Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa

By William Beinart; Peter Coates | Go to book overview

6

From conservation to environmentalism and beyond

National parks and wildlife protection have proved attractive magnets for white environmental concern because they furnish a route out of the central conservationist dilemma: how to enjoy the advantages of urban-industrial society while salvaging a modicum of nature. Protected areas, as we have illustrated, though ‘special’ places, are by no means unaffected by the smog of the very civilization apparently kept at arm’s length. Air pollution from coal-fired power stations can reduce visibility at the Grand Canyon to a distance less than is required to see from one rim across to the other. Fears are growing that if a major mining venture goes ahead in the surrounding watershed, the integrity of Yellowstone national park’s rivers will be threatened. Accordingly, the more challenging problem for conservationists of all kinds remains hard decisions about daily relationships with nature across the entire spectrum of environments, more or less natural, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. This implies an adaption of environmental concerns to the key areas of production and consumption in our urban and agricultural heartlands.


ENVIRONMENTAL IDEAS

In this chapter, we will first explore the dominant narrative of western environmentalism and then attempt to complement its thrust with an analysis of third world preoccupations and the environmentalism of the poor. American historians have been entranced by the search for environmentalism’s intellectual and historical roots (Oelschlaeger, 1991). Though such debates over humankind’s appropriate place in nature enjoy a lengthy pedigree (Glacken, 1967), a particular strain has been isolated which seemed to pose the most basic questions. The starting point is often taken to be early nineteenth-century romanticism and primitivism, initially associated with Wordsworth and Rousseau,

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