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It is common in the nature-writing genre to associate an appreciation of nature with being part of a community. It is also common to erect a ginormous straw-man conflating the idea of “rugged individualism” with “consumerism” with each of those terms used extremely pejoratively.  Here is an OK illustration of it (my books at home have many better examples):

Interdependent, too. The emergent science of ecology is easily summed up: everything’s connected.

We know now that this is true, but interconnection is anathema to a consumer notion of the world, where each of us is useful precisely to the degree that we consider ourselves the centre of everything. We believe that pleasure comes from being big, outsized, immortal; now our zealots imagine genetically engineering us for greater greatness. But the testimony of the rest of creation is that there’s something to be said for fitting in.

If one is a small part of something large, if that something goes on forever, and if it is full of beauty and meaning, then dying seems less shocking. Which undermines about half the reason for being a dutiful consumer,

Advertising, hyperconsumerism, ultra-individualism – these are designed to make you crazy. Nature, like close-knit human community, is designed to help you stay sane.

I wonder if readers of this stop ever stop nodding their heads in agreement to simply ask, “what the heck is he talking about?” It is one thing to celebrate the natural world, indeed, it is probably an amenity that I would rank #1 on my list of consumer preferences (note, that the way I wrote that would seriously irk a naturalist — you see, to them, the natural world is not even there to be enjoyed or “consumed” but rather we are supposed to make ourselves part of it, be humbled by it, to mesh with it, and realize that we are a small cog in its huge wheel, so even if I and a true naturalist did exactly the same thing in the wilderness, such as meandering along a stream while contemplating the meaning of life, he would be doing something right and I would not … seriously, that’s what you get when you read their thoughtful work). However, I do not see how communitarian living, getting to know your merchants and neighbors better, scorning people outside of your small network, etc. have to do with this? Do you?

Or how about conflating consumerism and individualism. I bet our authors have  a pretty good idea of what they mean by consumerism — the drive to acquire, to have a bigger house, a faster car, a shinier BBQ, and all of these things require the use! yes use! of real environmental resources. The apotheosis of its opposite is to delight in the simple pleasures of the natural world while taking nothing (on net) from it. OK, great, I agree, if that is how you wish to define things. But what exactly do you mean by individualism? And what does that have to do with acquiring a bigger BBQ than my neighbor? In fact, wouldn’t getting oneself caught up in an arms-race of spending seem to be the antithesis of being a rugged individual? I certainly do not give a hoot what my neighbors are consuming, so long as what they consume does not come from my pocketbook. My sense of being an individual rests in having a secure private sphere of action where others are not permitted to infringe – such as owning my own thoughts, owning the small amount of property that I have legitimately obtained, and generally having the ability to prevent others from using me as a means to achieve their ends.

Thus, as an individual, I am free to appreciate nature, and even to be self-sufficient (so long as I do not appropriate the property of others in the process). If I ever get a fever for wanting more, for being “outsized” and for consuming, the only way I can do that is to insert myself into the great web of human connectivity, and to figure out how I can better serve my fellow man. The happy irony for the naturalist is that by engaging in this process, we “rugged individuals” produce more for society than we take from it – and that production does not have to be comprised of using physical resources at all.

There’s lots to chew on here, I and I will leave it for you to reflect on. What exactly is the meaning and essence of “community?” What is the meaning of individualism? What is the real connection between freedom and nature?

4 Responses to “Nature != Community and Individual != Consumer”

  1. Sherlock says:

    It still amazes me the beiliefs people have because of what they can see or not see. You are walking out in the woods and see a quirrel climbing up tree, avoiding a fox, and then eating an acorn. INTERCONNECTION!

    Sitting there drinking your coffee from South America. No interconnection at all here. Let’s all move along. Just some coffee in my hand.

  2. Trapper_John says:

    I like this quote:

    Field biologists using sensitive detectors have discovered that the needles of trees near Alaskan rivers owe their nitrogen to the carcasses of salmon that die along the banks, the same salmon that feed the bears whose pawing aerates the soil that…

    And every single one of these entities is acting completely in its own self-interest. These relationships are emergent and completely unscripted outcomes of animals doing what’s best for them.

    What has emerged before human society is “good” and anything that we have built is “bad”. To rise above simply stating a preference for consuming nature as it was before humans, the author must make a connection to the divine and posit that he/she knows what’s best for my sanity. This is the new religion. This is the new zealotry. These are the new evangelists.

  3. Greg says:

    Funny, I always associated nature with rugged individualism, and consumer culture with overly-soft soccer mom “everyone’s a winner” types.

  4. Rod says:

    This discussion brings to my mind the Unabomber, an opponent of consumerism and suburban sprawl if there ever was one. He did his part to reduce his carbon footprint by living in a tiny cabin where he spent most of his time making little bombs that could be sent to individuals who promoted globalization. Once in a while, he would supplement his diet with a rabbit.

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