At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Romantic poets challenged the traditional view of the relationship between humans and nature. They brought the natural world to the forefront of the literary realm, fostering a more meaningful set of feelings in relation to nature. According to literary critic M. H. Abrams in his essay “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets,” this led to a new relationship between humans and their natural environment, one of “total affinity and communion” with the natural world, “a living entity in whose life […] all things, human and nonhuman, participate” (130-31). Describing the Earth as a “living entity” fosters a profound connection between humans and nature; humans would not be able to “participate” in the Earth, but rather be its mere tenants if it were cold and dead. As Abrams explains, these “relationships to the natural world [were] unexampled in earlier cultural history” (136). Yet, he also points out that the Romantics did not invent new terms, but rather used “old vocabulary” in order to discuss this new relationship (136). This was made possible by metaphor, which Donald Davidson describes as a form of thought that “makes us see one thing as another” (qtd. in Mikics 180-181). The metaphor of the Earth as a living being draws on the understanding of more familiar relationships, “making us see” the relationship between living beings and the environment as the relationship between two living entities. The Romantic poet S. T. Coleridge named this metaphor, the idea of a living earth, “the One Life” (Abrams 130). Abrams defines the One Life as the idea that humans, the Earth, and everything on it, living and nonliving, all share an “interrelatedness” (131).
The Romantics used this holistic view of the Earth to starkly oppose post-Newtonian scientific thought of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, as Abrams further explains (133). Newton gave rise to the view that everything on Earth was numerable which lead to the idea of “a world consisting, fundamentally, of particles in purposeless motion” (134). Minimizing the Earth to a set of particles removes its sense of vitality as particles convey the sense of inanimate matter. It also divides the Earth into independent components, fundamentally opposing the idea of interdependency central to the One Life. Abrams argues that an essential purpose of the One Life was to “revivify and rehumanize the world” and oppose the alienation of humans from Earth accomplished by science (135). Since the One Life first appeared in Romantic writing in the early nineteenth century, a genre regarded as environmental writing has emerged. This genre consists of works by scientists and environmentalists that argue on behalf of the modern environmental movement. One of its earliest works is Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in 1962. In environmental writing, the One Life continues to foster a connection between humans and the Earth, but can now be seen doing so alongside scientific thought. Thus, the relationship between the One Life and science may now have some subtle differences from their relationship at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The metaphor of the Earth as a living being draws on the understanding of more familiar relationships, “making us see” the relationship between living beings and the environment as the relationship between two living entities.
This complex relationship between the One Life and science can be explored in both Carson’s Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia (2006) by James Lovelock, two prominent environmental writing books. In order to call to action for the environment, both authors invoke the metaphor of the One Life, drawing on the idea that humans and the Earth are both living and therefore dependent upon each other. In Silent Spring, Carson shows the deleterious effects of pesticides and the extensive reach of these effects to argue for the cessation of their use. In doing so, she utilizes the idea of the “web of life,” developing the ecological idea of a food web into a concept that focuses on the interconnectedness of all living beings and the Earth. Much like the One Life of the Romantic period, Carson’s web of life is a metaphor, invoking the literal image of a web, in which each component can be traced to another, to illustrate this idea of interdependency. Her proclamation that “in nature nothing exists alone” further establishes that her web of life is an iteration of the One Life (51). Carson supports this statement by demonstrating the mechanisms through which pollution from pesticides is transferred throughout the web. Therefore, Carson uses science to support her idea of the web of life. In The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock presents his Gaia hypothesis, the view of the Earth as a living, mother-like entity whom humans must care for in order to avoid her wrath. He attributes the failing state of the environment to humans interfering with her self-regulation in order to call for change. Lovelock also acknowledges that Gaia is a “metaphor [that] is important because to deal with, understand, and even ameliorate the fix we are now in […] requires us to know the true nature of the Earth” (16). He states that Gaia is “the whole system – organisms and material environment coupled together […] that evolved self-regulation” (23). This definition explicitly includes the living and nonliving, joining them together into a form of the One Life. Like Carson’s web of life, it also unexpectedly applies science, namely the scientific theory of evolution, to give the Earth qualities of a living organism and is therefore incomplete without science. Thus, both Carson’s and Lovelock’s arguments seem to be a paradox with two ideas originally in opposition, the One Life, which serves to reunite everything the Earth encompasses, and scientific thinking that would seem to divide it, playing key roles together. How can both the One Life, which was in large part a reaction to the prevailing science during the Romantic period, and modern scientific thought work in tandem in popular environmental writing to argue on behalf of the environment? I will argue the idea of the One Life is now dependent on the science that proves the interconnectedness of the Earth. This science serves as evidence of the vigor of the entire Earth by showing that elements not conventionally thought of as alive are dependent upon and can influence those that are, and therefore possess a sense of vitality as well. Thus, Carson’s and Lovelock’s versions of the One Life represent a modern form that fosters not only a feeling of connection, but also an understanding of it. This new form of the One Life, dependent on scientific reasoning, cultivates a more profound connection with the Earth than the One Life of the Romantic period.
How can both the One Life, which was in large part a reaction to the prevailing science during the Romantic period, and modern scientific thought work in tandem in popular environmental writing to argue on behalf of the environment? I will argue the idea of the One Life is now dependent on the science that proves the interconnectedness of the Earth.
One of the first chapters in which Carson’s web of life plays a prominent role is “Realms of the Soil” (chapter 5), in which she demonstrates that the soil is one component of the Earth that is immensely impacted by pesticide use in order to support her argument against pesticides. She begins by presenting the soil as the foundation of the Earth since plants are dependent on soil and animals are dependent on plants and therefore also on soil. However, she also demonstrates that the soil has been made possible by those plants and animals and is therefore dependent upon them as well, calling the soil “a creation of life” (54). She describes the “marvelous interaction of life and nonlife” that led to the formation of soil, in which originally abiotic processes became dependent on organisms such as lichens and “minute insect life” (54). In creating this relationship, Carson fosters a sense of interrelatedness, immediately connecting animals and therefore humans to the soil, an entity traditionally perceived as dead and inconsequential. While creating a feeling of connection that invokes the One Life, Carson simultaneously is presenting a scientific argument. Her logical reasoning is a component of her web of life, demonstrating how energy transfers between organisms connects them. She explicitly invokes this web of life metaphor to further demonstrate the universal reliance on soil, stating, “This soil community, then, consists of a web of interwoven lives, each in some way related to the others – the living creatures depending on the soil, but the soil in turn a vital element of the earth” (56). Describing the soil as “vital” is key to this use of the One Life. This establishes that the “living creatures” are connected to a soil in a way beyond dependence – they are connected because both are alive in some way. Her use of the word “community” demonstrates that her use of the One Life is reliant on science. The word “community” can be interpreted in the more common use of the word, a place for interaction and connection with others, with a largely positive connotation. On the other hand, “community” can be taken in a technical sense, as the scientific term ecologists use to describe a group of organisms living in close proximity and interacting. Therefore, Carson not only creates the impression that animals and the soil are mutually dependent, but also demonstrates that this dependency is because the soil forms a part of the ecosystem, just like any other living being. Thus, Carson’s web of life, where all the Earth is interrelated by being living and able to affect the rest of the Earth, is dependent on scientific concepts that describe biological processes of exchange between organisms and their environment.
Unlike Carson, who presents her view of the environmental issues she aims to combat and then introduces the web of life, Lovelock utilizes his form of the One Life – his Gaia metaphor – from the start of his book. Therefore, Gaia serves as his mechanism to both present what he believes are the key problems facing the environment and call to action. In the first chapter, “The State of the Earth,” Lovelock assumes the role of a “planetary physician,” thereby invoking the One Life by giving the Earth a sense of life much like that of a human patient (1). By using this metaphor which serves to represent the Earth as a patient of its inhabitants, he brings the state of the environment to a level that is highly relatable, because the emotionally charged topic of our own health or the health of our loved ones is something, unlike the state of the environment, that we cannot ignore. While feeling plays a key role in this method of humanizing the Earth, so too does scientific understanding. By using the field of medicine as a frequent point for comparison throughout his book, Lovelock draws on a field that uses scientific solutions to fix scientific problems. Thus, key to understanding the state of Gaia as Lovelock sees it is comprehending that it is also a scientific problem and solution. He concurrently employs his form of the One Life and science through his references to the Earth as a metaphorical patient: “Farming abrades the living tissue of its skin and […] pollution is poisonous to it as well as to us” (2). By stating that humans and the Earth are affected in the same way by pollution, Lovelock portrays that the two are interrelated, making the view of the Earth as a patient part of his use of the One Life. The One Life can also be seen in that he describes the matter that makes up the surface of the Earth as “living tissue.” While this statement does not describe the specific mechanisms by which these practices harm the Earth, it is still draws on medical language to depict the ways in which the Earth is harmed by these practices. This gives a greater understanding of the impacts of humans on the environment and therefore themselves than would be possible without the metaphorical use of medical language. Therefore, Lovelock’s idea of Gaia, a living Earth in need of care and upon whose health humans ultimately depend, is reliant on scientific ideas, especially medical science, in order to be accessible.
While feeling plays a key role in this method of humanizing the Earth, so too does scientific understanding.
Like Lovelock, Carson has mechanisms that she employs throughout her book that contribute to her use of the One Life or, more specifically, her web of life. Multiple times in each chapter, she presents a story of a community of animals, plants, or people, usually in combination, a large majority of whose members died or got sick. She then attributes each event to a recent broad treatment of pesticides. An additional component of each case study is an explanation of the biological mechanisms through which the pesticides accumulate in the environment and the tissues of organisms and are then transferred throughout the web of life. Thus, in presenting the tragic outcomes of pesticide application, Carson creates an emotional reaction that shows the impacts of the interconnectedness of all beings in the web of life. But, she also uses science to promote a comprehension of how the entities in the web of life transfer pesticides from one to another. One of the various chapters in which Carson employs this method of argument is “Rivers of Death” (chapter 9), in which she uses the widespread impacts of pesticide release into bodies of water to argue against this practice. In discussing the impacts of a 1955 attempt to kill the salt-marsh mosquitoes, Carson examines the impact on the defenseless fiddler crabs, whose numbers became scarce after the spraying. She states, “The place of the fiddler crab in the ecology of the world it inhabits is a necessary one, not easily filled” (148). After this, she goes further to discuss how species such as coastal raccoons and “clapper rail, shorebirds, and even visiting seabirds” died as a result of the spraying as they rely on the crabs as their primary source of nourishment (148). She also discusses the mechanism through which poison is transferred from the crabs to the fish who eat them. By describing the ecosystem that was affected by this spraying as a metaphorical “world,” Carson is employing the One Life by creating a sense of unity among all the entities in this part of the Earth. This use of the web of life metaphor in which one ecosystem is represented as an interconnected world is reliant on two fields of science: ecology and physiology. Carson uses ecology to describe the food web connecting the ecosystem and physiology to describe the transfer and collection of pesticides in tissues. Together, these explain how the interdependence of the web of life means that applying pesticides to one component of it will lead to widespread disastrous results. While employing the web of life to case studies greatly contributes to a sense of connection throughout the Earth, it also demonstrates the specific methods through which the effects of pesticides spread, using scientific evidence to explain this connection. Thus, Carson’s version of the One Life is reliant upon not only scientific concepts, but also specific, observed scientific evidence.
Some statements made by Lovelock may seem to run counter to my argument that he embraces science as a part of the One Life. For example, he claims “Science is a cozy, friendly club of specialists who [are] hampered by the persistence of incomplete world views” (5). But, it is logical that he would try to defend and differentiate himself from the rest of the scientific community, as his Gaia hypothesis is not largely accepted by his fellow scientists. Further, he is rejecting the way modern science views the world, fragmented into fields so disparate that none has the full picture, much like the post-Newtonian scientists the Romantics sought to oppose. Rather, Lovelock uses science to take a holistic look at the Earth, employing scientific evidence to support the interconnected view of the world presented by his metaphor of Gaia. In fact, he employs this evidence in case studies much like Carson does. Like her, Lovelock uses science to demonstrate the interdependence of all entities on Earth by showing human action having an effect on a component of the environment, the environment having an effect on living organisms, and those organisms, in turn, having an effect on people. This sort of chain-effect, or better yet circle-effect, demonstrates that everything on Earth is connected and thus demonstrates the One Life. Also like Carson, Lovelock explains the science behind the phenomena he describes, meaning his form of the One Life, the Gaia metaphor, is dependent on scientific evidence as well. For example, in the chapter “What is Gaia?” (chapter 2) where he sets up his conceptual framework for thinking about the Earth as a living organism connecting everything it encompasses, he gives evidence of how this can be so. He explains how the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by humans has a cyclic heating effect: “The cause was the failure of the ocean ecosystem” (32). He then goes on to explain how the carbon dioxide led to a small increase in temperature that killed the algae in the ocean, which caused the ocean temperature to increase, which diminished its ability to cool the Earth. By describing an “ecosystem” made up of both living and nonliving components on Earth affecting each other, Lovelock demonstrates that Gaia truly encompasses and regulates all of the Earth. By also presenting the specific course that followed from cause to outcome, Lovelock uses the science behind the issue to describe why and how Gaia incorporates and controls all entities on Earth. Thus, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, much like Carson’s web of life, would be incomplete without both scientific reasoning and scientific evidence to support his metaphor.
At first glance, using a One Life metaphor and scientific thought together may have seemed like a paradoxical way to argue on behalf of the environment. Certainly, this viewpoint is bolstered by Abrams’ emphasis on the Romantic, rather than scientific, view of the environment. His perspective, however, is based largely on Romantic poetry. The relationship observed between the One Life and science in Romantic poetry is complicated by the emergence of popular environmental writing. Both Carson’s and Lovelock’s arguments are dependent on representing the Earth as a form of the One Life, but this effect is only attainable with both the metaphorical and technical application of science. Returning to the definition of a metaphor, literary scholar David Mikics states that metaphors possess “a certain literalistic charge,” and therefore call a literal image to mind (181). The scientific concepts put forth by both authors give this “literalistic charge” to their metaphors. For Carson, the image called to mind by her One Life metaphor is the scientific idea of a food web and for Lovelock, the image is a living creature, most likely a woman, with failing health. Both demonstrate that all of the Earth is interconnected, each component able to affect the rest. What allows both authors to compellingly make this argument is their literal use of scientific evidence. Only through scientific evidence of the transfer of toxins is Carson able to support the idea of interconnection present in the web of life. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is reliant on scientific support that shows traditionally inanimate components of the Earth can respond to human action and in turn exert control over humans. Nevertheless, the science that is essential to the One Life in environmental writing would not be nearly as strong if it had to stand alone, independent of the One Life. This can be seen in the words of the Romantic poet Shelly, who claimed that we lack “the creative ability to imagine that which we know” (qtd. in Abrams 132). The One Life, whether it be the web of life, Gaia, or another form, provides us with this “creative ability.” By giving the Earth a sense of both vitality and interconnectivity, the One Life makes the issues brought forth by science more pertinent, making it easier to see and understand the far-reaching impacts of our actions on the environment. The One Life also creates a stronger emotional tie to the Earth since it can be seen as living, therefore putting greater emotive force on the call to action on its behalf. While science largely contributes to the understanding of the failing state of our environment and the One Life fosters a feeling of emotional connection to the environment and a desire to act, the interdependency of the One Life metaphor and science mean that each contributes to the understanding and feeling of the need for change. Thus, in environmental writing that effectively argues on behalf of modern environmentalism, uniting the One Life metaphor and scientific concepts and evidence is vital.
While science largely contributes to the understanding of the failing state of our environment and the One Life fosters a feeling of emotional connection to the environment and a desire to act, the interdependency of the One Life metaphor and science mean that each contributes to the understanding and feeling of the need for change.
Abrams, M. H. “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets.” The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 130-150. Print.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Boston: Mariner, 2002. Print.
Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and The Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic, 2006. Print.
Mikics, David. “Metaphor.” A New Handbook of Literary Terms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 180-182. Print.