Aug 2015

Jacoby's Crimes Against Nature

Recently, Not Even Past posted Henry Wiencek’s review of this book, and it has just come out in a new edition, so I thought I'd start throw my two cents in. I first read Crimes Against Nature in a grad EnvHist seminar at UMass. I liked it so much that I use the chapter on the Adirondacks in my undergrad class. My students are usually surprised to discover the Progressive impulse toward conservation had a dark side. They're somewhat less surprised to learn that the elite men who championed conservation had personal interests in the wilderness as a sort of private reserve for members of their own class. One of the things I liked about the book was that it led me to ask a lot of questions about how places like the Adirondacks are managed (and owned) today.

In addition to the upstate New York forest, Jacoby covers Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Perhaps because I was born on the border of the park, 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 the ways rural people used the land (Jacoby calls this “degradation discourse”), and the elimination of local customs regarding commons; replacing them with top-down state and national laws designating “wilderness” areas. Jacoby suggests the Progressive idea of wilderness was “not some primeval character of nature but rather an artifact of modernity.” (198) Jacoby echoes William Cronon’s suggestion (in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 1996) that the idea of wilderness conservation “tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others,” and betrays “the long affiliation between wilderness and wealth.” (Cronon, 20-22) In other words, not only are some parts of nature privileged, but some people’s relationship with that nature is more important than other people’s.

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) So, this is what a Social History of the environment looks like. 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 rural people's response to nature was not primitive or rapacious, as portrayed by George Perkins Marsh at the beginning of the conservation movement and by historians following Marsh ever after. In many cases, Jacoby says, the 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 was reminded of the “hares and rabbits” controversy in England. Jacoby gets to this comparison later -- I suppose I should put E.P. Thompson's book on the game laws on my reading list.

The Adirondacks are the source of the Hudson River, but the rocky highlands 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 proposing the monopolization of land and the exclusion of poor local people from hunting in a place they had lived for generations. References were made in the debate to British aristocratic land enclosure, and to the prosecution of “poachers.” In 1903, aggrieved locals took matters into their own hands and murdered Orrando Dexter, a preserve owner who had prosecuted several trespassers.

Jacoby uncovers the dark side of conservation, and tends to portray these conflicts as large-scale, national arguments between conservationists and their opponents. I wonder if the story could also be seen as a conflict between locals and outsiders. The Albany conservationists had more in common with robber-baron (and politician) park owners than they ever did with the locals. It’s no coincidence, I think, that conservationists tended to overlook tree theft by the timber industry and illegal (or obscenely excessive but legal) hunting by the park owners, while at the same time aggressively 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 report these “crimes” from the authorities’ point of view to tell his story of the exclusivity at the heart of the conservationist impulse. While I agree, I think the locals’ point of view could be covered more completely. I’m really curious, for example, about the locations of those sixty parks. How much of the very best land did the well-heeled conservationists take? How many towns did they hem in, or restrict rights of way to? How much of that land is still privately owned? Because 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 only 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 history of land distribution in America? How it was distributed initially? Who owns it now?

EnvHist Top Ten Books

If I was going to make an Environmental History bibliography, what would I include? I used to write reviews of the books I read for classes and for my comps lists, and post them on my website. That (defunct) "Library" was probably the highest traffic page on my site. I suppose some of the users might have been looking for "Cliff Notes," but I've gotta say I had a hard time putting together my field lists. Not so much EnvHist -- my advisor Ted Mellilo had a ton of great suggestions. But the other two were tough! That was what gave me the idea of recording my reading list and thoughts in the first place.

I'll start by looking at what others have listed.
Goodreads has a list that includes 807 books. These are apparently all the books GR users have ever "shelved" as EH on their own pages. #1 is William Cronon's 1983 classic Changes in the Land, and #807 is Alexandra Witze's 2014 book, Island on Fire, which is the story of the 1783 eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Laki. But, as these books suggest, the list isn't a simple ranking of best to worst. Age and popularity play a big role, too. Cronon's #1 spot is based on only 27 instances of "shelving." And one of my favorites, Shawn Miller's An Environmental History of Latin America, is #801 with only one "shelving." And it wasn't me -- I not only don't shelve my books, I haven't even marked that one as "Read." Sorry, Shawn! His book even had EnvHist in its name, and it has 50 ratings and a respectable average score of 3.76. So EnvHist apparently isn't a category that springs easily to mind when folks read these books. But to the extent we're interested in communicating environmental history to regular readers (I'm hugely interested in this), Goodreads is relevant.

So, what are Goodreads' top 10? They are:

William Cronon,
Changes in the Land
William Cronon,
Nature's Metropolis
Alfred Crosby,
Ecological Imperialism
Jared Diamond,
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Donald Worster,
Dust Bowl
Richard White,
The Organic Machine
Alfred Crosby,
The Columbian Exchange
William Cronon,
Uncommon Ground
Linda Nash,
Inescapable Ecologies
Donald Worster,
Nature's Economy

Not a bad list. All but one are by respected academic EnvHist people. Yeah, I know some people like Diamond. Personally, I don't forgive him for lifting Crosby's ideas from
Germs, Seeds and Animals without attribution. There isn't a "Listopia" entry for EnvHist yet -- maybe that's a project for another day. Or this afternoon. I just started a list.

I searched the lists you get if you search on
Amazon and Google, but their results aren't as useful because they're based on either having the words "Environmental History" in the title or on what's selling really well right now. LibraryThing, which is supposedly a more serious site and a window into the minds of actual librarians, lists 389 results, of which these are the first ten:

Lynne Cherry,
A River Ran Wild
Neil Roberts,
The Holocene
J.R. McNeill,
Something New Under the Sun
Anthony N. Penna,
The Human Footprint
Mark Elvin,
The Retreat of the Elephants
Donald Worster,
The Wealth of Nature
Andrew Hurley,
Common Fields
Carolyn Merchant,
Major Problems in Environmental History
Andrew C. Isenberg,
The Destruction of the Bison
Tom Griffiths,
Forests of Ash
William Ashworth,
The Late, Great Lakes

These are interesting -- not least because I haven't read many of them! They're less seminal, but more recent, and several of them are regional (the elephant one is about China!). It's a reminder to me that there's still a lot to read, and I need to budget time to keep up!

So how do we net this out? It does seem to me that there's still a place for some curation and discussion of important EnvHist texts. I'll start with my picks. Hopefully I won't be the only one who thinks this is worth doing! Of course the big question is, where to put it? To start, I'll put it on
Goodreads, my EnvHist website, and reddit.

So, what ten books am I going to start with? What are my picks? I suppose I'll go with the core and then branch out later:

Alfred Crosby,
The Columbian Exchange
William Cronon,
Changes in the Land
Ted Steinberg,
Nature Incorporated
William Cronon,
Nature's Metropolis
Karl Jacoby,
Crimes Against Nature
Mike Davis,
Late Victorian Holocausts
Marc Reisner,
Cadillac Desert
Shawn Miller,
An Environmental History of Latin America
Vaclav Smil,
Creating the Twentieth Century
Joachim Radkau,
Nature and Power
Ted Steinberg,
Down to Earth

Okay, that's eleven. That's where I'll start. But feel free to suggest books, add titles to the listopia list, throw up a title or better yet a review on
reddit at /r/environmentalhistory, or whatever.

The Groundwater Threat

This Nature article about "The Global Groundwater Crisis" ( ) showed up in my newsfeed today. Although published in November, 2014, J. S. Famiglietti's claim that "Groundwater depletion the world over poses a far greater threat to global water security than is currently acknowledged" is no less true today. Groundwater accounts for fully a third of humanity's total water use -- another way of understanding this, Famiglietti says, is that two billion people's lives depend on groundwater. That's not entirely accurate, since we're not talking about whether people drink from taps connected to wells or rivers. 80% of water use is agricultural. But half of agricultural water currently comes from groundwater. So it's very fair to say a disruption of this source would have big implications for status quo agribusiness techniques. And that could endanger lives.

The article mentions that "very few major aquifers have been thoroughly explored in the manner of oil reservoirs. As a result, the absolute volume of groundwater residing beneath the land surface remains unknown." This is really astonishing, when you think about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But the fact that the Ogallala Aquifer has allowed the area wiped out by the Dust Bowl to be put back under the plow would suggest we ought to at least wonder how much water there is, wouldn't it?

The article says "Precipitation, snowmelt and streamflow are no longer enough to supply…society's water needs." But in its recommendations, the article suggests "surface and groundwater must be managed conjunctively, as 'one water.' " This approach seems likely to bury our awareness of groundwater depletion at a time we should be focusing on it. If we don't know how much groundwater there is, but we know we're mining it at an unsustainable rate, shouldn't we be preparing for the moment when it is gone?

The article concludes by observing that groundwater is "a critical element of national and international water supplies." This is another very explosive issue buried in calm institutional language. River flows are already the subject of interstate and international conflict. John Wesley Powell apparently suggested that state borders in the western US ought to conform to watersheds (according to Marc Reisner, whose
Cadillac Desert I'm currently reading). If everybody just pumps as much as they can before the folks in the next state or country do the same, it'll all be gone quickly. All the more reason to examine how (and where) we're going to survive on rainfall and snowmelt.

Lake Mead


I just finished reading The Water Knife and started Cadillac Desert. So I thought this Mother Jones article on the mega-drought was interesting.

The Water Knife

Just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's 2015 novel, The Water Knife. It's a futuristic thriller, set in a dystopian Nevada and Arizona. How distant the future setting might be is not specified, and I suppose depends on your opinion of how quickly the water is going to run out in the Southwest. However, it's not the remote future. Texas refugees are the "Okies" of this story, called "Merry Perrys" due to their irrational belief that if they just pray hard enough, the rain will come.


Bacigalupi is the former Web Editor for High Country News and lives in Colorado, upstream from the action of the novel. Unlike some of the other sci-fi books I've been reading this summer (Seveneves, The Three Body Problem, Howey's Silo Series, and even Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl), there's not a lot of really out-there speculative science to grab onto here. There are Arcologies, but that's not so undoable in today's world. The only tech we don't have might be the growth-hormone drip the protagonist uses to recover from being shot full of holes.

So this is a story about the present, disguised as a story about the future. An interesting solution to the problem another of the main characters has in the book, when a scary "executive" from a California water company suggests she "could write about anything I wanted, but maybe I should stop worrying about what California was doing here or there and spend more time worrying about other things." (p. 164) Later in the story, the reporter agonizes over the stories that don't get written. Made me wonder whether Bacigalupi or any of his journalist friends had ever had a conversation like that. Also reminded me of why my revenge novel about the 2000 Cochabamba Water War is still in a drawer. Needs to become a little more fictional.

The most interesting but also LOL aspect of the book, for me, was the constant reference to Marc Reisner's Environmental History classic,
Cadillac Desert. The evil water-queen of Vegas has a signed first edition. A mid-level Cali water exec also has a copy, in which he hides the document everybody is looking for. And close to the end, the protagonist says to the reporter:

Every water manager, every bureaucrat--even you got that damn book. All of you with your nice hard-copy first editions, all of you pretending like you know shit…Acting like you saw this shit coming…That guy Reisner now, That man saw things. He looked. All these people now, though? The ones who put that book up like a trophy? They're the ones who stood by and let it happen. They call him one of their prophets now. But they weren't listening back then.

So. We can consider ourselves warned.

National Geographic Redraws Arctic

This image of changes in Arctic Ice depicted in National Geographic maps between 1999 and 2014 suggests that acceptance of Global Warming is becoming mainstream. Unfortunately, the article that surrounds the image suggests the opposite. Even Nat Geo couldn't avoid framing their discussion of sea ice changes with a reference to President Obama's recent climate speech. I didn't watch his speech, even though there was a handy link to it in the article. Because I believe Climate Change is one of the biggest problems of our time. But I don't believe Obama has anything useful to say about it.

The comments section of the Nat Geo article will probably be overrun by climate change denier trolls. But in a way, it serves them right. They made the arctic ice story subservient to politics by framing it with the Obama story. Maybe more harm than good.