Into the Woods: Learning to Live Sustainably Through Literature and Activism

Photo Courtesy of Markus Spiske on Pixel. Young activiists, like Greta Thunberg, and authors are speaking truth about the urgency of climate change. But people must listen, and sooner rather than later.

In an increasingly globalized world, borders seemingly dissolve and individuals instantaneously connect. As global citizens, we all share in the consequences of our actions. In some instances, impacts have been positive — free trade, cultural intermingling and human rights transparency. In others, they have been negative — pandemics, capitalist exploitation and, concerning this article, climate change. 

Climate change and its consequences underscore the modern relationship between humans and nature. A growing field of literary theory, ecocriticism, studies this phenomenon from an interdisciplinary perspective; literature scholars analyze environmental texts and brainstorm possible solutions for the correction of the contemporary ecological situation. As an active student in the New Paltz English department, I wish to share my classroom experience and how it may help you like it has helped me better understand the importance of sustainability and environmental activism. 

Did you ever think that an assigned course reading here on campus may change your view of the world? If not, then I hope you do by the end of this article. Take, for example, the parallels I found between the furry protagonist in Annie Dillard’s ecocritical essay “Living Like Weasels,” a piece I read for a class this past year, and the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Dillard’s essay proves humans can learn from the wild freedom of weasels and that Greta Thunberg’s fixation on the weasel’s idea of single necessity, in the form of climate change, has proven instrumental in improving our global relationship with nature.

Climate change is a global challenge that does not respect national borders and requires international cooperation. Unfortunately, most environmental initiatives and pleasantries have become jeopardized on our political podium the past several years. (Hint, hint, the culprit sports a tawny mascara.) However, there is hope. 

In its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations mapped 17 sustainable development goals, which it argues that “the goals and targets will stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet.”  One such target, No. 13, emphasizes the global importance of addressing climate change. 

The United Nations contends climate change is now affecting every country on every continent. It disrupts national economies and affects lives, costing people, communities and countries dearly today and even more tomorrow. As civilization modernizes, its efforts towards a more sustainable future are dependent on its recognition of nature not as “other” but as “equal.” But to better analyze the relationship between modernity and nature, it is essential first to understand ecocriticism’s framework, specifically in terms of “Deep Ecology.”

Deep Ecology provides a means of understanding ourselves as subjectively intermeshed within nature rather than objective, outside observers. It assumes rights for every living thing and that humans have a moral responsibility not only to avoid harm to other species but, in turn, modify our needs for nature’s own. As humans, we are innately “anthropocentric,” and our hubris leads us to believe the world revolves around us. Deep Ecology teaches us that the relationship between humans and nature is reciprocal; we coexist and are, in turn, dependent upon one another for survival. 

Under Deep Ecology, humans must adopt a mutually beneficial relationship with nature or risk further destruction to the Earth. Dillard writes, “We could, you know. We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience — even of silence — by choice.” Perhaps people can take vows of preservation, conservation or restoration — all of which concern nature. 

By becoming more inclusive, we open ourselves to new meaningful relationships, which we share in moments with other natural beings who can positively shape us. Dillard captures this sensation when she becomes face to face with her furry friend, which she describes in the following manner: 

“Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.” 

Dillard’s shared stare with the weasel hints at the new intimacy between humans and nature. The intense feeling is not limited to human interaction — a shift from our previous anthropocentric stance. Overcoming species boundaries can evoke newfound emotions, and these emotions reveal there are influences and forces outside of human control. And when the stare broke, Dillard notes, “He disappeared … I think I blinked, I think I retrieved my brain from the weasel’s and tried to memorize what I was seeing, and the weasel felt the yank of separation… I waited motionlessly, my mind suddenly full of data and my spirit with pleadings, but he didn’t return.” Here we recognize the potential for a shared consciousness between humans and nature, and the intangible bond places both human and non-human as the subject. Dillard and the Weasel became equals, and in doing so, Dillard discovers a mind “full of data.” Through coexistence, humans can gain knowledge and perspective. 

Greta Thunberg is unlike most humans — a 17-year Swedish environmental activist known for her youth and her straightforward speaking manner and who, at age 16, to reduce her carbon footprint, gained worldwide fame sailing from the United Kingdom to the United States where she then attended the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. Like Dillard’s weasel, she is not distracted by the overwhelming opportunities and options humans have in life. She attributes part of this ability to her autism, a circumstance she is conscious and open about. She says in an interview, “I see the world a bit different from another perspective. I have a special interest. It’s very common that people on the autism spectrum have a special interest.”

As Greta alludes to, people with autism have intense and highly-focused interests. These fixations are often recognizable from a reasonably young age and can change over time or be lifelong. There is no rhyme or reason for what the obsessions may draw upon — art, music, computers, bus or train timetables, table tennis, traffic lights, numbers or even shapes. 

For Greta, at the age of eight, it became evident that her fixation revolved around climate change. It should not come as a surprise that Annie Dillard shares a fascination for ecology and coexistence with nature like Greta. Skim through her background, you will find that she was engrossed in the environment at a young age, coincidentally, near the same age bracket as her Swedish counterpart. 

In her autobiography, titled An American Childhood, Dillard describes scavenging a wide variety of material, including poetry, geology, natural history and entomology. Dillard developed a morality towards non-human beings and acknowledged our anthropogenic destructive tendencies towards nature. 

According to the United Kingdom’s National Autistic Society, “Autistic peoples often report that the pursuit of such interests is fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness, and many channel their interest into studying paid work, volunteering, or other meaningful occupation.” Deprivation of his or her particular interests can lead to heightened depression. Greta struggled with depression for three to four years before her parents and her community supported her call to action. 

For Greta, the problems we face in the climate crisis are systemic, and fundamental societal change is needed. Greta contends that previously established systems are “Failing future generations. But future generations do not have a voice. And the biosphere does not have a voice. So we will be the voice that speaks for them.” Greta’s reference to the necessity for a relationship between humans and nature is all too clear. 

First-world countries play a significant role in spearheading sustainability initiatives. Like Dillard’s homeland, many first-world countries are lagging in their responsibilities in comparison to their peers. Best illustrated by Dillard, she describes the wooded Virginian park space in “Living Like Weasels,” “Under every bush is a muskrat hole or a beer can. The far end is an alternating series of fields and woods, fields, and woods, threaded everywhere with motorcycle tracks.” Nations, like the United States, must lead by example. She emphasizes the importance of more affluent countries to accelerate their implementation of such practices to help poorer countries do the same. 

Activists like Greta Thunberg task themselves with strengthening and implementing the global response to Climate Change and sustainable living. Despite her success and fame, it takes international cooperation to develop sustainably and reduce or eradicate inequality. 

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. But it is contingent upon equal participation and cooperation to ensure no one is left behind. We must make the Sustainable Development Goals our single necessity and pursue it no matter what difficulties may arise. Because unlike the weasel, we have the advantage of sharing a single necessity with others, and in sharing, we live not like a weasel, but a family of weasels.