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 Fatal Environment: White Supremacy and Myth

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Myth and history are not mutually exclusive. Richard Slotkin provides his own definition of myth in The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. “Myths are stories, drawn from history, that have acquired through usage over many generations a symbolizing function that is central to the cultural functioning of the society that produces them,” writes Slotkin. (16) His work rests on the foundation that myth is an essential part of history, shaping, influencing, and molding a culture’s perception of its own history and past. Slotkin’s main thesis revolves around the idea that the glorified myth of the frontier on the eve of the industrial age was in fact a warped vision of the true history of the frontier.

I almost found Slotkin’s argument, though believable, to be repetitive. He argues that the history of the frontier was not a completely romanticized dream, but a story about white supremacy and racial superiority. The doctrine adopted to white man’s treatment of the West revolved around converting savages and suppressing their otherness. Frontier ideology, epitomized by James Fenimore Cooper, “centered on the representation of the history of American development as the confrontation between warring races, Indian and white.” (100) Slotkin then goes on to explain, “In the triumph of the white and the vanishing of the red, the progress of civilization is achieved, in both moral and material terms.” (100) White Americans viewed the conquering of the Indian in the West as an ultimate conquer over nature, for Americans regarded the Indians as an integral part of nature and the wilderness itself. I agree with Ian that “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.” In class, we often discuss the possibility that mankind and their workings are as much a part of nature as any other animal. Looking through a twenty-first century lens, I could find support in Slotkin’s work that man is in fact a part of nature and the wilderness. Looking through a nineteenth century looking-glass, however, it might have been hard to consider Native American Indians as “mankind” when they were so often looked upon as savages.

Slotkin’s discussion on the conquering of nature reminds me of different aspects of human nature. Men are afraid of defeat, afraid of destruction. When white Americans sought a controlled nature and suppression of the Indian race, it was due to their fear of the “Custer Complex.”  This complex was based off of the drive to conquer men and nature at any cost. Americans feared a defeat similar to the defeat of General George Custer by the Sioux. They also used Custer’s defeat as justification to rid of the Indian population to “protect or avenge the imperiled female.” (377) Slotkin argues that Custer’s defeat became a prominent legend of American West mythology. (14) Not only did the loss become a part of American myth and legend, but also placed itself within a conversation of gender and racial discrimination. Slotkin’s literary and historical approach in his work present interesting arguments in a somewhat unusual way, but his thesis does not extensively add to a new historical argument about white supremacy and oppression.