Dangerous Environmentalism

Dangerous Environmentalism

Painting of a landscape: light features through cumulus clouds; mountains in the background, a lake in the middle distance, with animals at the edge, a grassy shore in the foreground
Among the Sierra Nevada (1868), by Albert Bierstadt

Environmentalism has often been associated with the protection of pure, undisturbed landscapes. If this represents the ideal painting of environments, a bubble of environmental perfection separated from the rest of the world, then invasive species—often referred to as alien species—are a stain upon the canvas. This desire for an untouched environment seems simple enough, and when backed with scientific inquiry showing the negative effects of species invasion, seems vital for the well-being of our world. However, as discussed in Rob Nixon’s “Environmentalism and Postcolonialism,” such thoughts have historically, and presently, led to highly xenophobic and racist behaviors among societies. As Nixon describes, a strong ethics of place among environmentalists, prompting a “war” against invasive species, has contrasted with and turned away the postcolonial movement, creating a rift between environmental and cultural and societal struggles. Prodigal Summer, a novel by Barbara Kingsolver, delves into problems regarding environmental protection and its relationship to contemporary society, and, among other scientific discussions, provides analysis on invasive species and their threats to environmental stability. When analyzing Prodigal Summer through Nixon’s critiques of environmentalism, we can see the danger in Kingsolver’s discussions of alien species, along with the danger of an ever-growing rift between environmentalism and other social and cultural issues.

When looking through a scientific lens, many environmental problems at first seem very black and white; that is, the solution and the problem seems to be obvious. Take the phenomenon of invasive species. In his essay, Nixon describes a very strong ethics of place, as ecocritics “have historically been drawn more to discourses of purity: virgin wilderness and the preservation of ‘uncorrupted’ last great places.”1 As Nixon suggests, a strand of environmentalism has formed, in which nativism has become a cornerstone, fighting for the protection of native, typically American, habitats. This nativist viewpoint in turn coincides strongly with a fear of invasive species, and the threat they pose to native environmental “purity.” We can see a similar nativist ideal in some of the characters in Prodigal Summer. One such character is Garnett Walker, a surly retired teacher struggling to maintain his cherished family farm in Zebulon County, a (fictional) rural town near the border of North Carolina and Tennesse. As Garnett discusses his connection with the pride of the Walker family legacy, the American chestnut tree, he contrasts its magnificence with the less impressive Chinese chestnut, writing “they had found the nuts far less satisfactory, and of course the tree itself had none of the American chestnut’s graceful stature or its lumber qualities.”2 According to Garnett, the American chestnut was “graceful,” whereas the Chinese chestnut was “less satisfactory.” Garnett further postulates his theory of the American chestnut’s superiority, comparing the Chinese chestnut to “some of the inferior animals on Noah’s ark.” Although Garnett’s support of environmental concerns is more than often nonexistent, it is undeniable that Garnett idealizes the protection and restoration of a native species, in this case the American chestnut. This idolization is what Nixon warns against, and criticizes, as part of the environmentalism movement, and leads to further societal implications, as Nixon writes “the environmentalist advocacy of an ethics of place has, all too often, morphed into hostility toward displaced people”[3.Nixon, “Environmentalism and Postcolonialism,” 236.] Nixon warns that if such attitudes toward the protection of native species continue, then nativist attitudes will develop towards other people and societies, rather than just towards other species of flora and fauna.

For much of Prodigal Summer, Garnett can be seen as an antagonistic character in the quest of environmental restoration, especially in relation to Nannie Rawley, an eco-friendly farmer living on a plot of land neighboring that of Garnett, with whom Garnett wages a constant war over pesticide use and other farming practices. It would be easy, therefore, to associate ideas of nativism and xenophobia solely with his character. Nevertheless, other characters that could be considered protagonists, especially in relation to environmental movements, also display certain nativist tendencies that Nixon would warn against and criticize. A relationship that demonstrates this irony is that between Deanna Wolfe, a wildlife biologist living in a cabin in the heart of Zebulon Forest, that which surrounds Zebulon County, and Eddie Bondo, a hunter traversing the expanse of the forest in search of coyotes. While discussing the hypothetical example of a stray cat entering Zebulon Forest, Deanna tells Eddie that she would drown it “because cats like that don’t belong here. They’re fake animals, introduced, like the chestnut blight. And just about that destructive.”3 In a similar manner to Garnett, Deanna’s rhetoric supports ideas of nativism as she denounces the introduction of a new species, particularly when she says that they “don’t belong here.” Deanna has a strong connection with, as well as a strong preference for, the species and systems that already exist within the forest, and vehemently rejects outside influences and alien species invasions. This trend is not isolated, as we can also see similar rhetoric when looking at the character of Nannie Rawley, another spearhead of environmental protection within the story. In a letter addressing Garnett discussing the relationship between God and humans’ connection with the environment, Nannie writes that God did not intend for humans to be “transporting everything we can think of to places it doesn’t belong.”4 Once again, an ethics of place can be seen in Nannie’s rhetoric as, in the same manner as Deanna, Nannie proposes that there are places where species belong, and places where species don’t belong. In addition, Nannie cites “kudzu, honeysuckle, and the Japanese beetle”5 as three invasive species which have had devastating effects on the American landscape, and the farms of Garnett and Nannie as well. Although these invasive species have had negative effects on native ecosystems, and the desire to remove such species is justified, such a hostile view of invasive species as a whole still presents the risk of developing xenophobic attitudes. It is interesting to note that although the characters Deanna and Nannie are accepted as the “good guys”, they still display some of the similar tendencies in regards to native versus alien species as more antagonistic characters, such as Garnett. Clearly, the nativist concept is not exclusive to more antagonistic personalities.

Along with the dangers of advocating an ethics of place within the environmentalist movement, Nixon highlights the rift between such environmental beliefs and the postcolonial movement. One of the most significant causes of this divide, according to Nixon, is that not everyone views the environment in the same pure and idyllic manner as those following American environmentalism; for the marginalized communities of the United States and the world, the opposite is often the truth. As such, Nixon cites Ride Out the Wilderness by Melvin Dixon as an example, writing “African Americans have associated wilderness with the travail of exile: it is more a place of eviction and historical hauntings than of redemptive silences”6 “Redemptive silences,” or the pursuit of the sublime, has been one of the cornerstone tenets of the American wilderness movement. However, rather than seeing the wild as a place of personal transformation and Godly connections, for many marginalized communities and peoples, the wild is dangerous: a constant reminder of their marginalized, and in many cases enslaved, pasts. But why is this important and relevant to Kingsolver’s novel? While discussions of racial tensions between marginalized communities and environmental purists are not present within Prodigal Summer, there still is a strong rift between those who support environmentalism, especially an ethics of place environmentalism, and those who don’t and have suffered from environmental policies.

We can see a case of one such rift between Garnett and Nannie. It is no secret that Garnett and Nannie appear to lie on opposite sides of the spectrum of environmental protection: Garnett championing the use of pesticides and bending ecosystems to the will of man, and Nannie opposing such practices, pushing for natural and sustainable alternatives. While, upon initial inspection, it appears that Nannie’s character presents the “better” of the two, and she is the one that we often tend to agree with, a further look at Garnett’s thoughts shows otherwise. As Garnett visits the Amish market, he has a thought to stop and browse the goods, “but Nannie’s presence among them had settled it: he couldn’t set foot in the place once she became a part of it, for now it was Organic, capital O, with is placid, irritating sense of holier-than-thou.”7 The idea of organic repulsed Garnett, not for its environmental or health benefits, but for the simple fact that he associated it with elitism. It is true that organic goods can have an exclusionary sentiment attached to them, for the simple fact that the “organic” label raises prices, and thus typically only allows consumption by wealthier families and individuals. This dichotomy between Garnett’s rejection of organic and Nannie’s praise of it relates to Nixon’s discussion of the contrast between postcolonialism and environmentalism. Nixon writes: “postcolonial literary critics have, in turn, shown scant interest in environmental concerns, regarding them implicitly as, at best, irrelevant and elitist, at worst as sullied by ‘green imperialism.’”8 Environmental concerns are seen as elitist by postcolonial critics, a position similar to Garnett’s; environmentalists’ concerns are assumed to be more about preserving resorts and idyllic wilderness settings as opposed to real issues facing communities across the world. It is clear that Garnett is not concerned with postcolonialism; however, the divide that exists between environmentalism and postcolonialsim has further-reaching implications. As seen in this interaction with Garnett, ethics of place environmentalism is not only rejected by postcolonialist critics, but also the Garnetts of the world—those who simply wish to provide a living for themselves and may be negatively impacted by environmental policies.

A similar disconnect can be seen between Eddie Bondo and Deanna. One of the biggest points of disagreement between the two throughout the story is Eddie’s hunting of coyotes, an animal of particular interest and importance of Deanna. Like Garnett’s distaste of Nannie’s organic goods, Eddie can initially be seen as the “bad guy,” as his coyote hunting seems unjustifiable. However, in a conversation with Deanna about the hunting, Eddie explains how coyotes are a dangerous predator to the sheep of his ranch, and says “sheep ranching needs all of the help it can get. You’re right on the edge of busted all the time.”9 Eddie shows that his hunting is not out of hatred or evil, as Deanna would have presumed; rather, it is to save his livelihood. Just as Deanna can’t accept Eddie’s hunting of the coyotes, Eddie refuses to see the value in protecting them, saying “you can’t and you won’t change my mind.”10 Although the idea of elitism isn’t necessarily at play, as it was in the interaction between Garnett and Nannie, there is still very clearly a disconnect between those who value environmental protection—environmentalists—and those who don’t, and view such problems as trivial. A divide such as this, though not between postcolonialism and environmentalism, is the very thing Nixon criticizes and warns against.

Ultimately, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, though possibly unintentionally, points to two major criticisms of the modern environmental movement: an ethics-of-place environmentalism and the rift between environmentalism and other social and cultural issues, including postcolonialism. Rob Nixon’s essay presents a critique of such rifts, stressing the importance of moving away from the ever growing polarization of the aforementioned parties in modern discourse. We can see a chain: A strong opposition to invasive species equates to a strong ethics of place environmentalism, which in turn signals and often produces an elitist and xenophobic attitude in the environmental movement, which in turn pushes postcolonialists, and those who support other ventures—economic, social, etc.—away from environmental concerns. It may be a stretch to assume such a close correlation between each of these ideas, but would it be too much to say that the movement against invasive species is a key factor in the rift between environmentalism and other fields of concern. Kingsolver’s discussion of such matters, while they may seem unintentional and not connected, points to the overall disconnect between environmental protection and social, economic, and cultural issues. Perhaps the key to making any notable progress, in any domain, as Nixon would agree, lies in bridging the gap between these two opposing fields.

  1. Rob Nixon, “Environmentalism and Postcolonialism,” in Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, edited by Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, Matti Bunzl, Antoinette Burton, and Jed Esty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 235.
  2. Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001), 130.
  3. Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, 177.
  4. Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, 216.
  5. Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, 216.
  6. Melvin Dixon quoted in Nixon, “Environmentalism and Postcolonialism,” 238.
  7. Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, 140.
  8. Nixon, Prodigal Summer, 235.
  9. Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, 180.
  10. Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, 323.
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