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Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World Hardcover – November 13, 2012
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“Stephen Kellert’s heartfelt Birthright is a moving memoir, a finely tuned analysis, and a gift to future generations and to the individuals and organizations determined to usher in a twenty-first-century human-nature reunion. Here is a topological map of that future.”—Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network (Richard Louv 2012-03-23)
“Birthright has much to recommend it, including its synthesis of Kellert’s many areas of expertise, its non-technical language, and its advocacy of an argument deserving of a hearing.”—Christian Diehm, Biological Conservation (Christian Diehm Biological Conservation)
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I'm sure I will cite it often for the short cut it provides to ecological thinking.
On a minor point, his treatment of Christianity as a cause of anthropocentrism, after Lynn White, does not really do justice to much of Christian thinking in relation to Creation and life, and misses the point that Christianity is ultimately theocentric not anthropocentric. Of course this is an easy mistake to make given the practice of many Christians in the Modern world. There is also a tendency to privilege environmentally thinking intellectuals of the 20th and 19th Century, and indigenous knowledge, without acknowledgement of European folk knowledges and ecological relationships. European folk traditions still alive in pre-World War II and the closeness of these communities to the earth, their suffering under the advance of Modernism are voiceless in this discourse. The rise of urban intelectualism, is really far more recent than perhaps we often imagine.
The central argument of Kellert’s new book? Unless we develop a culture that values and loves nature, our lives are diminished in various ways. Our recent and excessive fascination with the artificial world runs counter to the very environment which we evolved from. If we sever our ties with nature, we severely damage our practical common sense, which has made us the evolutionary wonders we are. Our birthright (the lower case type employed in the title invokes humility) to be happy must embrace both love of ourselves and our environment. Environmentalists often say that unless this happens, we will perish and leave the earth to insects and bacteria, yet the irony remains that bacteria and insects have much to teach us about life.
Our central strengths has been our paranoid brilliance. In some cases, this produces blindness. For example, no one loves the mosquito or poisonous spider, yet our fear of them has depreciated our ability to value all insects. Kellert’s chapter on insect fear is one of the most illuminating chapters in the book. Sometimes we don’t always love ourselves, and we sometimes project, unnecessarily, our fears onto the landscape. A great ironic line in the pop sci-fi flick Starship Troopers (1997) runs: “I thought we were smarter than the bugs.”
Like Wilson, Kellert appropriates personal anecdotes that run in tandem with astute psychological, aesthetic, ethical (and in Kellert’s arguments), religious observations. Kellert possesses a stronger sense of aesthetics (which, according to recent research, is genetically encoded in us) than Wilson, and is able to import biophilic perspectives (that interconnected gestalt of all living beings) into learning and working conditions, arguing through sociological statistics that healthy and beautiful environments mean more productive workers and learners. On the subject of poetry, he limits himself to quoting a poem about dreaming by seven-year-old Peter Weinberg. That poem should elicit envy from our most mature poets.
The French philosophes who dominated thinking from the 1960s through 1990s constructed wooden tree huts with tribal fiefdoms instead of forests. The attraction of Wilson’s theories in the hands of Kellert consists of its practical, Baconian presentation. Such a posture retains power through its universality, a universality not manifested since the syncretism of the Hellenic ideal that drew from all known religious traditions the new universal religion called Christianity. Later, St. Francis of Assisi revived Christianity by re-setting it within the pagan world-view from which Christianity had sprung before it strayed into artificial ritual and absurdly superstitious dogmas.
Wilson and Kellert propose that biophilic perspectives be applied to all disciplines, which is why Kellert, the Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus at Yale’s School of Forestry, is creating a master’s degree in Nature Studies for the Yale School of Divinity, which has been the top divinity school in America for the past two hundred years. Yale is ready to adapt, teach, and influence not only popular culture in our country, but the world.
Kellert’s book will stimulate you: not only how to rethink your life and its values, but how you might increase wonder in your life right now. Kellert’s eye is on the forest, not the individual tree that helped to produce this particular illumination. As a specialist in forestry, Kellert has interesting things to say about our cultural attitudes toward trees.
The word druid literally means tree priest.