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.