Henry David Thoreau was a 19th-century American writer, philosopher, humanist, ecologist, naturalist, and conservationist. Born in 1817 (d. 1862), he is most remembered today for his writings and for their impact on later generations.Thoreau's two most influential works were Walden and a tract called "Civil Disobedience". Another important work, and possibly the one containing his best writing, was his Journal, which totaled fourteen volumes. In these works, Thoreau sets out the philosophy that he saw as necessary for the good of the planet.
Thoreau had many theories and beliefs, which
he poured out in his journals and books. Among these was the concept of human ecology: of the relationship between humans and nature. He saw unity and community as important aspects of nature, and he saw all disturbances in these links as caused by human beings.
One of Thoreau's greatest themes was simplicity. He emphasized this principle over and over, especially in Walden, believing that modern materialism would
lead to the destruction of the environment needed for humans and other living things. Thoreau understood simplicity as the use of the absolute minimum necessary. He himself had only three chairs with which to furnish his house. In our time, simplicity is still widely considered a promising solution to many problems, especially environmental problems. However, it is now probably impossible to replicate the degree of simplicity exemplified by Thoreau, who
lived on borrowed land, freed from most economic bonds, yet completely dependent on those around him. Thoreau himself did not advocate his own lifestyle for others.
Thoreau criticized materialism for reasons beside its possible environmental hazards. He observed that only a few individuals win society's race to the top, and the rest are no better as a result of this contest. Such a quest produces
enormous stress, which is a major cause of illness and death. Such desperation is a dangerous blight that spreads uncontrollably. Thoreau also saw materialism as a distraction from many real problems, including those relating to the environment.
Thoreau inspired much later environmental thinking, including specific ideas about national forest preserves and about the destruction caused by dams. Even more importantly than these specific ideas, his work raised the
environmental consciousness of many generations of readers, and it continues to do so.