Krysti Oschal

15 February 2017

Reaction Paper #3

In Frank Sinatra’s song Love and Marriage, he famously sang “you can’t have one without the other”. That notion is applicable to William Cronon’s view of the “wilderness” and society in his piece “The Trouble with Wilderness”. Cronon argues that the idea of “wilderness” is a social and cultural construct created to satisfy people’s need to escape from the hardships and troubles of everyday life. He writes the wilderness “is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives”.

Many writers advocating for the preservation of “wilderness” due so on the basis that nature has an intrinsic value and that man has an innate desire for it. These ideas are echoed in Muir, Abbey, Thoreau, McKibben and others. Compared to those writers, Cronon’s argument is provocative because it challenges many of the fundamental premises of the environmental movement.

Both explicitly and implicitly, Cronon highlights the shortcomings of man as a primary reason for our fascination with “wilderness”. He implies that the human race would rather flight than fight. He explains how “wilderness” is synonymous with hope, for example the myth of the American frontier and the clear distinction between humans and nature. If “wilderness” still exists there is still some part of the world to run to when the idea of starting fresh is easier than facing challenges directly. This begs the question: can the environmental movement be summed up as nothing more than fear? Cronon writes that some of the biggest supporters for “wilderness” preservation are those that have gained the most from the capitalist system and industrialization.

In the process of explaining the merits of “wilderness”, American society has misrepresented the Native Americans’ relationship with the environment. Native Americans’ are portrayed to have had a minimal impact on the environment, and even are depicted as stewards of the environment. However, Cronon debunks these commonly held assumptions. He cites examples of Native Americans burning large areas of land for farming. He writes that Native American tribes played a significant role in manipulating the environment. Additionally, Charles Mann writes that researchers grossly underestimated the time frame when Naïve Americans first appeared in the Americas. If we do not know definitely when Native Americans first appeared, how can we possibly know that the Native Americans had a minimal impact on the environment? Mann writes that when Columbus arrived in the West Indies it was “thoroughly dominated by humankind”. With that information in mind, it is not far-fetched to claim that history is taught through rose colored glasses.

Interestingly, Cronon describes the accounts of early English settlers in New England in his book “Changes in the Land”. These settlers are not described as viewing the Native Americans as perfectly harmonious with the environment. Rather, it appears that the settlers are more interested in comparing the typical gender roles and culture of the Native Americans to their own. Cronon’s historical account of the “new world” is vastly different the story of Pocahontas and what children are taught in elementary schools

Cronon made an excellent point. He identified the subconscious reasoning for people’s fascination with the “wilderness”. While his ideas depict the human race as more fragile than many would like to accept, his view towards the environment is pragmatic and honest. While Cronon’s views are starkly different from many other environmental writers, I believe his ideas will resonate with more people than one might initially expect.

Written on February 15th, 2017 , Uncategorized

Krysti Oschal

8 February 2017

Reaction Paper #2

How do you communicate science to the masses? This is a question that arises in nearly every natural science course, but especially environmental science and studies courses. This is a question that has been asked since the beginning of the environmental movement and still does not have a widely-accepted answer today. When reading The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, I realized that many writers advocating for conservation, preservation or the necessity of combating climate change make the same argument—the necessity of “nature” or “wilderness” for the health and sanity of the human condition. Throughout his book, McKibben routinely touches on Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs and other widely read authors. These men lived at different times, told different stories but all had the same argument. If there are not two exact people on this planet, why are all of these authors making the same exact argument?

The first half of Bill McKibben’s book is an account of how people manipulated and changed the environment. He describes nature as entirely septate and independent of the influence of man. He provides facts, figures and data points to quantify the changes that have occurred or are predicted to occur in the world. He follows the numbers with an analogy or anecdotal account of changes he has witnessed in “nature”. For example, he provides scientific evidence about “biomass crashes” in pine forests due to global warming. To contextualize the information he just conveyed, he quotes a historian referencing famine— “There are relatively few people who die directly from starvation; they die from dysentery or various infectious diseases.” (30) McKibben is arguing that articulating the “why” trees or humans die does not matter, so much, because in the end both are dead. It should not be surprising how McKibben sets up his arguments because he spends the first few pages explaining why everything is a matter of perspective.

Throughout the book, McKibben argues that man has finally dominated nature and that nature is dead. However, he also explains that consequences of anthropogenic climate change are not definitive or absolute. He explains how different leading NASA models do not come to the same conclusions. This begs the question, if people have truly dominated nature then should we be able to know the definitive impacts of our actions? I say yes. McKibben needs to be pessimistic to show the gravity of his point, however I think that it is discouraging to the average reader rather than encouraging the average reader to act. Painting such a bleak and hopeless picture of the future of humanity will not compel people to change their actions or lifestyles. What is the point of changing behavior if it is already too late?

Near the end of the book, McKibben said that individuals making small changes for the betterment of “nature” is a gesture. Intermittingly throughout his writing he makes statements aimed at understanding the lack of human initiative in preventing the end of nature. For example, he argues that people do not attach themselves to nature because irreversible damage has already occurred. Then, McKibben continues on claiming that it is the same reasoning behind why people do not befriend the terminally ill. These statements and others show that McKibben is conflicted about whether nature can be saved, despite the strong statement he makes declaring nature as already dead. Why spend time contemplating reasons why something is not being saved if there is no hope of saving it? McKibben does not acknowledge this inconsistency in his argument.

Written on February 8th, 2017 , Uncategorized

Krysti Oschal

1 February 2017

Reaction Paper #1

Howard Zahniser’s “The Need for Wilderness Areas” described the necessity of areas that must be “managed as to be left unmanaged”. His passion for preservation of the natural environment is admirable, however his approach is both extreme and narrow. Zahniser uses strong language throughout the piece in addition to making vast assumptions about the preferences and attitudes people have towards the “wilderness”. He argues that the “wilderness” is the perfect place to find peace and is unrivaled esthetically. He places the environment on a level playing field as the human race and describes it in spiritual terms. He goes as far as to say that the need for “wilderness” is innate. Initially I found Zahniser to have an extremely secular view of the world, but then realized that the “wilderness” is his religion. For others, especially religious people reading his writing, they find the same solace in their faith as Zahniser does in the “wilderness”. Morevoer, I have the same awe-stricken reaction standing in the middle of Time Square or looking up at a skyscraper as I do looking out at the Grand Canyon. Zahniser’s argument is flawed because it fails to take into account that human ingenuity may be just as impressive as the “wilderness” to some people.

Implicitly, Zahniser acknowledges in his writing that his view is a minority and unconventional one. He argues that it would be difficult to find someone in a democratic government that would not jump at the opportunity to serve a minority public interest. Overall, Zahniser’s writing is a perfect example of why the environmental movement has only been partially successful at reaching the masses. Zahniser, like Thoreau, could be interpreted as being both elitist and condescending in the way they write. Their use of strong language and grandiose comparisons are not and should not be surprising. The authors are trying to show the importance of the cause they are advocating for, whether that is land preservation in Zahniser’s case or transcendentalism in Thoreau’s case, to an audience that is not guaranteed to be receptive. However, this approach does not resonate with everyone because the tone of the writing is not much different than a parent lecturing a child.

In “Walden”, Thoreau argues that people are at the behest of the material world and are slaves to their responsibilities. Thoreau sees no difference between various types of commitments. He says, “As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.” (62) After reading this line of Thoreau, I was challenged not to have the rest of his writing fall on deaf ears. Thoreau’s work implies that people are not conscious of the choices that they are making. Abandoning my responsibilities would not bring me happiness nor make me content as Thoreau implies. For me, commitments that I choose to engage in freely are some of my greatest learning experiences. For both Zahniser and Thoreau there is an objective morality, meaning they believe their thoughts on life and the role nature should play are undoubtedly correct.

When viewing Zahniser and Thoreau through this lens, it is easier to understand why environmental movements and campaigns against climate change are not always warmly accepted by the general public. People, especially Americans, do not like to be told how to live their lives. These writers, while not explicitly, are imposing their values and being extremely critical of those who do not prescribe to the same set of values as their own. Arguing for land perseveration or environmentalism on the basis of morality is not much different than Prohibition in the 1920s.

In conclusion, conservation and preservation of the environment is important to the future well-being of the planet and the human race. However, the way in which conservation and preservation are advocated for is extremely important. Discussing the environment in absolute terms and using personification is not going to resonate with a large portion of the population in the way Zahniser and Thoreau intended.

Written on February 1st, 2017 , Wild Nature (February 1)

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ENST 406 Senior Seminar

Understanding the Human Place in Nature — Spring 2017