Counterintuitive Qualities of Conservation


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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.

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