The Ecocentrists: A Selected Bibliography

October 17th, 2018
Disenchanted with the mainstream environmental movement, a new, more radical kind of environmental activist emerged in the 1980s. Radical environmentalists used direct action, from blockades and tree-sits to industrial sabotage, to save a wild nature that they believed to be in a state of crisis. Questioning the premises of liberal humanism, they subscribed to an ecocentric philosophy that attributed as much value to nature as to people. Although critics dismissed them as marginal, radicals posed a vital question that mainstream groups too often ignored: Is environmentalism a matter of common sense or a fundamental critique of the modern world?
In The Ecocentrists, Keith Makoto Woodhouse offers a nuanced history of radical environmental thought and action in the late-twentieth-century United States. Focusing especially on the group Earth First!, Woodhouse explores how radical environmentalism responded to both postwar affluence and a growing sense of physical limits. While radicals challenged the material and philosophical basis of industrial civilization, they glossed over the ways economic inequality and social difference defined people’s different relationships to the nonhuman world. Woodhouse discusses how such views increasingly set Earth First! at odds with movements focused on social justice and examines the implications of ecocentrism’s sweeping critique of human society for the future of environmental protection. A groundbreaking intellectual history of environmental politics in the United States, The Ecocentrists is a timely study that considers humanism and individualism in an environmental age and makes a case for skepticism and doubt in environmental thought. Keith Makoto Woodhouse will discuss The Ecocentrists on Wednesday, October 24 at 6pm at the Co-op.

"The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature," by William Cronon - This is the essay that launched what environmental historians sometimes call "The Great Wilderness Debate." Many books have been written in response to it, including my own! It is widely available online, and also in Cronon (ed.), Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature.
"The World With Us: The State of American Environmental History," by Paul Sutter - In the June 2013 issue of the Journal of American History. State-of-the-field essays are always schematic but sometimes provocative. I found this one especially pointed and inspiring
More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America, by Robert Collins - See below.
A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, by Lizabeth Cohen - Cohen's and Collins's books are two great studies of how economic growth and mass consumption were not simply economic dimensions of the postwar United States but also cultural, political, and even moral characteristics. Making and buying more things, these authors show, became integral to how American policymakers and citizens understood the polity and the nation.
The History of the Sierra Club, by Michael Cohen - This is an old book that few people read anymore. That's too bad, because it is packed with thoughtful observations about not only the Sierra Club but also the conservation movement as a whole. Along these lines, see also The Fight to Save the Redwoods by Susan Schrepfer and The American Conservation Movement by Stephen Fox.
The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics Since 1964, by James Morton Turner - I kept coming back to this book again and again, not only for the important overall narrative that Turner offers but also for the remarkable degree of detail that he manages to achieve.
The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism, by Thomas Robertson - Overpopulation and limits to growth were key terms and concepts for radical environmentalists. Robertson's book is an excellent overview. Also extremely helpful is The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in U.S. History, by Derek Hoff, which offers a broader treatment that pays more attention to economic policy.
"The Climate of History: Four Theses," by Dipesh Chakrabarty - Chakrabarty's essay has been controversial and much-discussed. I find it deeply thought-provoking, and a potent mix of scholarly rumination and intellectual autobiography.
Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, by Molly Worthen - This might seem like an odd pick since it has nothing at all to do with environmentalism. But Worthen's book demonstrates, as well as anything I've ever read, that intellectual historians should pay attention to those people too easily dismissed as motivated by something other than careful thought.
Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics, by Darren Frederick Speece - One of the few other scholarly treatments of Earth First!, and a very good book. Also extremely useful is The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear, by Douglas Bevington, which covers unfamiliar stories of environmental activism that you will find in very few other places.

About Keith Makoto Woodhouse: Keith Makoto Woodhouse is an assistant professor at Northwestern University, where he teaches in the History Department and the Environmental Policy and Culture Program.
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