Counterintuitive Qualities of Conservation

In Crimes Against Nature, Karl Jacoby aims to write a monograph that combines the fields of social and environmental history in the United States (xvi). To do this, Jacoby analyzes the conservation movement that took place at the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the book Jacoby attempts to illustrate a non-elite “moral ecology” – a perspective that “offers a vision of nature ‘from the bottom up’” – in order to complicate the narrative of the American conservation movement (1, 3). While Jacoby’s work focused on squatters, poachers, and thieves, it also reminded me of several themes that we have discussed from previous readings in class this semester.

Jacoby does a particularly effective job in demonstrating how capital has shaped the development of our natural environment. Although he writes on the lives and perspectives of the voices that often go unheard in the retelling of American history, Jacoby’s narrative still portrays how the flow of capital even guided the conservation movement. In the Adirondacks, the unsettled woods of the region, along with flourishing fish and deer populations made the region especially vulnerable to being overtaken by capitalists. This is seen in the rapid abandonment of farm homes and construction of estates in the Adirondacks, accompanied by a burgeoning tourist industry (26-27). Additionally, as tourism continued to grow in the region, more and more people living in the Adirondacks identified with multiple vocations. These jobs included being a guide, a hunter, or fisherman, and often combined lifestyles on the Adirondacks both pre- and post- conservationist intervention (28). In the Grand Canyon, Jacoby outwardly admits that there was a close relationship between business interests and forestry officials (169).These examples serve to show that while on the surface conservation claimed to protect the environment, its aims could very likely have been driven by the capitalist geography we see presented by Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis.

            The second element of Crimes Against Nature that I found very similar to previous class discussions was the unnaturalness of the conservation movement. I liked the definition of “wilderness” Brandon posited in his post as being unadulterated by human intervention. I also agreed with his discussion of the wilderness as an artifact of modernity. However, after reading this book, I think Jacoby might be arguing that as a result of the conservation movement, wilderness is something inherently different than it was before. This can be seen in both the ways that conservationists try to preserve wilderness as well as how Jacoby writes about the spread of conservationism. One example of this occurred in the Adirondacks, when dozens of towers, taller than the tree lines of the forest, were constructed in order to maintain a watch on potential fires that could damage the “wilderness” (77-78). The placement of the U.S. Army in Yellowstone National Park for 32 years only bolsters this view the unnatural means by which conservationists “preserved” the wilderness (97). In addition Jacoby discusses how conservationists have developed a “new vision of nature” and a “touristic wilderness” as their influence spread throughout the United States (170, 191). With this in mind, the cordoning off of these spaces by conservationists has clearly made the wilderness an artifact of modernity. However, perhaps this has also destroyed the primeval quality that the wilderness before conservationism contained.

The Myths of Conservationism

After reading Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation I reached a similar conclusion as Brandon. In his post Brandon talks about how Jacoby was able to successfully present a viable alternative narrative to both the ideas of wilderness in relationship to mankind and the conservation movement as a whole. This alternative view was one that was put forward by middle and low income individuals rather than elites who had usually dominated the conversation. This dominance by elites was a major reason why the stories and beliefs of the lower class members of society were largey overlooked in historical analysis and is why Jacoby’s book was particularly attractive to me.

What I really appreciated about his book were the myths of the conservation movement that he presented in the epilogue. The conservation movement many times is labeled as an honorable movement. While many acknowledged that it was never as successful as was originally hoped, the original goals were pure. However, Jacoby with his myth busting aims helps the reader understand some of the flaws in the foundation of conservasionism.

The first myth was that the belief that rural folk who were squatting or poaching on the land “did as they pleased with the natural world.” (193) This was not true. Jacoby argued that these rural folk has a greater understanding of ecological preservation than those in the cities gave them credit for. They established systems so as not to harm beyond repair the environments on which they relied upon. This did not mean that rural folks did no harm or that their systems successfully brought order to  chaotic situation. Instead Jacoby asserted that these rural folks should not be labeled as the enemy to the movement.

Another important myth that Jacoby tries to debunk is the idea of conserved spaces as natural. This is an idea that we have talked about on multiple ocassions this semester. Jacoby does a good job of revealing the manufactured nature of these “natural” conservatories. While conservationists argued that the protection of spaces from industrial and commercial interests would keep those spaces natural, Jacoby argued that the imposition of legal rules and the managerial role of state made the space inherently unnatural. The environment in these places was controlled and thus the natural processes of the area were not allowed to flow unimpeded.

The final myth that Jacoby discusses has to do with the belief that science and the state need to be used to protect the environment from the rural folk. Jacoby however, saw this flawed belief as revealing  a hidden theme in conservation history. This was the promotion of environmental justice over social justice. The needs of people such as the squatters were overlooked in exchange for the protection of abstract notions such as wilderness and nature, ideas that can be perceived differerntly throughout the nation. It is also ironic that science was being promoted as a possible solution to natural degredation, for the rise of industrialism ( a result of both the natural and social sciences) was a major contributor to the deterioization of the environement that prompted a conservasion movement. With this perspective it should not have been the rural folk who were restricted but those who actually created the problem. By exploring these myths and presenting alternative perspectives Jacoby has done a good job of painting a greater picture of conservatism and revealing the unstudied aspect of the subject.

Supplementary Reading: American Indians and National Parks

Growing up on the East Coast made national parks a difficult concept for me to understand. A friend used to tell me about spending summers at her grandmother’s home in Grand Junction, Colorado, where her grandmother’s backyard was the Colorado National Monument. I only understood the word ‘monument’ as in a memorial, such as the Washington Monument, and was confused about why anyone would care to live near it, until I saw this picture:[1]


My ignorance about the West also extends to national parks. Reading American Indians and National Parks by Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek helped me understand the scale of national parks in that part of the country (Keller and Turek do not study only western parks, but most of the parks they study are in the West). For example, Glacier National Park in Montana is made up of 1,012,837 acres and contains 762 lakes.[2] While it may seem that there was enough land in the West for both parks and Indian tribes, Keller and Turek demonstrate why that is a myth and expose the complicated story of the United States government’s appropriation of tribal land. What Keller and Turek do for Indian tribes, Karl Jacoby does for “common folk” more generally in Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. After explaining Keller and Turek’s book, I will consider their history in light of Jacoby’s study.

Keller and Turek tell the story of the changing relationships between the Indian tribes who lived in or around the parks and the National Parks Service (NPS) and environmentalists between 1864 and 1994. They fill a void in scholarship by examining the formation of national parks through the perspective of the native people who lived in or around the parks in the United States. The authors assert that, though scholars have studied national parks and American Indians separately, the connection between them has largely been ignored, to the detriment of both fields. Keller and Turek focus their research on what they call the “crown jewels” of the parks system—including Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park—nearly all of which have had disputes with native peoples concerning ownership and use of park land.[3]

Keller and Turek tell a hopeful story about the relationship between the NPS and Indian tribes; though the NPS has not always understood or treated American Indians well, policy and “awareness and sensitivity” have improved since the 1960s. Keller and Turek tell a less hopefully story about the relationship between conservationists and native peoples. By the end, the authors conclude, “honest dialogue can help idealists realize that protecting land is no simple matter.” Keller and Turek seek to “dispense with stereotypes of the Indian-as-ecologist/Indian-as-victim, and cease seeing tribal members as colorful, nostalgic versions of environmentalists themselves.” By understanding the culture and history of Indian tribes and the history of Indian tribes’ relationships to national parks, Keller and Turek demonstrate that fair policy is possible in theory: policy that takes into account not only the environment, but also the people who lived on and off of the land prior to the establishment of national parks. They also acknowledge that this is rarely, if ever, realized in practice.[4]

For sources, Keller and Turek rely on individual national parks’ archival sources, government documents, and a series of interviews the two authors conducted with Native Americans. The history is largely a bureaucratic one: the NPS, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian tribes—not individual people, but institutions—are the actors in the story. However, since Indian tribes were underrepresented politically, Keller and Turek gave them a collective voice by interviewing individual Native Americans.[5] The book’s focus on bureaucracy, though, makes reading American Indians and National Parks dull; quotations from the interviews are among the few highlights of the book.

In the conclusion to American Indians and National Parks, Keller and Turek list several general phases of relations between national parks and Indian tribes. The first phase started in 1864 with the beginning of the federal government’s seizure of land for parks and continued for fifty years after the establishment of the NPS in 1916. Keller and Turek note that this period was characterized by unfettered appropriation of land and “little genuine concern for native rights.” Next, there was a phase that was marked by Native American success in promoting their political interest, from the 1960s to the 1980s. Finally, the period beginning in 1987 with the NPS formulation of the Native American Relationships Management Policy, the service adopted a policy promising to “respect and actively promote tribal cultures as a component of the parks themselves.” [6] Although these stages indicate tidy progress in NPS and tribal relations, it was not a period of strictly upward progress. Keller and Turek emphasize the differences between each tribe and park, and include backward moments. No two situations were the same, but the authors tell a story of eventual progress. It would have been helpful if Keller and Turek had split the chapters into sections so these phases were clear from the beginning. Since they only explained the phases at the end of the book, the independent chapters had no context and it proved difficult to reconstruct Keller and Turek’s argument while reading the book.

Keller and Turek begin the book with the hopeful chapter ,“‘A Lucky Compromise’: Apostle Islands and the Chippewa,” about the 1970 victory of the Chippewa in protecting their reservation’s land on the national stage.[7] This chapter is contrasted with the next: “From Yosemite to Zuni: Parks and Native People, 1864-1994,” which presents a bleaker picture of relations between tribes and the NPS. In its infancy, the NPS was a flawed institution, according to Keller and Turek. The NPS “bequeathed distortions and ignorance about native history” in founding and maintaining its parks.[8] These chapters set the scene for the case studies that compose the rest of the book.

In summary, chapter three addresses the paradox of artifact preservation coinciding with ignoring the living native peoples through the example of the Utes in Mesa Verde National Park. Chapter four deals land usage rights among the Blackfeet in Glacier National Park. Chapter five explores the relations between Paiutes and Mormons in controlling Pipe Spring. Chapter six attends to the problems that arose because of multiple tribes in a locale, as demonstrated in Olympic National Park and the surrounding area. Chapters seven and eight examine the tensions between conservationists and native tribes in using and controlling the Grand Canyon. Chapters nine and ten tell the stories of the Navajo and the Seminoles, respectively. Though these chapters are full of information, the text wants a more analytic voice to drive the argument. As it is, Keller and Turek are content to describe, and rarely argue.

Since Crimes against Nature studies the case of the Havasupai in the Grand Canyon, I will summarize Keller and Turek’s history of the Havasupai in Grand Canyon National Park in chapter eight as a reference to compare the stories told by the two books (though they address different periods). After giving a brief history of the Havasupai in the Grand Canyon area, Keller and Turek describe the Congressional bill transferring land to the tribe. From 1974 to 1976, a political fight broke out between the Havasupai and environmentalists who opposed the measure. Environmentalists were concerned that “the Havasupai, being poor, would place economic development ahead of preservation” and that the Grand Canyon was a national park in that it belonged to the American people, not the Havasupai. The land transfer bill eventually passed, but it stipulated that “transferred land ‘shall remain forever wild’” without an indication of what “forever wild” meant. Keller and Turek analyze the relationship between native tribes and environmentalists. The authors posit that conservationists believed that “The Grand Canyon … transcends humanity,” which means that no humans, not even native tribes, belong there. Second, Keller and Turek debunk the “Indian as Environmentalist” myth, arguing that it “freezes Indians as an idea and artifact” instead of treating them as a dynamic people. Finally, Keller and Turek acknowledge that the Canyon could have been better preserved if environmentalists had their way, but that situation would have made it “no longer be an Indian community or homeland for its people.”[9] The authors reveal their belief in the impossibility of reconciling the interests of native tribes and environmentalists.

American Indians and National Parks addresses themes that Jacoby also addresses, including the concept of “national” parks versus local spaces and environmental versus social justice. Where Jacoby’s stances are clear, Keller and Turek’s must be teased out of the text. Analogs to Jacoby’s opinions can be found in American Indians and National Parks, though. “Americans have often pursued environmental quality at the expense of social justice,” Jacoby claims. [10] Keller and Turek’s book also demonstrates this: though the NPS has improved its policies since 1916, conservationists have resisted deeply considering human interests in forming policy. The idea of local versus national control is present in both books. Jacoby demonstrates this by contrasting common Adirondack land use practices with how wealthy sportsmen and the state of New York used the land. In Keller and Turek’s view, this played out through the NPS control of native tribal lands. In both, there is an implicit recognition that local control was often superior to national in terms of environmental health. This directly counters Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, which is necessarily a national story of “Americanization.” Finally, Keller and Turek agree with Jacoby about man’s place in nature: both books include humans as an unavoidable, if not ideal, part of the natural world.



Jacoby, Karl. Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden
History of 
American Conservation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Keller, Robert H. and Michael F. Turek. American Indians and National Parks. Tucson:
The University of Arizona Press, 1998.


[1] Sally Bellacqua, Monument Canyon,

[2] Glacier National Park Fact Sheet,

[3] Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek, American Indians and National Parks (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1998), xv, xii-xiii.

[4] Keller and Turek, 232-240.

[5] Keller and Turek, 241-242.

[6] Keller and Turek, 233-234.

[7] Keller and Turek, 3-16.

[8] Keller and Turek, 17-29.

[9] Keller and Turek, 164-184.

[10] Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 198.

Wilderness as Artifact

Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation presents a view of the early conservation movement from the generally untold view of economically middle and low-class individuals. As Jacoby writes in his conclusion, “the powerful can attempt to advance their own visions of the past, dismissing those whose recollections they find threatening or inconvenient” (p. 193). Jacoby seeks to counter such attempts by unveiling the little known stories of the individuals affected by the conservation of the Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.

The issue of land ownership plays a prominent role throughout the book. In the past, I have often learned about Native Americans who lost their land to the US Government because of their unfamiliarity with white ideas of land ownership. What was interesting to me was the substantial discussion of similar experiences for white settlers in the Adirondacks. Even those families who had called the Adirondacks home for generations were declared squatters because they lacked the proper proof of land ownership. By depicting the shared experiences of whites and Native Americans, Jacoby’s work crossed ethnic and cultural boundaries and instead told a comprehensive story of the effects of the conservation movement on less privileged individuals.

Another aspect of Jacoby’s work that I found very thought provoking was his statement, “wilderness reveals itself to be not some primeval character of nature but rather an artifact of modernity, a concept employed by conservationists to naturalize the transformations taking place in rural America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (p. 198). In my opinion, wilderness is both a primeval character of nature and an artifact of modernity. Wilderness, as I see it, is nature without human intervention. Throughout the semester we have had many discussions about what level of human involvement in the environment can be considered natural. As Ian noted in an earlier post, even something as technologically advanced as a city can be described as the next phase of ecological evolution. There is no such ambiguity when describing the wilderness, as it is nature in its virgin state. Thus, it seems to me, the wilderness has always existed. While wilderness has always been a primeval character of nature, it is also now an artifact of modernity because of the conservation movement. The conservation movement, at its core, is an attempt to preserve wilderness. In order to justify the need for preservation, areas such as the Adirondacks, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon have been portrayed as the last of their kind. In an effort to preserve such places for posterity, the conservation movement has essentially cast wilderness as an artifact that needs to be passed down to later generations. Areas such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are now very similar to museums. They attract tourists because they hearken back to a lost age, when the landscape was not dominated by human creations. In this sense, wilderness has most certainly become an artifact of modernity. This does not mean, however, that it is no longer a primeval character of nature.

Chicago’s Purifying Flames

In “Faith and Doubt: The Imaginative Dimensions of the Great Chicago Fire,” Carl Smith discusses how two clusters of beliefs arose from the flames of Chicago’s great fire of 1871. From it came a belief in Chicago’s transcendent purpose as a sort of divinely sanctioned landscape with boundless potential and a special place in history. The other belief was a worry that at any moment, places like Chicago could explode into anarchy if the social order weren’t carefully guarded. After the Chicago fire occurred, residents and interested parties across the country recognized the needs for a city to have stable society. For many concerned citizens, the fire was an act of God purifying the city of sin and allowing those left to start anew on moral high ground.

This reading is strongly related to Henry’s in that natural disasters came to be an indication of God’s judgment in the American conscience. Though Smith didn’t mention it, I thought that Henry’s point about Bradford’s “City upon a hill,” and American exceptionalism would have been pertinent. Indeed some citizens believed Chicago to be this “City upon a hill.”: “Bright, Christian capital of lakes and prairies/Heaven had no interest in the scourge and scath;/Thou wert the newest shrine of our religion,/The youngest witness of our faith” (135). In this line of thought, Chicago is no longer unique, and the Great Fire fits into a larger narrative about the relationship between God and America rather than God and Chicago.

Does Bergman Have It Wrong?

Jonathan Bergman’s essay speaks to what Ted Steinberg does in his Acts of God. Bergman states, “With the advent of environmental studies, disasters have become something of a ‘growth field in American history.’ Armed with novel theories of disaster, scholars have set out to examine urban life, race, class, politics, and governmental culture through a variety of socially dislocating events” (938). Using disaster studies as a lens for studying traditional topics serves to boost both environmental history and the field of history as a whole. Bergman has his doubts about the the manner in which disaster studies has taken (and taking). He is skeptical of disaster studies and its future. While I think I understand his perspective, having read Acts of God and other environmental works, I must call him out and suggest he re-think his argument. I think disaster is a useful category for historical analysis. Disaster can allow for a nuanced analysis of a period that and using other categories of analysis can also allow for a more nuanced interpretation of the events before, during, and after the disaster.

The essay I chose for this week, “Fighting the Hessian Fly: American and British Responses to Insect Invasion, 1776-1789,” serves as a proper contribution to the environmental/disaster studies field. When read after Bergman’s essay, one can understand how Bergman “got it wrong.” Philip J. Pauly’s states in his essay, “Looking beyond the eighteenth century, I suggest that the Hessian fly provides a useful starting point for examining how nationalism–involving issues of both political sovereignty and, more diffusely, xenophobia–has influenced the science of policy of biological invasion (486). Yes, it is possible for analyses to get carried away with other categories of analysis and thus take away from telling the story of the disaster, but I think it is possible to tell both at the same time. As Ian reminded us last week in our discussion of Chicago, “. . .they also altered their environment by flooding and freezing a region that would not have faced these conditions without human alteration.” Cronon’s analysis would have been much stronger if he had added commentary on this matter (regardless of the fact that this might not have been his primary purpose).

After completing the readings for this week I thought a lot about language. Are actually doing these events justice by calling them “natural disasters.” This phrase carries a negative connotation, so how does one rid that from the phrase without changing the name or replacing it with something that no one will recognize? Instead is it suitable to call them “natural events”? Other words with just as negative connotations are brought into the conversation as well. With these words and negative connotations come negative interpretations of the events and nature. Nature is made out to be the bad force. Now, I am not suggesting that Steinberg does this in his work, not at all. He makes this obvious. We as readers know exactly with whom the fault stands, but could this be an inadvertent (and most likely subtle) component that is in some ways difficult to separate? Are these concerns the at crux of Bergman’s struggle and argument?

Conquering Nature

This article provides a unique look at nature by taking us back in time to the first settlers of America.  These settlers had great fear and respect for the environment and for the effect it could have on them.  They had an almost morbid fascination with the sun and the power it had over the balance of the body.  With disease more prominent and more deadly, one had to be wary of the dangers of nature.  Many diseases were attributed to exposure to too much heat.  While these people had a worse understanding of their environment that we do now, they had to live with its effects everyday.  Whether this actually makes them closer to nature than we are today is an interesting question to ponder.  With all the medicine and technology we have today, it’s easy to subscribe to the idea that nature’s effect can be conquered or beaten.  Settlers back then however, had to deal with the daily physical effects that the environment could have on you.

One of the most provoking parts of the article was the idea that environment, the heat specifically, could actually shape a race of people.  The English believe that hotter climates made people ‘wittier’ and smarter but less physically strong than people from colder climates.  That’s why these people were often conquered by Northerners.  We tend to ascribe stereotypes to different regions even today.  The simplest example is the way Northerners view Southerners and vice versa.  When we talk about these differences we rarely discuss environment.  However, it was the environment that first created these differences.  The warmer climates of the South and the flatter topography led to the agrarian focused, plantation style economy.  It was the environment that paved the way for slavery and made the South so dependent on it.

Jumping into the minds of these settlers raises some interesting questions about nature.  Does nature actually have less of an impact on us now or are we just better equipped to handle it?  I would argue that nature doesn’t have less of an effect on us than it did on the colonists, we have just developed better ways to counter that effects and live with nature.  However, I don’t subscribe to the idea that you can ever conquer nature.  No matter how many diseases we cure or preventative measures we take, the environment will always have an effect on us.  The countermeasures that the settlers took, although comedic to us now, expose an attitude we still have today.  Rather than seeing nature as something we live off of, we see it as something dangerous that we have to fight against.  It is something unknown that has to be explained.  I have to wonder if this attitude has something to do with the American Exceptionalism that Henry discussed in his post.  Perhaps we would feel vulnerable or defeated if we left ourselves at the mercy of an environment we could not control or understand.

“Architects of Destruction”: Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God

Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America deals with the human dimension of natural disasters. Steinberg suggests three issues with which his research and analysis attempt to define. He looks at the role of human complicity in response to disasters, the rise in a particular set of social relations in an attempt to restore order, and the ways in which people have attempted to rationalize natural disasters as events beyond human control. He poses questions like, “Why have those in power, for example, at times denied the risks of living in seismically active areas? Whose vision of society is at stake when nature and culture collide? How and why have some Americans come to view natural disasters as amoral, chance occurrences?” (xvii-ix). Steinberg suggests these three themes intersect with three fields of study: environmental history (interactions between humans and nature), social history (power), and cultural history (meaning and interpretation). Thus, with his brief but detailed outline of his structure, readers are fully aware of Steinberg’s agenda, a very political agenda. He states, “Ultimately, this book critiques the approach to natural calamity that has dominated U.S. politics over the last century. This approach has tended to overemphasize the natural forces at place while diminishing the human, social, and economic forces central to these phenomena” (xix). Thus, according to Steinberg, when viewed as “freak events” as separate from everyday life, natural disasters are posited outside the boundaries of the ordinary; therefore, no one individual or group of people is held accountable.


The title Acts of God comes from the once popular (in some areas it still is) belief that natural disasters happened as a result of God’s disappointment with humans. If a certain area experienced an earthquake or flood, it had to be because the people living there had displeased God and this was to be there punishment, a sign they needed to change their ways. This notion became popular in the eighteenth century, and quite possibly before then. Steinberg states, “For the colonists, what we now call natural disasters were events heavily laden with moral meaning. They were morality tales that the God-fearing told to one another” (xxi). This theme stayed prominent into the nineteenth century. In some cases, these events moved those who strayed from their faith to turn back to religion and become God-fearing people again. Steinberg suggests that twentieth-century efforts at secularization helped to demoralize nature and its powers as well as these events being an act of God. However, roughly one-fifth of the current population still believes moral lessons can be learned from the extremes of nature. Steinberg also suggests that some use the God-fearing method as a simple way to evade human accountability. While the demoralization of nature has been a positive, Steinberg recognizes negatives to this. He believes this demoralization came with the federal government’s role in rationalizing disasters. This has especially been the case since World War II. The government provided now offered relief to those in disaster-struck areas. Steinberg states, “For the most part, these changes helped to underwrite increasing development in hazardous areas” (xxii). He suggests this transition severed the risk from physical space. Thus, when a disaster occurred, deciding who to blame became difficult. He states, “Natural disasters have come to be seen as random, morally inert phenomena—chance events that lie beyond the control of human beings” (xxiii). Steinberg provides a great example of how humans can warp nature into something that it is not. He mentions Hurricane Hugo from 1989 and how new reports exaggerated the wind speed. One report mentioned a wind speed of 150 miles per hour, while some said 135 miles per hour. However, sustained winds were actually between ninety and ninety-five miles per hour. Steinberg suggests that since the 1960s engineers have known about the need for better building requirements in hurricane-prone areas but chose not to act. Thus, the hurricane turned out to be as destructive became of man and not nature; therefore, the media needed to make a connection between the event and the resulting effects.

Section I is titled “Return of the Suppressed,” followed by Section II, “Federalizing Risk” and Section III, “Containing Calamity.” Steinberg starts off with the story of the August 31, 1886 Charleston earthquake. Charleston experienced several bouts with disaster long before the 1886 earthquake. Disasters struck Charleston as far back as the late 1600s. Hurricanes, smallpox, drought, fire, and storms attacked Charleston. The years 1783, 1787, 1792, 1797 and 1800 proved to be detrimental to Charleston as storms struck, and in some cases resulted in death. However, Steinberg suggests that the earthquake surprised many. Disasters before this one were the result of weather, disease or war. Steinberg coins the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as the archetypal disaster, but not an archetype for reasons one might think. The quake is by far the most sizeable (in magnitude) on record. He states, “Moreover, the notorious San Francisco quake, for all the tremendous attention lavished on this one slip of earth, has hardly had the effect on development and building in the city that one would expect. In this sense, the disaster has both tremendous meaning and almost no meaning at all, at least not in its impact on reducing seismic risk throughout the bay area” (26). Steinberg suggests that with disasters such as the San Francisco quake, other areas of seismic activity or areas of potential seismic activity received, and in some cases continue to receive, less attention. He specifically wants his readers to think about the difference between the risk of an earthquake and the risk of disaster. There is a difference, and one he suggests is often overlooked. Steinberg transitions from earthquakes to hurricanes. He talks about how hurricanes became naturalized when the U.S. Weather Bureau used gendered names to identify the storms. He states, “Women hurricanes were routinely described in the 1950s as wild, capricious, fickle, whimsical, and erratic, creating the sense that nature was literally out of control, when of course economic development, driven by private property, was as much if not more than nature to blame for disaster” (68). Florida boosters and others who sought to profit from property saw this as a positive for their system. Steinberg’s research is brought full-circle when he talks about more current disasters such as Hurricane Camille and the 1989 California earthquake and its impact. Thus, the response to natural disasters might appear to be different, but the same underlying issues and thoughts two hundred years still exist.

Steinberg is very passionate about his work and analyzes these natural disasters in interesting and thought-provoking ways. He is conscious of the social climates and uses stories of how marginalized groups were treated as a social justice outlet. His primary concern is to bring these issues together and bring about awareness. This book, this first edition is now fourteen years old, stands a marker and foundation for the environmental justice movement. His writing is compelling and demands that readers begin to understand the impact humans have on the environment and how humans can stand in the way of nature’s happenings. This is most certainly a call-to-action approach to environmental history and history as a whole. He allows each natural disaster to tell the history of the period in which it occurred.

Steinberg wants his readers to do what those who have experienced nature’s extremes have thus failed to do—learn and make changes that have the potential to alleviate destruction. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina Steinberg released a revised edition of his book. Published approximately one year after the storm hit, the book has an added section about the hurricane and its impact. Steinberg talks (in the first edition) about what he warned would happen if humans did not heed his advice.

While I agree with many of Steinberg’s assertions, a book review should not be written without a critical lens. Thus, Steinberg’s passion can also stand in his way. Ultimately, Steinberg suggests that humans should be faulted for building in disaster-prone areas and/or not building structures that can withstand these events. Humans ignore safety reports and continue their attempt to win the battle of human vs. nature. What about the events that happen where a disaster has never occurred?

Representations of Disasters

I read the article called “Distant Disasters, Local Fears: Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Revolution, and Passion in The Atlantic Monthly1880-84″ by Sheila Hones. In it, Hones draws on essays about natural disasters, essays about social problems that included references to natural disasters, and fiction pieces that used natural disasters as part of the plot (173). From reading other blog posts, it seems that this article is unique. Instead of writing about Gilded Age disasters themselves, Hones writes about how authors published in The Atlantic during the period represented disasters in their stories and reporting (170). “Distant disasters thus provide the textual framework for an exploration of local anxieties,” Hones argues, and proceeds to explain how authors did this.

First, Hones demonstrates the connection between the “social atmosphere” and the attitude toward disasters of educated Bostonians during the 1880s: “the large natural world is meaningful and ordered while the local social world is prone at any particular moment to turmoil” (172-173). Next, authors created what Hones calls “narrative distance” between the upper-class writers and readership of The Atlantic and the disasters  experienced far away, such as the eruption of Krakatoa (175). Finally, disasters were understood to be, though destructive, also creative of new life. In disasters, authors found a way to understand their local concerns about social change as possibly a good thing in the end. Hones says the example of the volcano is “a potent symbol for a conservative community proudly finding its roots in revolution” (190-191). The United States, then, was a volcano: eruptive democracy led to eventual stability. This corresponds to Brandon’s post about how disasters might/might not be a good thing. But the fact that they might even be considered a good thing is interesting in itself.

Hones has interesting things to say about the locale of disasters. One author wrote about the Mississippi River floods in The Atlantic. The author showed that the natural disaster threatened America’s “self-regulation at the national level” (187). With the Civil War recently concluded, the author saw the possibility of local governments responding to the disaster instead of the federal government and the author worried that it would “create the ‘gravest political dangers'” (187). This made me think about how natural disasters are also national disasters. In the moment of a natural disaster, a local community is unable to respond. It seems that communities outside of the one destroyed must respond if any rebuilding/assistance can occur. This is the case, at least, where humans have built second nature on top of first nature. If humans are living in first nature, then they can move somewhere else, right?


Some thoughts from the other readings:

In Steven Biel’s introduction, he states, “catastrophic disturbances of routine actually tell us a great deal about the ‘normal’ workings of culture, society, and politics” (5). This makes sense, but it also makes me wonder if a disaster can be a historical event? Because who are the actors? Can a disaster be an actor in the same way that nature can? 

Also, in the overview article by Jonathan Bergman, he cites Matthew Mulcahy, who writes, “‘[d]isasters become disasters only when natural forces meet human ones'” (936), which means that disasters need humans (and to an extent, second nature) present in order to actually be a disaster. I think this is interesting and it reminds me of Crosby’s broad view of changes in nature in Ecological Imperialism. If a disaster occurred in an uninhabited place, could we really call it a disaster?

American Exceptionalism and Natural Disasters

In People of Calamity, Kevin Rozario discusses how Americans, beginning with the earliest settlers of New England, came to view natural disasters in a somewhat positive light. That is, they began to see them as tests from God that would ultimately help them progress and become better people. It is important to note that these early settlers were coming from Europe, where there were fewer disasters and also better infrastructure to shelter people from nature in general. The New England puritans were intensely religious, and actually developed a sentiment that the frequent disasters they faced were actually a sign that God favored them over others.  Rozario actually quotes one New England settler comparing the natural disasters they faced to those God used to test his “chosen” people of Israel in the Old Testament. That settler backs up his thinking by pointing out that the New England colony, a bastion of religion where people lived as God wished (as he believed), faced more natural disasters than other countries where he says the people “sin and do wickedly.” (41)


I found this line of thinking to be an interesting intersection between the environmental issue of natural disasters and the phenomenon of American exceptionalism, a line of thinking the pious New England colonists very much subscribed to. American exceptionalism is something historians have noted to be a big part of American culture and thought since the country’s settlement. William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth colony, famously decreed that the colony would be a “city upon a hill,” with the eyes of the rest of the world looking to them as an exemplar of morality. That line of thinking stemmed greatly from the Bradford and his followers’ specific brand of Christianity—they saw themselves as the only true followers of god; in other words, as an exceptional people. That belief was the driving force of their very worldview, and we see that fact represented in terms of how they came to saw natural disasters as yet another example of their unique relationship with God. I also believe this creates an interesting tension with the ideas Manish explains in his post about Southern Californians’ experience with natural disasters. As I understand from his post, it seems that Southern Californians approached nature and its disasters with a sense of carelessness. For example, as Manish points out, they seemed to underestimate the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes in their area. I find it interesting to compare this seeming lack of respect for nature with the New Englanders’ deeply serious belief that these disasters, in addition to being something to contend with, were an expression of God’s will for them to be great.