Saturday, November 29, 2008

Henry David Thoreau Weeps

The father of American Transcendentalism , individualist anarchism and environmentalism would weep. A pond is such a small thing and yet it reveals the seriousness of climate change and the ensuing mass extinction of species caused by capitalism.

For the past few years, Davis and colleagues from Harvard and Boston University have been perusing the notebooks of the famous naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, using his notes about his sanctuary at Walden Pond to uncover the drastic effects of climate change. With his graduate student, Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, Primack stumbled upon Thoreau’s observations of changes in plant flowering times and species occurrences over time. “It became the gold mine,” Primack said. “What was great was that Thoreau was so famous and that his records were the oldest we found in the United States.” Together with his graduate students, Charlie G. Willis and Brad R. Ruhfel, Davis compiled an evolutionary tree of the entire community of flora that had existed in the Concord area in the mid-19th century. “Using phylogenies to think about interesting patterns of bioevolution and global [climate] change just seemed like a perfect avenue to think about this pattern of species loss using a novel evolutionary perspective,” Davis said. Primack and Miller-Rushing had observed that the plants around Walden Pond were producing flowers on average more than a week earlier than they were in Thoreau’s time, when temperatures were 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit lower. The shift in flowering times, however, was not uniform—some species groups were flowering more than three weeks earlier, while others were flowering “like clockwork around mid-May,” Davis said. Applying these data to an evolutionary perspective, the researcher--s found that the species that adjusted to the changing climate survived, while the “clockwork” plants had declined in number. “The real downer about this all is that the groups that are being hardest hit are our most cherished temperate flowering species: orchids, buttercups, roses, dogwoods, violets,” Davis said. “These are the kind of species that people go out on botanical forays to see, and now they can’t see them.” Davis said that about one-quarter of the plants Thoreau observed in his notebooks have become extinct, and that 36 percent now are in such low abundance that they are “hanging by a thread.”

Walden; Or, Life in the Woods.
White Pond and Walden are great crystals on the surface of the earth, Lakes of Light. If they were permanently congealed, and small enough to be clutched, they would, perchance, be carried off by slaves, like precious stones, to adorn the heads of emperors; but being liquid, and ample, and secured to us and our successors forever, we disregard them, and run after the diamond of Kohinoor. They are too pure to have a market value; they contain no muck. How much more beautiful than our lives, how much more transparent than our characters, are they! We never learned meanness of them. How much fairer than the pool before the farmers door, in which his ducks swim! Hither the clean wild ducks come. Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature? She flourishes most alone, far from the towns where they reside. Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth..

Basic Premises:
1. An individual is the spiritual center of the universe - and in an individual can be found the clue to nature, history and, ultimately, the cosmos itself. It is not a rejection of the existence of God, but a preference to explain an individual and the world in terms of an individual.
2. The structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual self - all knowledge, therefore, begins with self-knowledge. This is similar to Aristotle's dictum "know thyself."
3. Transcendentalists accepted the neo-Platonic conception of nature as a living mystery, full of signs - nature is symbolic.
4. The belief that individual virtue and happiness depend upon self-realization - this depends upon the reconciliation of two universal psychological tendencies:
a. the expansive or self-transcending tendency - a desire to embrace the whole world - to know and become one with the world.
b. the contracting or self-asserting tendency - the desire to withdraw, remain unique and separate - an egotistical existence.
This dualism assumes our two psychological needs; the contracting: being unique, different, special, having a racial identity,ego-centered, selfish, and so on; the expansive: being the same as others, altruistic, be one of the human race, and so on.
The transcendentalist expectation is to move from the contracting to the expansive. This dualism has aspects of Freudian id and superego; the Jungian shadow and persona, the Chinese ying/yang, and the Hindu movement from Atman (egotistic existence) to Brahma (cosmic existence).

Thoreau's clay-mixed graphite wasn't entirely original. The Germans had used something like it a few years earlier. It's not clear whether Thoreau had any inkling of the German process. But what is clear is that he transcended it. He developed a new grinding mill. He developed all sorts of process details. Historian Henry Petroski adds to the list of Thoreau's inventions -- a pipe forming machine, water wheel designs. They probably never told you in your English class that Thoreau often signed the words "Civil Engineer" after his name. Yet Thoreau was content to walk away from an invention without making personal profit of it. He was, after all, the same man who wrote ;... the seventh day should be man's day of toil ... and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul -- in which to range this widespread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of Nature ...

Many readers mistake Henry's tone in Walden and other works, thinking he was a cranky hermit. That was far from the case, as one of his young neighbors and Edward Emerson attest. He found greater joy in his daily life than most people ever would. He traveled often, to the Maine woods and to Cape Cod several times, and was particularly interested in the frontier and Indians. He opposed the government for waging the Mexican war (to extend slavery) eloquently in Resistance to Civil Government, based on his brief experience in jail; he lectured against slavery in an abolitionist lecture, Slavery in Massachusetts. He even supported John Brown's efforts to end slavery after meeting him in Concord, as in A Plea for Captain John Brown.

Referring to the American government, the greatest American Anarchist, David Thoreau, said: "Government, what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instance losing its integrity; it has not the vitality and force of a single living man. Law never made man a whit more just; and by means of their respect for it, even the well disposed are daily made agents of injustice."

Ziga Vodovnik interviews Howard Zinn — Rebels Against Tyranny.
There is, of course, much with which to disagree, but overall, it's a valuable read, especially the parts about the philosophy's American history:
One of the problems with dealing with anarchism is that there are many people whose ideas are anarchist, but who do not necessarily call themselves anarchists. The word was first used by Proudhon in the middle of the 19th century, but actually there were anarchist ideas that proceeded Proudhon, those in Europe and also in the United States. For instance, there are some ideas of Thomas Paine, who was not an anarchist, who would not call himself an anarchist, but he was suspicious of government. Also Henry David Thoreau. He does not know the word anarchism, and does not use the word anarchism, but Thoreau’s ideas are very close to anarchism. He is very hostile to all forms of government. If we trace origins of anarchism in the United States, then probably Thoreau is the closest you can come to an early American anarchist. You do not really encounter anarchism until after the Civil War, when you have European anarchists, especially German anarchists, coming to the United States. They actually begin to organize. The first time that anarchism has an organized force and becomes publicly known in the United States is in Chicago at the time of Haymarket Affair.[....]Well, the Transcendentalism is, we might say, an early form of anarchism. The Transcendentalists also did not call themselves anarchists, but there are anarchist ideas in their thinking and in their literature. In many ways Herman Melville shows some of those anarchist ideas. They were all suspicious of authority. We might say that the Transcendentalism played a role in creating an atmosphere of skepticism towards authority, towards government.

Traditional individualist anarchism
Theorists in traditional American individualism (historically called "Boston anarchism" at times, often derogatorily) include Josiah Warren, Ezra Heywood, William B. Greene, Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner,Stephen Pearl Andrews, and Henry David Thoreau. Josiah Warren is commonly regarded as the first individualist anarchist in the American tradition. He had participated in a failed collectivist experiment called "New Harmony" and came to the conclusion that such a system is inferior to one where individualism and private property is respected. He details his conclusions in regard to this collectivist experiment in Equitable Commerce. In a quote from that text that illustrates his radical individualism, he says: "Society must be so converted as to preserve the SOVEREIGNTY OF EVERY INDIVIDUAL inviolate. That it must avoid all combinations and connections of persons and interests, and all other arrangements which will not leave every individual at all times at liberty to dispose of his or her person, and time, and property in any manner in which his or her feelings or judgment may dictate. WITHOUT INVOLVING THE PERSONS OR INTERESTS OF OTHERS" (Tucker's emphasis). Warren coined the phrase "Cost the limit of price" to refer to his interpretation of Adam Smith's labor theory of value. The labor theory holds that the value of a commodity is equal to the amount of labor required to produce or acquire it. Warren maintains, therefore, that the price of labor of one individual must be equal to the production of the equivalent amount of labor of every other individual. And, consequently, that an employer who labors not, but retains a portion of the produce of an employee as profit is guilty of violating the "cost principle" --he recieves payment without cost to himself. Warren regards this practice as "invasive." If an employer is to be paid, he must not be paid unless he labors. In 1827, Warren put his theories into practive by starting a business that he called a "labor for labor store" in Cincinatti, Ohio. Warren, like all the American individualists, that followed was a strong supporter of the right of individuals to retain the product of their labor as private property. Josiah Warren (1799-1874) was an American social reformer and commonly regarded as the first individualist anarchist. ... Ezra Heywood was a 19th century North American individualist anarchist, slavery abolitionist, and feminist. ... Benjamin Tucker (April 17, 1854 - 1939) was Americas leading proponent of individualist anarchism in the 19th century. ... Lysander Spooner (January 19, 1808 - May 14, 1887) was an American political philosopher, abolitionist, and legal theorist of the 19th century. ... Stephen Pearl Andrews (March 22, 1812 - May 21, 1886) was an anarchist. ... Henry David Thoreau Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862; born David Henry Thoreau) was an American author, pacifist, tax resister and philosopher who is most famous for his essays Walden on appreciation of nature and Civil Disobedience (available at wikisource) on civil disobedience. ... New Harmony is a town located in Posey County, Indiana. ... His Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was one of the earliest attempts to study the historical development of industry and commerce in Europe. ... The labor theory of value (LTV) is a theory in economics and political economy concerning a market-oriented or commodity-producing society: the theory equates the value of an exchangeable good or service (i. ...

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