Saturday, 19 October 2013

Thoughts on Nature's Metropolis

Bill Cronon's Nature's Metropolis is a long, layered book. Just shy of 400 pages (plus numerous insets that are interesting though would be more so if they were incorporated into the work), Cronon provides a detailed environmental history and historical geography not just of the city of Chicago but of the vast regions of the American west that became its hinterland during the latter two thirds of the nineteenth century. I've heard numerous scholars and graduate students cite this work as their gateway into environmental history and after reading it I'm left feeling that if I wasn't already part of the choir, I'd also be one of its converts.

As food for our conversation, I wanted to focus here on three general points drawn from the book at large: the division of the environment into 'first' and 'second' natures; the dialectal relationship between cities and countryside; and how the abstraction of nature allows for the growth of market capitalism. These points will be necessarily brief and, perhaps, polemical in the hope of generating conversation.

First and Second Nature
Following Hegelian and Marxist traditions, Cronon self-consciously tries to avoid, or perhaps it's better to say that he embraces, the complexities in the English word 'nature' by his frequent use of 'first nature' and 'second nature.' First nature refers to the concept of an original, prehuman existence whereas second nature is the artificial construct that we build on top of and with the first. These concepts are problematic for a number of reasons. For example, often times in the middle parts of the book I was left with the impression that the Potawatomi and métis changes to the land (fires, trading commodity networks, etc) were gathered up as part of the 'first nature' encountered and radically altered by the European settlers that followed them. It seems, rather, that there was a succession of second natures in Cronon's great west. Nonetheless, by drawing human activity back into a definition of nature Cronon reemphasizes the way humanity acts within, not upon, the wider world around us.

City and the Country
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from Nature's Metropolis is that neither the city nor the country can exist in a vacuum. Far from supporting Turner's frontier thesis, Cronon evocatively turns it on its head. Relying initially on von Thünen, through layered accounts of commodity and capital flows it becomes obvious that the city and the country exist in a dialectal relationship with one another. Just as the city relies on the country for raw materials (grain, lumber, and meat to take the examples of the second part of the book), the settlers on the prairie come to rely on the manufactured goods that flowed through Chicago (stoves, packed meat, plows, etc). Often abstracted from individual actors, except for illustrative examples, Cronon posits a complex relationship between urban and rural landscapes that emphasizes the interdependency of each.

Growing Market Capitalism
The part of the book that I found the most enlightening was Cronon's account of how various powerful technologies lead to, first, the abstraction of resources into paper and, then, the manipulation of prices on the floor of the 'Change. The first example is the land boom of the 1830s following the surveying of the area around the Chicago River. Surveyed and numbered lots become both knowable by their relation to other lots and saleable when abstracted to deeds. This allowed for the inflation and then collapse of land prices due to feverish speculation and boosterism. Similarly and to a larger degree, the rise of the grain elevator, railroad, and receipt system radically altered the way grain was bought and sold. These technologies abstracted ownership of grain from the actual bushels to receipts that could be traded for grain. Quickly a market in futures (that is buying and selling receipts in hopes that one's gambles will lead to a profit, as opposed to trading physical bags of grain) developed. These powerful abstracting technologies (the land survey, the grain elevator, etc) facilitated the rise of market capitalism by taking physical commodities (actual land, actual grain) largely out of the equation and replacing them with paper.


There is a lot to talk about in Nature's Metropolis. While narratives of nature, interaction of the rural and the urban, and the development of market capitalism stood out in my reading, there is so much more in this book that can be discussed.

I look forward to our meeting this Wednesday!