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.

Does Bergman Have It Wrong?


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Jonathan Bergman’s essay speaks to what Ted Steinberg does in his Acts of God. Bergman states, “With the advent of environmental studies, disasters have become something of a ‘growth field in American history.’ Armed with novel theories of disaster, scholars have set out to examine urban life, race, class, politics, and governmental culture through a variety of socially dislocating events” (938). Using disaster studies as a lens for studying traditional topics serves to boost both environmental history and the field of history as a whole. Bergman has his doubts about the the manner in which disaster studies has taken (and taking). He is skeptical of disaster studies and its future. While I think I understand his perspective, having read Acts of God and other environmental works, I must call him out and suggest he re-think his argument. I think disaster is a useful category for historical analysis. Disaster can allow for a nuanced analysis of a period that and using other categories of analysis can also allow for a more nuanced interpretation of the events before, during, and after the disaster.

The essay I chose for this week, “Fighting the Hessian Fly: American and British Responses to Insect Invasion, 1776-1789,” serves as a proper contribution to the environmental/disaster studies field. When read after Bergman’s essay, one can understand how Bergman “got it wrong.” Philip J. Pauly’s states in his essay, “Looking beyond the eighteenth century, I suggest that the Hessian fly provides a useful starting point for examining how nationalism–involving issues of both political sovereignty and, more diffusely, xenophobia–has influenced the science of policy of biological invasion (486). Yes, it is possible for analyses to get carried away with other categories of analysis and thus take away from telling the story of the disaster, but I think it is possible to tell both at the same time. As Ian reminded us last week in our discussion of Chicago, “. . .they also altered their environment by flooding and freezing a region that would not have faced these conditions without human alteration.” Cronon’s analysis would have been much stronger if he had added commentary on this matter (regardless of the fact that this might not have been his primary purpose).

After completing the readings for this week I thought a lot about language. Are actually doing these events justice by calling them “natural disasters.” This phrase carries a negative connotation, so how does one rid that from the phrase without changing the name or replacing it with something that no one will recognize? Instead is it suitable to call them “natural events”? Other words with just as negative connotations are brought into the conversation as well. With these words and negative connotations come negative interpretations of the events and nature. Nature is made out to be the bad force. Now, I am not suggesting that Steinberg does this in his work, not at all. He makes this obvious. We as readers know exactly with whom the fault stands, but could this be an inadvertent (and most likely subtle) component that is in some ways difficult to separate? Are these concerns the at crux of Bergman’s struggle and argument?