Book Reviews - Autumn 2006

Environmentalism for Outsiders

By Donald Worster | September 1, 2006


The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism by Aaron Sachs, Viking, $25.95

The best-selling SUV in this country is the Ford Explorer and not far behind is the Nissan Pathfinder. Those fantasy tanks on wheels appeal to a deep yearning in the culture to go off-road and into wild places where danger lurks. This hunger can also be satisfied by books. William H. Goetzmann’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and Scientist in the Winning of the American West, published 40 years ago, a big book about brave, daring deeds, made the author rich and famous. And for anyone who can’t afford four-wheel drive, reading the late Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West is a pretty good substitute. These books give one a rush of manly patriotism—an opportunity to identify with heroes who helped their nation take possession of the unknown.

Aaron Sachs, a young professor of history, has been turned off by all that machismo and nationalism and has gone searching for a counter­narrative of American exploration. His search has taken place not only in libraries, but also in meditative hikes and long auto trips, which has caused his life to become inseparable from the story he tells. His quest has led him back to the aristocratic Prussian naturalist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose travels in South America at the beginning of the 19th century excited a generation or two. Today, Humboldt is all but forgotten in the United States, although his name appears repeatedly on our western maps. Sachs wants to restore him to fame, partly because Humboldt inspired many 19th-century American explorers, partly because he advocated the rights of native peoples undergoing invasion, and partly because he might serve as founding father for a different kind of environmentalism.

The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism is not disinterested history. It uses the past to criticize the environmental movement for placing too much emphasis on saving the wilderness, and it propagates an environmentalism focused on marginalized people, celebrating their virtue and promoting their empowerment. Sachs has a huge agenda to push: overthrowing white, Anglo-Saxon dominance, capitalism, and imperialism, and debunking the leading figures in the history of nature preservation. His book is original, ambitious, provocative, at times enthralling, at times perverse. It begins with the task of revising the history of exploration.

Visions of warm, dark jungles in South America where lianas hang in the green shadows and brilliantly colored birds call from the canopy drew many 19th-century scientists and artists, from Charles Darwin to Frederick Church. They came after reading Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels in the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799–1804, which offered thrilling vistas and adventures on every page. Humboldt himself was ambivalent about the rain forest. “Here in a fertile country, adorned with eternal verdure,” he wrote, “we seek in vain the traces of the power of man; we seem to be transported into a world different from the one that gave us birth.” The Orinoco and Amazon basins were, in other words, nothing like Germany. Humboldt promoted the transformation of that wilderness so long as it was done intelligently and the native people were lifted up to equality with their European conquerors. Beneath his Indiana Jones aura, he was a radical who refused to accept his culture’s assumptions of superiority. Exploration led him to embrace human and ecological differences and taught him cultural humility. It also offered an escape for Humboldt, a wealthy homosexual who did not have to work for a living.

As a naturalist, Humboldt made a significant contribution to biogeography before he was eclipsed by Darwin and his work on the origin of species. Posterity remembers those who actually managed to explain something crucial, not those who tried to explain the whole cosmos. But the Humboldt Current carried Americans into the Polar Regions, the western U.S. mountains and deserts, the cordilleran forests. Few who went exploring measured up fully to Sachs’s multicultural standard; few identified with indigenous minorities. Admitting as much, Sachs still wants us to admire a group of dissident American explorers who carried forward some aspect of the protean Humboldtian legacy.

The best parts of the book are the stories of those eccentric Americans, many of them even less well known today than their master. They include J. N. Reynolds, a self-taught scientist who at one point believed that the earth was hollow. His greatest project, to explore the South Seas, was launched in 1829 but eventually taken away by the federal government and given to the inexperienced Charles Wilkes. Nonetheless, his writings about Antarctica and a legendary white whale named Mocha Dick influenced Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. Far more successful in worldly terms was Clarence King, a brilliant scientist and captivating raconteur who impressed all the right people and was named, in 1879, the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey. He was, however, a man riddled with contradictions that, in the end, tore him apart. On the surface he seemed completely happy to promote the westward movement of white America, but secretly he harbored a subversive attitude toward science, sexuality, and progress. Then there was George W. Melville (not related to Herman), who served as chief engineer on the ill-fated Jeannette, which in 1881 was wrecked in the Arctic ice pack, forcing the crew to take refuge on the Siberian shore. The ordeal left him physically and emotionally scarred for life, a striking subject for the painter Thomas Eakins. Despite rising to the rank of rear admiral in the Navy, he could never shake off the memory of powerful, merciless nature, which nearly destroyed him, or of the native people of Siberia who learned to survive in such a harsh place. Each of those explorers questioned the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the easy optimism and self-confidence of their compatriots. Each felt like a stranger in his country. Each was drawn to the margins of the earth and to the “primitive” peoples who lived there.

How does one get from Humboldt, J. N. Reynolds, and other misfit explorers to a counter­environmentalism? Not easily and not without some debatable assumptions, historical distortions, and dubious outcomes. Sachs believes that environmental reform is a dead or dying movement, due to its failure to be sufficiently sympathetic to ethnic minorities. He wants to change the focus from concern about nature to concern about those outsiders. Here he is more wrong than right.

Surely he is right that there are important links to be forged between social injustice and environmental degradation. My own view is that environmentalists have gone further toward making those connections than the multicultural lobby has. Even now, advocates of minority rights seem largely indifferent to the fate of the nonhuman world. Environmentalists would be wise to hang on to their legitimate, defensible belief that improving human relations with nature deserves priority. How can you have a just or decent society, they ask, without a decent planet to put it on?

Much more ought to be done, of course, to awaken everybody, regardless of race or ethnicity, to their stake in protecting the world’s ecosystems, wild places, and nonhuman species. Environmentalism has a big job ahead, but the movement is not dying; nor has it shriveled down to some obsession over wilderness. Preserving wild places has been important, but so have global warming, toxic wastes, energy efficiency, and overpopulation. Like other reforms, environmentalism has run into a rising wall of right-wing opposition. Nonetheless, it has thrived, expanded its message, and diversified its audience, as it once did under the older name of conservation. It has always made room for radicals and dissidents like Thoreau or Edward Abbey, but it has never lost sight of the fact that it must appeal to the broad middle class to get more regulation, protection, and ethical restraint.

I fear that Sachs would lead the movement away from its great traditions, from men and women like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. He would overlook its many achievements, including parks and wildernesses and public health legislation. And he would downplay the movement’s profound moral challenge to the Left and the Right on behalf of nature. His counter­environmentalism would require a dysfunctional sense of alienation, a determination to live on the margins of society, a posture of exile. It would leave us wandering the earth without a sense of belonging and with too much scorn for mainstream America.

As propaganda for a cause, this book is not persuasive. But as a history of exploration, it is brilliant, imaginative, and bold. Like the great Humboldt, Sachs has taken us to new worlds, given us new meanings. Buy The Humboldt Current for that exhilarating adventure and carry it along in your new Prius.

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