Instead of The Trouble with Wilderness

The past couple of years, I've assigned William Cronon's famous essay, "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature," as an introduction to Environmental History in my survey class. I was re-reading it today, and I decided not to use it -- or at least not to use it as the first reading for a bunch of non-history majors in a class that promises to be mostly about reinserting the environment into US History and explaining how we got where we are today.

I decided instead, to write my own short introduction. It's much shorter than Cronon's essay, and doesn't cover the range of ideas he introduces. Most notably, for me, it leaves out the literary references that I think make "The Trouble with Wilderness" an important essay for culture-oriented Environmental Historians, but less than ideal for my audience.

I do try to complicate the definitions of environment, nature, and history a bit for my students. But in a more introductory way, that I think will open my students up to the bigger picture without taking them too far away from my goal in the first week, which is really to cover the whole period from human origins to 1491.

Anyway, here's what I came up with. It will also become the new Introduction to my textbook (in an example of the
instant-revision process I talked about recently):
Environmental History is about looking at the past as if the environment mattered. Well of course the environment matters, you’re probably thinking. Most people consider themselves environmentalists to some degree and believe we should be doing more to protect the world around us. For some that sentiment comes from a sense of stewardship or the impulse to leave things better for our children than we got them. Others believe the natural world has rights every bit as important as the rights of humans. But we should remember that even people we think of as not valuing the environment actually care very deeply. After all, the environment is where the oil comes from, as well as the coal, gold, and copper that make the modern world run.

More specifically, when we say Environmental History is about looking at the past as if the environment mattered, we mean as if the environment influenced events. As if the physical world helped shape what people chose to do. As if landforms, oceans, climate, and resources affected where people lived, what they did, and how they related to each other – all the choices and actions that roll up together to produce our cultures and our history.

Long ago the world seemed so big and human actions seemed so small that it was easy to ignore our effect on the world around us. Today we understand that people have a big impact on our surroundings. Scientists have recently suggested that the Anthropocene – the geological era during which humans have had a significant impact on the planet – actually began when the first farmers started plowing fields about ten thousand years ago. And we're becoming aware that our environment has played a big part in our individual lives and in the growth of our cultures. Instead of being just a neutral backdrop, the environment is now recognized as a powerful shaper of human choices. That is, history.

But what’s the environment? Wilderness only? Does it include natural landscapes that have been altered by people, like farmland and managed forests? What about city neighborhoods where you can’t see anything green? In Environmental History, the environment means everything around us. The natural world, but also the manmade world. Often it's difficult to draw a distinct line between those two. We intuitively feel that wooded suburbs are a bit more natural than the city, and the wilderness even more. But if we look closer we may find that suburban trees and fields were part of a developer's design, and even wilderness areas are special manmade places that have been deliberately protected or sometimes even rehabilitated so they resemble our idea of pristine nature.

The idea of nature, we should remember, is an idea. Throughout our lives we’ve been taught what nature means, even if we’ve never read a book about it or talked about the idea in a classroom. For many people, the idea of nature doesn’t include us. People and our cultures are often considered to be outside nature; sometimes even imagined as the enemies of nature. So it’s useful to remind ourselves that although humans are capable of behaving quite differently from the other species we share the planet with, we’re no less natural. People evolved over millions of years, changing in response to environmental challenges. These changes were physical and behavioral, and since a big part of human behavior involves thought, we ought to remember that the ways we think were shaped by the world we evolved in.

If environment and nature are surprisingly complicated words, so is history. As Americans, we spend a lot of our lives learning and retelling stories that describe who we are and who we ought to be. Often these stories come to us in the form of family traditions and the civics and social studies lessons we absorbed as children. But even when they’ve been celebrated in History books, many of these stories are not as true as we'd like to think.

There’s an old saying that history is written by the winners. Although it’s cynical, there’s some truth to the idea that people in positions of power are more likely to leave documents behind telling their stories and reflecting their points of view. Luckily, historians don’t just accept documents we find in archives without considering the source. Recently, historians have put a lot of work into finding the stories of those who weren’t powerful enough to write their own histories. Environmental Historians have gone a step farther, telling the stories of animals, plants, and other elements of the world that have no voices of their own, but have nonetheless had important impacts on our history.

Another thing we notice when we look closely is that many of our stories have changed quite a bit over time, as have our reasons for telling them. History isn't just data about the past, it's the stories we tell about the past. The stories we choose to tell and the ways we choose to tell them often have a lot to do with the concerns of the present. It’s no accident Environmental History has blossomed precisely when people are looking at the world around them and wondering, “How did we get here, and what can we do about it?”
So where does that leave us? American Environmental History, for the purposes of this course, means looking at our past with special attention to how our surroundings influenced our opportunities, our choices, and our actions. At the same time, we’ll consider how our actions have changed the environment. It’s a feedback loop that has been spinning since people first burned a pasture or built a village.

There are two basic elements of looking at a past that includes the environment. First, we’ll pay close attention to the physical world. For example, the shape of the American continents and the fact that they’re connected to each other but cut off from the rest of the world has influenced American cultures from their prehistoric beginnings to the present. Landforms and waterways, natural resources and climate have all been key factors in how our society has developed and how it continues to change. Second, we’ll remember that how we think about the environment, like how we think about the past, has changed over time, and those changes affect our current choices and actions. You don't have to dig too deeply into the headlines to find debates raging over coal mining, oil pipelines, depleted fisheries, and climate change. Beliefs about the world around us and our role in it are important elements of the competing positions taken by advocates on either side of these contentious issues.

Our goal is to deal with both events and ideas. But realistically, this is a survey of American Environmental History stretching from prehistory to the present. We're going to spend most of our time on events, especially because the environmental influences on many key events in American History are not well understood. Too often our stories of America have devoted all their attention to political debates or to the philosophies of elite leaders like the founding fathers. These tales are often told against a blank background, an invisible environment that isn't part of the story at all. The main goal of this course is to show that it's really not possible to understand our past while ignoring the environment.