Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for her pioneering writing on human rights, feminism and education. But one of her lesser-known works contains a startlingly prophetic insight into humankind’s impact on the environment. By @BeeRowlatt
How did you first become aware of the natural world’s vulnerability to the impact of humans? Did it come as an epiphany or a slow dawning?
For some people their initial encounter with this fearsome truth lands forcefully. (Take a bow, Blue Planet.) For the Enlightenment philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, it came through an extraordinary leap of the imagination which resounds to this day.
Photo by Bee Rowlatt
In 1795 Mary Wollstonecraft boarded a small boat, on rough seas off the coast of Norway. She was on a mysterious treasure hunt, in the teeth of the French revolutionary wars, travelling with her baby, and a broken heart. Their adventures are recounted in her best-selling travelogue Letters From Norway, which deeply influenced the Romantics.
I retraced this notorious journey in my book In Search of Mary, in an attempt to get inside her politics; to make them personal. I took my youngest child along too, in the role of her eleven-month old. Letters from Norway is a desperate and doomed love letter, gathering force from her powerful responses to the wild landscapes. And there in the midst of that rollercoaster journey, on a wobbly boat and surrounded by strangers, she is suddenly struck by compassion for future generations in jeopardy:
“The view of this wild coast, as we sailed along it, afforded me a continual subject for meditation. I anticipated the future improvement of the world, and observed how much man had still to do, to obtain of the earth all it could yield. I even carried my speculations so far as to advance a million or two of years to the moment when the earth would perhaps be .. so completely peopled, as to render it necessary to inhabit every spot; yes; these bleak shores. Imagination went still farther, and pictured the state of man when the earth could no longer support him.”
Wollstonecraft’s premonition of climate refugees is at odds with her otherwise steadfast faith in the perfectibility of mankind. She continues:
“Where was he to fly to from universal famine? Do not smile: I really became distressed for these fellow creatures, yet unborn.”
The meditation ends as she cracks on with the business in hand (chasing her dodgy boyfriend’s missing shipment of smuggled silver), and, though she urges kindness to animals in her children’s books, she does not expand further on humans’ impact on our planet. But other people do. Four years later, two Englishmen came by on their own Scandinavian odyssey. One of them was a Cambridge fellow. The other had just published An Essay on the Principal of Population. Thomas Malthus went on to become synonymous with the perils of over-population.
If Malthus took a glimpse of Wollstonecraft’s idea and ran with it, he certainly wouldn’t be the last to do so. Her writings on mixed co-ed schools, abolition, feminism and human rights were so prescient that they seem to the modern eye to contain nothing new. Indeed, as Virginia Woolf remarked: “their originality has become our commonplace.”
Among Wollstonecraft’s many visions for the “future improvement of the world,” this piercing moment of realisation has stuck with me, intensifying with each reading. As the climate crisis deepens, it matters that we observe moments like this, and mark their arrival. It is the awakening to human fragility, and to the role we play in our own demise. If you live near a glacier, or somewhere frequented by floods or wildfires, you will be living that moment often.
For the rest of us it comes in different ways. Mine was a humble example, when I noticed that sparrows, my scruffy childhood favourites, had vanished from London. For so long they cheerfully dotted the urban landscape, hopping and scrapping around. Surely sparrows had the least to fear from humans – they were common and therefore insignificant; the poet Norman MacCaig’s “proletarian bird.” And then they were gone. I only realised this absence when I saw gangs of them bustling outside my mum’s door, up north. Back in London no one seemed to know how or why, but sparrows simply weren’t there any more.
At the time it didn’t feel like a dangerous or huge observation, it just felt wrong. It recalled the old Hamlet quote “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” which he sees as part of god’s plan, as beyond our control. Only this fall is the opposite, and there is no upside. I don’t know where a sparrow-absence sits on the greater scale of climate catastrophe, but it made me feel that I’d experienced a shift change; lived through something.
We’re not the first generation to witness our own fragility in the scheme of things. But we are the first to understand our role in it, and to see it accelerate to such a degree. Witnessing this first-hand is vital. But so, too, is witnessing the awakenings of others. Wollstonecraft’s writing urges us to conceive of a better future world. In powering her imagination to picture “the state of man when the earth could no longer support him” she left a prophetic legacy.
We need to heed it.