June 13, 2024

The Machine Is the Garden – Concepts Of Ecology And Nature In The Anthropocene (Simon Schleusener)

A version of this article was first presented at the 8th Biennial EASLCE Conference (“The Garden: Ecological Paradigms of Space, History, and Community”) at the University of Würzburg, September 26-29, 2018.

As scholars in American Studies and related fields will have noticed, the title of the following article refers to Leo Marx’s book The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. In this landmark study from 1964, Marx claims that the metaphor of the garden, along with the pastoral ideal it embodies, has played a crucial role in the American imagination (an argument he underlines in elaborate analyses of the writings of such classic American authors as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain).

I will pretty much follow Marx in his take on the garden as a conceptual trope, but I am less interested in what it tells us about America. Rather, what I seek to discuss is how the garden metaphor is tied to the evolution of ecological thought, analyzing what it makes possible or impossible to think in terms of ecology, particularly in view of recent discussions about the Anthropocene. Hence, what interests me more about the book than Marx’s interpretation of romantic literature is the way in which it takes part in the intellectual onset of ecological consciousness in the 1960s – the decade, that is, which saw the rise of the modern environmental movement.

If we contextualize the book against this backdrop, it seems almost inevitable to confront it with yet another ecological metaphor, namely the metaphor of ‘Spaceship Earth.’ To look at ecological discourses in the 1960s, then, and focus on the metaphors of the ‘garden’ and ‘Spaceship Earth,’ enables us to uncover and qualify two quite different strands of ecological thought: on the one hand, there is a type of environmentalism that relies heavily on the pastoral imagination as analyzed by Leo Marx.

On the other hand, there is a very different approach, one that is best expressed in Buckminster Fuller’s or Kenneth Boulding’s use of the Spaceship Earth metaphor. For what this image represents is a new understanding of the earth as a system and a consideration of the earth ‘as a whole.’ This general approach is of course not restricted to authors who actually used the Spaceship Earth metaphor but can also be traced in Earth Science and the Gaia hypotheses, or in Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalogue” – and obviously versions of these ideas were popularized as a result of the Earthrise image of Planet Earth, which was taken during the Apollo mission in 1968.  

To be sure, this second approach (oftentimes informed by systems theory, non-linear mathematics, and cybernetics) not only has a very different take on the relationship between nature and technology; with its focus on the earth as a whole and as a system, it also seems evident that it is more suitable for thinking nature and ecology in the Anthropocene. While this will indeed partly be my argument, this article is not seeking to simply dismiss the metaphor of the garden but attempts to ultimately reconcile it with the notion of the Anthropocene.

With regard to the Anthropocene concept, I am certainly aware that there is some controversy about the term and that a number of authors have proposed a different label (James Moore and others, for example, have made a convincing argument for the term ‘Capitalocene’). In this article, however, I will stick to the, by now, common term first introduced by geologists and other scientists. I will do so not because I am against other options, but because I am here less interested in the politics of signification or even the process that constituted the condition we today understand as ‘Anthropocene.’

Rather, what I am interested in is precisely this condition itself (independent of how we name it) as a set of data concerning Planet Earth. Regardless of whether we call this condition ‘Anthropocene’, ‘Manthropocene’, or ‘Capitalocene’, we need to rely on those same sets of data and, if you will, a certain ‘mathematical realism,’ meaning that we cannot simply rely on our own phenomenological sense impressions. It is this distinction which separates the consciousness of climate change and the ecological problems connected to the Anthropocene from other forms of environmental ‘pollution’ – and it also calls for a different response.

From the Pastoral Garden to Spaceship Earth

It is interesting to note that Marx initially understood his study to be an exploration of American culture and literature, whose concern was with the past rather than the present. After discussing the literature of mostly the 19th Century, the book ends “with a suggestion that today, in the era of high technology, pastoralism almost certainly had become anachronistic […] and therefore it soon might be expected to lose its hold on disaffected Americans.” It was only in retrospect that he realized the topic’s contemporary relevance, arguing that the counterculture and the environmental movement were contributing to a revitalization of the pastoral ideal from the past.

So how, then, is pastoralism defined in The Machine in the Garden? Marx is of course well aware of the tradition of the pastoral, dating back to ancient Greek poetry and, in particular, the bucolic literature of Virgil. This type of literature typically centers around the idyllic life of shepherds in an idealized rural setting. As Marx argues – and this is what identifies his perspective as an example of American exceptionalism – if “American artists and intellectuals were attracted to the pastoral mode, it was because of the compelling similarity between the unusually promising geopolitical situation in which they had found themselves […] and the ideal vision embodied in the classic Virgilian pastoral. In the New World, in other words, it actually seemed possible, as never before, for migrating Europeans to establish a society that might realize the ancient pastoral dream of harmony: a via media between decadence and wildness, too much and too little civilization.”

In their adaptation of the pastoral mode, then, American authors from Jefferson to Haw­thorne and Thoreau created a ‘symbolic geography’, in which this “middle landscape” functions as the spatial foundation of the ideal society which they envisioned America to become. What is crucial about the ‘machine-in-the-garden’ scenario, however, is “the recurrence of a particular episode […] in which a machine, or some other token of the new industrial power, suddenly intrudes upon the serenity enjoyed by the writer, or a fictional protagonist, situated in a natural, perhaps idyllic, setting.” The literary depiction of such an experience hence creates the image of an ‘interrupted idyll’ that testifies to the split between the pastoral ideal, on the one side, and the realities of a capitalist and increasingly industrialized society, on the other.

As Marx explicitly thematizes this tension – and calls for a ‘dialectical’ understanding of the relationship between nature and technology – it would certainly be wrong to charge him with being fully unaware of the limits and problems of pastoralism. Yet, by distinguishing between a ‘sentimental’ and a ‘complex’ pastoralism, Marx holds on to a version of pastoralism that transcends the escapist ‘wishfulness’ of a simple-minded, sentimental impulse. This complex version of pastoralism Marx sees expressed in art and literature, and, in particular, in the classic texts he discusses in The Machine in the Garden; but, as he argues in a number of later essays, it potentially may also provide – especially in an age of ecological crisis – the “basis for an effective [political] ideology.”

Facets of such an ideology he sees in the rhetoric of sixties radicalism (he mentions, for instance, Mario Savio’s call ‘to put your bodies upon the machine and make it stop’) as well as in the environmental and antinuclear movements, the ‘small is beautiful’ doctrine, or “the widespread inclination of privileged but morally troubled Americans to ‘recover the natural.’”

With regard to ecological thought in the 1960s, Marx is certainly right that many environmentalist texts of that era exhibit similarities to the romantic pastoralism of the past. As he points out, the beginning of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), for instance, seems almost like an exact reproduction of the machine-in-the-garden scenario depicted by the writers of the 19th Century: “There was once a town in the heart of America,” writes Carson, “where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.

The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields.” Less than two paragraphs later – echoing the classic episode of the machine’s sudden intrusion upon an idyllic landscape – she continues: “Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change.”

What I will argue, however, is that far from all kinds of sixties environmentalism are informed by the tropes, ideas, and impulses of pastoralism, which – even in its more complex variety – exhibits serious shortcomings, especially if we analyze it in view of the Anthropocene. Sticking with the beginning of Silent Spring for a moment, one could identify these shortcomings as follows:

First, there is pastoralism’s orientation towards the past, or the nostalgic impulse to recover some lost ‘golden age,’ in which life was apparently ‘closer to nature’ (“There was once…”). As Raymond Williams has shown, however, this idealized image of the past is an ingredient of even the earliest texts written in the pastoral mode, dating back to the times of Homer and Hesiod, around 700 BC. In other words, there has never been an actual ‘golden age’ and the nostalgic orientation toward the past must be understood as a structural element of the pastoral mode itself.

Second, and relatedly, pastoralism typically relies on the idea of natural harmony (“…where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings”), in the sense that the advent of human technology is often interpreted as the first instance of a disruption that disturbs an originally harmonious balance. From a scientific point of view, however, to speak of a natural harmony is fairly misleading. For instance, while it is surely correct to attribute the current extinction event – generally referred to as the ‘sixth extinction’ – to human activity, it must be kept in mind that all five prior extinctions occurred before the advent of human beings. So to imagine some harmonious natural order before the existence of humanity, or before the intervention of modern technology, is just as questionable as the imagination of some lost ‘golden age’ in Williams’s sense.

Third, I would argue that pastoralism is also essentially ‘localist’ (“…a town in the heart of America”). In The Machine in the Garden, for instance, Marx continuously stresses the particular (subjective) sense-impressions of the writer or protagonist, which are expressed to signal the machine’s intrusion upon nature. Similarly, classic pastoral poetry idealizes the life of the shepherd, so it is specifically the land, or a specific region of the land (and not, for instance, the sea) which can become the object of a pastoral imagination.

This point is important, I think, because as the focus in the Anthropocene needs to be on the earth as a whole – that is, on global climate or global temperature, for instance, and not on how the weather is in some local region of the world – there is really no way of adequately prioritizing certain areas over others from a mere local point of view. In other words, although the oceans clearly do not qualify as appropriate territory for any pastoral or shepherd-like way of life, they nevertheless are vastly im­portant for the biosphere of the earth as a whole.

So in spite of the fact that Marx goes to great lengths in his book to discuss a sea-novel such as Moby-Dick, pastoralism displays a clear bias toward the land, seemingly unable to consider the earth as a whole. (And just as a side note: I am indeed wondering whether today’s excessive pollution of the oceans may not be related to the fact that the sea cannot possibly be turned into a pertinent object of the pastoral imagination.)

Now, one could argue that these shortcomings of pastoralism are in some ways bound up with the trope of the garden itself. Obviously, there are aspects of the garden metaphor – as in the Garden of Eden – that point to a mythical past, predating the downsides of civilization and technology, in which life was in complete harmony with nature. Against this image, the trope of Spaceship Earth – used throughout the 1960s by various authors and intellectuals, among them Buckminster Fuller, Adlai Stevenson, and the economists Barbara Ward and Kenneth Boulding – stands in stark contrast. First of all, what the Spaceship Earth metaphor repeals is the strong polarization between nature and technology, which is central for the pastoral imagination.

Indeed, if Fuller writes that “Our little Spaceship Earth is right now traveling at sixty thousand miles an hour around the sun,” then what he evokes is an image of the earth as a machine: an image, that is, in which the machine literally is the garden. This obviously resonates with the condition we now call the Anthropocene. For just as in a spaceship, in which the possibilities to live must be established through an artificial ‘life-support-system,’ the ecological task in the Anthropocene is not – and cannot be – a return to nature, but, in the words of Rockström and others, the establishment of a “safe operating space for humanity.

Secondly, while the pastoral narrative typically starts with an impulse of escape and retreat, the image of Spaceship Earth effectively abolishes all fantasies regarding a possible ‘outside’: there is simply no way of exiting Spaceship Earth. This image of the earth as a ‘closed ecological system’ – with limited resources instead of unending growth and abundance – obviously resonates with the Anthropocene condition as well.

Significantly, in this regard, to claim that there is no more outside also means that there is no more distinction between ‘foreground’ and ‘background’; the earth, rock, soil, sediments, etc., are no longer the mere background from which we may distinguish a foreground, namely cultural or human activity. Instead, all these (previously ‘natural’) entities can no longer be seen as independent from human activity, as humans currently modify more than half of the continental surface of the earth and have a significant impact on biodiversity, biogeography, and the global climate. As Daniel Falb has suggested, in contrast to the pastoralism of the past, ecological literature in the Anthropocene must therefore no longer imagine nature as something other or ‘out there,’ but shall rather explore manifestations of being ‘in there’: inside, that is, Spaceship Earth.

Finally, then, if the Spaceship Earth metaphor abolishes the idea of an outside, holding instead that, ultimately, we are ‘all in the same boat’ (which certainly does not foreclose the existence of different passenger compartments, classes, and categories) it is almost self-evident that its focus is on the earth as a whole and as a system. Consequently, the ecology of Spaceship Earth does not allow for any type of ‘localism,’ since the management of the spaceship’s life support system affects all its passengers alike.

The Anthropocenic Garden

What I wanted to demonstrate in this article was that focusing on the metaphors of the garden and Spaceship Earth reveals the existence of two very different conceptions of ecology. Although I focused primarily on the 1960s, this division, I would argue, is still very much with us today. What I further attempted to underline was that Leo Marx, in his effort to relate his knowledge about American literary history to environmental politics, was mistaken in basically lumping all ecological movements of the 1960s together under the umbrella of a new ‘pastoralism,’ while a significant fraction of them was already moving in a different direction. Concerning this new direction – alluded to by the metaphor of Spaceship Earth – what I mostly wanted to highlight were its striking affinities to the way in which nature and ecology are nowadays thought in the context of the Anthropocene. Here I would like to clarify two things, however:

First, my qualification of the Spaceship Earth trope’s suitability in view of the recent Anthropocene debate does certainly not mean that I endorse all approaches associated with the metaphor in every respect. Buckminster Fuller’s techno-utopianism, for instance, has been adapted by ecomodernists, whose answers to the planet’s current ecological problems oftentimes seem to involve design, logistics, and technological solutions – like geoengineering – rather than an actual political and economic transformation of society. To thoroughly explore such problems, however, was beyond the scope of this article.

Second, I did not at all mean to diminish the positive role that literature might play in the formation of ecological politics. While I think that Leo Marx was in many ways successful in pointing out the affinities between environmental thought and classic American literature, I am rather skeptical about his canon when it comes to thinking ecology in the Anthropocene. In other words, if literature is supposed to help raise awareness of contemporary ecological predicaments, then it might be necessary to look out for texts that are not primarily set under the ‘open sky,’ but also for those that deal with graphs, maps, data, statistics, and quantification – methods and media, that is, which are essential for rendering the Anthropocene ‘visible’ in the first place.

So as a conclusion, I would like to end this article by proposing a way to reconcile the trope of the garden with the Anthropocene. Here, one would first of all need to rid the garden metaphor of its pastoral and mythological associations. The anthropocenic garden, to be sure, looks less like the Garden of Eden, and more like a contemporary greenhouse complex, or even like a simulation of the earth’s environment, such as Biosphere 2 or the Eden Project. Since the earth in the Anthropocene is not a stable ground or a paradise of unending growth and resources anymore, but manifests itself as a vulnerable planet, whose life support system needs to be managed and maintained, the general relevance of horticultural knowledge is almost self-evident.

In fact, in one of the most influential ecological programs of the recent past – namely the proposal by Rockström and his colleagues to maintain the Holocene state, and hence create ‘a safe operating space for humanity,’ by respecting certain ‘planetary boundaries’ – the earth system as a whole is factually rendered an immense planetary garden. In this sense, then, by encompassing the earth as a whole, the Anthropocenic garden becomes almost indistinguishable from the notion of Spaceship Earth.


Simon Schleusener is a postdoctoral researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin’s Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies. He is the author of Kulturelle Komplexität: Gilles Deleuze und die Kulturtheorie der American Studies (2015). Among his research interests are the neoliberal imagination, ecology and the Anthropocene, the new materialism, affect politics, and rightwing populism. Currently, he is pursuing a postdoctoral project on the cultural and affective dimensio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *