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Just this past week, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report on the effects and reality of global warming. In the investigative commission that yielded the findings, an admission was submitted that there is no way to fully determine how much of the planet's climatic change has been due to natural variation in weather and temperature patterns. However, the report did assert the certainty that global warming is in large part due to human behavior and environmental practices. Particularly, global warming is partially the result of extensive burning of fossil fuels such as oil, thus placing a great deal of blame on an international practice upon which economies and political systems have operated for a great many years. And it has been in the last two decades that these proclivities have begun to catch up with environmental conditions and, subsequently, various ecosystems and the broader social structures that are dependent upon them. Aside from the obvious trends, inherent to global warming, of seasonally higher temperatures across the boards and raised sea levels, the continuing alteration of the world's basically accepted meteorological tendencies will have a multitude of diverse and far-reaching effects. In the United States alone, the current trend will impact everything from tree and vegetation allotment in the northwest to ski conditions in the northeast. The nation's rivers will see a significant change in the abundance, array and viability of any number of aquatic species. Logging and lumber production methods will be forced into different regions for development, as climate migration will transplant tree species to newly climatically supportive locations. And by and large, a deviation from the patterns that have guided agricultural processes, animal migratory behaviors, any number of economical factors and social habits will have an effect on the global human establishment to broad and pervasive to fully predict today.
But certainly, with the future and the further introduction of hindsight, our current situation will be one rendered to environmental historians as the groundswell for human/environment relations to come. And that certainty is at the crux of environmental history, a branch of historiography that attempts to understand human motivations and needs through a lens of environmental behaviors. Most simply stated, environmental history is the study of human populations, the relationships they share with their respective environments, and the various implications that this interrelationship possesses for both. Of course, that said, the fact of environmental history is a great deal more complicated, as it is rife with clashing priorities, periods of evolution and devolution (if such a thing can truly be identified), and constantly shifting possibilities and perspectives. As such, environmental history is only useful as a tool for anticipating the future after it has been fully considered through a filter of the past. And in the United States, that past is rich with potential and plagued by mismanagement. The woes that bombard environmental advocates from too many angles, in too oppressive an intensity, to even nail down to specific culprits, germinated with the earliest development of natural lands here. The vast wilderness and the unprecedented capacity for economic expansion of America combined to carve out a blueprint of use for the many peoples to whom the land has played host. From natives to European setters; from the introduction of foreign species and the application of alien farming techniques; from the Native American conflict to the Industrial Revolution, the United States has been a theatre to so many intentions and actions that the effects of them all have mutated into one inextricable tapestry of environmental outcomes that delivers us where we are today. The act of conceiving this legacy through the scope of environmental history is given great purpose and credibility in the American historical accounts, Salmon Without Rivers by Jim Lichatowich, The Way to the West by Elliott West and Land Use, Environment and Social Change; The Shaping of Island County, Washington by Richard White.
In the firs of three aforementioned works, Lichatowich takes on the plight of the Pacific salmon, a species of fish whose importance to both its ecosystem and the broader economy. Most notably, the book details the prioritized conflict between the two factors, the former being a need of the environment and the latter being a priority by its human inhabitants. When European settlers arrived west, first encountering the many rivers and streams that served as tributaries to the Pacific Ocean, they found a population of salmon so plentiful that the notion of endangerment may have been regarded little esteem. But it was that very copiousness, as Lichatowich observes, that illuminated the enormity of the natural resource potentials of western America. With the advancement of settlement and economic growth, the salmon became one of many cogs that turned interdependently to fuel progress. Overfishing, across centuries of exploitation, took its toll on the fish. Likewise, practices of logging and New Deal structures like the Grand Coulee damn deprived the salmon of its spawning grounds by making freshwater bodies inaccessible, or by destroying them altogether. Of course, the effects of diminishment that this bore on the fish did not go unnoticed. As an important source of food for a wide variety of land, sea and airborne animals, smaller quantities of salmon disrupted a functional ecosystem. Similarly, the lower availability became a notable problem to the fishing industry by the turn of the twentieth century as well, prompting the development of hatcheries and various other methods of replenishment which, in Licahtowich's estimation, have failed. And the overarching suggestion of this failure is given new light by the contention that our social structure is inherently inappropriate with regard to management of natural resources. Using a frame of environmental history, Lichatowich offers the promise that without a full revision of our approach to land, that places economic and political needs above those of the environment, we will continue to fight a losing battle with ourselves. As the negative economic repercussions of resource exploitation in the case of the Pacific salmon have evidenced, and as is purported by the very notion of environmental historiography, economy, policy and the environment are interdependent. One will not function properly and indefinitely without the health of the other.
This is a fact given further credence by the intent of Elliot West's The Way to the West, which deals with human residency of the American Midwest, centering around Kansas and the lands that open up into the Rocky Mountains. It is a region understood by most as flat, arid and, generally, not interesting to observe. But an exploration of the land's past will reveal a history teeming with implications about human interaction with the lands. Specifically, West goes to great length to point to the historical reverberations that social development has had on the land's environment and vice versa. Absent of recrimination, his account attributes that circumstance not solely to European settlers but to the general inhabitation of man. One of the well-documented results of early American settlements was the destruction of the buffalo population that was truly extensive at one point. This was a process, West indicates, that began with the Cheyenne tribes that preceded the Europeans, and was further proliferated by a peace treaty between said tribe and a number of others, thus opening territories for popular hunting. The environment was not simply manipulated by man though. It also served as a directive to man, as the native use of horses routinely served as a navigational means for tribes who were in constant search of lands for grazing. And the connection between social propensities and environmental needs would also bear heavy responsibility in the evolving conflict between the natives and European settlers. Eventual scarcity of buffalo herds due to mutual exploitation, as well as the quest for lands settlement, placed the two groups at odds with each other. Environmental desires, focused on land and resources, was the predominant factor that drove the two into a battle in which the Europeans eventually prevailed. Naturally, this was not a solution to the quandary of exploitation. Rather, it only stood to exacerbate it, as the opposing perspectives between the two groups became only more starkly contrasted by a pervasion of the white man's approach. The eventual and inevitable introduction of various technologies and trading markets subverted the native spirituality-based perspective of the land as an eternal host to temporary inhabitants. Instead, it embraced the European view that land is empty until it has been conquered. And West's account of this self-defeatist conquest employs environmental history as a means to better understand the state of our lands based on the varying social viewpoints that have helmed it.
Both Native Americans and European settlers also have had a mutual stake in the shape of different landscapes throughout the United States. In Richard White's piece, the primary focus is the Puget Sound and, in particularly, Island County, Washington where both groups have played undeniable roles in the current status of the county's two predominant islands in Whidbey and Camano. More important than the specific populations who have impacted…[continue]
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