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Earth Day is Rousseau-Day April 22, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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On this Earth Day 2009 I’d like to remind everybody of the immense influence Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) has had on our entire attitude toward nature, regardless of whether we think Earth Day is an obnoxious invention, based on bogus reports, and geared toward making our lives more difficult, or a wonderful incentive to appreciate and protect the planet we live on. Prior to Rousseau, the common  attitude among intellectuals as well as those who worked the land was that nature either needed to be subdued—“developed”—or simply ignored. Nature was only worth contemplating if it had become useful to humans, and the (very real) dangers removed. Yes, I know this is a simplified version of a long story, but I need to get to Rousseau! So what did he do to change the minds of an entire culture? He upgraded the Social Contract concept of “the state of nature” from being a dangerous place where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” to a place, and time, of easy living and human compassion. A romantic notion, and wildly inaccurate. But with the upgrade of that concept came a reevaluation of indigenous peoples living close to nature (the “Noble Savage”) and the time of life when we are closest to nature, childhood, as well as the experience of being in nature itself, in the wild:


In his Confessions he writes,

“It is already clear what I mean by fine country. Never does a plain, however beautiful it may be, seem so in my eyes. I need torrents, rocks, firs, dark woods, mountains, steep roads to climb or descend, abysses beside me to make me afraid.”

(If you want to read more about Rousseau’s influence, you can look it up in my paper, “Everyone Needs a Stone.“) Years later, toward the end of his life, in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, he says,

Seeking refuge in mother nature, I sought in her arms to escape the attacks of her children. I have become solitary, or, as they say, unsociable and misanthropic, because to me the most desolate solitude seems preferable to the society of wicked men which is nourished only in betrayals and hatred.

So every time we take a walk out in the canyon, the woods or the field just “to get away from it all,” or buy items with “all natural ingredients” and no additives, whenever we allow our kids to be kids without having adult expectations of them, whenever we (of the Western Civilization) feel that it is imperative to respect indigenous peoples, and what is most important for Earth Day, whenever we express the need to take better care of the Planet, we are in effect evoking Rousseau. And while the entire environmental debate is growing in divisiveness, in some cases becoming a contest between expert opinions, the appreciation for Rousseau need not be a point of contention, in this respect (we may disagree with his Social Contract, and the General Will, and a bunch of other troublesome concepts): Rousseau is not necessarily an “environmentalist,” because he sees no need to “preserve” or “save” nature—it’s just there for him, available for human use. And there is enough of him left, from the tradition, to have that little element of anthropocentrism in his appreciation for nature. However, it is the first time in Western history that a thinker thinks enough of wild nature to talk about how important it is for us to have that access—which of course also translates into the need to preserve nature. And for those among us who are more radical in their views, Rousseau has opened up the possibility of conferring intrinsic value on nature, as something that has its own value regardless of its usefulness for humans. So Earth Day is, in many ways, Rousseau-Day.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau