Will Hollingsworth: Living Sustainably on Middle-earth
One of my favorite ways to read the trilogy is to focus on the forces of evil as charting a path that is against the natural world. It is interesting to contrast the ancient creatures and races that have long used the world in a sustainable way with the gather¬ing threat of the agents of darkness who start pushing a way antithetical to the natural order. The Hobbits live in the shire—an environmental Eden. The Elves literally live among the trees. And even the Dwarves—practitioners of extractive and potentially destructive technologies—do most of their work underground, creating fantastic architectural marvels. Even they exhibit a deep respect for their long history and place in the world. After even centuries of habita¬tion, Middle-earth appears almost like a wilderness. Outside of specific settlements, one finds little evidence of human/el¬vish/dwarfish/halfling effects on the landscape save a few ancient relics and monu¬ments. Contrast that ancient practice with the machinations of Saruman and Sauron. Their affronts can be viewed as allegories for our time involving practices that are problematic both on ethical as well as environmental grounds. These practices include creating horribly despoiled surroundings and bioengineering new species bred for war (the Uruk-hai). Under Sauron, the global climate itself has even started to change!
To me, the most vivid parts of the books are not the prolonged battle scenes, which become so big a part of the movies, but the unforgettable imagery of this basic environmental conflict. Saruman’s evil—as reflected in his destruction of his local environment—is so dramatic that nature itself must harness its incredible force by literally waking up the trees in order to stop him. And in attempting to regain the ring, Sauron is presumably headed toward destruction so great and against nature that Saruman’s work at Isengard would be merely a trifle in comparison. Look at the already destroyed land¬scape of Mordor—replete with oozes and corrupted waters where little can grow. Mordor represents what the rest of Middle-earth would become under Sauron’s rule. If this is what the ring can do, then it is clear that it must be destroyed.
When the ring finally is destroyed, the world loses its innocence and magic but also firmly returns to a more natural and sustainable order. To me, however, it is a mixed message. The ascendancy of the age of Man certainly represents a loss of the more appealing and exotic magical aspects of the older races. But it also seems to mean an inevitable colonizing and control over landscape that we are so familiar with in our nonfantas¬tical world of today. One can only hope, though, that we use the earth’s resources at least in a middle way, and that, like the Hobbits and the Dwarves, we can sustain develop¬ment while respecting nature. The final unwritten chapter suggests that, even without the ring, our current world—the age of Man—must struggle to find ways to live in balance with nature.