thinking about), but because I believe in global challenges. We’re often at risk of the tyranny of small decisions – a series of seemingly correct small decisions made locally add up to a horrible end result. Each person may be rationale for making the decision to drive a large crossover or SUV, but the total impact on emissions and pedestrian safety is massively negative.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom and personal peace to be found in considering your local surrounds and truly listening. And I think that offering genuine respect to the life and geography around us is critical. My partner, Elsa, finds it hilarious how even when visiting major cities like Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Mexico City, the pictures I take the most are of trees that I like.
But I’m worried. I worry a lot about the small decisions. I worry a lot about failing to understand how independence of individuals and decentralization fails to consider the cumulative effects. I worry about big problems created across generations and borders creeping up on us without having good responses.
I never feel more at peace than when I recognize the environment is not “out there”, but it’s also so disturbing when I assess the health of “in here”.
What do you do to strengthen your web of relationships to the persons of the world, human and otherwise? This project is a way I’m trying to strengthen my relationship to the human persons out there today, and maybe long into the future. While I do take daily walks, often through local parks, and sometimes go on hikes on weekends, I’m not sure I’ve been doing much to cultivate my relationships to the non-human persons around me. I think I can and should add more of that to my plans for 2023.
From 38,000 feet,