A Good That Transcends has an ambitious goal: to lay groundwork for shifting the normative cultural values that keep the environmental movement from advancing toward substantive environmental change. To develop new land use behaviors, Freyfogle contends, people must transform how they “think, talk, value and hope” (p. 188). Organized efforts to restore a “moral edge” to environmentalism will in turn broaden the range of possibilities for environmental reform (p. 59). The book first dedicates a chapter each to the writings of Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, David Orr, and Pope Francis, illustrating through their work some core assumptions about land health and social justice that permeate current environmental thinking. Students in environmental history courses will benefit from this review of scholarship, and particularly Freyfogle’s take on Leopold’s “Last” Talk, compiled from the forester’s notes while on the speaking circuit, as well as the exposition of Pope Francis’s social approach in the encyclical, Laudato Si’. Scholars of many sorts will enjoy the argument for cultural reform that follows. With legal proficiency, Freyfogle peels back layer upon layer of socially formulated values that surround environmental policies, making explicit how these norms are integrated into regulations in ways that ultimately constrain policymakers and limit environmental action. Change might begin with a collective effort, through policy and deliberation, to reconstruct private property rights. Current American values centralize a belief that property exists to benefit the owner, creating a moral issue when the government acts in ways that restrict how owners can use property. The historical variation of property rights, however, shows a different moral issue in which the “legitimacy of property is linked to its ability to foster the common good” (p. 130). The discourses about individual rights that pervade contemporary environmental deliberations obscure the social presumption that land will always and inevitably be regulated on behalf of common interests. Governments must regain the vital ability to judge whether the recognition of a landowner’s right benefits the whole of society, and to prohibit through policy land uses that do not. The moments that shine in this book are when Freyfogle lays out a legally grounded case for how tugging at this thread of thinking about private property can open a wide gap for environmental intervention. Although he resists the notion that straightforward solutions to environmental problems exist, Freyfogle is constrained by the limitations of language and sometimes is tempted to narrate a chain of neat outcomes based on cause and effect. This book is most satisfying when it embraces the enormity of what it entails to transform cultural paradigms, yet still boldly asserts that even a slight shift will bring material change in how people live on the land. Less sustaining are moments when the pursuit of tidy solutions strips the argument of the cultural complexity that coheres around all moral conversations. Freyfogle argues that “proper” (p. 163) normative standards are inevitably created for a particular time and place, giving little consideration to cultural diversity and the governance of multiple value systems that can exist within a social group. For example, his argument often points to a distinction between “legitimate” use of nature and “misuse” of it, relying on a belief that these categories will be clear and consensus based. It would be gratifying to hear some of the author’s thoughts on how manifold values cultivated in diverse societies interplay with a political sense of the common good. While the call to rethink some foundational social assumptions is certainly well placed, it is difficult to imagine, even under a new paradigm, that diverse globalized social institutions will slip easily into balance. Yet the book presents a timely argument that responds pointedly to the enormity of the current political situation in Western society, where discourses about the primacy of individual rights have been taken to the streets in alarming ways. These political systems and other social institutions sustain the rights of people to “go it alone,” and such norms bring about environmental degradation. But citizens need not be bound to this current mindset; as Freyfogle shows, these norms have changed in the past and must change again, starting perhaps with new, well-crafted property rights. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 8, 2018
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