Nature’s wonder: semipalmated sandpipers on the coast of Maine in October 2018. Photo by Alan Schmierer/Flickr
In 1957, the world watched in wonder as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into outer space. Despite Cold War anxieties, The New York Times admitted that space exploration ‘represented a step toward escape from man’s imprisonment to Earth and its thin envelope of atmosphere’. Technology, it seemed, possessed the astonishing potential to liberate humanity from terrestrial life.
But not all assessments of Sputnik were so celebratory. In The Human Condition (1958), the political theorist Hannah Arendt reflected on the Times’s strange statement, writing that ‘nobody in the history of mankind has ever conceived of the Earth as a prison for men’s bodies’. Such rhetoric betrayed an acute sense of alienation. Misplaced wonder at our own scientific and technological prowess, she worried, would isolate humanity from the realities of the world we share, not just with one another, but with all living creatures.
Arendt’s disquiet stemmed from the postwar context in which she lived: the United States economy was booming, and, for many Americans, the much-celebrated cycle of expansion and construction, of extraction and consumption, appeared infinite. Millions of Americans had bought into the glittering promise of limitless prosperity. While technologies such as plastic wrap and Velcro, microwave ovens and nonstick cookware might seem mundane today, they were unimaginably novel at the time, and pushed people further into a manmade world. While Arendt was concerned that humans would become self-absorbed and isolated, stupefied by the synthetic, and prone to totalitarian tricksters, others fretted that nature (for a large portion of the population, at least) was no longer a place to discover transcendence but had instead become merely a resource to be exploited. At mid-century, we were in the process of trading Walden Pond for Walmart.
If enchantment with ourselves and our artificial creations can alienate us, there is another conception of wonder that can help us transcend our self-centred, even solipsistic impulses. In the 1940s, Rachel Carson began developing an ethic of wonder that stood at the centre of her ecological philosophy.
A trailblazing marine biologist who sparked the modern environmental movement with Silent Spring (1962), Carson’s lesser-known writings – Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), The Edge of the Sea (1955) and the posthumously published The Sense of Wonder (1965) – encouraged her readers to consciously cultivate habits of awe, to pay careful attention to the often-overlooked ‘beauties and mysterious rhythms of the natural world’. ‘We look too hastily,’ she lamented. ‘[P]eople everywhere are desperately eager for whatever will lift them out of themselves and allow them to believe in the future.’
Disturbed by the devastation wrought by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and distressed by the spectre of the nuclear arms race, Carson understood that human beings could now annihilate the world along with all of its splendours and secrets:
Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.
This understanding fundamentally shaped her ethic of wonder. And while she admitted that there was no single solution to humanity’s hubris, or to the dangers and uncertainties intrinsic to the atomic age, she argued that
the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the Universe about us, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.
For Carson, bearing witness to nature, and responding with joy, excitement and delight at the sight of a ‘sand-coloured, fleet-legged’ ghost crab scurrying across the starlit dunes of a night beach, or to the miniature, multitudinous worlds hidden within tide pools, those slant-rock shallow basins where sponges, sea slugs, and starfish so often reside; or even to the daily affirmation of the sunrise, which anyone – no matter her location or resources – could see, fostered a sense of humility in the face of something larger than oneself. At a time when US culture was becoming increasingly therapeutic, shifting from a focus on society to a focus on the self, Carson’s ethic of wonder moved her readers’ awareness from private vexations to the other-directed realities of the world, and she invited them to become ‘receptive to what lies all around you’, to revel in the exhilarating voyage of discovery. It also taught that human lives were linked to a vast ecological community inherently worth preserving and protecting from depletion.
Carson’s poetic prose about the wonders of the natural world allowed her to transcend science as mere fact, to find, as she put it, ‘renewed excitement in living’. She viewed her ethic of wonder as an ‘unfailing antidote’ to the boredom of modern life, to our ‘sterile preoccupation’ with our own artificial creations. It allowed her to ‘witness a spectacle that echoes vast and elemental things’, to live deeper, richer, fuller, ‘never alone or weary of life’ but always conscious of something more meaningful, more eternal than herself. By modelling wonder as a state of mind, as a habit to be taught and practised, she harkened back to a Thoreauvian call to experience amazement at all the daily beauties and mysteries that humans had no hand in creating.
Whatever piece of nature’s puzzle she contemplated – whether it was the nebulous stream of the Milky Way on a cloudless spring evening, or a migrant sandpiper skittering along the salt-rimmed coasts of Maine – Carson unearthed more than personal joy in nature. She also proffered a philosophy of how to live a good life as an engaged member of one’s larger community. She wanted to reunite our material and moral worlds, and she showed readers how they might make meaning out of science, against an age of materialism and reductionism. She intuited an ‘immense and unsatisfied thirst for understanding’ in a disenchanted world, and her readers responded in spades, revealing in fan letters sent after the publication of The Sea Around Us that they had been apprehensive and ‘troubled about the world, and had almost lost faith’ in it. But her writings helped readers ‘relate so many of our manmade problems to their proper proportions’ – small in the grand scheme of things, ‘when we think’, as an admirer observed, ‘in terms of millions of years’ of natural history.
When we read Carson as a philosopher, and not simply as an environmentalist, we might realise that we could use a little more wonder in our own lives. We remain captivated with ourselves, with our own individuality: from self-cultivation to self-care, from self-presentation to self-promotion, we too often emphasise the personal at the expense of the wider world. These days, we rarely stand in awe of the virescent landscape, too busy marvelling at the miraculous devices that allow us to trade our physical realities for virtual ones – devices that, as much as they have empowered us, keep us indoors and tethered to technology, gazing with reverence at our own greatest inventions.
But Carson reminds us to look up, go outside, and really see what lies beyond ourselves. If we redirect our sense of wonder outward, and not toward our own ingenuity, we might resist the worst of our narcissistic impulses; we might fall in love with the beauty that is all around, and come to the revolutionary realisation that power and profit from scientific and technological progress are worth neither the sacrifice of humanity nor the Earth. We might recover a little bit of enchantment, opening ourselves to experiencing radical amazement at the fact that any of this exists at all, and that something will continue to exist long after our lives cease. In learning, as Carson did, how to be a moral member of the ecological community, we might inhabit and love our shared world more fully, forging new connections to everyone and everything that exists around us, despite our differences. How wonderful that would be.