For better or worse, modern-day environmentalism has become an increasingly global movement. There is plenty of logic behind this transition: greenhouse gas emissions from a coal-powered plant in China or South Africa do not just impact local populations, but on people around the world. Population growth in Nigeria or India will increase demand for food commodities and valuable resources worldwide.

Today, looking at the environment as purely local means missing the big picture.

But with all this focus on the global, it seems that the modern environmentalist must have quite the imagination. After all, what does the difference between 7 billion people and 9 billion people even look like? How does population growth affect Lagos or Dhaka? And while rising sea levels will be a problem in any coastal environment, it's difficult to imagine being forced to abandon your home—or, harder still, what mass migration from densely populated coastal areas inland would look like.

Oftentimes, such global calls to action require us to use our capability for long-distance compassion: the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of someone half a world away. This long-distance compassion certainly spurs many people to take ethicist Peter Singer's challenge and make the very manageable $200 donation to ensure that a young child in Africa can make the safe passage to adulthood.

Compassion, I would like to argue, allows us to bridge the gap between knowledge and action. Education alone rarely translates into action. More likely, it results in a sort of guilty feeling that wears off as soon as we see Bowdoin Logs on the dessert menu or check Facebook. The facts alone may motivate some, but the vast majority of people remain on the sidelines.

The question we must ask, then, is how do we go about unlocking our compassion for people beyond our familial, regional or national allegiances? While there is no right answer, sometimes all it takes is a good story. There's nothing like a heartfelt, well-written tale to transport us to a far-off land—real or fictional. And if you buy this, the power of a nature narrative to motivate environmentalism becomes apparent and valuable. When it comes to environmental storytelling, it's hard to beat Edward Abbey.

Edward Paul Abbey, whose 85th birthday would have been last Sunday, spent much of his life praising and defending the land he knew best, the American West.

As far as I'm concerned, his greatest skill as a writer lay in his ability to allow someone like me, born and raised in the heart of Manhattan, to feel deeply connected to the wild, unspoiled places he cherished. I've never been west of Ohio, yet thanks to Abbey I can picture myself lazily floating down the Colorado River as he did, or exploring the arches of Arches National Park in Utah. I don't know if I've ever seen a juniper tree in person, but I'm sure that it's my favorite tree.

Called the "Thoreau of the West" by some, Abbey married a profoundly simple prose style with unforgiving criticism of human greed and thoughtlessness. Abbey was a master at evoking these deep feelings of connectedness to nature from something as simple as a tree in the middle of a barren desert.

This craft seems almost manipulative; after reading "The Second Rape of the West," I feel more inclined to protest another diversion of the Colorado than do the same about hydraulic fracturing in upstate New York.

What do I find so evocative about Abbey's writing? I don't exactly know, but here's an example of Abbey at his best (it might help to picture him, a serious-looking man with a scruffy gray beard and a straw hat on): "Littering the public highway? Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it's not the beer cans that are ugly; it's the highway itself."

For Abbey, who wrote before anyone worried about climate change, the conservation (rather, the preservation) of the West didn't depend on abstractions or numerical projections. It was truly and fundamentally about the sacredness of the landscape, its overwhelming majesty and complete disregard for the humans who came and went.

But lest it seem like the only purpose of this piece is to praise a fantastic writer with a unique voice, it's important to acknowledge that Abbey's work has real, lasting lessons to impart.

Although he wrote mostly about the West, Abbey teaches us that every landscape is sacred in its own way. To take this idea a step further, maybe good storytelling deserves more attention as a means of prompting people to protect and value our planet. To those who try to fill his shoes, good luck.

Peter Nauffts is a member of the Class of 2015.