The Myths of Conservationism


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After reading Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation I reached a similar conclusion as Brandon. In his post Brandon talks about how Jacoby was able to successfully present a viable alternative narrative to both the ideas of wilderness in relationship to mankind and the conservation movement as a whole. This alternative view was one that was put forward by middle and low income individuals rather than elites who had usually dominated the conversation. This dominance by elites was a major reason why the stories and beliefs of the lower class members of society were largey overlooked in historical analysis and is why Jacoby’s book was particularly attractive to me.

What I really appreciated about his book were the myths of the conservation movement that he presented in the epilogue. The conservation movement many times is labeled as an honorable movement. While many acknowledged that it was never as successful as was originally hoped, the original goals were pure. However, Jacoby with his myth busting aims helps the reader understand some of the flaws in the foundation of conservasionism.

The first myth was that the belief that rural folk who were squatting or poaching on the land “did as they pleased with the natural world.” (193) This was not true. Jacoby argued that these rural folk has a greater understanding of ecological preservation than those in the cities gave them credit for. They established systems so as not to harm beyond repair the environments on which they relied upon. This did not mean that rural folks did no harm or that their systems successfully brought order to  chaotic situation. Instead Jacoby asserted that these rural folks should not be labeled as the enemy to the movement.

Another important myth that Jacoby tries to debunk is the idea of conserved spaces as natural. This is an idea that we have talked about on multiple ocassions this semester. Jacoby does a good job of revealing the manufactured nature of these “natural” conservatories. While conservationists argued that the protection of spaces from industrial and commercial interests would keep those spaces natural, Jacoby argued that the imposition of legal rules and the managerial role of state made the space inherently unnatural. The environment in these places was controlled and thus the natural processes of the area were not allowed to flow unimpeded.

The final myth that Jacoby discusses has to do with the belief that science and the state need to be used to protect the environment from the rural folk. Jacoby however, saw this flawed belief as revealing  a hidden theme in conservation history. This was the promotion of environmental justice over social justice. The needs of people such as the squatters were overlooked in exchange for the protection of abstract notions such as wilderness and nature, ideas that can be perceived differerntly throughout the nation. It is also ironic that science was being promoted as a possible solution to natural degredation, for the rise of industrialism ( a result of both the natural and social sciences) was a major contributor to the deterioization of the environement that prompted a conservasion movement. With this perspective it should not have been the rural folk who were restricted but those who actually created the problem. By exploring these myths and presenting alternative perspectives Jacoby has done a good job of painting a greater picture of conservatism and revealing the unstudied aspect of the subject.

The Literature of the Environment


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The Fatal Environment by Richard Slotkin takes an unconventional approach to analyzing environmental history, using the lens of 19th century myths in literal works and newspapers to hone in on what the frontier truly was. Through his analysis, Slotkin references the debate that we are continually having in class, what is nature and the sub questions that have come with this ongoing debate? Using the Western Frontier as his study of nature, he says “it is divided between two realms: the “Metropolis,” the civilizational center; and the “Wilderness,” into which the heroic energies of the Metropolis are projected (41). In breaking down Slotkin’s definition, we can see his position in that humanity does in fact exist in nature, as human heroics are allowed to tread there. But, he also seems to clearly state that the more sophisticated and advanced members of society leaving the more “primitive” to extend their travels into the unknown and resource filled wilderness, which for him is somewhat synonymous with nature.

Slotkin’s ideas on the west, and thereby nature, being more primitive are further represented in his piece when referencing the classic captivity and hunter narrative that are so prevalent in many 19th century literary works. In describing this narrative, Slotkin indicates that the frontier was one of “regression” civilized men and women leave contemporary society, and enter- willingly or as captive- a primitive, primal world (63). Though nature under Slotkin’s school of thought does contain a human hand, it also represents a digression from the promise of industrialization in the cities into the dangerous and often Native American inhabited frontier.

For some though, this journey into the frontier and away from the “civilized” society of the city was not a bad thing, but something of a rebirth. Slotkin indicates through the narrative of Sam Houston that the frontier often offered a renewal to men who had suffered “moral or material ruin” in the struggles of the metropolis (163). For Houston, this is exactly what happened, and after living with the Cherokee Indians and learned “Nature’s truths” he emerged from his journey to embark upon his most memorable feats in the war for Texas’s Independence from Mexico. Though he may have entered the “primitive land” to live with Native Americans, Houston never lost his more sophisticated teachings, continuing to read literary works, thereby displaying his status what Slotkin coins as a “natural aristocrat” (163).

As this is the first post for this week, I thought it would be a good idea to connect Slotkin’s work to one of the overarching questions of our class, that being about nature as an “actor.” Through Slotkin’s usage of literature as a lens to analyze environmental history, I believe he does a great job of framing nature as an actor in the cultural development of the United States, specifically as the antagonist of the story. Throughout the piece, Slotkin identifies the frontier, thereby the most “natural” part of the United States as an uncivilized and primitive environment. Under this understanding, the natural landscape of the United States becomes not only the antagonist of the story, but something that must be overcome and conquered in order for society to blossom. Through his descriptions of nature being an entity that must overcome and conquered, Slotkin casts the natural environment of the West (the frontier) as somewhat of an organic creature, one that actively fights against the progressions of American culture.