21 October 2012

Following the US Model for Preserving "Nature"


Picture nature.  What do you see when asked to imagine a scene that embodies nature for you?  Most people would respond that they picture a vast space of uninhabited land with lots of trees, maybe some animals, mountains, or bodies of water, but the underlying theme seems to be no people around.  What is the reason behind this idea of people and nature being mutually exclusive?  The truth is that we, and by we I mean mainly the United States, have completely fabricated this representation of nature.  There are very few parts of the planet that are uninhabited by human life and those places aren’t lush forests teeming with flora and fauna, they’re located in the polar caps or in the depths of volcanoes where very few life forms can survive.  The concept of uninhabited wilderness was created in the early nineteenth century in the United States with the start of national parks and forest reservations to “preserve nature.”



In 1864, Yosemite became the model for national parks throughout the country and eventually, much of the world (Usher 150).  What many people fail to recognize, or even realize, is that in order for these parks to be created, nature had to be manipulated.  In this instance I am using the term nature as it truly exists in the world, including the people and animals that have lived there for generations.  To establish the great national parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier, Native Americans that lived within those artificially drawn boundaries had to be removed.  “Acknowledging the fact of dispossession reveals American wilderness to be emptied, rather than empty land (149).”  The problem here is not only that people were forced off of the land on which their people had lived for generations, but also that this move to venerate the concept of uninhabited wilderness spread like wildfire.  It quickly became the norm for people to think of nature as unpopulated, and with the problem of forcibly removing people from their homes out of sight and out of mind, governments the world over began to adopt this model.

Another trend that’s found involves the natural animal inhabitants of the designated parks or sanctuaries.  In the early years of American national parks, animal populations were controlled even as the parks were being advertized as “true wilderness.”  Animal species that were seen as more desirable were taken care of and provided with food during the winter to ensure that there was a large population of healthy “desirable” animals in order to increase the chances of a spotting for tourists.  Park rangers killed off animals that were considered less desirable because they were potentially dangerous or just less attractive, and in some parks even tourists were allowed to hunt them (161).  These practices led to an unbalanced habitat, hurting both the “desirable” and “undesirable” species.  These practices were eventually stopped, but the ideal of getting to witness animals, especially animals consumers are most intrigued by, continues to hold strong in the expectations of tourists visiting national parks or sanctuaries.

In Thailand, there have been many national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that have been established for many years.  They have completely adopted the American model of trying to push people off of the land, fencing it in, modifying the animal population and selling it to eager consumers as “nature.”  This process only continues to support the distorted vision of “nature” the United States created and marketed, and it continues to pose as a problem for the people that live in areas that governments choose to make into national parks of wildlife sanctuaries.


Marissa Lowe
Williams College

10 comments:

Hannah said...

The social construction of nature is extremely problematic. You’re right on point Marissa, fencing nature results in a number of problems. In the U.S., our conception of nature has become a serious problem, especially when considering issues of environmental justice. Because we view nature as something, which is pristine, our society is unwilling to acknowledge many locations as nature. This often results in an unwillingness to protect locations from environmental degradation because they are not unspoiled nature. This reluctance to preserve land that is not “nature” results in damaged environments and even degraded health. For example, the area of southern Louisiana is often referred to as cancer alley because of the high levels of toxicity which result from industry. Locals have been fighting the high levels of pollution which have resulted in and overwhelming number of cancer diagnosis and deaths. But because the government and industry don’t view their urban environment as “nature” they seem to think that it is acceptable to spoil this land. Compartmentalizing what is nature and what is not results in our society protecting a small amount of land but at the expense of deeming it acceptable to destroy everything else.

Mallory West said...

I have also been thinking a lot about how our society has come to view nature, and the problems associated with this. When I think of just the word, “nature,” I envision a beautiful scene of the outdoors in which no other humans are present, and I believe that this is how many others see nature as well. Why is it that humans cannot exist in this ideal nature we’ve built up in our minds? And on top of creating this pristine, somewhat unrealistic picture of nature we are in the process of making it a commodity. Nature now seems to exist as a product held perfectly intact and maintained by national parks for us to consume when we want a break from “the real world” of industry and development. And like other products we consume, we’ve manipulated nature as you mention by selectively choosing wildlife and creating luxurious getaways in the middle of forests to fit our wants. I would be interested to hear more about Thai villagers’ conceptions of nature to see if their views and practices overlap at all with ours.

Anya Chang-DePuy said...

I have to admit that before the readings we had about national parks, especially in the US, I had no idea that people had completely removed humans from the picture when national parks were established. This was obviously very ignorant of me, but I think most people in American society have no idea either. Together, American society has come to a conclusion as to what nature is, and that definition has been accepted and passed on for generations. Because our definition is so widely accepted, just like many other definitions, not many people have stopped to question it. S people, just like me before I was introduced to this issue, don't even realize there is an issue that should be addressed. Our definition of nature proves to be problematic as thousands of people around the world are being told, or have been told that they are no longer compatible with nature, as our definition say so. But how can this be right if (some) humans can in fact live compatibly and harmoniously with nature? Just because the majority of humans no longer know how to do that, does not mean the people that do should not be punished for it.

April DesCombes said...

I think the quote you used, “Acknowledging the fact of dispossession reveals American wilderness to be emptied, rather than empty land (149),” is very important when talking about parks and the creation of this idea that nature is uninhabited and pristine. This idea of nature as uninhabited gives way for indigenous people to be denied their rights to the land which they have been living on for generations. The lack of acknowledgment of people being forcibly removed and the violation of human rights also contributes to the spread of the United States idea of national parks. Without taking responsibility and acknowledging wrongdoing, no lessons can be learned. I did not realize about the killing of “undesirable” animals and the taking care of “desirable” animals. This fact just reminds me of the commoditization of nature and how every thing humans touch becomes something that can be marketed and sold.

Alex M said...

I had never really stopped to think about the meaning behind the concept of nature before. It hadn’t occurred to me that the idea of nature that I had been so fond of was largely contrived by people to serve their needs and desires. It’s interesting how sustained manipulation of reality over a long period of time becomes the new norm and ultimate reality. From my average American perspective the new concept of nature seemed to be a reality I was fine living with. But after coming to Thailand I have a clearer understanding of how that reality affects the world. I never would have thought that the idea of pure nature as an entity separate from humans could contribute to people being displaced from their homes for the sake of preserving nature. In reality I didn’t really have to come to the other side of the world to see evidence of that reality either, but of course it’s easier to recognize trends like that in other people’s society as opposed to your own.

Ryan said...

This idea of nature is quite interesting. Prior to the readings for this unit I did not think much about the way I thought of nature. After getting this better understanding through unit 2 I began to unravel the socialization that has taken place, and how constructed and artificial nature is in the U.S. Unfortunately, this idea of nature has spread around the world and is affecting Thailand. Just like in the U.S., those with privilege and power get to decide and construct what will be considered desirable and use the tools of socialization to modify the way people in their county value nature. Also similar to the U.S. the native and lower class people are being pushed off their own land, which they have been living on for generations. They are being told they do not fit into nature despite they way of life that has respected and valued the land for many years. It is sad to see this happening and how nature is being disrespected along with the people who originally lived there.

Erin said...

Like Anya, I also was unaware of the way our National Parks in the US came to be. I was also unaware of how deeply rooted the American idea of “nature” is, even in my own head. It’s a little scary to think about how I’ve never questioned the concept of “pristine” wilderness and where it came from. After Unit Two, with all its readings and then the real-life version of what “emptying the wilderness” looks like here in Thailand, I am thinking a lot nature, and about the way I think about nature. I once heard a speech given about the National Park system in which the speaker proclaimed proudly that the United States had enough public national park land to cover half of France. Our National Park system is a source of national pride, and the idea has been exported to other countries looking to prove themselves worthy enough the “protect” their own forests and lands. No one ever seems to think about how the cost of “protection” is the destruction and disenfranchisement of local peoples.

Lucy said...

This is a funny concept I think and also a very thought provoking one. All of the time that I have spent outside, I never thought twice about calling it nature. In fact, I would get angry if there were any interferences with that notion of nature being "exclusive." Where did this idea come from? Society is the simple answer, but it is also the answer. What we know is what we have been taught. My refusal to accept [wo]man's additions to nature has stopped me from seeing [wo]man's natural role. Although, I think humans have overstepped their boundaries, we are still part of this natural world and our contributions are only showing the natural development and progression of humans. Natural nature, natural nature, natural nature. Maybe it's the purest's argument that nature should be without humans, but really, that doesn't make much sense because humans are nature.

"Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils."

Molly said...

What I find most compelling and interesting about this dilemma of pushing people of their land is when you compare how race and ethnicity play into it. In the case of the states, those who engendered the idea of "empty" and "pristine" nature did not really consider the people that they were kicking out as actual "Americans". In Thailand, however, it's Thais against Thais, and both parties know that. There is no ideology to justify the extermination or displacement of fellow citizens... except for the tacit understanding that it is the government against the villagers, the latter being almost always considered 2nd class citizens...

I really like the concept of nature that the U'facs brought up for this unit... that nature is actually everywhere. Just because it's full of humans and their developments doesn't mean it's not natural. There are little geckos all over my apartment, and that's nature too. There is no reason not to include humans in our concept of what nature means.

Gargi said...

I agree with you Marissa. We have a very warped view on what nature is and that is because of how we have been raised. When doing the visualization activity at the beginning of the land unit, I did not imagine any human beings in sight when thinking of nature. For thousands of years, nature was beautifully preserved with humans peacefully coexisting with the environment. Human beings with the goal of profit in mind came in and began shifting this environment. Taking the fall for it were native inhabitants. When we suddenly got the idea of “national parks” these profit-minded human beings blamed all people for ruining environment. The sad truth is that despite knowing this fact of how national parks have come into existence, how people have been displaced for “preservation,” and how it promotes ecotourism—I will still go to them. Our view is warped, but the beauty of it lies in the awareness of the underlying issues.