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[Detail] Pinus scopulorum Reproduction, Jemez Springs, New Mexico

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making

The collection's Special Presentation offers a definition of ecology as the study of "'the manifold and complex relations subsisting between the plants and animals that form one community.'" Under this definition, humans may be considered animals, not life forms separate from natural systems, but part of a larger ecological community. And everything humans do needs to be considered as part of that ecology. Because humans are a type of animal, what humans do is natural. So, anything resulting from human action - erosion, deforestation, etc.- is natural. Or is it? Use the collection to explore this question, central to activities of industrialization and conservation. Search on bridge, railroad, canal, dam, and agriculture for images of human-built structures that have altered the environment and consider the questions below.

Beaver Dam

A Beaver Dam, Tolland, Colorado.

Both of these images depict dams. One was built by humans, the other by beavers. Each changes the environment by flooding the area behind the dam and causing a change in the vegetation and habitat in the surrounding areas.

  • What is the impact of the structure?
  • Does it disrupt nature?
  • Does it fulfill "human progress"?
  • When should "human progress" take precedence over maintaining a natural state?
  • Are the results of human action natural? What does it mean to be "natural"?
  • Is "human progress" necessarily at odds with nature?
  • How would you define "human progress"?
  • What definition of progress has had the greatest influence on the shaping of American history and culture?