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Environmental Voices

Environmental Voices

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Published by David Pendery
An analysis of environmental voices in society, from the greens to the exploitationist "stewards" of the environment. I examine the issue from the 19th and into the 20th centuries, and consider the views of Martin Heidegger and Lawrence Buell in these debates.
An analysis of environmental voices in society, from the greens to the exploitationist "stewards" of the environment. I examine the issue from the 19th and into the 20th centuries, and consider the views of Martin Heidegger and Lawrence Buell in these debates.

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Published by: David Pendery on Jan 10, 2010
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05/03/2011

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Untapped Potential: Language and Method in the Environmental Debate
Ecological consciousness and concern for the integral relationship of natural and manmadeenvironments has risen dramatically since the 19
th
century, with concern in these areas impacting notonly science and public policy, but also cultural values and output around the world. As globalenvironmental issues have become more important, two opposing sides have emerged in this drama:“green” proponents seeking ecological harmony and environmental justice, and actors seeking economicdevelopment and financial gain through exploitation (“wise” or “otherwise”) of natural resources. Thesetwo sides have employed a variety of rhetoric in their battles to frame their conceptions of humanity’srelationship to the environment. These conceptions have been developed with various audiences in mind —from the popular to the academic, from the poetic to the pragmatic, from the lay to the scientific. Thatthe opposing views are not always as antagonistic as is often believed—each with similar-but-differentaims that include the enablement of more constructive, productive and sustainable human and naturalenvironments—has led to interestingly overlapping language and terminology. A complete review of thislanguage and terminology since the emergence of environmental concerns in the 19
th
century is beyondthe scope of this paper, and so I shall look briefly at a few highlights.Beginning (broadly) with the Romantic poets and the Transcendental writers in the U.S, a certain“environmental consciousness” began to peek through the lines of American writing and commentary.
 Nature
, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf”wrote Emerson in
 Nature
in 1836
.
The tradition of the nature writer and poet, exemplified by Thoreauand Muir and extending into the 20
th
century, kept the flame of this nascent environmental consciousnessalive—“The extraordinary patience of things! / This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburbanhouses—how beautiful when we first beheld it / Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with cleancliffs,” wrote a modernizing environmental poet, Robinson Jeffers, in “Carmel Point” in the mid 20
th
century. It was not until the 1960s and beyond, however, that the environmental activists (and their opponents) really gained momentum, and began to require practical, convincing, science-based rhetoric
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to achieve their aims. One key term that emerged during this period is still commonly used today:stewardship. The word captures the very essence of environmental concern and humanity’s responsibilityas the world’s supremely cognizant, profoundly moral/ethical being—in a word, the on-the-ground“manager” of world environments. The word has roots going back as far as the Bible, and has been used both by greens in support of protective, eco-friendly policies, and by exploitationists who believe thatearth’s natural resources can and should be used by humans within a free-market model of existence— ostensibly prudently, and in any case these people want to “let [humanity] rule…over all the wildanimals and over all the creatures that move along the ground”—Gen. 1:26.This environmental war of words continues, and the rhetorical strategies employed by thecombatants has evolved, as environmental crises have erupted, and as the range of impacted peoplesworldwide has grown. In the modern day the new eco-consciousness(es), at once practical and academic(and often still poetic), are arbiters of the “early stages of what promises to be the next major transition inenvironmental policy as policymakers, business leaders, and citizens seek to establish sustainability as aconcept and set of practices that can help to reconcile and integrate what have often been clashingenvironmental, economic, and social values” (Kraft 17). Because of this more expansive outlook, thecurrent discourse in environmental studies and policies has taken unique new turns.In “The Postnatural Novel: Toxic Consciousness in Fiction in the 1980s,” Cynthia Deitering refersto Martin Heidegger’s conception of the “standing reserve” in nature. Heidegger outlined a conception of technology as instrumental and causal, both of which enable a process of 
revelation
in which nature (byway of technology) exposes (reveals, unconceals) its fruits for humanity. Thus, humanity has an overallcontrol of the “standing reserves” housed in nature, and, further, the
revelation
inherent in the process of exploitation of natural resources is an essential truth in human existence. Although Deitering dismissesHeidegger’s view in favor of a view of nature as now comprising “used up” waste and toxic leavings(199), Heidegger’s conception of resources in reserve, of potential, and of truth through revelation isechoed in Lawrence Buell’s recent eco-criticism writing. Buells posits that an “environmentalunconscious” can be viewed as “embeddedness in spatio-physical context…constitutive of personal and
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social identity” (24) and as “potential: as a residual capacity…to awake to fuller apprehension of  physical environment and one’s interdependence with it” (22).Buell’s discussion of “environmental awakening—retrievals of physical environment fromdormancy to salience,” mirror Heidegger’s view, albeit in a new age, with a new set of expectations andconditions. For Heidegger, there existed a dormant “reserve” that awaited “revelation” (physically, asnatural resources, and metaphorically, as truth) by way of technology, which was ultimately to beexploited by humanity. This overall process is by no means completely salutary (that is, exploitation of natural resources is not always beneficial or constructive), and thus some would probably condemnHeidegger’s views as exploitative. More importantly, however, Heidegger recognized that humans didn’tsee the complete picture of the environment around them, and tended to employ technology to delimitand define their views. In something of an extension on this take on environmental “tunnel vision,” Buelldecries humanity’s “habitually foreshortened environmental perception” (18), and strikes in his work upon the revelation that humans exhibit a tendency to either repress or exaggerate (but not viewrealistically or genuinely obligingly) their view of the environment, in their “business-as-usual”awareness of the world around them (24). Coursing through all of this human perception is the discoursethat condition or creates humanity’s unconscious environmental understanding and orientation withinspaces (natural and manmade).For Buell, the ultimate hope is not so different than Heidegger’s: recognition of the “limitingcondition of…chronic perceptual underactivation” (Buell 22) and a “bringing to awareness, and then toarticulation, of all that is to be noticed and expressed” (Buell 22). In short, awareness of everyconnecting tissue “within and beyond,” “noticed and unnoticed” (Buell 25) in natural and manmadeenvironments—a vast unused/underused standing reserve of “emotional/mental orientation andexpression” (Buell 26), that will yield a revelation of environmental situatedness and relation—in effect,of truth—and of human disposition and awarenes within that truth. It is the next stage(s) of ecologicaldiscourse, cultural studies , and practical criticism that will unleash this potential, enlarge humanconceptions of nature and the environment, and reveal what is now hidden behind walls of ignorance
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