Long celebrated as a founding figure in the environmental movement, nineteenth-century naturalist Henry David Thoreau has come to play a major role in the effort to deal with climate change in the twenty-first century.
The voluminous records he kept of weather conditions and the bloom times of various plants are now being used by climate scientists to track the effects of warming in New England. More broadly, his writings on resistance to injustice have inspired climate activists around the world to practice civil disobedience to protest the general failure of governments to take action to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
Annotated Lecture, Discussion & Paper Topics
- In Walden, Henry David Thoreau jokingly described himself as “a self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms,” feigning surprise that town officials did not see fit to pay him for his faithful performance of his duties. But if he did not manage to earn a living by carefully recording weather-related events in nineteenth-century Concord, he did leave extensive notes on flowering times and bird migrations that have proved invaluable to scientists who are tracking the course of climate change at Walden Pond and its environs.
- The work of Richard Primack and others on the effects of climate change in Concord, Massachusetts illustrates how seemingly insignificant increases in regional temperatures over time can transform large-scale ecological systems.
- Recent reports on the ways in which climate change is reshaping ecological systems in New England indicate that we can gain profound insight into global warming by focusing on the local environment.
- In recent years, environmentalists have drawn inspiration from Henry David Thoreau by focusing not on his works on nature, but on his political writings, especially “Resistance to Civil Government,” which outlined his views on civil disobedience, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” which argued that the apparent triumph of pro-slavery forces during the 1850’s had, in effect, reduced the natural world to ashes.
Henry David Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” Aesthetic Papers, ed. Elizabeth Peabody (1849), 189-213.
Henry David Thoreau, Miscellanies, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. X (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1893).
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Tichnor & Fields, 1854).
Background information on Thoreau
Thoreau’s contributions to climate science
Abraham J. Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack, “Global Warming and Flowering Times in Thoreau’s Concord: A Community Perspective,” Ecology, 89 (2008), 332-341.
Charles G. Willis, Brad Ruhfela, Richard B. Primack, Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, and Charles C. Davis, “Phylogenetic Patterns of Species Loss in Thoreau’s Woods are Driven by Climate Change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105 no. 44 (2008), 17029–17033.
Alison Flood, “Scientists Use Thoreau’s Journal Notes to Track Climate Change,” The Guardian, 8/17/2012.
Elizabeth Shogren, “Understanding Climate Change, With Help From Thoreau,” All Things Considered, NPR, January 17, 2013.
Concord Museum, Early Spring: Henry Thoreau and Climate Change, Concord, Massachusetts, April 12–September 15, 2013.
Richard Primack, Walden Warming (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)
Thoreau’s influence in the climate justice movement today
Wen Stephenson, “Civil Disobedience and Our Radical Moment,” Thoreau Society Blog, May 2013.
John Lemons and Donald A. Brown, “Global Climate Change and Non-Violent Civil Disobedience,” Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics, Vol. 11 (2011), 3–12.
Michael Brune, “From Walden to the White House: Why Climate Change Demands Civil Disobedience,” Common Dreams, January 23, 2013.
Matthew C. Nisbet, “Disruptive Ideas: Public Intellectuals and their Arguments for Action on Climate Change,” Wiley International Reviews: Climate Change, Volume 5, Issue 6 (November/December 2014), 809–823.