More of the Same

I was browsing the news recently and came upon the article, “The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming,” by Josh Harkinson. This article is about “your wilderness on drugs,” and describes how illegal ganja farmers in California nature preserves do great harm to the environment by damming streams, using rodenticides, and intimidating forest service officers. Because pot cultivation is still illegal in California, the government is unable to establish regulations or agricultural infrastructure tailored to the industry’s specific needs. I was drawn to this article because it touches on a lot of the themes we discussed in class this semester. The mostly illegal flow of capital resulting from the expansion of the marijuana industry has changed the landscape of the California wilderness. Like Justin mentioned in his post on Jacoby, the conservation movement in America has been a tale of binaries. In this tradition, we are now seeing a similar binary. The social measures keep marijuana illegal, which is also scientifically antithetical, now threatens scientific considerations in the form of damage to protected ecosystems.  In the future I believe we will see histories much like Jacoby’s on this subject.

The Rhetoric of the Environment Debates

Of all the things that this class has made me question, the rhetoric we use today to discuss the environment is one of the areas that troubles me the most.  Our relationship with the environment is one of the most debated and volatile topics in our world today.  It seems with our modern perception of the environment and of the term ‘natural,’ that it is hard to speak positively about the way we use our environment.  The rhetoric is filled with words such as abuse, greed and destruction.  Most people associate natural with untouched or preserved.  Our readings have shown us the corruption and danger behind a word like “preservation.”  Our rigid definitions of these words contribute to our heated debates about these topics.  They create a rhetoric around a binary concept of Us vs. Nature.  This suggests that any human interaction with nature is inherently bad for the environment because we are altering its natural state.

This class has made question this rhetoric and question if we can truly have a positive interaction with the environment.  From all our readings, it seems to me that something that’s in its natural state is fulfilling it purpose on the earth.  This does not mean it is untouched.  To use the example of the commodification of timber in William Cronnon’s Natures Metropolis, yes the trees are being taken from the original environment, but they are being used to serve a purpose.  They are helping to build infrastructure and helping to stimulate an economy, which helps a people survive.  Is this tree not fulfilling a purpose and thus, is it not natural?  Its obviously difficult to think of something that has been commoditized as natural, however, I believe that commodification is just as natural a process as the growth of a forest.

The difficulty in trying to look positively at environmental interaction is where to draw the line.  Where is the line between an action on the environment being natural and an action being abusive or greedy.  The critic to my approach might agree that the commodification of lumber is a positive good, but when does it become deforestation?  How much timber can we extract before it becomes greedy?  Chelsea asks a great question in her blog post, “Will there ever be a point where we as humans will tip the scale too far in our direction and forever upset the world as we know it.? Obviously human motivations play a big part in answering these questions.  However, even with all the reading we have done, I can still confidently say that I do not have an answer everyone.  We have run into a number of qualifications in this class.  They seem to be popular in environmental history.  So I believe that the answers to these questions have to qualified and have to be studied on a case-by-case basis.  The definitions of environment and nature are so ambiguous that the answers to these questions must be as well.

My Interpretation of Environmental History and Nature

Looking back on this past semester, I realize how little I knew about environmental history before I began this class. I have never been to a state park, and I only went on my first hike, to the top of “Arthur’s Seat,” when I was abroad. I had always thought of the definition of “natural” as something untouched by mankind, mysterious in its sheer expanse, and beautiful. I looked at nature the way Henry David Thoreau viewed nature, as something mystifying and necessary:

 We need the tonic of wilderness… at the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. (From Walden: Or, Life In the Woods)

This class and the works that we have read, however, have completely changed my perspective on how I view nature and the wilderness. Nature does not encompass solely the peaceful and tranquil sceneries I once associated with the term, but now I include devastating tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, and floods as natural. To me now, nature includes things not touched and touched by man, because we as humans are as much a part of this natural ecosystem as any other animal. We interact with our environment, affect it, change it, help it, and hurt it, just as other creatures of this world. The environment influences us in the same ways. Our interaction with nature often impacts our decisions, our lifestyles, and our future. Whether the environment dictates military strategy of the Civil War or makes scholars wonder why Los Angeles was placed in a danger zone, mankind’s balance with nature tips back and forth throughout time. This tipping of the scale is certainly natural.

But to what extent? Will there ever be a point where we as humans will tip the scale too far in our direction and forever upset the world as we know it? Will there be a point at which we cannot go back, when nature is forever affected without the capability to recover? These questions are a few that environmental historians study as well as wonder if, perhaps, we have already crossed over the point of no return. Mike Davis believes there is no helping Los Angeles from disaster. William Cronon studies the rise of Chicago as a metropolis and its positive contribution to our American way of life.

American capitalism and market economy contributes to our destruction of our wilderness, yet also contributes to our survival. The line remains blurry between protecting our environment and protecting our American values and way of life. Justin’s comment, that “the environment has the potential to destroy humans as well,” resonates with me because many of the conversations we hear are one sided, placing mankind as the “evil” destroying “good” nature. This course has taught me that there is no duality when it comes to environmental history. Historians analyze this gray area and determine at what points in history men or nature have tipped the scale. I will forever look at nature and study environmental history with a more encompassing and expansive definition while trying to answer who the actors at play are and who appears to be at “fault.” This course has taught me that the answer to that question might not ever be solved, but that environmental history can help us make better and more intelligent decisions about how we interact with the world around us.

Semester Summary

This semester has been one filled with thoughtful and intelligent discussions about a topic that in recent years has become more popular–environmental history. This class was no regular history class where one learns about a specific disaster or group of people who impacted the environment in a specific way. We learned about how and why the United States is in its current state and where the nation might be headed if a more symbiotic relationship fails to develop between humans and nature. Thus, we, with the help of interesting and theoretical texts, determined that nature was an actual actor and had agency, something that most of us had not thought of before this class.

US history and environmental history cannot be told without each other. Their histories are intertwined. This class has made this apparent. As Chelsea said last week, “Steinberg doesn’t simply blame human agency for the use and overuse of resources and the exploitation of land. Steinberg emphasizes that nature played a huge role in the development of American history.”  While humans impact and continue to impact nature, nature also has the ability to effect humans and other parts of nature. One could argue that humans are the “bad” people 90% of the time, but nature has the potential to be the “bad” person the other 10% of the time.

This class has made me realize the separation that exists in environmental history. There is a history of natural disasters and a history of nature. Determining a natural disaster is not as difficult as determining something to be apart of nature. This semester has largely been about determining the extent to which something (or someone?) is “natural.” I think a good way to think about things being “natural” is to think about who and what exist in this world. If something exists, then it is “natural” and therefore apart of nature. So often people try to make a division between things that are natural and unnatural. Many time something thought to be natural is not actually “natural” at all. Why make such a distinction? Well, it is crucial when understanding that components of the environment have the potential to be destroyed by human interactions. But, the environment has the potential to destroy humans as well.

This course has taught us to think about the effects of building a house or town in an area that is not fit for living. It has taught us that environmental history dates back to a period well beyond the boundaries most people set. I challenge you to think about nature, its beginnings, if it has an actual beginning, and if humans are a natural component of nature.

 

Ecology of Fear: Human Agency and Nature Result in A Wave of Fear and Anxiety

Environmental histories seem to stress the relationship between human actions and their impact on the environment. Often, the relationship involves human exploitation of nature and the consequences that arise.

Mike Davis’s work is no different. His Ecology of Fear presents a similar discussion on human agency in nature. Davis opens his book with a quote from the Los Angeles Times that hints at the hope awarded to the city of Los Angeles in 1934: “No place on Earth offers greater security to life and greater freedom from natural disasters than Southern California.” The first six chapters of this book demonstrate only irony associated with this statement. Davis describes the natural disasters that hit southern California today and finds roots in past human agency that caused the current catastrophes. Los Angeles has such a varied plant life, landscape, and weather, and human settlement and agency combined with this diversity impacted the city greatly. While human actors play a large role in this narrative, natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fire wreak havoc on LA. To recover from the disasters, money must be spent to rebuild the destroyed buildings impacted by disaster. A circle of chaos emerges, where money is spent to keep fixing disaster-stricken Los Angeles while the problems that cause the disasters never get fixed. Take, for example, the “total fife suppression” caused by placing fuel stockpiles near homes and allowing dry winds to wreak havoc on houses (101).

Davis’ central claim is that the citizens of Los Angeles have imagined disasters through a lens of fear and misunderstanding, resulting in a society that is catastrophically and consistently out of balance with the environment. He argues that, for a time, Los Angeles was not affected by some of the disasters like other places. This changed, however. In the first chapter, he argues that disaster in Los Angeles will result in “higher body counts and greater distress” in the future” (55).

The second chapter deals with the “selfish, profit-driven” attitudes that took over southern California, despite the people that warned against doom. Chapter three connects wildfires in Malibu with urban tenement houses that burned to the ground and received little media attention compared to the upscale city. He essentially connects environmental disasters with social inequalities. Chapter four focuses on tornadoes and the secretiveness of their existence, although they experience tornadoes at a rate twice as high as Oklahoma City. In chapter five, he discusses a growing fear of mountain lions and other animals as urban sprawl occurred and mankind moved in on the wilderness. In Chapter six, he discusses the “disaster genre” in cinema and literature. Specifically he talks about the Asian hordes, aliens, monsters, bombs, cults, pollution, gangs, terrorism, floods, riots, volcanoes, sandstorms, mudslides, and plagues that frequently attack Los Angeles, and how this pop-culture reflects racial anxieties.

Davis finishes up his work with a discussion on how Los Angeles will eventually become an urban city of homeless people, violence, blue-collar crime suburb, affluent gated communities, and prisons surrounding the outskirts. He bases his beliefs on the current situation in LA that involves southern Californians giving up civil liberties to curb social fears and keep them at bay. He updates Ernest W. Burgess’ urban zone diagram from the 1920s, building on the social hierarchy of the city and the zones they occupy.

His work is left wing and political while also adding an interesting analysis of human nature as a whole. He appears to place more emphasis on mankind as the main actor and decision maker in a place where disaster and catastrophe are a normal occurrence in the environment. It is where humans decide to live, what they decide to do, that causes issues.

Davis does a nice job of creating a direct relationship between man and nature. One seems to directly affect the other. Humans impact their environment in a negative way through their market-driven, individualistic attitudes. The environment wreaks havoc on society, creating fear and paranoia that also reflects social attitudes of the times.  Davis sums it up referencing Henry David Thoreau’s work by calling Los Angeles “Walden Pond on LSD.” (14) Mother Nature should not be blamed for disaster, he says. Instead, wonder why humans decide to live in the path of disaster and what this can tell us about societal values and concerns. He decides to make nature an important actor in his work, but emphasizes that humans are the bigger actors at play here with their societal anxieties and public policy. Society can be just as chaotic as nature.

Steinburg Does It All

Ted Steinburg’s all-encompassing book Down to Earth: Nature’s Roll in American History is a sweeping environmental history of America. This is worth pointing out as a merit because this is the first we’ve read with so broad a scope, seeking to include pretty much all of the themes we have examined in American environmental history thus far. I like how he begins the book with a geological history of the land spanning back to the formation of North America out of Pangaea, which shows how our landscape is made up of the same stuff as the other continents. This is also cool because Steinburg takes us from there to the BP oil spill.

I would agree with Manish that space is an important theme in both Steinburg’s work and in this course. We saw in Nature’s Metropolis how capitalism spawned the first skyscrapers in Chicago and annihilated space and time to increase efficiency. In Steinburg this has also come to include waste management, which is still an issue of space today (168).

The Role of Nature and Human Agency in American History

The Prologue of Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History ends with a statement that refers to a discussion consistently brought up in class: “Suddenly the earth itself becomes an actor, a force to be reckoned with, instead of a simple line drawing inside a book’s cover.” (7) In his book, Steinberg makes nature a significant player in America’s history since the beginning. Justin makes an interesting point that “history cannot be told without all the key players, and these key players do not always involve animate actors.” This seems to be one of Steinberg’s main points in his work. Working forward from Pangaea, Steinberg argues that Americans ultimately shaped their environments through the commodification of nature. In this American history textbook, Steinberg describes the settlement of the country, the surveying of the land, and the rise of commercialism to depict both the implications of human action and natural phenomenon on American history.

Something I found particularly interesting about Steinberg’s book is that he makes some interesting points about Native Americans and their relationship with nature. He makes a comment that early in American history, Indians were intimately aware of the environment around them and their rituals reflected their dependence on nature. Steinberg states, “they farmed the soil, hunted game, set fires, and gathered berries and nuts, engaging in a spiritually rich relationship with the land, while shaping it to meet the needs of everyday survival” (11). This resourceful and spiritual relationship with nature describes the kind of Indian connection with the environment I am used to reading in typical history textbooks. Steinberg acknowledges this unique Native American connection with nature, but also argues that they eventually began to see nature as a commodity as they became more and more influenced by American habits and presence. For example, the Cheyennes began to acquire more horses than needed. Indians, Steinberg argues, contributed to their own demise by keeping tens of thousands of horses, more than the land could support. (123) He therefore argues that a combination of human agency and environmental factors played a role in the demise of peoples and in the annihilation of space as humans began to use nature in ways beyond those needs required for survival.

Steinberg doesn’t simply blame human agency for the use and overuse of resources and the exploitation of land. Steinberg emphasizes that nature played a huge role in the development of American history. His statement at the end of Chapter 8 wraps up this main argument: “plants and animals are not merely a backdrop of history. They are living things that have needs that make demands on the land. Sometimes the land lives up to the task, and sometimes, because of a variety of factors both human and nonhuman, those needs outstrip the ability of the environment to provide.” (123) His interesting textbook on American environmental history not only contributes to some of our main discussions on actors, Native Americans, and the role of human agency, but also sheds new light and perspective on our conversations.

Steinberg Has the Final Say

Writers are always trying to find that “hook.” It is that one sentence or caveat that gets a reader’s attention, keeps him or her entertained, and therefore unable to put the book down. I guess you could say Steinberg does exactly that. However, I am not so certain about my incapability of being unable to put the book down, but regardless of the book that is usually the case for me. Furthermore, Steinberg captures one’s attention with the satellite image of Earth and proceeds to explain how U.S. history books begin with an image of the states and ignore the history of how lands moved to form the nation we know today. These history books immediately talk of immigrants who arrived to the lands but hardly ever do these works explain how the land came to be in its current formation. Turn the page and there it is, the exact image of the U.S. that Steinberg warned us about. Does having that image four pages later really make that much of a difference? Is my notice of this trivial to the overall quality of his work? He mentions Pangaea, but then, in my opinion, does almost exactly what he criticizes textbooks of doing. Where is my history of Pangaea? Maybe I am being a bit picky here…

There are positives to Steinberg’s work. While it reads much like a textbook, I think that is helpful in getting historians, specifically younger historians at understanding the role environment plays in U.S. history. Human and environment interactions have been the major topic of this semester’s class. I think Chelsea makes a good point in her post from two weeks ago. She states, “I found it interesting that the conservation movement began when American lawmakers redefined what was considered legitimate uses of the environment.” When humans overstep their boundaries is when conflict between humans and the environment develops. However, humans are not always the ones who overstep a boundary. For instance, Steinberg mentions slavery and its inability to function in a cool climate. Thus, the South had the environment to support such a system. Nature allowed for the system, but it was man who allowed the system to happen.

This entire semester we have been trying to figure out the relationship between humans and nature. And even though I was critical of Steinberg’s introduction, I think he makes his readers understand that history cannot be told without all of the key players, and these key players do not always involve animate actors. The environment is not always the innocent bystander.

For a bit of praise–I commend Steinberg for the amount of information he manages to present in his relatively short “textbook.” Steinberg’s work is useful for grounding the many themes we have talked about this semester. Thankfully he did not do so in eight hundred pages.

A Great Way to Wrap up the Course

This week we read Ted Steinberg’s book Down to Earth and like Sean, I thought it was a great way to finish up the course. While we could have read this at the beginning of the course to really lay out for everyone what environmental history is, I liked reading at the end as a way to sum up everything we’ve been discussing. The book is quite ambitious, detailing the huge role nature has played in all aspects of America’s entire history. For example, in the first part of the book, Steinberg analyzes the process by which New England’s landscape shifted from its original state of being covered in forest as American agriculture expanded.

 

One of the things we’ve been discussing nearly every week is whether the ways Americans have changed the landscape and interacted with nature have been “natural” or not. I prefer to look at the questions in terms of their economic intentions and consequences. So, consider the example of farming in general. I consider a small-scale farmer who simply looks to support himself through agriculture to be participating in a more “natural” interaction with nature than a big industrial farm that is creating food that will be sold to the masses. The lone farmer is simply using the natural resources he needs to survive individually—he is himself a part of the food chain. However, once the intention of the interaction with nature is to participate in the capitalist economy (something created purely by humans), I would consider it to no longer be a “natural” interaction. I am not negatively judging such activity, but I would definitely not consider it all that natural. That kind of interaction between nature and the economy has been my biggest takeaway from the course.