More of the Same


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I was browsing the news recently and came upon the article, “The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming,” by Josh Harkinson. This article is about “your wilderness on drugs,” and describes how illegal ganja farmers in California nature preserves do great harm to the environment by damming streams, using rodenticides, and intimidating forest service officers. Because pot cultivation is still illegal in California, the government is unable to establish regulations or agricultural infrastructure tailored to the industry’s specific needs. I was drawn to this article because it touches on a lot of the themes we discussed in class this semester. The mostly illegal flow of capital resulting from the expansion of the marijuana industry has changed the landscape of the California wilderness. Like Justin mentioned in his post on Jacoby, the conservation movement in America has been a tale of binaries. In this tradition, we are now seeing a similar binary. The social measures keep marijuana illegal, which is also scientifically antithetical, now threatens scientific considerations in the form of damage to protected ecosystems.  In the future I believe we will see histories much like Jacoby’s on this subject.

Steinburg Does It All


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Ted Steinburg’s all-encompassing book Down to Earth: Nature’s Roll in American History is a sweeping environmental history of America. This is worth pointing out as a merit because this is the first we’ve read with so broad a scope, seeking to include pretty much all of the themes we have examined in American environmental history thus far. I like how he begins the book with a geological history of the land spanning back to the formation of North America out of Pangaea, which shows how our landscape is made up of the same stuff as the other continents. This is also cool because Steinburg takes us from there to the BP oil spill.

I would agree with Manish that space is an important theme in both Steinburg’s work and in this course. We saw in Nature’s Metropolis how capitalism spawned the first skyscrapers in Chicago and annihilated space and time to increase efficiency. In Steinburg this has also come to include waste management, which is still an issue of space today (168).

A Great Way to Wrap up the Course


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This week we read Ted Steinberg’s book Down to Earth and like Sean, I thought it was a great way to finish up the course. While we could have read this at the beginning of the course to really lay out for everyone what environmental history is, I liked reading at the end as a way to sum up everything we’ve been discussing. The book is quite ambitious, detailing the huge role nature has played in all aspects of America’s entire history. For example, in the first part of the book, Steinberg analyzes the process by which New England’s landscape shifted from its original state of being covered in forest as American agriculture expanded.

 

One of the things we’ve been discussing nearly every week is whether the ways Americans have changed the landscape and interacted with nature have been “natural” or not. I prefer to look at the questions in terms of their economic intentions and consequences. So, consider the example of farming in general. I consider a small-scale farmer who simply looks to support himself through agriculture to be participating in a more “natural” interaction with nature than a big industrial farm that is creating food that will be sold to the masses. The lone farmer is simply using the natural resources he needs to survive individually—he is himself a part of the food chain. However, once the intention of the interaction with nature is to participate in the capitalist economy (something created purely by humans), I would consider it to no longer be a “natural” interaction. I am not negatively judging such activity, but I would definitely not consider it all that natural. That kind of interaction between nature and the economy has been my biggest takeaway from the course.

Revisiting Themes through Down to Earth


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In his book Down To Earth, Steinberg writes a stirring but surprisingly persuasive text about the role of the environment in shaping American history. This book reminded me of several themes we have discussed over the course of the semester and also introduced me to several new ways of thinking about how nature has guided the history of the United States.

While reading Down to Earth, I was struck to see how this work connected with numerous other texts we have read this semester. In beginning his narrative with the split of the mega-continent Pangaea 180 million years ago, Steinberg paralleled his history with that of Crosby’s in Ecological Imperialism (3).  Furthermore, Steinberg’s characterization of nature as the primary actor in history has similar qualities with that of Ecological Imperialism. For example, Steinberg notes that after farmlands in New England were abandoned, the old oak and chestnut trees that once stood on the land did not return. Rather, new forests of white pine trees emerged because of their adaptability to growing in open landscapes (53). I found this section reminiscent of Crosby’s discussion of weeds and their ability to grow on land often uninhabitable for other plants.

Steinberg’s book also shared many themes found in Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. First, both authors acknowledge the ability of “industrial capitalism” to redefine perceptions and uses of nature. Steinberg and Cronon even use similar examples, including the evolution of markets for grain and lumber, to demonstrate how capitalism quickly transformed natural resources from entities originally processed in small amounts to mass- produced market commodities (71). Both Steinberg and Cronon also discuss the problems wrought by the uncontrollable consumption of natural resources in American cities. Examples of this include the inability to dispose of garbage in cities like Chicago, and much of this waste was eventually dumped into bodies of water like Lake Michigan (168).

Apart from being able to compare this book with themes presented throughout this semester, I also especially enjoyed reading Steinberg’s chapter “King Climate in Dixie.” While Steinberg’s argument that the climate conditions of the South facilitated slavery is apparent to most historians before approaching history through an environmental lens, it does provide valuable insight into the development slavery in the South. Steinberg provided particularly interesting analysis when discussing how nature precipitated the emergence of the task system of slavery. Due to the partitioning of land into quarter acre lots and the hardiness of the rice crops, slave labor on rice plantations in the Low Country of South Carolina evolved from the gang labor practiced across cotton and tobacco plantations (79). I also found it interesting how Steinberg noted that cotton’s boom in single crop agriculture came after the introduction of Mexican cotton allowed slaves to pick five times as much cotton as they could using green and black staple varieties – this meant more profits for plantation owners (84). This, accompanied with the emergence of the Cotton Belt, helps to bolster Manish’s claim about our desires to exploit with sights only set on the benefits of our actions and not the consequences. As Steinberg indicates, the desire to exploit cotton ultimately led many southern farms to produce cotton as their only crop (83). Eventually, this lack of foresight would cost the South in the Civil War, as cotton farms were incapable of producing food for Confederate soldiers (98). Moreover, this struggle with nature during the Civil War hearkens back to the battles with the environment presented in Brady’s War Upon the Land. With this in mind, Steinberg’s Down to Earth provides an excellent medium through which to reflect on all we have read, discussed, and learned in class this semester.

A Subaltern Environmental History


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Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature is a history that strives to take a look at the underbelly of the Conservation movement in American history. His “bottom-up” approach chronicles the evolution of a moral ecology which straddles the fence between official conservation standards and traditional ecological practices. I would say that this reminds me of the populist politics class I took last semester, except the fact these areas being conserved by the government were too sparsely populated for effective populist action. As a result, the conflict was very one sided and Jacoby notes that the history reflects this as an environmental crusade waged by the “pantheon of Conservationist prophets” (1).

Like Wade, I was also reminded of our discussions about the role of capitalism in shaping environments while reading this book. What I found most interesting about Jacoby’s take on this, however, is the unconventional intersection of morality and capitalism. In this class, the focus when discussing capitalism has been primarily the economic and ecological aspects. Unfortunately, the chances of morality and capitalism working together to create a better method of conservation as they remain “separate guiding stars in a dark night sky” (198).

The Pros of Natural Disasters


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Steven Biel asserts in his introduction, “the essays in this book recognize that disasters generate meaning” (4). The article by Kevin Rozario, titled “What Comes Down Must Go Up,” proposes that disasters portend a boon for American capitalism. Rozario focuses his article on the San Francisco fire and earthquake of 1906, but he also includes many other examples to support his claim. Rozario explains that disasters spark capitalism through a concept termed “creative destruction.” The term creative destruction insinuates, “that modern capitalist systems require the continual obliteration of outmoded goods and structures to clear space and make way for new production and development” (73). Essentially, as Rozario demonstrates using the example of San Francisco in 1906, the destruction of a city offers a clean slate for business. San Francisco had to be rebuilt, and cutting edge technology could be used to make the city better than it had been before. Beneficial financial opportunities abounded for bankers, investors, construction companies, and realtors. The rebuilding of San Francisco, as Rozario describes it, was a boon for capitalism.

Throughout the article, Rozario presents the idea of creative destruction in a positive light. Rozario focuses on the benefits and positive impacts that natural disasters have on capitalism. Then, in a sudden turn of events, Rozario concludes “the benefits, however, have not been spread equally, and we all have to find a way to live with and under a capitalist system that must constantly destroy to create, and at times seems to create solely in order to destroy” (96). I think this is a very valid point, but it is extremely underdeveloped in Rozario’s article. The conclusion leaves the reader wondering whether or not Rozario believes natural disasters have an overall positive effect on capitalism. As Manish notes in his post, humans have the opportunity to adapt to natural disasters. For much of the article, it seems as though Rozario is arguing that American capitalism has adapted and improved because of natural disasters. The closing paragraph, however, seems to question the entirety of his article. As previously mentioned, I think Rozario’s conclusion makes for an interesting discussion. The problem is that Rozario does not begin the discussion about the negative aspects caused by natural disasters in capitalist America, and instead leaves it entirely to the reader. The closing paragraph appears in complete opposition to the rest of the article, and Rozario offers no evidence to support his concluding claim.

Although it was not discussed in my particular chapter, I was intrigued by the statement in the introduction that “there are no chapters here about wars, which are the most devastating of all disasters, because somehow wars are perceived as a separate category of experience and a separate subject for study” (4). While I would agree that wars are not a natural disaster, I think that wars should still be considered at least a subcategory of disaster. Wars devastate the human population, infrastructure, marketplaces, and the order of everyday life just like natural disasters. Obviously wars are the result of human decisions, and not a natural occurrence outside of human control, but nevertheless they certainly constitute some type of disaster.

Cronon and Interconnectedness


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Cronon speaks using binaries–country/city, commodity/not commodity, first nature/second nature. While individuals (a majority of the class) found Cronon’s use of a “first” nature and a “second” nature to be less than helpful, Parts II and III of his work make his distinction of the two natures all the more clear. In my opinion, Cronon loosely uses these terms for his reader to understand the connections and shifts that happened in the nineteenth century.

In the latter two thirds of his book, Cronon nuances his readers’ understanding(s) of the impacts of railroads and trains. He states, “The train did not create the city by itself. Stripped of the rhetoric that made it seem a mechanical deity, the railroad was simply a go-between whose chief task was to cross the boundary between city and country” (97). The train connected urban and rural areas. Is Cronon suggesting the rise of cities acted as a go-between for humanity and nature? Nineteenth-century cities were test-runs. Either way, cities and a “controlled” and “healthier” version of nature could not exist without the other.

How would humanity and nature with the rise of capitalism learn to coexist? Cronon argues that in order to understand this, all stories must be told. He insists, “But one can understand neither Chicago nor the Great West if one neglects to tell their stories altogether. What often seem separate narratives finally converge in a larger tale of people reshaping the land to match their collective vision of its destiny” (369). Thus, here exists another binary. I use the term “binary,” because that is how Cronon presents them, but in the end, he de-bunks his representation and suggests what most of our discussions end on each week–humanity and nature are more interconnected than most think. To further add to my point, think back to last week’s discussion about water politics. Ian stated, “Some might argue that the Erie Canal being man-made removes it from nature, but the water that fills it and the first that inhabit it are both indicative of this waterways places within the environment.” Cronon suggests that commodification and the rise of capitalism came about thanks to the agricultural system. Trains and railroads facilitated this change in a passenger’s seat position. Humanity and nature can no longer (and most likely never could) be mutually exclusive.

The relationship between humanity and nature is constantly being reworked and re-positioned. Cronon talks about Chicago’s temporary gateway status. He states, “Gateway status was temporary, bound to the forces of market expansion, environmental degradation, and self-induced competition that first created and then destroyed the gateway’s utility to the urban-rural system as a whole” (377). Thus, Cronon suggests there was (and is) a cyclical component. This interpretation is a great segue into future class discussions about humans and natural disasters.

We speak using generalizing terms, but when paired with nuanced examples and complex interpretations, deeper meanings arise to this too often glossed-over relationship. His book gets off to a slow start, but comes full-circle in the end.

 

The Fatal Flaw of The Fatal Environment


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After reading Slotkin’s The Fatal Environment, I was impressed but unconvinced with Slotkin’s concept of the “Frontier Myth.” While Slotkin provides an extremely thorough examination of how the “myth” of the frontier has been molded to explain Westward expansion, I think the breadth of his work makes some parts of his narrative superfluous.

Much like Ian, I found Slotkin’s Part III – “The Metropolis vs. The Frontier” to be one of his most effective sections. I would like to add to Ian’s analysis that while Slotkin argues that “humanity does in fact exist in nature,” I think Slotkin also believes that in the minds of nineteenth century American industrialists, humans were very separate from nature (iasolcz). This is seen in “The Language of the Frontier Myth” when Slotkin discusses the dispossession of Native Americans. While arguing that Indians were human despite white industrialist ideas that assumed otherwise, Slotkin outlines nature as something “primarily inhuman” (79). He asserts that throughout the Indian wars and American industrialization, the myth emerged that an inherent struggle existed between this inhuman realm and that of human “civilization,” and that it was this conflict that fueled tensions during Westward expansion (79).

Additionally, Part III set the framework for the remainder of Slotkin’s narrative by juxtaposing both perceptions of the frontier in popular culture – as found in many of Cooper’s novels – and the expansion of democracy and politics to the West with the idea of a separate, civilized “Metropolis” that dominated American culture (109-110). I thought this section was particularly interesting because it covered similar topics to our previous readings, particularly Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.” Unlike Turner, however, Slotkin emphasizes the expansion of the frontier as a result of the specific economic, political, and national concerns that emerged within the Metropolis. For example, he ties the spread over the frontier in the 1840s to the increased prevalence of “‘Jacksonian’ ideology” in the early nineteenth century (114).

Slotkin’s section on the railroad also relates to our reading of William Cronon and the development of Chicago in Nature’s Metropolis. Both Slotkin and Cronon emphasize the importance of human actors in bringing change to the environment. They also argue that the development of the railroad and the opening of the frontier was a direct result of the injection of capitalist ideals into the economy –this brings us back to Cronon’s “geography of capitalism” (15, 26). Like Slotkin notes, railroads made access to “nodes of superabundance” increasingly easy (211). However, Slotkin also seems to take Cronon’s analysis one step further and questions whether capitalism might have molded the perception of the railroad opening the frontier. While questions like this are certainly intriguing, this kind of curiosity from Slotkin ultimately turned me away from his narrative. I think these questions detracted too much from an environmental history and instead created a massive study in historical psychology. This was only furthered when Slotkin included his chapters on George Custer. Although the story of Custer’s Last Stand was an effective lens to introduce perceptions of the frontier in the nineteenth century, Slotkin’s perpetuation of the hero myth throughout the book seemed to be a thoughtful, but unnecessary addition to his main argument.

William Cronon’s Changes in the Land


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In Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, Cronon uses a two-pronged approach to understand how the ecological and cultural changes in New England during colonization. The changes in modes of production between Indian and European dominance are central to his thesis, which contends that the complex ecological and cultural relationships are tied directly to the influence of capitalism in early America. Capitalism drove the most robust changes in not only how the Europeans treated and organized the land, but also how the New England Indians reacted to these changes. Though, “capitalism and environmental degradation went hand in hand,” Cronon makes it a point to show that the Indians also shaped their environment, for better or for worse, just as the Europeans did. (14)

To construct an ecological history, the backbone of evidence came from descriptions made by travelers and naturalists. Part of the difficulty in using this wealth of information was judging both their naturalist skills and ideological commitments. (6) Also, the patchwork nature of local descriptions means they cannot be perfectly representative of a regional landscape. Another source is court, town, or legislative records, but they are more vague. However, these can still be used for relatively accurate accounts of deforestation, the keeping of livestock, conflicts between Indians and colonists over property boundaries, the extermination of predators such as wolves, and similar matters.

For Cronon, part of the challenge of writing this book was using ecological evidence outside of the historical discipline. For example, Ecologists have analyzed tree rings, charcoal deposits, rotting trunks and stumps to discover the history of New England woodlands. (7) Archaeological evidence can be used to assess human interactions with their environment over time. He does a very convincing job at seamlessly weaving the different disciplines together.

Changes in the Land is split into six different sections pertaining to the ecological transformations of New England. The first section focuses on Indian manipulation of the landscape before European contact. He emphasizes that while Europeans first encountering New England believed that they were seeing forests and habitats unchanged by humans, the environment had in fact been modified by the same people for over 10,000 years. Rather than being passive beneficiaries of a virgin landscape, the Indians (and later the Europeans) “sought to give their landscape a new purposefulness, often by simplifying its seemingly chaotic tangle.”(33) The most significant instance of this was the practice of periodically burning the underbrush to make the topography more manageable on foot. The Indians of Southern New England also practiced agriculture, resulting in an ecological patchwork.

The periodicity of New England’s temperate ecosystem resulted in a mobile way of life for the Indians. However, “English fixity sought to replace Indian mobility.”(53) The Indian way resulted in more ephemeral housing and landscape alterations. When the English settled in what were empty settlements, the Indians returned with the season to find the place they knew was gone. The conflict was over two ways of living and using the seasons of the year, and it expressed itself in how two peoples conceived of property, wealth, and boundaries on the landscape.

The landscape was directly affected by different concepts of property and ownership. The Indian idea of property involved co-ownership, or basically no ownership, and resulted in open forests pockmarked by communal fields tended by the women. The English idea of ownership introduced hedges and fences, and established roads and massive pastures for domesticated animals. The deforestation that went along with the English concept of property ownership and land usage changed the ecosystem where it occurred drastically. The English saw it as the “progress of cultivation” rather than deforestation. (126)

The commodification of resources in New England based on capitalist principles not only brought colonists in large enough numbers to transfer epidemic diseases, but also changed how the Indians hunted. Before the introduction of a demand for furs, Indians took only what they needed because a mobile lifestyle did not lend itself to accumulation of wealth. This created needs and wants which were not present in the Indian mode of production before.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.