The historian William Cronon has been in the news recently in the US because of assaults on his civil liberties and academic freedom by the Wisconsin Republican Party.
This story is likely to be of interest to Green Left Weekly readers because of the collision between university research and powerful corporate interests.
However, Cronon's work as an environmental historian since the 1970s means that he deserves to be read by all those who take an interest in environmental issues and ecosocialist politics.
In books such as Changes in the Land, Nature's Metropolis and articles such as “The Trouble with Wilderness” he has challenged the common sense of the environmental movement.
Cronon's recent battle with the Republicans began when he noticed that legislation was being introduced to roll back environmental protection, ironically introduced by Republicans at the start of the 20th century.
He posted on the Scholar as Citizen blog an entry titled: “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here).”
He noted that the anti-environmental legislation had been manufactured not by state Republicans but by a secretive body funded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.
Wisconsin Republicans immediately went on the counterattack, demanding that the university hand over Cronon's private emails.
In the state that sent the redbaiting Joe McCarthy to the Senate and where a battle against trade union rights has raged over the past months, there is a long tradition of attacks not only on the left but also on academics and others who challenge authority.
Cronon, recently a president of the American History Society, is an intelligent and respected figure. So far the Republican's attack has damaged their party more than him.
Cronon is not a political figure or an activist, he is an academic who has spent decades carefully researching environmental history and policy making. Often his findings have overturned the previous common sense and provoked important debates.
The very idea that concern for the environment means little unless backed up by good natural science and social science is at the heart of Cronon's work. He has long argued that not only is ecology a complex science and unintended consequences are often likely, but that human interactions with the rest of nature can, even when well meant, give rise to unusual results.
In a varied career I would pick out two particularly important piece of work from Cronon: “The Trouble with Wilderness” and Changes in the Land.
“The Trouble with Wilderness” argues that, particularly in North America, conservation has often been based on the need to preserve areas untainted by human influence. The history of US conservation can be traced from the writer David Henry Thoreau (who in 1845 went to live in the supposed “wilds” of New England in his hut next to Walden Pond) via the famous 19th century US conservationist John Muir.
Muir once remarked that if there were a war between humanity and the bears, he would go and fight on the side of the bears.
Muir inspired the creation of the Wilderness Society, which still exists today, and the creation of National Parks like Yellowstone. In turn, in 1991 Earth First! was founded in the US with a demand to defend wilderness. Notions of deep ecology are built on the foundation of “wilderness”.
Cronon notes that notions of wilderness are deeply rooted in Western society and can be traced back to the Bible, where Jesus and other prophets spent time in deserts and gained inspiration.
However, as Cronon noted, “wilderness” is a troublesome concept. Wilderness has often been used to pursue policies that exclude people who live most ecologically especially indigenous people and farmers.
The notion of national parks has spread through the world but with them as come the exclusion of peasants, indigenous and other people who live in valuable and biodiverse environments.
Indeed Cronon says: “To this day, for instance, the Blackfeet continue to be accused of ‘poaching’ on the lands of Glacier National Park that originally belonged to them.”
The notion of “wilderness” has done huge amounts of damage to humans who live most sensitively in rich ecosystems.
“Wilderness” is a cultural construct argues Cronon. Human beings have always altered the environment, there is no environment on Earth that has not been altered by human beings.
We might add that while human beings are part of “nature”, even in the absence of human beings nature would be in a state of flux.
Changes in the Land is a substantial and revolutionary piece of research. First, published in 1983, it involved many years of research and is a benchmark in the origins of the discipline of environmental history.
It shows how the first Europeans to colonise New England transformed the environment and contrasts indigenous and European approaches to the environment.
Cronon rejects ideas of the “noble savages”, showing that the indigenous transformed the environment, for example, by creating open parkland environments by removing tree cover for fuel.
Cronon does argue that if we see all “use” of nature as “abuse” and forget that human beings are also part of nature, we will not way of assessing how to maintain ecological quality: “Why in the debates about pristine natural areas are ‘primitive’ peoples idealized, even sentimentalized, until the moment they do something unprimitive, modern, and unnatural, and thereby fall from environmental grace?
“What are the consequeneces of a wilderness ideology that devalues productive labor and the very concrete knowledge that comes from working the land with one's own hands?”
However, it is clear from Cronon’s account that the indigenous people maintained ecological cycles even as they changed them.
Europeans had a frontier mentality, destroying resources and moving on when they had laid them waste. Cronon shows how economics, politics, cultural norms and above all property rights are closely linked and create different forms of “nature”.
The indigenous rejected commodities and shared the land,. Private ownership of resources was absurd to them and leisure rather than accumulation was their luxury.
The Europeans attacked the indigenous as backward and failed to understand how their highly sophisticated economic systems worked.
Seeing abundant nature, the Europeans often failed to understand that hard winters diminished the productivity of the land. Because of this, many of the first New Englanders starved to death. Cronon shows that an economic system based on the commodity had a devastating effect on the environment.
The indigenous society was destroyed by an invading system of commodity production, and with it nature was degraded.
Cronon quotes at the conclusion of the book the words of the geographer Carl Sauer who said simply we should not “confuse yield with loot”. No wonder those who are so confused are pursuing Cronon as part of their campaign to exploit the environment of Wisconsin.