Binaries, Language, and This Interlocking System

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This weeks its back to the binaries with Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature.¬†His research tells the rise of conservationism in American history. This is the story of the battle between law v. lawlessness, East v. West, urban v. rural–the transformation of once acceptable environmental practices into illegal acts. The nineteenth century saw a change in the manner in which language concerning environmental acts shifted. A battle erupted between those who lived in the rural West and rural areas of the United States. Jacoby’s work not only calls out those who attempted to colonize people and places disguised as environmental conservatism but also historians who have perpetuated environmental practices between urban and rural folk, the rural folk portrayed as the antagonists. He states, “Historians have largely concurred with such judgments, viewing rural folks as operating a flawed understanding of the world” (2). ¬†Jacoby acknowledges that primary sources authored by rural folk are extremely limited, but there are other routes to finding information about their lives and their interactions with the environment. He wants to debunk the following myth: “the belief that prior to the advent of conservation, rural folk, in keeping with the supposed rugged individualism of the American frontier, did as they pleased with the natural world” (193).

I like to think of people’s relationship in relation to Emily’s commentary from last week. She stated, “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.” Thus, is it not natural that humans have a destructive element in how they interact with the environment? Of course conservation is important to slow any process of degradation, but were/are not these actions inevitable?

As Jacoby states, “Conservation thus extended far beyond natural resource policy, not only setting the pattern for other Progressive Era reforms but also heralding the rise of the modern administrative state” (6). Thus, Jacoby’s story suggests more than just the rise of environmental preservation came with its supposed birth. Once the system was defined according to those in charge, each event was then (and continues to be) based off of the created “norm” or in this case “law.” These laws determined how society was “supposed” to be organized, not how it was supposed to be. The history of conservation in the United States is all about language and those who have the means to enact what they want to happen. If there is opposition, whether good opposition or bad, is irrelevant (at least to them). It is crucial to be aware of a system that has the potential to cause good but also cause bad–not only towards the environment but also towards different groups of, often marginalized, people.

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