The Historical Attitudes Towards Nature and Their Consequences

Adrian A. #environment #anti-colonialism #history

Various flowers in pots

Art by Rosie

NATURE, as a concept, is near impossible to define. The word itself evokes multiple meanings that are dependent on your cultural background, your place of origin, your religious beliefs - but now, more than ever, “nature” is being defined as a finite place of resources or a commodity that you can choose to participate in or not. When questioning and examining where the prevailing beliefs about nature and its value come from in the Western World, it is absolutely critical to look at the historical context that predates our current mess of rising temperatures and oil spills and examine the cultural attitudes and mindsets that European settlers brought into the Americas— mindsets that are still prevalent today.

European settler-colonialists approached the New World with the expectation that it was a land abundant with resources just begging to be harvested. This idea that the Americas were just a swathe of wild untamed wilderness prevails today as a popular environmentalist myth that serves no purpose but to undermine indigenous people and frame the rapid consumption of resources by settlers as a short-sighted and even foolish act instead of one done with intention. Indigenous groups had terraformed the land, impacted ecosystems, and made use of the natural resources around them for thousands of years before contact with settlers, and they did so in line with their cultural and religious belief systems that viewed all inhabitants of the land, human or animal, as rightful occupants of the space and the natural world as one that is alive, omnipotent, and must be respected.

In contrast, settlers from the West brought their belief in a natural Hierarchy of Beings (scala naturae) with God at the top, humans below, and every other thing in the world following after in a chain. This philosophy, combined with cultural Christianity, allowed European settlers to frame the natural world as something that must _provide _to mankind—it must be conquered to make it yield its gifts. The American wilderness was foreign and teeming with uncertainty to the first homesteaders.The hardships they faced shaped their view that the natural world was violent, unpredictable, and actively hostile—therefore, successful domination would surely be rewarded greatly. This is where the concept of the Protestant Work Ethic begins to thrive; hard work and extreme hardships would be seen by God and rewarded in turn.

This was not confined to the early colonial period. After the revolution, as the new United States of America began to form its economy, harnessing the natural world became even more of a struggle. Massive cash crops like cotton were notoriously difficult to cultivate, so plantation owners would use any means possible to circumvent nature and its cycles as long as it meant the most profit. Cattle were brought into the Americas, out of their element, and settlers were determined to do anything possible to flatten out the natural landscape and turn it into the perfect grounds for grazing. Rivers were diverted from their natural course and canals were built —often disrupting the fishing practices of many indigenous peoples in order to supply power to the many mills and factories that were beginning to appear, as well as provide transportation for the new wealth of exports that the United States were producing. As the Industrial Era began, work schedules transformed from sun-up to sun-down into by-the-hour. This is just a brief overview of the changes that Settlers forced upon the environment, not even touching on the atrocities committed against indigenous people and enslaved Africans in pursuit of profiting off of the New World; many of the acts committed by settlers often had the secondary goal of permanently disrupting or destroying indigenous lifestyles and hunting practices.

Our current reality in the United States is actively being shaped and influenced by the actions of settler-colonialists and these attitudes prevail to this day. However, instead of appearing as the identifiable and condemnable “manifest destiny,” today they appear under trending tags and easily digestible Tik Toks. The pastoralist fantasy conjured up in homesteading, cottagecore, desiring a “crunchy” or all-natural lifestyle etc. is simply just a modern dressed-up version of the exact same fantasy that incoming settlers had—kicking the rightful inhabitants off of the land and turning it into a blank slate in order to live out an idyllic European lifestyle free from the “society” that was too _corrupt _for them. Our late-stage capitalism and its egregious consumption of the land was created by this fantasy. Unclaimed or “wild” land in the United States is empty for a reason; indigenous people were forcefully removed from their ancestral lands in order for white settlers to place their idyllic cottages and log cabins and plantations.

Slave labor was then utilized for all of the tedious and backbreaking labor involved in living off of the land. Western expansion wasn’t just about land, either: Western values came with it as well. Many modern-day “homesteaders” and “crunchy” moms are white women who do not work, take care of the kids, and tend to the garden. These individuals are often benefactors of a social position that allows them a wealth of time and space not accessible to all, happily rejecting the supposed plagues of “modern society,” in favor of co-opting feminist language to promote a lifestyle where women are homemakers and mothers. This advocacy for “going back to nature” is a disturbing callback to a time where women were subjugated and expected to be submissive, docile, and produce children for the betterment of a man and his fantasies.

Now, my intent with pulling parallels between current day trends and colonialist history is not to say that everyone who ever curated a #cottagecore Pinterest board had the exact same morals and intentions as James K. Polk and James Monroe when they fought to annex more Western territory. However, it is important to be mindful of the reality of living within the United States.Our society is entrenched in the values of Christianity, the Protestant Work Ethic, and capitalism. As we live our day to day lives within these structures, it is near impossible to avoid developing an unconscious bias that accepts these attitudes and behaviors as innocuous and disconnected from this history—especially when you benefit from these systems being in place. A large number of homestead lifestyle influencers online are white families that come from wealth;this is not a coincidence.

Having a desire to live in the forest, leave pies on the windowsill of a small cottage, or have your own garden/farm does not make you a bad person. However, it is important to examine the history of your connection to the land and the benefits you receive from these systems to understand where these ideas and conceptualizations may potentially come from. Then, consider whether or not they contribute to ongoing colonialism and white supremacist ideals and whether or not you could be inadvertently helping with that contribution. You should also avoid purposefully denying the modern day manifestations and results of history. When choosing to participate in these trends, it is necessary to be able to contend with criticism and the historical reality, and to understand how historical attitudes can shift and evolve to fit in with “modern” values.

The environmental and industrial history of the United States lays bare the exact blueprints that led us to where we are today—there is no getting out of this unless we destroy the attitudes that brought us here and contend with the modern manifestations of violent settler-colonialism and white supremacy.