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Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.

Chicago was built on a swamp. Known today for its biting winds, the early Chicago grew famous for its mud. Mid-19th century propagandists did their best to play up the natural advantages of the young metropolis: it was conveniently linked to the busy markets of the East by the Great Lakes waterway, and it was also on the border between the fertile, black soil of the western prairies and the north country's thick forests of pines. But, as one 1848 visitor noted, Chicago could hardly hope to become a center of commerce as long as all the roads leading into town were "little less than quagmires."

Half a century later, then, after the world's first skyscrapers had risen up from Chicago's muddy byways, the city came to symbolize the ultimate triumph of human will. "Chicago," wrote the novelist Robert Herrick in 1898, "is an instance of a successful, contemptuous disregard of nature by man."

Today, many urbanites still think of nature as an obstacle that human ingenuity has overcome. According to the environmental historian William Cronon, however, such citified folk, in their seeming isolation from the natural world, have developed a skewed sense of human "success." No city-dweller, Cronon argues in his most recent book, Nature's Metropolis. Chicago and the Great West, can successfully disregard nature, because urban development is inherently dependent on the depletion of natural resources: city and country, humanity and nature, are one, a union of interdependent parts. Chicago's early propagandists had it right when they downplayed the town's muddiness and emphasized its access to waterways, prairies, and forests. The city on the lake could "seem to break free from the soil and soar skyward as a wholly artificial creation" only because it enjoyed a steady flow of grain, lumber, and meat from its rich hinterlands.

In Nature's Metropolis, which won Cronon the history profession's Bancroft Prize last year, the story of Chicago becomes a case study illuminating the broader history of urban-rural commerce. Tracing the flow of natural and manufactured goods between country and city, Cronon tells the story of a changing economic landscape and cites all the sure signals of American success - urban growth, the dissemination of labor-saving devices in rural areas, improved communication. But this story goes hand-in-hand with another, more ambiguous story, about a changing ecological landscape. While Chicago rose to heights of fame and fortune, Cronon reminds us, the logic of urban-centered capitalism was subtly replacing the diverse plants of the tallgrass prairie with uniform fields of wheat and corn, and transforming the north woods into fields of stumps.

That logic's subtlety lies at the heart of Cronon's historical inquiry: how did we manage to forget about those prairies and forests? How did we come to lose track of the all-important linkages between the human and natural worlds? Ironically, Cronon finds, "the same market that brought city and country ever closer together, giving them a common culture and fostering ever more intimate communication between them, also concealed the very linkages it was creating." A couple of centuries ago, in a predominantly rural society, most people knew exactly what it took to make a ham sandwich. As grain and meat got turned into comomodities, though - got "processed, packaged, advertised, sold, and shipped" - and as urbanization drove production and consumption farther apart, people found it harder to remember the extent to which their lives were rooted in the natural world. And in this obscuring of the city's rural roots, Cronon believes, lie the roots of our current crisis of overconsumption: most of us, he says, no longer understand the ecological consequences of our own lives.

To fill in this gap of understanding, Cronon takes us on a journey from nature to market, tracing in vivid detail the transformation of natural products into abstractions of capitalist commerce. Meat, for instance, entered the world of commodities for good in 1865, when Chicago architects laid out the Union Stock Yard at a formerly obscure railhead on the south side of the city. "This vast network of rails and fences," Cronon explains, "had only one purpose: to assemble the animal products of the Great West, transmute them into their most marketable form, and speed them on their way to dinner tables around the world." After only a few years, not even the ranchers who raised livestock saw what became of their animals. Cattle were often born on the Great Plains of the West, fattened in feedlots in the Mississippi Valley, killed and processed in Chicago, and eaten on the eastern seaboard.

Chicago-based meat companies, taking the logic of capital as their gospel, found themselves revolutionizing commerce. To cover huge investments in steam engines, stockyards, and processing plants, they demanded that more and more hogs and cattle be delivered to them from the city's rapidly expanding hinterland. American consumers, in turn, enticed by good prices, began to eat more and more meat, perceiving it merely as "a neatly wrapped package one bought at the market," and forgetting that "eating was a moral act inextricably bound to killing." Meanwhile, processors perfected the so-called "disassembly line" in order to make efficient use of every part of every animal. "The more you cut, the more you sell," the meat packer Gustavus Swift used to say, and the meat by-products industry was born. From bone to horn to hoof to offal to entrails to fat, animal parts were made into products like margarine, bouillon, brushes, combs, and canned pork and beans. The original animal itself "vanished from human memory as one of nature's creatures. Its ties to the earth receded, and in forgetting the animal's life one also forgot the grasses and prairie skies and the departed bison herds of a landscape that seemed more and more remote in space and time."

Unfortunately, Nature's Metropolis never delves into the full implications of the forgetfulness of American consumers. Although Cronon does mourn the loss of the prairie and forest ecosystems, he never explicitly connects destructive 19th-century practices to today's ongoing debates over sustainable agriculture and forestry. Certainly the historian's reluctance to dwell on such highly politicized issues is understandable, but, as he himself insists, "no history book is finally worth writing unless it manages somehow to connect itself to the present world in which past and future meet and reshape one another." Cronon would only have strengthened his arguments by elaborating on his claims that the 19th-century explosion of meat production effected "a basic change in the American diet," and that meat consumption has serious ecological consequences. But he never gets around to mentioning the high American death rates from diseases associated with excessive consumption of animal fats, or the inefficiency of the process by which animals convert grain into edible products, or the soil erosion caused by overgrazing.

Still, Cronon has a compelling story to tell, and Nature's Metropolis contributes directly to all the current debates involving issues of ecology and economics. No city-dweller could finish this book without thinking twice about humanity's interdependent relationship with the natural world.

Even devoted environmentalists, however, have much to learn from Nature's Metropolis. The historian's theme becomes most powerful when he reveals his own history as an unabashed defender of nature. As he wrote the book, Cronon explains, he finally recognized as dangerous his tendency to posit nature as good, and humanity - his own species - as bad, finally realizing that he was "building the same artificial mental wall between nature and un-nature" that he condemned in people less sensitive to ecological values. To a much younger version of William Cronon, Chicago was merely an evil smokestack and an orange cloud, while rural Wisconsin, where he spent his summer vacations, was a cool, green lake. Only in recent years, and only by studying the past, was he able to understand what those two landscapes had in common. "Just as our own lives continue to be embedded in a web of natural relationships," Cronon writes, "nothing in nature remains untouched by the web of human relationships that constitute our common history. And in that fact lies the measure of our moral responsibility for each other and for the world, whether urban or rural, human or natural." The solutions to our environmental problems, Nature's Metropolis reminds us, lie not in the wilderness but in human ethics and values.
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Author:Sachs, Aaron
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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