Pollution, Biodiversity Loss, Climate Change: these are the sub-headings of chapter 10, ‘The Environmental Crisis’, the last chapter in Robin Attfield’s marvellously concise survey of thought – and action – about the environment from the ancient Greeks via Darwin, Thoreau and John Muir to Rachel Carson, James Lovelock and Greta Thunberg. As climate breakdown becomes all too present a reality, where exactly are we now? And, given that action is desperately needed, what should we do next?

To help answer these questions, this book could be read backwards so as to begin with a comprehensive picture of the latest scientific thinking as well as a record of institutional action and inaction, including the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and its successors in Paris, Kyoto and beyond.

What becomes clear is that even people with similar concerns can have important disagreements, whether scientific, ethical or political, and so backward-heading readers would also see the value of pushing back to chapter 7, ‘Early Environmentalism’, and chapter 5, ‘Foundations of the Science of Ecology’. And then in order to understand the energy and impetus that fuelled those beginnings, it would make sense to read chapter 4, ‘The American Debate’, since it was in America in the 19th century that awareness of the vulnerability of the environment and especially of ‘wilderness’ became established.

By the time you had read back to chapter 3, ‘Darwin and His Successors’ (which is obviously relevant), you would have read nearly two-thirds of the book, leaving only the brief introduction and the chapters ‘Pre-modern Attitudes and Influences’ and ‘Early Modern Reflections’.

Backwards or forwards, this is a book to keep handy as a work of reference and reread often. In what context did Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus leave us the earliest written record of human-induced environmental alteration? What was the effect on President Kennedy of reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and what did he do about it? When did the terms ‘ecology’ (in its modern sense), ‘ecosystem’ and ‘biome’ come into use, and why?

How we act, or fail to act, on environmental issues may depend on our attitudes, conscious or unconscious. What is the difference between being anthropocentric, biocentric and ecocentric? What is deep ecology? What about the difference between pantheism and panentheism, the belief that the creator is everywhere present in the creation? How important have ideas of stewardship, some of them traceable to the Hebrew Bible, been in influencing thought and action?

What about the rise of the modern scientific method, and the assumptions that sometimes came with it? Do animals have rights? Is there a hierarchy among our fellow living beings, from gnats and ferns to the great apes and the rainforests, in the degree of care we ought to give them?

All these questions are considered in this book, and though in many cases it argues for one view against another, it sets out the options and offers indications of further reading where they can be more fully explored.

Environmental Thought: A Short History is offered as a textbook, but as well as the student, the concerned citizen, the climate activist and the political representative can all turn to it as an essential guide to where we are, how we got here, and where we may hope to go.

There is, of course, much to discourage us. While Attfield adopts a largely even-handed and dispassionate tone, even he states unambiguously, “the fossil fuel industry has systematically purveyed disinformation, successfully promoting [climate change] denial.” Quoting from the philosopher Freya Mathews’ account of the notorious colony collapse disorder afflicting honeybees, and her suggestion that it is a portent of ‘Planetary Collapse Disorder’ and of ‘the unravelling’ of the biosphere, Attfield writes: “We have to hope against hope that this unravelling can be halted.” In the context of the undemonstrative, scholarly manner that prevails in the book, this sentence comes like a cry from the heart.

Despite its sober assessment of our predicament, this is a hopeful book as well as an instructive one, because of the way it shows what a combination of visionary individuals, collaborative communities and mass movements have achieved in the last two centuries. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his seminal book Nature (1836), promulgated a non-doctrinal spirituality and recounted a mystical experience in the woods: “I became a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all; the currents of the universal being circulate through me.” This spiritual emphasis was an important influence on some contemporaries brought up in forms of Christian belief that seemed to set religion and Nature at odds.

One of these was George Perkins Marsh, who, in his books Man and Nature (1864) and The Earth as Modified by Human Action (1874), argued that human interference with Nature’s equilibrium was causing deforestation, loss of soil fertility and seasonal flooding. These books, writes Attfield, “launched a reversal of American attitudes of optimism about the inexhaustible advance of industry and agriculture”. Man and Nature was translated into several European languages, and the author then suggests that “it may not have been a coincidence that in Germany in 1866 the word ‘Oekologie’ was devised by the Darwinian Ernst Haeckel.”

The influence of Emerson in reconciling spirituality and the natural world was even more important for the Scottish-born Calvinist John Muir than it had been for Marsh. Muir, like Emerson, had an ecstatic experience in the wilderness, when in Canada in 1864 he found a cluster of rare white orchids far from any human dwellings and concluded that Nature must exist primarily for itself and its creator, and not for humankind. In 1867 he went in search of wilderness on the journey described in his posthumously published A Thousand-mile Walk to the Gulf. Muir’s writings in his lifetime “nourished the growing awareness of the spiritual benefits of wildness”, and he supported the conservation movement. When Muir told the journalist Robert Underwood Johnson about the impacts of overgrazing in Yosemite Valley, which they visited together, Johnson suggested the declaration of a national park, on the model of Yellowstone, which had been designated in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, “partly as a result of the ideas of Thoreau, Marsh and others”. In 1890, after lobbying in Washington by Johnson, President Benjamin Harrison signed this new national park into being.

Those triumphs were followed by years of struggle over how these natural assets ought to be managed. Should the forests be left as wilderness, as Muir wished, or managed as a sustainable resource from which timber and game could be harvested, as Gifford Pinchot – soon to be head of the United States Forest Service – demanded? In 1897 Congress passed the Forest Management Act, making it clear that the forests were to be used for continual harvesting and grazing. Muir concentrated thereafter on trying to save Hetch Hetchy Valley, part of Yosemite National Park, from being dammed to provide a reservoir for San Francisco. This was a long-drawn-out struggle that was eventually – in 1913 – also lost, but the debate had transformed public opinion. “The conscience of the whole country has been aroused from sleep,” wrote Muir, and Attfield concludes: “Muir, Johnson and, arguably, Marsh before them had by the early twentieth century generated what amounted to nothing less than a wilderness cult.”

If ‘The American Debate’ is one example of individuals and communities combining over time to bring about great achievements, another is the development of what became the science of ecology, together with the debates and discarded theories that marked its progress. August Grisebach in Germany and Eugenius Warming in Denmark were 19th-century pioneers, followed over the years by the Americans Henry Chandler Cowles, Frederic Clements and Aldo Leopold. In Britain, Arthur Tansley and Charles Elton made great contributions both to science and to the public understanding of it. All these figures are given enough space for us to grasp something of what they did for the study of the living world, and how they learned from each other even when they differed.

The third main example of such collective progress involves individuals combining scientific understanding with a concern for the world and its predicaments, such as Barry Commoner, E.F. Schumacher and James Lovelock. Other writers contributed to publications that had the imprimatur of global organisations: The Limits to Growth, the Brundtland Report, the Earth Charter. The analyses and proposals in these works fed into conferences at Rio and elsewhere. Among the books that marked public consciousness were The Population Bomb, Small Is Beautiful and Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. There must be many readers who, like me, know something of these landmark texts and events, but could not have pieced them into a sequential and developmental narrative. This book enables us to do so.

Referring in his concluding chapter to a famous sentence of Karl Marx, Attfield agrees with him that what is needed is to change the world. “But”, he goes on, “not only does this not preclude interpreting it; a requirement for changing it beneficially, justly and defensibly is understanding it. The role of the historian, as of the philosopher, is to understand it; and to that role, my hope is that this book has made a small contribution.” I should say so.

John Freeman is a poet and academic who lives in Wales. His work has been published in 12 collections, the latest of which is Plato’s Peach (Worple Press). Other titles include Strata Smith and the Anthropocene (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) and Visions of Llandaff, a sequence of verse and prose with photographs by Chris Humphrey, which was published in 2022 by The Lonely Press.