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Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 31 Number 1
Fall 2008

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Scott Russell Sanders
Scott Russell Sanders
Photo by Steve Raymer

For more of Jeremy Shere's interview with Scott Russell Sanders, listen to the podcast.
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'A Sabbath for the Land': An Interview with Scott Russell Sanders

by Jeremy Shere

When it comes to writing about nature, few contemporary voices are as eloquent and wise as that of Scott Russell Sanders. A Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University and author of 20 books, Sanders has long meditated on the value of wilderness in a world dominated by commerce and the exploitation of natural resources. Our connection to -- and disconnect from -- the natural world often lies at the center of Sanders's essays and works of fiction, many of which have been widely anthologized and won literary awards. Jeremy Shere talked with Sanders about two of his books that speak most directly to issues of sustainability and conservation: Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World (originally published in 1993 and now available in paperback) and the forthcoming A Conservationist Manifesto (Indiana University Press, 2009).

Jeremy Shere, for R&CA magazine: What do you make of the term "sustainability"?

When I speak of sustainability I'm thinking about the quality of life that we're passing on to our children and grandchildren, and on to the distant future. Those of us alive now have inherited the results of thousands of years of human labor, discovery, artistry, science, invention, and sacrifice, and we will be passing on the benefits of whatever we make and discover. But we also have inherited an earth that was rich in natural resources with a fairly stable climate and robust biological diversity. Right now we are rapidly degrading that legacy. A sustainable society would be one that doesn't diminish, but rather enhances the natural and cultural resources that it passes on to future generations.

R&CA: Staying Put, which was published in 1993, makes the argument that the best way to connect with nature is to connect with a community. Is this even more essential today, 15 years later?

Some people misunderstand Staying Put as though I were saying that all people should just sit still. There are many good reasons why people move -- for love, jobs, education, or because they're forced to flee as refugees. But what I argue in the book is that we should at least imagine the possibility of finding a place we can commit ourselves to. Instead of aspiring to move constantly, we should aspire to find a good place where we can put down roots and invest ourselves. It became clear to me many years ago that the mobility of Americans was eroding communities, neighborhoods, relationships, and individual psyches. In any city or town, which citizens work on behalf of good schools or museums or parks or safe streets? They're people who have a long-term involvement with the community. There are benefits from our restlessness, of course, but we don't often hear about the price of this incessant mobility. I believe the costs to communities, to personal relations, and to the planet are even clearer and graver now than they were 15 years ago.

R&CA: Staying Put consists largely of personal memories. What is the connection between how we remember and think about our own lives, and how we think about and connect with nature?

Remembering the past, both personal and collective, is a way of understanding who we are and how we came to be in our present situation. Envisioning the future is a way of anticipating the possible effects of our actions. These two impulses, remembering and envisioning, connect us across generations. One of the arguments I make in Staying Put is that communities need people who care about the long-term fate of a place. They've observed it over time, seen how it has changed, improved, or deteriorated, and they also consider what the place might be like in the future. Because we are able to imagine the impact of our actions, we have a moral responsibility to be careful about our choices. We can't do that unerringly. We can't be sure what the effects will be, so we must act on the basis of our best judgment. Recently, for example, one of the presidential candidates said we should build 45 more nuclear reactors by 2030. We've been producing radioactive waste since World War II, and we still don't have a safe way to store it. Anyone who's thinking in a morally responsible way about the future would not advocate nuclear reactors until we develop an absolutely safe method of storing the waste -- if we ever do.

R&CA: Turning now to A Conservationist Manifesto, the word "manifesto" has a political edge. What inspired you to write this book?

Perhaps the title is more confrontational because the book arose out of a sense of urgency. The consequences of our current way of life are clearly destructive, and more so each year. As a teacher, father, and now grandfather, I care especially about the well-being of young people, those alive now and those who will come after us. And I feel we are failing in our responsibility to them. My book raises a minority voice against the 24-hour-a-day advocacy of consumption, the "bigger, better, more" message that advertising and all the dominant media push at us. There's no point in answering this barrage with a polite whisper. A manifesto is a more challenging way of formulating a book, but it's what I feel is appropriate for me at my stage of life and appropriate at our stage of culture. Because we're in denial about how dramatically our way of life needs to change if we hope to create a just and peaceful and sustainable society.

R&CA: You write in the Manifesto about "ark builders," people who live their lives in ways that care for the Earth as opposed to exploiting its resources. Was writing this book an act of ark-building on your part?

Drawing on the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis, I use the term "ark" metaphorically to signify any vessel that holds something valuable, something necessary for our survival and our flourishing. It could be a wildlife sanctuary, a historical society, a museum, a university, a community chorus, a farmers' market, or any other institution or creation that enhances life. The ark could be a book like Walden that embodies crucial insights. And I hope that in a modest way the Conservationist Manifesto will function as an ark, preserving ideas and values and practices that humans will need if we're going to live in a more responsible way.

R&CA: In the Manifesto, you're particularly interested in language -- how the meanings of words shape our thoughts and actions. How do you understand the relationship between language and conservation?

To speak meaningfully about conservation, we must mend our language, which is constantly debased for political and commercial purposes. We've forgotten what certain crucial words mean. For example, the word "resource" derives from "resurge," which indicates something that comes back, something that is naturally renewed. So migrating caribou are a resource, because they return each year. Salmon are a resource. The grass in pastures greens again each spring. But petroleum is not a resource, because when you burn petroleum, it's gone. So we should call it a finite material, one that will not be replaced on any timescale meaningful to humans. Having a more accurate understanding of language could enable us to think more clearly about our predicament and about the consequences of our actions.

R&CA: Henry David Thoreau is a guiding light in the pages of the Manifesto. How is Thoreau's critique of consumerism and capitalism still relevant today?

Thoreau explained that the true cost of a thing is the amount of life we must give up in order to acquire, protect, and maintain it. He insisted that money-earning should serve the greater purposes of our lives; our lives should not be enslaved to money-earning. And he asked of any new technology: What does it enable us to do that is truly worth doing, what skills does it displace, and what do we have to give up in order to embrace this technology? Thoreau was also intent on thinking through the meaning and conduct of life without simply parroting what his society told him he should think. He wasn't writing in a vacuum. He read Hindu scriptures, he read Hebrew scriptures, he read Buddhism and Taoism, he read Shakespeare, he consulted with neighbors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Having done so, and having pondered his own experience, he decided that he needed to reject much of what his culture told him, especially about the role of money, power, and status. I find myself living in a society that promotes some of the most violent, wasteful, and destructive views imaginable. So, in the spirit of Thoreau, I have aspired to think critically about my culture and to propose what I regard as more humane and durable values.

R&CA: In the Manifesto, you write about the concept of the Sabbath as a period of rest for people and nature. How is the idea of a Sabbath important?

I first thought about the analogy between the Sabbath and wilderness when I was invited to write an essay in defense of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I wanted to reach people who identify themselves as conservative Christians -- people who read the same bible I was raised on, in which the Sabbath is a central teaching -- and yet who are opposed to the idea of wilderness. They insist that God gave us everything to use. In considering how I might invite such believers to rethink the notion that the whole earth is ours to exploit, I thought about the Sabbath. In the biblical account, the Sabbath is a portion of time that God instructed his followers to keep holy by refraining from human enterprises, by setting aside the work of getting and spending. So I made the argument that we should think of wilderness as a kind of Sabbath in space, a portion of earth that we choose to leave alone, for the benefit of other species and out of respect for the creation. I have found that people who don't think of themselves as environmentalists or conservationists can grasp the idea of wilderness as a Sabbath for the land.

R&CA: The Manifesto is balanced between despondency at how we've ransacked the planet and the prospect that it's not too late. Are you hopeful?

Yes, I am hopeful. We will eventually fashion a more sustainable economy and society, either under duress, as we respond to catastrophes, or by way of rational and ethical actions. The more of this change we can accomplish by deliberate choice, the better. I want humans to think in larger terms and longer terms, to be more caring, and to choose to live in such a way as to cause less suffering and to leave the earth in a healthier condition. That's why I write books and give talks. For the sake of your kids and my grandkids and everybody else's children, I hope that we can make the necessary changes deliberately, democratically, and wisely. Of course, I'm aware of many troubling trends. But I also see countless people and institutions changing toward a more compassionate and conserving way of life. And those changes point toward a hopeful future.

Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer in Bloomington.


Read an excerpt from the forthcoming A Conservationist Manifesto here