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Requiem for American Nature Philosophy

Mar 26, 2020

Allison K. Athens

Volume 44 (2017) - Issue 2

The idea of nature as a stable and predictable counterpoint to the disruptive energy and change of human societies is at the heart of one of the most enduring environmental writing traditions, the pastoral. Moreover, a related rhetorical convention, the pastoral elegy, distinguishes the nature writing and environmental philosophy of postcolonial settler societies “marked by the death and/or dispossession of their original inhabitants.” In his fifth book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Duke Law Professor Jedediah Purdy invokes the pastoral mode as he meditates on the uneasy inheritance of early American approaches to nature and politics.

As a pastoral elegy inquiring into environmental change and loss, Purdy’s book incorporates facets of different types of critical environmental analysis. However, it is not an environmental activist’s handbook, a treatise on environmental justice and the politics of environmental racism in the United States, a casebook of American environmental law and policy, or a complex philosophical study of how the “objective” use of nature most often leads to oppressive social and gender divisions. Rather, Purdy traces the historical lineage of our present moment in the ultimate expression of human disruption, the Anthropocene, through a historical classification of American attitudes towards nature. The Anthropocene is a recent, albeit contested, designation that marks the indelible human imprint on the world. In Part I, this Review briefly discusses Purdy’s categorization of the founding principles of early American relationships to nature. Part II then explores Purdy’s ideas in action through an analysis of Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corporation and a discussion of the broader contexts and repercussions of Purdy’s addition to environmental literature.