Class Conflict in American Environmental History

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In Crimes Against Nature, Karl Jacoby looks at the American conservation movement in a more class-based way than many previous historians have. As he outlines in the epilogue, a big part of his argument is the way that the elites in control of ecological movements demonized and illegalized the environmental practices of poor, rural Americans in order to exert control over both them and the land. (194-195) As Justin notes in his post, the conservation movement seemed to create new norms of ecological practice that were favorable to those in charge. I also noticed something interesting about Jacoby’s research in the book’s preface. He says that he did not originally intend to focus on conflicts between those in charge of the state park movement and poor people breaking the law, but that he found so many instances of that happening in his initial research that he decided to change his topic around. (xv-xvi) He also says that his perception of such conflicts was that they only happened in third world countries in places like Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where the conservation movements were led by European colonists. (xv)


This peaked my interest because of an African environmental history class I previously took at Davidson, where we learned a lot about such movements in colonized countries in Africa. Many authors we read argued, much like Jacoby does, that the Europeans in control of these countries used environmental policies to oppress the native Africans under the guise of a desire to protect resources. For example, colonists in South Africa prosecuted poaching quite severely and enacted rules banning natives from owning hunting dogs, claiming that their efforts were guided by a desire to protect hunted animals. Like Jacoby, I find it especially interesting how easily comparable the conservation movements of Africa and the U.S. are in regards to what it points out about the relationship between elites and non-elites. If one accepts Jacoby’s argument, then in this particular aspect of environmental preservation, there are legitimate comparisons to be made between the way elites treated poor Americans and the way Europeans treated Africans. I believe most people would be quite surprised to hear such a comparison be made. And ultimately, that sense of surprise is why I enjoyed Jacoby’s book. It was very interesting to see the American conservation movement studied in this new light, and I believe it represents a big corner being turned in the historiography of American history, both environmentally and in regards to class conflict.

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