Explorers on a new planet...

In the preface to his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben admits “It’s true that we’ve lost that fight, insofar as our goal was to preserve the world we were born into” (p. xv). We grew up on a planet astronaut Jim Lovell described as “ ‘a grand oasis.’ But we no longer live on that planet” (p. 2). So “we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations”(p. xiv).

As you might expect, the first part of this book, where McKibben explains how the old world has been destroyed, is much more detailed than the second part, where he offers some suggestions on how we might move forward. The scientific consensus is alarming: “We now know that the climate doesn’t have to warm any more for Greenland to continue losing ice,” says a climatologist from the University of Ohio (pp. 4-5). There’s a “50 percent chance that Lake Mead, which backs up on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, could run dry by 2021 (When that happens, as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority put it, ‘you cut off supply to the fifth largest economy in the world,’ spread across the American West (p. 6). And “glaciers could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas as early as 2035, including the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 percent of the dry-season water to the Ganges River. That would leave 407 million people looking for a new source of drinking and irrigation water” (p. 7). In other words, we have a solid timetable for the water war.

The oceans are “more acid than anytime in the last eight hundred thousand years, and at current rates by 2050 it will be more corrosive than anytime in the past 20 million years (p. 10). “Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050.” If I recall, that’s where pretty much all the ocean’s remaining biodiversity is.

McKibben is famous as the man behind
350.org, but even in 2009 as he was writing this he said “we’re already past 350—way past it. The planet has nearly 390 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re too high. Forget the grandkids; it turns out this was a problem for our parents…the last time we had carbon levels this high: sea levels rose one hundred feet or more, and temperatures rose as much as ten degrees” (pp. 15-16). And contrary to what others are claiming, McKibben quotes scientists who believe “changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped” (p. 17).

And then there’s peak oil. “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually” (p. 27). “So does modernity disappear along with the oil?” he asks (p. 30).

Already, as only the earliest changes were beginning to be noticed, the World Bank announced “1.4 billion people, it found, lived below the poverty line, 430 million more than previously estimated. What defines the poverty line? $1.25 a day” (p. 76). No wonder “The U.S. military… costs more than the armies of the next forty-five nations combined; the Pentagon accounts for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending” (pp. 144-145). But will that save us at home? According to Nobel winner Steven Chu, “the rapid melt of the Sierra snowpack means ‘we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California…I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going’ ” (p. 156). “And if our societies start to tank, we’ll be in worse shape than those who came before,” McKibben warns. “For one thing, our crisis is global, so there’s no place to flee. For another, most of us don’t know how to do very much—in your standard collapse scenario, it’s nice to know how to grow wheat” (pp. 98-99).

So what’s all this mean? First, we have to stop looking to idiots like Larry Summers, “treasury secretary under President Clinton, now Obama’s chief economic adviser: ‘There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of the earth.’ ” (p. 95). (This guy has been president of Harvard!) And Jerry Falwell: “I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We’ll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn’t returned” (p. 12). (Hitchens was right! Religion ruins everything!) And Barack Obama: “speaking about the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks… ‘We don’t want to make the best the enemy of the good.’ ” (p. 81). (That should be his campaign slogan this time around!)

But really, it’s a little hard to see how McKibben navigates from this to a very short description of localism and community-building ending with a retelling of the 350.org event in October 2009. Maybe he wouldn’t have been allowed to publish the book if he had suggested what the world is going to look like. Better to leave to the imaginations of the reader what he means by “dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent” (p. 212). After all, he
did mention Mad Max (p. 146)…

Columbian Exchange

Alfred W. Crosby, Jr.
The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492

This is another one of those books that must be read. And even after 38 years, there’s a lot of good stuff in it. The thesis is summed up in the title, which has entered the language as a short-hand descriptor for the idea that “the most important changes brought about by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature,” even if not all the people who use the term agree with Crosby that the interaction of the old world and the new “has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished genetic pool.” (xiv, 219)

Crosby’s narrative sets the scene by comparing the old world and the new, to show the biological contrasts between them. He traces European conquest, and the diseases that spread with (and sometimes ahead of) conquistadors and settlers. Crosby then describes the (mostly plant) species that were brought from the Americas to the old world, and the (mostly animal) species the Spanish brought to the new (interestingly, he says most of the really significant species were introduced by the Spanish by 1500, long before North American settlement was begun. 108). After devoting a full chapter to the controversy over the origin of syphilis, Crosby concludes with a look at how American food crops enabled population growth in both Europe and Asia (and continue to, to the present day).

Some of the interesting items along the way include Crosby’s brief discussion of the possible influence of the new world on tradition and religious authority in the old. “Christian and Aristotelian” belief systems, he says, “proved too cramped to accomodate the New World...men of the Columbian generation discovered that ‘Ptolomeus, and others knewe not the halfe.’” (9) Crosby says an argument about “multiple creations” was carried on in Europe until 1859, when Darwin finally laid it to rest, “while also knocking loose a large part of the foundation of traditional Judaism and Christianity.” (14) Crosby’s discussion of the extinction event that wiped out American megafauna has probably been eclipsed by more recent scientific findings, just as his discussion of the worldwide distribution of blood-types has been overtaken by DNA analysis, but in their day they were great examples of interdisciplinary thinking.

Many of the details Crosby includes are startling. Cotton Mather’s description of the 1616-17 epidemic that wiped out most of the Massachusetts Indians as a Providential clearing of the woods “of those pernicious creatures, to make room for better growth,” confirms my impression of the Puritan leader. (41) The idea that “a million Indians lived on Santo Domingo when the Europeans arrived,” and that they were reduced by 1548 to 500, is something you really have to sit with for a while and think about. (45) The “population of central Mexican dropped from about 25 million on the eve of conquest to 16.8 million a decade later.” (53) That doesn’t seem as bad, until it sinks in that it means one out of every three people was dead, in just ten years. Makes all the recent movies about plagues and human apocalypse seem like so many nightmares of a guilty white American conscience.

I didn’t know that when Columbus returned, he brought “seventeen ships, 1,200 men, and seeds and cuttings for the planting of wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, salad greens, grape vines, sugar cane, and fruit stones for the founding of orchards.” (67) And it never occurred to me that some new world species, like the white potato, found their way to places like New England via Europe (brought “by the Scotch-Irish...in 1718.” 66) Other interesting details: “the banana, brought from the Canaries in 1516.” (68) “Cattle...first brought to Mexico for breeding purposes in 1521.” (87) But by 1614, “the residents of Santiago [Chile] possessed 39,250 head,” (91) as well as 623,825 sheep. (94) I also didn’t know, but should have guessed after reading about De Soto’s expedition through Florida, that when Pizarro crossed the Andes into Peru in 1540, he brought over 2,000 pigs with him. (79) Somebody should write a history of the conquest that focuses on what it must have been like, moving conquistadors and their pigs through the wild Americas.

Is it World or Environmental History?

John F. Richards
The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World

The question my advisor asked me, but that we didn’t really resolve was, do these two books (Radkau & Richards) work as introductory texts to global environmental history? If I was teaching an undergraduate class in Global Environmental History, would I use them? Interesting question, since I spent a couple of weeks at the beginning of this semester sitting in on just such a class, at
Mount Holyoke College, for which these two books, along with Marks’ Origins of the Modern World and Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, were the assigned texts. I haven’t read Marks yet, but unlike Radkau & Richards, Cronon is not a global history, it’s a story of change in one place, Chicago.

The Unending Frontier, like Nature and Power, doesn’t argue a particular thesis, as even Jared Diamond’s popular book, Collapse, does about deforestation leading to erosion in Collapse. Both Richards and Radkau are trying to present a more general picture of change, and weave environmental change into World History. I think Radkau organizes his examples more effectively than Richards around themes, like the hydraulic society, that he finds in many times and places. In some of Richards’ long descriptions of Chinese or Russian political history, I lose track of the idea that this is environmental history. But I can see how he’d feel he needed to set the stage pretty extensively, writing for an American audience that knows virtually nothing about these histories (I sure don’t!). The question might be, aren’t there already some good world histories we could read (and assign our students), that might be refocused with a very pointed “Environmental Supplement to World History?” As it is, it feels like I’m spending a lot of time, in Richards, waiting through the world history set-up for the environmental history punchline.

I think the complication in Radkau is that it’s such a personal journey for the author. But that’s its strength as well as its weakness, at least for me. I’m the guy who’s always asking for social history “with the people in it.” Seems like (didn’t Cronon say something about this in one of his articles?) some enviro writers want to leave the people out, because they’re “the problem.” But if “the fall” is first contact with nature, we have nowhere to go but down. Radkau actually acknowledges the emperor’s new clothes at one point, when he says “there is good reason to be uncomfortable with a philosophy that regards humanity as the ‘cancer of the earth,’ a philosophy that should make one wish for nine-tenths of humanity to disappear from the planet.” (Radkau, 4) I found the struggle in Radkau’s book more satisfying than the lack of human connection in Richards’, where I couldn’t tell, for example, whether the Japanese peasants were happy, enlightened (or at least cooperative) ecologists or malnourished, frightened vassals of the local samurai chieftain. Female infanticide might deserve more of a comment than “despite its unpleasantness...an effective way to limit children.” (Richards, 181)

But the short answer is, I would definitely use
parts of both these books with environmental history undergrads. In fact, I’d probably use a chunk of “The Columbian Exchange” chapter at the beginning of the Americas section in my “US History - Colonial to Reconstruction” class. Actually, now that I think of it, the parts of Richards’ book that deal with history I already know are the most interesting to me. Maybe I’m missing what makes his story different from other histories of South Africa or Mughal India, because I know nothing about them. It might be the sense of the unfamiliar that makes this environmental history work. The feeling of, “why didn’t I know that?” about the history we think we already know...

Nature and Power

Joachim Radkau, Thomas Dunlap tr.
Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment
2002, 2008 tr.

Joachim Radkau says he was painfully aware of the pitfalls faced by authors of big histories when he chose to write a global history of the environment. But he believed several themes including European exceptionalism, the dialog between the ideals of wilderness and sustainability, the effects of state, local, and individual control on environmental engagement, regulation of sexuality and xenophobia deserved greater attention. His decision to translate
Nature and Power into English was motivated by these issues, and also by a belief that “Old World” experience was key to 21st century environmentalism. American textbooks already forget Chernobyl, Radkau says, and “continental Europeans have rarely lived with the illusion of unlimited resources.” (xv, xvi) The result is a book that surveys several fascinating ways that people have interacted with their environments, acknowledges the particularity and contingency inherent in these accounts, and tries to draw some tentative conclusions and lessons for the future from them.

In his 2002 Preface to the German edition, Radkau wonders what the “ecological and economic disaster of the communist bloc mean for that kind of environmental history whose basic assumptions would have led one to assume that a socialist state-run economy would be able to undo the environmental damage caused by the private profit motive?” (xi) Radkau examines several ancient and modern societies, including Maoist China and Nazi Germany, and ultimately concludes that “effective environmental protection requires” neither strict laissez faire capitalism nor top-down, totalitarian central planning, but rather “a spirited civil society, the courage of one’s convictions, citizen initiatives, and a critical public.” (308) Environmentalists looking to the past for a definitive answer on how to move forward may be frustrated, he says, but history seems to suggest that environmental failure or success has little direct connection to the political and economic forms a society chooses. While “in the end, the apparatus of the state remains the only - at least potential - counterweight to the omnipotence of private capital interests,” Radkau admits that even though its environmental policy was less totalitarian than its social theory, national socialism “wrecked” any chance for idealistic Hegelians to believe “that the state by its very nature embodies the common good and higher reason above all human selfishness.” (300, 306)

That this should be a surprise may illustrate the most problematic element of
Nature and Power. Radkau dips one foot into the ecological experience of several ancient cultures, including some like Egypt whose history extends to the present. But he keeps the other foot firmly in the present, both in his analysis of ancient social/environmental interactions as they may relate to present problems, and in his narrative of the history of modern environmentalism (and the somewhat parallel historiography of environmental history). Part of the problem, of course, is that major environmental changes are happening in the present, and environmental awareness has changed dramatically in the immediate past. Radkau himself is known in Europe as both a biographer of Max Weber and an anti-nuclear power activist.

“Sometimes the problems become worse if one strives for a grand solution,” Radkau frequently warns. (93) His analysis of ancient China, Egypt, and the Inca empire improves on K. A. Wittfogel’s theory of the “hydraulic society” (most familiar to Americans through Worster’s
Rivers of Empire). Ancient public forest and water projects were not motivated solely to consolidate the elite’s power, Radkau says, but “ecological necessities often go hand in hand with opportunities for the exercise of power.” (86) This is a general human tendency, he reminds us: even German environmentalism tends to devolve “from a movement into a bureaucracy.” (307) In the end, Radkau agrees with Max Weber that “many historical experiences suggest that powerful historical movements require both a solid foundation of material interests and a vision that transcends daily life, that inspires and arouses passionate emotions. The strongest impulses,” he concludes, “are often generated by a fusion of selfishness and selflessness.” (329) The same might be said about powerful historical explanations.

The population problem, and the “Epochal...development of effective contraceptives,” is a recurring theme. (258) “The potato and coitus interruptus are key innovations of the eighteenth century that are environmentally relevant,” Radkau says, in a memorable line that suggests a useful widening of the traditional definition of environment. (6) When the “Bhutanese ecotopia” is shown to be sustainable only through the expulsion of 100,000 Nepalese refugees along the Indian border, population control in democratic societies becomes an issue. (285-6) Not only is “Bhutan ecology...intertwined with the preservation of the political system,” but so is the country’s culture and existence, as shown by “the fate of neighboring Sikkim, which lost its independence when Nepalese immigrants had grown into the majority of the population.” If environmental disasters force large-scale migrations in the future, what does Radkau’s skepticism of “Bhutanese exceptionalism” suggest about the tension between local identity and global governance?

“After the collapse of socialism,” Radkau says, “environmentalism is left as the only ideological alternative to the absolute hegemony of the quest for private profit and consumption.” (299) Even if we agree that environmentalism’s role is to take on Neo-liberal economics, Radkau seems to ignore the existence of other directions from which to critique capitalism, and may assume a unity of outlook and purpose on the part of the “bad guys” that is not demonstrated by his historical examples. This is the point where
Nature and Power’s tension between the historical and the environmental seems to reach a breaking point. Although Radkau argues that “Not in every situation are the nature protectors the ‘good guys’ and their adversaries the ‘bad guys’,” (especially in the third world where colonialism and tourism motivates approaches that may exclude locals from the environment altogether); the real issue is that in history, unlike environmental politics, there aren’t any good guys or bad guys: there are just a bunch of guys [apologies to The Zero Effect ]. (308) This is especially true because, throughout the history Radkau describes, the actors were almost never ecologists, making environmental policy. They were national leaders, or village elders, or farmers, making political, or social, or agricultural decisions. Their awareness, their motivations, and their goals may have had a vaguely, more-or-less environmental element; but their attention was almost always dominated by other considerations.

Nature and Power, Radkau provides valuable glimpses into distant cultures, from the unfamiliar angle of their relationship to their environments. These perspectives complicate the reader’s understanding of these cultures, and widen the scope of many environmental issues we may have believed were recent. In some cases, his interpretation may be skewed by inadequate context. Radkau mentions, for instance, John Stuart Mill’s “belief that the discomfort every sensitive person felt about a world in which every scrap of land was cultivated” suggests an instinctive realization by Englishmen that “it was dangerous to live without reserves.” (324) The actual context of Mill’s statement (which, based on the source he cites, Radkau may have been unaware of), however, was a political argument over compulsory cultivation of thousands of acres of “waste” land held by aristocrats as game reserves. Mill was (as usual) a middle of the road land reformer, facing pressure from a much more radical “Land and Labour League” led by working people and their champions. Radkau may be right on the interpretation, if we privilege the subset of Englishmen represented by Mill. This tension between forest and trees is an ever-present danger in wide-ranging syntheses. In another case, though, Radkau persuasively argues against monocausal explanations like Jared Diamond’s Collapse, on the basis of data as well as interpretation. According to pollen evidence, Radkau says, Easter Island was “nearly treeless” for a millennium before the Dutch discovered “a flourishing agriculture with a rich variety of fruit” in 1722. Far from eco-suicide, the culture’s destruction was “completed in 1862 when the majority of the population was dragged off by Peruvian slave traders and the island was transformed into a large sheep ranch.” (166) So much for blaming the natives.

Red Earth

Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, Red Earth, 2004

Oklahoma is most frequently thought of by the public and portrayed by environmental historians as the site of the 1930s Dust Bowl of Steinbeck’s
Grapes of Wrath. Donald Worster wrote his classic tale of ecological mismanagement in the same year that Paul Bonnifield wrote a story of the triumph of Oklahoman spirit in the face of natural disaster (1979, The Dust Bowl and Dust Bowl, respectively). William Cronon used the 180 degree disparity between these histories to comment on the incredibly subjective nature of (even environmental) history, finally threading a way (after four rewrites, he says) through post-modern concerns regarding narrative and cognition, to an embrace of history as a more-or-less moral fiction, aiming at (but never quite reaching) truth (“A Place for Stories,” JAH March 1992).

In contrast to these tales of declension and progress, Lynn-Sherow writes about the settlement of Oklahoma a generation earlier, and wonders what might have been. “Of all the ways in which history can be written and remembered,” she says, “human based environmental change is often a ‘winner’s’ history told by the people who remain” (145). Through a variety of influences including chance, culture (including racism), and environment, “in less than one generation, the collective farming practices of the Kiowas [tribe] and the mixed-use practices of African American settlers were swept aside” (147). In their place, “an elite group of native-born white farmers were eventually triumphant” and a “highly diverse ecology of native plants, animals, and people” became “a more simplified ecology centered on a scientifically approved list of domesticated crops and animals.”

Her conclusion, that “white farmers’ acceptance and enthusiasm for mechanized agriculture…initiated and sustained the simplification of the territory” is a declension, in the sense Cronon said Worster’s book was. Or is it? A more simplified ecological system is usually more fragile and subject to disturbances (like drought). So she’s using Cronon’s "second set of narrative constraints" (making "ecological sense") to get past the subjectivity of her judgment that monoracial commercialized monoculture is bad.  Cool.

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?)

Environmental History

John T. Cumbler, Reasonable Use

“What we have only recently come to appreciate is that there was a whole generation of reformers very much concerned about the environment who were neither antimodernists [like Thoreau] nor wilderness protectors. They were modernists who rejected not the modern world, but the way the modern world was being fashioned…they struggled to make the environment of the most settled parts of the nation more amenable to human habitation.”

“Henry Ingersoll Bowditch…pushed for a radical approach…saw environmental degradation as something to be confronted and ameliorated for the benefit of the poorest and weakest.”

“According to the
Connecticut Valley Farmer and Mechanic, farmers had to practice modern scientific farming in order to keep their farms productive and profitable.” (21, Springfield, May 1853) Other boks to look at might be Sylvester Judd’s History of Hadley, Edwin M. Bacon’s The Connecticut River and the Valley…, and Dwight’s Travels. Other papers might be the Vermont Republican and American Yeoman and the Hampshire Gazette.

Brian Donohue, The Great Meadow

Read this right after Merchant and Cronon. Donohue examines the ecology of colonial Concord farming in extreme depth. Some of my classmates thought this led to questions of relevance, which seems a fair criticism. But Donohue’s detailed description of the land and the agriculture Concordians practiced on it was a welcome antidote to Merchant’s vagueness and ideologically-dominated narrative.

Part of the value in Donohue’s book comes from his approach to the project he’s undertaken. Environmental historians spend a lot of time alluding to sustainability and degradation. Donohue deliberately limits the question: “did the system of husbandry put in place by the first proprietors and their descendants undermine its own ecological foundations, or could it be sustained?”

The answer to this question, it turns out is, it depends. Fields were kept in tillage “for centuries, and some is being plowed to this day.” Despite the arguments of Rothenberg, Cronon and Merchant, that he says “have emphasized the ecological damage that resulted from this revolution to a ‘world of fields and fences,’” Donohue believes “these people knew what they were doing.” He concludes “Colonial husbandry in Concord …was intensive farming, in which…a workable balance among these lands was established and carefully maintained.” Ironically, the market-oriented agriculture that followed, according to Donohue, was “a far more extractive,
extensive way of farming” than the methods used by Concordians for nearly seven generations.

Donohue is so thorough in his descriptions of Concord farming, and his writing is so vivid, that a sense of inevitability seems to creep into the reader’s mind. He tries to avoid it, challenging assumptions as wide as the existence of the Holocene as a distinct period [in a passage that echoes “big history,” Donohue says we’re in a Pleistocene interglacial, and it’s nearly over]. But he does such a good job describing what happened in Concord, and how it was sustainable, that the reader can forget that Concord was not a closed system. The combination of crops is altered toward the end of the period, when farmers begin planting potatoes. In addition to being invisible on the records [and leading some to incorrectly assume that crop yields per acre were decreasing at a greater rate than they actually were], potatoes were a more efficient source of nutrition than the grain they replaced. So even if sustainable, the Concord system was not necessarily optimal.

Similarly, technological change and other resource substitutions complicate the picture at the end of the period Donohue describes. The increase in nearby urban populations, competition from newly accessible western farms [via the Erie Canal and railroads], and the sheer inability of Concord to feed all its people, necessitated openness to the outside world. There are a variety of possible solutions to sustainability, once you decide how many and what types of relationships with the outside are allowed. Maybe the lesson is that humans don’t seem to want to live within the constraints of the closed system [especially with its limits to population growth], and are always seeking a way around it. What happens when there’s nowhere left to look for energy sources outside the system?

Changes in the Land

Changes in the Land by William Cronon (New York: Hill & Wang, 2003). Begins with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” that not only acknowledges some of the changes Thoreau saw in his neighborhood, but explodes the idea that this represents some “fall” from a pristine, a-historical initial state. The landscape is always changing, and was changed by the “Indians” before white people arrived. “There has been no timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis.” (11) Cronon criticizes first-generation ecologists for assuming that all systems tend toward a stable equilibrium, and also for assuming “humanity was somehow outside the ideal climax community.” (10) This may be a cheap shot at ecologists, but it’s an instructive metaphor for historians.

Cronon’s economic argument centers on the ideas that European visitors’ and colonists’ response to New England was colored by their cultural baggage (valuation of the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, as in the case of timber and firewood), and on the assertion that the colonists were part of a transatlantic capitalist market and drew the Indians into it as well (in his afterword, written on the twentieth anniversary of publication, Cronon seems to regret the slightly oversimplified depiction of “capitalism”). The pre-colonial landscape he describes is quite different from the trackless wilderness I’d imagined, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of these differences is one of the most attractive features of the book. Along the way, I picked up a lot of interesting details: like that the colonists were generally healthier and longer-lived than the people they left behind, since they were no longer exposed to the European disease environment (24). Of course, the diseases they brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages. But the Puritan settlers saw this as a sign of their God’s providence. (90)

“Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance.” (33) Cronon argues this is a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. In a passage that reminds me a lot of Colin Tudge’s argument about agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers in
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers, Cronon says that not only did the Indians have a noncommercial value-system that led them to shun accumulation, but they were actually managing their environment in sophisticated ways that the colonists failed to recognize. Burning the forest understory created “edge” environments preferred by game animals. Gardening in “tangles” of maize, beans, and squash maximized crop yields, reduced erosion, and increased soil fertility (relative to the colonists’ monoculture). (43, 51)

Cronon’s point is that the Indians had a more stable approach to their environment than did the colonists. He frequently accuses the colonists of “mining” the soil, but the fact that their society treated land as a commodity doesn’t necessarily mean that individual farmers deliberately set out to put short-term gains before sustainability. He may be leaning to heavily on Turner when he assumes they all simply planned on moving west when they exhausted their farms.

The Indian approach clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural culture. In another passage that Tudge echoes in his 1998 book, Cronon contrasts the Indians’ seasonal migrations with the colonists’ construction of fences – even their pastoralism was sedentary! Cronon admits that Indian “conservation…was less the result of an enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’” (98) He invokes Leibig’s Law to explain low Indian population densities (“biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year” 41), but doesn’t elaborate on the mechanism of population control (was it by restricting fertility, or by the starvation of the weak?). Clearly, though, the Indians are the “good guys” in Cronon’s account. (I don’t disagree, I’m just pointing it out)

The latter half of the book continues these arguments but doesn’t extend them much. Several interesting items for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636 as the latest in a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River. (99) Overhunting to the point that “Hunting with us,” says Timothy Dwight, “exists chiefly in the tales of other times.” (101) A typical New England household consumed thirty to forty cords of firewood a year.” (120) “Roads…were typically between 99 and 165 feet wide…since they facilitated moving large herds to market.” (140) And Narragansett sachem Miantonomo made a speech in 1642 that complained about ecological degradation and warned “we shall all be starved” (162), so the colonists assassinated him in 1643. Overall, this was a good read. Cronon proves his case well, as far as it goes. I don’t feel compelled to mine his bibliography at the moment, although I’m more interested in reading Timothy Dwight’s
Travels as a result of this. And maybe Marshall Sahlins.