A Look into the Past: Environmentalism, Ethics, and Trees

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 A Look into the Past: Environmentalism, Ethics, and Trees: Elizabeth Cook explains how the study of history and culture of trees better explains how people view the natural world today

Karen Housel

When focusing on current environmental problems, it is helpful to look back through history to see how people have viewed sustainability in the past in order to understand how people think of sustainability today. The 1964 children’s picture book, “The Giving Tree,” provides a classic example of how humans have greatly benefited from Earth’s natural resources. Trees, true icons for environmentalism—are “valued non-other[s],” a term coined by Professor Elizabeth Cook which kicked off a conversation on the value of understanding our past and how that can be useful for tackling environmental issues today.

Photo by Rod Rolle
Photo by Rod Rolle

In her latest work, “Talking Trees in Long 18th-Century British Literature,” Cook explains that the idea of silviculture, the management of forests for maximum production, emerged in the 18th century. At the same time, Cook explains, “…there is a silviphilia emerging where people have a love of trees, so people have at the same moment a desire to take in the beauties of the forests.” This alignment of silviculture and silviphilia is what Cook is curious about—where and how these different views overlap.

The views people have had on trees over the ages may help us decode the feelings people have towards nature and reforestation in today’s world. Cook explained the tactics: “Did people start to [recognize] nature because they saw that trees are more like us or did they start to respect trees because they were so different from us?…the writing of this period makes interesting connections to the way artists and activists are working today to try to make people think about the natural world. ” Cook added, “I’m interested in what would happen if, instead of thinking about trees as being like us, and granting them value because of that likeness, instead we recognize trees as very different from us. Would a kind of ‘outsider ethics’ be more persuasive to get people to grant value to non-human others?”

People’s views towards respecting nature and having an urge to restore it have fluctuated over time; however, by decoding behaviors of the past, we can help people develop an environmentally responsible mentality. When looking at a tree, for example, do we see it simply as a raw material or do we also feel an urge to help and protect it, like a little brother? In terms of an ethical focus, where does the overlap of these views take us?

During my interview, Cook commented that in English classes through the Literature & Environmental initiative professors may ask questions like, ‘How did people during the Renaissance deal with air pollution?’ She explains, “If you understand the political philosophy and the cultural notions of that period, you can begin to understand how we got to certain notions about the American West.” These questions is what the English department has to offer—Investigating the past and comparing it to the present to solving critical questions on why people think and act the way they do in response to environmental issues.