HIST 453 by hedongchenchen


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                                                                                       Jeffrey Watts

                                Natural Enemies, Nature and Capitalism

        The 1930s in the United States was marked not only by the Great Depression but also by

one of the worst ecological disasters in human history, The Dust Bowl. What was once a land of

an immense, profitable yield of wheat was now a desert suffering from devastating dust blizzards

never before experienced on the North American continent. What could have caused such

devastation? Perhaps the lack of rainfall in the Plains throughout the thirties? Or maybe the

recent technological advances in mechanized farming techniques? Historian Donald Worster

elaborates his point in his book, Dust Bowl. Worster argues that the Dust Bowl was

predominantly the result of capitalist mentality and a unique American culture that perceived

nature, solely as a means for profit. By the ladder half the 19th century these ideals was

expanding westward into a much different environment from whence they had been devised.

Collectively these ideals and the environment of the American Plains was a recipe for disaster.

Albeit the Dust Bowl cannot just be attributed to the failure of the plains farmer to understand

the limits of his land nor can it be attributed to the boom of mechanized farming; but a failure of

founding American ideals built on the abuse and exploitation of Earth’s natural resources.

        Worster conceptualizes his argument by highlighting the three main values shared in a

capitalist society. The first point he makes is that contrary to our native predecessors nature is

not a spiritual or divine entity from which to coexist with. Nature is in fact seen as an economic

asset or capital. Within a capitalist mindset land is worthless without a means of turning a profit.

The elements found in nature are nothing more than commodities to be brought to the market to

turn a profit.
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       Worster’s second capitalist ecological value is to man’s place among nature. In order to

perpetuate man’s relentless need for self-advancement man has a right and an obligation to use

nature as an economic resource. And the largest reward in this society can only be achieved

through the relentless extraction of a profit from nature’s resources. The goals of these capitalist

values stretch far beyond subsistence and an equilibrium with nature. These beliefs stretch so far

that contrary ideologies including that of the Native Americans, Amish and Mennonites are view

with disdain and ridicule.

       The third and final point that Worster makes is that social order not only permits this

extraction from nature but encourages this continual increase of personal wealth. The individuals

who push Nature to its absolute limits and exhausted the resources should be barred from losing

what they have gained. And each individual should be autonomous, acting only for himself.

Maybe most importantly these ideals should be passed on to youth and encouraged. Therefore

the plains farmers had through their own taught values been justified in their actions.

       Worster’s points blaming the capitalist ideology as the cause of the Dust Bowl is

supported through the thoughts and feelings of various historical figures.

       Undoubtedly the original harbinger of this capitalist mindset to the Americas was John

Locke. Locke’s free market ideals and attitude towards the American continent would fall into

place with Worster’s first point, that nature must be seen as capital.

       “An acre of land that bears here twenty bushels of wheat, and another in America, which

       with the same husbandry, would do like, are, without doubt, of the same natural, intrinsic

       value. But yet the benefit mankind receives from one in a year, is worth five pounds, and,
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        from the other possibly not worth a penny, if all the profit an Indian received from it were

        to be valued and sold here; at least, I may truly say, not one thousandth.” 1

Locke’s capitalist ideals views only nature’s monetary worth and exemplifies Worster’s point

that a clear disconnection had occurred between man and nature.

        Early preservationist John Muir would be inclined to agree with Worster’s assessment

that the destruction of nature has been caused by rampant capitalism; a capitalism that wouldn’t

hesitate when in line for a profit. “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism,

seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the

mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.” 2 Clearly being very adamant against such

capitalist ideals, Muir too points the finger at the undying lust for profitability as he elaborates its

contempt for Nature.

        Even the very first European settlers in North America harbored capitalist ideals with

similar attitudes towards nature. Aligning with Worster’s second point that not only did man

have a right, but an obligation to utilize nature to his self-advancement. John Winthrop’s attitude

towards nature illustrates Worster’s point. “The whole earth is the Lord’s garden, and he has

given it to the sons of man upon a condition (Genesis 1:28): Increase and multiply, replenish the

earth and subdue it….” 3 Winthrop displays a clear sense of justification and entitlement towards

nature with a clear intention on expanding its productivity.

        Bernhard Fernow’s position on the attitude of the private enterprise is a direct example of

Worster’s third point. The American society in particular promotes the continual expansion of

wealth whether nature agrees with it or not.
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        “This is natural, as long as the exploitation of these resources is left unrestricted in

        private hands; for private enterprise, private interest, knows only the immediate future –

        has only one aim in the use of these resources, namely to obtain from them the greatest

        possible person and present gain…” 4

Fernow’s states that private enterprise’s main effort is to obtain the greatest possible present gain

reflects Worster’s point that capitalism is irresponsible, acting only in self interests, creates

disastrous consequences the likes of which helped to cause the Dust Bowl.

        The Dust Bowl was not the result of any natural phenomena or even the mechanized

farming boom but of men fueled by an ideal. The same ideal that had inspired men to travel vast

distances over treacherous terrain to risk it all for a chance strike it rich in the California gold

rush. Most pertinent however, this ideal had inspired an agricultural boom in an area that could

arguably be considered a desert. The capitalist ideal has inspired a great many things and a great

many people, leaving behind a path laden with vast ecological and environmental damage. It

took nearly three hundred years for people to begin to see that their “control” over nature was,

like the soil of the time slipping through their fingers. Times have truly changed, but it is most

important to understand that nature has not and the soil remains as susceptible to failure as it did

eighty years ago.
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1. Locke, John. "John Locke on "America," "Americans/Indians," and Human Interaction with the
   Environment [Selections from Second Treatise of Government]."

2."John Muir Advvocates Wilderness Preservation, 1912, "Merchant, Carolyn. Major Problems
in American Environmental History. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co. 1993. pp. 394
3. "John Winthrop Quotes Genesis on Subduing the Earth, 1629"
from Merchant, Carolyn. Major Problems in American Environmental History. Lexington, MA:
D.C. Heath and Co. 1993. pp. 68 - 72

4. Merchant, Carolyn. Major Problems in American Environmental History. Lexington, MA:
D.C. Heath and Co. 1993. pp. 348

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