Ecology of Fear: Human Agency and Nature Result in A Wave of Fear and Anxiety

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Environmental histories seem to stress the relationship between human actions and their impact on the environment. Often, the relationship involves human exploitation of nature and the consequences that arise.

Mike Davis’s work is no different. His Ecology of Fear presents a similar discussion on human agency in nature. Davis opens his book with a quote from the Los Angeles Times that hints at the hope awarded to the city of Los Angeles in 1934: “No place on Earth offers greater security to life and greater freedom from natural disasters than Southern California.” The first six chapters of this book demonstrate only irony associated with this statement. Davis describes the natural disasters that hit southern California today and finds roots in past human agency that caused the current catastrophes. Los Angeles has such a varied plant life, landscape, and weather, and human settlement and agency combined with this diversity impacted the city greatly. While human actors play a large role in this narrative, natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fire wreak havoc on LA. To recover from the disasters, money must be spent to rebuild the destroyed buildings impacted by disaster. A circle of chaos emerges, where money is spent to keep fixing disaster-stricken Los Angeles while the problems that cause the disasters never get fixed. Take, for example, the “total fife suppression” caused by placing fuel stockpiles near homes and allowing dry winds to wreak havoc on houses (101).

Davis’ central claim is that the citizens of Los Angeles have imagined disasters through a lens of fear and misunderstanding, resulting in a society that is catastrophically and consistently out of balance with the environment. He argues that, for a time, Los Angeles was not affected by some of the disasters like other places. This changed, however. In the first chapter, he argues that disaster in Los Angeles will result in “higher body counts and greater distress” in the future” (55).

The second chapter deals with the “selfish, profit-driven” attitudes that took over southern California, despite the people that warned against doom. Chapter three connects wildfires in Malibu with urban tenement houses that burned to the ground and received little media attention compared to the upscale city. He essentially connects environmental disasters with social inequalities. Chapter four focuses on tornadoes and the secretiveness of their existence, although they experience tornadoes at a rate twice as high as Oklahoma City. In chapter five, he discusses a growing fear of mountain lions and other animals as urban sprawl occurred and mankind moved in on the wilderness. In Chapter six, he discusses the “disaster genre” in cinema and literature. Specifically he talks about the Asian hordes, aliens, monsters, bombs, cults, pollution, gangs, terrorism, floods, riots, volcanoes, sandstorms, mudslides, and plagues that frequently attack Los Angeles, and how this pop-culture reflects racial anxieties.

Davis finishes up his work with a discussion on how Los Angeles will eventually become an urban city of homeless people, violence, blue-collar crime suburb, affluent gated communities, and prisons surrounding the outskirts. He bases his beliefs on the current situation in LA that involves southern Californians giving up civil liberties to curb social fears and keep them at bay. He updates Ernest W. Burgess’ urban zone diagram from the 1920s, building on the social hierarchy of the city and the zones they occupy.

His work is left wing and political while also adding an interesting analysis of human nature as a whole. He appears to place more emphasis on mankind as the main actor and decision maker in a place where disaster and catastrophe are a normal occurrence in the environment. It is where humans decide to live, what they decide to do, that causes issues.

Davis does a nice job of creating a direct relationship between man and nature. One seems to directly affect the other. Humans impact their environment in a negative way through their market-driven, individualistic attitudes. The environment wreaks havoc on society, creating fear and paranoia that also reflects social attitudes of the times.  Davis sums it up referencing Henry David Thoreau’s work by calling Los Angeles “Walden Pond on LSD.” (14) Mother Nature should not be blamed for disaster, he says. Instead, wonder why humans decide to live in the path of disaster and what this can tell us about societal values and concerns. He decides to make nature an important actor in his work, but emphasizes that humans are the bigger actors at play here with their societal anxieties and public policy. Society can be just as chaotic as nature.

The Role of Nature and Human Agency in American History

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The Prologue of Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History ends with a statement that refers to a discussion consistently brought up in class: “Suddenly the earth itself becomes an actor, a force to be reckoned with, instead of a simple line drawing inside a book’s cover.” (7) In his book, Steinberg makes nature a significant player in America’s history since the beginning. Justin makes an interesting point that “history cannot be told without all the key players, and these key players do not always involve animate actors.” This seems to be one of Steinberg’s main points in his work. Working forward from Pangaea, Steinberg argues that Americans ultimately shaped their environments through the commodification of nature. In this American history textbook, Steinberg describes the settlement of the country, the surveying of the land, and the rise of commercialism to depict both the implications of human action and natural phenomenon on American history.

Something I found particularly interesting about Steinberg’s book is that he makes some interesting points about Native Americans and their relationship with nature. He makes a comment that early in American history, Indians were intimately aware of the environment around them and their rituals reflected their dependence on nature. Steinberg states, “they farmed the soil, hunted game, set fires, and gathered berries and nuts, engaging in a spiritually rich relationship with the land, while shaping it to meet the needs of everyday survival” (11). This resourceful and spiritual relationship with nature describes the kind of Indian connection with the environment I am used to reading in typical history textbooks. Steinberg acknowledges this unique Native American connection with nature, but also argues that they eventually began to see nature as a commodity as they became more and more influenced by American habits and presence. For example, the Cheyennes began to acquire more horses than needed. Indians, Steinberg argues, contributed to their own demise by keeping tens of thousands of horses, more than the land could support. (123) He therefore argues that a combination of human agency and environmental factors played a role in the demise of peoples and in the annihilation of space as humans began to use nature in ways beyond those needs required for survival.

Steinberg doesn’t simply blame human agency for the use and overuse of resources and the exploitation of land. Steinberg emphasizes that nature played a huge role in the development of American history. His statement at the end of Chapter 8 wraps up this main argument: “plants and animals are not merely a backdrop of history. They are living things that have needs that make demands on the land. Sometimes the land lives up to the task, and sometimes, because of a variety of factors both human and nonhuman, those needs outstrip the ability of the environment to provide.” (123) His interesting textbook on American environmental history not only contributes to some of our main discussions on actors, Native Americans, and the role of human agency, but also sheds new light and perspective on our conversations.

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.

The Domination and Geography of Capital in the Industrialization of Chicago

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William Cronon, in Parts II and III of Nature’s Metropolis, discusses the movement of natural materials to market and the movement of capital, products, and people within the context of industrializing Chicago. Grain, lumber, and meat become major natural materials to pass through Chicago. Cronon writes about the importance of farmers to Chicago and that without the farmers, there would be no city. With the help of the railroads, farmers transported and provided efficient access to new areas. The creation of the elevator caused technology to replace individual workers. With these railroads and new technology, access to wood became easier and more expansive. People began to look towards Chicago for lumber. Essentially, nature was transferred to capital. And, more importantly, not “wasting” land, meat, or capital was priority. This idea of the movement of natural materials emphasizes one of Cronon’s main theses in his work on the rise of Chicago: The geography of capital was as important as the geography of nature.

Cronon also discusses the importance of Chicago as a “Gateway City.” Not only was it a gateway city for the West, but also for the eastern cities attempting to benefit from the commodities and flow of exchange from the West. Because of Chicago’s exchange between what Cronon refers to as “first” and “second” nature, “the commodities that flowed across the grasslands and forests of the Great West to reach Chicago did so within an elaborate human network that was at least as important as nature in shaping the region.” (264) Cronon also argues that Chicago as a new metropolis revealed the importance of railroads, elevators, and refrigerator cars to the West (265). Although competing with surrounding cities like St. Louis, Chicago flourished as the gateway between the Northern/European capitalist economy and the colonizing West. (295) Mail-order catalogs in 1872 allowed for the technological combinations of “railroads, urban manufacturing, wholesaling, improved postal service, and advertising” to be delivered anywhere. (333) With Chicago’s rise as a metropolis, Cronon argues, the geography of capital was about connecting people to make new markets and remake old landscapes and therefore “capital produced a landscape of obscured connections.” (340)

In the Epilogue, Cronon argues that Chicago caused its own demise as a metropolis in some ways. For example, opening a market in the region encouraged human migration, environmental changes, and economic developments that gave rise to other great cities, diminishing its competitiveness. Reading about Chicago and its rise as a great city dependent on the exchange between nature and capital made me think about our discussions of nature and changing landscapes. I am solidified even more in my opinion that humans allow capital to rule their lives and that sometimes the environment is affected by such decisions completely dependent on attempting to gain as much capital as possible from the endeavor. This reminds me of a comment Justin made last week about how “industrialization consumes American lives.” “Wasting” capital appeared to be more important than “wasting” nature, such as the white pine, though they were so intertwined in the development of the industrializing city. Eventually, however, the pursuit of capital experienced its limits and Chicago, as a gateway city, no longer fulfilled that status. I agree with Cronon’s view that we fool ourselves when we think of choosing between the city and the country and that we often forget how they fully shape each other. We must understand both the city and the country to realize they are one and we as humans are a part of one entity.

The Bond between Nature and Industry

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Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated provided an interesting and convincing argument about the significance of water in the development of nineteenth century New England. One way in which I think Steinberg was so effective in presenting his claims was through his linking the growth of industry with transforming views about nature. In his first chapter, Steinberg outlines the ways water was used for commerce and for navigation throughout the eighteenth century. He then contrasts this utilization of water with that of the burgeoning textile industry that emerged in New England and created a demand for waterpower (59). As more textile companies flocked to the Charles and Merrimack Rivers, this demand for waterpower – and thus for control of the water – spiked. As Steinberg clearly indicates, the competition fostered by industrial capitalism soon “necessitated” the privatization of water (46). The agreements over who was entitled to water quickly fostered the idea that water was no longer a force of nature, but rather it “turned water into an instrument” (49). In this way Steinberg asserts that without the forces of industrial capitalism in New England, it is unlikely that water would have become viewed as merely a means to earn profits. Competition throughout industry accelerated ideas about controlling natural resources – in this case water – and consequently distorted nineteenth century views of nature.

In response to Manish’s post, I largely agree with his commentary that man can never divorce himself from nature. However, I would argue that industrialization – at least in the eyes of Steinberg – did “conquer” nature. While humans remain reliant upon nature and can fall victim to its elements, I think that the force of industrialization in New England “conquered” water in such a way that the resource could not return to its original state. An example of this occurs when Steinberg discusses attempts to restock fish populations in the Merrimack. Although efforts to privatize fish and restock waters in New England were largely failures, the attempts demonstrated how nature was so tightly woven into “human agendas” and how people strove to “redesign nature” to fit their economic needs (203-204). These endeavors, compounded with the pollution of rivers discussed by Ian, illustrated how humans had, in effect, conquered nature.

Lastly, I thought that it worked in Steinberg’s favor to narrow the focus of his narrative to New England. While we have largely criticized this approach in class, especially for the last two books we have read, Steinberg does well to articulate the importance of selecting New England. He asserts that the Merrimack Valley held systems for controlling water that were unprecedented in the nineteenth century, and he states that the valley was at the “heartland of waterpowered industry” (95, 243). Unlike previous authors, Steinberg was also able to reiterate that his study centered only on the industry of New England. With that being said, the case of industrial and urban development in nineteenth century New England was so dynamic that we could likely find elements of this type of water and environmental politics throughout the United States. An example that came to my mind was the Chicago described by Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis. Much like Chicago forged the frontier and created a new kind of ecological development in the Midwest, Steinberg argues that the industrial capitalism of New England established a new “ecological relations” with water (11). I found that Steinberg, akin to Cronon, effectively demonstrated how industry transformed not only the environment, but also human perceptions of nature in nineteenth century America.

War on the Mississippi

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In War Upon the Land, Lisa Brady seeks to show us how much nature influenced Northern incursions on Southern soil during the Civil War. According to her, nature influenced Northern strategy in key regions a great deal. For this reason, she labels nature as an historical agent with the power to shape human decisions. She doesn’t go as far as Linda Nash in ascribing some sort of consciousness to nature, but she does manage to tie nature to both strategy and the war’s causes.

Manish’s point about the significance of perceptions of land usage and wilderness ties Lisa Brady’s argument to larger 19th century ideas of progress and industry. These cultural ideas about nature informed the Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan’s strategic planning. This includes the idea that control over nature is possible through the application of science and technology. In this context, agriculture presents a means for improving or civilizing nature. And most important of all, despite these perceived powers over nature, controlling nature is difficult and liable to be undermined in an inexhaustible variety of ways. For example, despite all of the North’s successes in canal building over the course of the 19th century, Sherman wrote of the Siege of Vicksburg, “The Mississippi River was very high and rising, and we began that system of canals on which we expended so much hard work fruitlessly” (43).

War Upon the Land and The Assumption that Man Can Control Nature

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Nineteenth century Americans assumed that they could take control of nature and succeed in achieving their goals. In War Upon the Land, Lisa Brady confronted this American assumption by studying the ways in which the Union military attempted to play around with natural forces in order to defeat the Confederates in the Civil War. What amounted in Union attempts, however, was often pure hubris and failure to control nature. Brady provides the reader with the example of Vicksburg, where Union soldiers intended to tunnel under it, control the Mississippi river, and cause its isolation for Confederate destruction. The Union soldiers did in fact take the stronghold, but by fighting a gruesome battle and not by controlling nature. Their attempt to, what Brady calls, “neutralize nature,” did not succeed in this example. (35)

This assumption that man could control nature is tied to another idea that Brady discusses in her work. In her introduction, Brady clarifies that to “improve” nature, meant essentially to “civilize.” (11) This idea echoes our past discussions in class about the relationship between Americans and the wilderness. It also reminds me of Richard Slotkin’s arguments about white supremacy, the belief that natives symbolized an embodiment of the malevolent force of nature, and that the white man could bring nature under his control. Like our conversations about Native Americans and the wilderness and white Americans’ perception of both, white Northern Americans in the Civil War attributed the institution of slavery to something uncivilized and wild. I found her argument about white Northerners looking down upon southerners as uncivilized folk and using that as justification for fighting such a bloody war to prove interesting. Just like Americans must conquer and civilize the wilderness, the North must conquer and civilize the South by demolishing its abhorrent institution of slavery.

Destroying the South’s backbone of life and commerce, essentially, led to the Confederate loss and, like Emily stated, ensured that the South could not return to its previous state before the war (135). Brady referred to it as destroying the “agroecological foundations” of the South. (23) When supplies had to be left behind, the military was forced to live off the land, further stripping the Confederates of their resources. Nature seemed to be working against the Union military in their attempts to starve and destroy the southern way of life. Mosquitoes carrying diseases wreaked havoc on Union soldiers and rivers flooded impeding Northern movement.  It was as if nature was fighting back against an arrogant species that believed nature was easily and justifiably conquerable. I found Brady’s work to be an interesting and insightful take on the destruction of Sherman and the Shenandoah and Mississippi River campaigns. I thought her work was essentially an argument of how nature shaped human decisions and how those decisions greatly impacted the outcome of the war.

Nature: Whose Side Are You On?

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I thought one of the most intriguing aspects of Lisa M. Brady’s War Upon the Land was her depiction of General Sherman’s famed march through Georgia and the Carolinas. Growing up I heard a lot about Sherman’s destructive march from Atlanta to Savannah, including many comparisons ending with “like Sherman went through Georgia.” That said, none of my classes ever delved beneath the surface of Sherman’s Civil War-defining march. I really enjoyed the varying eyewitness perspectives that Brady provided on Sherman’s march, including Union, Confederate, and civilian accounts of the destruction. I was not surprised that the Union and Confederate soldiers disagreed over the morality of Sherman’s tactics, but I was fascinated by Brady’s assertion that the morality dispute could be traced back to the Roman military in Britain in 84 AD (p. 127). In a sense, this dispute hinges largely on whether people are considered to exist in nature or separate from it–a discussion we have had several times already. If humans exist in nature, then the argument can be made that the destruction of the land is acceptable since, by extension, the land is associated with the people. If humans exist outside of nature, however, then attacking the land would seem to be the equivalent of assailing an innocent bystander. During our in-class discussions we have failed to reach a consensus on the relationship between humans and nature, and this may indicate why from the time of the Romans through the Civil War and even into the present day people still cannot agree on the morality of land destruction during war.

Wherever one sides on this issue, the regenerative power of nature cannot be denied. Even though many soldiers documented the destruction of the land in Georgia and the Shenandoah Valley, immediately following the war many Southerners returned to their land and set to work restoring some resemblance of the agricultural order that existed before the war. Brady writes about Randolph Barton, who returned home to the Shenandoah Valley in 1865 and “his sword was turned into a pruning hook” (p. 133). The Confederates could not afford to dwell upon their defeat, as they relied upon the land for their livelihood. As a result, the land healed much quicker than most soldiers involved in the war ever imagined.

When reading Brady’s book, I agree with Manish that nature needs to be understood as its own person. Throughout her work, Brady details the importance of the landscape in terms of Confederate defenses at cities such as Vicksburg and Savannah. Likewise, Brady details the difficulties Sherman’s army faced traveling through South Carolina due to the many swamps and marshy areas. Furthermore, the diseases transmitted by mosquitoes during the hot summer months inflicted a great toll on the Union forces throughout the war. Because of the impact of nature on the Civil War, it is very helpful to think of nature as a third party in the war–one without a rooting interest. At different times during the war nature seemed to favor both the Union and the Confederacy, but it was really just an uninterested third party acting on whatever army it came into contact with.

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Lisa Brady’s War upon the Land is an excellent piece of environmental history which analyzes the various ways in which nature shaped the course of the Civil War, specifically when cast as the “enemy” of the Union Army. Brady notes from the start of her piece how another historian, Linda Nash, describes nature in a somewhat conscious manner, indicating that it has the power to shape human decisions (6). Throughout the piece, Brady references this idea through her analysis of military strategy, noting how the weather and environment of a region could significantly alter the army’s direction. One such instance of this is through her description of the Mississippi River as a great theatre for war. Due to the placement of the Mississippi within the confines of the United States and the importance of this waterway as a centerpiece for trade and travel, this area was destined to be a focal point which both armies lobbied to control (26). We see in this description how nature shaped the course of human action instead of humans themselves. As a result of this river being so important to trade and travel, the region for conflict was chosen by nature and not by military strategists. Though the leaders of both armies chose to attack/defend this region because of its importance, this was a predetermined decision based off the environment’s natural design.

Though the environment often shaped human decisions, Brady notes throughout the piece, but specifically in her chapter about Sherman’s March how actively humans fought to control it. In describing the tactics behind Sherman’s March, Brady states how its goal was to gain “control over the landscape,” specifically the natural aspects of the region (95). Yet, Brady also notes how nature was an incredibly hostile force towards either army, but specifically the Union forces in this situation. She notes how the “terrain, weather, and disease” were as threatening or more so than any force that Sherman’s army met on the field of battle (95). Through this perspective, Brady indicates two characteristics of nature and its relationship with humanity. First, like Nash did with her comments on nature shaping human decision, Brady places some human characteristics onto nature, as she casts it as an enemy to Sherman. Though not conscious like in Nash’s interpretation, Brady’s perspective describes nature as much more than a stagnant figure within human interactions.

Secondly, Brady indicates the power of nature against humanity, as she references it as stronger than any army Sherman faced. Nature’s ability to kill thousands with disease or disasters is significantly stronger than any bullet or cannon ball, as it remains an unrelenting force which cannot be killed. Brady references this seeming immortality of nature towards the end of her piece, which indicates humanity’s insignificant amount of power in relation to nature’s own. Quoting John Muir, Brady describes how even after all the natural devastation as a side-effect of war; nature continues to regenerate from the wastelands, thereby displaying its eternality (136-137). Though many people might argue that this does not happen today, we have noted in class how buildings are often taken over by nature within a few years, further indicating nature’s supremacy.

I completely agree with Manish’s points about nature being something beyond human control. As is clear through my previous comments about Sherman’s efforts to annihilate the southern landscape, no matter how much he destroyed, nature inevitably reclaimed its hold on the area, displaying its superiority to humanity. Though I agree with this definition, I believe it needs to be expanded to incorporate humans living in harmony with nature, as we have seen this theme exist in countless works this semester. Whether we agree with human ecological alteration or not, it is evident that humans have and will for the foreseeable future remain a part of the natural ecosystem of the world, indicating their place within it. As a result of this, though humans may not control nature, there exists a place within the “wilderness” for them to coexist with their surroundings, offering a different perspective than the more hierarchical relationship that Brady presents.

Supplementary Text Book Review – Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America

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Jennifer L. Anderson’s book Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America focuses on the rise and fall of mahogany as a luxury commodity in North America from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, a period that came to be called the “Age of Mahogany.”[1]In establishing the framework of her book, Anderson states the history of mahogany can only be understood by assessing the interaction between the nature from which mahogany came and the humans responsible for its eventual commoditization. With this in mind, Anderson argues that the history of the production of mahogany is one of creative and destructive transformation, and that this production came at a high price.[2]

Anderson introduces mahogany as a one in a long list of Caribbean commodities, but claims that certain characteristics of mahogany made it distinctive from the history of other luxury goods that emerged in the West Indies. First, mahogany was durable and scarce. This meant that unlike consumable goods such as sugar and coffee, this resource could endure several generations of use and, if destroyed, could not easily be replaced. Additionally, mahogany had already derived significant value as a war material in both Spain and Britain. Navies from these two nations realized that mahogany did not rot and was shatterproof, and they had been using it on ships long before the wood became an aristocratic consumer demand.[3] Additionally, in this section Anderson demonstrates the effects that mahogany had on international relations. The English and Spanish often sent privateers to steal the mahogany each was sending back to Europe.[4]

These claims about the initial popularity of mahogany are used to establish the foundation of Anderson’s first chapter, one of the most important in her book. While exploring the roots of mahogany’s value, Anderson also uses this chapter to argue that mahogany’s transition into a luxury good hinged upon four factors: increased access to tropical commodities, decreased prices for mahogany, active engagement of merchants, cabinetmakers, and buyers in promoting mahogany, and an alignment of mahogany’s qualities with refinement. Collectively, these factors made mahogany more available for use by European cabinetmakers and increased demand for the wood throughout Europe.[5] Through her recounting the early stories of the changing perception of mahogany as a war material into a luxury commodity, Anderson effectively provides a platform upon which she can illustrate mahogany’s entrance into the American economy.

According to Anderson, by the time mahogany had reached the American colonies, it was demanded out of “sheer desire.”[6] This was because mahogany reflected many of the qualities of “refinement” and gentility that were desired among aristocrats in the late eighteenth century. The unique grain of mahogany, as well as the reflection the wood had after polishing, quickly made mahogany a luxury good of the upper class. Portraits of wealthy families during this period often showcased pieces of mahogany furniture among family members, demonstrating the importance the good had in denoting affluence. Anderson’s thorough use of eighteenth century art and other rich primary source evidence – including housing inventories – only strengthens her claims. As access to mahogany increased, many more middle class families purchased mahogany. This led the upper classes to buy multiple mahogany furnishings in an attempt to make a distinction from the middle class. At the dawn of the American Revolution, mahogany had become a definitive marker of colonial class status.[7]

Following the exponential rise in demand for mahogany from the American colonies, the British Empire sought to establish a permanent mahogany works in the West Indies.[8] This section of Anderson’s monograph is arguably her strongest it marks a definitive turning point at which the commercial boom for mahogany first met its imminent demise. After exhausting their original mahogany supply in Jamaica, the British tried to establish centers in the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and the “Ceded Islands” after the Seven Years War. Unlike Jamaica, however, these islands did not contain a large population of mahogany trees. Thus, the takeover of these lands resulted only in the displacement of the native populations of the islands and the unsuccessful creation of any permanent mahogany centers.

After nearly depleting the entire Caribbean mahogany population, the British made one final push at establishing a mahogany center in Belize at the Bay of Honduras, a Spanish owned region. Following several negotiations and disputes, the British took control of the Bay of Honduras mahogany site in 1798.[9] However, even with the acquisition of this mahogany rich region, the British failed regulate mahogany production. By the turn of the nineteenth century, mahogany was quickly being depleted in Belize. At this point, Anderson recognizes that the market for mahogany had submitted itself entirely to the demands of the British mercantilist system. Slave labor became increasingly crucial to the success of mahogany logging, and as a result mahogany became part of trading for slaves from Africa.[10] As Anderson notes, the “relentless search for mahogany exemplified the imperial drive to find, expropriate, and control people, space, and nature.”[11]

The second half of Anderson’s work emphasizes the production of mahogany amidst capitalism and technological innovation. The themes presented in this part of the book parallel several themes that are also introduced in Andrew C. Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison. In his book, Isenberg argues that the near extinction of the bison was caused by an amalgamation of economic, cultural, and ecological factors.[12] This is seen in his first chapter, as Isenberg credits the introduction of horses, livestock, and cattle into the Great Plains as critical factors leading to the displacement of the bison.[13]Similarly, the felling of trees and establishment of sugar plantations in Jamaica destroyed the natural environment of mahogany because the cane fields drained the soil of essential nutrients.[14]Additionally, Isenberg and Anderson agree that dependence on a single resource was extremely dangerous, though in different respects. Isenberg argues that the plummeting bison population of the nineteenth century made the survival of nomad groups in the Great Plains uncertain.[15] Likewise, in Mahogany Anderson recounts the story of the Card brothers, who depended on the successful harvest and sale of mahogany for sustaining their livelihoods.[16] Both men achieved minor success and epic failure, illustrating the high risk one faced when investing everything in the market of mahogany. Collectively, these stories represented parallel strands in the history of exploiting both bison and mahogany for individual gain.

Apart from their similar themes of ecological effects and risk in exploiting natural resources like mahogany and bison, Anderson and Isenberg also shared the compelling theme that Isenberg coins “the futility of riches and the fragility of nature.”[17] In a chapter titled “Mastering Nature and the Challenge of Mahogany,” Anderson states that the inability of “enlightened” men to recreate or replicate mahogany indicated “the limits of man’s ability to master nature.”[18] Mahogany, like the bison, had been so depleted that no amount of money, research, or effort could restore these resources to their previous presence in the Caribbean and North America, respectively. The destruction of both mahogany and the bison was a result of failed regulation because of a focus on economic competition. This competition, promoted by the capitalist economy present in North America, could be seen among the hide-hunters described by Isenberg, as well as in the failed mahogany dealer conglomerates formed among cabinetmakers in the Early American Republic. [19] Economic competition advocated the advancement of the individual at any means necessary, and this came at the cost of the near extinction of both bison and mahogany. In this way, Anderson argues that the inability to restore mahogany defied the Enlightenment belief that humans could master nature, and that oftentimes humans failed to realize the threats imposed on natural resources by capitalism. This continued through the industrial revolution.[20]

While their stories emerge from very different beginnings, Anderson and Isenberg both write historical narratives that demonstrate the costs of exploiting natural resources to near extinction. Since their near disappearance in the late nineteenth century, both mahogany and bison have made modest returns to their native landscapes. With that being said, both mahogany and bison have taken new roles in their respective revivals. Conservation efforts in the United States have redefined mahogany as “ornamentals rather than as future timber.”[21] Bison, on the other hand, have returned to become a part of the economy, but not of the environment.[22] These histories of the production of mahogany and the destruction of bison provide a clear image of the often short-term beneficial and long-term detrimental effects of “unsustainable exploitation” of natural resources.[23] Through their effective writing, both Anderson and Isenberg lead readers to consider how the American landscape, economy, and culture have been shaped from human interactions with the environment.


[1] Jennifer L. Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 17.

[2] Anderson, Mahogany, 4, 17.

[3] Anderson, Mahogany, 7, 21.

[4] Anderson, Mahogany, 24.

[5] Anderson, Mahogany, 19.

[6][6] Anderson, Mahogany, 32.

[7] Anderson, Mahogany, 50-63.

[8] Anderson, Mahogany, 91.

[9] Anderson, Mahogany, 96-98, 113, 123.

[10] Anderson, Mahogany, 125.

[11] Anderson, Mahogany, 124.

[12] Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1.

[13] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 30.

[14] Anderson, Mahogany, 64.

[15] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 121.

[16] Anderson, Mahogany, 154-155.

[17] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 122.

[18] Anderson, Mahogany, 213.

[19] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 163; Anderson, Mahogany, 205.

[20] Anderson, Mahogany, 249.

[21] Anderson, Mahogany, 314.

[22] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 192.

[23] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 198.