Public History Journal Part 5: Human Ecology

by tigermanifesto


“Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.”

-Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”

When settlers built the city, they built it to face away from the rivers and streams. Housing all turned inward, putting these vital flows of water “out of sight, out of mind.” Though the pre-railroad age utterly depended on rivers and streams for shipping and transportation, in the era of industrial capitalism the rivers became sinks for entropy of all kinds. Undesirable people are sent “up the river” just as refuse and wastage formed rancid slurries in the streams. you could always tell what color the refrigerator plant was painting its wares because the excess paint drained directly into one of the creek’s tributaries. From the beginning of white settlement in the area, the creek functioned as a periphery, an “outside” that could be mined for gypsum and filled with all the undifferentiated garbage the humans didn’t care for any longer.

Reading back through old histories of the city and the region around it, one never gets the sense that people lived with these streams and rivers just as much as they lived with each other. You learn that the rivers carried logs, ships, rafts, the occasional group of swimmers. Every once in awhile a drowning, a logjam, a stoppage would cause some alarm, and then long bouts of silence.

In the neighbourhood I’m studying, there is a creek. It’s no Mississippi or Seine or Hudson, and in many parts of the area it’s barely visible even from a few yards away. A local family park is named after it but it offers no view of the water itself. Not that you could do much with the water if you could see it; merely touching it might be enough to make you seriously ill. Old stories from a century ago reminisce about naked boys splashing in the streams. Long ago, the water agreed with the human body, where now it is pure poison. Even now, the community is built with its back turned to the creek. I’m guessing many longtime residents are scarcely aware of the creek’s existence.

Telling the history of the neighborhood means telling the story of the creek. Without the creek, without the river it drains into, there is no city. Human societies function on the backs of these natural flows, flows that can be tamed––a WPA project buried one of the local streams underground so it could serve as a storm drain––but that are usually allowed to subsist at some level. Paradoxically, the more human inputs have changed this creek, the more that it escapes control. Flash flooding is now so extreme that the banks of the creek cannot possibly be repaired for years. People are working on it, working to transform the water, but it will take many years to undo more than a century of worse-than-neglect.

How to make the stream part of the human story here? Partly because, as you might have guessed, the health of the community is linked to the health of its water. Secondly, the creek figures in the memories of notable people from the area. Thirdly, it remains there, and its current state is a testament to the struggles of the neighborhood, relatively impoverished and forgotten itself, and how the wealthier people upstream give little heed to the people who might accidentally bathe in their agricultural phosphates. But it’s important to recognize that bad people didn’t make it this way. Moral evil did not pollute this waterway, at least not mostly. In the vast majority of cases, we are talking about an entire society that simply does not know the value of the river, does not taste the venom it’s dousing its own blood with. Not only ignorance, but also the demands of capital accumulation. Nature gives, nature takes away if taken from too much.

Integrating ecology and human societies is not as difficult as it may seem. Karl Marx recognized this because he recognized that human beings are not merely laborers. They are also natural beings, and even the stellar reaches of their consciousness are the effects of natural materials. What we don’t want to do is differentiate too far, to draw hard lines where creeks meander softly through residential areas, green spaces burst sidewalks, and people fish in dead rivers for salmon only blocks from their houses. What history must do in this case is to turn people’s faces toward the water, allowing them to grasp, even if only partially, the fact that our environment is an index of our social ills, and only when we make a tough reckoning with the past can we correct our current deviations. History can’t do all of this on its own, but without it we would forget when the creek was still a swimming hole.