Henry David Thoreau’s account of his “experiment” at Walden Pond reads like a treatise on early-21st-century woes. Urban areas, including Boston, just twenty miles from Thoreau’s hometown of Concord, were and are exploding in population and challenges. The federal government was and is navigating treacherous political and economic waters. Injustices against the environment were and are being perpetrated on a grand scale. In Walden, Thoreau advocates self-reliance, simple lifestyles, and greater ecological awareness in response. Thoreau’s broad diagnosis and prescription of this country’s ailments remain as relevant in our era as they were in his.
Biography and Context
Walden Pond, Thoreau’s home of a little over two years, was a few miles removed from his nearly-lifelong home of Concord, Massachusetts. His immediate vicinity was neighborless, but the town was a short walk away. Thoreau built his house largely out of reused materials on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property.
Contrary to popular belief, Thoreau conceived his time at the pond as a personal experiment, not a prolonged way of life. During his time there, he read and wrote prolifically, farmed, travelled the countryside, and observed nature. The fact that his experiment was personal is an important one to note. Thoreau himself does not see this way of life as ideal or even desirable for anyone else:
I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account…I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.
Historian William Cain reiterates this point: “Walden promotes love of nature and energizing contact and communion with it, but the specific life that Thoreau describes is not intended as a model for others” (44). In the early 19th century, cities grew, and with them the problems of urban life, including homelessness, poverty, and rising rent. Bucking this trend, Thoreau chose to move from his town to an undeveloped area. He was still part of the Concord community, but he took at least one step back from life in the town, in contrast with the prevailing urban tide.
The pond and the surrounding woods afforded Thoreau ample opportunity to observe and spend time in nature, and to reflect. However, the newly minted railroad was a constant presence at one end of the pond. It was a sign of technological innovation, but also a harbinger of environmental destruction. The railroad was also a symbol of reduced self-reliance and increased consumerism:
The power of the locomotive impressed [Thoreau], but he hated its effects on the land and its role in promoting commerce and undermining personal freedom (Cain 28).
The railroad was built on the backs of immigrant workers, was cut through forests and mountains, and disrupted the natural ecosystem. It also brought workers to Walden Pond to cut ice to sell to far-off countries. The railroad was thus a potent symbol of everything Thoreau stood against. In “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” he observes,
We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.
After his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau became “a sojourner in civilized life again.” Shortly before Walden was published, in 1854, Thoreau gave a speech in which he argued stridently for the abolitionist position in response to the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Thoreau and his family were long noted for their abolitionist perspective. He sympathized with the radical John Brown, who called for slave uprisings and rebellions.
Issues such as slavery made clear to Thoreau that seclusion and hermitage are not viable in the face of societal evils:
Thoreau claims that he realizes he cannot be a private person; the crime of slavery, he implies, has made the Walden experiment — soon to be defined and celebrated in a glorious book — invalid, impossible to cling to (Cain 47).
While his thinking about slavery does not invalidate the ideas presented in Walden, it adds a layer of context that is at times difficult to reconcile. One wonders how he justified his self-imposed exile from the abolitionist fight, not least because of his documented history of civil disobedience. Walden makes little mention of race at all, let alone the height of the most complete system of human subjugation in history.
Thoreau’s Environmental Philosophy
During his time at the pond, Thoreau’s thinking consisted of the product of both his wide literary appetite and the nature surrounding him. These joint sources produced a number of original themes, including a varied theory of environmental ethics. His environmental ethics seek to place the human in nature, to reject anthropocentrism. Thoreau addresses the human in relation to nonhuman animals, plants, and nature in general.
In relation to nonhuman animals, Thoreau was one of the first prominent Americans to advance the idea of compassion toward our cousin creatures. He advocated and practiced vegetarianism (not without cheating):
No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child. I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual philanthropic distinctions (Thoreau 168).
In his identification with the fish that populate Walden Pond, his romantic description of the loon, the Greek epic of the ant war, and his description of the hares that lived under his floorboards, Walden places animals on a level both to be compassionate toward and to value their experience as much as we value ours.
Thoreau’s environmental ethics extend to non-animal life as well. In considering this aspect of his philosophy, it is clear that he is both steeped in ancient tradition and blazing a trail for those to come. As Thoreau put it in “House-Warming,”
I would that our farmers when they cut down a forest felt some of that awe which the old Romans did when they came to thin, or let in the light to, a consecrated grove…that is, would believe that it is sacred to some god (Thoreau 196).
The wood Thoreau harvested to warm his house was from fallen trees and driftwood, rather than healthy young trees. And it is not only wild plants and trees that came under Thoreau’s purview. He also cultivated beans and corn in a small plot by the house to make a few extra dollars.
Thoreau’s environmental philosophy of nature in general is both non-anthropocentric and holistic. Timothy Sweet put succinctly Walden’s broad natural philosophy in literary terms:
Thoreau effectively invented the personal nature essay, a genre both introspective and objectively grounded in close observation of the natural world, devoted at once to seeking self-awareness and to extending human empathy to nonhuman life… Observing the environmental degradation wrought by technological development and economic growth, [he] called for a revaluation of the natural world as having intrinsic worth. Thoreau thus functions as a marker both for key episodes in environmental history (the railroad; deforestation in New England) and for changes in environmental attitudes, such as a new valuation of wilderness.
Walden was more than unique in its historical moment; it was revolutionary for the way we think about nature writing. It interwove observation and reflection with ethical ideas which were themselves ahead of their time. Other scholars echo this view of the project of Walden:
“[Thoreau] was one of the strongest and earliest critics of anthropocentrism: the view that only human beings have rights or “intrinsic value” and that other creatures may be used in any way we see fit (Furtak et. al, 68).
“For Thoreau, the entire natural world possesses immanent vitality and creative energy. Heaven is here before us, in the grass beneath our feet” (McKusick 151).
Not only must we rethink our actions and relationships with animals and the natural world — we also must reorient our ideas about ourselves to our place within nature, rather than outside it.
It is important to note the role of self-reliance in Walden’s cadre of themes. This book calls out to individuals, to interpret as they will and to use or discard the ideas presented:
Walden’s point of view and its social and economic criticism are strenuously individualized: this author is speaking to you, and it is your life that he tells you must be changed (Cain 31).
For Thoreau, the reorientation of our conception of our place in nature must happen on an individual level. It is you who must take action, you who must live your life in a conscious way. This is not to say that self-reliance means complete isolation; Thoreau would advocate conscious interdependence. But true living, for Thoreau, is living by one’s own means and to one’s own ends.
How, then, are we to accomplish this reorientation in tangible terms? The answer, for Thoreau, is simple: live simply and self-reliantly. In so doing, we must develop an awareness of where we came from and what is around us.
“Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” (Thoreau 111).
Thoreau argues that humans once lived in this way, but that the rise of industrialization and urbanization have led us astray. To return to nature, we must live more simply and more consciously.
Thoreau in the Modern Era
Walden is nearing 170 years old, yet many of the trends to which it responded are still relevant and have even accelerated. Consider urban living — over 80% of the country’s population now lives in urban areas. In the social and political arena, we have no problems on the magnitude of institutionalized chattel slavery, but we face questions concerning minority rights, wealth inequality, and enduring racial and sexual discrimination. We are also, of course, saddled with a dysfunctional federal government.
And in environmental terms, we face one of the greatest challenges our species has ever encountered: climate change. The causes of climate change, including excavating for oil, roads and rails for transportation, and industrialized agriculture, have all had catastrophic effects for the environment and our animal cousins. And the purported effects of climate change, including rising sea levels and air temperatures, will have unthinkable consequences, including mass extinctions and migration. If our species does not find a way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and invest in sustainable energy sources, we will wreak havoc on this planet to an even larger scale than we have in the past.
Thoreau’s environmental philosophy provides a way forward in confronting these issues. As in the 1850s (perhaps because his prescription was not heeded at the time), we must return to living simply and self-reliantly, cultivating an expanded ecological awareness. Thoreau’s principle of Economy, that all one needs is clothing, fuel, food, and shelter, is as true today as it was then. We can live less extravagantly, and more self-reliantly, by rejecting consumerism and replacing it with conscious acquisition of basic needs. And we can expand ecological awareness in many ways, including activism, politics, and travel.
There are many ways we can incorporate Thoreau’s ideas about environmental philosophy into our lives. We could support organic farmers, who seeks to cultivate a healthy, sustainable relationship with the land. We could go off-grid, getting our fuel from sources other than coal or petrol. We can support conservation efforts in designated national parks and wilderness areas. We can take up vegetarianism or veganism.
Perhaps most importantly, we can do our best to spark a national debate about the environmental choices our country faces, and to change the federal political machinery into a proactive force for sustainability. Sadly, individual actions on their own are not sufficient in the face of 2 to 4 degree warming by the end of this century. For the scope of the problem, the ultimate solution is a full-scale mobilization by national governments and international organizations, complete with a regulatory & financial overhaul, massive subsidies for clean energy R&D, and a tax on carbon.
So, to update Thoreau’s argument for simple and self-reliant living, our individual actions must include pushing for change in systems bigger than ourselves. This could include participating in the Sunrise Movement or Rise for Climate, supporting politicians who advocate ideas like the Green New Deal, and even running for elected office.
As in Thoreau’s time, our generation is facing a mounting crisis. In Walden, we may find the tools to confront our pending environmental catastrophe. We must live simply and self-reliantly, expand our ecological awareness, and push for long-term societal change. In short, if we manage to embrace Thoreau’s environmental philosophy, we may have a way out of the mess we’ve created for ourselves. In his words:
I am convinced…that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.
This is our way forward.
Cain, William E. (2000) “A Brief Biography.” A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau. Oxford: Oxford UP. 11–57.
Furtak, Rick, Jonathan Ellsworth, and James Reid. (2012) Thoreau’s Importance for Philosophy. New York: Fordham UP.
McKusick, James. (2000) Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: St. Martin’s.
Schneider, Richard J., ed. (2000) Thoreau’s Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing. Iowa City: University of Iowa.
Sweet, Timothy. (2010) “Projecting Early American Environmental Writing.” Early American Literature 45.2: 403–18.
Thoreau, Henry David. (2004) Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics.