Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 321
Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is a nonfiction book by historian William Cronon. The first major theme of Cronon's critically-acclaimed book is the ecological history of both Chicago in particular and the United States as a whole. Cronon uses what is now the greater Chicago metropolitan area as a case study to analyze the growth of major cities during the nineteenth century. However, Cronon conducts his analysis from an environmental perspective and details how the landscape has contributed to the boom of the Chicago metropolis and other cities in the "Great West." For example, Lake Michigan and the Chicago, Calumet, and Mississippi Rivers allowed Chicago to develop industrially. Unlike the East Coast, which has greatly benefited in being along the Atlantic, Chicago and Milwaukee are locked in the American heartland. While Chicago's central location is beneficial to businesses today, during the nineteenth century, industries had to develop transportation systems along the rivers in order to thrive economically. The waterways of the Midwest allowed a booming metropolis like Chicago to survive and flourish.
The other major theme in the book is the opposite effect of the human-environment dynamic. Although humans have greatly benefited from the way the environment allows industries and populations to thrive, the environment itself has experienced tremendous degradation due to industrialization and urbanization. Rivers that were once clean and clear have become expressways for ships. Plains that once provided the first settlers in the area with bountiful food later became overridden with roads and structures. Cronon provides various examples of imbalances between the benefits given by the land and the benefits given to the land. As well as the land itself, local indigenous populations were also greatly affected by the colonization of their territories by migrants from other parts of the country. In this sense, Chicago—and America in general—had to exploit the land and its indigenous peoples in order to become a thriving modern society.
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