Environmental imaginations: providential, utilitarian, ecologial

The important category in After Nature is one Purdy borrows from Lawrence Buell: “environmental imagination.” The environmental imagination is the “everyday metaphysics” (7), all the beliefs and essential metaphors with which any people perceive, account for, and in turn, shape their natural environment. Historically, Purdy argues, Americans have moved through three modes of imagining their environment. First was the “providential.” The New World was a chaotic waste which God intended its Old World immigrants to shape into a garden. This way of thinking predominated through the end of the nineteenth century, when industrialism and a growing population presented social and environmental problems of vastly greater scale. An emerging “utilitarian imagination” largely replaced the providential. According to the utilitarian perspective, natural resources could be managed by the procedures of rational science. This was part of Progressives’ re-thinking of the American project, “a technocratic approach to social and economic life that turned political questions into scientific ones” (179).

After World War II, and especially beginning in the 1960s, the “ecological imagination” began to take hold, aided by the rise of the holistic science of ecology, the recognition of an interconnected web of life, and a persistent discontentedness with the failures of modernity, which included the plain facts of environmental deterioration. This third mode proved a watershed. The early seventies saw a brief consensus during which laws were passed to clean up the air and water. Despite some successes, however, bad news about the environment continued to mount. The so-called culture wars that followed can be explained as a conflict between “constituencies of the new ecological laws and those that remained invested in earlier American approaches to the natural world” (213). This is a way to organize thinking about the last forty years of American history that recognizes the importance of an environmental turn. Although Purdy is not so explicit, a reader can readily identify in those “constituencies” still devoted to the providential and utilitarian modes of imagination the Christian fundamentalist and neo-liberal branches of the American right.

–Robert Greene II,  A Case for the Artifice of Politics: Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature

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