March 16, 2012

Henry David Thoreau, global warming activist


Walden Pond

Considering that we skipped right over winter this year in New York, everyone seems to be talking about climate change lately: “Can you believe this weather? Thanks, global warming!”

But while we urbanites conveniently ignore melting ice caps and freak tornadoes in favor of balmy March breezes, those who take climate change seriously have discovered that they have a surprising new ally: Henry David Thoreau. The man often cited as the first environmentalist might have had a spotty environmental record himself—there was that little incident where he burned 300 acres of woods to the ground (think of the carbon emissions!)—but thankfully for modern researchers, his environmental record-keeping was quite sound. The Guardian reports that scientists Richard Primack and Abraham Miller-Rushing are using Thoreau’s detailed notes on Concord wildflowers to measure the impacts of rising temperatures over the last 150 years:

After deciphering Thoreau’s “notoriously bad” handwriting, and spending “a large amount of time” matching the names used for plants in the 1850s with their modern equivalents, Primack and Miller-Rushing compared Thoreau’s data on flowering dates, coupled with research from the 19th-century local botanist Alfred Hosmer, with modern data of their own. Looking at 43 common Concord plant species, they found “unambiguously” that these plants, on average, “are now flowering 10 days earlier than they were in Thoreau’s time”, they write in an article for the journal BioScience.

The researchers stop short of making recommendations for ways to avert further potentially catastrophic climate change, so I’ll step in where they left off: wouldn’t a copy of Walden for every bookshelf make everyone more mindful of the impact they have on the environment?


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.