What ‘Walden’ can tell us about social distancing and focusing on life’s essentials



Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
ptwo/Wikipedia, CC BY

Robert M. Thorson, University of Connecticut

Seeking to bend the coronavirus curve, governors and mayors have told millions of Americans to stay home. If you’re pondering what to read, it’s easy to find lists featuring books about disease outbreaks, solitude and living a simpler life. But it’s much harder to find a book that combines these themes.

As the author of three books about essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, I highly recommend “Walden,” Thoreau’s 1854 account of his time living “alone” in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts. I qualify “alone” because Thoreau had more company at Walden than in town, and hoed a bean field daily as social theater in full view of passersby on the road.

Published in over 1,000 editions and translated into scores of languages, “Walden” is the scriptural fountainhead of the modern environmental movement, a philosophical treatise on self-reliance and a salient volume of the American literary canon. In his introduction to the Princeton edition, John Updike claims that Thoreau’s masterpiece “contributed most to America’s present sense of itself” during the cultural renaissance of the mid-19th century, yet “risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”

Another reason to read or reread “Walden” during trying times is that it gushes with sorely needed optimism and is laced with wit. And Thoreau befriends you by writing in the first person.

Reality lies within us

Henry David Thoreau, 1856.
National Portrait Gallery/Wikipedia

As governments mandate social distancing to protect public health, many readers may be coming to grips with solitude. Thoreau devotes a chapter to it, extolling the virtue of getting to know yourself really well.

“Why should I feel lonely?” he asks, “is not our planet in the Milky Way?” Elsewhere he clarifies the difference between what we need and what we think we need, writing, “My greatest skill has been to want but little.”

“Walden” doesn’t have to be read straight through like a novel. For readers who have previously given up on it, I suggest rebooting in the middle with “The Ponds,” which opens thus: “Sometimes, having had a surfeit of human society and gossip, and worn out all my village friends, I rambled still farther westward than I habitually dwell…” Thoreau then retreats away from the mindless distractions of community life toward an immersion into Nature, with water at its spiritual center.

Next, flip back to the earlier chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.” Here Thoreau invites readers on a downward journey, from the fleeting shallows of their social lives to the solid depths of their individual lives:

“Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality…”

Our brains build that reality – yours, mine, everyone’s – by integrating external sensory signals with internal memories. Thoreau’s point – which is supported by 21st-century cognitive and neuroscience research – is that the real you precedes the social you. Your world is built from the inside of your skull outward, not vice versa.

‘Walden’ is a book about breaking away and focusing on the essential facts of life.

The elusive simple life

Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond is often mistaken for a hermit’s flight deep into the woods. Actually, Thoreau put some distance between himself and his home and village so that he could understand himself and society better. When not in town, he swapped human companionship for the “beneficent society” of Nature for long enough to make “the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant.”

Today mandatory social distancing is wrecking the global economy, based on traditional metrics like gross domestic product and stock prices. Viewed through “Walden,” this wreckage may look like a long-overdue correction for an unsustainable system.

Thoreau feared that the economy he saw was headed in the wrong direction. His opening chapter, “Economy,” is an extended rant against what he viewed as a capitalistic, urbanizing, consumption-driven, fashion-conscious 19th-century New England.

Of his neighbors, Thoreau wrote, “By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book” – meaning the Christian Bible – “laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”

In contrast, his recipe for a good economy is one of “Walden”‘s most famous quotes: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”

Thoreau’s family operated a flourishing pencil manufacturing business in the 1840s.
University of Florida, CC BY

That was easier said than done, even for Thoreau. When he conceived “Walden,” he was an unemployed, landless idealist. By the time it was published, he lived in a big house that was heated with Appalachian coal, earning income by manufacturing pulverized graphite and surveying for land developers.

Since then, the world’s population has more than quintupled and developed nations have built a global economy approaching US$100 trillion per year. Human impacts on the planet have become so powerful that scientists have coined the term Anthropocene to describe our current epoch.

Finding perspective in solitude

Some Americans have tried at least halfheartedly to follow “Walden”’s idealistic advice by living deliberately, being more self-reliant and shrinking their planetary footprints. Personally, although I’ve downsized my house, walk to work, fly only for funerals and cook virtually every meal from scratch, in my heart I know I’ve also contributed to the world’s swelling population, burn fracked natural gas and am hopelessly embedded in a consumer economy.

Nevertheless, after several weeks of social distancing, I’m rediscovering the value of two of Thoreau’s key points: Solitude is helping me recalibrate what matters most, and the current economic slowdown offers short-term gains and a long-term message for the planet.

These benefits don’t compensate for the incalculable personal losses and grief that COVID-19 is inflicting worldwide. But they are consolation prizes until things stabilize in the new normal. On my daily solitary walk in the woods, I am mindful of Thoreau’s words: “Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.”

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read our newsletter.]The Conversation

Robert M. Thorson, Professor of Geology, University of Connecticut

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus has finally made us recognise the illegal wildlife trade is a public health issue


Simon Evans, Anglia Ruskin University

There will be few positives to take from coronavirus. But the global pandemic may yet prove to be an important moment in the attempts to address the illegal wildlife trade.

The media has generally concentrated on effects rather than causes, in particular the global implications for public health and economies. But it is also vital to unravel the timeline of the pandemic and categorically determine its initial cause.

What we do know to date is that the epicentre of the disease was in the Chinese city of Wuhan, an important hub in the lucrative trade in wildlife – both legal and illegal. The outbreak is believed to have originated in a market in which a variety of animal-derived products and meats are widely available, including peacocks, porcupines, bats and rats. It’s also a market where regulatory and welfare standards are rudimentary at best.

Some of this trade is legal under Chinese domestic law but the existence of a parallel illegal trade – often within the very same market or stall – allows some traders to launder illicit wildlife products into the system. This situation is very difficult to regulate and control.

We are also reasonably certain that the spill-over event involved the crossover of the virus from animals to humans, similar to the situation with previous contagions like the Ebola and SARs viruses. In each of these cases, the existence of large, unsanitary and poorly-regulated wildlife markets provided an ideal environment for diseases to cross over between species. In a country like China, where wildlife consumption is
so deeply embedded in culture, such contamination can, and did, spread
rapidly.

The Chinese government has long advocated a “sustainable utilisation” approach to the country’s wildlife. It nonetheless responded to the current crisis by enacting a temporary ban on such markets, effectively closing down a significant sector of its domestic wildlife trade.

Biosecurity, public health and economic impact

In the longer term, the pandemic may provide the impetus to properly address the issue. This is because, while the illegal wildlife trade was once criticised almost purely in terms of conservation, it is now also being considered in relation to broader themes of biosecurity, public health and economic impact.

It is only in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak that the full scale of China’s industry is emerging, with the temporary ban covering some 20,000 captive breeding enterprises and 54 different species allowed to be traded domestically. A report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering estimates the wildlife farming industry is worth around US$57 billion annually. These breeding centres are allowed to operate under loopholes in Chinese domestic law, arguably against the spirit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The parallel illegal trade is less easy to quantify, but globally it is valued by the UN at around US$23 billion. Given the resulting pandemic could cost as much as US$2.7 trillion, even on purely economic grounds there is a strong case for increased regulation.

There are compelling arguments for dismantling the trade anyway: animals are kept in abject conditions, and the trade hastens their demise in the wild. But in China the temporary ban remains just that – temporary. Critics argue that we have been there before with SARS and once the dust settled on that particular outbreak, China resumed business as usual.

What would seriously tackling the wildlife trade actually mean in practice? First, breeding centres for endangered species like tigers or pangolins would be permanently closed. This would make it much harder for their products to be laundered through legal channels and sold as more valuable “wild-caught”. Enforcement agencies currently need to monitor these centres closely to check against laundering, and shutting them down would free up resources to disrupt the supply of illegal products entering China from outside.

Such a move would also help reduce demand. Public education campaigns tell people about how the wildlife trade (both legal and illegal) harms endangered species, but the message is mixed: the presence of a parallel legal market still provides such products with legitimacy and sends a message that it is OK to purchase them, thereby increasing rather than decreasing demand.

In any case the new Chinese ban excludes products such as tiger bones that are used in traditional medicines. Some conservationists and activists are concerned that this exemption will lead to legalised trade under the assumption that better regulation will protect against future outbreaks. This argument is extremely difficult to validate and most conservationists continue to favour blanket trade bans.

Another worry is that, given humans have short memories, once the danger has passed public concern will turn to the next big problem. COVID-19 clearly represents an unparalleled opportunity to combat the wildlife trade, and ensure that animal-borne diseases do not mutate and cross over to humans. But only time will tell whether this opportunity will be taken or put off once again until the emergence of the next – perhaps even more virulent – pandemic poses an even graver global threat.The Conversation

Simon Evans, Principal Lecturer in Ecotourism, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.