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Thursday, February 25 • 5:00pm - 6:30pm
Why Read the “Classics”? Exploring the Ambiguous Legacies and Contested Futures of Cornerstone Figures in the American Environmental Tradition

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(LIVE conversation with presenters. Please watch session video beforehand.)

This roundtable will consist of authors whose papers are set to be published in the forthcoming special issue of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, “Ambiguous Legacies, Contested Futures: Reassessing Cornerstone Figures in the American Environmental Tradition.” In this special issue, authors critically examine how questions about social justice and equity complicate the American environmental tradition's most crucial thinkers--from Emerson to Fuller, Muir to Carson, Thoreau to Abbey--and the relevance these figures might have for the religion/nature/culture nexus going forward.

Crucially, rather than read a precis of their pre-published manuscript, participants in this roundtable instead will speak to how the figure they examine in their manuscript informs their answer to the question: What is the significance of cornerstone American environmental thinkers for us today?

Moderator: Rebecca Kneale Gould

Michael Putnam, “The Redemption of Matter: Margaret Fuller’s Fluid Ethics”

Despite her biographical proximity to figures such as Emerson and Thoreau, the nineteenth-century writer and editor Margaret Fuller is not often considered an environmentalist. Indeed, she is more often remembered for her contributions to political feminism than to environmentalism. I argue that in Fuller's writing, however, an environmental ethics emerges in conjunction with her questioning of the binary between "matter" and "spirit." In place of this binary, Fuller proposed fluidity. This is evidenced in her first book, Summer on the Lakes, a literary travelogue chronicling Fuller's journey through the West. With recourse to theoretical concerns in feminist new materialisms, I first demonstrate how her understanding of fluidity was influenced by the nineteenth-century vitalist theory of animal magnetism. I then turn to the ways that Fuller takes her encounters with the West's watery sites - its waterfalls, rivers, and lakes - as occasions to articulate an anticolonial environmental ethics.

Russell Powell, “John Muir, Sacred Value, and Environmental Justice: Moral Intuition’s Promise and Peril”

John Muir's inspired descriptions of nature continue to influence Americans to see the natural environment as irreducibly valuable, even sacred. Yet Muir's work is not without its shadow side. Specifically, Muir's writing is suffused with the racism of his day, especially against First Nations peoples. In this paper, I argue both the valuable and vile views inherent to Muir's moral vision are to some extent a result of the recourse Muir continually made to the power of his moral intuition. Applying insights from G.W.F. Hegel's epistemology, I offer an account of the roles that evaluative intuitions played in Muir's thinking so as to better contextualize the best and worst features of his moral thought. Hegel's epistemology, I argue, gives insight into the importance of cultivating the virtues and character traits necessary for addressing environmental justice concerns today.

Whitney Bauman & Amanda Nichols, “The Watery Depths of American Environmentalism: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Rachel Carson, and Sylvia Earle”

The legacies of American environmentalism are grounded in androcentric and heteronormative narratives that have downplayed, and sometimes omitted entirely, significant contributions by women to the movements' growth and success. This article explores a re-narration of American Environmentalism through an examination of the lives and work of three pioneering women: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Rachel Carson, and Sylvia Earle. For all three women, their work has been informed by a deep scientific knowledge of, and a sense of felt connection to, their local aquatic environments. Unlike other cornerstone figures, they understood humans as part of the interconnected biological ecosystem and drew early connections between local environmental processes and broader planetary systems and phenomena. Moreover, their life stories suggest that they each developed a unique 'nature spirituality' informed by a deep love of nature and a sense of wonder derived from their studies of the natural world. Herein, we show how gender and gender nonconformity can help us to re-imagine what we know about women, women's belief systems, and human-earth interrelations, as well as the contested legacies of American environmentalism.

Emily Dumler-Winckler, “The Virtues of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Anthropology: From Foil to Fertile Soil for Ecological and Social Justice”

Until recently, the popular presumption and scholarly consensus has been against Emerson as a constructive resource for environmental ethics. So too, Emerson's views of race and gender and his activism in the abolitionist and women's movements of the nineteenth century have been a source of debate. At a time when concerns about social justice and equity, particularly regarding race, gender, and class, have rightly become prominent in environmental ethics, scholars of religion and ecology may wonder whether Ralph Waldo Emerson is best used, if at all, as a foil. Emerson's anthropology and his reception history are both at points deficient. Nevertheless, his anthropology provides resources for an environmental ethics that has justice at its core, and for moving beyond the false binary between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism that has long characterized ecocriticism.

Caleb Murray, “‘Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you’: Relational Ethics, Queer Ecology, and Walt Whitman’s Poetics of Trans-human Kinship”

Walt Whitman's poetry is famously full of "self" and self-contradicting: "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" The scholarly attention to paradox and contradiction often takes the form of an attention to various "binaries" in Whitman's prose and poetry; well-trod binaries include body-soul, sacred-profane, nature-culture, and woman-man. However, a queer attention to the poetic construction of such binaries reveals them to be fluid and ultimately non-binary. Whitman and his speakers construct binaries that relate to religion, gender, and nature, but in poeticizing the construction of binary logic (e.g. man-woman), Whitman and his speakers reveal such purportedly self-contained and discrete domains to be open, fluid and co-constituting. Recognizing the poetic performance of "binary" logic will reshape the reader's understanding of ethical and political implications of Whitman's queerly relational nature ethics.

Christy Call, “Edward Abbey’s Ambiguity in the Anthropocene”

The writer Edward Abbey extoled the beauty of nature but resorted to racist and xenophobic measures of protection and preservation. His outlook was anchored in a dualistic view that imagined the natural world as separate from the social. Such an outlook is undermined by crosscut realities of the Anthropocene. A view that detaches from social entanglements for the health of the natural world registers as incoherent when we understand environmental and social justice to be linked. I reevaluate Abbey's legacy in light of the challenges of the times. I especially focus on Abbey's treatment of immigration in a time of forced displacements from climate change. Abbey's essay "Round River Rendezvous: The Rio Grande" provides an analytic of the densities of relation from a physics of interconnection. Ultimately, I argue that ascendant concepts of nature, individuality, freedom, and rights must be replaced by more ecologically-tuned conceptualizations of ecology, collectivity, responsibility, and ethics.

avatar for Rebecca Kneale Gould

Rebecca Kneale Gould

Associate Professor, Environmental Studies, Middlebury College

avatar for Russell Powell

Russell Powell

2020-21 Core Visiting Assistant Professor in Environmental Theology and Ethics, Boston College
avatar for Amanda Nichols

Amanda Nichols

PhD Candidate, Department of Religion; JSRNC, Managing Editor, University of Florida
avatar for Caleb Murray

Caleb Murray

PhD Student, Department of Religious Studies, Brown University
avatar for Emily Dumler-Winckler

Emily Dumler-Winckler

Assistant Professor of Constructive Theology, Theological Studies, Saint Louis University
avatar for Whitney Bauman

Whitney Bauman

Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Florida International University
avatar for Michael Putnam

Michael Putnam

PhD Student, Department of Religious Studies, Brown University

Thursday February 25, 2021 5:00pm - 6:30pm MST
Online (Live)