Two Centuries Later, We Need Thoreau Now More Than Ever

Two Centuries Later, We Need Thoreau Now More Than Ever

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Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts two hundred years ago today, and America needs Thoreau now more than ever. With president Trump waging a relentless war against the environment, Thoreau’s essays, books and the way he lived offer a focus to the resistance movement rippling across America.

“Civil Disobedience,” his 1849 essay and blueprint for radical reform that inspired the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, should be required reading in these difficult times, if only for a new generation of Americans to become acquainted with Thoreau’s ability to speak truth to power for achievable results.

When we read in “Civil Disobedience” that, “There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived,” we in the resistance movement against our current U.S. president are inspired to continue.

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What calamity has Trump wrought so far regarding the environment?

Here’s a partial list:
  • Appointed Scott Pruitt, a bona fide climate change denier, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Proposed a budget that will cut EPA funding by nearly a third, with climate and clean energy programs taking the biggest hits.
  • Opened up federal lands and water for drilling.
  • Instructed the interior department to review dozens of national monuments to see if they can be scrapped to allow access for oil and gas drilling.
  • Lifted a moratorium on coal mining on federal land and is reviewing a ban on offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast.
  • Has also called for drilling in the Arctic national refuge in Alaska.
  • Demanded rapid approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil-carrying pipelines that will violate the rights of Native Americans and expose the environment to potential oil-leaks.

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But these pale before the most serious damage Trump has set in motion on the environment and on America’s standing in the world: His declaration on June 1 that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

The agreement was reached in 2015 between 195 countries and took effect in November 2016. The goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the main reason for global warming, that raises sea levels and unleashes major droughts. Trump, clueless or indifferent to the unimaginable security threat of climate change, has called man-made global warming a hoax. At the recently-concluded G-20 summit in Germany, leaders of 19 of the 20 nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris accord. Trump was alone in abandoning it.

Thoreau is relevant today because we continue to confirm his observations. He taught us that treating the environment with respect not only made economic sense, it made even more sense as a moral imperative. “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander,” he wrote. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

He was prescient about the concentration of power and America’s shrinking role in the world that could result from misguided policies or policies driven by commerce alone: “If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonal experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations.” 

Thoreau’s work is also helping scientists monitor global warming, more than 160 years after the publication of his timeless Walden. Thoreau began keeping meticulous notes in 1851 about when and where plants flowered in Concord. By comparing these historical data with the data of the flowering species now, scientists were able to conclude that spring was arriving earlier than in Thoreau’s time, a direct consequence of global warming.

There are, fortunately, many Thoreauvians among our leaders who have rejected Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord and are determined to forge ahead with sustainable and innovative environmental policies.

California governor Jerry Brown, who will be hosting a global summit on climate change in San Francisco in September, released a video message to tens of thousands attending the Global Citizen Festival in Hamburg, site of the G-20 summit. In it he told listeners, “President Trump doesn’t speak for the rest of America. We in California and in states all across America believe it’s time to act. It’s time to join together.”

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In explaining his motivation to move into the cabin he built by his own labor on Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, and where he would spend the next two years, Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Whether or not it is clear to us, future generations of Americans will judge us by what we did to overturn Trump’s policies and the steps we took to address the threat of climate change. Will they indict us for having made a Faustian bargain, as many republicans have, passing our days like the living dead, or will they be grateful for having used our constitutional rights to front the fundamental challenge of our time, the physical well-being of the one and only planet we call home?

Thoreau is waiting, watching, listening.