1491 (Mann)

This is a puzzling book. Mann seems to have written it to dispel misconceptions about the perception of pre-Columbus America and Native Americans. (Mann’s first appendix explains how he came to choose that term.) If that is indeed his goal, it’s a worthy one. Dispelling misconceptions is one of the primary goals of education – an education, Mann sporadically points out, that is dominated by oversimplified and sometimes wrong portraits that textbooks paint. But his reliance on archaeology is often puzzling. He depends on it at times, but is just as quick to point out when the research has revealed something new or when various archaeologists have arrived at very different conclusions. So how can we know what’s reliable? Other times, he seems to argue or accept arguments from nothing. There were, in one example, no pigeon bones in a mound, so the pigeon count could not have been as high as some claim. Other times, he’ll close sections that contain mixed views with sentences that start with phrases like, “It seems reasonable to infer. . .”

In the end, this book made me wonder what purpose archaeology serves. There are a few tentative claims that we would do well to learn from how Native Americans interacted with their environment. (And that they interacted represents one of the myths, the pristine myth, that wants to eradicate.)

My suggestion? Go to the bookstore or library and read pages 373-375. The rest is pretty much details. That section starts with this passage (emphasis in the original):

European and U.S. environmentalists argue that the forest [in Brazil] should never be cut down or used – it should remain, as far as possible, a land without people. In an ecological version of therapeutic nihilism, they want to leave the river basin to its own devices. Brazilians I have encountered are usually less than enthusiastic about this proposal. Yes, yes, we are in favor of the environment, they say. But we also have many millions of desperately poor people here. To develop your economy, you leveled your forests and carpeted the land with strip malls. If you want more forest, why don’t you tear down some of your strip malls and plant trees? Yes, yes, we are in favor of helping the poor, environmentalists respond. But if you cut down the tropical forest, you won’t be creating wealth. Instead you will only destroy the soil. Turning Amazonia into a wasteland will help nobody.

These dialogues of the deaf have occurred so often that the participants can almost recite their lines by rote.

“In an ecological version of therapeutic nihilism?” You have to giggle a bit at that language, don’t you?



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