A Conservationist Manifesto by Scott Russell Sanders is a collection of essays on conservation and environmental issues. Though titled a “manifesto”, Sanders’s writing here is a wide-ranging and often personal look at the state of the environment and our obligations to it. Often the essays bravely tilt at modern windmills, such as the modern culture of greed and entitlement, “prosperity gospel” churches that distort the ideas of environmental stewardship presented in scripture, and the misplaced notion that corporations will do what is right. An underlying theme of many of the essays is the search for the peace and tranquility that accompanies nature and is often missing from our frantic lives. An echo of Thoreau’s call for the need to live more simply is evident throughout Manifesto. Sander’s also makes clear that environmental conservation is very much a matter of social justice. The titular essay, among the last presented in the collection, lays out the principles that should guide capital “C” Conservation.
In a rare display of literary vandalism for me, I jotted notes directly in the margins of Manifesto, adding my own ideas to Sanders’s and jotting down questions for future thought. Luckily, Dr. Sanders was kind enough to field some of my questions directly. Dr. Sanders is a Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Indiana University. I am deeply appreciative of his thoughtfulness and of his generosity with his time.
Baby Got Books interview with Scott Russell Sanders, author of The Conservationist Manifesto
Baby Got Books: The Conservationist Manifesto is an impressive collection of essays on environmental and conservation issues. How many years of work does the book represent?
Scott Russell Sanders: The essays gathered in the book were written over the past six or eight years; but the ideas and concerns have been building in me for most of my adult life, ever since I began to realize, in my twenties, that the industrial economy and Earth’s wild economy are on a collision course. The book draws on Biblical stories that I first encountered in childhood, on science that I began studying in high school and college, and on reading and travel that I have pursued ever since.
BGB: When you first started writing on these topics, did you envision that they would grow into a book length body of work or did it just evolve organically over time?
SRS: I wrote the essays separately, and only later gathered them into the book. Because they all arose from the same ecological and cultural concerns, however, they combined to lay out a larger argument. In its briefest form, the argument is that we need to shift from a culture based on consumption to a culture based on conservation.
BGB: Your essay “The Warehouse and the Wilderness” concludes with a passage about the power of myths, i.e., storytelling, as the basis for how we collectively view the world and our place in it. It seems that our national myths have become increasingly materialistic, more deeply ingrained, and more widely broadcast. How do we change the stories that we tell about what it means to live productive lives as Americans in the face of such strong (and frankly very glamorous) opposition?
SRS: The dominant stories in America are indeed materialistic, and that is because they are composed and broadcast—from television, radio, billboards, the pages of magazines and newspapers, and every other medium of communication—for the sole purpose of persuading us to buy things. The advertising that permeates our society is funded by corporations, which are not devoted to improving our lives, serving our society, or protecting the planet, but only to selling their goods and services. The US Supreme Court has enshrined this crass storytelling by defining corporations as persons and dollars and speech. It’s hard to imagine how any collection of ordinary citizens can gain a hearing in an arena dominated by multibillion dollar corporations. So changing the dominant story will not be easy. But it will change, if only because its ruinous consequences, for ourselves and our world, are ever more obvious. Meanwhile, each of us can speak up for a vision of personal, communal, and ecological good that embraces peace, justice, caretaking, and spiritual richness, rather than aggression, power, and material accumulation. That our voices seem to be small and scattered is no excuse for remaining silent.
BGB: Thoreau is often cited as the first American guide to living simply and to getting in touch with nature. However, if all of we city dwellers were to suddenly decamp for the woods, it would be an ecological disaster. How do you think city dwellers should go about maintaining a healthy balance between city life and time spent in natural settings? And how do the urban poor get to join in?
SRS: Certainly we can’t all go build cabins and live in the woods. All except the very poorest Americans, however, can live more simply than we do, whether in city or country, in house or apartment. When I advocate living more simply, I am not speaking to the poor—and perhaps a third of the world’s people live in desperate poverty. They deserve to have better food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and education than they presently do. I am speaking mainly to middle class and rich Americans, who consume nonrenewable resources and emit greenhouse gases and other pollutants at a rate ten or twenty times as high, per capita, as do people in developing countries. Conservation should begin with those of us who are most privileged, and that includes myself along with the vast majority of the American population.
BGB: You note that “conservative” and “conservation” share the same etymological root but the politics of the two words are often in conflict. Why do you think that modern political conservatism places so little interest in conservation?
SRS: The first question I ask of anyone who labels himself or herself a conservative is: What do you want to conserve? My own answer to that question would include preserving a stable climate, drinkable water, clean air, diversity of species, a fair judicial system, honest government, high quality public parks and schools and museums, and many other shared forms of wealth. Too often, today, self-proclaimed conservatives seem intent on conserving only their own money, their power to acquire and keep more money, and their freedom to do as they wish regardless of the consequences for society or planet. There is nothing conservative about such an attitude; it is reckless in the extreme. Traditional conservatism—epitomized by Theodore Roosevelt—placed a high value on conservation of land, water, wildlife, and natural resources. The loudest voices in conservatism today seem to regard nature and other species as raw material for private profit; they resist efforts to protect the environment or endangered species as a restraint on “free enterprise”; and they fight every attempt to reduce our rate of resource consumption. To explain how that shift in mindset came about would require more space than we have here.
BGB: You argue for the need of a return of the “common wealth” – the idea that there are things and places that should belong to us all. If recent events are any indication, the ideas of taking any actions for the “greater good” are wildly unpopular in certain (very vocal) circles. How can the national dialogue on conservation be rescued from the scorched earth partisan fighting that we’re seeing now?
SRS: I’ve offered a partial answer to this question in my previous responses. America’s founding generations maintained a balance between a regard for individual wealth and a regard for the common wealth. They insisted on the protection of private property; they celebrated the opportunity for entrepreneurs to make money, for hard work to be rewarded in cash. But they also created the world’s first free public schools, free public libraries, national parks and national forests; they cooperated to protect and foster the whole domain of shared goods—air, land, water; museums, courts, roads, bridges, colleges; scientific research, inventions, and so on. Over the course of the past two centuries, and especially the past thirty years, however, the balance has been tipped heavily toward private wealth, especially that of the very richest individuals and the largest corporations. Our political system, from the city to the state to the federal levels, has been all but taken over by those moneyed interests. How can we restore the balance? Let’s require television, which uses the public airwaves, to provide substantial time each day for public-interest programming, including alternatives to the stories told constantly by commercial advertising. We need to insist that all political campaigns be publicly financed; that the public airwaves be made available, free of charge, on an equitable basis, for all qualified candidates; we need to take the primary nominating process away from political parties, and instead allow all candidates that accumulate the specified minimum number of voters’ signatures to appear on a single primary ballot, and then allow the two top vote-getters to compete in a run-off election. The moneyed interests that currently have a stranglehold on our democracy will not give up their control without a fight. So we’ll have to fight—not with violence, but with every means at our disposal.
BGB: You make a distinction in a story about your own life between “making a living” and “making a good life.” While we may not be able to drastically change the national dialog, making changes to our own personal narrative seems within the motivated person’s reach. What advice would you pass along to those who want to begin making changes towards a “good life”?
SRS: The meaning of a “good life” will vary from person to person, of course. I don’t presume to tell anyone else how to live. But I do invite people to ask themselves a few questions: What gives you the deepest satisfaction? How do your actions affect the lives of other people, for better or for worse, and how do they affect the earth? What gifts have you received, from family or biology or society or God, and what obligations follow from those gifts? What are your talents, and how do you wish to use them? What do you love most deeply, and how can you protect and nurture what you love? What are the values you seek to live by? In answering those questions for yourself, you will gain a clearer sense of how to lead a good life.
Dr. Sanders will be giving a reading tomorrow evening, Thursday, March 25 from 8-10 PM at Agnes Scott College in Decatur as part of their 39th Annual Writer’s Festival.