Worster’s previous lectures comprise much of Under Western Skies, and their chronology gives the book a coherent, logical organization. For example, h...moreWorster’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. (less)
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, Le...moreThe 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. (less)
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 Org...moreThe 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. (less)
Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. Author Susan Lee Johnson argues that the California gold rush took place at a unique time...moreRoaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. Author Susan Lee Johnson argues that the California gold rush took place at a unique time in American history, an era caught in the frays of economic transformation, budding individualism, and class identity. She also argues that this mass migration prompted communal living situations that not only challenged gender roles of the era, but also pushed then acceptable relations of race and sex. To back these points, Johnson utilizes a narrative approach. The book is structured chronologically. This format constructs a compelling study of changes prompted by mass migration, greed and racism, and from multiple perspectives. Through a mixture of the author’s own words and from letters of those who were there, we witness the transformation of these communities from small, bucolic camps to thriving commercial centers. Equally interesting is finding out how those who didn’t strike it rich adjusted to their surroundings to survive. This is especially true for the natives of the region, the Miwok Indians. This change did not come easily and without cost, and the author goes to great lengths to focus on how relations both between camps and within camps were stressed. Within camps, traditional roles of gender had to be altered, as many California minings camps lacked a female population. When females are involved in the mix, we see an equally intriguing departure from traditional gender roles. This interaction within camps is less harsh than the interactions between camps. It is here that we see how racial ideas of the day were used to fuel animus towards non-WASP groups and ultimately drive them from claims. Sources for this book come from personal correspondence, newspaper articles, and local legends. The stories throughout are interesting in their own right, but when combined, form a compelling study of the changes prompted by mass migration, greed and racism. Beginning with a case study on the famed bandit Joaquin Murrieta, the author then flows into studies on immigrants from across the globe, and how their cultural norms were challenged for the sake of gold. Johnson’s prose leaves little to be desired. It is lucid, thoughtful, and flows through a number of topics and studies. She keeps the reader interested with anecdotes throughout. This is important, as the organization of this is book can seem scattered. Although the individual stories lack cohesion at times, it is only for the good of greater themes. This is a rewarding read for both academics and casual history “buffs” interested in U.S. cultural, social or economic history. (less)