Do environmental historians treat colonial history as a period of decline from an environmental Golden Age? Or, do they see this era merely as a time of transition from one subsistence and social system to another? Are these historians telling a moral story?
History has a wide range of subsets that are studied by different scholars to help understand the co-relation of Human Beings and their environment. McNeill defines the term environmental history as the relation of human beings and their activities with nature and their surroundings.
Environmental historians have studied the advancement of human behavior and technology with their effects on nature. Many environmental historians, argue that by studying past human behavior and there effects on nature, they can easily identify the causes that lead to depletion of our forests and water catchment areas.
Most scholars in this field tend to ask the question is environmental history the best hope for the future? by being able to study human behavior over the period of time, Do we have a particular pattern that affects nature? , Are we predictable or unpredictable?. Such questions have been the motive of most scholars to dig deep into our history to help them understand human behavioral activities and their effects to the environment,
This paper is going to try and elaborate the activities of man towards environment in the colonial era and its effects on nature. By better understanding the past we can be able to prevent environmental degradation. It will also help understand how improvement of technology has helped facilitate human behavior towards the environment. American history as diverse as it is has helped in understanding the American Environmental History.
Environmental historians argue that they not only look at human physical behavior but also socio-economic and political behaviors. There have been political decisions that have been implemented by leaders; there decisions have at times had a direct impact on nature.
Cronon examines the changes and the ecological transformation that has taken place from pre-colonial era to post-Colonial era in England. According to him, changes were witnessed after colonization. Cronon argues that the dialectical relationship that existed between human institutions and ecological availability led to transformation in New England. Many historians including William Cronon argue that environment may at first determine and shape the range of options that are available to a particular people at a given period of time. However, culture may take over and reshape the environment to respond with the choices they have made. The reshaped environment results in a set of new possibilities for reproduction of culture. Hence this begins a new cycle of mutual determination.
Cronon explains that the transformations that took place from the colonial period to post-colonial period did not directly result from the colonizer's ability to manipulate. The Native Americans had been doing just that for centuries. For instance, through the use of fire, the native man in the pre-colonial era had cleared the forest underbrush to enhance hunting opportunities. Many environmental historians including Cronon examine the loss of life that the Native man suffered from the introduction of European diseases. The interaction of the Native Americans with the colonialists resulted in epidemics of smallpox and other diseases among the indigenous people. The outbreaks took an enormous toll on the Native Americans. These reduced their population in the New England Area from seventy thousand to twelve thousand. Most of the environmental historians such as William Cronon and Alfred W. Crosby attribute the changes strictly to environmental or biological mechanisms. They claim that no persons or persons were responsible for the changes or transformations.
Cronon in his works argues that the colonialists did not impose on the Native Americans their mode of using resources such as the mercantile system. He notes that the Native Americans themselves chose to extract pelts and other resources from their lands. In Cronons view, the Native inhabitants made their choices autonomously that led to the end of their traditional ways. The colonialists and the Native Americans had views that differed on land and property. The Europeans had come to the New England area to seek merchantable commodities. According to them, nature was objected to being taken and sold for profit but not a system or even a community of relations. This according to Crosby portrayed the Europeans as immoral. On the other hand, the Native American has a moral view on land. According to them, the land was what made them live. Later on, the Native Americans made deals with the European colonialist. The Indians perceived the deals as trading the rights to land use rather than the land itself. Note that the native people lost their land since their conception of owning property were extremely radically different from the conception of the European colonialists.
The native people lost land in the colonial period. William Cronon in his book, Merchant, claims that the Native Americans were left to depend on the white settlers after losing their land. They were however provided with the means of survival by the European colonialist. The Native Americans in response to the insatiable demand of the colonialist's trapped huge numbers of beaver. With time the dramatic loss of beaver and other fur-bearing animals had a profound impact on the ecology and environment of New England. A natural alteration of the ecosystem was provided for by the beaver dams. Hence eliminating the dam makers implied recreating the environment.
Over time American History has evolved since the pre-colonial period. Presidents, scholars and artists have expressed their views towards the environment based on history. Cronon in the article Uncommon Grounds, covers a wide prospect on the influence of artists in expressing environmental history. The book is based on a number of articles written by different environmental historians expressing their views on the American Environmental History. Apparently, the American Golden Age which came to in existent after President Woodrow Wilson talk to the League of Nations about the World War. This is the era whereby the Americans jumpstarted their development.
In relation to the environment, scholars have written articles on trying to explain the nature of man and the environment. Perkins in his article Man and Nature He explains the character of man towards the environment. He argues that Man is designed to develop, even though they are coded to protect their surrounding but man is a selfish being. It is through this argument that we find that William Penn, a real estate entrepreneur and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, imposes an order on forest clearance. In 1681, he orders that for every 5 acres that is cut, the people should leave 1 acre uncut. This way there is room for environment conservancy. This rule prevented mans nature of greed and yearn to power with the cost of destruction towards civilization. 1
Modes of Prophecy and Production: Placing Nature in History, Cronon explains history and environment, the mans role in the change of environment. In the article he explains the three levels of analysis in environmental history as stated by Worster. The three levels; political economies, the dynamic of the natural ecosystem and the behavior of man in relation with the first two analysis, helps in understanding the chronological timeline of history and the environment. Through these levels of analysis we can understand the role man has played in protecting and destroying the environment through his quest towards civilization. 2
Through the political level, Cronon explains how political systems have influenced the environment. He goes ahead and explains how different leaders have set different policies in protecting the environment. Under President Zachary Taylor, the Department of interior was formed to help in culture, nature and environment conservation. Its main role was to protect and manage the federally owned lands. In 1893, Chicago hosts an exposition whereby scholars, industrialists and entrepreneurs discuss ways to model cities and infrastructures. The seminar led to the creation of the US forest service. The Exposition discussed ways to which development could proceed without destroying nature.
Through nature, explorers and adventurers wrote in their journals more about their expeditions. John James Audubon, who published his book, Birds of America, expresses his thoughts on what he experienced in America. It is through the books that he shared about the different species and how the Native Americans idolized some of the birds and related them with symbol of power and religion. German painter also expressed his interest on nature through the painting he did in 1863 after an expedition through Saint Louis, he made sketches of the landscape that he used to paint The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak.
McNeill J.R. The Histography of Environmental History. Georgetown University, Washington Dc, 2017.Cranon, William. Modes of Prophecy and Production: Placing Nature in History. Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (1990): 1122-1131.
Merchant, Carolyn. Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative. In Uncommon Ground, edited by William Cranon,(Norton and Company) 132-159
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