Several years ago The New Yorker published a cartoon that showed two people in a car turning their heads in bewilderment toward a roadside sign that reads: “You are now entering the environment.” Now entering? Where were we before? Surely the environment is all around us. Or is it? Like any good joke, this one has a bite that’s sharp enough to leave an aftertaste. What is the environment anyway? Is it a synonym for nature? Are you more likely to find it where there’s plenty of nature to enjoy or where nature is under threat? Can you get out of the city and spend a Saturday hiking in the environment? Or is the environment that place over there, the one that’s having a lot of trouble nobody quite knows how to fix?
Whidbey Island, about an hour and a half north of Seattle by car and ferry, is a fifty-seven-mile-long swag of land with bulbous land masses curling toward each other at the south and north ends and a gently curving middle portion that is barely a mile wide at its narrowest points. A couple of years ago I spent a few days on Whidbey attending a conference devoted to new ideas in the environmental movement. The people I met at the conference, held in the southern part of Whidbey, consider themselves nature lovers and environmentalists. They eat locally grown food, enjoy backpacking and kayaking, and speak knowledgeably about climate change and other environmental issues. Months later many of them would paddle their kayaks out to Elliot Bay off the Seattle coast, where they joined hundreds of others in protesting both the temporary docking of a disabled Shell Oil rig in regional waters and drilling in the Arctic in general. Yet, after the conference, I stayed with a couple who told me about a problem they felt local residents were ignoring.
Close to the northern tip of the island sprawls Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Since 2008 the Navy has been testing the FA-18 Super Hornet, also known as the Growler, a small, sleek fighter plane with an advanced system of electronics designed to jam the radar and radio communications of enemy aircraft. But, according to the base’s neighbors, what the Growlers are currently obstructing is their peace of mind. My hosts told me that the noise from the frequent test flights is so bad that people have to wear earplugs when they go to bed at night. When a Growler shoots over a Little League ballpark, the kids throw down their equipment mid-pitch to cover their ears. Glass shatters on picture windows, the ground trembles, animals are getting sick, and everyone’s nerves are strained. Tests that measure loudness have shown that the Growlers emit up to 139 decibels outside and 95 decibels inside houses, schools, and offices. Permanent damage to the ears can begin when noise levels reach 110 decibels.
Curious about why I had heard nothing of this issue during the conference, I asked the people I had lunch with that afternoon if they were familiar with it. “We can’t hear it down here,” one woman said and bit into her sandwich. “That’s up north,” her husband added by way of elaboration. The implication was that, although the environment around the air base was having problems, their own environment, thankfully, remained unaffected.
That New Yorker cartoon wouldn’t be funny if the sign read, “You are now entering nature.” We do believe we can enter nature. “Nature” is as different from “environment” as “home” is from “habitat.” Although both nature and the environment consist, in the public imagination, of a particular mix of air, water, plants, and animals, we tend to see nature as more intimate and welcoming than the temperamental, indifferent environment. Everyone has her own idea about what nature is, but we tend to be very accepting of the interpretations of others. For one person nature means remote mountain wilderness. When he travels a long distance from his home to spend a week backpacking in the Rocky Mountains, he gets annoyed if he encounters what he considers too many other people on the trail. He feels that the nature he’s worked so hard to get to has been tainted by the presence of humans, which means that his experience there is also tainted. For another person, working at an office in a big city, nature is the neighborhood park where she likes to spend her lunch break on spring afternoons. There she can sit on a bench, raise her face to the sun, and feel the pressures of the job evaporate. Busy people pass back and forth around her, the carefully tended greenery is surrounded by skyscrapers, and off in the distance she can hear a constant chorus of car horns and sirens. Still, she relishes her patch of warm and fragrant air, and in the trees above her the birds sing as if they, too, required no more grandiose a form of nature. Typically perceived to be where humans are not, nature is nonetheless a profoundly human concept.
If nature is personal and specific, the environment is vague, indifferent, and typically somewhere else except when it is aggressively and invasively in our own back yards. The environment is depersonalized nature. The Environmental Protection Agency defines “the environment” that it is mandated to “safeguard” simply as “the air, water, and land upon which all life depends.” By this definition the environment sounds noble and important. However, scientists, the media, and the general public rarely use the word to express anything positive. Instead, the term conjures up images of a territory riddled with threat, uncleanliness, toxicity. The environment we humans of the twenty-first century have come to know is a container of certain chemical components that we desperately need and ought to value, but which has been irrevocably fouled because of our own greed and carelessness. It is the nature we feel collectively guilty about harming, even though we may not accept individual responsibility for much malfeasance. In the age of climate change the environment has become even more free-floating and impossible to recognize with the five senses. It is an example of what philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—phenomena that are “massively distributed in time and space . . . viscous, which means that they ‘stick’ to beings that are involved with them . . . [and] nonlocal; in other words, any ‘local manifestation’ of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject.” Everyone knows that the environment, manifesting as climate change, is landing here and there around the world with increasing frequency and vehemence. Unlike the loathsome but tangible depredations of the past, however, it’s much harder now to find anyone to blame or to bill for the clean-up. Meanwhile, we put our trust in organizations and institutions, from the EPA to the Wilderness Society to Save Muddy Brook, to protect the nature we love by staving off the environments that could drift over and infect it.
The domain we now think of as “the environment” has only been identifiable as such for about fifty years. Once, the environment was simply that which surrounded you, be it an expanse of steppes around a yurt in Mongolia, a New York City apartment, or a sunny beach on the French Riviera. The borders expanded and contracted depending on where you were and when and what the conditions were at any given moment, but the concept was general and did not require much pondering. George Perkins Marsh never uses the word “environment” in his Man and Nature (1864), even though he is often credited as the founder of the environmental movement, since he was the first to call attention to the discord between humans and nature, writing that “man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Everywhere he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.” Later “environmental” writers rarely used the word. For Frederick Jackson Turner (1893) the environment was the milieu that the European emigrant to America found daunting not only because of its vastness and wildness, but also because the native people he encountered were obviously so at home there. It is not the environment but water, timber, and mineral resources that make the United States “the best possible place to live in” and therefore must be conserved, according to Gifford Pinchot (1910), the first head of the President Theodore Roosevelt’s new Forest Service. For Aldo Leopold (1949) the environment was simply the sphere of influences around the birds, game animals, or humans he happened to be referring to in any given passage of his writing. What these conservationists cared about was taking care of nature, sometimes in the form of a particular place like Yosemite, sometimes in general.
It was Rachel Carson who, in 1962, corralled the contents of the “environment” and made it a subject of concern unto itself. In Silent Spring she launched the new trajectory of this previously unexceptional term when she wrote that “the most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal chemicals.” No longer was the environment an imprecisely conceived assemblage of air, rivers, walls, pictures on the walls, birdsong, wetlands, or sofas, and the temperature and noise levels suffusing them. Carson forced the general public to acknowledge that the environment was a shared place containing not only nature but the many scientific aspects of nature that the average human could not, and usually did not need to, understand, but which were nonetheless profoundly vulnerable to human interference. Nature was a friendly neighbor; the environment, cool and detached, was a professional with complex credentials. Nature was accessible, the environment best left to its own devices. Today we think of nature as earth, water, air, plants, and animals unsullied by human presence, whereas the environment is earth, water, air, plants, and animals that have been tainted by humans and their activities.
I’ve noticed how my own environment has fractured and resized in recent years—not on the land itself but in my thought. When the natural gas industry moved into Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, I took it personally. The whole county—indeed, the whole state—was my beloved backyard, and I wanted the interlopers out. Every time I shot up a long, steep hill on a narrow country road, only to be abruptly forestalled by a truck bearing a huge cylinder of contaminated water from a fracked well, outrage surged through me. I would edge as close as I could behind the truck and tailgate it throughout its slow, grinding progress up the hill, as if my act of aggression could not fail to convey the message that I didn’t like what the driver and his kind were doing, and now he was going to have to take this punishment for it. When I saw, by day, horses clustered at the far end of a pasture to avoid the thumped-earth clamor of the fracking process or, by night, the ripples of dark hills blanched by the massive white torches of gas flares, I wanted to cry and sometimes did. The environment had arrived and it was awful.
But I have to confess that once I turned away from those incursions, the rage and grief would gradually fade, and what they left behind was simply relief that the enemy hadn’t made its way any closer to my own home in the far eastern part of the county. Once, I had worried that Dimock, site of nationally headlined kitchen tap water that homeowners would ignite at the touch of a match for a curious reporter, was only thirty miles away. These days I’m grateful that the fracking operation a friend okayed when he leased the farm that’s been in his family for three generations is as far as six and a half miles from my own driveway, and not closer. It’s as if the environment around me has shrunk—or rather that I myself have shrunk my environment—to accommodate my own inability to confront its demands.
If you, like the people in the cartoon, were actually to spot a roadside sign informing you that you were about to enter the environment, you might be inclined to make a quick U-turn and head back the way you’d come, suspecting that something noxious had leaked out from where it was supposed to be kept. Logically we know that the environment isn’t a spot on the map that we can “enter,” yet psychologically it really does seem that the word describes a particular locale that has turned, or is about to turn, nasty and uninhabitable. Those people in the cartoon don’t live in the environment, and they have no desire to visit it or even pass through it. They know that wherever the environment is there’s trouble, and that serious, costly attention will be required to return things to a state approximating, but probably never quite attaining, the nostalgically remembered normal. When people talk to one another about the environment, the tone tends to be one of outrage that more isn’t being done to protect it. But there are so many environments in need of attention! The environment you yourself worry about might be the desiccating coral in the Great Barrier Reef, shrinking ice in the Arctic, the Amazonian rain forest, the air over Beijing, or California forests incandescent with wildfire. Where is the environment now, as you read this? Chances are, you think it’s somewhere you’re not.
A 2012 study called “Extreme Weather, Climate and Preparedness in the American Mind” examined attitudes about changing weather patterns in the United States. One part of the questionnaire focused on whether the respondents noticed changes in the weather in their own region, and another part on whether they perceived changes in other locales. In every one of four geographical regions represented—Northeast, Midwest, South, and West—people asserted that more weather changes were occurring in each of the other three areas than in their own. The purpose of the study was to gauge public awareness of extreme weather and the extent to which people were ready to cope with future instances of it, yet what seems significant is that, in all the groups, people were convinced that it was somewhere else, not their own area, where emergency weather conditions were likely to be a problem. Where was the environment? Certainly it hadn’t yet reached the people taking the survey.
When I was a child, before cars had mandatory seatbelts, I used to love kneeling on the back seat and looking out the rear window as my parents drove. It was fascinating to consider the meaning of always having just been someplace and being on the verge of entering someplace else. Passing through a small town, for instance, I could see the houses, trees, and dogs, the people walking along the sidewalk, the flower boxes and fire hydrants in a configuration that, just seconds before, had contained my family and me, bundled into our car. Now they had all been returned once again to their familiar world, a world without us, ignorant even that we had briefly shared a space. And already, even as I formed the thought, we were slipping through another place and another, like a string passing through and connecting colorful beads. Taking in what was behind me, I saw how each linked niche got along perfectly well without me, but would willingly open up to receive me. I found this a satisfying arrangement.
What my child’s mind was perceiving, in fact, was that the world—what I will now call “the environment as world”—and I are constantly jostling, ingesting, penetrating, and exiting each other. It is impossible for me ever to be outside the environment and, at the same time, I really am, as the cartoon says, always “entering the environment.” The environment as world, rather than simply as a poisoned place, is actually a far more varied and personal collection of spaces than we typically give it credit for. The environment can be as intimate as a bedroom and as vast as the mix of air and sea currents drifting around the Eastern seaboard. Most of us pass through many environments in the course of our day, absorbing and being absorbed by each, as a fish swims through its watery home, darting in and out of rippling fronds of coral, gobbling up mouthfuls of smaller fish along with the wet and salty sauce of their environment, and perhaps becoming, later in the day, part of the environment of a bigger fish. When I step out of my home in rural Pennsylvania on a frosty fall morning and drive to a bus that transports me to New York City, where I attend a meeting and have lunch with a friend, I leave and enter various environments. Each is nested inside another: the meeting room in an office building in Midtown Manhattan in the heating atmosphere of planet Earth. In each environment I, like that fish, might find myself predator or prey. If I happen to sit next to someone at the meeting who has dabbed an excessive amount of aftershave on his cheeks that morning, then, in my opinion, that person has assaulted my immediate environment. If, at lunch, I order wild salmon flown in from Alaska, I become a colluder in the accumulation of carbon into the air and perhaps in the problem of overfishing as well. The frost, the bus, the air over the city, the room, the man, the scent, the salmon, and I are all active ingredients of various environments that day, at once subjects and objects, givers and recipients. I move through and around my environments as they move through and around me. The environment is both a collective noun and an infinite number of particular ones.
Even though we can’t actually see the environment, nobody—not even climate change deniers—refutes its existence. Perhaps the reason the environmental movement has such a problem getting people to care about its very urgent causes is that we haven’t had a chance to see for ourselves how nature becomes the environment. There’s no front-row seat these days for environmental theatre, as there was in Las Vegas in the 1950s, when tourists could sign up for a special side trip to the Mojave Desert, there to sip cocktails as they thrilled to the white hot sight of a nuclear bomb test on the horizon. Nature is something we can care about, but when nature degrades into an “environment” that signifies a damaged world, our relationship with it comes to an end. No longer is the damaged place lovable or even approachable; it is only to be avoided and perhaps silently grieved.
But maybe the city of Las Vegas, home of risk-taking and relentless faith in imminent good luck, was onto something. If the environment, up till now, has been too vague a concept to grasp, too scary a place to enter, we should be meeting the future by adjusting our perspective. There are already organizations that offer “toxic tours” to places like the brownfields of southeast Los Angeles and Houston neighborhoods crammed between oil refineries and chemical plants. To make the environment more personal, environmental organizations and travel agencies could form partnerships to offer visits to places where people can personally experience the nature they love turning into the environment they’ve dreaded. Cruises to Alaska would focus not on leaping whales and grizzlies grabbing salmon but on shrinking ice floes. School field trips would introduce kids to clear-cut forests or wetlands being plowed under for a new mall.
The future version of that New Yorker cartoon will feature a sign intended not as a warning but as a big, welcoming banner festooned above the road that proclaims: “You are now entering the environment!” Instead of two wary adults as the passengers, the car will contain the whole family: Mom, Dad, and a couple of kids safely buckled into the backseat. There will be a picnic basket between them and everyone will be smiling excitedly. Which environment will they enjoy today? A burned forest? A gas-fracking operation? A Little League game near the air base? The possibilities are endless. This is the way to make the environment real and to believe in it. And once we believe in it, we might begin to love it as much as we love our own personal nature. Let’s gather our binoculars, our snacks, and our friends and see what rarities the environment has to offer.