Friday, September 18, 2015 Filed in: Book Reviews
Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England Theodore Steinberg, 1991
This book was originally Ted Steinberg’s dissertation. His advisors were David Hackett Fischer, Morton Horwitz, and Donald Worster (nice committee!). Steinberg’s thesis is that “industrial capitalism is not only an economic system, but a system of ecological relations as well” (11). This idea goes beyond the obvious (but important) recognition that the environment influences social and economic choices, toward a more subtle discussion of how “the natural world came to represent new sources of energy and raw materials [that were] perceived more and more as a set of inputs.” Steinberg mentions Environmental Historians William Cronon and Carolyn Merchant in this context, but the thrust of his argument develops Horwitz’s theme of “an instrumental conception” of both resources and the “law that sanctioned the maximization of economic growth” (16). Basically, Steinberg takes Horwitz’s argument that the law became a servant of economic progress and extends it to the natural world, which also became an “instrument” of particular human designs rather than a common ground shared equally by all.
I assigned Steinberg’s Introduction to my EnvHist class last semester, and my lecture video incorporated much of the story Steinberg tells of the takeover of the Charles and Merrimack Rivers by textile industrialists, and the associated shift in social ideas of the public good and the changing role of incorporated organizations from providers of public services to private, for-profit business. A key issue in Horwitz’s Transformation of American Law, which Steinberg picks up, is that this sneaky hijacking of common law and attitudes toward ownership, along with the confusion of public and private sectors that springs from it — all these changes have distributional and social justice consequences. So the point is not only that over time it became “commonly assumed, even expected, that water should be tapped, controlled, and dominated in the name of progress,” but that the rewards of this control legitimately belonged to the few, to the exclusion of the many. This was a big change, and it opened the door for the modern world.
Steinberg’s story of the beginning of textile milling in Massachusetts calls attention to the contested nature of all the changes the mills tried to make to the flow and control of rivers like the Charles. How and why people reacted to these sneaky changes in the social contract was the element missing from Horwitz’s story (why we don't remember these challenges better in US History is a question yet to be addressed). Steinberg begins filling in the details, including the story of how the Boston Manufacturing Company used the legal system to settle what amounted to a class-action lawsuit in 1848, by paying just $26,000 to get permanent uncontested control of the Merrimack River. In 1850, as a consequence of their uncontested control of what had once been a common resource, the BMC made $14 million. I stressed this moment in my lecture, because it seemed so typical: a corporation (which is technically immortal) uses the courts to buy off the people it has injured with a pile of cash that seems significant to them, but is actually minuscule in comparison to the damage the corporation has evaded responsibility for. How many superfund sites, oil spills, and industrial accidents have been bailed out over the years by this trick, I wonder?
Like Horwitz, Steinberg also shows how much the changes in our society’s understanding of property rights and commons owed not to free competition in the market, but to government interference on behalf of the rich, through the courts. This is another important thing for students to understand, I think. Current debates about the relationship between businesses and the environment are too often framed as a sort of Atlas Shrugged episode, with “statist” environmentalists trying to infringe on the rights of “individualist” businesses. Steinberg’s story of the textile industry helps explain that building corporate power was a social process — the BMC was given power in the elaborate set of choices Steinberg describes. And some people objected, but the changes went ahead despite the regular complaints of area farmers and upstream fishermen. This led many people in places like the Charles River valley in the early 1790s to believe “their natural rights [had been] stolen from them, and their best property at the mercy of one or two Millers, still the lucky favorites & likely to remain, so long as the rage for Factory at every place, whether others sink or swim, continues the rage of Government” (37). Interesting that these complaints were made early in the story, when Massachusetts residents were still filled with the “Spirit of ’76” and the populist understanding of natural rights that led to the Revolution. By the end of the story in the middle of the 19th century, the language of resistance had been forced to change because the things people were resisting hadn’t even been dreamed of in the Revolutionary era.
Steinberg describes the Boston Associates’ campaign to control Lake Winnepissiogee, the destruction of fisheries and then the capitalists’ attempts to reintroduce fish and manage what was formerly a common good, and the problem of industrial and urban pollution in rivers controlled by the industrialists. Each of these topics have been expanded by others, along the lines Steinberg suggests. The only flaw in the book, for me, is the Thoreau-ian wrapper Steinberg adds at the beginning and end. As recorded in the 1849 classic, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry David Thoreau was horrified by what he saw happening in New England, but I don’t think Steinberg shows how Thoreau represents any type of viable alternative. Of course, Thoreau is familiar to most students from High School, and my students got a bit caught up in the Thoreau thing -- so it works. At the conclusion of the book, Steinberg admits that “greater command over…nature in general, had its positive points.” But, he concludes, “this aggressive, manipulative posture toward the natural world [is] a problem that penetrates to the core of modern American culture” (271). Like Thoreau, this sentiment is easy to agree with but difficult to act on. In addition to the sneakiness of the legal and social changes, our inability to see how things might have gone leads to a sense of inevitability. So when I taught this segment last semester, I tried to frame the story with Robert Owen. At the beginning of the story, Nathan Appleton and Francis Cabot Lowell went to Scotland to visit Owen’s mill city New Lanarck. By the end of the story, the BMC had built cities on the Merrimack, made millions, polluted the water, and then took their money and left when the industry went into decline, leaving behind permanent social and environmental problems. Owen, on the other hand, had left industry to found the cooperative community New Harmony in America and became the father of the Cooperative movement in Britain. It’s not a perfect counterpoint, but Owen’s story compared to Appleton’s and Lowell’s at least suggests that things could have gone differently in Lawrence and Lowell.