The Stream

Posts under ‘Understanding “place”’

Gregory Rosenthal, instructor in environmental humanities

Gregory RosenthalI am pleased to announce that Gregory Rosenthal, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at SUNY Stony Brook, will join the faculty in the School of the Environment, as an instructor in environmental humanities.  Gregory will teach a course entitled “Environmentalism and the Poor: Class-Conscious Histories of Globalization,” which he describes as follows:

Environmentalism used to be understood as the privilege of affluent “first worlders,” an exercise in protecting nature from those too uncivilized or too ignorant to care for it by themselves. But this is no longer the case. In the past several decades, environmentalists—and environmental historians who study the history of human-nature relationships—have begun to acknowledge and account for the diverse “environmentalisms” that are practiced by both “first worlders” and “third worlders,” by both rich and poor, by both workers and capitalists, between the global north and the global south as well as within small-town communities, villages, and cities across the world. That class is one of the key determinants in how different people experience and care for the environment is gaining acceptance among social scientists and is inspiring exciting new research in the field of environmental history. This course will explore the relationships among environmentalism, class, and power in human history, as well as the consequences of these relationships for poor and working class peoples. A class-conscious history of globalization—in which “globalization” is understood as the rise of a globallyinterwoven capitalist economy over the past two centuries—reveals the various ways in which “environmentalism” has served the powerful while impacting the less powerful. At the same time, we will examine the resistance strategies of working class peoples the world over, to see how environments can be reclaimed by and for the poor. We will work collectively in this class towards developing a “poor people’s environmentalism”: a blueprint for thinking about global nature and the responsibilities of the powerful and privileged in alleviating poverty and supporting poor people’s rights to, and in, the environment.

Gregory will also co-teach the course on “Interdisciplinary Understanding of Place: Lake Champlain,” bringing to this class his unique perspective on how historical perspectives on culture diversity and identity help illuminate the narratives that frame a comprehensive understanding of a landscape and its possible environmental futures.

We are  excited to have Gregory join us for the inaugural summer for the School of the Environment.  He specializes in global environmental history with a focus on migrant labor, indigenous peoples, and human-environment relations in historical perspective. At SUNY Stony Brook his Ph.D. research examines the history of Native Hawaiian migrant labor in the nineteenth-century global economy. He has published in Environmental History and World History Bulletin and received grants and fellowships from the American Historical Association, the Huntington Library, and the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. In college, Gregory studied traditional Chinese music and indigenous ethnomusicology (and even attended Middlebury’s Chinese Language School). He holds a Masters degree in Public History from SUNY Albany and formerly served as Education Coordinator at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in upstate New York. He also previously worked as a Park Ranger in New York City, and when not at Middlebury, Gregory continues to lead historic walking tours of Manhattan’s streets while also enjoying hiking, birding, swimming, and clamming in the city’s urban forests and coastal waters.

Gregory joins Steve Trombulak and Cat Ashcraft as a member of the full-time faculty in the School of the Environment, and will participate throughout the six-week session in creating the full immersion program we have planned.

Welcome!!

Social identity and the future of Montana

Today’s New York Times reports on an effort currently underway by a non-profit organization to create a 3-million acre reserve in the grasslands of Montana.  The American Prairie Reserve is buying ranches that are for sale and slowly stitching together a landscape in which bison can roam freely and in which ecological conditions akin to those present 200 years ago can flourish.

This project is admirable in its scope and goals.  Bison, as the largest native herbivore in North America since the time of the post-Pleistocene mass extinction, were powerful ecological engineers, and their loss — brought about primarily by overhunting — has had widespread consequences on the biological integrity of this continent’s prairies.  Coupled with subsequent land-use changes that have largely involved ranching, with its associated fencing and cattle, the loss of bison herds is one of the biggest wildlife transformations anywhere in North America.

Which makes the work of the American Prairie Reserve one of the biggest wildlife conservation stories today.

What I find interesting about this story, however, is not what they are trying to achieve.  Rather it is the social environment within which they are trying to achieve it.  This story does not involve government intervention, eminent domain, or an Eastern Establishment driving up property values.  Fair-market value is paid to willing sellers who are approached after they put their ranches up for sale.

Yet as reported by the New York Times, this conservation effort faces opposition from some ranchers in the area because … it does not conform to their vision of how the land ought to be used: cattle ranching.

This reminds me of similar conflicts that emerged in New England in the 1990s over logging and timber lands.  All such stories about the “legitimate” uses for large landscapes seems to involve similar questions.

Are there limits to private property rights that would allow neighbors to say to someone, “You cannot sell your land to this other person because they aren’t going to use it the way I think they should”?  It is easy to understand why one would not want to allow a new neighbor to build something that was destructive or dangerous on their land, but should rancher be able to say that a conservation group should not own land because they are practicing conservation?  Or a snowmobiler be able to say that a new landowner cannot post their land against snowmobiling?

On what basis can those who believe in a particular cultural narrative of place claim that their narrative is the most important?  It’s understandable that ranchers who want to continue ranching should expect to be able to continue ranching on their land.  But what gives ranching primacy over other cultural narratives, such as those held by Native Americans who lived there before the ranchers?

And what constitutes the “place” being considered?  An individual ranch?  A single valley? A 20-million acre prairie?  As spatial scale increases, so too does the opportunity for and challenges of diverse cultural narratives to come together –  woven together either collaboratively or in conflict.

This really isn’t just a story about Montana or ranching or bison.  It’s a story about landscape-scale conservation planning everywhere and the role of social identity in shaping the cultural narrative that is used to describe a place.  How we learn — or don’t learn — to unpackage those issues will determine how successful conservation will be in the 21st century and beyond.

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