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Given that “Nature” is historically imbricated in the history of Christianity, the secularizing movement of modernity puts nature under intense pressure. The resulting conflicts are modeled by the United States, which authorized political revolution by invoking “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The American Transcendentalists extended nature as divine order and transcendent arbiter to authorize intellectual revolution, consolidating liberal Protestantism, European Romanticism, and modern science into a template for the meaning of nature in modernity; humans became not humble creatures in God’s creation but God’s avatars commanding all merely material beings. Today, as the resulting ecological collapse destabilizes inherited concepts of nature, “ecology” is offered as a replacement, even though ecology as a science cannot offer moral value or spiritual meaning. This intellectual history is traced through the founding work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who offered idealism as the engine of modernity, and three followers, Orestes Brownson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, who variously pluralized nature into the plenitude of material forms and beings seen as vulnerable incarnations of a higher or divine life force, prefiguring the science and ethics of ecology as an aspect of, rather than replacement for, nature.
Early in the nineteenth century, the planetary Earth emerged as a new object of fascination across the Western world, upending Biblical authority and intertwining the once-separate orders of human and natural history. The industrial and imperial energies released by the emergence of Earth into human consciousness launched chains of causality leading to the Anthropocene, chains that bind us to this earlier era even as the Anthropocene cuts us off from its grounding assumptions. As natural scientists from Buffon and Hutton to Humboldt, Lyell and Darwin elaborated Earth’s evolutionary development and the ecological interdependences of living systems, political economists wrestled with the resulting problem: Do human beings have planetary agency? Their epochal decision to admit such agency in theory even while denying it in practice would bequeath us an unresolved legacy of metaphysical terror – as well as a role for literary artists in reimagining the horizon of the human.