[URBANTH-L] REV: Brosnan on Diefendorf and Dorsey, eds., _City, Country, Empire_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Thu Dec 15 16:04:47 EST 2005

[forwarded from H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu]

Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (December 2005)

Jeffry M. Diefendorf and Kurk Dorsey, eds. _City, Country, Empire:
Landscapes in Environmental History_.  Pittsburgh: University of
Pittsburgh Press, 2005. viii + 288 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes,
index. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8229-4257-7; $22.95 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Urban by Kathleen A. Brosnan, Department of History,
University of Houston

Challenges for Environmental History

Editors Jeffry M. Diefendorf and Kurk Dorsey have established
challenging goals for this new collection of essays in environmental
history--to capture important trends in the field and to make the
field more relevant within the broader discipline of history.  In the
end, as with any other edited volume, readers must consider three
questions.  Are the individual essays rigorously researched and
insightfully conceived?  Do clearly articulated and important themes
connect the articles so as to make the whole greater than the sum of
its parts?  And finally, how well does the book meet its stated

For _City, Country, Empire_, the answer to the first two questions is
definitely yes.  Ten exceptionally strong essays highlight the
breadth of topics now contemplated by environmental historians with
innovation and lucidity.  As explained below, the editors'
introductions tie them together while an afterword by Alfred Crosby
provides an appropriate cautionary word about an underlying
Americanization of environmental history.

The third question, however, presents more complicated issues, in
part, because the aims here are so ambitious and their full
realization may be impossible to determine.
Diefendorf and Dorsey open their introduction to this volume by
discussing Ted Steinberg's essay in the June 2002 edition of _The
American Historical Review_.[1] Steinberg urged other historians to
give the category of nature the same significance as those of class,
gender, and race.  In an effort to illustrate that "nature is a force
that cannot be overlooked" (p. 2), Diefendorf and Dorsey have
collected essays that reflect two significant trends in the field of
environmental history: its incorporation of the concerns of urban and
social history and its increasing internationalization, both in terms
of the scholars engaged in it and the subjects they cover.  The
essays capture these trends and reveal the intellectual depth of the
field, but it is unclear whether this book will reach scholars who
are not engaged in environmental history.

To highlight the importance of environmental history for any time and
place, the editors link the essays through the continuum of city,
country, and empire.  As William Cronon and others previously
demonstrated, the rise of individual cities is tied to the
development of the countryside's natural resources through the
creation of industrial landscapes, the application of brute-force
technologies, and the intersection of science and socioeconomic
politics.  Empires emerged through the transformation of urban and
rural places by these same processes--processes that reveal how
"political boundaries rarely match ecological boundaries, and ideas,
trade, and pollution all cross both types of boundaries with ease"
(p. 4).

Part 1 focuses on cities and immediately displays one of the more
useful aspects of this volume.  The editors provide four-page
introductions to each section. In this first section on cities, the
authors examine the general ecological impact of industry and large
human populations, and different types of pollution in particular.
In each story, a unique intersection of politics and science
influenced and often delayed definitive decision-making in the search
for meaningful solutions.

Part 1 appropriately opens with an essay from Joel Tarr, who along
with a few others, was prominent in bringing urban issues to the
forefront of environmental history.  In "The Metabolism of the
Industrial City: The Case of Pittsburgh," Tarr analogizes the Steel
City to a living organism that transforms certain inputs, such as
clean air, food, water, fuel and construction materials, into an
urban biomass and its attendant waste products.  Over time, the
growing metropolis draws essential resources from an expanding
hinterland, extending its ecological imprint farther and farther.
Tarr contemplates Pittsburgh's metabolism by focusing on certain
inputs, water and land, and outputs, wastewater and smoke.

Tarr concludes with a notion that requires greater consideration
because it suggests the limits of his otherwise highly useful
metaphor.  Other living organisms select inputs and excrete waste
materials in order to survive, but the humans who constituted
Pittsburgh and other cities used and misused environmental resources
"predicated upon a value system that emphasized production and
material progress" (p. 37).  One of the great contributions of
environmental history as a field is its ability to recognize and
explain the interplay of organic and other physical conditions and
these competing value systems.

Sarah Elkind similarly addresses an urban waste product--air
pollution--in "Los Angeles's Nature: Urban Environmental Politics in
the Twentieth Century."  Her intriguing essay more explicitly
develops the intersection of politics and science in the search for
solutions to the environmental problems that plagued
twentieth-century cities.  First, Elkind reminds us that it was not
simply industrial activity that created the dramatic smog problems.
Its very geography made Los Angeles more susceptible to the
consequences of human choices.  "The same atmospheric conditions that
bring Los Angeles its celebrated sunny weather also create
temperature inversions in which a layer of cold air traps warm air
close to the ground.  Particularly during the summer, these
temperature inversions act as a lid on the Los Angeles basin,
preventing polluted air from dispersing over the mountains to the
west and north of the city" (p. 40).

In 1943, these inversions resulted in five severe "gas attacks" that
left the air thick, dark and acrid.  Given the location of the
attacks, many blamed the Southern California Gas plant producing a
synthetic rubber.  While the company took significant steps to reduce
butadiene fumes, it also launched a marketing campaign to convince
Angelinos that rubber was a strategic material in the U.S. war
effort, thus trumping health concerns. After the war, the Chamber of
Commerce continued to pursue a strategy that called for voluntary
smoke reductions and controlling non-industrial pollution. New
scientific understandings of the invisible, but dangerous exhaust of
automobiles gave all local parties a common and distant enemy.  As
editors Diefendorf and Dorsey neatly summarize, "the solution had to
come from Detroit in the form of new technology (catalytic
converters) rather than real changes in the behavior of Californians"
(p. 13).

Demonstrating the increasing internationalization of environmental
history, the editors draw us across the Atlantic Ocean to Germany's
Ruhr basin.  Like Pittsburgh, the Ruhr was a center of steel and coal
production and experienced the same type of environmental problems
associated with rapid nineteenth-century industrialization and the
post-World War II decline of these factories.  In "The Environmental
Transformation of the Ruhr," Ursula von Petz introduces Robert
Schmidt, a water engineer, who viewed cities as living organisms and
became Essen's planner (1901-1920).  Picking up on calls for reform
that dated back to the nineteenth century but were delayed
temporarily by World War I, Schmidt expressed an intuitive
understanding of the connection between city and country.  Under his
guidance, the Ruhr Regional Planning Authority emerged in 1920 to
promote regional planning as the means to healthier living through
the promulgation of green spaces.  Tarr and Elkind reveal that, after
World War II, Americans had looked to organizations which reached
beyond city borders, but those entities rarely had the authority or
reach of the Ruhr agency, reflecting perhaps the greater power of the
European state in controlling land and resources.

Petz also highlights how the power of the state undermined
environmental efforts when leaders such as those in the Third Reich
pushed for military production and introduced misguided notions of
eugenics and racial purity into their natural resource policies.
Finally, a new regional plan appeared in 1966 that not only
emphasized the protection of green spaces, but also called for the
possible resurrection of brownfields. One of the biggest obstacles
remained the persistently negative image of a "black country."  Over
time, local actors succeeded by developing "a growing interest in
seeing derelict industries as 'historic sites' and understanding the
era of industrialization as a historical period now over..  [T]his
history has become part of the region's potential for revival" (p.
68).  Petz concludes that the International Building Exhibition (IBA)
Emscher Park in the state of Northrhine-Westphalia was new stage in a
continuing regional approach.  The Emscher landscape has used the
greenbelt system of the 1960s as its basis, but has enhanced it by
re-naturalizing (rather than restoring) its canal system and using
industrial monuments as cultural landmarks.

Petz enhances her article on the Ruhr with maps and photographs, and
James McCann's essay on West Africa is well served by a map of the
distribution of maize and an appendix illustrating the spread of a
destructive fungus.  One persistent weakness in this otherwise strong
edited volume is the absence of similar images in any other essays.

With her emphasis on regional planning, Petz's essay provides an
appropriate segue to Part 2--"Countryside."  Although it is not a
clearly articulated theme in the editors' introduction to the volume,
this section introduces the importance of law and technology in both
defining and reflecting the value systems that emphasized production
and material progress.  In each of the three cases presented in this
section, the editors note, "human actors have tended to see the land
both as something completely malleable and as something whose value
is best measured in terms of economic productivity" (p. 77).

The section opens with "Of REITs and Rights: Absentee Ownership at
the Periphery" by Elizabeth Blackmar, and it may be the book's most
important essay in an effort to achieve the editors' more lofty goal
of taking the work of environmental history beyond the field and to
the broader discipline.  Blackmar focuses on the legal tools that
created a new American property regime, increased the power of
absentee owners and semi-anonymous trusts in the development of
suburban and exurban land, and diminished the ability of local
residents to thwart them.

The expanse of available land on the urban periphery whetted American
appetites for real estate.  Through interstate highway expansion, the
Federal Housing Authority, the Veterans Administration, tax shelters,
and other policies that underwrote commercial building, the nation
state played a central role in suburban development from the 1940s
into the 1960s.  Since then, Blackmar contends, the boon has been
driven more and more by absentee owners. "Institutional investors and
especially pension funds, real estate investment trust (REITs,
pronounced 'reets'), and deregulated banks--all using a panoply of
new financial instruments--channeled vast amounts of capital into the
American countryside to produce a landscape that not only embodied
the art of the deal but also defeated local opposition" (pp. 82-83).
The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), the nation's
largest pension fund, has been an active player in this game,
involved in properties such as the famous, or infamous, Mall of
America.  And again the federal government facilitated this
development when Congress "authorized the formation of [REITs], which
sold investors shares in either mortgages (mortgage REITs) or land
(equity REITs)" (p. 89).  REITs avoided corporate income taxes
because they paid out all their profits and significantly made the
ownership of real estate highly liquid.

The concentration of this outside capital in commercial development
on the urban fringe undermined the power of local residents.  They
first turned to zoning boards but often found officials unwilling to
withhold building permits.  They subsequently raised environmental
arguments less out of a belief in ecological sustainability or the
protection of species and more as a defense of their communities.
However, the problems associated with development, such as traffic
congestion, were not measurable by EPA standards and these court
cases often failed.  As Blackmar observes, the problem ran much
deeper.  The EPA could not "impose sanctions on the habits of waste
enshrined by consumer institutions" (p. 92).  Blackmar does not
contemplate the environmental implications of these legal battles but
intriguingly sets the stage for others to follow.  "It is
environmentalists who are confronted with the task of taking the
measure of the rights and powers of absentee ownership that have
turned millions of Americans, including ourselves, into renters while
severing our connection to the land that sustains us" (p.98).

Blackmar's suggestion that wetland preservation has proven to be one
of the few areas of environmental regulations that stopped or slowed
development offers a bridge to the next essay by Nancy Langston.  In
"Floods and Landscapes in the Inland West," Langston explores how
different groups have responded to flooded wetlands in southeastern
Oregon since the late 1800s, moving toward methods of adaptive
management.  While not explicitly a legal history, this essay
suggests that laws surrounding land and water rights have profoundly
influenced interactions with the Blitzen River landscape in what is
now the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a critical region for
migratory waterfowl.
Over the decades the lands in the basin went through multiple sales
while drought, overgrazing, conversion to grain agriculture,
dredging, channelizing, and elimination of riparian habitat reduced
large parts of the valley to dust.  Finally the federal government
purchased much of the land in an effort to protect water levels in
the Malheur Lake Bird Reservation, although some property remained
under private development.  Federal managers regularly tried to
control which fields flooded rather than allowing natural processes
to occur and often eliminated the habitat of other native species if
they seemed to threaten waterfowl.  Moreover, other federal agencies
continued policies that underestimated the ecological value of
wetlands and subsidized farmers' efforts to turn them into crops.
"Drainage became a patriotic mission, part of the postwar dream of
using agriculture to feed a hungry world" (p. 108).  Faith in humans'
ability to control nature dissipated in the 1980s when a series of
floods filled much of the closed basin and erased farms, roads,
culverts, and "the post-Second World War belief that riparian
landscapes could be reshaped into an orderly agricultural and duck
machine" (p. 111).

The third essay in part 2 contemplates a very different human
interaction with water.  In "The Industrial Alchemy of Hydraulic
Mining," Andrew Isenberg joins others in dispelling the myth of the
lone prospector panning by the stream.  His story of the California
gold rush involves an industrial landscape in which law and
technology facilitated the exploitation of abundant natural
resources, but it came with a heavy environmental toll.  "By reducing
the high costs of labor, hydraulic mining initiated the
transformation of the gold country from a place dominated by
independent prospectors to an industrial place characterized by wage
laborers" (p. 126).  California courts quickly extended the same
rights to hydraulic mining companies that prospectors enjoyed. For
more than two decades, the California legislature and courts, in an
application of the law designed to promote dynamic economic
interests, favored miners.  However, by the 1880s, "the expansion of
agriculture undercut the hydraulic miners' claim to be economically
indispensable to California" (p. 135). The law eventually changed
because of the harm to another vital industry rather than out of a
concern for the environmental damage inflicted by water cannons and
their sequelae.  By 1880, agriculture's economic value had superceded
that of mining.  Isenberg might have benefited here from a reference
to Arthur McEvoy's book on California fisheries, but this is a minor
criticism of an excellent essay.[2]

Part 3 takes the reader from city and countryside to empires and
their "interactions of culture and nature on a larger scale" (p.
139).  The four essays that follow continue certain themes from the
earlier sections of the book, particularly historical actors'
reliance on science and technology in their efforts to transform
distant landscapes and their resources and the ways in which domestic
and international politics shaped the application of science and
technology.  In "West Africa's Colonial Fungus: Globalization and
Science at the End of Empire, 1949-2000," James McCann uses an
environmental crisis to illustrate how imperialism created ecological
networks across oceans and how imperial institutions continued to
dominate political economies in former colonies even after empires
had faded.  Introduced to Africa in the 1500s, New World maize spread
across the continent and by the twentieth century, achieved a
prominent status in the food supply.  Reflecting the business and
politics of empire and "despite maize's growing importance in much of
colonial Africa, agricultural research had neglected the crop,
concentrating research investments on cash crops such as coffee,
cotton, palm oil, groundnuts, and cocoa that linked African economies
more directly with emerging world commodity markets" (pp. 147-148).

The seemingly random appearance of maize rust in 1950 and its rapid
dispersion throughout West Africa changed the scientific agenda.
When a nearly 50-percent loss of maize crops prompted substantial
price increases for this staple, an international effort, led
primarily by the British and Americans, attempted to identify
resistant strains that would adapt to farming conditions on the
continent.  These efforts reflected the persistence of colonialism as
outside organizations, such as the Economic Cooperation Agency, an
adjunct program of the Marshall Plan, instigated this strategy with
little meaningful input from local farmers.  Somewhat
anticlimactically, the American rust receded just as quickly three
years later.  However, given the ecological links created by global
interactions over centuries, the greater lesson to deduce from this
episode and from McCann's essay is the prominent role international
science and such multilateral agencies (from the United States and
Europe) would play in post-World War II environmental politics.

Paul Josephson's article, "When Stalin Learned to Fish: Natural
Resources, Technology, and Industry under Socialism," suggests that
the reliance on science and technology to control nature and the
hubris underlying this reliance are not endemic to the West, but are
instead perhaps an extension of the modernity that defines the nation
state and all economic systems in the industrial era.  Following the
revolution, the Soviet Union found itself a new nation rich in
natural resources but lacking an industrial infrastructure.  In an
effort to create a more productive fishing industry, the Bolsheviks
implemented what Josephson calls brute-force technology.  "BFT refers
to overemphasis on unforgiving technologies of massive scale, and to
the premature search for monocultures based on incomplete
understanding of the biological impact of human activities..  They
are based on standard engineering practices applied in several areas
of human activity without considering at length potential exogenous
costs..  Those standard techniques delay incorporation of the
knowledge of climatological, geophysical, hydrological, and
biological differences in decisions to apply BFTs" (p. 164).  In the
case of its fisheries, as well as the exploitation of other
resources, the Soviet Union relied on centralized, authoritarian
planning and management that overreached technological capacities and
neglected environmental damage and issues of sustainability.

In "Yellow Jack and Geopolitics:  Environment, Epidemics, and the
Struggle for Empire in the American Tropics, 1650-1900," J.R. McNeill
joins McCann in effectively linking environmental history with the
history of imperialism.  Indeed, he contends that the reader can only
understand who won and lost in the imperial contest for the Caribbean
by examining the environmental and epidemiological history.  In the
end, the Europeans who hoped to exploit the islands created the very
conditions that enervated their colonial efforts there.  Europeans
introduced sugar cultivation to the tropics and, when a system of
indentured servitude proved inadequate, imported slaves from western
Africa.  "Their efforts led to multiple ecological changes.  Soil
erosion accelerated.  Wildlife vanished.  More important from the
human point of view, as plantations replaced forest, conditions came
to favor the transmission of yellow fever" (p. 198).  Brought to the
Americas on slave ships, yellow fever soon spread.  The geographic
range of its vector--the mosquito--determined the distribution of the
disease. "Differential immunity made yellow fever decidedly and
systematically partisan..  Yellow fever was most dangerous to
unadulterated populations of young adult Europeans: precisely the
composition of expeditionary forces" (p. 200).  In the end, the
losses attributable to the disease influenced decisions by Spain,
England, and France to abandon colonial projects.

Thomas Dunlap's skillfully conceived essay, "Creation and Destruction
in Landscapes of Empire," reminds us, according to Dorsey and
Diefendorf, "that settlement and its impact on nature is still an
ongoing process dependent on both natural and mental processes" (p.
141).  Dunlap convincingly argues that "the vision of land as a place
for individual opportunity" is not simply an American dream (p. 209).
It was the core belief of settlement in all Anglo neo-Europes.  This
settlement was fueled by organized knowledge provided by western
science and scientific societies, such as natural history.  While
their dreams shaped interactions with new lands and they began to
form a cultural identity based on living there rather than coming
there, settlers discovered that the land did not always accommodate
their dreams.  Climate and native biota might impede the introduction
of certain crops.  Unable to eliminate all animals that threatened
their activities, settlers poisoned, trapped, and otherwise removed
those that they could, altering natural balances and allowing other
creatures to flourish in the absence of predators and the presence of
more malleable conditions.  Accidental introductions, such as the
chestnut blight or even the yellow fever discussed in the preceding
essay, often proved deadly.  When old settler dreams faded, new ones
emerged.  Dunlap asserts that environmentalism is such a dream,
offering people in neo-Europes a connection to the land, a reliance
on supportive sciences, and individual opportunities to "translate
ideas into to daily action in ordinary lives" (p. 221).

The editors recruited Alfred Crosby to offer the afterword to this
outstanding volume on the current state of environmental history.  An
eminent founder of the field, Crosby speaks with authority on
"Environmental History, Past, Present, and Future."  He notes, for
example, that while environmental history has a transnational bent,
there is an American tilt to it, perhaps reflected in the
distribution of the articles in this book.  Crosby appreciates the
many benefits that have flowed from U.S. universities, scholars, and
activists, but he worries that "we American environmentalists spend
too much time looking at history through American spectacles and thus
encourage others to do likewise, with myopic effects that may
surprise us and that we may not like" (p. 228).  This tendency is
particularly disastrous when we fail to recognize the unique
environmental advantages afforded by the rich American landscape and
the shallow ecological footprint that preceded European and African
American arrivals.  Crosby argues, for example, that the use of
brute-force technologies discussed by Josephson may be a result of
the misguided belief that American success was more attributable to
its citizens' application of such force rather than the richness of
their natural environment.

Clearly this volume is an effort that environmental historians should
and will embrace as a profound statement on significant directions
for the field and more importantly as an introduction to some of its
most innovative thinkers.  Will this book will help the broader
discipline of history more eagerly embrace nature as a category of
analysis?  Essay collections that address specific topics such as
urban environments, environmental justice, or ecological diasporas,
for example, might well be more appealing to specialists who study
cities, race and class, or imperialism.  If that is the case, then
_City, Country, Empire_ will be a good place for them to start.


[1]. Ted Steinberg, "Down to Earth:  Nature, Agency, and Power in
History," _The American Historical Review_ 107(June 2002): pp.

[2]. Arthur McEvoy, _The Fisherman's Problem: Ecology and Law in
California's Fisheries, 1850-1980_ (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1986). In _Woodruff v. North Bloomfield_ (1884), the U.S.
Circuit Court ruled that mining debris constituted a nuisance and
permanently enjoined the mining company from dumping debris into the

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