GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Cronon, "In Search of Nature"

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William Cronon (1995). Foreword and Introduction: In Search of Nature. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. pp. 19-56.

We'll begin with the forward and introduction to Cronon's edited volume Uncommon Ground (this reading is located in the Week 3 Module in Canvas). This book brings together thoughts from prominent historians, scientists, and philosophers about, as the book's title states, how to "rethink the human place in nature." The book argues that "nature" is a human idea with a long and contested history, and that we must understand this history very well if we seek to use and live with the environment in a conscious and responsible way. In Cronon's words:

“At a time when threats to the 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" (Cronon 1995: 22).

As you read, consider the following questions:

  • Cronon (1995) states that "as soon as we label something as 'natural,' we attach to it the powerful implication that to change it from its current state would degrade and damage the way it is "supposed" to be," (20). Can you think of examples of this labeling that you encounter in your own daily life?
  • What ideas of nature covered in this reading resonate with your own views? Which ones seem strange to you?
  • Why is Cronon concerned about the concept of "human nature" and how it is used?
  • Do you think that the criticisms presented in this reading help or hinder particular environmental protection efforts? Why?