Expression, Ecology, Identity

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thoreau 2.0: Sharing the Environmentalist Experiment Online

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or, if it were sublime, to know it by experience,
and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Henry David Thoreau captures his motivation for a two-year experiment in simple living at Walden Pond in these words from his essay “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” later published in Walden or Life in the Woods. The record of his time at Walden was never meant for himself alone. Thoreau’s intention to “publish” or “give a true account” of the world as he found it show reminds his readers that he documented the experience with them in mind, understanding its shared significance as well as its personal meaning.

Though Thoreau was writing to an audience, only a handful of his readers could communicate directly with him in return and this long after his sojourn at Walden Pond had ended. The book Thoreau wrote based on the Walden years was not ready for publication for seven years after Thoreau left the pond. While it did find its way into a small circle of like-minded souls during Thoreau’s lifetime, it was not until after his death that the work became iconic in American literature and nature writing.

Like Walden itself, the idea of conducting a personal experiment in ecologically-conscious living which is then shared with others has not only survived Thoreau’s lifetime but gained popularity. A growing number of individuals, from professional writers and activists to online journalists are recording their experiments in green living in the interactive public space of the blogosphere, offering a vast array of answers to the question of what it means to be an environmentalist. They, too, are sharing the stories of where they live and what they live for. However, their words can reach an audience on a scale and with an immediacy that Thoreau never could have dreamed of. (Though, here, one blogger imagines how Thoreau’s journals would have read as a blog.)

I am interested in the contemporary, online incarnations of green living experiments. In what ways are these blogs personal projects that help to shape the writers’ ideas about certain environmental issues? In what ways are they political projects, intended as activism? How do the blogs’ digital format shape the way the writers’ stories are shared? Received? Discussed?

Perhaps the most famous example of a “Thoreau 2.0”-style green living experiment recorded via blog (and video, and eventually as a book)is Colin Beaven, A.K.A. “No Impact Man.” Here is the trailer for the documentary made about Beavan's and his family's experience.

Beavan is quite self-reflexive in his choices to make this private experiment public via the web and other media. I asked nine other green living bloggers to add their experience with these issues to the mix.

Though blogs on green living are many and various, I focused on those in which most posts were personal stories about the author’s own attempts to live more sustainably (rather than blogs that feature mostly news items, product reviews, general how-to’s, etc.). And, I included only blogs to which the authors had recently posted. You can follow my conversations with the bloggers by clicking each of the following links.

The Accidental Environmentalist
The Clean Bin Project Blog
The Crunchy Chicken
Eco Experiment
Green Bean Chronicles
It’s Not Easy To Be Green
The Last Biscuit
One Green Generation
Simple Savvy

And, MANY thanks to Cynthia of Withywindle Nature for joining this conversation! She has been kind enough to share some thoughts in the comment section below.


  1. Tamara -

    I'm intrigued by your post as I've re-vamped my blog recently and have been considering how personal to keep it. I came to the conclusion that even though it's meant to be educational, it's also important for it to be personal and share my stories.

    I'm happy to talk with you more about this if you're still looking for blogs for your project.


  2. Hi, Cynthia!

    WOW! YES! THANK YOU! I'm very excited to talk with you about your blog!

    I just visited it - beautiful!

    I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on keeping personal stories in your blog. Please, if you would, tell me more about how this version of the blog is similar or different from the previous one. Also, I'm really interested in hearing about how your work as an naturalist and environmental educator is shaped by writing about it online.

    I so much appreciate hearing from you and am thrilled that you're willing to share your experience as a blogger-and- naturalist! Out of curiosity, to what do I owe this great opportunity? I see from your blogroll that we've both visited "Crunchy Chicken" - did you find me through my post there?

    Thanks again! Looking forward to hearing more from you!


  3. Yes, I saw your post on Crunchy Chicken and thought how interesting it was that you are exploring the very same questions I am right now.

    My blog started off as being a place to post updates on my bookstore (still in operation) and the occasional personal post that was related to my work as a bookseller.

    I've worked as a naturalist for many years, but just a few months ago made the decision to also offer independent programming and started a website to advertise my services.

    Last month I participated in NaBloPoMo - daily blogging for a month - and over the 30 days I wrote daily, I looked carefully at what I really loved writing and sharing. I came to the conclusion that I'm way more passionate about nature writing than anything else, but I also love sharing my personal stories as a naturalist. So I'm working on still finding the right balance, but have given myself 'permission' to share personal stories and insights - particularly as they relate to nature or the work I do as a naturalist and bookseller.



  4. Tamara: I am most intrigued by your operating questions about the relationships between personal living, personal writing, personal actions and (environmental) politics occurring within the context of the digital sphere where interaction (if not related action) is expanded and accelerated. It will be very interesting to follow what you learn as you engage in conversation yourself with this group of blogger/activists. It leads me to wonder if you, also, should keep such a blog if you continue to pursue this line of inquiry.

  5. Hi Tamara! :) Just saw your post on my blog (it hasn't been very active these days, partly because of some of these questions: how much to share, what not? :))

    It's easier to share purely personal eco efforts &experiments than any community/wider efforts, at least for me! :)
    (My dad banned me from going too 'public' about this, he's been the main 'polluter' sometimes, in the house, though mum says, 'go ahead if it makes money' (hasn't yet much lol) and 'who would believe it all anyways?')

    And haha, I was inspired by the great Mrs Green of (& her family!) and later by
    So these are definitely blogs for you - or any other people interested in 'green living' - to check out too!! :)
    Oh, and Beth of
    This was way before I heard of Mr NoImpactMan! :)

    Great to hear from you! I've been interested in some of these questions too, let me think a bit and I'll write more about this!

    And yeah, it would be interesting to read about your own eco adventures too!! :)

  6. @ Cynthia. What you wrote got me thinking about the statement by Primo Levi that "One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live." Although nature writing might not be overwhelming in the way that Levi discusses, I wonder if there's still a special connection that a reader can make with someone's personal story that its harder to achieve in a more abstract discussion of an environmental issue. Do you think so? Does this factor into the way you educate people about nature?

  7. @ Alex. Thank you! I think you're right - the best way to understand the connections between environmental activism and digital storytelling would be to also participate in such a project myself.

  8. @ Layla: Thanks so much for your response! What you said about your parents was really interesting. It makes me wonder about some of the pros, cons and compromises of sharing personal stories about an environmentalist project. I can definitely see how the fact that your dad doesn't want the world to see him as an "environmental bad-guy" would change the way you write your blog. Your mum mentioned making money with the blog. How would that work? Is that part of your project or is it more something that she would like to see happen but that isn't really part of your own intentions? Thanks again for your comments!

  9. @Laya. It's so strange, but I got this response as an email but can't seem to see on the blog. I want people to be able to read it so I'm doing some makeshift "reposting" by including it below. Thanks again for your comments and insights!

    Ha! :)
    English is my 2nd language, I come from a non-English speaking country, so I have more 'freedom' online (Dad doesn't speak or understand English, doesn't go online either!)
    My dad has worked in chemical industry most of his life, they threw away A LOT of stuff, so being frantic about a simple plastic bag/packaging or a few was 'foreign concept' to him!!
    He's from a farm background and was actually pretty 'green' too - eg solar water heating panels on the roof, composting, gardening, 3-ple window insulation, energy savings... So I was really SHOCKED by his response! lol!
    It took A LOT of conversations (and some drama) to get some of my points across... Mum was a quicker ally for eco efforts, since her mum and relatives have lived in the town where the incinerator has been built.. :( It took a lot of persuading too... (And some 'multimedia' learning with the help of other blogs, websites, videos...)

    I've written several articles for a local newspaper - it's sad that when Dad sees it in newspaper and on TV, he 'registers' stuff I may tell him in person dozens of times!!

    Oh, I wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl. I actually threatened my parents to write a sit-com or novel about them (when they were quarrelling about something! again!) and that's when mum gave me the go-ahead 'if it makes money' lol!

    Yeah, one can make money with a blog, some bloggers earn good $$$, there's lots of info online... Check out or if you're interested in this.
    It's not so easy if you want to be ECO at the same time too!! :)
    My blogger blog was somewhat of a 'stepping stone' between my personal efforts and a more 'pro' blog (with own domain name etc - you can lose some anonymity that way though, so for the time being I stayed with blogger)

    Yeah, I would like to make money in a sustainable eco way, a blog could be part of this (corporate world uses online marketing too!) Not sure if it'd ever happen lol?? But it would be nice!

    Part of what I want to help toward is 'green jobs' and ethical careers, there are lots of moneymaking opportunities online and in RL...
    Traditionally 'environmentalists' have been seen as 'bad guys' trying to close down powerplants and factories, when in reality eco living can bring many new jobs and careers too...

    Posted by Layla to cARTography at December 15, 2011 8:15 AM

  10. Here's a response that was emailed to me by Jennifer of "It's Not Easy To Be Green" at Check it out!

    Hello Tamara,

    My apologies for being so late in getting back to you. I got your comment a while ago and was waiting for a good opportunity to reply at length, and it fell off my radar entirely. In response to your questions:

    My blog started out as a work project. We had a solar client who needed more links back to their website, so my boss suggested I start some kind of relevant blog. I did, and I also joined Twitter at around the same time and started following many environmental people. I had been concerned about the environment for some time before, but being subjected to the daily Twitter stream of environmental news made a huge difference in my awareness. Eventually the blog took on a life of its own and became a space for my own reflections about the environmental movement and my place in it. Blogging definitely pushed me further into environmentalism.

    I didn't initially have an audience in mind for the blog, and I guess I still don't. It's my space to go off on whatever I want, whether I'm ranting about green consumerism, confessing to a shortcoming, or offering a vegetarian recipe or a tip. I include whatever I'm interested in at the moment, and don't blog unless I feel like I have something to say. In that sense, it's become a very personal sort of green blog, filled with my own biases, preferences, and interests. I don't know many of my regular readers in real life (only Kevin, my spouse!), but I really appreciate my online blog/Twitter community of other environmentally concerned people. If anything, I hope to encourage other people to think about the grays of a situation rather than see it in black and white.

    What I like most about blogging...hmm. I feel like I get a lot of ideas for future posts from interacting with commenters on my blog, so it's partly sustained by interaction rather than just churned out by my own solitary brain. I don't have much of a community off-line, so it's also great to have one that supports me when I'm feeling particularly down about the state of the world.

    That's about it for now. Let me know if you have any other questions!


    Blog: It's Not Easy to Be Green
    Twitter: @noteasy2begreen