An Environmentalist Book for Non-Environmentalists

by Treehouse Editors

Megan Fowler

Review of My Green Manifesto by David Gessner
Milkweed Editions
July 2011

In My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism, David Gessner raises a modest proposal for a “new” environmentalism. He spends the majority of the book describing the nature of this environmentalism by comparing and contrasting his own ideas with the views of others with whom he agrees and borrows ideas from, like Henry Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and Darwin. He also speaks of those with whom he strongly disagrees, like Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, academics who wrote an essay called “The Death of Environmentalism.” Gessner expresses his disgust for this essay, characterizing it as an emotionless drone of theoretical terms and a dogmatic finger-pointing. After dismissing this brand of environmentalism, he suggests that in order to be truly “environmental” one must experience the wilderness, or come into “contact” as Thoreau would say. The difference between Thoreau’s foundation and Gessner’s is that Thoreau’s backyard held Walden pond and Gessner’s holds the Charles River of Boston: an unlikely setting for a writer’s retreat due to the soda cans, trash, and presence of what David Gessner assumes to be “a hooker boot.”

It doesn’t seem to bother Gessner that his wilderness is quite the opposite of those before him. In fact he has a good sense of humor about it and embraces that it isn’t as “pure” as it seemed in the past. He says, “it makes me long for a new sort of music, a music with energy, irreverence and drive, a punk osprey tribute sung by, say, The Sex Pistols.” The Manifesto expresses that the beauty of our own backyards, even unconventional beauty, should not be condemned to models and theories. What really seems to bother Gessner about the type of environmentalism that his nemeses pursue is guilt that is a direct side effect from the nagging of the “end of times,” the “Mayan doomsday” or the apocalypse as we know it. Gessner tackles the conundrum of political polarization between the environmentalists and the apathetic (or those who feel as if the end of times is completely out of their control):

Though we don’t actually do it, we know that we should eat and drive less. And, on a deeper level, we know that we should conserve. We the people need to move away from our obsession with growth at all costs and toward a dependence on local economies, and obviously away from slurping down oil and gobbling resources like a bunch of drunken gluttons. Yes, we know, we understand. But all these shoulds and needs. What about wants and what about fun? We are Americans for God’s sake!

In an attempt to shift away from the finger pointing, Gessner becomes the meandering protagonist of the book along with his activist friend, Dan Driscoll. Much of the book is a portrait of Dan and his efforts to clean up his beloved Charles River. Gessner proceeds to explain that Dan has not only fought in legal battles but also knocked on the doors of countless citizens to reclaim land that could be maintained and enjoyed by the city. Throughout the men’s travels, Dan is portrayed as a conscientious and fun-loving guy who at one point stops in his tracks to pull weeds in order to improve the aesthetic of Boston’s tiny wilderness. This is the mindset that Gessner endorses: doing something truly environmental and being an example rather than simply condemning others. Gessner describes this brand of environmentalism in three easy steps: Have a small love affair with something in the world, get in a fight, and then launch in a larger project of self and world.

In turn, contact can lead to a passionate struggle for a piece of land or an animal species. The writer himself vividly describes his admiration for the Osprey of the North Carolina coast, his “totem animal.” These ideas all reiterate the Eastern philosophies of Gandhi, or being for something rather than against everything. In his book, Gessner shows that he is only human, as he chugs Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and beer on a camping trip, and also admits to his small feeling of panic at the thought of turning off his cell phone. For people consumed by anxiety at the “end of times,” Gessner displays his survival technique as consciousness of his environment balanced with a sense of humor. He proves that there is more to environmentalism than the trend of purchasing “twisty lightbulbs” and recyclable bags:

Even in a time when environmentalism is all the rage, to do something truly environmental—even something as simple as asking someone to pick up litter or a cigarette—is to invite some degree of scorn and ridicule. So what? Scorn and ridicule are not so bad in the face of love. When you’re energized by joy for something rather than just being against something, asking someone to clean something up or think twice doesn’t feel superior or moralistic, it just feels logical.

This environmentalism may not actually be new, but it is about retreating and recycling the fundamental observations from Thoreau, Darwin, and Rachel Carson and the thing that they all had in common: they were writers with a humble but intense curiosity that eventually led to social change.