New York University Proposal On Civilization Nature And The American Way Research Paper

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FRPG2112-01 Jiale Xiao, Tracy Dave Murphy Apr 5 2020 Civilization, Nature, and the American Way It is emblematic of modern civilization that we feel there is a contrast -- a conflict -between Civilization and Nature. Sparkling cities -- industrial wonders -- sit heavily on their hinterlands. In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Princess Amidala, a dignitary visiting the ecumenopolis (or world-city) Coruscant from lush green Naboo laments the lack of greenery to be found anywhere there. In this one-off throwaway line, the film’s writers make a brief, but incisive commentary on how well we’ve excised nature from our modern lives. Of course, it is not wholly true we’ve excised nature -- we decorate our houses with large green-grass yards and run woody buffers between properties and subdivisions -- but what nature we allow into our “civilized” spaces is a very tightly controlled form of nature. But civilization needs nature. New York’s water supply still comes, by and large, from the mountains immediately to its north, from small spring-fed creeks impounded into reservoirs more than a century ago. Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park was originally meant as a nature preserve protecting the city’s main water source, the Schuylkill River. Houses need lumber to be built, and lumber comes from trees; trees need to be harvested to build houses at all. We make electricity, the wonder-magic of modern civilization, from the sun, the wind, water, tides -- or else from deposits of carbonized sunlight laid down millennia ago. Without the resources of nature, civilization’s gears would cease to turn. Civilization thus has a responsibility to garden its natural resources. In Desert Solitaire, the nature writer Edward Abbey describes his experience as a Park Ranger in Arches National Park, part of the vast red rocks wilderness stretching across the middle Colorado River basin. In it, he extols the park’s natural beauty -- but he also bemoans the improvements the Park Service is making to the park, improvements meant to make it easier to visit the park, but, according to Abbey, ones that infringe on the park’s nature and the parkgoer’s experience of Nature. From Abbey’s viewpoint, places like Arches National Park are meant to be respites from civilized places, and any improvements made at all to the park’s facilities represent an intrusion of civilization into a temple to Nature. This surely doesn’t square with the Park Service’s viewpoint, of course: Parks are there to be seen, to be visited, and people won’t visit places that are difficult to visit. If a park isn’t visited, it becomes hard to justify its rationale for existence. From the Park Service’s viewpoint, therefore, places like Arches National Park aren’t actually temples to Nature as Abbey suggests, places removed from civilization, but rather economically dependent on the very civilization that chooses to protect them and therefore part of the urban hinterland. In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs calls such places “city regions” and points out the symbiotic nature of cities and their hinterlands -- not necessarily one of producer and consumer, as someone like Abbey might see it, but more like producer of raw resources and producer of finished goods. In such a view, nature cannot just be Nature; nature has to contribute something meaningful to the activities of Man to have value, and for a place like Arches National Park, this value is aesthetics -- the very aesthetic of raw, untrammeled Nature, in fact, that Abbey so extols. In a dash of historic irony, while reviewers today call Abbey “the Thoreau of the West,” the Walden Pond Thoreau so extolled held a similar status for Boston in his day. It is only in the minds of idealists, however, that the relationship between Civilization and Nature is as dramatic as a dichotomy. Part of civilization is civilization’s understanding of Nature. Jacobs argues persuasively that nature and natural places should be understood not as things in themselves but as parts of the economic fabric of a city and its broader region. But there is another viewpoint to be had in this conversation: James Howard Kunstler’s, who, in The Geography of Nowhere points out that American suburbia destroys the actualities of natural (and rural!)environments to put up privatized facsimiles of them. In other words, our interaction with nature also matters, and in our interactions, we reveal, in the places we create, what we value. In other words, Americans value a personalized interaction with nature to such a great degree that they will destroy nature in order to put up their own personalized interaction-space with it. Kunstler, like many others, points out how incredibly wasteful such a culture is. Such behavior is also antithetical to nature and natural resources: Nature is a commons, a shared resource, a resource we cannot privatize in our backyard else we destroy -- hence suburbia yielding a facsimile of nature, an inferior copy. If we want to maximize our interaction with nature, we should minimize the amount of space we take up. Surprisingly few voices in American media call for this -- in fact, the Sierra Club, one of America’s dominant “preservationist” voices, is notoriously hypocritical when it comes to NIMBYism in the Bay Area -- but it is the actuality of life in Japan, where lots are barely large enough to fit a house but the natural spaces on the urban periphery are far lusher and more expansive than anything found in North America. It is also not a surprise that Japanese attitudes about civilization and nature are less conflicted than American ones; American conflicts are driven by the American desire to privatize and individualize everything, an ethos that is fundamentally in conflict with the preservation and enjoyment of nature as Nature. Perhaps, then, what writers like Thoreau and Abbey offer is not a critique of civilization and nature, but rather a critique of American culture and how it distorts both civilization and nature. Jane Jacobs would be inclined to agree. References Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. University of Arizona Press, 1988. Jacobs, Jane. Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Vintage, 1985. Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere. Free Press, 1994. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Directed by George Lucas. Twentieth Century Fox, 1999. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Signet, 2012.
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Summary of the Essay

From a summative perspective, the essay focuses on the issue of civilization and nature,
especially in the United States. Most of the modernization concepts have led to the establishment
of cities and depreciation of the natural settings hence posing a challenge to the quality of

I was struggling with this subject, and this helped me a ton!


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