Environmental Thought: A Short History

by Robin Attfield

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


In reviewing this text, I refer to the encyclical Laudato si' (Praise Be to You). This encyclical has the subtitle "on care for our common home" Pope Francis critiques consumerism and irresponsible development, laments environmental degradation and global warming, and calls all people of the world to take "swift and unified global action” from the standpoint of social justice.. Robin Attfield has presented some of the same benchmarks. He gives a short history of environmental concerns so we can thoroughly make the determination to make a difference.


As the author states: “there have been many different conceptions of nature across the centuries. The natural is everything that is not (largely) the result of human artifice or intervention, and in this sense humanity is often regarded as distinct from nature, since most people are formed by human nurturing and education. “The recentness of the discovery that human action is affecting and sometimes undermining ecosystems worldwide may suggest that there is little to learn from pre-modern or early modern environmental thought. The debate concerning whether ideas and thought are capable of exercising influence on the course of history as opposed to economic and related social factors. Many Marxists and others have regarded economic forces as the motors of history, and ideas as mere epiphenomena or by products, with little or no influence of their own.


The scope of this book is perforce broader than that of ecological science and its origins, important as this science has been to environmental awareness. Attfield has attempted to bring onto the stage significant literary and artistic works, from Hesiod and Virgil to Treharne, Wordsworth, Turner and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The book does not seek to cover the scientific revolution of the early modern period, or its technocratic late modern counterpart, despite its discussion of the central advocates of mechanism on Chapter 2, and of Darwin and his successors in Chapter 3. A penetrating investigation into these aspects of the history of science can be found in other texts. This book does not seek to depict in any detail the history of either landscape gardening in England or the related enclosure movement. Chapter 4 presents the developing ideas both of the American Transcendentalists and of the controversy about preservation between Hohm Muir and Gifford Pinchot.


In Chapter 6, further sources of conservation are studied, including the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold and the biologist, Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring ignited the ecological movement. Chapter 7 introduces a range of contributions to early environmentalism movements, from Blueprint for Survival to Our Common Future. In Chapter 8 the author encounters the pioneers and main schools of environmental philosophy; this discussion is continued in Chapter 9, where further schools are introduced, together with ecological issues and movements, including the Green movement. Chapter 10 presents the global environmental crisis of the twenty-first century, and the Conclusion brings together historical strands that have contributed to contemporary environmental thought and allow the crisis to be addressed. The information inthis book is invaluable. It Is one that students will keep and cherish. It is one that all people need in order to make a difference in our universe.

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