Genealogies of Environmentalism: The Lost Works of Clarence Glacken, by Clarence Glacken

Robert J. Mayhew finds the pioneering environmental thinker’s meditations on population, resources and ecology more relevant than ever

June 22, 2017
Drop of water in a forest
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Geography is, to the point of amused cliché among academics, not a subject overburdened with canonical works. And yet exactly 50 years ago one such rare bird did flutter forth from the presses in the form of Clarence Glacken’s pioneering tract on the history of environmental thought, Traces on the Rhodian Shore. In ways that have galvanised environmentalists of later generations, Glacken traced how the European tradition had structured its cognition of nature and the environment from classical antiquity to the end of the 18th century. Fusing geography and intellectual history, Glacken was far ahead of his time; the field of environmental history and humanities is in good part his intellectual progeny. But tragically, the rest was silence. Glacken produced no other book before his death in 1989 and felt marginalised, his project deemed an irrelevance. When interest in his work revived, rumours circulated of an even larger tome, which, carrying his story forward into the 20th century, had been consigned to the flames by its author after an indifferent response from his publisher.

Genealogies of Environmentalism is not Glacken’s lost second masterpiece. Instead, it emanates from a project in the late 1960s to build a series of looser, lighter essays around the theme (antiquated in titular but not in conceptual terms) of “man and nature”. Glacken never completed this project, but he left a set of essays that have been sensitively edited by S. Ravi Rajan. The core of the collection allows us to see how Glacken interprets the environmental ideas of such canonical figures as Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Alexander von Humboldt and George Perkins Marsh. His essays still amount to powerful, pithy analyses of their subjects today. Those in search of sharp, well-informed pen portraits that, when taken together, amount to the limning of a portrait of 19th-century environmental thought need look no further. Glacken also carries his story forward into the 20th century, addressing debates about population, land use, resources and ecology either side of the Second World War.

Lurking beneath the surface of Genealogies of Environmentalism are two bigger contentions about human conceptions of the natural world, both of which show Glacken the historian morphing in interesting ways into Glacken the public intellectual. First, he characterises the 19th century as the great era in which ideas of a divinely designed Earth came under sustained criticism, and frames this as liberating inquiries into the environment from circular arguments of little credibility.

Second, Glacken repeatedly recurs to questions about population and the environment, most notably in the two chapters that book-end the project. Glacken is clear that Thomas Malthus was a pivotal environmental thinker but also argues, writing a century and a half later in the context of mass anxiety about overpopulation and its ecological consequences, that modern Malthusianism is an “albatross” that stultifies thought.

As we now fear climate change (and its deniers) and aggrandise ourselves as living in the Anthropocene, Glacken’s quiet, sane voice asking us to intelligently investigate what nature is and how we’ve come to understand it is more needed than ever. We can only hope that the current tendency to political polarisation in attitudes to the environment does not leave Glacken as marginalised a voice as he was half a century ago.

Robert J. Mayhew is professor of historical geography and intellectual history, University of Bristol.

Genealogies of Environmentalism: The Lost Works of Clarence Glacken
By Clarence Glacken
University of Virginia Press, 240pp, £78.50 and £36.95
ISBN 9780813939070, 9087 and 9094 (e-book)
Published 30 July 2017

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