Freethought and Class Consciousness

Here then is the root of the evil: those who controlled their destinies were more informed than they. Superior information gave them superior power…


If the working class had always been as enlightened as any other class of the community, is it not certain that the institutions of society, framed and established under the influence of such enlightenment, would have been calculated to promote their interests at least, equally with the interests of any other class of the community?

They alone were the producers of wealth; they were always superior in numbers; what then could it be but
want of intelligence that disabled them from demanding the formation and establishment of institutions which would make them who were the only producers, the proprietors and enjoyers of at least as great a share of the proceeds of their own industry, as any others?

Here then is the root of the evil: those who controlled their destinies were more informed than they. Superior information gave them superior power; and having a direct interest in accumulating the products of other people’s labor, (themselves being exempt therefrom) and thus of subjecting the working classes to endless toil, they were induced and enabled by such degrees as each succeeding state of society would admit, to frame and establish institutions, the almost invariable result of which is to render poverty-stricken and degraded the condition of the producer, while they enrich and aggrandize the indolent consumer. Here then we discover the
main cause of the degradation that ever has, and ever will assail the workingmen, so long as they continue the lamentable subjects of it, and one which nothing can remove but the general diffusion of knowledge through the working class, and an unreserved dissemination of truth, particularly in relation to equal rights and moral and political economy.

Horace Seaver (1810-1889), Occasional Thoughts of Horace Seaver. From Fifty Years of Free Thinking. Selected from the Boston Investigator, 1888.

Wilderness and Class

William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental History, 1996.

Cronon says the popular reaction to the idea of wilderness owes much to the two related concepts of “the sublime and the frontier.” (9) The sublime is “one of the most important expressions of that broad transatlantic movement we today label as romanticism,” (9-10) but maybe we should unpack it a little and separate the elements that go into it. Cronon does not, and this leaves him only a vague ground to stand on, when he wants to talk about
secular responses to the “sublime.” He observes that in order to gain the power it has “the concept of wilderness had to become loaded with some of the deepest core values of the culture that created and idealized it: it had to become sacred.” (10) This is true in more than just a metaphorical way, but Cronon doesn’t go far enough unpacking these ideas. A closer look at them might help us understand some of the problems carried over from this religious frame of mind, that get in the way of straightforward responses to environmental issues.

The frontier myth, Cronon says, allows Americans to believe that because they were pioneers in a “virgin” land, white Europeans “reinvented direct democratic institutions” and “reinfused themselves with vigor, an independence and a creativity that were the source of American democracy and national character.” (13) We’re squarely in the territory of myth, here; it would be easy to argue that these famous results of frontier life were as mythical as the life itself. But it’s easy to agree that “to protect wilderness was in a very real sense to protect the nation’s most sacred myth of origin” in the minds of many conservationists.

Cronon says nostalgic conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister (author of
The Virginian) showed an “ambivalence, if not downright hostility, toward modernity.” (14) But it was a modernity that had served them both very well. Politician and popular author warned men against emasculation by the “feminizing tendencies of civilization,” but their status as wealthy, elite intellectuals probably put them in more danger than the fact they lived in cities. Only men like them had the leisure time or the inclination to worry about their masculinity, which is why only the “wealthiest citizens” were found “seeking out wilderness for themselves.” (15)

The fact that most early enthusiasts were rich men might also help explain the otherworldliness of the wilderness ethic. The “quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism” rest on a “flight from history.” (16) Unlike the experience of farmers, miners, or other workers whose jobs or lives gave them contact with the natural world, for these men “wilderness embodie[d] a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural.” (17) Extending this idea to the present, Cronon suggests that our supposed isolation from nature retards environmental progress. To the “extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our
real home is in the wilderness...we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead.”

Worse yet, Cronon says modern deep ecologists’ “wilderness premise that nature, to be natural, must also be pristine,” actually distracts society from important issues and opportunities for change. “We need an environmental ethic,” he says, “that will teach us as much about
using nature as about not using it.” (21) Otherwise, the “long affiliation between wilderness and wealth” will be continued. (20) Only the wealthy are able to see wilderness, and then retreat to another place where they can be separate from it. Everywhere else, “too many other corners of the earth become less than natural and too many other people become less than human, thereby giving us permission not to care much about their suffering or their fate.”

Cronon argues that humanity must abandon environmental dualism and “bipolar moral scales” (nice allusion!). The myth of wilderness, “that we can somehow leave nature untouched by our passage” or that we can wall off pieces of the environment and save them from human contamination, is absurd. “The dilemma we face,” Cronon concludes, “is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.” This is a more realistic choice, and one that is open to everyone.

The Adirondacks

Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature, 2001

The first section, on the Adirondack State Park, was most interesting to me. Jacoby highlights what he calls the “hidden history of American Conservation, by which he means the consolidation of state power, the systematic denigration of rural land use (Jacoby calls this “degradation discourse”), and the elimination of local customs regarding commons with top-down state and national laws designating “wilderness” areas. Jacoby suggests this wilderness is “not some primeval character of nature but rather an artifact of modernity.” (198) Jacoby also agrees with William Cronon’s suggestion (in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 1996) that the idea of wilderness conservationists “tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others,” and betrays “the long affiliation between wilderness and wealth.” (Cronon, 20-22)

Jacoby introduces his subject with a reference to E.P. Thompson. He says he wants to provide a “
moral ecology...a vision of nature ‘from the bottom up.’ ” (3) Jacoby agrees rural commoners had a different response to their environments than the “appreciation of wilderness” Roderick Nash found in the “minds of sophisticated Americans living in the more civilized East.” (quoting Nash, “The Value of Wilderness,” 1977. 2) But their response was not primitive or rapacious, as portrayed by George Perkins Marsh at the beginning of the conservation movement and historians like Marsh ever after. In many cases, Jacoby says local resistance faced by conservationists was due to the fact that “for many rural communities, the most notable feature of conservation was the transformation of previously acceptable practices into illegal acts.” (2) Reading this introduction, I wondered was reminded of the “hares and rabbits” controversy in England. Jacoby gets to this point, I found -- but not directly and not as strongly as I might have liked. Which is nice, because he leaves something for me to do in a research paper.

The Adirondacks are the source of the Hudson river, and are nearly worthless as farmland. These are both important points, as is the forest’s location, close to Albany.
Marsh’s Man and Nature attracted attention in New York, and I should take a closer look at this and the other contemporary writing Jacoby mentions. For me, the most interesting feature of the story is the proliferation of “private parks,” which seem very much like the enclosed, aristocratic hunting lands of Britain. “By 1893,” Jacoby says, “there were some sixty parks in the Adirondacks, containing more than 940,000 acres of private lands, including many of the region’s best hunting and fishing grounds, at a time when the state-owned Forest Preserve contained only 730,000 acres.” Jacoby quotes Forest and Stream, which observed in 1894 that “‘Private parks in the Adirondacks today occupy a considerably larger area than the State of Rhode Island.’ ” (39) By 1899, the New York legislature was debating the monopolization of land and exclusion of poor local people from hunting. References were made to British aristocratic land enclosure, and the prosecution of “poachers.” In 1903, locals murdered Orrando Dexter, a park owner who had prosecuted several trespassers.

I think there’s a lot more to this story. Jacoby is more interested in the evolution of conservation, and tends to see these conflicts as being between conservationists and their opponents. I see it more as a conflict between locals and outsiders. The Albany conservationists have more in common with robber-baron (and some politician) park owners than with any of the locals. It’s no coincidence that they tend to overlook tree theft by the timber industry and illegal (or obscenely excessive legal) hunting by the park owners, while prosecuting locals for “squatting” on ancestral lands, taking deer or fish out of season to feed their families, and cutting non-commercial hardwood species for firewood. Jacoby tends to see this from the authorities’ point of view; I think this could be treated differently. I’m really curious, for example, about the locations of those sixty parks. How much of the very best land did they take? How many towns did they hem in, or restrict rights of way to? How much of that land is still privately owned? (
according to Wiki, in 1900, the park’s area was 2.8 million acres, of which 1.2 million was state owned. In 2000, the park had grown to 6 million acres, of which 2.4 million is state owned. After deducting for the area of towns, lakes, and small lots, that leaves about 3 million acres in private ownership. That's about the size of Connecticut. Hmm... Has anybody ever really looked at the distribution of land in America? How it was distributed initially? Who owns it now?)