Trendster Book Review Part I: Nature’s Metropolis

The following is a book review of Nature’s Metropolis, by William Cronon. Written by current SUMA student, Zach Zill. “In this groundbreaking work, William Cronon gives us an environmental perspective on the history of nineteenth-century America. By exploring the ecological and economic changes that made Chicago America’s most dynamic city and the Great West its hinterland, Mr. Cronon opens a new window onto our national past.”

We live in a moment in which belief in the values and mechanisms of free market capitalism seem to infiltrate most aspects of culture and society. Despite the popularity of the presidential campaign of nominal socialist Bernie Sanders, in the realm of policy and practice, the free market rules the day. Among professionals in the field of sustainability, attempts to use market instruments to address climate change and other environmental problems are widespread. In our professional organizations, degree programs, and think tanks, representatives of the big banks and real estate development firms are presented as authoritative voices on how to reconcile humanity’s destructive approach to the natural world. Economists, policymakers, and sustainability professionals pour a great deal of intellectual and financial resources into discovering ways to make markets work for the environment. Yet perhaps we should rethink our approach.

Nature's Metropolis

A minority position exists. Supporters of this position hold that unchecked market expansion has in fact been one of the root causes of our current environmental predicament and that we should not, therefore, search for solutions to that predicament within the confines of the market. This concept gains further salience today, when considering issues of social inequality alongside questions of ecology.

In considering this debate, there is much to gain from the insights provided by the field of environmental history. We live and work amid a hoard of environmental regulations that emerged starting in the early 1970s, and environmental histories that far precede these legislative changes. Yet, other than brief obligatory references to Rachel Carson and DDT, it is rare that we revisit in detail the particular circumstances leading up to those changes.

William Cronon’s book, Nature’s Metropolis, covers the development of the city of Chicago in relation to the vast rural resource shed known as “the Great West.” Here, Cronon chronicles how instances of acute environmental degradation have tended to come from intensive market expansion, in addition to how current environmental protections owe their existence to state intervention in, and regulation of, the market.

For anyone interested in the politics and economics of environmental degradation, as well as the history of urban development in the United States, this book contains countless lessons and insights for our work today.

 

Nature’s Metropolis, set in the nineteenth century, tells the story of Chicago’s rise from frontier trading post to one of the great mega-cities of the Industrial Age. The book is a case study in urban metabolism, where Cronon shows that Chicago’s rise was entirely dependent on large-scale resource extraction from, and sale of finished goods to, what was then known as “the Great West.” Covering the hinterlands region stretching from Ohio to the Rocky Mountains, the book situates Chicago as the point of centralization for vast quantities of extracted natural wealth (“stored sunshine”). Within this concept of natural wealth, which comes in the form of grain, lumber, and meat, Cronon shows how “non-human nature” built our cities. Yet he also argues the converse: that cities, with their modern markets in which unfathomable amounts of commodities change hands in a split second, are in turn responsible for the production of “ghost landscapes” beyond the city: places like the destroyed hardwood forests of Minnesota and Michigan, or the depleted soils of once-fertile prairie lands in Iowa and Kansas.

Nature’s Metropolis takes a microscope to a particular historical episode that distills the essence of the phenomenon later referred to as “market externalities.” Chicago’s growing urban economy, based on the trading of goods taken from the fields and forests surrounding the city, increasingly became removed from the feedback loops that allowed for adequate consideration of environmental ill-effects. Or, as Cronon more eloquently puts it: “The more concentrated the city’s markets became, and the more extensive its hinterland, the easier it was to forget the ultimate origins of the things it bought and sold. The ecological place of production grew ever more remote from the economic point of consumption, making it harder and harder to keep track of the true costs and consequences of any particular product.

How exactly did this process occur? According to Cronon, Chicago’s merchants pioneered new methods to facilitate the trading of goods over a large geographical area. Natural products such as grain, which previously had been valued based on a buyer’s first hand examination of a particular sack of grain. Product was then divided up into categories that allowed grain from many different farmers to be dumped into giant elevators and sold according to standard valuations. This method of categorizing and assigning standardized values to different batches of grain arose from market pressures to expand and accelerate the pace of trade. In commodifying grain, Chicago’s denizens obscured the particular features of the grain and the land it came from – instead making interchangeability its dominant feature. This abstraction of natural goods such as grain and meat to facilitate their exchange on a growing market led to a false accounting of the social and ecological costs of their production. It created a distancing of human economy from natural ecology that underpinned a willingness to degrade and destroy the earth systems upon which we rely.

Were these changes not inevitable, given the advent of powerful new technologies during this period? Nature’s Metropolis acknowledges the role played by technological developments such as the rise of railroads, grain elevators, and early refrigeration techniques. But technology alone was not the driving force of change. Rather, it was the profit-driven imperatives of a maturing capitalist economy, coupled with new technology, that led to environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale. This process separated the environmental costs of production from the first-hand experience of those costs. In building ever-more complex and extensive markets, we have continued the act of distancing ourselves from non-human nature for which we are still paying a price.

Perhaps the solution today is not to further extend the market into nature, but rather the reverse: to de-commodify pieces of the earth that we cannot afford to despoil, with the hope of kickstarting a paradigm shift for the betterment of humanity.

 

–Zach Zill, M.S. Candidate
SUMANI Trendster Contributor, 8/10/2016

*Trendster is a voluntary, crowd-sourced initiative facilitated by SUMA Net Impact. It does not represent the collective views of Columbia University, the Earth Institute or Net Impact

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