Major Problems in American Environmental History
Essay Questions on Chapters 1-7
1. Choose one of the chapters in Major Problems in American Environmental History. Write an environmental history of the chapter you have chosen from one of the following perspectives:
a. The perspective of a participant living at the time. For example, a farm woman, a merchant, a slave, a beaver, a boll weevil, a pathogen.
b. The perspective of an environmental historian of today.
Your essay should include an analysis of the interactions among at least three of the following dimensions of environmental history: ecology, economy, technology, population, gender, social institutions, politics, and ideas (religion, myth, science, literature, philosophy etc.) You may wish to use one of the models from Chapter 1 (Worster, Crosby, Merchant) as a guide to constructing your history. Use the suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter.
Be creative and flexible in the mode of presenting your ideas, but also be faithful to the historical sources. Do not invent history as you wish or imagine it had happened! Keep in mind that you are writing a history of human interactions with the environment at a particular time and place, not a general social or political history of the period.
2. Compare and contrast the approaches to environmental history of Donald Worster, William Cronon, Alfred Crosby, and Carolyn Merchant (see Chapter one of Major Problems in American Environmental History). In what ways are the approaches compatible? In what ways do they differ from each other? What critique would you make of the approaches? What is your own method of doing environmental history?
3. An omniscient diety wishes to assess American attitudes and practices toward the environment in the light of its history from early colonization to the mid-nineteenth century. After some thought she appoints a committee consisting of Wheetamoo (a seventeenth century New England sunksquaw--a female tribal leader), William Bradford, Thomas Jefferson, the author of American Husbandry (who still wishes to remain anonymous), Benjamin Rush, and Henry David Thoreau.
After assembling some lengthy documents (that resemble those in Major Problems in American Environmental History, the committee agrees on only one conclusion: use of natural "gifts" or resources seems to be, in part, determined by the desire to support different styles of living that use the environment differently.
Wheetamoo insists that her people's style of living was the best since they took better care of their environment than the people who took it over. Bradford, however, defends the colonists: "You certainly couldn't have expected us to dump all our cultural baggage when we landed. We could not have found happiness in your longhouses. Besides wilderness is frightening." Thoreau attempts to mediate but gets caught up in conflicting nineteenth century values. Detached and rational Jefferson decides they should consider each constitutency in turn: Native Americans, New England cononists, Southern planters, subsistence farmers, and agricultural improvers.
As a member of the press, you must report on the following details of the committee's findings.
a. How does the committee describe each group in terms of its practices and beliefs?
b. Can the members reach an agreement that preservation of the environment is a value? Why or why not?
c. In your editorial opinion, which lifestyle is most compatible with your own environmental values? Be sure to refer to use footnotes to refer to the committee's documentation.
4. By the mid-nineteenth century, a group of writers, painters, and other eastern elites had developed Romantic ideals about the American environment.
a. How would you characterize these ideals?
b. How well does this Romantic view reflect the attitudes and activities of average American men and women who settled the lands east of the Mississippi before 1850?
5. The essays by Donald Worster and Carolyn Merchant in Chapter one use multileveled frameworks to interpret environmental history. These levels include ecology, (or natural environments of the past), modes of production, modes of reproduction, and ideas (or consciousness). Create your own interpretive framework, or model, or use one of these presented in Chapter 1 to compare two of the following:
a. Native American life in North America at the onset of European colonization.
b. Subsistence farming in the inland-upland regions of the American colonies in the eighteenth century.
c. Market agriculture and lumbering from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.
6. In their afterlives, Henry David Thoreau and Calvin Colton meet and begin a lively discussion. Thoreau begins to rebuke Colton for his view of America as a "country of self-made men" and the American environment as a source of "inexhaustible" wealth. The result of Colton's perspective, he argues, is that entrepreneurs have vanquished wilderness and that the American farmer know nature only "as a robber."
Colton retorts that Thoreau's life style and its implicit criticism of civilization were made possible only through generations of hard-working immigrants who started from humble origins in a country where "one had a good a chance as another, according to his talents, prudence, and personal exertions." Colton insists that it was easy for Thoreau to scorn organized society when Thoreau's wilderness was only a mile and a half from town.
Thoreau asks Colton to kindly remember that it was no easy task for him to lead the life he did, that he was out of step with his age, listening to his own drummer. His critique anticipated the modern sensibility that "in wildness is the preservation of the world."
Both Thoreau and Colton are familiar with the historical documents and essays of Major Problems in American Environmental History and decide to use them to advance their arguments. By putting yourself alternately in the shoes of each, construct a dialogue between Colton and Thoreau. In this hypothetical conversation (or essay if you prefer), illuminate the historical basis (i.e. roots) of each man's intellectual stance and conclude by evaluating each from your own perspective.
7. From the perspective of an environmental historian, assess the settlement and transformation of eastern North America from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries.
How were "cultural" factors (such as technology, social and economic organization, and the role of ideas) and "natural" factors (such as climate, habitat, and the laws of ecology) mutually influential in shaping the outcome? How did the relative importance of culture versus the natural environment vary for different ethnic and racial groups? How did this ratio change over time?
8. Some people believe that each generation writes its own history. Environmental historians maintain that until recently few historians have used an ecological model in their work. Major Problems in american Environmental History gives students an opportunity to write their own ecological interpretation of American history.
Analyze the development of American responses to the environment from the colonial period to the middle of the nineteenth century. In writing your ecological history consider the following:
a. How did changes in technology, population, ideology, and economic and social organization affect responses to the environment?
b. What role did differences in gender, ethnicity, race, and geography play in shaping the diversity of responses?
c. Can we find lasting continuities throughout the period?
9. Groups of European migrated to the American South after 1607 (the settlement of Jamestown) and soon thereafter began importing slaves until 1807 when the slave trade was halted by law. Carrying their agricultural traditions with them, they spread out across the south. In the process of adapting to the southern environment, they changed the land as well as many of their own beliefs and practices.
What agricultural practices and attitudes toward the environment did Europeans and Africans develop in the New World? How did the two groups differ in their interactions with the land? To what extent was the environment modified to fit their different needs and purposes?
10. Democracy and the despoliation of the environment seem to emerge together in America. Write an essay critically evaluating this thesis, being sure to define terms such as "democracy" and "despoliation."
11. The "American Dream" has resulted from the idea that America afforded all people an equal opportunity to achieve economic independence. In the period 1600-1850, the fulfillment of this dream occurred through the exploitation of natural resources. Drawing on the documents and essays in Major Problems in American Environmental History, critically evaluate (a) several specific effects of resource exploitation on the environment, and (b) the effects of resource exploitation in creating social and economic differentiation. (Suggested definition of exploitation: the use of the land and its resources for individual gain or for profit.)
12. Attitudes toward nature in Euramerican and Native American history up to 1850 can be broadly classified into two perspectives: (1) A dualistic philosophy of the separateness of people from nature in which people have viewed themselves as a "higher form" and the natural world as having a lower status such that it must be subdued, cultivated, mastered, and managed. (2) A view manifested in animism and romanticism, in which nature is seen as animate, living, wild, and spiritual, with the human "spirit" intimately connected to it through direct intuitive interaction.
Using the documents and essays in Major Problems in American Environmental History, discuss these two attitudes toward nature and the tensions between them as manifested in individual persons, writers, or artists and in American culture as a whole up to 1850.