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“Class and Environmental History” by Karl Jacoby: Summary and Arguments


Class and Environmental History by Karl Jacoby critically examines class relations between conservationists and the ‘backwoodsmen’ of the Adirondacks through the framework of class division. The author investigates the early conservation movement, recognizing the controversy that erupted around the dramatic expansion of state control of the environment, also known as The War in the Adirondacks (Jacoby 1997). In this essay, the author states that analyzing the class relations embedded in conservation allows illuminating ways in which ecological and social relations intertwine.

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For the state officials, protecting New York’s forests often meant keeping them from lower-class rural folk, whose practices were judged as harmful and sloppy. In calling for the creation of a park, the commissioners argued that the residents’ mistreatment of the forest necessitated the state intervention and the introduction of rational, scientific management of the landscape (Jacoby 1997). To encourage the breeding of fish and game on private lands out of their control, the state allowed owners who maintained wildlife habitat to levy increased fines on their property’s trespassers (Jacoby 1997). The enclosure of state lands in a forest preserve curbed most self-sustaining practices such as hunting, foraging, and logging (Jacoby 1997). Jacoby (1997) describes how the impact of these regulations on the people already living in the Adirondack Mountains was often overlooked. In return, the loathing of the locals carried over onto New York’s conservation efforts in the region, seeding the conflict.

However, the author asserts that many of the residents of the Adirondacks did not advocate wide open exploitation of the environment. Rather, most area residents found the new state regulations inadequate to meet local needs (Jacoby 1997). The inhabitants of Adirondacks believed that the state should not equate their hunting done with that of wealthy sports hunters, whose conduct locals found barbarous. Finally, Jacoby (1997) describes how an open-armed conflict erupted in the woods of New York between members of different classes. Thus, after tracing the underlying tensions between classes and providing ample historic context, class inequality becomes an apparent part of the conservation movement’s history.


The overall tone of the essay presents a clear dichotomy of opinions. Jacoby (1997, 325) reverberates the image of upper-class sports hunters as self-righteous visionaries that distinguish themselves from ‘other’ Americans “exploiting resources in the traditionally wasteful manner.” While Jacoby (1997) refers to the early 1900s, similar sentiments are found in modern literature. According to Arora-Jonsson and Ågren (2019), Western environmentalism is driven by the urban middle class. Jacoby (1997) maintains that underlying the locals’ widespread resistance to gaming laws was the belief that these laws reflected a clear class bias. Kashwan (2017) observes a similar pattern: environmental protection is repeatedly accompanied by shifting problems of resource use and management strategies to more vulnerable classes. Overall, Jacoby’s sentiment of portraying class inequality as an emotionally charged issue is pertinent today.

Conservation practices worldwide are still exclusionary for the marginalized proportion of the population. Jacoby (1997) argues that the historic conflict ultimately represented the larger issue of the lower-class’ relinquished control over their daily life’s structures. Scheffer et al. (2017) support that, noting a larger pattern of inequality in nature and societies, both either dominated by a small elite or a fraction of all species. Furthermore, Ma et al. (2019) show that communities living within nature reserves have higher poverty levels than the national average, with income inequality exacerbated for the ‘within’ communities. Overall, the author’s analysis of the Adirondacks community losing their ways of life agrees with modern discrimination and class inequality research.

However, the mere existence of inherent inequality does not support maintaining and encouraging class disparity. On the contrary, promoting more inclusive conservation is imperative and requires addressing the underlying class division issues (Musavengane and Leonard 2019). Jacoby (1997) shows that despite authorities’ attempts to achieve a singular style to conservation implementation, it may not be effective. Essen (2017) supports this conclusion, showing that homogenizing the conservation debate compromises the very legitimacy of policy. Moreover, Tozer et al. (2020) argue that it is important to consider inclusive conservation management, which addresses access inequalities and perpetuation of dominant views on nature use and protection. Overall, both Jacoby’s and current research support including marginalized groups in conservation leadership and changing the perception of which individuals should dominate conservation.


Through adhering to more storytelling than academic style, the author portrays a dramatic picture of the human dimension underlying the history of the ‘War in the Adirondacks.’ By vividly depicting the personalities and occupations, Jacoby (1997) creates a fuller understanding of the class conflict between the arrogant, high-class, state conservationists and self-sustaining, angered by oppressive regulations, forest residents. However, it can be argued that Jacoby gives up a degree of objectiveness by focusing on the emotional component of the story. The article could be improved by incorporating and analyzing some of the regulation’s specifics: for instance, a more detailed explanation of which parts of implemented rules benefited sports-hunters over Adirondacks’ locals.

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Chronologically organizing the work allows for an accurate recap of the events. However, given the absence of topical sentences, theme headings, or concise conclusions, it is challenging to decipher the author’s key points carefully. Nonetheless, this historic essay is a comprehensive and insightful addition to the extant knowledge, given that it analyses the topic previously seldom discussed.


To conclude, the author uses a historic case study of the ever-present debate on nature conservation class dynamics. The essay discusses how the privileged population takes the moral high ground to justify making sweeping laws and the consequences for marginalized groups. By describing the slowly brewing Adirondacks conflict that erupts in an open confrontation, Jacoby paints a larger picture of the uneven and unfair benefits and consequences distribution.


Arora-Jonsson, Seema, and Mia Ågren. 2019. “Bringing Diversity to Nature: Politicizing Gender, Race and Class in Environmental Organizations?Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 2 (4): 874–98. Web.

Essen, Erica von. 2017. “Whose Discourse Is It Anyway? Understanding Resistance through the Rise of ‘Barstool Biology’ in Nature Conservation.Environmental Communication 11 (4): 470–89. Web.

Jacoby, Karl. 1997. “Class and Environmental History: Lessons from ‘The War in the Adirondacks.’” Environmental History 2 (3): 324–42. Web.

Kashwan, Prakash. 2017. “Inequality, Democracy, and the Environment: A Cross-National Analysis.Ecological Economics 131 (January): 139–51. Web.

Ma, Ben, Zhen Cai, Jie Zheng, and Yali Wen. 2019. “Conservation, Ecotourism, Poverty, and Income Inequality – A Case Study of Nature Reserves in Qinling, China.World Development 115 (March): 236–44. Web.

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Musavengane, Regis, and Llewellyn Leonard. 2019. “When Race and Social Equity Matters in Nature Conservation in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Conservation & Society 17 (2): 135–46.

Scheffer, Marten, Bas van Bavel, Ingrid A. van de Leemput, and Egbert H. van Nes. 2017. “Inequality in Nature and Society.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (50): 13154–57. Web.

Tozer, Laura, Kathrin Hörschelmann, Isabelle Anguelovski, Harriet Bulkeley, and Yuliana Lazova. 2020. “Whose City? Whose Nature? Towards Inclusive Nature-Based Solution Governance.” Cities 107 (December): 102892. Web.

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