Thoreau, Environmentalism, Economy 5

Turning to the works of Henry David Thoreau might provide a “third way” and go some length toward resolving debates about the Environmentalists’ Dilemma.  I borrow the words “Environmentalists’ Dilemma” from Bryan G. Norton, who uses the phrase to refer to the competing discourses of two environmentalist camps: the economists and the moralists.  These camps would, Norton submits, provide very different answers to the question, “What is the value of biodiversity?”  Economists would emphasize “the actual and potential uses of living species” whereas the moralists “do not believe our obligations to protect nature can be traded off against other obligations” (Norton 29-30).  Economists would state the value of biodiversity in quantifiable, utilitarian, and anthropocentric terms whereas the moralists “insist that we have an obligation to protect all species, an obligation that transcends economic reasoning and trumps our mere interests in using nature for our own welfare” (Norton 30).  The dilemma for the environmentalist is which of the two realms, economic or moral, to heed.  Norton’s argument is that the two realms are not in fact mutually exclusive and that Henry David Thoreau supplies proof of their mutual reinforcement.  That Thoreau titles the opening chapter of Walden with one simple if unsuspecting word, “Economy,” is no coincidence.  The Environmentalists’ Dilemma, for Thoreau, is no dilemma at all: “most commentators have assumed that we should give one answer or the other,” but an absolute, totalizing separation is neither necessary nor accurate (Norton 31, my italics).  I agree with Norton and would like to extend his reasoning in this brief post, which draws its analysis from Thoreau’s Walden.

If economists first measure value “as contributions to human welfare” and then promise “an aggregation of values”—i.e., if they promise a calculation of “the contribution of nature to human welfare” as “commensurable and interchangeable with other human benefits”—then Thoreau was something of an economist (Norton 30).  As implied by the title of his opening chapter, Thoreau uses nature as an occasion to opine about human affairs, often in purely economic terms; he transforms the humble, small, and common scenes of nature into grand meditations about labor and profit.  “When my hoe tinkled against the stones,” he says of a day in the bean field, “that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop” (247).  Here, Thoreau’s profit—his “yield”—is not quantifiable in monetary terms but in vague moral insight:  “It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios” (247).  Thoreau appreciates the value of labor (minimal physical input for cost-effective output—free food) while recognizing that such value goes far beyond the fiscal benefit of planting crops rather than purchasing food at a store: the labor becomes valuable for what it teaches about solitude, individualism, and freedom from materialism, and not just for its potential for monetary savings.  In this respect, Thoreau marries economics and morality.  Or, as Norton, looking elsewhere in Walden, puts it, “Thoreau describes the benefits of the transformation to higher values in terms of human maturation and fulfillment of potential, as improvements within human consciousness, not in terms of obligations to nature and extrinsic to human consciousness” (32).  In other words, in his celebration of nature, Thoreau takes pains to privilege human economy over natural aesthetic, although the former is dependent upon the latter for its “proceeds.”  Nature is a vehicle for arriving at virtue, thrift included.  It is good—and a good—but humanity is essentially of higher importance.

The merger, as it were, of economics and morality finds its most obvious expression in Thoreau’s various price listings: the costs of building a house; the profits turned from harvesting corn, potatoes, turnips, and beans; the expenses of food and clothing; and the overhead in maintaining a self-sufficient lifestyle.  Of these, John Updike writes,

The long opening chapter, “Economy,” joyously details just how to build a house […] down to a list of expenses totaling $28.11 1/2.  Briskly marketing to the world his program of austerity and self-reliance, he itemizes the few foodstuffs he paid for and the profits he obtained from his seven miles of bean rows.  (xiv, my italics)

Updike’s choice of the word “marketing” is important, revealing as it does that Thoreau’s economics did not stop at savings and cutbacks, but actively advertised a lifestyle at once economic and environmentalist.  Thoreau sold his routine and persona to a curious public, a few of whom bought—and bought into—the ultimately published and publicized form (the book). 

On the one hand, Thoreau’s frugality is a lesson about simplicity and prudence; on the other hand, it offers a more environmentally friendly approach to architecture and construction while simultaneously warning about the destructive effects of what today we might call “the tragedy of commons.”  I have neither the time nor space to fully hash out my ideas about the tragedy of commons.  I will, however, quickly supply Steven C. Hackett’s definition for the term and then offer a short justification for my reference to it.  According to Hackett,

The tragedy of the commons is most likely to occur under the conditions of open-access or other poorly designed and enforced property rights regimes.  The tragedy of the commons outcome results from strategic behavior—behavior that an individual takes based on how other people are expected to behave and respond.  At the heart of the tragedy of commons is the belief that if one were to conserve the CPR, others will take what was conserved, and the CPR will degrade (116). 

Thoreau’s worries about the tragedy of commons are evident in a few abrupt asides.  Take, for instance, these lines regarding hunting: 

Almost every New England boy among my contemporaries shouldered a fowling piece between the ages of ten and fourteen; and his hunting and fishing grounds were not limited, like the preserves of an English nobleman, but were more boundless even that those of a savage.  No wonder, then, that he did not oftener stay to play on the common.  But already change is taking place, owing, not to an increased humanity, but to an increased scarcity of game, for perhaps the hunter is the greatest friend of the animals hunted, not excepting the Humane Society (329).

It seems abundantly clear that Thoreau refers here to the phenomenon—now known as the tragedy of commons—whereby people acting in their own self-interest use up a limited shared resource, in this case animal prey, despite their knowledge that doing so will be bad for everyone.  [Consider this point in light of another sentence by Thoreau: “By avarice and selfishness, and a groveling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives” (257-58).]  Perhaps the tragedy of commons motivates Thoreau’s declaration that “if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown” (269-70).  After all, thieving and robbery “take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough” (270).    

Economics and morality also apply—albeit more tenuously—to what Michael Berger calls Thoreau’s “study of ecological dynamics in forests,” a “vigorous program of research” about seed dispersal and its spontaneous generation (381-82).  Although Berger does not explicitly say so, he implies that Thoreau’s scientific forays lend authority to his literary works.  This authority allows Thoreau to promote himself and his philosophical vision.  Berger analyzes Thoreau’s The Dispersion of Seeds, which was not published until 1993.  Nevertheless, Berger’s observations apply almost as aptly to various passages in Walden.  Setting out to show that Thoreau’s somewhat Darwinian ideas were not only sophisticated but also pioneering, Berger posits, “Thoreau’s seed dispersal ecology was […] rich in significance regarding the various kinds of complicated mechanisms, principles, and patterns by which species of plants succeed one another in local ecosystems” (382).  To substantiate this point, Berger quotes the following from The Dispersion of Seeds:

In this haphazard manner Nature surely creates you a forest at last, though as if it were the last thing she were thinking of.  By seemingly feeble and stealthy steps—by a geologic pace—she gets over the greatest distances and accomplishes her greatest results.  It is a vulgar prejudice that such forests are ‘spontaneously generated,’ but science knows that there has not been a sudden new creation in their case but a steady progress according to existing laws, that they came from seeds—that is, are the result of causes still in operation, though we may not be aware that they are operating. (383)

This passage recalls Thoreau’s claim in Walden that “where a forest was cut down last winter another is springing up by its shore as lustily as ever” (302).  Thoreau’s point, at any rate, is, in both cases, that forests (in all their various manifestations—trees, plants, etc.) will spring up as if on their own: independent of the botany or vegetation that preceded them.  In the “big picture,” the economics and morality at issue have to do with Thoreau’s ability to market himself and his ideas.  If he could pit himself as both scientist and writer, his writings would gain both cultural and actual currency as well as popular credibility.  This coupling of scientific sophistication with moral sensitivity produces, in Updike’s words, Thoreau’s thinginess: “the thinginess of Thoreau’s prose […] still excites us, the athleticism with which he springs from detail to detail, image to image, while still toting something of Transcendentalism’s metaphysical burden” (xxii).  Without science, Thoreau is little more than a gushing nature enthusiast; without science or the metaphysical burden, he “comes close to being merely an attentive and eloquent travel writer” (Updike xxii).  Fortunately, Thoreau recognizes the need to economize while moralizing, and to do the former well required a certain scientific literacy.  Norton is more generous than I because he casts Thoreau’s scientific observations about the forest as having nothing to do with self-promotion and everything to do with the Environmentalists’ Dilemma.  Thoreau’s self-promotion notwithstanding, Norton’s praise does tend to demonstrate the manner in which Thoreau yoked science to economics and morality:

Thoreau quite explicitly recognized that the forest, a dynamic system, had a ‘language of its own, and that the transition form the immature state was both literary and scientific. […]  He saw that one learns more important things by relating an organism to its environment than by dissecting an organism into parts.  This indicates that Thoreau was on the right track, seeking the secret of life and its organization in the larger systems in which species live.  Especially, he thought we learn more important things about human behavior, and the evaluation of it, by observing organisms in environments.  He believed that if he could unlock the code of nature’s language, it would provide the key to a new, dynamic and scientific understanding of nature.  The key prerequisite for this change to a more contemplative consciousness was development of a new ‘language’ of human values based on analogies from the ‘language’ of nature. (40)

If Norton is right, as I believe he is, then the Environmentalists’ Dilemma is not so paralyzing as some would suggest.  Indeed, Thoreau’s Walden shows how economy and morality can participate with each other in unique and even scientific ways. 

–Allen Mendenhall

For further reading, see the following:

Berger, Michael.  “Henry David Thoreau’s Science in the Dispersion of Seeds.”  Annals of Science.  Vol. 53 (1996:  381-397).

Hackett, Steven C.  Environmental and Natural Resources Economics:  Theory, Policy, and the Sustainable Society.  M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

Norton, Bryan G.  Searching for Sustainability:  Interdisciplinary Essays in Philosophy and Biology.  Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893.

Updike, John.  “Introduction.”  Walden.  Princeton University Press, 2004.


  1. I think this is a really important point, Allen. We tend to live in constructs that separate morality from economics as different viewpoints. But, interestingly, our most revered enlightenment economists undergirded their economics with a form of moral responsibility. Locke insisted that in taking private property out of the commons that one leaves “as much and as good” for others. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations builds upon themes in his Theory of Moral Sentiments — a tome on human engagement. I nice read on classical economic morals is Deirdre McCloskey’s, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ehtics for an Age off Commerce (link:

  2. With regard to Hackett’s proposition that “The tragedy of the commons is most likely to occur under the conditions of open-access or other poorly designed and enforced property rights regimes,” it bears pointing out with Partha Dasgupta that “spatially localized resources are frequently neither private nor state property, but common property. In poor countries communal property rights to resources are most often based on custom and tradition: they aren’t backed by the kinds of deeds that would pass scrutiny in courts of law [hence ‘enforcement’ is by way of social norms].” Is this thus an example of a “poorly designed and enforced property regime?” Perhaps, but only under the pressures of capitalist globalization, otherwise it represents the rational pooling of risks and does not increase, on its own and ceteris paribus, the likelihood of the “tragedy of the commons.” It seems more than plausible to imagine such pressures among the prime variables accounting for the fact that “the local commons have degraded in recent years in many parts of the poor world,” for it is under such conditions that property rights of this sort become uncertain or insecure (political instability also creates conditions of insecurity). For example, the reciprocal nature of the social norms that enforce such common property rights regimes makes them particularly vulnerable to capitalist globalization processes, for “institutions based on reciprocity [become] fragile in the face of growing markets.” Such communally managed commons are not, typically, however, open access, restricting participation through ties of kinship and community membership (i.e., through ‘historical’ rights). As Dasgupta says, “Case studies have shown that communal property-rights and management have prevented rural and coastal communities from experiencing the tragedy of the commons.” In an observation that might warm the heart of afacianados of the anarchist tradition, Dasgupta further notes that the “literature on the local commons is valuable because it has unearthed how institutions that are neither part of the market system, nor of the State, nor of the household, develop organically to cope with resource allocation problems” [not surprisingly, among the relevant authors cited in the note is Elinor Ostrom].” No doubt the niggardly rationality assumption intrinsic to the conception of neo-classical economic agency has a difficult time explaining such phenomena. When communal property rights become fragile or breakdown, only the State is capable is enforcing the property rights regimes that accompany the extension and entrenchment of existing and new markets: “If markets are to work well, property rights must be clearly defined and protected, and contracts have to be enforced,” as Hackett can appreciate. And this “only the State can do.”

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