Volume 8, Number 2 (July 2011)
Author: Ian Olsen
The environmental history of America is often studied as a series of events, each only associatively linked together by some speculation as to what ideologies were dominant at the time and the events that came from these ideologies. This historiography is often flawed as it negates the base processes by which history unfolds and the present exists as it is. The Environment as it will be considered in this essay is the idea that consolidates all ecosystems of the American landscape into one vernacular idea. It can be argued that the common semantics behind Environment have already passed into obsolescence and are only used because of the safety of the term. An example is found in the semiotics of the globalized world, which applies directly to the all too common notion of Environment, Jean Baudrillard considers it as a flaw of human representation thusly:
But doubtless we have to go back even further – as far as concepts and language. By representing things to ourselves, by naming them and conceptualizing them, human beings call them into existence and at the same time hasten their doom, subtly detach them from their brute reality. For example, the class struggle exists from the moment Marx names it. But it no doubt exists in its greatest intensity long before being named. Afterwards it merely declines. The moment a thing is named, the moment representation and concepts begin to take hold of it, is the moment when it begins to lose its energy – with the risk that it will become a truth or impose itself as ideology (Baudrillard, 2009:11-12).
There is a strong possibility (and presence) that we have created an interminable environmental crisis out of the profusion of signs distributed throughout our communication networks. There exists no direct solution, but there exists no direct cause, just a stagnant set of ideologies that seem to orbit about all of humanity without reason. The term humanity itself may be merely a representation of the vast human motion that no individual person can possibly apprehend without making abstract representations of what humans are currently doing in the modern age. This may be the basis of Baudrillard’s contention in the preceding quote and lays the foundation for looking into alternative histories: “When something comes to an end, this means it really took place; whereas if there no longer is any end, we enter interminable history, interminable crisis; we enter upon series of interminable processes” (Baudrillard, 2003:55). This is what commercial environmentalism has caused, an interminable stagnation that causes panic and surmise about a history (and future) that should be considered as a continuous process of shifting dynamical states of matter.
A simple illustration of material dynamics and how it, in a sense, produces history by motion, can be found in an ecological concept of species extinction. The extinction of a species can be the removal of a required matter – energy input into the geographical area that that species inhabits, which affects the ability of that organism’s genetic sequence to recreate. The removal of required matter can be food, due to an introduction of other species that disrupt the food web and cause depletion of prey or increase the predator number that stabilized and defined the ecological niche of the first species. In this example there is no labeling or ideological interpretation of a historical event, just an abstract process description.
Perhaps the problem of humanity in looking at environmentalism and environmental history is that we, in the global perception of the world, seek a finite end-point and that upon reaching this end point the world of our efforts will take on their “real” linguistic meanings and we will be rid of the illusion (Baudrillard, 2003:57). Conservation is an illusion perhaps, the saving of a species for reasons that are more out of the interest of the conservationist as a standalone actor with his own interpretation of science and reason than out of a larger ecological good, this good is lost due to the interminable stagnation of the environmental sciences as they bleed into a world of actors attempting to merely conserve, always seeking a finite end to their work. The words of Shellenberger and Nordhaus in their polemic on environmentalism state the problem of conservationism rather well: “Most environmentalists don’t think of ‘the environment’ as a mental category at all – they think of it as a real “thing” to be protected and defended. They think of themselves, literally, as representatives and defenders of this thing” (Shellenberger and Nordhaus, 2004:12).
Humans have certainly surmounted our ecological constraints to a degree in the last century. This is not implying that we no longer rely on the environment, but now we seem to work against, or perhaps above the world of nature by manipulating it in mass quantity, whereas in a “state of nature” we are much more under the control of environmental circumstances, be it climatic or edaphological or other. The danger and problem of this has become apparent far too late, and so we invent environmental histories based on the flaws of European colonization and capitalist policies without generating a design for how these came to be historically in a manner that would be provable through physics. When physical science is injected into the study of time ideologies become less of a determining factor and more a part of the larger mixture of things, as the material flows that govern historical processes take primacy. French Historian Fernand Braudel elaborates on the collective psychology of societies:
Far more than the accidents or the historical and social circumstances of a period, it derives from the distant past, from ancient beliefs, fears and anxieties which are almost unconscious – an immense contamination whose germs are lost to memory but transmitted from generation to generation. A society’s reactions to events of the day, to the pressure upon it, to the decisions it must face, are less a matter of logic or even self-interest than the response to an unexpressed and often inexpressible compulsion arising from the collective unconscious (Braudel, 1987:22).
Is it possible that language is something that is derived from this collective unconscious? Is there a social dynamic that underlies language and generate its forms and structures? It is difficult to answer, but certainly language is not a primer for everything and has to have some source; a conjecture about the source can be found in the human perception of natural environments, as the earliest languages generated were founded on things that must have been very much a part of nature. Early research in the ethnosciences caused “…. a radical shift in mindset from viewing native systems of thought as naive and rudimentary, even savage, to a recognition that local cultures know their plant, animal, and physical resources intimately and are expert at juggling their options for meeting day to day requirements and making the most of ephemeral opportunities” (Nazarea, 1999:4).
A less abstract variation of Baudrillard’s theory can be found in the onset of the discipline of “ethnoecology” in the 1970’s, which attempts to remove traditional anthropological perspectives of categorization and moves to a more fluid approach of studying native linguistics, implicating with it change over time in language: “Ethnoecology deals with human cognition of environmental components such as plants, animals, water, and soils – a classification of its features that guides action within that environment” (Nazarea, 1999:91). The human cognition generates language, as language must be at some point imprinted on the mind, but it is environmental externals that predicate this generation, which is always a fluctuating process. “Environmental externals” can be understood as objects that generate linguistic constraints within a population and guide the actions of people upon those externals. The generation of common terms is dependent on frequency, and once words are linked with an environmental external they harden to become part of a perceptual acting device that guides the historical usage of environmental materials (De Landa, 1997:221-222). The importance of understanding the codification of language over time and through (latitudinal spreading) human populations as a constraint is to abolish the notion that language is generated spontaneously through associations with objects and is the cause of ideologies that lead to singular and linear historical events, events that seem to be directed by the autonomy of some social network or group. The essential idea is that “names manage to ‘stick’” to their referents because of the pressures that speakers place on one another” (Ibid.:190), and move as latitudinal through human groups and societies as they impose, in a hierarchal fashion, large scale events on the environment. The historical importance of this idea is that there is a causal chain leading from one’s usage of a word back to the person who taught the word to the first speaker, and that person’s teacher and so forth through time. This dissemination of words is the generation of a language that intensifies through frequency of use. English is dominant because it is extremely pervasive; in the media, in academia, and so forth. However vernacular and slang terms are constantly intensifying and entering into the English lexicon modifying the perception of minor social groups to their environment. Few, or perhaps no Americans speak exact English (a theoretical form of the English language that is grammatically perfect but is impossible to achieve in social linguistics), and their treatment of the environment is constricted by the terms that move about through their respective population.
Human societies have often been thought to progress. Many speak about the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist and so forth as though these phases were rungs on a ladder toward some teleological finality, this is however a poor means of looking at historical phenomena when we understand that there is no final goal, only the addition of different materials and different knowledge to an existing population that replicates temporally and spatially. If anything, early societies used a stronger and more complex environmental lexicon than we do now, allowing them to maintain an understanding of the environment and its past; knowledge that is shared within a community is specific and non-interchangeable with other groups, thus this unique environmental knowledge base lives and dies with those populations who created it, as there is a reciprocity between environmental knowledge and the survivability of a group (Hunn, 1999:24). We, in our modern means of considering language as something “associative” and based on our own preferences and opinions, can only now see nomenclature as disappearance; the naming and subsequent obscuration of something. It is a material historiography that should be sought after, one that attempts to sketch the abstract structure generating processes that finalize in all things in the present and allow for continuity, which will bind all linguistic processes to one theory and allow for a potentially more accurate means of criticizing the mass environmental movement; the historical processes involved must be the primary source of theory generation based on qualities that are common to all human groups interacting with material. This can be simply called the theory of self-organization, and is the theory that ecological science is founded on, that of organic and inorganic matter, and is deeply rooted in historical processes, the process and codification of languages being only one of the layers in which material is bonded and is adorned with fluctuating abilities to act, but is one that requires increased focus when looking into the complexities of American environmental history. This is because of the uniqueness of the American world and environmental use; the exploitation of resources in the United States was extremely rapid and frequently controlled by how the land was understood due to the prevailing economic and social climates. Braudel comments that “it (America) was certainly able to stride confidently through economic, social, and political crisis: its reserves and its stock of optimism never seemed on the point of running out (Braudel 1987, 458).
American Civilization and its human actors must be considered as “piecemeal historical constructions, slow accumulations of adaptive traits cemented together via reproductive isolation” (De Landa, 1997:12). Although this sentence is used to describe Darwinian evolution, De Landa also uses it to describe social evolution in an open system. The American environment is an open system that allows for the entry and exit, and fluctuations of, intensive matter energy flow through systems. It is the minor vicissitudes in these dynamical matter-energy systems that cause change over time and at certain points reach an intensive peak that causes a bifurcation (when a system switches from one stable state to another) (Ibid.:14). Physicist and engineer Arthur Iberall models human history as an exacted series of phase transitions (bifurcations) that depend on the fluxes of all dynamical matter-energy systems moving together to determine social field stability; he propounds his theory with metaphors borrowed from the physical sciences, stating:
I view the discontinuous social change manifested by the appearance of food producing societies as evidence of internal rearrangements, new associations and configurations, and a new phase condensation – as if a gas-like phase of matter were becoming liquid-like or solid state-like… …At his beginning, modern man apparently lived in hunting-gathering groups operating in a range appropriate to human size and metabolism… …If, as appropriate to his size, man had the typical mammalian metabolism and roaming range of about 25 miles/day, cultures separated on the order of 50 miles would have little interaction… …The 70 to 1000 mile separation of populations, as empirically found, is highly suggestive of a system of weak force, “gas-like” interactions… …The diffusion of an early, small population could be considered nearly a gas-like motion… …I surmise that decreases in the levels of required potentials (temperature, water, food) caused condensation [liquification] of small bands on fixed centers of population…
…The nature of the social phase condensation, however, depends on the amplifying capability of the technological potential. Associated with those two chief potentials – water supplies and technology (tools) – came changes in modes of living, improvement in the use of water resources, and localized social development through the domestication of plants and animals (De Landa, 1991:22).
This passage espouses human development with hard science, defining change through time as alterations of material within a human system, and also shows that social features of a human population, like language, can have a strong affect on the development of a certain group.
And so, by way of De Landa and Baudrillard, we may begin to rethink the meanings of environment and environmentalism.
About the Author
Ian Olsen is currently studying at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. His current research is in field mycology focusing on the effect of wood decay on the colonization abilities of saprotrophic fungi.
Jean Baudrillard (2003). Passwords. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2009). Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? London and Calcutta: Seagull Press.
Manuel De Landa (1997). A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone.
Manuel De Landa (2006). A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London: Continuum.
Manuel De Landa (1991). War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone.
Eugene Hunn (1999). “The Value of Subsistence for the Future of the World” in Ethnoecology: Situated Knowledge/located Lives. Tucson: University of Arizona.
Virginia Nazarea (1999). “A View from a Point: Ethnoecology as Situated Knowledge.” “Introduction” in Ethnoecology: Situated Knowledge/located Lives. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1999. Print.
Virginia Nazarea (1999). “Lenses and Latitudes in Landscapes and Lifescapes” in Ethnoecology: Situated Knowledge/located Lives. Tucson: University of Arizona.
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (2004). “The Death of Environmentalism.” Thebreakthrough.org: www.thebreakthrough.org/PDF/Death_of_Environmentalism.pdf (link no longer active)