Adam Rome’s recent work The Bulldozer in the Countryside chronicles the rise of modern American Environmentalism in strict correlation with the adventAdam Rome’s recent work The Bulldozer in the Countryside chronicles the rise of modern American Environmentalism in strict correlation with the advent of urban and suburban sprawl. In doing so, he does what many environmental theorists address only in the abstract or outright ignore: the strict connection between economics and environmentalism. The end result is an easy to read, well organized and compelling compendium of the late 20th century’s environmental movement that is grounded not in utopian or counter-cultural musings, but instead the tangible milieu that is middle class American history. Rome begins his history with a social and economic analysis of the origins of modern American suburbia. Focusing on the innovations of Levittown, he shows that the goal of affordable housing was not just sought after by consumers, but by the government as well. His macroeconomic analysis of government attitudes and legislation towards the housing market shows a keen—as well as easy to understand—appreciation of the post-depression paradigm shift towards Keynesian economic policy. In other words, Rome contends that it was not simply demand-side pressures shaped American housing market (and thusly environmentalism), but the policies set forth by an economically involved government as well. Later chapters describe the unforeseen consequences of new, efficient and modern approaches to housing and community. Chapter two focuses on the issues of heating and cooling, noting that while houses were inexpensive, the appliance and energy needed ot make them comfortable was not. Chapter three describes the red flag of Septic-tank pollution in suburbia. Noting the connection between new concentrations of population and the constant drive to reduce costs, Rome shows how pollution predicated by septic-tanks made environmentalism an issue of local communities, but one that also gained national attention. Rome finishes the book with a collection of chapters on newfound scarcities of open spaces as well as public responses to the aesthetics of homogonous, sterile landscapes. An implicit argument within Rome’s book is the effectiveness of local and tangible issues of environmentalism vs. greater issues of global scale. He quotes Hal Rothman in his introduction as noting environmentalism being traditionally embraced by American’s only when it is “convenient.” This is an important aspect of his methodology, but in that theme, more in depth analysis of a cold war American weltanschauung, and the hesitancy of Pax Americana to act except when threats are immediate and observable would have been welcome. Also, readers would’ve gained much from a deeper inspection of nuclear family dynamics, one where the female homemaker utilizes leisure time to address environmental issues. But these are minor critiques. Without a doubt, The Bulldozer in the Countryside should be required reading for students in American environmental, and cold war social and cultural—not to mention urban—history. Rome’s prose is lucid and inviting, and his analysis is refreshingly acute and convincing. This is a work that is sure to influence students and scholars for years to come. ...more
The transformation of the Columbia River, from Lewis and Clark to the nuclear age, is documented with precision and insight in Richard White’s The OrgThe transformation of the Columbia River, from Lewis and Clark to the nuclear age, is documented with precision and insight in Richard White’s The Organic Machine. Although it is only 113 pages in length, White utilizes every word for maximum impact. The result is a brief but compelling look at the geographic, economic and social impacts that humans brought to the Columbia River. White argues that the relationship between humans and nature is far more ambiguous and complex than we can foresee, resulting in unexpected changes to the entire ecosystem. White begins his examination with the arrival of Euro-Americans to the region, and the startling displays of nature they encountered. This is an effective introduction, as it reminds the reader of the power and majesty of the Columbia. In this modern age of dams and hatcheries, one can forget what an awesome force nature holds. This theme continues throughout Machine’s pages with great effect, reminding the reader not only of the majesty of the Columbia, but also its unpredictability. But the taming of these forces—not an uncommon theme in environmental history—is only part of White’s story. He recounts how this river came to be utilized for human purposes with much more detail than engineering feats. White recognizes the role that labor played in the construction of dams, and what they cost in human lives. He also shows great historical understanding by citing the philosophies of Emerson and Mumford that drove nationwide endorsement of these projects. It was these shifting notions of the use of nature and it’s energy shaped national optimism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Fittingly, this is not just a book about humans, but the consequences of their actions on the entire ecosystem. The historical depth White uses to chronicle declining Salmon populations, not just in the river proper but all the way to Alaska, is downright impressive. It also provides a compelling argument about how interconnected humans are to nature through energy systems. As humans changed the river, the river changed how they lived and worked, and ultimately limited the energy that flowed through the Columbia. The reactions to these realizations are the most startling part of Machine, as White pays special attention to Nuclear power and its ramifications, from declining fish populations to human casualities. Organic Machine’s brevity makes it an ideal read for undergraduates, and its depth will lend itself to graduate students also. Style is lacking, but only at the expense of clarity of White’s argument. But with only 113 pages, it’s curious why Machine lacks footnotes, which would act as excellent primary source material for graduate students. Also, illustrations could have added visual clarity to the images White conveys. But these are minor criticisms. The Organic Machine is a brilliant telling of how humans effected one ecosystems. But with just a little more, it could be a masterpiece. ...more
The Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility outside of Denver acted as a producer of bomb materials throughout the cold war. In Making a Real Killing, LeThe Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility outside of Denver acted as a producer of bomb materials throughout the cold war. In Making a Real Killing, Len Ackland tells the story of this weapons plant, it’s employees and neighbors. Utilizing a mixture of personal narratives and investigatory journalism, Ackland paints a vivid picture of cold war induced deception and outright ignorance. He argues that Americans were never well informed about the risks and dangers of this (or any) nuclear plant, and that the legacy of Rocky Flats lives on—in the form of a severe environmental hazard. What makes Killing so effective is its stylistic use of journalistic narrative. At page one we are introduced to Charlie McKay, a rancher who still lives and works near Rocky Flats. A brief outline of his family history gets the reader invested, and this sets the tone for the book. Killing is not a singular examination of cold war weapons production, environmental protests or political agendas, although all of these aspects are covered with clarity and insight. This is a book about the average working men and women whose lives are affected by Rocky Flats through their health, employment and a changing environment. Built in 1958, Rocky Flats weapon facility viewed as a source of employment for the region and income for its inhabitants. Ackland uses direct quotes from these regular, working-class Americans who day in and day out produced weapons of mass destruction. The understood that there was risk involved, but the nature and extent was never explained to them, ultimately leading to multiple cases of cancer caused by plutonium radiation and beryllium poisoning. Ackland also explores how uninformed their supervisors were as well. In the 1950’s there was only a nascent understanding of the properties of plutonium, and safety questions were regularly put aside in the name of national security. But safety was a major issue that came to the fore a number of times. Ackland describes the glove boxes used to handle plutonium, and how their flawed design and decay never led to major a reconfiguration for workers. Costs took precedent to employees. Ackland also recounts in precise detail two fires at Rocky Flats and the ignorance of management on how to deal with them. In the process of putting out the second fire they contaminated the entire plant. Hindsight suggests it was a miracle they didn’t contaminate all of Denver. In the management’s defense, they were simply following their instructions to “expect a fire, but produce.” Killings flowing narrative and depth of research makes it an insightful for the student of Cold War and nuclear history. History “buffs” will also find it enjoyable due to its use of working class quotes and explanations. Ackland excels at showing all sides of the Rocky Flats plant, from the ground up. Some might find disappointment is his conclusion. For all the build up of conspiracy and illusion, Rocky Flats innocuous end may fall short of reader expectations. But such an ending is both historically accurate and fitting for a book on the cold war. We should feel fortunate that it went out with a whimper instead of a bang. ...more
Americans have always looked west to reinvent themselves. This trend has been constant from the nation's inception throughout the twentieth-century. WAmericans have always looked west to reinvent themselves. This trend has been constant from the nation's inception throughout the twentieth-century. Western migration brought about growth in urban population and urbanization in general. In Magic Lands Author John M. Findlay argues that planned communities across the west arose to offer alternatives to this unrelenting urbanization. To support his argument he presents four case studies of planned communities: California's Disneyland and Silicon Valley, Arizona's Sun City retirement community and grounds for the Seattle World's Fair. These "magic lands" were sources of recreation, inspiration and optimism for the rest of the country.
Magic Lands begins with a look at the West's rapid growth at mid-century. Findlay credits the military spending of World War II and a post-war boom driven by the G.I. Bill for increasing populations and changing landscapes. New industries-such as Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley and Boeing in Seattle-aided this growth by driving the west to new economic heights. With new jobs came an increase in demand for housing and shopping plazas. The result was the "horizontal" urban community, one which sprawled outside of the urban center creating sprawl. Reacting to this eastern-style growth, westerners escaped to planned communities for amusement and alternatives to urban lifestyles.
These alternative visions presented in Magic Lands vary drastically. Walt Disney envisioned Disneyland both as family entertainment and as his example as "the city of tomorrow". Stanford built an industrial center that relied on the surrounding natural geography and climate to draw its workforce. Conversely, Sun City severely altered its surroundings to provide an "ideal" active retirement community. And Seattle converted a run down neighborhood to house it's 1962 world's fair. In each case study, Findlay explores how these areas transformed their adjacent communities geographically, economically and culturally.
But how these Magic Lands were constructed varied drastically. Disneyland was built under the close supervision of Walt Disney, who envisioned his planned community as an example for the entire country, but Stanford's Industrial Park (i.e. Silicon Valley) never had a master plan-simply a goal of building a high tech industrial center. In the case of Sun City, a drive for profit and little else led to the construction of this rich and green retirement community in the Arizona desert. Seattle's World Fair aimed to revitalize its downtown district-and failed. But in each case, the results of these communities influenced national ideas on architecture and urban landscapes.
While Magic Lands does offer a compelling look at these four planned communities, their similarities are tenuous at best. Comparisons of Disneyland to the Seattle World's Fair are sometimes a stretch, while Sun City shares little in common with Seattle. These are vastly different and unique communities. More compelling is Findlay's final chapter that shows the impacts of these communities today in places like Irving and Los Angeles. These planned communities had vast cultural and environmental impacts, and these topics could be covered more in depth. Regardless, Magic Lands will both appeal to and inform those interested in urban development and the growth of the American West....more
Worster’s previous lectures comprise much of Under Western Skies, and their chronology gives the book a coherent, logical organization. For example, hWorster’s previous lectures comprise much of Under Western Skies, and their chronology gives the book a coherent, logical organization. For example, his first chapter, “Beyond the Agrarian Myth,” acts as a type of historiography. It traces the evolution of historical interpretations regarding the West in U.S. history and concludes with Worster’s criteria for a program of “new western history.” His second chapter, “New West, True West,” continues with this theme of evolving western ideas, and briefly summarizes early examples of new western history. The next chapter, “Cowboy Ecology,” examines the environmental impact of ranching on the region and asks a tough question: how long can this type of ecological abuse last? Chapter four, “Hydraulic Society in California,” recaps of the role water played in the social organization and economic well-being of California. In a similar fashion, chapter five “Hoover Dam: A Study in Domination,” Worster utilizes one of the west’s most ostentatious technological achievements to show the influence of the hydraulic society. In both these chapters, Worster contends that domination and control of water transformed the west from a place of possibility and individuality into one of government control and bureaucracy.
The theme of paradox continues becomes most apparent through the rest of Under Western Skies. In chapter six “Freedom and Want: The Western Paradox,” Worster contends that if there is any uniqueness to be found in Western scholarship, it lies in the constant paradox of hopes American’s have put upon the west. Simultaneously, the west has been a region of the past and of the future; of rugged individualism and government control; of a simple life in nature and nature’s conquest through technological might. Chapter 7, “Grassland Follies: Agricultural Capitalism on the Plains” continues with this example of paradox, but via an environmental history. In it, Worster challenges the Turnerian myth of individual self-triumph and shows how big business shaped the modern west’s landscape and economy.
His next two chapters are lengthy, but for good reason, as they show Worster’s acumen as a historian. In “The Black Hills: Sacred or Profane?” Worster explains how the promises of the west did not adhere to native peoples. He reveals methods by which tribes (including the Lakota and Sioux) fought hard for their own place in the Black Hills only to be continually marginalized by the American Government. In the next chapter Worster applies a similar methodology onto a vastly different region of the west. In “Alaska: The Underworld Erupts,” Worster examines oil’s role in shaping the economy of our northern-most territory, as well as one of Earth’s greatest man-made ecological disasters: the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Worster’s final two chapters, “Grounds for Identity” and “A Country Without Secrets,” conclude this collection with an examination of the peculiarities in forming the identity of the American West. The first of these two chapters proposes that the views of western historians are bound to be distinctly different from those of a uniquely eastern perspective, and thusly endorsing a special place for Western scholarship in the greater academy. And finally, Worster concludes his collection by stating that the West should not be seen in a historical light of progress, but instead as an ever-increasing in complexity relationship with nature.
“THE WESTERN PARADOX”
Focuses on the American Western myth of self-creation and it’s paradox with government control. Central to this paradox is the often-cited and long standing economic argument about the “commons.” In the Tragedy of the Commons—an idea dating back to the time of Aristotle, but made more popular through the writings of Garrett Hardin in the 1960s—describes an inexorable tragedy through individual self-gain. For example, given any single pasture or fishery, individuals will attempt to maximize their own profits. In each example, individual actors will graze more cattle or take more fish (respectively) in order to maximize profits. Yet, over time such actions will degrade the natural resource to the point of failure. This, to Hardin and more recently (1990) Eleanor Ostrom, creates a paradox in capitalistic mindsets and environmental realities.
For Worster, this paradox becomes most apparent in the West because of its arid nature. He cites the reports of western explorer John Wesley Powell, who contended that the vast American west was Arid and, for great numbers of people, inhospitable. Over time, Government coercion and action, combined with technology, made the land one of possibility for Americans. Yet, that water is a common resource, one being constantly moved, processed and degraded by being removed from its natural systems. For Worster, water remains a paradox because those in the west have yet to develop a strategy that (for lack of a better term) that is sustainable. It is a common good of which everyone—from Las Vegas housewives to Phoenix golfers—use for their own good without thinking of the long term ramifications. ...more
William Cronon’s Changes in the Land compares Europeans’ and Native Americans’ impacts on the ecology of colonial New England. He argues that the Eur William Cronon’s Changes in the Land compares Europeans’ and Native Americans’ impacts on the ecology of colonial New England. He argues that the European worldview and lifestyle did not just affect native peoples, but New England’s ecology as well. New methods of farming, hunting, and gathering prompted this ecological system to respond to colonists’ “changes in the land.” In making this argument, Cronon gives nature itself agency. This paradigm shift away from human agency and towards nature’s role in the past signifies a broad theme of environmental history. Traditionally human institutions—such as economy, government, class, and gender—are the subject of historical study. With environmental history, ecology gains equal prominence in its ability to explain historical changes. For this reason, Cronon’s work has gained a prominent place in American environmental historiography. His investigation into a changing New England ecology adds new dimensions to our colonial past. His arguments, however, are based upon a dichotomy between Anglos and Indians; capitalism and sustainability; both false dichotomies that form the basis of this critique. Cronon’s two other notable works include Nature’s Metropolis, which tells of Chicago’s emerging economy, and Uncommon Ground, a collection of essays on contemporary environmental issues. In each of these works a common theme emerges: nature and humanity are seen by historical actors as standing in binary opposition to each other. For example, in his article entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness,” Cronon describes the problems with any dichotomy that sees humanity and nature as polar opposites. He points out that such binaries make any idealized place for humans within nature impossible and that humans are “unlikely to make much progress in solving [environmental] problems if we hold up to ourselves as the mirror of nature a wilderness we ourselves cannot inhabit.” The theme of binaries continues in Nature’s Metropolis. In this book, Cronon argues that participants in the windy city’s economy viewed nature and city as separate spheres. Regardless the hinterland and urban center shaped each other equally. Cronon’s first attempt with they type of dichotomous paradigm of environmental history, however, came in 1983 with Changes in the Land. Cronon’s first book compares “New England ecosystems in 1600 with those in 1800 as if examining two snapshots—New England before the Europeans and New England after.” Anglos brought a new economic worldview across the Atlantic, one that vastly differed from the ideas of Native Americans. This argument is nothing new. Previous scholars have also attributed the shifts in New England’s environment with the onset of a European capitalist economy. But Cronon’s approach is slightly different. He shows that environmental factors themselves played a significant role in the shifting power structure of colonial New England. Power shifted away from Indians and towards Anglos. European conceptions of land use, especially the Old World practice of pastoralism, a practice that “antedates capitalism by four of five thousand years,” played a huge role in helping colonists conquer the land. Pastoralism forced Anglos to shape New England’s ecology to fit their animals’ needs. Imported animals overgrazed on abundant fields, but over time pastorialism caused wear and tear took its toll on the land. Animals forced Europeans to create new pastures. Animals also exerted tremendous influence in changing New England’s ecology. To Cronon, colonists exerted ecological pressures because their “livestock—whether raised for market or for home consumption—were themselves a major reason for the dispersal of colonial settlements.” These “hordes of European grazing animals…constituted a heavier burden on New England plants and soils” than the New England’s ecology had previously experienced. Anglo settlers and Indian inhabitants stood in ideological opposition to one another. Chapter seven, entitled “A World of Fields and Fences,” dissects the opposing views Anglos and Indians had of the land. It investigates the man-made boundaries that Europeans superimposed onto the landscape and reveals how their conceptions of land were based on Old World traditions. To settlers, land was owned precisely because it held property value and could create wealth. Colonists “brought with them concepts of value and scarcity which had been shaped by the social and ecological circumstances of northern Europe, and so perceived New England as a landscape of great natural wealth.” Native Americans, however, had a different view of the land. They endorsed a “usufruct” conception that viewed land not as something to be owned or quartered off. Instead, land was a common ground onto which all parties could take what they needed. These divergent worldviews led to an inevitable “conflict between the land uses of the colonists and those of the Indians.” Indians’ place in their environment, to Cronon, was natural, while European’s uses of the land were not. Native Americans attained equilibrium with their surroundings, only taking what they needed when they needed it, even at the risk of going hungry. One Native American reflected on long bouts of hunger by stating “it is all the same to us, we shall stand it well enough; we spend seven and eight days, even ten sometimes, without eating anything, yet we do not die.” Europeans scoffed at such practices. They clung to their commodity-driven worldview and spent much of their energy commodifying nature. Anglos ultimately induced Indians to convert to a commodity driven worldview. Soon, Indians were using wampum for currency; they became relegated to manmade borders. Confined to lands outside well-defined grazing pastures, they sold beaver furs and excess crops for profit, just like Anglos. This dichotomy between necessity (Indian) and commodity (Anglos) driven economies reveals Cronon’s disdain for capitalism. On page 161, he bluntly states that in colonial New England “capitalism and environmental degradation went hand in hand.” There are a few problems with this binary view of colonial New England. First, by separating its inhabitants into separate spheres—Anglo/Indian, Capitalist/Usufruct—Cronon makes value judgments of neatly divided groups. Anglos come across as being capitalistic and ecologically unfriendly. He states that “the colonists’ economic relations of production were ecologically self-destructive.” Conversely, Cronon sees Native Americans as being un-capitalistic, and therefore ecologically friendly. “Indians held their demands on the ecosystem to a minimum by moving their settlements from habitat to habitat [and] made sure that no single species became overused.” His distinction is clear: Anglos are ecologically destructive while Indians are in equilibrium with their surroundings. But this distinction between Anglo and Indian is a false dichotomy. Native American scholars, and many Native Americans themselves, might view Changes in the Land and its binary categorization as shortsighted. Native Americans did not view themselves as a large, coherent group which stood in opposition to Whites. In the colonial period, Indians belonged to distinct tribes, each with a unique culture and dialect. Not all Indian tribes approached the environment in a similar fashion. Shepard Krech’s 1999 book The Ecological Indian explains that many Indian tribes endorsed ecologically harmful practices. Widespread burns and mass slaughter of animals were in no way uncommon. Not all Native Americans acted in similar ways, nor did they all follow environmentally-friendly practices. When Cronon does recollect Indian’s practice of mass burnings, he touts the ecological benefits of these actions--ecological benefits that were lost on Europeans. They “failed to see its subtler ecological effects. In the first place, it increased the rate at which forest nutrients were recycled into the soil [as well as] promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems.” Cronon has no Native American written documentation to back his ecological insights. Native Americans might take issue with a white scholar appropriating their culture simply to endorse modern day environmentalism. Cronon’s binary groups of Anglo/Indian and Capitalist/Usufruct are a little too neat. While he explains the roots of these two views of land use and economy, Cronon still underscores the nuances of European economic worldviews. For example, his contention that European settlers endorsed a “capitalist” worldview might be better articulated. The term “capitalism” gets his point across—certainly Europeans sought to commodify nature. But these colonists were not “capitalist” in a strict sense. They arrived under the auspices of a Mercantilist government and a Mercantilist worldview. Mercantilism emphasized both resource extraction and the systematic creation of markets via government intervention. It also helped colonists rationalize global confrontation and domination. Cronon’s “capitalism” is a loaded term. He uses it to set up a dichotomy between Native American usufruct ideology and European worldview. In the process creates a tension that he never really resolves with a term that he never actually articulates. Arguing that “economic and ecological imperialisms reinforced each other,” is not wrong, but colonial New England is not the place to view “capitalism” and ecological destruction going hand in hand. For all of his digs against capitalism, Changes in the Land never sets forth any viable alternative. Not to say that historians need put on paper how they think the past should have played out, but keep in mind that the book is, at its core, a political work. First published in 1983, the book stood as a polemic against the ultra-conservative Reagan administration. Cronon’s continued bashing of “capitalism” speaks to his political stance of the early 1980s. He calls into question capitalism’s effects on ecology at the peak of Reagan’s anti-big government rhetoric. Reagan’s de-emphasis of environmental policies would not sit well with most avowed environmentalists. Cronon’s rant against capitalism is not necessarily unwarranted, but if he is going to write a book degrading an ecologically devastating economic system, he might also want to provide an alternative. Within this “capitalist/usufruct” dichotomy environmentalists have only two options: capitalist devastation or pre-capitalist sustainability. This false dichotomy mimics the sentiments of Deep Ecologists, a radical sect of ecological theology that believes nature cannot co-exist with mankind. They maintain that these two entities need to remain separate and argue that humanity does not hold dominion over nature. Essentially, humans must treat nature as a separate entity. Cronon argues against deep ecologists in his article “The Trouble with Wilderness.” In it, he finds false the premise that these radical environmentalists “express the popular notion that our environmental problems began with the invention of agriculture.” Yet much of Changes in the Land focuses on agriculture’s role in New England’s ecological devastation. Deep Ecologists’ views of a clear separation between man and nature are eerily similar to 1983s Changes in the Land, even if Cronon has eased his stance since the Reagan administration. More moderate environmentalists take issue with Deep Ecologists and William Cronon for similar reasons. Environmental historian Samuel P. Hays contests Cronon’s dichotomy by calling such arguments elitist. To Hays, environmentalists need not be a separate group from working class people who view wilderness as separate. Nor does wilderness need to represent a sphere apart from work or home. Hays argues that the environment’s boundaries are more fluid—perhaps including one’s own backyard. French philosopher Luc Ferry also took issue with these binaries in his book The New Ecological Order. Ferry argued that binary separations between man and nature could ultimately lead to eco-fascism. This is not to say that Cronon is a radical by any means; educated at Yale and Oxford, Cronon might not necessarily fit into that political category. This critique simply suggests that Cronon’s tendency to setup dichotomies in one book and then criticize groups who endorse them in an article twelve years later are worth examining. Changes in the Land remains an important work in the field of environmental history. It maintains its popularity because of its clear prose and modest length of 170 pages. The book provides students with an excellent introduction to environmental history and gives scholars ammunition for debate and discussion. Cronon was one of the first to incorporate ecology into the greater historical framework of American history. For these reasons, Changes in the Land promises to intrigue scholars for some time. ...more