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Charles Mann “The Atlantic Monthly” with a splash of Christine Padoch

by on September 5, 2011

When Europeans first encountered the Americas in 1492, they believed they had landed amongst the many islands surrounding India and China, proving not only that the world was round but also that they had found an alternate route for trade. Suddenly, the world seemed simpler to understand. Charles Mann, an author in Atlantic Monthly, displays evidence of how this European contact brought unexpected tragedy that destroyed native populations. Urban Forest and Rural Cities: Multi-sited Households, Consumption Patterns, and Forest Resources in Amazonia is an article that reiterates the main theme we have discussed in class surrounding the impact that people have on an environment in order to function in a world surrounding urbanism.

We have discussed in class how many people tend to separate themselves from nature, thinking of human beings as not animals but something greater. Yet, this is obviously not the case as we are just as vulnerable to our environments as any other animals are. Columbus’, and other European explorers’, arrival in the Americas is proof of this. Mann describes the argument among scholars about how many people lived in the Americas in 1491. There are the “low counters” who suspect there were only 1.8 million people in the vast open space of the Americas, while the “high counters” suspect closer to 112 million people (8). Why is there such a vast difference in these two statistics? Lenore Stiffarm thinks that some people choose the smaller statistic because “the smaller the number of Indians…the easier it is to regard the continent as having being up for grabs” (8). The real question however, despite which statistic you believe, is where and what happened to all the Native Americans? The answer? Disease. Columbus did not intend to bring European diseases with him on his ship, he did not intend to kill Native Americans in the MILLIONS…but he did. Disease travels faster than people so it was killing Native Americans years before the European explorers even reached them. How does this enable us to claim that we are somehow more advanced, or separated from our environment? The simple fact is that we are not. We are victims of it. I learned in my history class that some scholars have chosen to call this tragedy the “American Holocaust.” Is that really ethical? Although I agree that this event was a catastrophe for all environments everywhere, Columbus did not intentionally kill all those people, a misunderstood transfer of diseases did.

Humans manipulate their environments wherever they go. It doesn’t matter if they did it by bringing plants and animals with them as they set to conquer an ocean, or manipulated a plant, like maize, to better fit their needs of survival, the environment has transformed. Christine Padoch’s article about Amazonia emphasizes the importance of migrating or living in an urban area in order to obtain resources. However, many migrants “remain members of multi-sited households and continue to participate in rural-urban networks” (Padoch 1). The people living in this dichotomy are changing the content of the forest around them as they grow more trees appropriate for being cut down for cheap timber and also the acai fruit, which has become a “regional staple food” (Padoch 6). The demand for cheap timber that migrants from rural areas require has forced the markets to meet that demand and grow more cheap timber and acai fruit. My only question about this article is in the long term, how will the “increased demand for cheap construction materials” affect the ecology of the forest? Padoch claims that farmers are weeding out the trees that grow slowly, so over time, these trees that create cheap timber will continue to grow more and more quickly and possibly spread beyond the farmland they were originally grown in. Although the effect will most likely not be as drastic as introducing pigs or disease to the Americas, the way people influence their environments can have unforeseen consequences until it is too late to change them.

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10 Comments
  1. janellekramer permalink

    In response to Megan’s question: How will the “increased demand for cheap construction materials” affect the ecology of the forest?, I think that this demand will greatly affect the ecology of the forest. If some species of trees disappear from the forest, the animals habitating those trees will disappear as well. Food that the native peoples rely on, from either the trees or the animals inhabiting those trees, could be greatly decreasing or even disappearing.

  2. I find it fascinating how the American education system disregards the catastrophic effects that occurred when Europeans came to the Americas. The fact that there may have been more people on the North and South American continents than in Europe in the mid-1400’s is something I never heard about in my elementary and high school history classes. History can be distorted immensely.

  3. These two articles were also comparing human manipulation to environments. In the article, “The Atlantic Monthly,” Mann points to many examples showing how human populations regulate the influx of other plant and animal species such as corn and buffalo. In this article, Charles Kay, an ecologist, states, “Indians were a keystone species of American ecosystems” (16). Indians manipulated the environments around them to suit their needs (12). Once Indians came into European contact, their populations declined drastically changing the ecosystem around them.

    Padoch’s article similarly shows the relationship between humans and their environment around them particularly in the Amazon. Rural populations are harvesting acai palm fruit and fallow timber because of high demand from urban areas and international markets. The results have created this rural-urban migration or multi-sited areas connecting rural with urban workforce.

  4. I found your history professor’s insight on the “American Holocaust” very interesting. I agree with you that Columbus, nor any of the other European explorers actually intended to kill off that many Natives all at once. Even if they had wondered about the effects the disease would have on their new neighbors, there is no way they could have managed or manipulated the spread of disease at all. Nature has a way of dominating us even when we seem to be in control of how we interact with our environment. If those diseases had not been brought to the Americas, perhaps the massive population growth would have done more harm to the environment than nature could have been able to withstand.

    • While the early explorers such as Columbus may not have been aware of the effects of the diseases they carried, later, these diseases were used as a means of warfare to eliminate native populations in the Americas. For one well documented set of cases, see: http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/amherst/lord_jeff.html, which includes images of original letters written between various military leaders.

      I think you bring up an interesting point in the last sentence. First off, do the articles indicate that there was a massive population growth or do they suggest that the population levels were steady? Second, what sort of information would allow us to get a better idea of whether such harm was being caused? Did the articles present that sort of information? Do the authors of these articles make any indications as to whether the populations were effecting the environment in ways that would limit their future survival?

  5. Frederick Reisen permalink

    To address Megan’s first question I would have to answer yes. For Columbus and the rest of the Old World disease spreading across the America’s was most likely a pleasant surprise. From what I have learned about European imperialism there is little that makes me believe that if it weren’t for the disease armies of Europeans would have made the trip across the pond to do it by hand. Now whether or not they would have had success is another story. As Mann states in his article most colonists did not survive and the America’s where a rough place to carve out a place to live. But as it stands I could see the reasoning behind calling the death of millions of native americans a holocaust, after all it is not like the Europeans were setting up hospitals to help them. In regards to the second question I think that the disruption to the ecology has probably already began. No matter how hard we try as humans we are always going to affect the ecology around us, it is what we do. But I do believe that through smart forestry and agroforestry providing “cheap construction materials” is possible.

  6. vcowdrey permalink

    I completely agree with Megan’s statement about how people always have and always will manipulate areas in which they live. In Padoch’s article, I found the two case studies really important to understanding life and the economics of the Amazon region. It is not an easy place to survive, and I think that is why most people that don’t know the intimacies of the area have a tendency to think of it as a mysterious jungle, with dense foliage and exotic creatures. But the idea of people living in the there, and commuting from work to home, as do any of us, doesn’t pop into my mind when I think of the Amazon. I think the two case studies touched on a similar idea: we are only now realizing how important the Amazon is on a global scale, and the thought of people in that area changing their environment so that they are able to survive and prosper, frightens us. We have watched too many times as ecosystems have been destroyed or altered so they become something different, and the thought of people changing their landscape in the Amazon begins to bring out that fear of destruction. These alterations of the landscape could be seen in both case studies: first, the acai fruit being grown on an increasingly growing scale and secondly, in the shanty-towns where the locals are changing the make-up of local forests to provide better lumber.

    In my opinion there is no way to avoid urbanization (unfortunately) because there are too many people living on this planet and using resources too quickly. However, I do think that there is always an opportunity to change how we do things to make them more beneficial to the environment. Again, as we discussed in class, it is about responsibility.

  7. 242colleencarey permalink

    I think that this is a great example of the inextricable tie of nature and culture. People will always have an affect on nature and manipulate the areas they are in even if they don’t mean to. That’s shown around us all the time and also going back to when the Europeans came to America. I agree that Europeans didn’t kill off all the Natives, but the diseases they brought did. When I make this statement though, I consider the Natives as part of nature, and Europeans changing the dynamic of that nature. Again, this shows how hard it is to separate nature and culture.

  8. Megan Powell permalink

    I also agree that these articles are effective examples of the blurred line between nature and culture. We are constantly affecting our environment in our effort to survive and flourish and it in turn responds in some way to our actions, in a continuous cycle of interaction. Like we’ve touched upon in class, this idea kind of implies the concept of one grand organism that, in comparison to being separate organisms, just has separate parts, like cogs in a clock but seemingly without a flawless design (i.e. things go wrong).
    To add to the comment about responsibility; I think that if we view things in the way I’ve just stated above, our primary focus should then be our responsibility for a positive effect on the environment of our collective actions. If we know that, or can assume that, the changes being made to the Amazon by planting more fast-growing trees for cheaper timber and the like could potentially have a negative effect on the environment, then we could also assume that the environment’s response to that could also effect us negatively, giving us even more motivation to think of our actions now in terms of their effect in the future on us and the environment.

  9. amygraceaustin permalink

    Reading over this article again, I was struck by a different aspect of the author’s argument. One thing that Mann points out heavily, that I think many people fail to account for, is how humans have been utilizing and altering environments since way before the colonial era. Mann states that “When scholars first began increasing their estimates of the ecological impact of Indian civilization, they met with considerable resistance from anthropologists and archaeologists.” Can you think of other developments in thought that have been faced by resistance by the academic community? Why is it difficult to absorb these news understandings into official discourses? My gut reaction is that it is mainly due to histories of power relations.
    As a result of this continued environmental impact by original populations, “some anthropologists have called the Amazon forest itself a cultural artifact—that is, an artificial object”. This statement relates very heavily to the discussion we’ve been having in class about the nature/culture continuum and the meaning of the Amazon. Reading this article towards the beginning of the semester I was not able to put that into the context of the larger discussion that has ensued. Mann continues that statement by explaining how many tourists are often disappointed upon arriving at the Amazon because of its “extreme flatness”. This points out how the Amazon itself is not only a “cultural artifact” but our outside perceptions of the Amazon are certainly”artificial objects” laden with cultural influences.

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