Algorithmic Bias: Weapons of Math Destruction and Algorithms of Oppression

I recently read two books – Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil and Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble – that explore how algorithms in commercial software hide harmful biases. The information provided by “machine learning” algorithms is influenced by biases in the training data they’ve used to learn to classify, and the source data they’re drawing upon.  

Software and service providers have a hard time perceiving the biases in their products because of severe lack of diversity in the employee base; lack of skills in humanities and ethics to identify the impacts of biases; and advertising business models are motivated on serving eyeballs to advertisers, rather than providing information to customers.  

The biases are concealed in proprietary “black box” algorithms; consumers and citizens aren’t able to investigate the rules and the training data that lead to biased outcomes. The biases in the algorithms are the more pernicious because ordinary people, including professionals, tend to place misplaced faith in output of computers as “scientific” and fact-based.  

Weapons of Math Destruction covers a broad range of systems implementing services ranging from credit scoring and insurance, to job applications and college admissions, to criminal justice; along with advertising and information.  

In the olden days of non-automated lending discrimination, for example, bank managers would directly weed out black and brown applicants. Now, an algorithm might factor in the economic stability of the neighbors and relatives of an applicant, holding back creditworthy individuals who, like many in communities of color, live in poorer neighborhoods and came from low-income families.  

Algorithms of Oppression focuses most strongly on advertising based algorithms, and Google search in particular; and uses a black feminist lens focusing on harms to women of color, as well as other historically marginalized communities. Representations are systematically biased. One of many examples in the book is this Google image search which shows white men as images of doctors.

Another is the experience of an African-American hair salon owner who finds Yelp to be even less helpful than a typical small business owner. Removing images from the Yelp profile took away a marketing advantage that clearly showed a Black-owned business. The salon-owner reported that her customers hesitated to use a “check-in” feature due to culturally justified skepticism of features that could be used for surveillance.

The risks covered in the books are important issues for 21st century civic life and policy, and I recommend both to non-experts.  Algorithms of Oppression was somewhat frustrating; its important ideas would be better communicated with the assistance of a culturally-informed editor. The author consistently uses the term “neoliberal” with more and less precision; including in references to classical 18th century old liberalism.  The author treats history in very broad and sometimes misleading generalities. For example, she refers to the “public-interest journalism environment prior to the 1990s”, without nod to, for example, the racialized narratives of crime that shaped mass-market journalism from the very beginning.

The remedies that the books outline are suggestive, at the very beginning of initiatives to increase accountability and provide alternatives.   Weapons of Math Destruction starts with recommendations for codes of professional ethics among designers of algorithmic models and machine learning systems. WMD recommends regular auditing among algorithmic systems, with academic support and regulatory requirements, including access to the public.

Algorithms of Oppression is more skeptical of a model based on regulation of private sector services, finding commercial motives to be irredeemably untrustworthy.  Noble proposes publicly funded search systems that would be free from advertising business model bias and would provide more contextualized information designed to address the needs of communities, including traditionally oppressed communities.  

A world where the public sector supports information discovery systems that provide the ease of use of commercial software is far from today’s environment where public sector tools tend to be unsophisticated and clunky; and where public funding is exploited by contractors whose core competency is billing public agencies..  Providing search services that are scalable to vast amounts of information; can be used by billions of ordinary people, unlike the pre-google tools used by a small number of expert professionals; and can provide contextualized information is a very difficult thing to do.

The focus on information serving communities rather than individuals has substantial risks the book doesn’t cover.  Information services that serve religiously conservative communities can be customized to conceal information about religious diversity, LGBTQ information, evolution, and so on. Mainstream US residents would agree that the top search results for “black girls” shouldn’t be porn (which the author discovered with Google search in 2012 and had been largely fixed by 2016); but a religious community might also object to images that show exposed hair or naked elbows. Decisions about what information should be shown and suppressed in a culturally sensitive manner are more complicated and fraught than the book addresses.

Also, public search systems may not be a panacea in a world where government information systems carry differently terrible risks of surveillance and political oppression; consider China’s social credit system.

These books are just starting to scratch the surface in critiquing algorithmically biased systems, and in proposing remedies. These are important issues, and it’s good time to engage in critique and start to consider solutions.

Network propaganda – what’s breaking democracy?

A new book with rigorous analysis of how millions of stories were published, linked and shared over the last three years yields some surprising findings and valuable insights into dangerous trends that are posing risks to American democracy.

In Network Propaganda, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts at Harvard’s Berkman Center used a variety of analysis tools to track the links and sharing of over 4 million pieces of content during and after the 2016 US presidential election. They find – to their surprise – that while social media serves as a vector for the spread of false and pernicious stories, and bad actors including state-sponsored Russian trolls and commercially motivated clickbait farms contributed to the fog of misinformation, it turns out that to date, these haven’t been the main agents contributing to the proliferation of of untruth.

Mainstream media with fact-based journalistic norms are still by far the most powerful voices; and are able to reach a substantial majority of the population. So important solutions to the spread of misinformation lie in the practices of mainstream journalism.

The custom of bringing voices from “both sides” should be deemphasized when one side of the discussion is further from verification, for example quoting vaccination opponents and climate deniers for “balance” Instead, reputable journalists should place greater emphasis on objectivity by showing verification.

The authors do find evidence of a “filter bubble”, but the phenomenon is asymmetrical, concentrated on the far right of the political spectrum, where people tend to rely exclusively on right-wing media and not on other media with stronger orientation toward facts. “The right side of the spectrum… has Breitbart and Fox News as its basin of attraction, has almost no overlap with the center, and is sharply separated from the rest of the map.” There are also conspiracy theories and other false stories that come from the left side of the spectrum, but the stories tend not to spread as far because misinformation gets fact-checked by other publications.

And the filter bubble on the right isn’t new, and it wasn’t created by Facebook or YouTube or Russian internet trolls. The book traces how the right wing filter bubble goes back decades, to the rise of televangelism, Rush Limbaugh, and right wing media ecosystem that prides itself in denouncing mainstream media, science and academia. This set of circumstances is distinctive to the US media ecosystem, not generalized in other parts of the world.

Benkler et al don’t discount the risks of social media sharing of disinformation, and have some policy recommendations to add to that important discussion and debate. But based on the analysis in the book, it’s not – yet – the main problem threatening democratic discourse in the US.

Because its conclusions rely on robust analysis of lots of data, I strongly recommend Network Propaganda to anyone concerned about the risks of today’s media environment to democratic discourse.

Growing a Revolution

Growing a Revolution was inspiring Thanksgiving holiday reading. Written by MacArthur Fellowship recipient David Montgomery of the University of Washington, the book reports on global examples of farmers adopting practices of “conservation agriculture” which restore soil as a renewable resource, instead of degrading soil over time.

By avoiding plowing, using cover crops, and employing crop rotation, farmers are able to use much lower levels of fertilizers, pesticides and fuel and make higher profits, with less vulnerability to drought and storms. These practices result in less polluting runoff, better habitat for biodiversity, and – not least – store increasing amounts of carbon in the soil.

The book explains how relatively recent scientific progress in soil ecology and microbiology has provided greater understanding of the systems that build up productive soil – plants have symbiotic relationships whereby they feed sugars to fungi that deliver nutrients to plants and emit proteins that hold soil together; the fungi have symbiotic relationships with bacteria that metabolize nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals. Earthworms, termites, ants, other invertebrates and their micro-symbionts help digest compost, recycle nutrients and structure soils to retain water.

This mutualistic ecosystem is much more complex than simplistic equations that calculate the amount of fertilizer and water inputs needed to grow plants for harvest. Input-based agriculture can deliver high crop yields in the short term, but degrades the soil leading to lower productivity over time.

The practice of plowing breaks the connections between plants and the fungi that feed them; plants well-fed with synthetic fertilizers don’t provide nutrition to symbionts; and pesticides also kill the beneficial organisms that enable soils to hold moisture. So dry soils and extra fertilizers are washed away by irrigation and rainstorms. Fields that are plowed and treated with fertilizers and pesticides gradually lose soil, require even more fertilizer, are more vulnerable to drought and storms, and shed carbon into the atmosphere.

Healthy soil practices are extremely promising for climate protection. Scientific estimates differ, but it is clear that the broad use of agricultural practices that restore soil carbon instead of mining it could go a long way toward pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.  And the book shows how farmers adopting healthy soil practices can start regenerating soil and improving farm economics within a few years – potentially leading to relatively rapid carbon drawdown.

The focus of “conservation agriculture” on building up soil health is different from the focus of “organic agriculture” on refraining from all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  Farms can practice conservation agriculture, use much lower levels of pesticides and fertilizers, and increase soil carbon, but still not qualify as organic. By contrast, a farm could be certified “organic”, but use frequent plowing that breaks up soil ecosystem, and use monoculture practices that depend on “organic fertilizers”, while still eroding soil and losing carbon over time.

But “healthy soil” practices aren’t yet visible to consumers. While “organic” has become a mainstream brand allowing consumers to choose foods produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, there isn’t yet a certification system and brand allowing consumers to choose food that was grown with practices that maintain soil and climate health. The book identifies this as a potential opportunity to engage consumer power in promoting healthy soil practices.

The book identifies other institutional barriers hampering broad-scale adoption of conservation agriculture. In the US and many places around the world, agricultural education and farm support programs are largely geared toward promoting high-input monoculture. The major corporate purveyors of fertilizers and pesticides have lobbied for policies and incentives to keep the system of input-dependent monoculture well-entrenched. “Crop insurance” programs help insure farmers against drought and storms, but don’t support “preventive care” investments to help farmers get started with practices that make farms more resilient to drought and storms.

Most of the US-based farmers in the book were in red states, and had conservative, conservationist beliefs as well as economic self-interest motivating their soil health practices. Hopefully there is some combination of rural local politics and “green new deal” climate advocacy that can break the logjam and accelerate the spread of healthy soil practices.

The potential is great. “Growing a Revolution” makes a strong case that practices to reverse long-term soil damage are relatively simple, cost-effective, and transformative for farmers, ecosystems, and climate. With climate change evident in the fires burning California, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The Color of Law – devastating history, incomplete policy

Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law is a devastating summary of the many ways that the US government created a society that was racially segregated by law, and as a consequence profoundly unequal in wealth. The account is powerful history, and needed for people to face segregation and inequality. But I’m not sure the focus on constitutional law is the best fulcrum for change.

The book shows in robust detail how segregated living patterns were shaped by government policies. Public housing in the first half of the 20th century was not only designed to be segregated, it imposed segregation on previously integrated places by replacing integrated neighborhoods with segregated housing projects for white and black people. Federal policies excluded middle-income African Americans from homeownership and wealth-building, through rules requiring segregation in federally-backed mortgages, racial exclusion in the GI bill, and racial covenants enforced by law. Policies deliberately sited highways to destroy African-American neighborhoods, and policies zoned to allow polluting industries and vice businesses in African-American neighborhoods. Policies drew school attendance boundaries to increase segregation and move white and black neighborhoods further from each other. Recently, in the housing bubble and bust in the 2000s, the predatory lending policies that lead to an epidemic of foreclosures and were targeted disproportionately at African-American buyers, and the resulting catastrophic loss of wealth disproportionately impacted African-American families. The litany is solidly researched and conclusive, and reaches into the present.

Rothstein was drawn to create this airtight case by the well-known and dubious logic used by Justice Kennedy ruling against a school integration plan in 1992, and cited by Chief Justice Roberts again ruling against school integration 2007, arguing that the residential racial segregation which drives school segregation is largely voluntary, driven by private choices, and therefore doesn’t require or allow government remedies. Thus Rothstein’s motivation to prove conclusively that segregation has in fact been created by government policy.

The book runs through a brief but scathing summary of leading high school textbooks that replicate the myths of voluntary segregation. Telling the history accurately, including in school education, is essential to changing people’s perspectives and opening people’s minds to the need for different policies.

The proof of dejure segregation is important for public consciousness, but the book’s focus on constitutional problems and federal remedies seems problematic as a primary lever for policy change. The wheels of constitutional law can grind powerfully, but exceedingly slowly most of the time. Cases need to be brought at a local level, and make their way through a decentralized appeals court system. The US Supreme Court chooses which cases it wants to take on, takes only about 1% of cases each year. It can take decades for an issue to surface as a Supreme Court ruling. In areas of school and residential segregation, rulings that don’t have public support can be ground down by ubiquitous workarounds.

While it is true that the segregated living patterns and wealth disparities were definitively created by government policy, there has been a pivot that the book acknowledges but underestimates. The book cites several cases where, governments, stymied by the illegality of segregating by race, turned to economic segregation via zoning. In one of the episodes in saga of failed attempts to build integrated housing near an automotive plant in Milpitas, “when officials discovered that the project would not be segregated, the town adopted a new zoning law increasing the minimum lot size from 6,000 to 8,000 square feet, making the project unfeasible for working-class buyers.”

In Chapter 4, the Color of Law shows how initiatives led by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in the 20s pioneered guidelines to separate single family from multi-family housing, with an underlying motivation of racial as well as economic segregation. During the Great Depression and WW2, home construction ground to a halt, but zoning rules blossomed in influence with the 50s post-war construction boom of single family, single-use zoned subdivisions.

Looking for levers to change policy today, it seems much more direct to focus on economic segregation enabled by zoning, which is currently legal; and to highlight the deep cognitive dissonance whereby people who decry economic inequality also support continued separation between apartments (or for that matter duplexes and triplexes) and detached houses. “Protect single family neighborhoods” is a common mantra and political conventional wisdom, among people who would have a hard time explaining what harms the single family neighborhoods are being protected from.

Another concern about the book’s policy orientation is that Rothstein seems to largely accept the premises of car-centric, single-use, home-ownership-focused suburbanism. Rothstein recounts sympathetically the motivations of middle class people seeking to escape crowded, urban conditions, with less corresponding questioning of the specific causes of tenement crowding.

Rothstein accepts the typology of inner city black slums and white suburban refuges in encouraging policies to help poor black families move into suburbs, even as the economic map has changed somewhat with the renewed popularity of walkable urban places. A telling quote is this: “meanwhile nearby schools in white neighborhoods had many empty seats as a growing number of white families left Richmond for the suburbs.” But Richmond, with a boom-and-bust population between 70,000 and 100,000, has never been a dominant city in the Bay Area, and is less dense than the supposedly “suburban” Milpitas to which it was being compared. Rothstein’s use of the terms “urban” and “suburban” seem like euphemisms for “town with many black people” and “town with many white people.”

The book does a brilliant job of showing the force of government-backed segregationism in creating white suburbs, but ignores the parallel forces of government-backed automotive and oil-industry policies in creating car-dominated, low-density, unwalkable places that fostered unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles, paved watersheds and natural habitat, polluted the atmosphere, and are the largest contributors to climate change. As Strong Towns highlights, suburban places accrue superficial and temporary benefits from cheap land, but impose high costs of car-ownership, and high per-resident infrastructure and environmental costs. To ensure convenient access by space-inefficient cars, policies mandate fully subsidized housing for private vehicles, while treating housing for people as optional. Attempting to fix segregation by helping lower-income African-Americans move to car-dominant suburbs has some benefits, but seems to perpetuate problems and create some new ones.

In a postscript, Rothstein briefly touches on the reverse problem of gentrification and displacement, as people with means return to walkable urban areas. Rothstein writes, “Gentrification would be a positive development if it were combined with inclusionary zoning policies to preserve affordable housing in every neighborhood.” But with its primary focus on the segregationist impulses behind suburbanization, the book doesn’t fully grapple with current trends, opportunities and challenges of re-urbanization.

Rothstein writes favorably about the importance of home ownership and home value appreciation for building family wealth, while noting the contradiction between considering the mortgage interest deduction as an entitlement while accepting long waiting lists for Section 8 housing vouchers. But the book does not address the tension between promoting home ownership, depending on home prices increasing, and a housing affordability crises, which is worsened by home prices continually increasing.

One small quibble in sourcing. The book does a good job of primary research, weaving in stories of African-Americans who worked hard, served their country, and still faced discrimination that has held families back for generations. The book would also have benefited from a few more of the voices of African-American advocates for civil rights in housing, who fought losing battles against segregation for many decades. Works by authors including Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Nikole Hannah-Jones do a better job of incorporating the voices of African-American leaders who proposed alternative policies, in addition to the important voices of people who suffered from discriminatory policies.

Overall, the Color of Law provides overwhelming evidence of the role played by policy in creating segregated living patterns and extreme wealth inequality, and should be required reading for anyone interested in US housing policy. However, for policy remedies to the tough problems, I don’t think the book is the last word.

Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal

Since the 70s and 80s, artists and other newcomers in search of cheap rent put sweat equity and creativity into restoring and transforming decaying factories and warehouses in Gowanus, the neighborhood surrounding the heavily polluted canal in South Brooklyn. And then many of these same newcomers organized in favor of preserving abandoned buildings, in the interest of protecting the “character” that the formerly bustling industrial hub had accrued by virtue of being largely deserted. This story of the efforts to preserve the appearance of industrial decay is the section I found most interesting about Gowanus, Joseph Alexiou’s history of the neighborhood and canal.

The book wends through the various stages of the neighborhood’s history, starting as a teeming estuary, burgeoning with molloscs, fish and birds, peopled by Lenape native americans; an agricultural hinterland for Colonial New York; the site of momentous revolutionary battles; the subject of decades of speculative endeavors to profit from urban infrastructure in the 1800s; an economically booming, polluted, class-divided industrial powerhouse with factories producing coal gas, chemicals, leather products; warehouses storing and transporting imports and exports, and dense, rundown housing for successive generations of immigrant wage workers through the 50s; a depopulating haven for organized crime families and people in poverty left behind by subsidized white flight to the suburbs; and then the subject of bohemian rebuilding, and competing pressures for redevelopment and preservation.

Across the stages of the area’s history, book tells the story of the fitful and never-successful efforts to build drainage infrastructure for the former estuary once it was paved over, through the latest attempts at drainage and cleanup. The combined stormwater and sewer system, a design that seemed thrifty and ingenious when it was invented, failed miserably, ensuring a future of sewage overflows.

In telling the stories of Gowanus across time to the present, there is a key element that Alexiou leaves out. Recounting the story of the contemporary settlers striving to preserve the area’s “industrial zoning”, he skips over the important story of when and how zoning was introduced to begin with. In the area’s industrial heyday, Gowanus included housing for factory and warehouse workers near the industrial sites where they worked. The workplace conditions and pervasive pollution were hazardous for the laborers health. Residents who restored warehouses as live-work lofts are eager to preserve the area’s distinctive appearance of post-industrial decay, but are not nostalgic for the good old days of coal gas manufacturing plants and tanneries. Industrial zoning was implemented to protect residents, but also contributes to sprawl, long commutes, and the de-industrialization of urban areas. There is a story to be told about what economic functions can be combined with modern standards for safe working and living conditions, but the book doesn’t tell it.

Also, the contemporary preservationists oppose newly proposed housing as “overdevelopment”, while showing a lack of nostalgia for earlier levels of population density in the area’s industrial heyday. Why should they get to turn the clock back to the depopulated state of the neighborhood when they moved in, rather than the density levels of the working class neighborhoods when the factories were churning out products? The reader can empathize with the neighborhood activists who lament the change change that is transforming their gritty, post-industrial paradise. But to cope with the end of an era, it is healthier to hold funerals than to seek to animate zombies.

Moving from substance to style, this book makes me appreciate the challenge of telling a compelling topical history. The genre turns a microscope on its singular subject to illustrate a set of changes across time. Works in this genre are not intended to be a definitive source on the sub-stories they tell along the way; this book isn’t intended to be a comprehensive source on Revolutionary battles, or 18th century industrial finance and financiers, or 19th century working conditions and labor conflicts. Success in the genre depends on readers being delighted by insights into the background and origin of familiar things; but depend on the writer’s judgement – how to tell just enough of each story to provide a dramatic arc, and to illustrate and move forward the themes of the book, and how much of one’s hard-earned research to leave out.

I found Gowanus to fall short in the art of pacing needed to excel in this genre; there were too many specifics about the troop movements of British and American armies, an excess of details regarding the architectural ornamentation and decor of the 19th century financier’s mansion, perhaps a few too many instances of gruesome industrial dismemberments than needed to get across the hazardous working conditions. Lingering on the evidence in each of the book’s episodes, it wasn’t clear which elements of the book’s themes the story was seeking to move forward. I’m glad that I read the book, but found myself occasionally skimming the details. The pacing challenges illustrate the difficulty of creating an work in the genre that is excellent, not just interesting.

How the Bible Became Holy

My favorite part of How the Bible Became Holy is the story of how the Jewish community of Alexandria, a Greek-speaking diaspora community in the Hellenistic Ptolemaic empire, who were excluded from cultural and civic institutions centered around the study of Homeric literature and greek philosophy, developed synagogues as institutions for worship and study centered around the public reading of Greek translations of the Hebrew bible.

In the intellectual and cultural context where Greek philosophy was studied as a guide for living a good life, the works of the Bible were similarly employed by Alexandrian Jews as the base for homiletic teachings.  In this persuasive telling, the revered, central, literary and normative roles of the Bible evolved as a backformation from Hellenistic cultural practices.  

Other elements of the book are interesting, but sometimes less persuasive. Michael Satlow, professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University, traces the evolution of Biblical narratives starting with elements of the Hebrew Bible in 10th century BCE through their roles and canonization in Rabbinic Judaism and institutional Christianity.

In the 10th Century BCE Satlow explains the emergence of shared stories helping to unite a loose Israelite confederation, and fragments of law codes and prophesies and proverbs collected by scribes under the Judahite Kingdom in the 8th to 6th centuries BCE.  Satlow make a case that biblical texts did not have a high profile during the biblical period. Literacy was low, and written texts, including components of law codes adapted from other law codes circulating at the time, were scribal exercises written largely for an audience of scribes.   But positive evidence is minimal for this or other hypotheses about the origins of material from this period.

Satlow brings forward another set of hypotheses with fragmentary evidence relating to the evolving roles of the bible among the Pharisees and Saducees, feuding Jewish political/social parties and schools of religious thought in the century before the destruction of the Temple in 72CE.  Satlow holds to a the scholarly opinion that the small, ascetic religious sect that decamped to desert by the Dead Sea, and left behind a large repository of texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, was a Saducee splinter group which fled vicious Hasmonean politics in the 1st Century BCE (other schools of thoughts hold that the Qumran group were Essenes).  In a volatile age, the Qumran group sought certainty through the use of revered written texts as the source of oracular prophesies and secret codes, helping to pioneer these uses of biblical texts.

Meanwhile, Pharisees, Satlow argues, emerged from a rural aristocracy relying more on oral traditions than texts.  However, because oral traditions weren’t written down, there is minimal evidence, other than the later-written Rabbinic traditions that asserted continuously transmitted oral traditions back to Sinai.  Rabbis began reluctantly committing the “oral torah” to writing starting with the Mishnah in the 3rd Century of the Common Era. Satlow observes that the Mishna is surprisingly lacking in scriptural citations, and attributes this to an attitude de-emphasizing scripture; but could it be because the scriptural connections remained part of an oral layer, according to the stories the Rabbis themselves told?

The distinctive Jewish treatment of biblical texts, where the text itself is frozen and revered, while new, strata of creative legal, homiletic, and literary interpretation build on the text, dates to the Talmudic rabbis and their descendants, which Satlow attributes to a convergence of Pharasaic oral tradition and Saducee reverence for text.

The book also explores the roles of the scriptural tradition in emerging Christian Gospel literature.  Use of scripture varied by audience, as Christianity spread among Gentiles and Jews; works aimed at Jewish audiences used more scripture than works aimed at Gentile audiences. Christians built on the use of biblical texts as oracles to add a superstructure interpreting previous writings as predicting and foreshadowing the emergence of Jesus as Messiah.  Apparently, Christians got around to creating a fixed canon in response to movements to exclude perceived heresy. Readers who are more familiar with the evolving role of scriptures in Christianity will have stronger reactions to these parts of the book.

How the Bible Became Holy provides interesting food for thought about how this set of ancient texts books evolved the various attributes that make them “biblical” – objects that are treated with reverence, that serve as central literary texts that are interpreted on an ongoing basis, and are used as guidance for religious adherents’ lives.

Two tales of a city: fires and gentrification in postwar New York

Recently I’ve read two very different books about opposite trends in New York boroughs in the third quarter of the 20th century.

The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City–and Determined the Future of Cities by Joe Flood, explains why poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx burned in the 60s and 70s.  The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York by Suleiman Osman explores the gentrification of select Brooklyn neighborhoods starting earlier and through the same era.

Conventional wisdom holds that the main cause for the New York fires was arson, as landlords responded to catastrophic declines in property values by taking out the nominal value in insurance. Flood shows that arson, at its worst, took only 7% of buildings; and then only after buildings were abandoned; most fires had ordinary causes like cooking and electrical shorts, exacerbated by lack of building maintenance and lack of inspections.

The extreme level of destruction was driven by technical hubris; Mayor Lindsay brought in computer whizzes to rationalize government departments and increase efficiency. But the administration’s blind faith in technology was misplaced. With flawed models and bad data inputs, the computers generated destructive recommendations to shut down fire stations in poor neighborhoods with frequent fires. These recommendations dovetailed nicely with existing prejudices, so city leaders did not second-guess the recommendations to cut service in areas with little political clout.

The book is a fascinating and solid work of history, with detailed and empathetic reporting on the cultures of the firehouse and public fire department; the information technologists who came up through military and corporate bureaucracies; and civic technocrats who sought to apply the technologies. Particularly interesting for those unfamiliar are the innovations in fire-fighting tools and methods that greatly reduced the death and damage from fires. The fire chief who made the calls during the period is portrayed as a tragic figure whose leadership and technical competence was undermined by political ambition and prejudice.

Brooklyn burns, the fire chief who implemented the disastrous technology that crippled firefighting watches

The stories of destruction aren’t portrayed as ruin porn; anecdotes about fires include vignettes and quotes from the largely Puerto Rican and African-American families who were burned out and displaced. And the book also discusses the resilience of people who regrouped and rebuilt after the destruction, and the culture heroes who created hip-hop in the burnt-out ruins of the Bronx.

“Fires” puts the political dynamics of urban firefighting in context of New York’s oscillating competition between local patronage-based ward bosses and reformist technocrats. In recounting a colossal failure of technocracy, the book is sympathetic to the more incremental, practical, small-scale approach of the ward system. But it seems to me that this sympathy underestimates the longstanding, large and complex systems needed to manage water, power, transportation and public health, and the expertise needed to create and maintain these systems.

The book puts decay of New York’s neighborhoods in the context of highway destruction, redlining which made it impossible to fund maintenance in urban areas, deindustrialization, and white flight leaving residents of color in concentrated poverty.

What isn’t clear, with the book’s exclusive focus on New York, is how much urban destruction affected New York distinctively, and how much was common to de-industrializing cities in the same era. The South Bronx experienced devastating destruction; so did North Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, St Louis, and more. Did New York actually burn harder for different reasons?

Flood attributes the deindustrialization of New York to new zoning codes driven by real estate interests eager to repurpose industrial land for new high-end office and residential development. Were these trends similar in other cities or distinctive in some way to New York?

Meanwhile, as the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn burned, largely white middle-class newcomers painstakingly restored dilapidated brownstones in other neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The gentrification story started earlier than one might think, with white collar professionals, artists, and social workers moving out from Manhattan into Brooklyn in the 1950s.

Where Fire draws on journalism and narrative social history with dramatic or telling vignettes sourced with interviews and documents, Brownstone draws on cultural criticism, with the landscape itself described as a “text” using the vocabulary of academic literary theory. Brownstone pays close attention to the cultural perceptions of Brooklyn gentrifiers, and the representation of Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods in works of literature, film, and television.

Brownstone Brooklyn analyzes the romantic view of the neighborhoods and neighborhood life held by college-educated white collar migrants. These residents viewed urban neighborhoods as having soulful authenticity, in contrast to the artificial and soul-less experiences of gleaming Manhattan towers on the one hand, and sterile suburban tracts on the other. But these romantic perceptions, along with place names drawn from pre-urban farms, farmers markets and street festivals, were brought into being by the migrants themselves. “Boerum Hill, for example, was a name invented in the 1960s and 1970s to describe an area that had always been flat.”

A fascinating section of the book reviews the school of literature focusing on the working class and demimonde, crafted by writers all living in the same part of gentrifying Brooklyn: Mailer, Capote, Kazin, Selby; all exploring aspects of the gritty realities they perceived in the lives of their working class and poor neighbors. “Novels such as Albert Halper’s Atlantic Avenue and Frank Paley’s Rumble on the Docks shocked readers with their uncompromising depiction of life in the slums.”

The romantic ideals of the “brownstoners” often contrasted with their economic livelihoods. The white-collar professionals, artists, writers, and academics cultivating the “historic” neighborhoods of Brownstone Brooklyn worked in gleaming new corporate headquarters, research universities, medical centers, and media conglomerates of high-rise Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn.

In the name of authenticity, new homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods would evict rental tenants living in subdivided flats, and restore buildings that had been converted to rooming-houses back to their “authentic nature” as single family homes. The new residents banded together to oppose the expansion of longstanding industrial uses in the neighborhood. Which uses of a building or a block are the most “authentic” are up for debate. The newer property-owners would lovingly restore or recreate the original surfaces and decorations of their homes in the Victorian era, while objecting to the decorations of older working-class residents that newer residents perceived as crass and tasteless.

The book portrays a complex political environment, with where white middle-class liberals tussled with a system with ward bosses, and largely lower-income African-American and Puerto Rican residents. Brownstoners were continually frustrated by working-class residents who looked to old-school ward politicians for the concrete delivery of services through longstanding personal relationships rather than espousing broader social goals and policies.

In the 1970s, a multi-class and interracial coalition of homeowners and landlords battled redlining in the area. But In the name of preserving neighborhoods, liberal middle class Brooklyn residents defended local control of schools, demanding policies that kept middle-class white children apart from lower-income brown and black children; and many opposed public housing in their neighborhoods, with preferences suspiciously hard to distinguish from racist segregationism.

The romantic view of their Brooklyn neighborhoods contributed to relentless fights against urban renewal megaprojects, which were protested even when resubmitted in scaled down form until they were finally killed. This tradition of opposition to massive redevelopments that displaced hundreds or thousands of residents calcified into a custom of opposing even smaller-scale, infill developments that didn’t displace anyone. An ethic favoring historical preservation became an ethic of suppressing most changes, creating a “slow-growth” political movement that crossed class and ethnic lines, that contributed to later housing shortages.


The two books together provide enlightening and cautionary lessons.

The lessons of Fire about the dangers of blind faith in civic technology remain timely today, as new waves of hype about “smart cities” promote black-box algorithms sold by profit-seeking vendors. Our cities remain vulnerable to enthusiastically hyped technologies that civic leaders are encouraged to accept on faith and without corresponding transparency and accountability.

Brownstone Brooklyn’s portrayal of the romantic ideals, self-deceptions, and hypocrisies of middle-class renovators provides enlightening historical context for the origins of today’s urban housing crisis. The romantic ideals of preservationism contributed to diminishing the stock of affordable housing by deconverting flats and preventing the building of new apartments that didn’t meet the ideals of a small-scale village.

American racism and classism is woven through both stories, very clearly in Fire, where the prejudices of policymakers and bureaucrats allowed neighborhoods to burn. These threads are woven through with more nuance in Brownstone Brooklyn, where more affluent, whiter residents evicted lower-income tenants and more downscale industries, but the ebb and flow of neighborhood class and ethnicity mix over time defies facile narratives of gentrification as colonization, and the interests of wealthy homeowners and lower-income neighborhood leaders aligned to fight development in ways that paradoxically accelerated changes they wanted to prevent.

Aphrodite and the Rabbis

Aphrodite and the Rabbis, by Burton Visotzky, professor of Midrash at Jewish Theological Seminary, explores how Rabbinic Judaism, the dominant strain of Judaism for 2000 years after the destruction of the temple, developed in a matrix of hellenistic Greco-Roman culture under the Roman empire.

Examples: Hellenistic literary scholarship was based on study and commentary of the 24 books of Homer; the Rabbis used very similar modes commenting on the books of the Hebrew Bible; and they even shoe-horned the count of books in the canon to equal 24 in order to parallel the Homeric canon. The Passover seder was modeled directly on the hellenistic “symposium”, an intellectual seminar and feast interspersed with alcohol, dishes with dipping sauces, and music.

In focusing on what Rabbinic Judaism inherited from Hellenistic culture, Visotsky does not explore what is different. The symposium evening ended with courtesans entertaining the guests; that is not part of the Passover haggada. The book shows interesting literary similarities, but does not attend to the dramatic and presumably deliberate difference in which the Rabbis assertively avoid structures based on categories and sequence; the Talmudic forms are relentlessly digressive and associative. The book tells stories of interactions between Rabbis and various Roman figures; but stays away from the extensive talmudic material about avoiding contact and familiarity with pagans and the props and rituals of paganism.

The book provides evidence that Jews in the Roman empire were much more familiar with Aramaic and Greek than Hebrew. And it shows how early synagogue architecture was extraordinarily similar to the temples and churches down the street in Roman empire towns; and how the synagogue art was strikingly similar, including ubiquitous images of the Zodiac, and even images of Zeus/Apollo riding his 4-horse chariot across the sky.

synagogue mosaic beit alfa

In describing the material culture of Jews in the Roman empire, though, the book has very little information about how Jews lived outside of the Rabbinic academies, even how much connection there was (or wasn’t) between the elite scholars in the academy, elaborating ideas about normative ritual practice; and what Jews actually did. In one of the apparently few areas where there is evidence, the book inventories synagogues to assess how many follow the Rabbinic dictum to face toward the East, toward Jerusalem. The result is inclusive.

Last and least, the tone of the book is informal and jocular, which this reader found mildly distracting. Overall, I would recommend the book for those who are interested in the subject matter.

Visotsky argues that even as the Talmudic era Rabbis define themselves politically and religiously in contrast to the dominant culture, they were at the same time deeply shaped by the culture.

Two books by Kevin Kruse on suburban swimming pools, prayer breakfasts, and the origins of 20th century American conservatism

While this year’s news seems to show the modern American conservative strategies seeming to unravel, I recently read two books by Kevin Kruse showing the origins of those strategies. White Flight shows the origins of low-tax, privatized, drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub platform in the racial politics of metro Atlanta. One Nation Under God focuses on the origins of the alliance between big business and the religious right.


In the post-WW2 era, Atlanta marketed itself as “the city too busy to hate” but behind the scenes, Atlanta neighborhoods were torn by racial strife.  Black residents were confined to a limited number of over-crowded and rundown neighborhoods, and those with the means sought more space and better living conditions.  After residential segregation was struck down by the courts, local customs maintained segregation.

White residents pledged not to sell to black people, and real estate agents were bound by their code of “ethics” not to sell from white to black. If a few black people moved into a white area, the locals resisted, often with violence. Then, real estate sales people took advantage of white fear of black neighbors to encourage rapid migration, where the neighborhood shifted rapidly from all-white to all-black.    To block change, city leaders took steps such as routing freeways and expressways between black and white neighborhoods, and zoning for industrial uses between white and black areas, but these tactics did not work for long.   Kruse tells these stories with rich and plentiful detail as the patterns repeated in neighborhood after neighborhood.

Over time, the political rhetoric of white residents fighting change shifted.  Earlier on, opponents to change were explicitly racist, with participation from Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, and overtly terrorist tactics. Later on, whites fighting change moderated the rhetoric, and portrayed their opposition to sharing space with black people in terms of American values “freedom of association” and “free enterprise”. The message of “free enterprise” played a stronger role after civil rights protests to integrate hotels and restaurants broke down the traditional alliance between the white business establishment and black leaders who collaborated to promote peaceful prosperity at the cost of acceptance of segregation.

The concepts of integrated neighborhoods and integrated public facilities were inconceivable for white residents who bitterly resented the loss of “their” parks, swimming pools, public golf courses and libraries. Rather than sharing facilities, or “wasting” public funds on black “intruders”, white leaders choose to set up separate, private, segregated facilities, and often to close or de-fund the facilities now used by black people.

The more “moderate” and “reasonable” messages of freedom of assembly and free enterprise helped leaders with these messages start to win elections and gain political power.  The strategy of privatization became easier as white residents increasingly moved outside city boundaries to suburbs.  These suburban communities nurtured new generations of political leaders, including Newt Gingrich from white suburban Cobb County, suburban Texans Tom Delay and Dick Army, whose philosophies of low taxation and small government were optimized for areas that were ethnically and economically segregated.

The way Kruse painstakingly documents the hyperlocal politics of white resentment in Atlanta neighborhoods, and draws connections between the specifics of local politics and broader demographic and strategic trends is depressing and deeply insightful.  There’s more to the book, especially the connections between Atlanta’s integration battles and national policy change; I recommend it highly.

In God We Trust also uncovers surprising connections to the origins of modern American conservatism; in this case the alliance between big business and the religious right.  Kruse started with the hypothesis that the civic religious movement behind the addition of God to the pledge of allegiance derived from opposition to godless communism during the cold war.  But Kruse traces the flowering of civic religion in the 50s to something earlier and stranger.

In the midst of the great depression, business magnates organized in the National Association of Manufacturers sought to fend off the compelling messages of the “social gospel” supporting the labor movement and the relief policies of the New Deal.  So they initiated a campaign of “Spiritual Mobilization”, organizing and bankrolling with a network of Protestant religious leaders, to promote “Christian libertarian” message equating faith, liberty, and free enterprise.

The movement downplayed Jesus’ messages about caring for the poor and downtrodden, and focused instead on doctrine of individual success as salvation.  The movement encouraged resistance to corrupting policies such as unemployment insurance and social security pensions for the elderly; which fostered laziness, servility to authority, and tyrannical taxation; adherents were urged to “Declare that freedom is more important to you than ‘security’ or ‘survival.’  Billy Graham expressed the philosophy clearly in ‘51 when he claimed that “If [the US] hoped to survive, it needed to embrace once again “the rugged individualism that Christ brought” to mankind.

Over time, the movement melded emerging disciplines of advertising and mass media, with American traditions of Protestant revival movements, contributing to a flowering of religious participation after the second world war, when the share of Americans who belonged to a church or synagogue suddenly grew from 43% early 1910 to 49% in 1940 to 57% in 1950 and then peaking at 69 percent at the end of the decade.

The movement found a powerful champion in Dwight Eisenhower, who integrated the theme of spiritual revival into his campaign, incorporated religious leaders and pageantry into his inauguration, and institutionalized “prayer breakfasts” for his cabinet, including the business leaders who had bankrolled the campaign for piety.   During this era, “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance, and In God We Trust, which had been on coins for a century, was added to stamps and paper currency as well.  Religious books and movies topped the charts, including best sellers like The Robe and The Silver Chalice and blockbuster movies, notably the Ten Commandments, along with less well remembered hits including  Samson and Delilah and Solomon and Sheba. Cecil B Demille contributed his media skills in the Spiritual Mobilization campaign; his foundation took corporate donations to advertise against labor unions. DeMille enthusiastically supported a promotional campaign for the Ten Commandments movie, organized by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, to install Ten Commandments monuments at courthouses and city halls across the country.

Unfortunately for the business sponsors, however, Eisenhower showed little appetite for rolling back the popular social benefits of the New Deal.  The tighter links between public piety, religious conservatism, and economic conservatism kicked in later.   Kruse draws direct connections between the disappointment of southern conservatives at the passage of Johnson-era civil rights laws, and the passionate but ultimately unsuccessful campaigns for school prayer.

Stronger ties among between religious and social conservatism were established with Nixon’s outreach to the socially conservative “silent majority”.  With rich detail, Kruse recounts how Nixon administration coordinated an “Honor America Day” revival rally, with attractions including Billy Graham, Pat Boone, Bob Hope, and Lawrence Welk. etc to reinforce a socially and racially conservative constituency and image, even as Viet Nam protests and other radical activism savaged and mocked the Nixon’s efforts at preserving pious 50s-style facade.  Links to social and economically conservative policies grew stronger with Ronald Reagan’s affiliation with religious broadcasters Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.

Unlike White Flight, where the connections between detailed descriptions of local racial and class conflicts, and their ideological trappings were drawn closely and persuasively, there are larger gaps in the observations and arguments of In God We Trust.   Many reviewers make a strong case that the origins of American civil religion extend back through earlier waves of political discourse and religious revivalism.

Kruse’s narrative stitches together a seemingly endless procession of sermons, rallies, and pageants with lofty and pious sentiments, showing the evolution of conservative civic religious expression .  What is not shown, though, in most of the book, are the contrasting religious beliefs and expressions that the conservatives are opposing.  At the beginning, we don’t hear the voices of the social gospel supporting New Deal policies.  In the chapters on the 50s and 60s, we don’t hear the voices of black churches championing civil rights and economic opportunities for people who are marginalized and dispossessed.

In the material moving into the 70s and 80s, we don’t hear the voices of religious liberals championing social and environmental reforms. The chapter on school prayer is the only one that provides a richer picture of contrasts and conflicts between religious perspectives, in this case between elite support of separation between church and state, and the populist, lay-led support for continued and increased presence of religion in schools and public life.

Also seemingly missing – though I don’t know the material even vaguely well enough to offer a critique – are nuances about the class structures and trends within Christian conservatism.   The book starts with corporate moguls recruiting elite Protestant leaders to construct religious support for conservative economic policies.  Somewhere along the line, more grass roots evangelical communities became engaged in a conservative political alliance, and issues of opposition to abortion and gay rights became classic conservative campaign fodder in addition to with low taxes and deregulation. At some point, “God, guns, gays” along with coded racism became wedge issues that separated white working class voters from liberal economic policies. I strongly suspect there is a story about the connections between class and the evolution of uses of religion in US politics.  I don’t know enough to guess at the story, and Kruse doesn’t tell it.

Still, In God We Trust has interesting and insightful observations about how conservative religion came to play a role in modern US politics, including strange phenomena such as prayer breakfasts and “God Bless America” signoffs to presidential speeches.

It is especially interesting to read these books at a time when the powerful political philosophies and alliances described in these books seem to be in the process of unravelling.  White Flight describes the rise of exclusive and privatized white suburbia, but more recently we’ve been starting to see the suburbanization of poverty, as people with economic choices return to urban areas.   Segments of the white middle class, who benefited from the suburbanization of jobs in the late 20th century, are now struggling economically, and some have been turning away from corporate conservatism toward Trumpist nativist populism.

Demographically, people of color are playing a growing role in the electorate, and white rural/suburban racism is becoming a less electorally effective strategy.  The connections among the corporate elite, religious conservatives, and white suburbanites are fraying. Time will tell how coalitions re-form.

The Invention of Nature and Crimes Against Nature: Two books on the Romantic view of Nature

“Nature” is far from natural; two recent books explore the development of romantic ideas about nature, and the consequences of policies based on these ideas. The Invention of Nature is a biography by Andrea Wulf that traces the career of Alexander von Humboldt, the German scholar who shaped ideas about nature, and influenced the people who created conservation policies. Crimes against Nature, by Karl Jacoby is a social history that explores the consequences of romantic ideas of nature, as they were implemented in the conservation policies of state and national parks.

Humboldt had been nearly forgotten in the English speaking world, but has been the world’s premier celebrity scientist in his day.

Humboldt was close friends with Goethe, and the ideas of German romanticism infused his work. As a romantic who saw feeling as a primary means of understanding, Humboldt didn’t see science as an intellectual activity separate from emotion. ‘Nature must be experienced through feeling,’ Humboldt wrote to Goethe, insisting that those who wanted to describe the world by simply classifying plants, animals and rocks ‘will never get close to it’. His writing for scientific and popular audiences was full of lyrical and ecstatic passages inspired by natural beauty.

In Views of Nature, for example, Humboldt invited the reader to “follow me gladly into the thickets of the forest, into the immeasurable steppes, and out upon the spine of the Andes range … In the mountains is freedom!” Humboldt’s romantic portrayals of nature also included visuals in the tradition of romantic landscapes, intended to convey the feelings of awe and wonder.
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L’Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Wulf’s biography traces how Humboldt’s poetic style of communication about nature influenced writers including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau and many other writers whose enchanted descriptions fill the Nature writing sections of bookstores and Amazon.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L'Amerique. Paris, 1810.
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L’Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Humboldt’s verbal and visual images of nature were shaped by the Romantic ideas that the natural world conveyed spiritual experiences in characteristic places, following the philosophical and esthetic concept of “the sublime.” In the essay, the Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon writes that, Although God might, of course, choose to show Himself anywhere, He would most often be found in those vast, powerful landscapes where one could not help feeling insignificant and being reminded of one’s own mortality. Where were these sublime places? The eighteenth century catalog of their locations feels very familiar, for we still see and value landscapes as it taught us to do. God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset….

Humboldt’s ground-breaking scientific work was based on detailed measurements taken while travelling the world. His innovations and discoveries included the the idea of isothermal zones of vegetation and climate zones that span the globe at similar latitudes, and observation of connections between similar species on continents that were separated by (what was later shown to be) plate tectonics. His measurements and analysis also demonstrated the decrease in intensity of Earth’s magnetic field from the poles to the equator.

elevation climate zones

Humboldt’s work pioneered key concepts of environmental science. After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about the environmental harm wreaked by plantation monoculture and deforestation, which washed away soil and left the land barren. “Humboldt was the first to explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Humboldt’s environmental science was the concept that things in nature – plants and animals, atmosphere and oceans – are all connected – and methodical measurement and analysis can reveal these connections.

Humboldt’s assessment of the costs of plantation agriculture included the human depredation of slavery, as well as the risks of monoculture to human health and survival in addition to the risks to the natural environment. In Cuba, Humboldt observed the social costs of plantation monoculture. Humboldt observed how cash crops produced by plantations had replaced ‘those vegetables which supply nourishment’. “Cuba produced not much other than sugar, which meant that without imports from other colonies, Humboldt said, ‘the island would starve’. This was a recipe for dependency and injustice. Similarly, the inhabitants of the region around Cumaná cultivated so much sugar and indigo that they were forced to buy food from abroad which they could easily have grown themselves. Monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society, Humboldt said. What was needed was subsistence farming, based on edible crops and variety such as bananas, quinoa, corn and potatoes.”

Wulf traces the influence of Humboldt’s environmental ideas on George Perkins Marsh, an American diplomat who traveled through Middle East while serving as ambassador to Turkey in the 1850s. Marsh and observed barren conditions in places that had formerly been the breadbasket of civilization, and ascribed the desert conditions to deforestation, which had led to erosion and the collapse of agriculture. When he returned to the states, Marsh wrote Man and Nature, an early work of ecology that talked about how manufacturing and industrial agriculture were ruining the environment, with barren soil and torrential floods caused by deforestation and monoculture, and lifeless lakes and rivers polluted by industrial waste.

Marsh viewed the role of humans as uniformly negative. “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent,” declared Marsh. “Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.
Man and Nature discussed the damage being caused in the present day by deforestation in the Adirondacks, and the work was influential in the creation of a New York State forest preserve in the 1880s and 90s. Man and Nature also influenced people including John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, who played crucial roles in creating the United States’ National Park system and other policies to protect America’s forests.

John Muir was another disciple of Humboldt who found inspiration in nature, evangelized the spiritual value of connection to wilderness, and gathered a movement of lovers of nature to drive the founding of the national parks to protect pristine wild lands. Muir thought wild places as separate from human settlement, and preached the spiritual benefits of finding reprieve from urban life. As Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

The pristine wilderness that Muir admired had long been inhabited by people; it eventually took the introduction of the US army, with enthusiastic support from Muir to expel the people.
Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation , by Karl Jacoby, covers the impact on local residents, Native and European-American, when national parks were established.

Before the Grand Canyon National Park was established, Havasupai Native Americans grew crops in a nearby canyon during the summer, and hunted on the ledge in the winter. The book describes with how the Havasupai became impoverished by forced exile from their hunting area when the laws of the National Park banned hunting; the traditional subsistence hunting was recast as poaching. As the people suffered from hunger, Havasupai men resorted to manual labor in the park to make a living. Far from being a “trackless wilderness”, the lands in the National Parks were criss-crossed with trails created by Native Americans for hunting and seasonal migrations. Jacoby reports how, as day laborers, Havasupai men earned cash by paving the trails for tourists.

One of the main reasons that Native Americans were excluded from national parks was to prevent forest fires. It turns out that the fires that had regularly been set by people was valuable for the plants and animals in the ecosystem as well. Jacoby writes, “Native Americans used fire for multiple purposes: to keep down underbrush, facilitating travel; to rid camping areas of insect pests; and to aid in hunting. … By burning underbrush and dead wood, low-level fires of this sort also helped to recycle nutrients into the soil and create a mosaic of plant communities at varying levels of succession, raising the level of vegetational diversity and opening up a variety of ecological niches for wildlife. The benefits of fire were therefore not only short-term (facilitating travel and the taking of game) but long-term as well (maintaining a higher population of wildlife than would have occurred otherwise)

The chapter in “Crimes against Nature” focusing on the state park in the Adirondacks describes the impact of the park’s regulations on a small population of about 16,000 European Americans who engaged in subsistence hunting, fishing, and cut small amounts of timber for fuel and small buildings.

While Marsh’s generally had a negative view about the impact of humans on the natural world, he believed that the subsistence farmers in the Adirondacks (and other places) were particularly damaging. Jacoby writes “In keeping with his Whig political beliefs, Marsh viewed these members of the lower classes as lacking the foresight and expertise necessary to be wise stewards of the natural world”. With this perspective, the rules of the park system were designed to prohibit subsistence-level hunting and wood-gathering. While there are examples of large populations engaged in subsistence foraging and agriculture causing deforestation and environmental damage, it’s not clear that the 16,000 small-scale farmers in the Adirondacks were actually causing damage, in contrast to large-scale timber harvesting. (A weakness of the book is that it does not bring evidence.)

In fact, the motivations for creating state and national parks weren’t to protect ecosystems the way that we may think of them today. The congressional report in support of the creation of Yellowstone as a National Park described the benefits of the park to be:

  • First. As a region containing some of the chief natural wonders of the world.
  • Second. As the largest of the forest reserves.
  • Third. As the greatest existing game preserve.

The hunters for whom the “game” was being protected were upper class men who hunted for recreation. Hunting was prohibited within the boundaries of Yellowstone and Yosemite, permitted in game season in the Adirondack state park, and the local subsistence hunters who could not feed their families on the allowance and seasons permitted by the rules became guides for upper-class recreational hunting and fishing. People who hunted for subsistence when they needed food- native or european – were considered poachers.

And the views of the great wonders of the world were being protected for tourists who could afford taking vacations to appreciate the sublime beauty of nature, as understood through the Romantic esthetic. In The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon explains that One has only to think of the sites that Americans chose for their first national parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rainier, Zion—to realize that virtually all of them fit one or more of these categories.

Cronon continues… “Less sublime landscapes simply did not appear worthy of such protection; not until the 1940s, for instance, would the first swamp be honored, in Everglades National Park, and to this day there is no national park in the grasslands.” Natural parks were not primarily created to protect biodiversity (or estuaries would have been early parks), nor was they created to protect distinctive ecosystems (or grasslands would have been protected). They were created to protect the views that triggered emotional experiences that were valued by the Romantic perceptions of nature held by Humboldt and his followers.

Travelling to remote and “exotic” places was seen as an integral aspect to experiencing nature. Humboldt, Marsh, and Muir sought experiences of nature in travels to South America, the Middle East, and the American West. The creation of parks brought these experiences “downmarket”, from upper-class travellers (Humboldt, Marsh) who had the financial resources and social connections to explore distant places, or extraordinary individuals (John Muir) who were willing to make social and financial sacrifices to travel, to prosperous middle class people who had resources to take time off and travel for vacation.

While Humboldt himself saw the suffering caused by with plantation slavery and monoculture, valued mixed agriculture, and (rare for his time), respected native cultures, the romantic ideals as they passed down through generation tended to see nature as separate from humanity, and to dismiss the people actually living in places understood as “natural.” Crimes Against Nature makes the case that when nature is seen as “somewhere else” that is free of people – the vision of a connected system leaves out people – this perception misreads most places that are actually inhabited, creates harm to the rural people living subsistence lifestyles, and doesn’t necessarily help the natural environment.

In “the Trouble With Wilderness” William Cronon also concludes that if we believe that wilderness is a remote place for urban people to visit as tourists, this belief prevents us from finding solutions to environmental problems that are inherent in our urban industrial civilization.

“If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not. If this is so—if by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings, save perhaps as contemplative sojourners enjoying their leisurely reverie in God’s natural cathedral—then also by definition it can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems that confront us. To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.

Humboldt’s romantic vision helped him pioneer an environmental science in which everything in nature is connected. Jacoby and Cronon show that when rural and urban people are omitted from the vision of nature, the ecosystem including humans, are at greater risk.