Chapter 5 – Annihilating Space: Meat

Chapter 5 in Nature’s Metropolis entitled “Annihilating Space: Meat” is about the rise and decline of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. Throughout this chapter Cronon discusses how the meatpackers successfully turned the killing of animals for sustenance into a common mass-produced commodity, further severing the ties between nature and humanity, and used monopolies to take over the entire meat selling industry. Contributing to the modern day ideology that cities and the industries that reside in them can be considered symbols of corporate corruption and the destruction of nature.

While reading this chapter I felt the most recurring concepts was the idea of efficiency in the corporate infrastructure, even if the actions taken to do this were morally reprehensible and severed ties with the natural world, the large influence those corporations had on rural areas and the constant disregard for nature perpetrated by those corporations. For example, the meatpackers flushed large amounts of waste into the Chicago River without any thought of the repercussions. When the river became extremely polluted the reason the meatpacking corporations wanted to limit pollution was pressure from the city to do something. The solution was to reverse the current of the Chicago River irresponsibly diverting the pollution to another river leading to an adjoining, moving the problem elsewhere. Realizing that money could be made off of the byproducts of the pork and cattle the meatpacking industry became “obsessed with turning waste into profit whatever the noneconomic cost.” They sold rancid meat and put other hazardous byproducts into their meat products in an attempt to make a profit off of every piece of the pigs and cattle that were slaughtered, which was only halted by legislation passed by the government. I also was astounded by the large monopoly the meatpackers set up to defeat and discourage any competition from other cities and muscle out any butchers that disagreed with the sale of packed meats. From Chicago they set up railways and branch warehouses in numerous towns and cities throughout the county to be able to conveniently sell their product and put competition out of business. The “Big Four” meatpacking corporations even managed to defeat the railroad companies when the railroads tried to even out the shipping rates between packed meat and livestock.  Effectively representing the large amount of power the meatpackers had accumulated. As mentioned in the book it is also highly ironic that the connectivity that the Chicago meatpackers had created throughout the country would lead to the downfall of the meatpacking industry in Chicago.

In terms of the corporate influence on the landscape I felt the destruction of the bison clearly represented the encroachment of city demands on the surrounding natural landscape in the Great Plains. The decimation of the bison population was the domestication of the western plains. Once the bison were wiped out the domesticated cattle took their place as a manageable product that could be sold in the surrounding cities, specifically Chicago. This can be seen as a prime example of second nature taking over first nature. As competition increased the prairies turned into sectioned pastures and Illinois farmers fully domesticated their livestock production through the feedlot; bringing the end to the natural means of feeding cattle on grasses in pastures to feeding them corn, through troughs, grown by man. Likewise, this idea is brought up again when the meatpackers started to use refrigeration, getting rid of the natural barriers that meatpackers faced when shipping their product. Making it so meat could be shipped all year round and defeating the natural act of decomposition.

There are also similarities between meat packing and the grain and lumber corporations. Each industry was immensely successful. Until eventual technological advancements and the realization that Chicago is nothing special led to all the industries ends in the city, except perhaps the grain industry.  They all used corrupt monopolies and deals to silence competition and cheated other corporations and labor out of their payments. Each industry turned something natural into a commodity “alienat[ing] its ties to the lives and ecosystems that had ultimately created it” and seemed to forcefully impose second nature on the American landscape. In the present day I feel that the apathetic attitude towards nature still exists. If you were to look at where I live now, Orange County, CA, thirty years ago a majority of the land was untouched chaparral. In present day there is barely any land untouched by construction. Even the beaches are under threat of having hotels and beach-front housing built on top of them and some have been recently. Human beings seem to be in a never-ending state of expansion and I believe cities accurately represent that.

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2 Responses to Chapter 5 – Annihilating Space: Meat

  1. sarabear85 says:

    This can be seen as a pro or con for Chicago, while it damaged nature and wildlife, it helped to expand the city and make it easier for people to get the meat. There were no strict set of rules that these companies had to follow, and for the most part they did not know better, or think long term about effects. Anything that can be turned into a commodity is likely to end up becoming strictly a business matter. Once this meatpacking industry exploded, it was no longer eat to stay alive, it became a staple and a common thing to have in your house. With the ease of transportation, and the mass amounts of meats being produced and sold, it was no longer seen as a “bad” thing to take these animals to slaughter. Many farmers used this as income to feed their families. They had animals, and these meat packers wanted to buy it. The problem is that the business became greedy and gave no thought to the impact, especially when it came to the slaughtering of bison. Business would do anything for money once they realized that there was a market for almost any meat product that you could think of.

  2. 1mwilliams says:

    You made some great points. Reading about what actually went into the formation of “nature’s metropolis” has forced me to reevaluate my opinion that the end justified the means. I was aware that while creating what we know as the city, there were obvious environmental and even human casualties, but a lot of the destruction, which was mainly the result of greed, was completely unnecessary. Whether it was turning butchered waste or Chicago into a source of profit, there was an apparent desire to carve something out of nothing. That intense desire to create something new, superior, and, most importantly, profitable made people desperate. This desperation made people lose a grasp on morality and reality. When money was involved, pollution of rivers that were once the pride of the city and the destruction of nature that was once used as a magnet for investors, were all issues that were ignored because it was all in for the greater good…corporate growth and profit. We still see remnants of this today, cities have been successfully established, but we are still exploiting nature to feed our unquenchable thirst for profit.

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