Metanarratives of History and the Environment

It was captivating, for someone who studies stories for a living, to listen to historians critique their own metanarratives about the border phenomena we encountered during the institute. I was fascinated by the universal condemnation of “declensionist narratives,” that is, histories structured by a pattern of decline: Anglo settlers come in and ruin everything; indigenous peoples disappear; rivers dry up; soil is depleted; species go extinct.

I sympathize: in American environmental literature, film, and criticism, the narrative of apocalypse remains a dominant strategy: think Almanac of the Dead, The Road, The 11th Hour, ________________ [insert your favorite apocalypse here].

Modernist anthropology and folkloristics had the same problem: the folk are disappearing, so collect their culture before it’s gone.

Couple things: first, a note about the joy of apocalypse. Declensionist narratives are satisfying because bad behavior gets punished, especially in the wake of empire. The evil imperium gets what’s coming to it–look at the mess you made!–and the righteous remnant gets to preach about it. There is a strong sense of closure combined with a satisfying ethical critique.

The trouble starts when the story continues: the indigenous peoples persist; citizens keep drinking the polluted water; the bears invade the suburbs; the empire, still unsmited, begins to feel guilty after the fact. Declensionism faces the next part of the story, where closure is disrupted and ethical ambiguity asserts itself.

Postmodern theory attempted to deal with this problem by emphasizing the constructed nature of narrative and the messiness that escapes narrative structures. Most famously, Fredric Jameson asserted that heterogeneity without a norm was the central effect of postmodern culture (though for Jameson, this is merely an effect of late capitalism, so the apparent chaos was really a function of the Marxist metanarrative of capitalism’s self-destruction).

We should also mention Antonio Gramsci who, of course, described the process by which a dominant culture commands assent from the dominated through cultural cooptation. Metanarratives are always political: it’s hegemony, stupid.

Though Jamesonian, Gramscian, and other critiques of civilization-building narratives are crucial to a responsible historical method, stories have to be structured nonetheless, so the question remains: What other narrative structures are available besides the declensionist structure? And which are most appropriate to the borderlands?

There are the traditional ones, of course–everything is always getting better through rational means (progressivism); we are building the city of God/the revolutionary nation (messianism); we can scratch and claw our way to success on the backs of the losers (Social Darwinism); nothing means anything (nihilism); incremental adaptation wins out in the end (evolutionism); there will be survival after much destruction and suffering (collapse and rebound); and so on.

My experience of the borderlands, and my modest knowledge of its history, suggest a number of alternate stories:

1. Several old things get broken into several new things: Northwest Mexico, the Apacheria, and the Pimeria Alta become the American Southwest, reconfigured indigenous nations, the new Mexican Northwest, and the shifting, porous borders among them.

2. Bioregions persist through the reconfiguration of political boundaries: Border patrols come and go, but the Sonoran desert is the Sonoran desert.

3. Imaginary homelands cling to the border: Aztlan, the Anglo-Protestant Superstate, the Hippie Kingdoms, the Restored Pleistocene Ecosystem: all of these virtual states, which are also structures of desire, influence the politics and culture of actual states.

and, perhaps my personal favorite,

4. I have no idea how where all of this is going or how it’s going to end.

Since the same problems of narration afflict our teaching as well as our research, it seems to me that our choices must also be informed by the stories we think our students should hear.

I hope that readers will share their strategies for narrating environmental history and borderlands history to undergraduate audiences.


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