Essay about Cronon Review

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Since its publication in 1983, William Cronon’s Changes in the Land has been lauded by historians. The book, Cronon’s first, received the Francis Parkman Prize for the best new book in American history in 1984. Cronon’s objective in the book is to assess the changes in New England’s ecosystems and the degree to which these changes result from the relationship between Indians and colonists and changes in the dominant modes of production. He argues that the transition to European agriculture, and the unsustainable extraction and commodification that accompanied capitalism led to changes in the reciprocal relationships between humans and the environment.
Cronon begins by explaining two important concepts that lay the groundwork for his
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New England’s Indians moved to places where food was abundant, and agriculture supplemented their hunting and gathering activities. Indians cleared fields by burning and then used the same field for eight to ten years until the soil lost its fertility (48). Indian agriculture did exhaust the land, but the rotating nature of this agriculture and low population densities minimized the damage. Indian use of other resources also rotated on a seasonal basis so that no resource was overexploited. The Indians did not use the environment in the European way, and, from the colonists’ perspective, the Indians’ shifting land use did not entitle them to ownership of the land (56). The Indians’ concept of ownership revolved around use of the land and the things on it, rather than long-term possession of a particular plot (65). Property rights shifted with the current ecological use (63). The English conceived of the land as a “private commodity rather than public commons,” (74) and believed that ownership gave them the sole right to exploit it for personal gain. The commodification of land and other resources by the English challenged the resiliency of the local ecosystems.
The Indians also contributed to this process as they became integrated into the colonial economy. The importation of European diseases decimated Indian…

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