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.

Ted Steinberg, Space, and the Greater Themes of this Course

Ted Steinberg’s work Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History definitely made me think more about the greater themes in this class, and helped me solidify my constantly fluid opinions I’ve developed this semester. This is a perfect book for our class to finish the semester with, as it ties everything we have studied together with how it connects the environment and the history of the United States.  While one could argue that we should have started the course with this book, I don’t believe I would have appreciated Steinberg’s work as much without having read the previous works in this class.  Steinberg makes a number of bold proclamations about how the environment shaped American history (ie: the environment in Indonesia impacting America, as Brandon mentions below).  I don’t believe I would have bought some of the connections he made when I first entered this course, however, because of how we have looked at environmental history from multiple angles, I was thoroughly convinced by Steinberg’s claims.

While we have spent a lot of time in this class discussing things such as what the term natural means to us and how it has changed, I believe the biggest thing we should take away from this class is a greater understanding of how the natural world and environment (regardless of how you define them) have shaped the world we live in.  People usually worry about the future of the environment (as they should), yet they overlook the role it has had in the past, and we were able to fully appreciate that in this class, especially with Steinberg’s work.

I really enjoyed Manish’s discussion of space in his blog post, as the closing space in the modern world is why the environment is changing drastically so quickly, with human’s ability to close the gap between spaces with advanced transportation.  I found it interesting as the idea of humans closing the gap in their westward expansion and privatization of the land applies specifically to my final paper.  When the government built the Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam), they felt that they could privatize and expand in Arizona and Nevada despite the desert environments by building a man-made reservoir.  While they were able to help create some semblance of sustainable life, their lack of foresight into how a fully grown city in that area would not be able to thrive in an environment despite what the dam provided.  Just like “King Cotton came back to bite [the South] in the end” (98), the government’s hubris and desire to close the space has resulted in a city that has struggled through water scarcity issues.

While I have (and still do) see nature as an interaction between humans and the environment and cities as a new form of nature, the lack of space complicates this greatly.  I think the modern environment is one in which human’s have a greater role, and cities have developed as a result, however the questions Manish poses and Steinberg doesn’t answer as to “What should we do with things such as trash? Where would pollution go?” are not answerable as long as humans continue to privatize space and insist on a more dominant role in the greater environment.  Human’s greater role in nature is inevitable, but people need to start living in greater harmony with the other elements of the natural world or soon they will feel the consequences. While I don’t have an answer to the issue with the closing amount of space, I don’t believe preserving national parks or doing anything similar that separates humans and the environment completely is a good idea.  Somehow, human’s need to reach a point in which they interact with the environment rather than dominate it, but this is a pipe-dream, and most likely the environment will fight back at some point and human’s will feel the consequences (maybe the crumbling ozone?).

Chicago’s Place on the Frontier, and Looking at First and Second Nature

Parts II and III of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis expand upon Cronon’s telling of the story of Chicago from an environmental history perspective.  In part II, Cronon tells the stories of the production, commodification, and transportation of grain, lumber, and meat and how they evolved along with the evolution of Chicago.  In part III, Cronon looks at Chicago geographically, discussing the importance of the city’s location and how the expansion of industrialization westward affected the growing frontier.  I found the organization of these two parts, and his book as a whole, effective.  Cronon tries to tell the story of a city with his book, and the fact he was able to do so while not telling a chronological story is impressive, and in the end made the work more effective as a work of environmental history.

I found Cronon’s further discussion of the railroad impact in the west interesting and a valuable expansion of his discussion in part I.  He discusses the railroad’s impact on Chicago and the surrounding areas in depth in part I, but in part II he writes that the railroads helped instigate the destruction of the bison, something we have already read about in this class.  The railroads made going out and hunting the bison easier, and having a metropolis to bring the bison back and make money only motivated people further to hunt the bison and accelerate their destruction, and at the same time negatively impact Native American life.  He also compares the pre and post railroad worlds in the west, showing how the railroad helped merchants in many ways and wasn’t overwhelming the frontier country but instead bringing them closer together.

Throughout his work, Cronon looks at nature as two types, first and second nature, with first nature being what would exist without any outside intrusion and second nature being the world build upon first nature.  I didn’t love this definition after reading part I, and still don’t after reading parts II and III.  In part II, Cronon does a good job of showing how nature and humans interacted through Chicago with the commodification of elements of nature, but in doing so he weakened the notions of first and second nature.  For Cronon, first nature would be trees in a forest, and humans collecting the trees for lumber and using it commercially would be a result of second nature.  While this is a clear example of humans “dominating” nature and theoretically fits into his classification of nature, as Ian mentioned below, humans worked in harmony with nature in the transportation of the lumber.  By separating nature into two separate spheres, it ignores the concept of humans working in harmony with nature, even if in the example Ian presented humans shaped the environment.  I also agree with Wade in my complaint about this definition, as using first and second nature works in some cases, but it leaves no room for something in between (or Cronon fails to do so) like when something natural becomes a commodity.

Humanity’s Domination of Nature in “Nature Incorporated”

Theodore Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated for me helped further enforce the idea that humanity and nature coexist in his discussion of the industrial growth in New England and its interactions with water.  Steinberg discusses the relationship between nature and society, both economically and legally, and in doing so shows how humans coexisted with nature by controlling it, but despite this control, the nature could counteract it as humans became dependent on it (ie: water/typhoid fever).

Throughout this class we have looked at how nature and humanity have interacted and coexisted, and Steinberg brings in a new perspective.  William Cronon discussed in Nature’s Metropolis the economic relationship between nature and human urbanization with the railroad system, seeing railroads as natural.  Steinberg creates an economic relationship between nature and human urbanization as well, but with a more obvious component of nature (water).  He effectively argues how water instigated economic competition and made water a privatized commodity controlled by man.

At first glance I thought Manish’s connection between War Upon the Land and Nature Incorporated was a stretch, as in the former there was a clear distinction between nature and humanity while in the latter I read the two as one and the same.  However I bought the connection once Manish argued that nature was a setting in Steinberg’s work, not a character, a point I find intelligent that helps explain how humans could try and control nature yet be a part of it.  The idea of nature as a setting rather than a separate actor allows humans to exist within it, even if the human element has negative effects on the prior existing environment.

A lot of this discussion has been centered on human’s “conquering” of nature in Nature Incorporated, and I believe that this “conquering” is just indicative of humanity’s greater role within the environment, not human’s overtaking the environment.  As Emily noted in her post this idea of domination is reinforced with Steinberg’s word choice, yet I interpreted Steinberg’s points as industrialization being another stage of nature’s evolution.  Throughout human history people have used elements of nature to survive, whether it be collecting lumber or hunting for sustenance.  For me, Steinberg’s discussing of humanity and water convinces me further that urbanization and industrialization is nature and that human’s new usage, dependence, and privatization of water is just a new role water is playing relative to societal evolution, and that the domination is a sign of humanity’s greater role within the environment.

As Ian wrote in his discussion of the chapter “Fouled Water,” industrialization had a clear negative impact on the environment through pollution.  The effect on water obviously was a negative one, and Steinberg is critical of this industrialization.  I believe that despite the negative effects human had on the New England environment, that doesn’t mean that the humans moving in and industrializing the area means they are not a part of the environment, but instead a dominant part.

Ideas Have Consequences


After reading Lisa Brady’s War Upon the Land, it’s hard to believe this statue of William Tecumseh Sherman was installed in Central Park in 1903.

Aside from that, I think the blog posts so far show an interesting engagement with Brady’s definition of nature. Ian and Sean helpfully point out why it may be limiting to exclude humans from a definition of nature. I agree with them on a theoretical level. But on the practical level of writing and thinking about environmental history, it makes it easier if we define nature as Brady does: “the nonhuman physical environment in its constituent parts or as a larger whole” (13). But maybe easier isn’t better.

Brady’s notion of “landscape” is a helpful way to think about about how humans shape the environment. So much of Brady’s book deals with designing and manipulating nature that her idea of landscape as “shaped land, land modified for permanent human occupation, for dwelling, agriculture, manufacturing, government, worship, and for pleasure” is useful because it allows for human alteration and usage of the land as a reasonable, and not a negative, process (13).

Brady mentions the proliferation of weeds as one of the consequences of Union armies marching through the South (131). This mention of weeds reminded me of Crosby’s book, when he points out that weeds are among the first plants to populate an area after it has been destroyed. Those weeds make way for longer-lasting plants. This means that, perhaps if we take a larger view of the environmental consequences of the Civil War (as Crosby takes a very wide view of ecological history in his book), the results are less dismal. The combination of the destruction of the land and the dismantling of the institution of slavery, though, spelled doom for the Southern way of life and ensured that the South could not return to how it was before the war (134). Even taking a larger view of history could not help return the South to its previous agroecosystem.

I also appreciated how Brady depicted nature as a historical agent insofar as it has “power to shape human decisions” (6). Brady relied on nineteenth-century Northern ideas about nature as an entity that was able to be conquered, civilized, and improved. Those ideas were the driving force in the book. I think the  ideas themselves, carried through by the agents of Union generals (many of whom were trained as engineers at West point) helped bring about the destruction of Southern landscapes. For Brady, these ideas had consequences in the hands of Union generals and their massive armies.

Nature as a separate entity in “War Upon the Land”

Lisa Brady provides a unique perspective on the Civil War with her environmental history War Upon the Land, as she effectively portrays the importance of the landscape during the Civil War as well as how both the Union and Confederacy approached the environment.  However, while her argument is still convincing, I disagree with how she defines nature as a completely separate entity from human society.  In her eyes (as Manish noted) nature no longer exists once altered by humans, and that once human’s affect nature it becomes an “agroecosystem.”  Brady’s definition of nature doesn’t change her argument all too much, as the argument about the control of nature of the North and the coexistence of nature of the South are unaffected, yet as it pertains to this class, I can’t help but be thrown off by how she disregards humans as a part of nature.

As Manish wrote below, the different perceptions of wilderness were a key element to Brady’s work, and I agree with Manish’s assessment that the Union’s control over the landscape was a result of the industrialism in the North.  I disagree that these attempted manipulations of the landscape were a bad thing, however, but instead believe that the North’s manipulation of nature was indicative of the changing landscape of the world and how human’s were playing a greater role within nature than they were previously.  The South may have been in harmony with nature (if you consider them different entities), yet their society was reliant on the widespread production of products grown from the earth (tobacco, cotton, etc.) that were reliant on the archaic institution of slavery.  Slavery is a part of human society, but as humans progressed and began realizing it was wrong in the 19th century (evidenced by countries across Latin America abandoned the institution throughout the century, most of which abandoned it before the US), the rise of industrialism occurred at the same time.  With the South’s coexisting with nature, as humans in rural society’s had done forever, they were also rooted in institutions like slavery.  As humans began to make their mark on the environment with the growth of cities and technology, immoral institutions slowly have disbanded.  I apologize as this paragraph has reached “rant status” so I’ll sum up my thoughts briefly: Brady seems to portray the South’s relationship with nature as a positive thing and the North’s approach to nature (and the toll it takes on the environment) as a negative, where I believe that humanity and nature go hand in hand, and as humans become more involved in nature, humanity has become more moral due to the greater communication and control of the landscape.

The Civil War was a battle between the developing North and the unchanging South, and the result of the war left the much of the Southern landscape in ruin.  I believe that humanity is part of nature, and that the result of the war was just a further expansion of the urbanizing society.  Brady’s work effectively pointed out how the landscape played a role in the War with the different sides, yet her portrayal and definition of nature still bothers me.