Crimes Against Nature: Conceptions of Nature and Morality

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Karl Jacoby, in his Crimes Against Nature, discusses the land set-aside during the conservation movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the “the law and its antithesis-lawlessness” (2). I found it interesting that the conservation movement began when American lawmakers redefined what was considered legitimate uses of the environment. The philosophies that shaped these lawmakers and their decisions trickled down to the ordinary folk and their interactions with the environment therefore changed. Jacoby refers to the moral universe that shaped the local transgression of conservation laws that gives historians a look into the beliefs and traditions of the people as “moral ecology” (3). Poaching, arson, and squatting take center-stage in Jacoby’s work on conceptions of nature and environmental crimes.


Jacoby argues that there is more to the traditional story about the elite imposing their ideas about nature on rural places and rural folk. The country folk did not ignorantly break the laws, but actually resisted conservation programs that threatened livelihoods and “fashioned a variety of arrangements designed to safeguard the ecological basis of their way of life” (193).  Studying the formation of the Adirondack Park by New York State, the federal government’s attempts to manage Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Canyon conservation plans, Jacoby shows how these actions impacted the resident peoples. With the involvement of the military, conservation schemes affected those living in and using the parks, such as those who desired to use the public land for hunting. Conservationists even opposed the supposed American rights to take timber, water, and minerals from the preserved lands. He points out that sometimes, “Americans have often pursued environmental quality at the expense of social justice” (198). In this way, the conservation movement challenged American republicanism and democracy, interfering with traditional conceptions of American rights and living.


An interesting myth that Jacoby also challenges is the myth that conservationists protected unchanging wilderness, when, in fact, conservationism transformed the countryside itself. Fire, hunting laws, and restocking wildlife helped transform the country in this way. With the transformation of nature, the Yellowstone Act of 1872, and the American obsession with claiming property, I agree with Anthony’s statement that these actions “reflect our obsession with fencing off and owning property and reflects our abuse of the world ‘natural.” Yellowstone Park, protected by conservationists, ironically prevented people from performing previously conceived “natural” actions. This irony echoes the discussion we often have in class: whether or not the actions of mankind can be considered natural or not. How do lawmakers and conservationists decide what is natural on one side of the fence when that action can occur without consequence on the other side? I find this absurd. Jacoby’s work made me ponder what is considered a “crime” and how “crime” is truly a man-made concept, easily impacted by lawmakers and evolving ideas about morality and the environment.

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