Turtle Island: An Eco-Critique of Capitalism

In the modern era the sustainability of both our daily lives and global systems has become an increasingly important issue. The world finds itself in sight of, and surpassing, certain “planetary boundaries” which mark the limits of a planet which will continue to be inhabitable by humans.[1] These boundaries include ocean acidification, climate change, and biodiversity loss, and they mark a complete break from planetary sustainability. Although personal choice and advancement in resource production may take some steps towards a sustainable future many critics have noted that the blame can be placed primarily on the dominant economic system, capitalism (Foster, 18). For this reason, among others, environmental concerns have increasingly entered into the political sphere.

Although environmentalism is now backed up with unshakable scientific evidence (though some skeptics still refuse to accept it) the movement has been prominent for decades. The first wave of strong environmental politics came in the 1970s. This is when environmentalism gained speed as part of the growing counterculture of the time and Green political parties began to appear across the West. Then in 1974 Gary Snyder published his Turtle Island. Snyder’s own fierce political streak was shown through this text as he linked our contemporary society, one of consumption and growth, to a deteriorating environment and to an unequal treatment of people. Furthermore he began to propose solutions, or at the very least the means of action, to help advance society beyond this unsustainable era. In his Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry Snyder marries together the political and environmental concerns to envision a sustainable way of life, one drawing from environmentalism, anarchy, socialism, and Buddhism, and evident in both the poetry but even more so in the evocative prose pieces at the end of the text such as “Four Changes” which gives guidelines to the current issues in global socio-economic relations and their solutions as he sees them.

The 1970s also saw the birth of “Deep Ecology.” First introduced by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1973, Deep Ecology is a school of thought which opposes the dualistic conception of humans and nature as separate entities. Western philosophy and culture has often encouraged this view of the world and Deep Ecology identifies it as the root of the on-going environmental crisis. A dualistic view of nature and civilisation alienates us as we do not see ourselves as part of our environment and thus do not realise how its detriment will affect us as well. This theme is a prominent aspect of Gary Snyder’s oeuvre and as such he has often been dubbed “the ‘poet laureate’ of deep ecology.”[2] As this perspective affirms, environmentalism is not just about concern for our various flora and fauna, but for humanity itself and hence entrenches it in the political.

Furthermore, capitalism’s exploitation of both the land and the environment means viewing the concepts of humanity and nature in binary terms becomes near impossible, especially as the threat of climate change mounts. Dilemmas for the environment are increasingly felt by people. This is a vital argument in Naomi Klein’s recent and influential text, This Changes Everything, and has become so in the general environmental movement, as “the urgency of the climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful mass movement, one that would weave all these seemingly disparate [political] issues into a coherent narrative.”[3] An attempt to reconnect to nature and weave together the concerns of people and the environment is a thread that runs throughout Turtle Island, as stated from the beginning in Snyder’s “Introductory Note.” Snyder describes people of the world being “beached up on these shores,” implying they are out of place, and says he wants to return to the “old cultural traditions” when people understood themselves as being part of “life-communities”; “to see our ancient solidarity,” a sense of oneness with all other peoples and the planet.[4] Snyder sees this as his purpose as a poet: “to tell people what the normal world was or could be like if we took on the job of reknitting our connections with each other and the natural world.”[5]

This disconnection has been translated in another dualistic approach: that of wilderness and civilisation. This is a mind-set William Cronon heavily criticises, saying that the presentation of wilderness in much literature shows us as “separate from nature… [and] is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behaviour.”[6] Snyder breaks down this binary by making the wilderness a part of the human. In “The Bath,” a poem about the intimate relationship of his own family, Snyder brings the wild to his own home as “The cloud across the sky. The windy pines./the trickle gurgle in the swampy meadow/…is our body” (75-77), leaving no separation between them and the surrounding environment.[7] This imagery of “our bodies” being “wild” is brought to encompass everyone in “Straight-Creek- Great Burn” where “Creek boulders show the [same] flow-wear lines/… as running blood/carves in the heart’s main/valve” (14-18), revealing the processes of “wild” places to be in motion within us as well.[8] [9] Not only do the processes of nature involve us but, as stated in “By Frazier Creek Falls”, “We are it” (16) and everything we do is influenced by them as “This living flowing land/… /sings through us –” (14, 17).[10] Snyder is distanced from Western culture as it “alienates itself from the very ground of its own being- from the wilderness outside”.[11]

It is because of these intimate connections that Gary Snyder asserts that “there can be no health for humans and cities that bypass the rest of nature. A properly radical environmentalist position is in no way anti-human.”[12] The concept of “Environmental Justice,” conceived in the 1980s, demonstrates how the natural and human worlds are not at all disparate. It notes how those of “poor and otherwise disempowered communities” were receiving the worst effects from “polluting industries”.[13] Environmental justice also highlights the role of capitalism in the perpetuated injustices as it steamrollers over places and people with inherent exploitation that depletes natural resources and leads to the disadvantage of many under the thumb of the highest echelons.

This results in what critic Rob Nixon has termed “Slow Violence,” meaning “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space.”[14] This violence and injustice is visible everywhere; for example, Environmental Justice Activist from the South Bronx, Majora Carter, highlights that “As a black person in America, I am twice as likely as a white person to live in an area where air pollution poses the greatest risk to my health. I am five times more likely to live within walking distance of a power plant or chemical facility — which I do.”[15] Nixon says violence of this kind, where, for example, pollution is displaced to areas where people are already at greater disadvantage, is comparable to a military invasion. (3)

In “The Call of the Wild” Snyder demonstrates how these attacks cross geopolitical boundaries as “All these Americans up in special cities in the sky” (59), implying a status above those they attack, who are “Dumping poisons…/Across Asia.” (60-61) [16]  However, the attacks eventually come home as North America is next. (62) For Snyder this violence is largely manifested in the displacement of people, particularly those indigenous to lands that have now been conquered by others. Nixon notes that “displacements smooth the way for amnesia, as places are rendered irretrievable to those who once inhabited them” (7) but Snyder counters that “Something is always eating at the American heart like acid; it is the knowledge of what we have done to our continent, and to the American Indian.”[17] Despite Snyder’s assertion, his poetry also discusses the sense of amnesia that Nixon observes, such as when he asks “who remembers the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” (51) a treaty that ended the Mexican-American war and annexed a large amount of Mexico; here even the direct violence of war is forgotten.[18] The whole of Turtle Island and its multiple references to non-American cultures can be seen as a method of escaping his nation’s selective cultural memory.

As Nixon describes, we have been living under “a 200-year experiment in hydrocarbon-fuelled capitalism whose historic beneficiaries have been disproportionately rich and white,” (266) and predominately old men. It is this small percentage which benefit while much of the rest of the world suffers; as Snyder notes, “our conservationist-environmentalist-moral outrage is often (in its frustration) aimed at the logger or the rancher, when the real power is in the hands of people who make unimaginably larger sums of money… orchestrating the investment and legislation that ruin the world.”[19] Snyder places these ideas in his reader’s minds by, at the beginning of the second part of Turtle Island, presenting them with “Facts” telling them that, “The top 1/5 of American population gets 45% of salary income, and owns about 77% of the total wealth. The top 1% owns 20 to 30% of personal wealth” (figures that have only run to further extremes in the 40 years since Turtle Island’s publication).[20] [21] This economic force lingers in the back of the reader’s mind so when one reads, for instance, in “Toward Climax” that after people “forget wild plants, their virtues” (60) they begin “winding smaller, spreading wider” (64). A smaller number of people own an increasing amount of wealth, around which they “build a wall” (66) and “herd men like cows” (68) to protect. This wealth is often passed through families, or otherwise kept in a closed circle, hence the line “never-moving Pole Star King” (72), the wealth stays fixed in the hands of “Kings” high above the rest.

An even more stark critique of capitalist values is presented in Snyder’s grim prophecy “For the Children”:

The rising hills, the slopes,

of statistics

lie before us.

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down. (1-7) [22]

This “steep climb” (4) refers to the incessant march of economic growth; “the slopes,/of statistics” (1-2) reflects the need for exponential growth in capitalism. Growth in capitalism is considered stagnant unless it is achieving growth on top of the year before, so the amounts rapidly run out of control; for instance, just 7% annual growth in oil usage every year means that after 10 years we will have consumed as much as the rest of human history, so “the slopes,/of statistics” (1-2) continue to advance.[23] Snyder emphasises in “For the Children” (as have many revolutionary economists) that to reach any sense of “peace” (12) we need to stop continually expanding further and further; thus reaching the “valleys, pastures,” as the graphs of economic growth begin to fall and stabilise, with the metaphors from nature indicating that growth is also at the expense of the environment. Naomi Klein notes that “we have an economic system that fetishizes GDP growth above all else…while failing to place value on the things that most of us cherish above all- a decent standard of living, a measure of future security, and our relationships with each other,” (88) so, as Snyder says, while the economy grows “we all/go down.” (6-7)

A primary condition for the functioning of neo-liberal capitalism is that the environment, and the so called “resources” which constitute it, are treated as a “standing reserve”; the objects of the natural world already viewed as capital. This has been allowed to continue because “almost all leaders in our business, governing, and economic communities ignore or deny the existence of limits,” believing exploitation can continue with no (or few) consequences, a frame of mind Naomi Klein calls “the frontier mentality,” a remnant from the old American frontier myth.[24] [25] Snyder, in his “Front Lines,” emphasises this need to realise limits and bring a stop to exploitation of the land.[26] He likens the pillaging of the land to rape with “Realty Company” (10) telling the land to “Spread your legs,” (13) an image further intensified by personifying the earth and a bulldozer: “A bulldozer grinding and slobbering/Sideslipping and belching on top of/The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes.” (18-20) The following lines take the analogy into a sense of prostitution as this is all “In the pay of a man/From town,” (21-22) the type of man who believes the land is his property to be treated as he pleases, like a pimp controlling the women he sees as his. Where Snyder says “we must draw/Our line,” (25-26) he is being ambiguous as he marks it at “a forest that goes to the Arctic/And a desert that still belongs to the Piute” (23-24) which could extend right to the edges of America. In short, Snyder is advocating that where we must draw the line on devastating exploitation is here and now.

This urgency to bring a halt to environmental devastation had begun to be appreciated when Gary Snyder wrote Turtle Island; the first scientific breakthroughs indicating that humans were having a damaging effect on the global climate appeared in the 1950s.[27] However, due to overall inaction on the matters the modern world finds itself in a precarious position. As Naomi Klein states: “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.” (21) Economic growth is the prime mover of capitalism, but it is often placed in conflict with natural growth. Snyder saw the drive to accumulate to be a concept perpetuated by modern society and the Cold War mentality which created “populations of “preta-hungry ghosts, with giant appetites”; a society that is slave to “mountains of junk.”[28] In “L M F B R”, standing for “Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor,” (giving a sense a nuclear-influenced growth expanding out of control) Snyder says that the junk will “flood over us” (11) with the final line “end of days” (14), and the reference to “Kālī-yūga,” (13) the last cycle of life (the age of vice) in Hindu scripture, predicting this will lead to global destruction due to our attack on the natural.[29]

In Turtle Island a political critique is woven directly into the environmental messages. The prominent literary critique Jonathan Bate, however, argues that there needs to be a separation between ecopoetics and politics. [30] He claims that ecopoetics can be used across the whole political spectrum, (268) highlighting the connections between some environmental ideas and fascism (267); by being co-opted in this way it “ceases to be ecopoetics.” (268) He insists that “Ecopoetics seeks not to enframe literary texts, but to meditate upon them, to thank them, to listen to them” rather than enframing them in a historical and theoretical system. (268) However, as the issues of environmental degradation worsen it becomes almost impossible to meditate on our dwelling place, the earth, without considering the political implications. To then decide to be apolitical towards the matter is to pick the side of those that wish to continue their rampage against the planet. Gary Snyder affirms this, stating: “I don’t think we can afford political apathy any more… I think it’s required that poets… and everybody else be functioning beings aware of history, aware of economics, aware of ecology… and how they work”.[31] We see his drive to make the environmental become recognised as part of the political spectrum in “Tomorrow’s Song”:


The USA slowly lost its mandate

it never gave the mountains and rivers,

trees and animals,

a vote.

all the people turned away from it (1-6)


He envisions the future after this as being one where we “move in rhythm” (18), a life more in sync with nature.[32] If Snyder’s thoughts on social change are not evident from his poems the final part of the collection, “Plain Talk”, makes it incredibly clear. In “Four Changes” Snyder outlines the primary issues (such as pollution and population) that face humanity and the environment, then describes what everyone, at the different levels of society, must do to save it.[33] By emphasising what every person can do on a community and personal level Snyder appeals directly to his reader, calling on them to grasp “the concept of steady-state economy” and “dodge the blind leap into the liquid metal fast breeder reactor” (91), abandoning a life of excessive consumption and pollution.

Turtle Island was written in a time when neo-liberal global capitalism was confirming its hegemony. The poems reveal how this system was exploiting both the planet and people, and Snyder proposes his own means of standing up to it. Now, by the powers of the same system, we find ourselves facing a world of immense inequality and perched on the edge of catastrophic climate change. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein states that, as politicians are still reluctant to declare the seriousness of the climate situation, people have to take it into their own hands, (6) the same message advocated by Snyder forty years before her. As Klein stresses, inaction cannot continue for another four decades and in the process we might “pull huge swathes of humanity out of poverty” (7), creating a better world for all, one already envisioned and advocated by in Snyder’s earlier words.



[1]John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, & Richard York,The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press,2010), 14 Subsequent page references in text

[2] Greg Garrard, Ecocritcism (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2008), 20

[3] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (London: Allen Lane, 2014), 8

[4] Gary Snyder, ”Introductory Note” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 1

[5] Gary Snyder quoted in Rik Scarce, Eco-Warriors (California: Left Coast Press, 2006), 246

[6] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 87

[7] Gary Snyder, “The Bath” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 14

[8] Greg Garrard, Ecocritcism (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2008), 83

[9] Gary Snyder, “Straight-Creek- Great Burn” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 52

[10] Gary Snyder, “By Frazier Creek Falls” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 41

[11] Gary Snyder, “The Wilderness” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 106

[12] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 193

[13] Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 141

[14] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2     Subsequent page references in text

[15] Majora Carter, “Greening the ghetto” (Talk presented at an official TED conference, Monterey, California, February 2006) < http://www.ted.com/talks/majora_carter_s_tale_of_urban_renewal#t-16850>

[16] Gary Snyder, “The Call of the Wild” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 23

[17] Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 119

[18] Gary Snyder, “What Happened Here Before” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 80

[19] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010),  127

[20] Gary Snyder, “Facts” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 31

[21] Larry Elliot, “New Oxfam report says half of global wealth held by the 1%”, Guardian, < http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jan/19/global-wealth-oxfam-inequality-davos-economic-summit-switzerland>

[22] Gary Snyder, “For the Children” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 86     Subsequent page references in text

[23] Albert A. Bartlett, “English transcript of ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’- a talk by Al Bartlett”, Al Bartlett, < http://www.albartlett.org/presentations/arithmetic_population_energy_transcript_english.html>

[24] Albert Allen Barlett, “The Meaning of Sustainability”, Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter v. 31, no. 1 (Winter 2012), 6

[25] Naomi Klein, “Naomi Klein: Green groups may be more damaging than climate change deniers”, Salon, http://www.salon.com/2013/09/05/naomi_klein_big_green_groups_are_crippling_the_environmental_movement_partner/

[26] Gary Snyder, “Front Lines” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 18     Subsequent page references in text

[27] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (London: Allen Lane, 2014), 73     Subsequent page references in text

[28] Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 91

[29] Gary Snyder, “L M F B R” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 67

[30] Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2001),  75     Subsequent page references in text

[31] Gary Snyder quoted in “Gary Snyder Interview” In Towards A New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews, ed. Ekbert Faas (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978), 110

[32] Gary Snyder, “Tomorrow’s Song” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 77

[33] Gary Snyder, “Four Changes” In Turtle Island (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), 91-102     Subsequent page references in text

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Elizabeth Lee Reynolds


Elizabeth Lee Reynolds is an English environmental writer. She recently received a Master’s degree from Essex University in the unique course Wild Writing: Literature and the Environment. She is a writer at Writing Times and has been published in various places, primarily on topics concerning literature and the natural world, including a piece in the upcoming book The Migrant Waders published by Dunlin Press.

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