First in a series exploring the work of John Muir.
Reading Time: 10 Minutes
The Blind Spot that May Culminate in Our Extinction
The basis for our unceasing tendency to annihilate the biosphere may be contingent upon our inability to apprehend ourselves as part of it. Although the notion that we are somehow separate from the world within which we exist collapses when subjected to a moment of scrutiny, since the assumption rarely is subjected to scrutiny an attitude of separateness continues to inform our behavior.1 It seems “only natural” to extract as much as possible from nature to satisfy human wants.
This basic blindness is typically supported by an intellectualization: The earth is not only apprehended as separate from us but seems to have been put there for us.
Since the earth can be converted into products and services that people want and for which they are willing to pay, those who organize work that extracts value from the natural world can be rewarded by profits, while those who perform such work can be compensated with wages. If these basic conditions are met, events that presage degradation of the earth that would be expected to precipitate widespread alarm – such as mass extinction2 and the growing uninhabitability of large areas of our planet3 – are, for the most part, ignored. The public’s attention to such problems tends to be fleeting.
The problem is compounded by conceptual models used to make sense of threats to our planet’s habitability. Efforts to sustain the planet are conceived of as “costs” such that the project of maintaining systems that make life possible is characterized as prohibitively expensive, i.e., an object that ideally might be worth pursuing but which may be prudent to forego in a world defined by scarcity.4 Due to the continuing salience of economic models that place no value on the future habitability of the planet, even the most rudimentary efforts to secure a livable habitat for future generations – efforts that would otherwise be seen as not only aligned with the dictates of reason but as necessary for our long term survival – are always at risk for being regarded as “unreasonable”.
Confusion of Means and Ends
Our tendency to confuse means with ends adds fuel to the fire. Simone Weil observed that money, technology, and power are properly understood as means that can potentially be employed to bring about beneficial ends. Yet these means have come to be treated as ends in themselves. This confusion has become life-threatening because the desires that drive the pursuit of means as if they are ends are never satisfied: we never seem to have enough money, power, or technology. As Weil observed, money, power and technology are inevitably regarded as worthy of furtherance, enhancement, and multiplication without limit.5
Efforts to preserve ourselves by protecting our life support system are met with hostility if they are perceived as incompatible with means – money, power, and technology – that we experience as ends in themselves. This pursuit of means as if they are ends prioritizes means at the expense of what would otherwise be apprehended as ends – i.e., the protection of life and our life-support system. Mass extinction – and the annihilation of systems of which we are a part and upon which we depend – is the logical outcome entailed by such confusion.
“We Too Must Be Part of this World.”
“There was something out there in the Lammermuirs, (that) like the name of the hills…was part of him, too.” 6
While these two mental tendencies – the assumption that we are somehow separate from the biosphere of which we are a part and our confusion of means with ends – constitute patterns of attitude and thought that have guided the way we work for several centuries, history is not without examples of observers who pointed out the implications of this way of doing business.
One such observer was John Muir. Born in 1838 in Scotland (a land that had undergone an industrial revolution about eighty years earlier), by the time Muir was old enough to attend school the transition from hand production to machines and mechanization had already been completed. Yet the town in which he was raised was not completely dominated by mechanized industry, as it was exposed to the sea on one side and to the Lammermuirs – a range of hills – on the other.
While Muir’s treatment as a child would now be described as “emotionally and physically abusive”, his upbringing would probably not have been regarded as exceptional at the time. His father Daniel was a zealous and dogmatic preacher who was relentless in his efforts to instill his specific brand of religion in his son: He beat his son severely whenever he felt that John had in thoughts or deed strayed from what his father understood as the proper path.
The Lammermuirs – visible from John’s bedroom window – were the site of John’s main form of disobedience in his early years. He would take day long long rambles into the countryside and, in so doing, escape from his father’s severity and the confining regimen of school. In his boyhood he developed the intuitive ability to take instruction, comfort and deep pleasure from the natural world, an ability that did much to convert an otherwise harsh and brutal childhood into a lasting spiritual treasure. These long rambles produced what one biographer would later call an “imperturbable serenity and a natural unchurched reverence for nature”. During his long “runs” exploring beaches and hills, John developed an awareness that nature includes us, “that like the fish or the gulls we too must be part of this world.” 7
As an adult John would recognize his regular childhood forays into the hills as the beginning a lifelong pattern of personal salvation. Whenever he felt the shadows of conventional obligations and ways of thought proliferating in his mind, he would contrive some escape into the natural world, just as he did as a child when he, his brother and his friend raced out of the old town in which he was raised. 8
The tendency to love nature is typically mediated through appreciation of its beauty. A sense of beauty and wonder militates against a countervailing propensity to exploit and destroy. Appreciation of beauty in the natural world – and experiences of oneness with nature that the romantic poets (whom Muir would come to love as a youth) called “sublime” – are analogous to the experience of love: Both dissolve the subject-object relationship and the sense of separation that it produces.
“Making Every Duty Dismal”
John’s father’s specific brand of evangelical Presbyterianism combined righteous anger with an ascetic piety inherited from the Calvinist tradition. John was also exposed to extreme self-righteousness and violence outside the home: The town school that John began to attend in middle childhood was a “secular arm of Calvinistic culture. Its values were the sanctification of work as the only activity morally and spiritually justifiable, an institutional understanding of the inevitability of individual failings, and the consequent necessity of punishment.” The sanctification of work and the necessity of punishment were inseparable from one another, for it “was simply assumed that a godly mind and an educated one would have to be thrashed into the children.” These educational methods reflected what John Muir would later characterize as the culturally inscribed habit of “making every duty dismal”.9
The Scottish writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle 10 was a product of this culture and an extreme proponent of hard work: while the Calvinists saw work as reflective of right religion, Carlyle went one step further turned work itself into a religion. Although Muir sought to liberate himself from a Calvinistic culture he found punitive and oppressive, he continued to admire Carlyle throughout his life. Muir’s prodigious capacity for hard work – driven in part by an underlying sense that work was primarily a spiritual endeavor – was legendary.
“Oh, That Glorious Wisconsin Wilderness!”
“How utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. Here without knowing it we were still at school; every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us. Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!” 11
John Muir was 11 years of age when his family emigrated from Scotland to the United States. In the Spring of 1849, no European settler lived within a four-mile radius of the land the Muir’s had settled, nor was there a single human-made road in the vicinity. There were still a few Winnebagos (indigenous people of Wisconsin) to be seen passing through what had until recently been their untrammeled homeland, but to John the farm appeared to occupy a true wilderness filled with a fascinating range of wild birds, insects, and animals that he had never seen in Scotland. The Muirs had settled on the edge of a rapidly advancing civilization, one that in Wisconsin was tearing into the landscape and transforming the natural world into agricultural and manufacturing systems designed to satisfy human needs and desires.
The 11-Year-Old with a Seventeen Hour Workday
Muir’s earliest response to the farm his family settled took the form of a desire to excel at tasks imposed upon him: to do the work better and faster than anyone else, especially his father. He sought to rise about the deadening effects of his labor by competing with himself and all others:
“I was foolishly ambitious to be first in mowing and cradling, and by the time I was sixteen led all the hired men.” 12
As soon as the frost was out of the ground, the boy, aged 11, was put to the plow behind oxen. All day he was obliged to trudge with his arms upraised, perhaps walking as many or eight or nine miles before noon. After an hour of rest after lunch, Muir was called back to work, where he would go bent and hobbling at first like an old man. After another wearying round through the long afternoon, there was supper, the cows to be brought in, horses to be fed, worship, and bed.
Harvest was the hardest time of all. There was a furious haste to cut, bind, and store the wheat, so Muir was called from his bed at four in the morning and was in the fields at first light. All morning Muir and co-workers would relentlessly cut and bind wheat, bent in a cruel posture, pulling the blade toward him through the bright stalks “while the August sun crawled to the heaven of the noon lunch.”
After lunch they worked in the fields until dusk and even after and went to bed utterly drained. Muir would recall awaking with “cotton shirts clung to our backs as wet with sweat as the bathing suits of swimmers and remained so all the long sweltering days” that were loaded with as much as seventeen hours of heavy labor. 13
Hard Work as Character Trait
Young John Muir was stubbornly proud of any and all work accomplishment: “he strove to keep his share of plowed land exactly trimmed and drew a straighter furrow than anyone.” 14. This focus on diligence, ingenuity, resourcefulness and hard work would deepen into a pronounced character trait: Even after the content of Muir’s work changed and he began to dedicate his efforts to conservation, he would relentlessly seek out adversity and hardship and would punish himself severely for real or imagined failures to be equal to any circumstance.
John Muir spent a decade laboring on the farm and became accustomed to extraordinary hardship. But through all this he managed to retain a youthful enthusiasm for the natural world that was the scene of his daily toil. These twin capacities present in young Muir – an extremely high capacity for ingenuity, hard work, and diligence (well recognized by the industrialists who would employ him after he left the family farm), on the one hand, and an unwavering and limitless appreciation for – and sense of oneness with – the natural world, on the other – set the stage for a subsequent crisis that compelled John to change course. The crisis would culminate in the work for which he is most remembered.
Civilization’s Defrauding ‘Duties’
After Muir established himself as a successful inventor, brilliant mechanic, and foreman in his mid-20’s, he began to question the unqualified embrace of hard work that had been his cultural inheritance. While work would always remain a spiritual endeavor, Muir came to recognize that the value of one’s work depended not only upon diligence, ingenuity, and productivity but also on what one was working at. Productivity would remain paramount, but Muir would begin to ask, to what end? A workplace injury – and a period of absence from work that the injury compelled – would lead Muir out from the “shadows of civilization’s defrauding ‘duties’.”
The work injury that precipitated a crisis in John Muir – and that catalyzed transformation of Muir’s work – is the subject of the next article in this series.
1. A glance at headlines reflects the enduring salience of this sense that we are separate from the biosphere upon which our every breath depends. Headlines from the newspaper on the day of this writing, for example, exclaim that the war in Ukraine is not only a “human tragedy”, but also an “environmental disaster” (italics mine).
2. “Right now, it seems likely we are experiencing a sixth (mass extinction), and it is undoubtedly the result of human actions, including human-induced climate change.”
3. The World Economic Forum notes the following: “Unless CO2 emissions drop significantly, global warming will make the Amazon barren, the American Midwest tropical, and India too hot to live in by 2500, according to a team of scientists. ‘We need to envision the Earth our children and grandchildren may face, and what we can do now to make it just and livable for them,’ says Christopher Lyon, a postdoctoral researcher under the supervision of Professor Elena Bennett at McGill University. “If we fail to meet the Paris Agreement goals, and emissions keep rising, many places in the world will dramatically change.”
4. Destruction of the biosphere is inevitable because of our “failure to distinguish income and capital where the distinction matters most”, namely, the irreplaceable capital which humanity has not made, but simply found – i.e., the air, water, climate, other species, and everything else that can be found in the biosphere. We will overlook our tendency to rapidly consume irreplaceable “natural capital” because the biosphere and its products are treated as “income” rather than “capital”. This tendency derives from our inclination “to treat as valueless everything we have not made ourselves.” While a businessperson would not consider her firm to be viable if it rapidly consumed all its capital, she might overlook this fact when it comes to the capital produced by nature. If we treated irreplaceable resources we consume or destroy as capital items rather than as income, we would conserve the capital upon which we depend.
5. “As an alternative to modern uprootedness, Weil envisions a civilization based not on force, which turns a person into a thing, but on free labor, which in its engagement with and consent to necessary forces at play in the world, including time and death, allows for direct contact with reality… (Weil) conceptualizes labor as the ‘spiritual core’ of ‘a well-ordered social life’.” Quotations taken from The Need for Roots, Simone Weil. See: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/simone-weil/#SociPoliPhil.
6. Turner, Frederick. John Muir: Rediscovering America. Perseus Publishing, Cambridge MA. 1985. Page 27.
9. Turner, Page 22.
11. Turner, Page 37.
12. Turner, Page 43.
13. Turner, Page 43 – 46.
14. Turner, Page 58.
15. Anderson, William (1998). Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth.
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