Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 20, 2015

Christian Parenti, William Cronon, Alexander Cockburn

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

William J. Cronon

Christian Parenti, Truthout Interview, May 17, 2015 (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30756-christian-parenti-on-the-state-humanity-as-part-of-nature-and-the-malleability-of-capitalism)

Anthropogenic fire has long played an important role in the universal metabolism of nature. It was our ancestor Homo erectus that tamed fire, used it to cook, and most likely to shape the landscape either intentionally or by mistake. Homo sapiens have used fire on a vast scale. Native Americans and pastoralist societies in southern Africa used fire to create fecund, hunt easier, open forests and grazeable grasslands. A lot of this goes back to William Cronon’s first book Changes in the Land in which he examined the environmental history of New England before and just after White settlement. Pre-contact New England was not some sort of pristine, natural place.

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Alexander Cockburn, “Beat the Devil”, Nation Magazine, April 8, 1996

Until a new president is found, the daily operations of the Wilderness Society will be overseen by Kim Elliman, a Rockefeller heir, and former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the Strom Thurmond of the environmental establishment. But don’t expect the Wilderness Society to change into an aggressive environmental advocate anytime soon. The Society recently invited onto its governing board the historian William Cronon, who is the general editor of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series at the University of Washington Press. (Don’t be shocked. In Oxford, Balliol College is welcoming a Flick Chair, endowed by German slave labor and death camp sponsors.) Cronon kgues that the focus on wilderness protection has been a misguided and counterproductive endeavor. After all, Cronon muses, wilderness is really just a state of mind.

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William J. Cronon, letter to the Nation, June 7 1996

Alexander Cockbum implies that I am an enemy of wilderness protection and of environmentalism in general. I trust that those who , know my work will recognize how unfair this is. Cockburn’s complaint is twofold. He correctly notes that I edit the Weyerhaeuser Endronmental Books series for the University of Washington Press but fails to point out that the Weyerhaeuser Corporation has no relationship to the series andnothing whatsoever to say about its editorial content. I would not have accepted tlhis editorship had there been any ideological constraints on what I could publish. In this, I am no different from the thousands ofAmerican academics (and journalists) who accept financial support from philanthropies with names like Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon or Guggenheim or who teach at universities with names like Stanford or Duke or Cornell-names whose environmental records are far from spotless. Cockburn asserts that I believe wildemess io be mere& a state of mind. This grossly dislorts my position. Although I strongly support protecting biodiversity and wild land, I believe this is best accomplished by seeing such things as part of a larger system in which “the human” and “the natural” are not set in stark opposition to each other. Cockbum and Susannah Hecht ‘eloquently make a similar point when they criticize First World fantasies about tropical rainforests as “Edens under glass.” Like them, I believe we should pay close attention to the troubling linkages that sometimes exist between environmental advocacy and elite class politics. If these views render me ecologically suspect, then I have a feeling that many.environmentally committed Nation readers may wish to be suspect in precisely the same way.

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Alexander Cockburn’s reply

I thank Bill Cronon for his kind words about The Fate of the Forest, and indeed he wrote a marvelous book about Chicago and the West, Nature’s Metropolis. But Uncommon Ground, a collection boiled down from a seminar at U.C., Irvine, was a pretentious mess, full of banalities about nature as a human construct, as if Marx had not said it better and shorter more than a hundred years ago: “The nature that existed before man no longer exists anywhere.” Its politics were bad too. Anent Cronon’s series under the sponsorship of the Weyerhaeuser timber company: As the Chinese proverb puts it, Do not adjust your hat under a plum tree or tie your shoes in a melon field if you wish to avoid suspicion.

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