Experiments with Truth: Analysis

Thoreau’s radicalism and the fight against the fossil-fuel industry

When Brune announced the Sierra Club’s decision in January, in a short, eloquent piece titled “From Walden to the White House,” he explicitly invoked the legacy of Henry David Thoreau and, of course, Thoreau’s most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience.” For Brune, as for many other activists, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience is a sacred American tradition. “We’ll be following in the hallowed footsteps of Thoreau,” he wrote, “who first articulated the principles of civil disobedience 44 years before John Muir founded the Sierra Club.”

And yet, as the climate movement embraces the legacy of “Civil Disobedience,” perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and remembering just how radical Thoreau really was—and why. We should remember what it was, exactly, that made him so. Not his night in the Concord jail—that was the easy part—but something else: a readiness to speak the truth, forcefully and without compromise, no matter how fanciful or extreme it may have sounded to jaded ears or what risks it might have entailed. What’s more, if we’re going to invoke Thoreau, we should remember that he was less an environmentalist (a term that would have made no sense to him) than a radical abolitionist—and that the logic of “Civil Disobedience” led directly, a decade later, to “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”

More Follow External Link to Wen Stephenson, The Nation