Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau: “What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?” David Thoreau, one of the country’s first environmentalists, was born 194 years ago — July 12, 1817.

His writings remain crucial reading today. Even now his words cast an important light on our relationship with the planet. In this week’s space we celebrate Thoreau’s birthday by reflecting on his work and explaining how organizations are carrying on his legacy.

Thoreau was born in in Concord, Massachusetts, and he was one of America’s first and most important environmentalists. He is remembered best today for his book Walden, which describes his most famous exploit—leaving civilization to live in solitude on the banks of nearby Walden Pond. Thoreau was a gifted writer as well as a naturalist, abolitionist, philosopher, conservationist, and visionary environmentalist who could see the consequences of unrestrained and irresponsible consumption of resources.

Wastefulness was anathema to Thoreau. “Thank God men cannot fly,” he wrote, “and waste the sky as well as the earth.” Environmental stewardship was a cornerstone of his philosophy. He was constantly aware of what he used, what was a waste, and what was a necessity. Most of all, he opposed excess: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Treating the environment with respect was a matter of economic efficiency to Thoreau and a moral imperative. “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander,” he wrote. We can be the best humans we can be only by recognizing that there is more to the world than us. “What we call Wildness is a civilization other than our own,” he wrote. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

Thoreau laid the foundation for modern-day environmentalism. He articulated a philosophy based on environmental and social responsibility, resource efficiency, and living simply that is as inspiring now as it was then. He believed that to live a good life we must keep the wild intact.

His message is more important now than ever in an age of massive oil spills, destructive drilling methods, extreme weather, and climate change misinformation campaigns. And public lands are under attack. But Thoreau also understood that times of crises are also times of great opportunity. He writes, “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

Organizations are hard at work to green the American economy and protect the nation’s wild places through strong conservation practices. This map from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, for example, demonstrates clean energy progress in his home state. The Walden Woods Project and other local groups are currently in charge of the conservation of the forest surrounding Walden Pond, having successfully defeated bids to build an office park and condominiums in Thoreau’s former home.

Thoreau’s birthday is all the more important considering that the United Nations declared 2011 the International Year of Forests. Thoreau wrote: “What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?” Forests account for 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity and cover 31 percent of the total land area of the world. Deforestation has a devastating effect on the global ecosystem. While conservation groups currently protect the woods of Walden Pond, not all of the world’s forests are so lucky.

This summer, take a page out of Thoreau’s book. Check out, the U.S. homepage for the U.N. International Year of Forests, to find tools and tips to act locally and events in your area. Or explore the National Park Conservation Association website to find ways to take action to protect your national parks. And, if you’ve read all the Thoreau you can on your summer reading list, take a trip to the Walden Woods to get in touch with your inner environmentalist.

— A CAP cross-post

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Below are earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

BigBear Colorado

Thoreau’s Walden contributed to my leaving the consumer society, building a cabin in the mountains and living a self-sustaining off-grid existence. Read Walden!

July 17 at 12:39pm

Beth Riffel Brocchini

…and then read Sand County Almanac!

July 17 at 1:36pm

Mike Roddy

Contemplating this great man is a lovely and inspirational way to start a Sunday morning.

With all of our knowledge of forests’ role in moderating the water cycle, providing habitat for thousands of species, and, especially, sequestering carbon, we continue to destroy them. Americans are the worst, consuming an absurd 25% of the earth’s wood products, for things like paper towels, packaging, and two by fours and chipboard used to build the most fragile houses in the developed world.

Having destroyed over 90% of our own primary forests, we are now dining on Canadian old growth from the boreal, which holds more carbon than anywhere else on earth. USFS scientists Heath and Birdsey once calculated that if we left only US forests alone that carbon sequestration would increase by 1.2 billion tons annually.

This could actually change fairly painlessly, by switching to durable substitutes for wood. The main reason it has never happened is that the timber industry pioneered greenwashing, and coopted the press and politicians. Even climate activists are very weak on this subject. Restoring our magnificent forests is a necessity if we are going to slow climate change.

July 17 at 10:23am

Gary Herstein

I confess that Thoreau is not amongst my favorites. (I always preferred Emerson with his communally based “Eroica” of the individual.) Thoreau, to me, always stands out as the paradigm commissioner of what Heinlein (of all people) called the “Sears Roebuck Fallacy.” (Admittedly, Sears Roebuck did not exist at the time of Walden, but the name is analogical, not literal.)

Basically, good Henry David resolves to go forth and live like a Man in the woods, rejecting the industrial civilization that has so corrupted human purpose. So, first things first, he decides to build himself a house. So he grabs up his handy axe to go out and chop down some trees. But wait a minute! Where’d he get the axe?

Why, the Sears Roebuck catalog, of course.

Next, he resolves to gather some meat from the forest, so he grabs his rifle to go hunt… but wait a minute! Where’d the rifle come from?

Why, the Sears Roebuck catalog, of course.

Same for the plow he uses in his field, the seeds he uses to sew his crops.

Same for the electicity that powers his lights, the internet that gives him connection to the world, the clean water he drinks, the health care he relies upon — only now we’re not talking about Henry David, are we? — etc.

If we are going to save ourselves, it won’t be by pretending to walk away from industrial civilization — a move that was basically impossible even in Thoreau’s time, and whose pretense now constitutes the most self-involved sort of destructive hypocrisy imaginable. Rather, it will be by remaking that civilization upon a foundation of renewable energy sources by people actively contributing to that remaking.

(Arguably, at least, Thoreau himself was aware that he never really left the world — I mean, he didn’t even go out into the wild places, but simply settled on some land that was walking distance from Concord. But the pretense pours out of every page, while the recognition otherwise is only ever barely noticed.)

July 17 at 7:53pm

Jeffrey Davis

That’s a pretty big misreading of the book.

“I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”

July 17 at 10:23pm

Gary Herstein

You might consider re-reading the final paragraph above. That single sentence scarcely compensates for the entire book’s length of pretending that that sojourn was ever interrupted in the first place.

July 17 at 10:29pm

Jeffrey Davis

The sentence I quoted occurs in the first paragraph of the book. He didn’t pretend for long.

Thoreau’s critics have always been far more reductionist than he was. The temptation of try to turn his example into axioms and corrolaries eventually becomes a “brain spider” and produces fairly astonishing criticism.

July 18 at 1:47pm

Phil Jelatis

Thoreau’s incredibly detailed notes on the local flora and the timing of spring flowering have been used to document climate change.​dea/thoreau’s-woods-reveal​-patterns-of-climate-chang​ e/change. His words always inspire. I stand here at his cabin site near Walden Pond where I brought my daughters one beautiful day last summer.

July 17 at 6:39pm

Mimi Eden

Ok Phil, are you here???? Girls???

July 17 at 7:46pm

Jeffrey Davis

Exactly, Thoreau was primarily a naturalist. He noted the time of first arrivals, flowerings, the depth of ponds, how many x and y survived the winter, the number of eggs which hatched, what grew where. Etc. He was inventing a science.

July 18 at 10:00am


Excellent birthday tribute to great Environmentalist Henry David Thoreau. It is quite inspiring. Thanks for publishing this fine piece.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP), India.
Wind energy Expert.
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail​.com

July 18 at 12:23am

Jeffrey Davis

If you avoided reading Walden when you were in school because you thought it was going to be dull, read it now that you’re an adult. It’s just amazingly different than you imagined.

July 17 at 10:40am

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