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Uncommon Ground

Rethinking the Human Place in Nature

by William Cronon

561 pages, paperback, W. W. Norton, 1996

The essays in Uncommon Ground challenge our accepted ideas about nature and push us to a deeper understanding of the environmental implications of our views. In a lead essay that states the broad argument of the book, Cronon writes that the environmentalist goal of wilderness preservation is conceptually and politically wrongheaded. The problem is that we haven't learned to live responsibly in nature. Rather than attempting to exclude humans, environmental advocates should help us learn to live sustainably with nature.

Praise for Uncommon Ground

"Uncommon Ground is the best kind of book, one that shocks the reader into entirely fresh ways of seeing. Perhaps the most important work facing us over the next several years involves the reconception of nature and our relationship to it. This indispensable volume makes a bold start on that project, attacking it with imagination, insight, originality, and wit."-- Michele Pollan

"One of the great and incomplete tasks confronting this generation of environmentalists is to effect a reconciliation of humans with their environment, of culture with nature. Uncommon Ground is a powerful and persuasive guide in this great cause."--William K. Reilly, former administrator, Environmental Protection Agency

Quotes from Uncommon Ground

"At a time when threats to the physical environment have never been greater, it may be tempting to believe that people need to be mounting the barricades rather than asking abstract questions about the human place in nature. Yet without confronting such questions, it will be hard to know which barricades to mount, and harder still to persuade large numbers of people to mount them with us. To protect the nature that is all around us, we must think long and hard about the nature we carry inside our heads."--from the Forward.

"From 1969, with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, to 1973, with the enactment of the Endangered Species Act, a legal apparatus for dealing with environmental issues was constructed. This environmental legal structure has provided environmentalists with a seat at many of the nation's decision-making tables. From this seat, they have been able to influence policy and development decisions and at times reduce the rate of environmental destruction. This seat has not, however, given them a forum for challenging basic values or the distribution of social power in American life. In other words, the table itself has not changed dramatically with the presence of an additional seat. Embedded in that table are basic assumptions concerning the origins and nature of the country's environmental problems. Among those assumptions are the following precepts: environmental protection can come only at great economic cost to the American people; a balance can be struck between costs and benefits; environmental problems can and should be solved as they arise on a case-by-case basis; the American way of life, based as it is on the capitalist profit motive, a culture of consumption, and economic growth and development, can be reformed so as to become environmentally sound."--by Jeffrey C. Ellis, On the Search for a Root Cause

. . .

"A connection with the land through work creates knowledge, but it does not necessarily grant protection to the land itself. There is a modern romanticism of place that says that those who live and depend on a place will not harm it. Its conservative version is wise use. Its environmentalist version appears in bioregionalism or in the work of Wendell Berry. Berry regards his own writing as depending on "work of the body and of the ground." He regards himself as being very much of a place. In part his connection is from deep familiarity, but it also comes from the pleasure he takes in the work of restoring that place by hand. Yet he restores land that others, who were just as fully of this place, destroyed through their work. Berry writes as if working in nature, of being of a place, brought a moral superiority of sorts. Such rootedness supposedly offers a solution to our problematic relationship with the nonhuman world. I do not think this is necessarily true. The choices are neither so simple nor so stark. Both destructive work and constructive work bring a knowledge of nature, and sometime work is destructive and restorative at the same time, as when we cut or burn a meadow to prevent the encroachment of forest."--Richard White, "Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?"

. . .

"There were other ironies as well. The movement to set aside national parks and wilderness areas followed hard on the heels of the final Indian wars, in which the prior human inhabitants of these areas were rounded up and moved onto reservations. The myth of the wilderness as 'virgin,' uninhabited land had always been especially cruel when seen from the perspective of the Indians who had once called that land home."

"The removal of Indians to create an 'uninhabited wilderness'--uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place--reminds us just how invested, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is. To return to my opening argument: there is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness. It is entirely a creation of the culture that holds it dear, a product of the very history it seeks to deny. Indeed, one of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang. In virtually all of its manifestations, wilderness represents a flight from history. . . . No matter what angle from which we regard it, wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world in which our past has ensnared us."

"But the trouble with wilderness is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. The flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world. The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living--urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land."

"This, then, is the central paradox: wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not. . . .To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.

"Worse: to the extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead. . . .We work our nine-to-five jobs in its institutions, we eat its food, we drive its cars (not least to reach the wilderness), we benefit from the intricate and all too invisible networks with which it shelters us, all the while pretending that these things are not an essential part of who we are. By imaging that our true home is in the wilderness, we forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit. In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature--in all of these ways, wilderness poses a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century."--by William Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness

Table of Contents of Uncommon Ground

  1. Introduction: In Search of Nature, William Cronon
  2. The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, William Cronon
  3. Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted, Anne Whiston Spirn
  4. Amazonia as Edenic Narrative, Candace Slater
  5. Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative, Carolyn Merchant
  6. 'Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?': Work and Nature, Richard White
  7. Looking for Nature at the Mall: A Field Guide to the Nature Company, Jennifer Price
  8. 'Touch the Magic', Susan G. Davis
  9. Ecological Fragmentation in the Fifties, Michael G. Barbour
  10. On the Search for a Root Cause: Essentialist Tendencies in Environmental Discourse, Jeffrey C. Ellis
  11. Whose Nature? The Contested Moral Terrain of Ancient Forests, James D. Proctor
  12. Nature as Community: The Convergence of Environment and Social Justice, Giovanna Di Chiro
  13. Universal Donors in a Vampire Culture: It's All in the Family" Biological Kinship Categories in the Twentieth-Century United States, Donna J. Haraway
  14. Reinventing Common Nature: Yosemite and Mount Rushmore--A Meandering Tale of a Double Nature, Kenneth R. Olwig
  15. Simulated Nature and Natural Simulations: Rethinking the Relation between the Beholder and the World, N. Katherine Hayles
  16. Toward a Philosophy of Nature, Robert P. Harrison
  17. Toward a Conclusion, All

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