AARON SACHS: I thought I would just start by reading a little excerpt from a letter that I received last week. Some of you might have gotten it, also. The Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, just launched a new campaign that has to do with Bristol Bay, which is in Alaska. And there is a mine that is going to potentially destroy this wilderness area. And so NRDC has enlisted Robert Redford to write on their behalf and try to get people-- this is a classic direct mail campaign-- try to get people to sign up for this particular brand of environmental politics.
So the letter from Robert Redford starts, "Dear Friend--" because Robert and I are close-- "the proposed pebble mine may be the worst corporate assault on America's natural heritage that no one's ever heard of. I need your help to change that, and fast. Global mining giants would gouge one of the world's largest open pit mines out of Alaska's incomparable Bristol Bay wilderness. This colossal mine would be built at the very headwaters of our planet's greatest wild salmon river system. Tens of millions of salmon course through this unspoiled Eden. Nothing like this place exists anywhere else on Earth. It is a remnant of American wilderness as it used to be."
So if you'll allow me some textual analysis very quickly, just consider the language that's used in that appeal. Natural heritage, for starters. This is something that comes from nature, or from God. It's not cultural heritage. It's not something that we have created. It's just something given to us.
We need to act fast. There's a sense of panic, maybe even a sense of fear. We need to stop the bad guys before they ruin this place. And what exactly is at stake? What could be ruined? It's wildlife, it's wildness, it's wilderness. It's our chance to see Eden, an unspoiled Eden with gorgeous scenery. It's an exceptional, incomparable paradise. That's what we're talking about.
And I think that is representative of mainstream environmental thought and environmental politics. And even if you think of the environmental movement as a social movement as only having been around for about 50 years, I think this way of thinking has been around and dominant for about 150 years. In other words, I think it goes back all the way to when Yosemite first became a popular icon in American culture.
This is the first painting ever exhibited widely-- and of course, it was exhibited here in New York City-- of the Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt, who was by far the most popular painter of the 1860s. Had a huge reputation for Western landscapes. He had started with some Colorado pictures the year before, but now he was on to Yosemite.
And Yosemite was big in 1864 because-- and remember, this is 1864. This is the Civil War. In that year, Congress had set aside Yosemite Valley as a public space. And the quotation in the act was "for public use, resort, and recreation." It was actually deeded to the state of California as a park.
And it immediately became an iconic landscape. It was the gold standard. And because of that, I think, places like this have always affected the way that we think about environmental politics. These places are stunningly beautiful, right? Places of sublime uplift. But they're also places of denial. They're places far removed from our everyday lives, our patterns of consumption and pollution. These are places that we visit. We're there temporarily. We're there often on vacation.
And they're also-- and this is maybe most important for a historian like me-- they are places out of time, out of history. They supposedly have never changed, and they ought never to change. They're just supposed to be preserved in this beauty with this kind of hallelujah light that you can soak in. They make us feel, I think, that everything is going to be OK. We can go on with our daily lives, our usual comforts, as long as we save these beautiful spaces.
I'll just give you a couple of other images of Yosemite. He followed this one up with another one with the same kind of triumphal sunlight the next year. These pictures never have any people in them.
And at the same time, Carlton Watkins was taking photographs of Yosemite Valley. And you can see here the beginning of the Ansel Adams tradition in American landscape photography, Carlton Watkins. And there were a few others working at exactly the same moment who created that tradition, which which Adams then developed in the 20th century. There is Half Dome and Lake Tenaya.
I apologize. My voice is kind of ragged. My family has been sharing a cold since about Thanksgiving, and I also am coaching the third grade basketball team, which takes a lot of yelling.
So I mentioned 1864, the Civil War. I don't have time to go deep into the historical context, but I think it matters that Yosemite was set aside at this particular moment when there was so much strife in the country. And nature came to represent a kind of peace, or even union, if you will. And the irony there is that Yosemite very, very recently had actually been a place of terrible violence and disunion, you could say.
It's supposed to be this pristine, untouched, timeless wilderness. But in 1850, it was inhabited by a number of Native American groups. They had been rounded up and marched off to a new reservation in the San Joaquin Valley in the early 1850s by the US Army. Lake Tenaya, in fact, is named after Chief Tenaya, who was the leader of one of the bands of Yosemite Indians. And in fact, those Indians were responsible for creating the parklike look of the Yosemite Valley, because they had been setting fires for decades to encourage the growth of certain plants and trees that were useful for their survival. So this was an intensely shaped inhabited landscape that is presented to us in a way that totally erases social issues and history.
Environmental politics inherited that erasure. A few years after Yosemite was set aside, John Muir, who would later go on to found the Sierra Club, and one of our greatest environmental heroes in this country, camped on the shore of Lake Tenaya. And I'll just read what he wrote, trying to evoke this landscape.
"The lake, with its rocky bays and promontories well-defined, its depth pictured with the reflected mountains, its surface just sufficiently tremulous to make the mirrored stars swarm like water lilies in a woodland pond. I camped on this very spot. No foot seems to have neared it."
No people. It's just timeless, glorious, pristine nature.
And I guess what I really want to share today is the possibility for a different environmental politics, and one that's not just made up out of thin air, but actually was dominant in the three decades before the Civil War. And what we had back then is places like Greenwood Cemetery, down in Brooklyn.
This landscape tradition of cemeteries and urban parks has basically been eclipsed by the wilderness tradition, the national park tradition, the thing that Ken Burns says is as our best idea ever. But I think it represents very, very different values, and potentially useful values for us as we think through our environmental problems of today, which I think we ought to consider as social problems.
This tradition is not about separation. It's not about sublimity so much. It's not about timelessness. It's much more about common ground and things like limitation and adaptation and integration. And especially, it's about the way that we are inevitably anchored in time, change, history, the realities of life and death.
When Greenwood was established in 1838, it was an invitation to New Yorkers, and then it became very popular, an invitation to all kinds of Americans and tourists to think about their connectedness to each other and to the soil. It was an invitation, I think, to slow down, to pause, to come to grips with history, with mortality.
This was an age where people were thinking a lot about linear progress, right? And one of the key phrases of the time was go-aheadism. That was America. But this was an invitation to think about cycles, rather than lines.
Now, since I'm from Boston, I have to explain that Greenwood was not the original cemetery to launch this tradition. It was one of the very early ones, but actually, this tradition started with Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. And this is an image showing Consecration Dell, which is a place you can still go to if you visit Mount Auburn. And it's where they had the consecration ceremony in September of 1831.
And 1831 was a time very, very different from 1864, when Yosemite became the dominant iconic landscape. At this time-- and it's amazing to read the newspaper accounts of this consecration ceremony. There were 2,000 people set up in this little valley around this pond, and the speaker was one of the Boston horticulturists who had founded the cemetery, but he also happened to be a Supreme Court Justice. His name was Joseph Story.
And just a few months before this ceremony, he had had to vote on Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy. And he was one of in fact the two dissenting votes, the minority opinion. He hated Jackson. He hated Indian removal. And in fact, when he gave this address to 2,000 utterly silent people in this little dell, he made a point of saying what we really ought to do as a culture is learn from the Indians and the way that they treat the land and the way that they deal with burial in their culture.
He also explained that this place was meant as a place of repose. That's the literal meaning of cemetery. It comes from a Greek root. Before this moment, people were buried in graveyards and burying grounds. Those were the terms that were used. People didn't say cemetery. This was a new kind of space, and there was this unusual word that was now becoming common after Mount Auburn.
Justice Story also explained that this was going to be a place that was removed from the bustle of the city, but close enough to be integrated into the routines of ordinary, everyday people, working class people, as well as the Boston Brahmins of the time.
It was also designed as a secular institution. These were all Unitarians who founded the cemetery. And it's easy these days to make fun of Unitarians as seeming to have no religion whatsoever and just doing yoga and singing Kumbaya, but they were open-minded from the very beginning. So in 1831, this cemetery was open. If you we're Jewish, you could be buried there. If you were African-American, you could be buried there. Anyone was allowed into Mount Auburn.
He also explained that it was going to be a working landscape, with experimental gardens right next to the places where people were going to be buried. So very, very conscientiously a place that wove together human culture and wild land. Very, very different from a national park.
I think most important, though, about the ethic of Mount Auburn was its spirit of limitation. Justice Story made a point of saying that this landscape should spur, quote, "thoughts of admonition," and Jacob Bigelow, a professor at Harvard, he explained that, quote, "the plant which springs from the earth after attaining its growth, and perpetuating its species, falls to the ground, undergoes decomposition, and contributes its remains to the nourishment of plants around it."
So things die, and that helps other things live. And it's the same with human beings. There is a limit on our time here, because we need to get out of the way and make room for other people to live and grow. And thankfully, the soil actually does accept our bodies back into it. It would be a different story if humans weren't biodegradable, right? It wouldn't look too good.
And it turned out that people absolutely loved coming to Mount Auburn, and then to all of the other places like it. They would wander on these pathways. And you can see from this original map of Mount Auburn and it's design, there are all these curves. You basically-- you can't help but get lost when you go to these places. You find yourself walking around in circles.
And the early supporters of this cemetery explained that the pathways were, quote, "adapted to the natural inequalities of the surface." And that word, adapted, comes up again and again. It just means that the paths follow the contours of the land. So it's very different from the grid of the city, for instance. And people said that these places were meant to be the antithesis of the urban grid. You sort of enhance the self-expression of the land rather than impose yourself on it.
You bury your kin in the land and establish a kind of kinship with the land. And everything blends together. As another one of these founders said, quote, "we may well gain a lesson from nature amid such scenes of tranquil beauty and learn to conform our lives to the order of her works, in view both of the present and the future." So adapt to nature, don't conquer nature.
This became, Mount Auburn, a tourist attraction on the level of Niagara Falls, on the level of Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate. Those were the places that Mount Auburn was compared to very, very frequently in the 1830s. And that led to this kind of cemetery being established across the country. If you've ever been to a beautiful garden-style cemetery between here and St. Louis, it almost for sure was founded in the 1840s or 1850s. And that in turn led to city parks as we know them, and especially Central Park, the first big urban park project. Literally, people said, these cemeteries are doing really well. We ought to have parks.
And all of these places, as you know, have survived really well. It's not that they are static. It's not that they never changed. The experimental gardens in Mount Auburn, for instance, disappeared after a few years. But it does seem, with regard to these cemeteries, that burying our loved ones on hillsides is a very good way of preserving hillsides.
This ethic and aesthetic then started to spread not only into urban parks, but even to things like the design of the first suburbs. This is a suburb just a few miles away in New Jersey, Llewellyn Park, named after its benefactor, Llewellyn Haskell. When this was created, he donated 50 acres at the very center of this area, to be a totally common park that everybody who lived there could enjoy. And it was called the ramble, which as you probably know, then was a name used for what is really the wildest part of Central Park. This dates to 1853. It came before Central Park, but it's the same kind of design ethic and aesthetic.
Also, Washington, D.C. could have looked quite different than the way it turned out. One of the leaders of this whole movement was Andrew Jackson Downing, who lived in Newburgh, New York, up on the Hudson River. Unfortunately, was killed in a steamboat accident on the Hudson before he could implement this much wilder design for the National Mall.
And I also just wanted to show a quick picture of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. It is in fact named after Sleepy Hollow in New York. That's another part of this whole cultural tradition.
And one of the designers of this cemetery, I'll just end with this slide, then went out West in the 1860s and 70s and 80s and got involved in the design of the park system in Minneapolis and St. Paul and Chicago, to some extent, as well. But he's really known for this incredible park system in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
And just one thing to point out about this image, thanks to his thinking about design, there were no houses allowed on the inner side of the lake. So they built the roads surrounding all of those lakes out in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but the shoreline was preserved as common space for anybody to use.
And this is really different from some other places that you might know. I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. There's a lovely lake at the center of Newton called Crystal Lake, but it's ringed by houses. You can't get access to that lake except for one narrow public beach, which is only open it seems like a few days every year for a few hours. But it's very different when somebody like a landscape architect gets involved and can think about this sort of design.
All of these places that I've just been showing were meant to invoke, as another one of these 1830s cemeterians put it, the spirit of, quote, "a commonwealth, a kind of democracy where the poor, the rich, the mechanic, the merchant, and the man of letters mingle on a footing of perfect equality." And that equality is in part because everybody was so engaged with death and mortality, the great leveler, the great equalizer, right? A time very, very different from ours.
One other quotation from this moment, from a guidebook to all of the cemeteries that were popping up at this time, quote, "the holiness of nature is ever a lofty contemplation, and it is well, amidst the quiet wildwood and beneath the forest shades, to be reminded sometimes of death."
We're in a different cultural moment now. We don't have the same kinds of resources to deal with pain and loss. But if you go down to a place like Greenwood Cemetery, you certainly will think about loss and mortality. But that feeling is always going to be mixed with at least a hint of consolation, I think, because the loss is spread through the surrounding landscape. It's a shared loss. It's a loss that we've all experienced. And I think that sense of shared experience of common ground is really our best hope right now for actually acting on our environmental problems.
SPEAKER 1: Go ahead and ask [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 2: The ramble was called the ramble because Olmstead helped develop Llewellyn, and then his stepson finished it.
AARON SACHS: Yeah, Olmstead had his hand in many, many projects at this time. But he had really taken over from Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing was by far the leading landscape architect in the 1840s, and he certainly would have been the designer of Central Park if he had lived.
SPEAKER 2: According to the book on genius and place, Downing snubbed Olmstead, and Olmstead kind of said, well, we'll make it up as we go along.
AARON SACHS: Snubbed?
SPEAKER 2: Olmstead was at loose ends and looking for direction and focus, and thought he would work with Downing, but there also seemed to have been a personality clash, and [INAUDIBLE] and went off on his own.
AARON SACHS: Well, it worked-- I mean, the person who joined up with Olmsted was named Calvert Vaux. He had actually come to the US to work with Downing. He was Downing's partner. And so they were working together. Then Downing got killed, and Vaux went and worked with Olmsted. So they became the sort of power couple in landscape architecture in the 1850s.
SPEAKER 3: Your idea, as far as I can tell, is that we should be devoting political and economic resources to creating more urban parks for people to use on a daily or a weekly basis, rather than preserving wilderness areas that would be vacation destinations.
AARON SACHS: I would certainly favor that, but I wouldn't-- I'm a historian. I don't really make policy recommendations. I think beyond just the concrete emphasis on accessible urban parks, I would say, let's think about the lessons from these cemeteries and urban parks and see how that would change our framing of environmental problems or environmental politics more broadly.
So with regard to something like the Bristol Bay question in Alaska, if I were trying to get to the bottom of that crisis, I wouldn't say it's beautiful, pure, pristine wilderness that we're trying to save against these evil corporate giants. I would say, OK, what exactly does this mine mean? Why is there a proposed mine in this area? What does our society get from that mine? Does this actually support a kind of lifestyle that we all buy into? Who benefits from this mine?
I think ultimately, this way of thinking leads us back to deep questions of equality and and society. So if we try to save this beautiful pristine wilderness area and meanwhile continue living exactly the way we're living, then those raw materials at Bristol Bay are just going to be extracted somewhere else so that we can continue with our current lifestyle. I think what something like a cemetery should ultimately make us think about is how we consume resources. That should be right at the forefront of our consciousness. Yeah.
SPEAKER 4: So how are we going to save the environment? And I bring that up because it seems every time I go to a presentation on various assaults on the environment, the picture gets grimmer and grimmer. And short of Robert Redford initiating a writing campaign or whatever to reverse whatever the policy is in Crystal Bay, it seems like part of the old picture of plugging up the dykes. I mean, the assaults seem to be so pervasive and massive on the environment that short of-- I don't know, to use a cliche, raising consciousness on the part of the public, that going back to a statement you make about to adapt to nature rather than conquering nature, we're definitely on the side of the belief that we can conquer nature, that nature is somehow our servant.
We get a little wake up call now and then, like Katrina, a Sandy. But short of that kind of a massive shift in consciousness and awareness, or some colossal disaster, it seems like all these efforts lead to a lot of intellectual exegesis and discussion of various little plugs. So I guess there really isn't any answer to that. I'm just expressing the sense of dismay and frustration.
SPEAKER 1: Yeah. I mean, probably we all share that sense. But I guess part of what I'm trying to do here-- I mean, you will have noticed that I didn't talk about the coming doom, right? Part of what I'm trying to do is to suggest that we sometimes look back instead of looking ahead. Instead of focusing on fear--
I mean, ever since-- Silent Spring was published in 1962. Ever since Silent Spring, the environmental movement has sort of fed on this sense of panic and fear. Oh my gosh, all of the species are going extinct. Maybe next spring we won't hear the birds singing.
I understand that. I realize that we are in desperate straits in many ways. But what happens if instead of just worrying about stuff and fearing what's going to happen-- which hasn't really gotten us anywhere, right? I think we've basically been paralyzed for the past 50 years, with regard to environmental issues.
Why don't we think about what we've done in the past, ways in which we have interacted with nature that are more constructive, and that we could potentially feel grateful for?
I think, for me, anyway, when I walk through these cemeteries, when I walk through these parks, I'm really grateful that people had the foresight to create these things that we can still use and enjoy. And wouldn't it be nice if people thought of our generation that way, too?
SPEAKER 2: Well, but that's not going to help us very much when this building becomes ocean-front property.
SPEAKER 1: Well, I mean, again, go back to what these people were trying to do, adapt to nature. I think that is the lesson of Sandy, that we have to give in, give way, to a certain extent, adapt to what we have to what's going on with these environmental forces that are inextricable in our culture.
SPEAKER 3: So when, in urban spaces here in this country, there was kind of a leap from the churchyard burials and sort of standard, or some people being buried in their backyard or so forth. The change to these rural cemeteries, that's a big sort of shift in the way that people though about death and where their loved ones were buried.
Beyond the fact that [INAUDIBLE] and Story and these guys built these rural cemeteries, what do you think was happening in the society, in common thought that helped change that thinking about where you wanted to memorialize your love ones? Because it seems like on one hand, it's sort of a real estate shift, because now you're not going to bury right within the bands of the urban center. And Brooklyn at that point was rural. It was kind of a rural cemetery. But what do you think was going on besides just building of these cemeteries that helped the public shift their thinking to embracing that and would have carried on in the West?
SPEAKER 1: Yeah. I do just want to point out that the word rural-- I mean, these were sometimes called rural cemeteries, but the word rural meant something very different. It was not the country as opposed to the city. It was a place with certain kinds of country-like qualities, environmental qualities. So all of these places, yes, outside of the city center but very, very accessible to the city center.
So there was a sort of widespread reform movement in the 1830s and '40s that encompassed all kinds of social trends. I mean, this is when abolitionism is getting going, the New England Renaissance, writers like Thoreau and Emerson, and later, Whitman. There's a lot going on. There's a feminist movement even.
With regard to these kinds of places, I think part of it was public health. They had noticed bodies were piling up in the graveyards, in the churchyards. And this was when people still believed in the miasmatic theory of disease. So they thought that these things were-- yeah, bad air was coming up from these corpses, and they had to do something about that.
But to me, having looked at a lot of documents relating to this, the fundamental thing was really that people wanted their society to slow down a little bit. Capitalism was taking off. Industrialization was taking off. Urbanization was taking off, and life was moving very, very quickly. The city became not that pleasant a place to live. And these people, especially these horticulturists in Boston, who founded Mount Auburn, but then their counterparts in many other cities, wanted a physical space that would symbolically check the grid of the center of the city.
And the grid is just based purely on commerce. Let's move goods efficiently along these streets. And they're saying, OK, but here's a place where you're going to wander around in circles and get lost and think in a different way about your society. So yeah, that's the fundamental thing for me that I see in this movement.
SPEAKER 4: You had mentioned something about looking back instead of looking ahead. Right now we're kind of in that shift, the post-Sandy shift. They're talking about revitalizing the waterfront. What do you think are some lessons that we can pull from history from this particular time period that we should be looking at as we look to build, whatever, how ever we rebuild?
SPEAKER 1: Again, I'm not a policy analyst. I'm not an urban planner.
SPEAKER 4: Anything from history that you think that we kind of would pull out.
SPEAKER 1: Yeah. I mean, to me, again, it's especially thinking through environmental politics when you talk about reacting to Sandy. What I am uncomfortable with is the fear mongering, is the people who are saying, look, global warming is coming. It's actually, it's already happened, and the future is just going to be completely unsettled with storms, with unpredictable weather, major catastrophes, and essentially, we need to build bigger walls and bigger houses, just protect ourselves from all of that.
Again, I think what these guys would say in the early to mid-19th century is let's just slow down. Let's appreciate the ways that we know how to interact with nature more positively, bring things back to a smaller scale.
I mean, I was really struck by some of the debates immediately after Sandy about the electrical grid, right? It's just, it has been for a long time assumed that the bigger the grid, the better-- the more power, the more control. Actually, now, it seems like we should have lots of much smaller grids. And it's the same with when you think about food, for instance. These massive supply chains that we are completely dependent on, well, if the grid goes down, then there goes that supply chain. But if you shrink everything, make everything a little bit more local, it looks a little more stable.
SPEAKER 2: But in a certain sense, isn't that kind of capitulating to the assaults on the environment? Saying, hey, look, we're screwed, and this is going to continue. But what we can do is to take certain precautions, like with the grid or whatnot, so that the impact is less severe, OK? And that seems to be an extraordinarily defensive position that, as I say, implicitly accepts that we're screwed and that there will be no changes of any significance, so let's just try to hang in there and preserve things as long as possible.
Because even, I heard somebody at Columbia University recently, a major environmental researcher for decades, and the question came up, was Sandy due to global warming? And he said, oh, I get that question all the time. And he said, no scientist can tell you with any certainty that it was. As a matter of fact, there was a similar one in 1938 that created Moriches Bay, so that you can't walk from Fire Island to West Hampton any longer. And they'll, say, oh, these things are cyclical. Look, it happened before. So he said you have to look at the big picture where the trends are clear.
So the people who are the naysayers always have these arguments to lean on, but it just seems to me kind of lame to say, well, let's just be defensive. We won't build on the shores, and we won't have the destruction of properties, and we won't have to deal with the losses, et cetera, et cetera.
SPEAKER 1: If you really get me started, I think you'll find that I'm probably more radical in my environmental thinking than the people who are just saying climate change is horrible. I'm not a climate change denier. I believe in climate change. I think it's horrible. I want to do something about it, but I don't believe in fear mongering. I don't believe that has worked. I think we need to think much more constructively and sometimes that means just sort of pulling back and doing things at the local level in a small way, humbly, as opposed to the sort of big rhetoric that often gets connected with the climate change debate.
SPEAKER 5: I mean, I write about climate change a lot, and I sort of appreciate your point. I mean, just professionally, it kind of wears on you after a while of reporting bad news all the time. And I recently did a story on carbon capture as an alternative, which didn't get a lot of response compared to the more alarmist pieces.
But I'd love to put out positive messages. I mean, I don't see it as either/or, by the way. I think you're a little bit presumpting that, well, we shouldn't be fear mongering. Well, I think we have to report the fact that this is a huge threat to the planet. I think unless people are clear about that, there will be no big action. But do you have any more suggestions about framing it in a more positive way? I mean I'd love to hear what you think.
SPEAKER 1: I mean, even something as simple as wind power, which has been around for centuries, these sort of small-scale, simple technologies are often really, really powerful. Even talking about public transportation versus our vast automobile infrastructure. I mean, we can go on and on and on-- farmers markets, the way that we eat, the way that we get food.
SPEAKER 5: Yeah, I mean, we write about alternative energy, but at the moment, I mean, the argument, of course, is that well, it's not cost effective at the moment, which is true. You sort of get hit off the path, as a journalist, trying to--
SPEAKER 6: These alternative sources of energy also have impacts. Wind turbines interfere with flight paths. If you live near one, the vibration and also the noise can be quite annoying. And in California, there's a whole movement to keep arable land producing and not covered by solar cells, solar fields. So there's always this trade-off going on.
SPEAKER 1: Which, then and here, at the risk of becoming ultra radical, I completely agree with that. And what that means to me is that the real debate has to be about energy consumption. It's one thing to say we need alternative energy sources, but if you're just looking to create exactly the same amount of energy that we're already using, there's going to be a problem, like you said. There are costs, and I would say severe costs to any source of energy. Solar cells are highly toxic to create. But what we all can do, what's within our power is to drastically cut our energy consumption.
And I think many people, if you actually pushed them on this, would rather be part of a system that consumes less energy, and a lot of this is low-hanging fruit. I mean, it would be very, very easy to cut the energy consumption in buildings, for instance, just by creating smarter systems that know when the heat doesn't need to be on or the lights don't need to be on-- that's the kind of thing I would really like to see.
SPEAKER 5: I mean, I'm working on a story now about food waste. We don't eat 40% of the food that we grow.
SPEAKER 1: I know.
SPEAKER 5: It just goes to waste. So how much is that in land, and how much is that in chemicals and oil and all the--
SPEAKER 1: And nobody wants to be-- nobody wants to be part of that system. Nobody is happy about that amount of waste. And then people might come back and say, well, it's that amount of waste that allows us to go to any restaurant that we want to in New York City and enjoy ourselves. And well, maybe even if presented with that kind of choice, people would say, we don't need that many restaurants. It's just that that's not even on the table.
Yeah. You haven't spoken yet.
SPEAKER 7: Well, I'm curious to what degree you can call, whether it's a Central Park or a rural cemetery natural places, since they are quite modified. I guess is there such a thing as a pristine place anymore?
SPEAKER 1: No. I'll answer that one quickly. [LAUGHS] I mean, even Rachel Carson in 1962 was saying that there's DDT in all of the remote wilderness areas. There's DDT in everyone's body, et cetera, et cetera. But the question of these city landscapes and the way that they have been changed, absolutely. It's never been a question-- even with a place like Mount Auburn, it's never been a question of just sort of throwing down barriers and saying, we save this land as is. No. The whole point was to shape it in interesting ways, and they did that with Central Park. And there were costs, too. And there were thriving communities that were expelled from areas of Central Park to make that land. So again, there's always a cost.
But what's nice, to me, about the result is that you get a sense of culture, design, shaping, aesthetics, but no matter what you do to nature, it's still going to be wild. The birds who fly through Central Park, you still have to call them wild. The trees that grow in Central Park, whatever you might do in the way of pruning, et cetera, et cetera, maintenance, they're still wild things. And we have a long, rich tradition of interacting with wild things and making meaning out of that interaction. That's not going to be changed because you create a pond somewhere, for instance.
SPEAKER 8: Central Park is completely artificial. I mean, it's glorious, but it's completely artificial.
SPEAKER 1: Well, completely. I mean there-- I mean, I just, I don't like words like completely, because again--
SPEAKER 8: Well, they dug things up, and they made mountains, and they moved the earth.
It was never gorgeous before. It was not beautiful nature before. God did one thing, and man came and said, let's make it better. They really did.
SPEAKER 1: But there are also many different options. When you think about the ways of shaping land, there are many different styles, many different options, and in fact, the Central Park aesthetic is quite naturalistic.
SPEAKER 8: That's the idea.
SPEAKER 1: Yeah. There is a lot that was actually preserved as is and just incorporated into the broader design. Yeah? Yeah. Yeah.
SPEAKER 9: You've given us wonderful examples of green spaces that were conceived for relaxation and eternal rest, but since they were also cemeteries, I'm wondering if any of them actually had funeral chapel?
SPEAKER 1: Oh, yeah.
SPEAKER 9: Oh, OK.
SPEAKER 1: Sure. Absolutely, and that was a big part of the sort of transition from cemeteries to urban parks. I tried to show with the juxtaposition of the two slides, the Mount Auburn plan and then the Lewellyn Park plan. Many of the aesthetics got transferred from the cemetery movement to the urban park movement, and I think that includes a sense, an awareness of mortality.
People used these cemeteries as public parks for many years. They got used to thinking of nature as this place that not only is peaceful and relaxing but is symbolic of the cycles of life and death. You go to these places, in the winter, you see everything seeming to die. The trees lose their leaves, the flowers disappear, the grass disappears, and then everything comes back to life again in the spring. And those ideas often got woven into the urban park designs.
You see people playing on the word shade and shades all the time in the literature about urban parks. It's as if you walk through these parks and you see ghosts, and that's part of what you're meant to think about. And we might not remember that anymore in Central Park, and that's part of what I'm doing is trying to help us remember.
SPEAKER 10: You work for Cornell University, and I see a lot of publications from universities come to me because I'm a journalist. Many of them, almost all of them, tend to emphasize that you've got these three kids who have achieved this great thing. One of them is a kid from a very poor family in North Philadelphia, another one's an immigrant from Guatemala, and another one moved here from another country. And they started out under very modest circumstances and thanks to their education from this great university, they are now engineers or doctors or lawyers and working at major corporations.
In other words, they have risen from poverty, low consumers of resources to, at least bourgeois standards if not wealth, and the university is very proud of this achievement and, in fact, it seems to be that the business of our major research universities is at least, in part, raising people up from modest circumstances to great wealth. And you're complicit in this, and these people will consume more of the resources that come from nice places in Alaska or right across the river in New Jersey. Do you think about that, too?
SPEAKER 1: Oh, absolutely. Maybe I should look right into the camera and say, Cornell is destroying the environment.
I have three kids myself, which has raised eyebrows among some of my environmentalist friends, because the more people, the more destruction. And what I always say is well, maybe they'll grow up to be vegan bicyclists.
But the point is-- and I talk to my students about this all the time-- we have these wonderful debates. The point is that I don't think purely in terms of numbers. I don't say, it's simply a matter of the number of people consuming a certain number of resources. What matters to me is that there's, just as like I was saying earlier, there's a range of styles that you can use to design a place or to interact with nature, there's a huge range of possibilities when it comes to living lightly or heavily on the earth.
And I am, honestly, hopeful that a new generation of people will come into this culture and recognize that it's part of our responsibility as human beings, not just, I don't want to say just to the planet but to our fellow human beings, wherever they might be, it is part of our responsibility to consume far less than we consume right now as a society. And that's going to be really, really hard to change, but I'm a historian. It was hard to get rid of slavery. We did it. These kinds of shifts do happen, and it depends on consciousness. So that's what I work on.
SPEAKER 2: Well, and it doesn't mean that those people at the poverty level don't want to consume and wouldn't, given the opportunities, based on the very example that you gave. A good example of that is the presidential debates, where the environmental issues were almost totally absent from the debate, and I don't think it was an accident. I think their research showed that the public for the most part doesn't care, that it wouldn't get them votes. And as a matter of fact, it might have a negative impact, because if you start talking along the lines that you are, the public would say, why do we need him for? We need someone who's talking about jobs, talking about cheap energy.
So again, it expresses a formidable obstacle with the public, and that's why I don't think it's so easy that you're going to get compliance, that people are willing to give up certain things for the preservation of the environment. There's just a lot of evidence that people place emphasis on their day-to-day personal needs beyond the destruction of the environment or how threatening it might be.
SPEAKER 1: But needs have been defined in radically different ways, in different societies and at different times. So I think, I don't believe in human nature. I think that we are training people these days to think that they want to consume at a particular level, and we can retrain them.
SPEAKER 2: Right. So we're back to that shift in consciousness, but it's no small matter.
SPEAKER 1: No, no. No, I would never suggest that it's a small matter.
SPEAKER 11: What a poignant point. We're running out of entertainment. So thank you very much, and actually, I welcome everybody to stick around. What a compelling conversation. But thank you very much. So the official part is over, and thank you for coming here, but please, stay in your seats, and we can engage. Thank you.
SPEAKER 1: Thanks.
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You've heard that national parks are America's best idea. Not so, says Aaron Sachs, Cornell professor of history. America's best idea is its garden-style cemeteries, which prompted architects to design environmental greenery into the urban landscape.
Sachs discusses "How Death Provided Life for America's Environment and Urban Parks," at Inside Cornell, a journalists-only luncheon, at noon, on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 at Cornell's ILR Conference Center, 16 E. 34th St., 6th floor, Midtown Manhattan.
Nineteenth century Americans embraced death, talked openly about it, and created beautiful garden-style cemeteries that were explicitly designed to spur public conversations about mortality, nature's cycles and limits, and the pace of modern life. Central Park and Prospect Park are now New York icons, but they never would have come into existence had it not been for the dazzling success of Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, founded in 1838.
Sachs, of Cornell's History department, conducts research with students in History, English, History of Art and Architecture, Science and Technology Studies, Anthropology and Natural Resources. He earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard and his doctoral degree from Yale. Sachs is a former environmental journalist with the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. His new book,
Arcadian America, was published in January 2013, by the Yale University Press.