In his essay “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in Romantic Poets,” literary scholar M. H. Abrams describes how the Romantic poets portrayed the natural world, “as a living entity in whose life – Coleridge as well as Wordsworth sometimes called it ‘the one life’ – all things, human and non-human, participate” (Abrams 130-31). This “one life” concept emphasizes that all elements of the natural world work together to maintain the health of a single personified life form: the planet. The “one life” worldview focuses on the interdependence of Earth’s inhabitants and the necessity of respect for nature, which the Romantics believed was lost to an overly scientific and quantitative view of the world. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Romanticism, defined by the French poet Friedrich Schlegel as “literature depicting emotional matter in an imaginative form,” flourished in response to the post-Newtonian scientific worldview (New World Encyclopedia). Viewing the Earth as a set of mathematically measurable elements had turned the planet into a “lifeless machine,” to use the words of the poet S.T. Coleridge, (qtd. in Abrams 134). Reacting against this quantitative treatment of the world, Romantics variously promoted the “one life” metaphor of a living Earth. Metaphor, as Donald Davidson describes, serves to “make us see one thing as another” (qtd. in Mikics 180-181). The Romantics utilized metaphor to promote the perception of Earth as a living entity, stressing the essential connections between all elements of the natural world that are vital to maintaining homeostasis.
Although M. H. Abrams describes the “one life” metaphor as “distinctively Romantic,” recent popular environmental literature, written by scientists, has introduced similar metaphors with a noteworthy distinction: the incorporation of both essential scientific facts and Romantic descriptions of nature. In his book The Revenge of Gaia (2006), the pioneering climate scientist James Lovelock presents his own worldview, which is markedly similar to the Romantic’s “one life” metaphor, as a scientific hypothesis. This living Earth, to which Lovelock refers throughout his book as “Gaia,” is the “whole system of animate and inanimate parts” that enables a deeper enlightenment regarding the role of humans in respecting their environment (15). Lovelock describes Gaia metaphorically as a living organism, struggling to maintain its homeostasis under the growing stress of climate change. Fellow environmental writer and scientist, Rachel Carson, adopts a similar worldly perspective in her revolutionary book, Silent Spring (1962), which effectively launched the modern environmental movement. Although Carson does not specifically reference the “one life” hypothesis in her book, she consistently uses a “web of life” (69) metaphor which also emphasizes Earth’s living qualities through both Romantic descriptions and scientific analysis. This raises the question of how the “one life” metaphor, which is both unmistakably Romantic, as Abrams asserts, and yet also critically scientific, supports discussion of present environmental issues. Abrams, in trying to connect earlier Romanticism with our current environmental crisis, maintains that a purely scientific outlook can lead only to a lack of respect for the natural world. Thus, he claims that “a revival and dissemination of some equivalent to the Romantic vision” may be necessary if today’s environmental problems are to be fully addressed (150). Romanticism is indeed extremely important in cultivating an appreciation of the natural world. However, as is evident in popular environmental writing, rather than getting away from scientific thinking, respect for nature can be propagated through a balanced combination of scientific rationale and Romanticism. I will argue that the expression of science through metaphor in recent environmental literature strengthens the Romantic tenets of mutual respect for the natural world and appreciation of the interconnectedness of nature. Similar to how the ‘one life’ concept incorporates the living and nonliving to cultivate deference towards nature, the metaphors in popular environmental writing combine emotional affect with verifiable science to accentuate Romantic ideals.
Romanticism is indeed extremely important in cultivating an appreciation of the natural world. However, as is evident in popular environmental writing, rather than getting away from scientific thinking, respect for nature can be propagated through a balanced combination of scientific rationale and Romanticism.
Metaphors not only have the potential to merge the “human with the nonhuman” as Abrams suggests, but they can also effectively integrate Romantic principles and scientific evidence (139). In Lovelock’s foreword to The Revenge of Gaia, he poses the question of how to develop symbiosis between humans and nature, which is vital in cultivating environmental respect. The use of the term symbiosis, defined scientifically as the “the relationship between two different kinds of living things that live together and depend on each other,” underscores the reality that humans cannot endlessly deplete the natural world’s resources without ruining their relationship with the environment (Merriam-Webster). To explore a potential answer to his presented inquiry, Lovelock considers the Earth itself as a living being, and humans as partly responsible for maintaining its health. Although Gaia, which Lovelock personifies throughout his book, is not actually a living being, pairing this metaphor with accurate scientific insights cultivates a more complete understanding of the presented environmental issues. Particularly, this metaphor explains why the current imbalance in the relationship between humans and the environments is exhausting Earth’s resources. The extent to which Earth is currently suffering can only be realized, according to Lovelock, when “we think of our planetary home as if it were alive [and . . .] can see, perhaps for the first time, why farming abrades the living tissue of its skin and why pollution is poisonous to it as well as us” (2). To more urgently convey the necessity of a long-term mutualistic relationship with Gaia, Lovelock equates the surface of Earth to living cells that are being killed by the stresses induced by humans. By integrating the biological concept of symbiosis into the “one life” metaphor, The Revenge of Gaia makes it clear that humans are acting like parasites, deriving sustenance at the expense of the natural world around them. The incorporation of scientific reasoning into the representation of a living Earth effectively explains how polluters are disrespecting Earth and worsening the health of their symbiotic partner, and why this unsustainable relationship must be reconsidered. This combination of science and Romanticism emphasizes the importance of protecting one’s natural home and illustrates how mutualism, the symbiotic relationship in which both involved participants benefit and live harmoniously, can restore homeostasis to an ailing Earth.
The incorporation of scientific reasoning into the representation of a living Earth effectively explains how polluters are disrespecting Earth and worsening the health of their symbiotic partner, and why this unsustainable relationship must be reconsidered.
In Silent Spring, the persistent metaphor of the “web of life” stresses the importance of understanding the crucial interdependence of the members of a natural community. Carson’s book opens with a short chapter, titled “Fable of Tomorrow,” which Romantically describes a peaceful town, blooming with life. Suddenly, however, an “evil spell” overtakes the town and in its destruction casts “a shadow of death” (2). Previously healthy animals lay stricken with illness, and beautiful flowers lose their vivacious hues, serving as a cautionary account of the dangers of man-made chemicals in nature. When Silent Spring was first published, the American public was largely oblivious to the negative impacts of pesticides and other chemicals on the environment. Carson begins her text with what initially appears to be a familiar scene of natural serenity, but then shocks her audience by introducing pollution which quickly ruins the town’s harmony. Romantic accounts are prevalent throughout Carson’s book and draw on the emotions of the reader, yet the scientific explanations of how organisms are interconnected, particularly through food chains, serve as a basis for understanding why the “web of life” must be preserved. The in-depth scientific descriptions of the amplification of harmful chemicals in food chains reveal how altering one species can have unforeseen consequences throughout an entire ecosystem. Carson describes the vital, yet delicate, connections between organisms as, “the intricate web of life whose interwoven strands lead from microbes to man” (Carson 69). The use of detrimental chemicals and herbicides often stems from a negligence of how such usage might negatively impact not only the environment, but also the various members of a community. However, Carson makes clear the wide ranging impact of herbicides by incorporating scientific knowledge known about food chains into her “web of life” metaphor. Carson uses a scientific basis to effectively show how the chemical alteration of an organism as small as a microbe can negatively impact a plethora of organisms in the “web of life,” while also underscoring a Romantic understanding of the essential connections between organisms.
Carson uses a scientific basis to effectively show how the chemical alteration of an organism as small as a microbe can negatively impact a plethora of organisms in the “web of life,” while also underscoring a Romantic understanding of the essential connections between organisms.
Although Lovelock acknowledges in his own book that Silent Spring was successful in demonstrating how pesticides can ravage interconnected populations of organisms, he is often critical of Carson’s harsh portrayal of man-made chemicals. Silent Spring emphasizes the danger of pesticides to strengthen the argument that certain chemicals break the strands of the “web of life.” However, by personifying chemicals as “the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world,” Silent Spring provoked a fearful panic in its audience (6). Although skeptics may contend that the panic stirred by Silent Spring devalues the effectiveness of its “web of life” metaphor, it actually illustrates the danger of the ignorance of scientific facts. Carson wrote her book nearly half a decade before Lovelock wrote The Revenge of Gaia, when the public was largely oblivious to the chemical alterations of the natural environment around them. Although Lovelock asserts that Carson’s scientific description of chemicals led to “dinner table talk [...] intensified by fear,” this response was largely the result of shock, as Silent Spring introduced largely unfamiliar scientific representations of how the natural world was being degraded (112). Although the descriptions of various chemicals’ adverse effects on nature aroused fear in its readers, Silent Spring also galvanized a wider public debate, which ultimately sparked the modern environmental movement. The major influence that this book had on the public emphasizes the effectiveness of integrating unfamiliar scientific concepts with widely recognized Romantic ones in environmental literature.
The major influence that this book had on the public emphasizes the effectiveness of integrating unfamiliar scientific concepts with widely recognized Romantic ones in environmental literature.
Scientific descriptions are not only important in explaining how pesticides and pollution disturb natural equilibrium, but they also can illuminate why Romantic appreciation of the natural world is essential when considering the environment. In Silent Spring, scientific explanations of the interdependence of life are interlaced with the emotional descriptions to clearly explain how unnatural chemicals can ravage populations. The chapter “Earth’s Green Mantle,” which details the dangers of herbicides, opens by describing the human destruction of sagebrush in the Western plains of the United States. Carson describes this extermination as, “one of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape” (64). Pathos is prevalent in this section of the text, emphasizing the deep emotional ties which connect organisms to nature. Carson utilizes one metaphor – playing upon the age-old adage of “the book of nature” – to represent the natural landscape as, “spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread” (64). This highly Romantic description emphasizes the beauty of the Earth, and how humans can garner respect for the environment by studying the natural world. However, the “pages” that explain the importance of maintaining balance in ecosystems “lie unread.” This description emphasizes the ubiquitous lack of respect for the environment and the dearth of understanding of the Earth’s deteriorating state. To effectively explain the delicacy of the ecosystem in this undisturbed landscape, it is essential for Carson to transition to scientific descriptions of how herbicides negatively impact living things, not only at a communal level, but also at a cellular level. Following the emotional descriptions of the Western plains, Carson expands on how the widely-used herbicide 2,4-D, “disturb[s] the basic physiological process of respiration in the cell, and imitate X-rays in damaging the chromosomes” (Carson 76). These in-depth molecular descriptions of chemical harm explain the detriment of not fully considering the environmental repercussions of chemical use. Some readers might contend that a solely Romantic description would suffice in explaining the tragic destruction of the sagebrush. However, the intertwined scientific description is necessary to convey the unintended consequences of a seemingly beneficial decision to use herbicides.
The relevance of Romanticism to current environmental discussions is undeniable, especially when the “Romantic concept of the one life” is exchanged with the term “ecology,” and “nature” for the “environment,” as Abrams suggests (131). Abrams contends the importance of leaving scientific treatment of nature behind in favor of returning to a Romantic worldview. Broadly, this appears to be a fair suggestion, but popular environmental writing complicates this argument. Carson and Lovelock both apply science in an imaginative and metaphorical way to enhance Romantic ideals. Just as the Romantic worldview was a reaction to Newtonian science, the incorporation of scientific descriptions by contemporary environmental writers was partly a reaction against completely returning to a Romantic treatment of nature. The integration of Romantic affect and scientific analysis in Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia demonstrates that it is no longer possible to revive the Romanticism of the past, as Abrams suggests, yet the stakes are dire to return to an exclusively mechanical worldview. Instead, Lovelock references both the incomplete worldviews of scientists and the negligence of scientific facts in the writing of ‘greens’ to emphasize the importance of contemporary environmental literature in combining both perspectives (5, 18). To effectively address the rapid decline in the health of our planet and to provoke the public to take environmental action, a propagation of both a Romantic respect for nature and a scientific understanding of the natural world is essential. The coexistence of science and Romanticism through metaphor in contemporary environmental writing parallels the necessary mutualistic relationship that must be cultivated between humans and the living Earth. The balance between scientific description and Romantic principles in environmental considerations is vital in combining a logical, rational understanding of the issue with an emotional draw for environmental concern.
To effectively address the rapid decline in the health of our planet and to provoke the public to take environmental action, a propagation of both a Romantic respect for nature and a scientific understanding of the natural world is essential.
Abrams, M. H. “This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets” The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays. 2012. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 130-150. Print.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2002. Print.
"Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Von Schlegel." New World Encyclopedia. Web. 2 Jan. 2017.
Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Print.
Mikics, David. A New Handbook of Literary Terms. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.
“Symbiosis.” Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.