Nearing, Dr. Scott (1883 – 1983) American Conservationist

views updated

Dr. Scott Nearing (1883 1983)
American conservationist

A prolific and iconoclastic writer, a socialist, and a conservationist, Scott Nearingalong with his wife Helenis now considered the "great-grandparent" of the back-to-the-land movement. Nearing was born August 6, 1883, in Morris Run, Pennsylvania. He is the author of nearly fifty books and thousands of pamphlets and articles, some of which have become classics of modern environmentalism .

Originally a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, Nearing received his B.S. from that university in 1905 and a Ph.D. in economics in 1909. He was the secretary of the Pennsylvania Child Labor Commission from 1905 to 1907. He taught economics at the Wharton School, at Swarthmore College, and at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. In 1915, he was dismissed from his position at the Wharton School for his politics, particularly his position on child labor. A pacifist, he was arrested during World War I and charged with obstructing recruitment for the armed forces. He was a Socialist candidate for United States Congress in 1919. His socialism, his pacifism, and his politics in general made it increasingly difficult for him to find and maintain teaching positions after 1917, and he supported himself for the rest of his life by writing, lecturing, and farming.

In 1932, Nearing and his wife bought a small, dilapidated farm in Vermont, hoping, in their words, "to live sanely and simply in a troubled world." They restored the land and removed or rebuilt the buildings there. They farmed organically and without machinery, feeding themselves from their garden, and making and selling maple sugar. They wrote about their experiences in The Maple Sugar Book (1950) and Living the Good Life (1954). Their small farm became a mecca for people seeking both to simplify their lives and to live in harmony with nature , as well as each other.

In his 1972 autobiography, The Making of a Radical, Nearing wrote that the attempt "to live simply and inexpensively in an affluent society dedicated to extravagance and waste" was the most difficult project he had ever undertaken, but also the most physically and spiritually rewarding. He defined the good life he was striving towards as life stripped to its essentialsa life devoted to labor and learning, to doing no harm to humans or animals, and to respecting the land. As he wrote in his autobiography, he tried to live by three basic principles: "To learn the truth, to teach the truth, and to help build the truth into the life of the community."

Confronted by the growth of the recreational industry in Vermont during the 1950s, particularly the construction of a ski resort near them, the Nearings sold their property and moved their farm to Harborside, Maine, where Scott Nearing died on August 24, 1983, just over two weeks after his one-hundredth birthday.

Reviled as a radical for most of his life, Nearing's critique of the wastefulness of modern consumer society, his emphasis on smallness, self-reliance, and the restoration of ravaged land, as well as his vegetarianism , have struck a responsive chord in many Americans since the late 1960s. He is considered by some as the representative of twentieth century American counterculture, and he has inspired activists throughout the environmental movement, from the editors of The Whole Earth Catalog and the founders of the first Earth Day to proponents of appropriate technology. He was made an honorary professor emeritus of economics at the Wharton School in 1973.

[Terence Ball ]



Nearing, S. The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

, and H. Nearing. Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. Reissued with an introduction by Paul Goodman. New York: Schocken Books, 1970.

, and H. Nearing. The Maple Sugar Book. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.