U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Age of Fracture and Environmentalist Thought (Guest Post)

Jeff FilipiakToday’s guest post comes from Jeff Filipiak. He is a Senior Lecturer in U.S. History at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley (LinkedIn profile here). His work on environmentalist ideas includes “‘The Work of Local Culture’: Wendell Berry on the Production of Agricultural Knowledge,” Agricultural History 85:2 (Spring 2011) and “‘I’ve Seen It Raining Fire in the Sky’: John Denver’s Popular Songs and Environmentalist Memory,” in Dragoslav Momcilovic, ed., Resounding Pasts: Essays on Literature, Popular Music, and Cultural Memory.


I found Age of Fracture by Daniel Rodgers to be a fascinating read, and I have a feeling I will be spending more time in the future trying to absorb the implications of its arguments. In this post, I want to explore the implications of his thesis for two related areas which he says little on – the environmental movement, and ideas about the environment. Thinkers working on those topics typically promote the idea that humans need to see themselves as *more* grounded in connections and context, not less so. So, in what ways has thought about the interactions between humans and the environment been shaped by the overall trend toward fracture? And how might analyzing those areas help us look at the larger significance of fracture?

In part, the difficulty with discussing thought about the environment is that it does not fit neatly only into the realm of “social and intellectual debate” which Rodgers chose to focus on. Instead, two kinds of knowledge are discussed – both knowledge of human society and knowledge of nonhuman nature (as well as the complicated overlaps between those types). I will focus on the first kind of knowledge, although I think the second kind needs to be analyzed as well: I am not confident about assessing the overall trends in the second area, particularly scientific ideas. I wanted a place to begin a discussion of this, so what follows are provisional reflections, particularly since the history of environmentalist thought during this period is only now being written. [1]

Does thought about the environment reflect a trend where “conceptions of human nature that… had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire?” [Rodgers, page 3] To discuss that, we need to consider the ideas of environmentalists, the reception which those ideas received, and the terms of debates over uses of nature. (Note: I want to define the movement inclusively, including all involved in one or more of the movement’s key issues.)

First off, this is an area where one group has kept emphasizing connections and contexts, from the 1970s through the present. Environmentalist thought fractured in certain ways, but thinkers remained concerned about drawing connections between individuals and broader contexts. Environmentalists analyzed how actions taken in one place flow across boundaries to affect people in other places; how decisions certain humans make about how to use the environment have an impact on other humans; how consumers in the marketplace had a connection to how their goods were produced and disposed of; and how impacts flowed across species lines, and so ethics should, too. Barry Commoner’s suggestion that “Everything Is Connected to Everything Else” was a key principle for the movement during the 1970s, and has remained an inspiration for it.

But looking at the Republican response to environmentalism nicely represents Rodgers’ argument. Conservation had once been a bipartisan concern, but during the 1970s Republicans grew much less interested in discussing those ideas. The right tended not to discuss the concerns of environmentalists, but rather to present a series of ways in which conservatives worried that environmentalism limited the free market. Arguments about property rights, and criticisms of regulation and big government, became the right’s primary (although not only) perspective on the environment from the Reagan administration onward. The lack of success environmentalists had in passing legislation after 1980 was a consequence both of the partisan divide on the issue, as well as the lack of common ground on which to discuss issues; conservatives were able to reshape the agenda, and how issues were perceived. (I am less sure what to say about the frequent lack of support for environmentalist goals by Democratic leadership.)

The time frame for environmentalist thought fits uneasily with the time frame of change Rodgers identifies. Environmentalists promoted ideas of connectedness, with an increasing degree of success, from Silent Spring in 1963 through at least the early 1970s, and continued intense attention throughout the 1970s. Many key documents of environmentalist creativity – such as Christopher Stone’s Should Trees have Standing, Arne Naess on deep ecology, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, Amory Lovins’ Soft Energy Paths, and Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island—date to the mid-1970s.

At least in some ways, creativity in exploring connections continued after that. Much work in ecocriticism and environmental ethics has been done since 1975, often fleshing out ideas just sketched before that point, or adding additional levels of social context to analysis. The field of environmental history largely developed during the 1970s, with key works like Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy appearing in the late 70s, and that field has over the decades grown consistently more interested in exploring the complexity of context, social circumstance, institutions, history and cultures. So it appears that in this area, there was an increase in sense of connectedness while the era of fracture began. In addition, environmentalists circa 2000 were more concerned about such connections than their predecessors had been before 1970’s Earth Day.

Environmentalist thought in the 1980s did not reflect a turn to focus on private individuals, but it did reflect a growing interest in a multiplicity of perspectives. The rise of the environmental justice movement demonstrated some of the trends Rodgers identified – a sense that it was too simple to see commonality of interests when there were significant divergences, particularly due to race and class. (It is not yet clear if this limited the environmental movement’s ability to unify its members in action – it may have actually been a useful way of allowing more people to feel that their voices could be heard within the movement.) Race and history became more important in academic discussions, although it is less clear if those topics had any notable practical impact on pollution and land use. In later decades, environmentalist thinkers paid more attention to perspective of indigenous peoples (see Gary Paul Nabhan’s work, for instance) in the U.S. and elsewhere, rather than relying on the perspective of the white American males who often dominated the leadership. (An awareness of the tensions involved in developing wilderness areas outside the U.S. was a good example of this concern). This led to an emphasis (by historians, among others) on place, stories, and traditions which has served to deepen and broaden understandings of issues – placing them in more context.

Environmentalist groups were fairly successful in gaining support from members in 1980s – but in support of defending gains of the previous decade, not in terms of achieving new initiatives. Given Reagan administration attempts to roll back regulations and protections, there was little reason to hope for changes in culture and new regulations, while compromises grew more difficult to achieve. Some, including environmentalist philosophers, tended to keep proposing more ambitious visions; but supporters had to face the fact that strategies they had previously placed hopes in had little chance of succeeding. Some thinkers during the 1980s and after thus shifted either towards 1. visible defense (the media campaigns of major groups like the Sierra Club; the publicity-drawing activism of groups like Greenpeace and PETA) to protect areas and legislation; 2. small groups of radicals acting (Earth First! and Sea Shepherd) in confrontation, or 3. toward options that could rely more effectively on businesses (Paul Hawken and William McDonough), private action (Nature Conservancy), or consumers (the growing market for organic and local foods, as well as Whole Foods), and thus avoid government action.

What does this add to Rodgers’ picture? On the right, ideas about the market were indeed powerful, had significant rhetorical appeal, and actually shaped most uses of nature during the period. The limits on what environmentalists could achieve may have had much to do with the strength of their opposition, and the emphasis on market ideas. The pivotal turning point here was not 1975 but rather 1981, when the Reagan administration radically changed the terms of debate, and environmentalists’ sense of what was possible. (This post focuses on the period through the 1980s; I’d need another post to consider more recent developments.)

But for environmentalists, there was a new breadth and depth in attempts to connect, as environmental thinkers added a new dimension to the kinds of discussions which had been held before 1975; for these thinkers, this period was one of continued struggle against fracture. This movement continued to insist that our choices are constrained by what nature makes available, that aspects of nature have agency which need to be recognized, and that our desires need to be moderated by an awareness of others.


[1] Many insightful works discussing environmentalist thought have just come out or are coming out soon, including: Adam Rome’s Genius of Earth Day, Thomas Robertson’s Malthusian Moment, Brian Drake’s Loving Nature, Fearing the State: Environmentalism and Antigovernment Politics before Reagan, Frank Zelko’s Make it a Green Peace!: the Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism and Andrew Case’s dissertation “Looking for Organic America.” I reserve the right to revise my interpretations after I have more fully absorbed these works!

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I’m fascinated by the split implied between Conservation and Conservatism, since I know some older people who identify themselves as “old-time” Conservatives and insist that part of what they mean by that has now been claimed by organic gardeners, slow food activists, etc. And of course, some prominent people in the broader movement, such as Joel Salatin, claim to be libertarians, which at least complicates the story of individual agency, property rights, and the role of the state.

    I’m also curious how you see the relationship between environmentalism and environmental history, especially in recent years? It doesn’t seem to me that EH has made much of a contribution to mainstream environmental thinking. There’s not even a really good undergrad textbook for EH — Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth comes close, but is still really a summary of academic EH topics, rather than a projection of EH into a more public space. Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated, I should add, which employs Morton Horwitz’s ideas regarding the transformation of American law in tracing the rise of the water-powered New England textile industry, is one of my favorites. I always assign an excerpt to my EH undergrads — and on reflection, I think Steinberg’s story (and also the timing of his research and the book’s publication) fits nicely into your arc of fracture.

    • Dan,
      Thanks for the comments. I tried to reply earlier, but am finding my way around comment system…

      Good points about some of the ways in which environmentalist behavior crosses current political boundaries. Since conservative leadership wasn’t been interested in promoting traditional methods of land use (or foodways), environmentalists since the 70s have been able to stake more of a claim to those ideas and practices (not without some consternation on the part of other conservatives, as you note). I’ve thought somewhat more about these relationships, particularly during a later period, in my work on Wendell Berry.

      I will have to think more about the role EH plays. I think your comments about Steinberg make sense. Part of what he’s trying to do is to break away from earlier ‘man vs nature’ interpretations of issues, to complicate earlier models by suggesting that we need to be aware of multiple groups, and more contexts.

      I’d suggest that Bill Cronon’s “Trouble with Wilderness” essay (a little later than the works I discussed in my post) was pretty influential. In part, in spurring a renewed wave of defenses of wilderness by activists. Perhaps more significantly, he inspired others who wanted to write about non-wild places, about options for sustainable use.

  2. This is a really wonderful, eye-opening piece.

    I am convinced–though not ready to fully argue–that Rodgers is almost exactly wrong to name his chosen period the Age of Fracture, and that it is more accurate to call it the Age of Suture.

    The discussions in light of the recent passing of Ronald Coase reminds us of one reason why: whatever Coase meant, by the 1980s, the notion of adverse environmental impact as an “externality” was virtually unchallenged and unchallengeable. As a settlement for a fairly vigorous 200 years of common law fighting over this issue, especially in the realm of tort law, this was a pretty stunning development.

    Once damage to the earth was rendered as an “externality” of an economic system that no one thought was going anywhere, all that was left to do was mourn, feel guilty, or indulge in the common prayer of recycling. Various cults of sentimental pastoralism or millenarianism, I think.

    It might be objected that an entirely new and vigorous, antagonistic and powerful environmental initiative to remake the existing order of things is eminently possible now or in the future. I agree. I hope so. But it didn’t happen in the period under review–and that’s the question we’re thinking about.

    The one exception is climate change denialism, which, like hard monetarism and intelligent design, is a fringe belief rendered politically meaningful by some of the contradictions of US politics.

    After Three Mile Island, the Love Canal, acid rain, etc. though, no one doubted that global warming or not, capitalism had a tendency to regularly produce unwanted environmental effects that could be quantified, calculated monetarily, and processed through the courts; and that capitalists would not, as a rule, be subjected to major challenges to the way they did business. The dismal record of the Soviets and Chinese on matters environmental further ratified the sense that the only game in town, while bad, certainly wasn’t as bad as the alternative.

    All of this seems to me evidence of agreement, concord, settled truths, ca. 1978-2008. Am I wrong? Beyond the mundane ways in which every age is an Age of Fracture, or a time of “great unraveling”– are discord, division, friability, scission really the proper metaphors? Perhaps the awkwardness of environmental history’s relation to Rodgers’s metanarrative speaks to more fundamental historiographical problems?

    • Kurt, if you didn’t see my reply, it is below – just getting the hang of the reply format…

  3. Tim, you have put into words many of the thoughts I had reading Rodgers book. I found it enjoyable and rewarding but was struck by its lack of dealing with ecological thinking as an intellectual factor of the age. Rodgers argues that during the period in question the very idea of collective action (save for that of war-making) dissipated into the disaggregation and privatization of society at all levels. This claim takes on a different aspect when the ecological consciousness is considered.

    In contrast to the disaggregation Rodgers writes of, the widespread emergence of an ecological consciousness in the years prior to 1975 was unifying and totalizing by definition. It was a thought about humanity as an animal species within an environment — an animal species whose collective life under the premises of modernity had thrown its surrounding environment into dangerous imbalance and accelerated the extinction of life everywhere. The ecological consciousness emerged as a tragic critique of human collectivity among many whose expectations and habits were to trust in collective responses to social problems. The unification implied by ecological consciousness was not an oceanic bliss but was scary and painful. It makes sense that a sort of paralyses would ensue, leaving space for a variety of denials to predominate, the utopian concept of the market that Rodgers writes of being one of them.

  4. Thanks, Kurt, and thanks for making these connections.

    Good point about externalities and Coase – nice example of an aspect of context (consequences, in this case) which gets separated from actions. (And an interesting connection of legal thought to these issues.) That would leave a question: to what extent did environmentalist lawyers accept this as part of the consensus – to what extent did they keep trying to challenge that?

    I focus more on studying the ideas that environmentalists did develop during this period… but I think your pessimistic take has a good deal of truth to it.

    Climate change demonstrates how knowledge about nature can’t really be left out of this discussion, even if I tried to bracket it. To some extent, what occurs here is pretty familiar stuff – see Scott Dewey on air pollution, or Merchants of Doubt – in terms of corporations, particularly in the political and legal spheres, challenging certain knowledge claims about nature. But perhaps there is also something new to it – connections to the ‘culture wars,’ parallels to creationism, for instance? (I’d also add that I think this largely takes shape after Hansen’s 1988 testimony, since denialism rises as the climate change movement rises?)

    I still find Rodgers largely persuasive in terms of thinking about how across the spectrum, there is a concord of sorts that agrees that individuals should be treated in isolation from larger contexts (thus, fractured from contexts). But environmentalists appear to be an exception here – so they may provide an example of how a system of thought that refuses to adapt to fracture gets marginalized over this era.

  5. Jeff, thanks for this guest post, and the good discussion and follow-up comments.

    You mention that environmental advocacy/activist groups gained membership during the fracture years, and I think it’s the case that thinking about the environment in some form or fashion became more important to more people.

    But it seems to me that the popular understanding of environmentalism is very much an individualized, market-based way of conceiving the relationship of people to the planet.

    Whatever environmental activists or intellectuals are doing, it seems that their ideas are translated into the language of consumerism — green living, smaller footprint, individual consumer choice, etc., etc. You point out some of these shifts above — e.g., the growing popularity of organic foods, the niche markets like Whole Foods to cater to “green” consumers — and you seem to suggest that they emerge as the result of strategic decisions by environmental thinkers to work around government intransigence. But it may be just as correct to view these phenomena as evidence of how market logic conquered all rivals.

    As a side note, I think that Rodgers’s whole approach to intellectual history is “environmental,” in the sense of reconstructing / exploring a conceptual habitat for the time. His account might be missing this or that feature, this or that player in the ideational ecology of the era. But does he get the big stuff right? And can the habitat he has constructed absorb the addition of new problems and questions?

    • Thanks for the thoughts, L.D. I agree that a lot of these choices are viewed as consumer ones – sometimes involving purchases, sometimes involving home production, sometimes involving consumption of things not purchased.

      I could’ve tried to explain my point about shifts more effectively. I think these shifts likely demonstrate that the more successful versions of environmentalism in the last few decades have been ones that fit more with the practice and logic of the market. (Rather than showing strategic decisions, as you noted. That said, I think that the 80s might have been a time when such decisions were more strategic, while trends in the 90s and onward may reflect different causes. I do think it is tricky to identify the causes, at least at this point.)

      I wouldn’t go as far as you suggest in terms of focus on consumerism and the market, however. Some key aspects of the movement remain concerned with other perspectives, including: the importance of attachment to place (Louv, Berry); the desire to observe nature (bird-watching); and the concern about climate change (requiring distant connections).

      I think Rodgers gets the big stuff right. But as I seek to apply his ideas to my subjects, and notice that it doesn’t fit them as well as it fits others, I’m thinking through the significance of that.

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