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Technology and the Environment

Summary and Keywords

Technology and environmental history are both relatively young disciplines among Americanists, and during their early years they developed as distinctly different and even antithetical fields, at least in topical terms. Historians of technology initially focused on human-made and presumably “unnatural” technologies, whereas environmental historians focused on nonhuman and presumably “natural” environments. However, in more recent decades, both disciplines have moved beyond this oppositional framing. Historians of technology increasingly came to view anthropogenic artifacts such as cities, domesticated animals, and machines as extensions of the natural world rather than its antithesis. Even the British and American Industrial Revolutions constituted not a distancing of humans from nature, as some scholars have suggested, but rather a deepening entanglement with the material environment. At the same time, many environmental historians were moving beyond the field’s initial emphasis on the ideal of an American and often Western “wilderness” to embrace a concept of the environment as including humans and productive work. Nonetheless, many environmental historians continued to emphasize the independent agency of the nonhuman environment of organisms and things. This insistence that not everything could be reduced to human culture remained the field’s most distinctive feature.

Since the turn of millennium, the two fields have increasingly come together in a variety of synthetic approaches, including Actor Network Theory, envirotechnical analysis, and neomaterialist theory. As the influence of the cultural turn has waned, the environmental historians’ emphasis on the independent agency of the nonhuman has come to the fore, gaining wider influence as it is applied to the dynamic “nature” or “wildness” that some scholars argue exists within both the technological and natural environment. The foundational distinctions between the history of technology and environmental history may now be giving way to more materially rooted attempts to understand how a dynamic hybrid environment helps to create human history in all of its dimensions—cultural, social, and biological.

Keywords: environmental history, history of technology, cultural turn, nature, technology, envirotech, actor network theory, new materialism

Technology and the Environment

The history of technology and environmental history has long revealed a somewhat uneasy and contradictory relationship. Few would question that many of the most profound human effects on the environment have stemmed from the use of powerful technologies, suggesting that the history of technology is a central aspect of environmental history. Yet it is equally evident that scholars and others have often framed the “natural” environment as the antithesis of unnatural or artificial human technologies, suggesting that the two fields study categorically different and even antithetical subjects. If the environment is understood as that which is predominately nonhuman, and technology is seen as largely or entirely a human creation, there would seem to be little possibility for a deeper synthesis. Just such a dichotomous split between technology and environment was deepened at a theoretical level, as historians of technology were more influenced by postmodern constructivist theories that focus largely on humans and their cultures, while many environmental historians favored less anthropocentric approaches stressing the agency of the nonhuman material world. This split was in turn symptomatic of a deeper conceptual distinction between human culture and material nature that has long shaped the Western understanding of both technology and the environment, as well as human history more generally.

Given such methodological and theoretical tensions, many historians working at the intersection of the two fields have frequently been content to set aside such concerns, implicitly or explicitly accepting the modernist division between unnatural human technologies and a natural nonhuman environment. Such a pragmatic approach permitted scholars to develop richly empirical historical case studies of the many ways anthropogenic technologies have affected environments, and, less frequently, how those environments have affected technologies. Seminal to this approach was George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 book, Man and Nature, which suggested that humans and their technologies were inevitably destructive to more natural ecologies. Classic early works such as Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl (1979) and William Cronon’s Changes in the Land (1983) took a more nuanced approach, suggesting that some technologically rooted sociocultural systems were more or less compatible with ecological systems. Worster, for example, saw the growing use of gas-powered tractors by farmers as an extension of a capitalistic system that developed technologies to maximize production that disrupted a fragile ecological balance, leading to the Dust Bowl. In more recent years, however, some scholars have rejected this oppositional understanding, suggesting the possibility of a far more radical synthesis between the two fields in which humans and their technologies are understood as being deeply embedded in the environment. This hybrid or holistic approach has emerged in a variety of different forms, including Actor Network Theory, envirotechnical analysis, and neomaterialist theories, among others. Regardless, the possibility of developing such synthetic approaches required first that historians of both the environment and of technology move beyond some of their foundational topics and theories.

Environmental History: Putting Technology Back into Nature

Environmental history is a relatively young discipline, first emerging during the 1970s among a group of intellectual historians, political historians, and historians of the American West. An early focus was the history of conservation and national parks, as with Samuel P. Hay’s influential Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency and Alfred Runte’s National Parks: The American Experience.1 The field also quickly became associated with the historical development of the concept and creation of wilderness, as with Roderick Nash’s 1967 book, Wilderness and the American Mind.2 A few years earlier, Leo Marx had used an American Studies approach to explore how writers and other elite intellectuals developed the pivotal idea of the “machine in the garden” in which technology and nature were supposed to be harmoniously integrated in the unique American landscape.3

Many of the first-generation environmental historians echoed the contemporaneous development of environmentalism as a political movement with its emphasis on preserving wilderness, or at least relatively “unspoiled” nature, in the face of human exploitation with unnatural technology. Humans and their technologies were by and large understood as despoilers of nature, not as an inseparable part of, or extension of, nature. Such a view would increasingly come to be seen as problematic. Yet, it did have the good effect of allowing environmental historians to emphasize the independent agency of nonhuman organisms, landscapes, and ecologies, as they responded to anthropogenic—and typically technological—perturbations in ways that fed back into human history. There were some earlier antecedents for such ideas, particularly among the scholars of the French Annales school.4 However, inspired by new ecological and biological insights of the postwar period, the early environmental historians were in many ways the first humanists to suggest the possibility of a far less anthropocentric understanding of the past. This turn toward the nonhuman became all the more unusual during the 1980s when the broader discipline of history was by contrast increasingly dominated by the postmodern “cultural turn,” a theoretical shift that placed great weight on how human discourse, ideas, and culture constructed the material world around them and, in its more extreme forms, even reality itself. Deeply anthropocentric in its theory and method, the cultural turn seemed to sharply diverge from the environmental historians’ still nascent but increasingly sophisticated efforts to recognize a greater level of power and agency in the nonhuman environment.

In this light, William Cronon’s influential 1996 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” presented a dual challenge to environmental historians. First, Cronon argued that the field’s focus on wilderness effectively excluded the human use of the environment—especially technological use—and he called on environmental historians to accept “the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral, and the wild each has its proper place.”5 Cronon had already put just such an analytical approach to work in his seminal 1991 book, Nature’s Metropolis, which tightly integrated urban production technologies with the farming, timbering, and other extractive technologies used in the rural hinterland. Chicago, Cronon revealed, was a place where grains were transformed in commodities, forests into standard-sized timbers, and cattle into conveniently packaged sides of beef.6 At about the same time, Richard White’s short but seminal 1995 volume, The Organic Machine, also challenged the tendency to view technology and nature as easily separable analytical categories. Human technologies like dams did not transcend and dominate nature, White suggested, so much as they channeled natural forces and reshaped natural materials in novel ways. Pushing back against the long-standing tendency of environmental historians to view any productive labor in the environment as solely destructive, White also insisted that humans could know nature through their work—not just through nonproductive activities like hiking and camping that both environmentalists and environmental historians had often implied were superior ways of interacting with the wild.7 In all this, both Cronon and White pointed the way toward the more hybrid understanding of nature and technology that would come to dominate in the decade to come.

The second major influence of Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness,” however, was more problematic, as the essay sought to bring environmental history more in line with the cultural turn that by the mid-1990s had become widely influential among humanists of all stripes.8 Wilderness, Cronon argued, was not so much a real material environment or set of definable properties as it was a human idea or social construct. Rather than focus on the chimera of “wilderness,” he suggested environmental historians might do better to think in terms of the “wild,” a property that could be found sprouting up in the cracks of an urban sidewalk as much as on the lofty peaks of a national park. Cronon’s turn to constructivism held out the promise of moving beyond the modernist dichotomy of technology and the environment, yet it did so primarily by asserting that these polarities were nothing more than social constructs that could therefore be set aside. Despite his nod to the concept of “wildness” as a real material phenomenon, Cronon’s essay thus seemed to challenge the field’s efforts to develop a less anthropocentric theory of history.

Neither a more hybrid understanding of technology and environment nor a more social constructivist theoretical bent went unchallenged.9 Donald Worster, another pioneer of the field who had long championed a strong materialist approach, warned that to reduce “wilderness” to a mere cultural construct risked abandoning the field’s most novel and important contribution: its emphasis on the agency of a natural world that exists independently of ideas and cultures and thus offers a critical normative baseline to guide human actions. He countered that constructivism, at least in its more radical forms, threatened to create a “degenerate worldview” that considered the artificial technological environment of Disneyland to be as “legitimate” as a less anthropogenic place like Yellowstone National Park.10 Worster’s own Marxist-inflected work on the history of the Dust Bowl and Western dam building had largely treated technologies as distinctly human and thus artificial intrusions into and disruptions of a nonhuman nature, which tended to preserve a causal role for an independent nonhuman environment in the face of what he saw as a dangerous tendency of postmodern constructivists to reduce everything to culture. The “unexamined cultural determinism that underlies mainstream historiography is just as problematic,” Worster argued, as any form of environmental or materialist determinism.11

Despite these critiques, as the field moved into the new millennium the shift toward a less dichotomous hybrid theory of technology and the environment only gained momentum, as did the influence of constructivist theories and methodologies. Rethinking one of the seminal topics of the field, Mark Spence and Louis Warren demonstrated how the new concept of “wilderness” demanded that humans and their technological artifacts be removed from places like Yellowstone and Glacier. Most tragically, even Native Americans who had long made use of these areas for both spiritual and productive purposes were cast out of what Americans increasingly wished to view as, and reengineer as, pristine Edens.12 Karl Jacoby suggests a similar banishment affected many Euro-Americans who lived near parks and forest reserves and had previously used them for subsistence hunting, wood gathering, and other productive purposes.13 Although these historians did not cast their analysis primarily in terms of technology, their work argued persuasively that wilderness areas like the national parks were being defined in large part by the absence of human technological activity. Nature, in other words, was where productive technology was not—a point that the environmental historian Paul Sutter also drove home with his argument that it was the threat of the automobile that pushed early wilderness advocates to seek the legislation that ultimately produced the 1964 Wilderness Act with its ban on any “form of mechanical transport” in areas designated as wilderness.14

The turn to hybridity was even more forcefully made through a synergy between environmental historians and historians of medicine and a new focus on the continuity between human bodies and the environment. Conevery Valençius, for example, argued that many 19th-century Americans believed their own health was closely tied to the “health of the country,” suggesting the continued existence of a holistic view of nature in which humans and their bodies were still very much a part.15 Linda Nash found that even as late as the first decades of the 20th century, some Californians still understood human health as a product of complex interactions between a porous human body and the environment. Yet as the germ theory of disease gained influence, the modernist division between humans and the environment came to dominate. A more holistic view of the human bodily place in nature would not reappear until after World War II when Rachel Carson helped popularize a new environmental and ecological understanding of synthetic chemical pesticides in natural food chains: the technology of DDT was an inescapable part of both the human and nonhuman environment, effectively melting the conventional distinctions between the two.16

By the early 2000s, many environmental historians had embraced postmodern constructivism and a holistic view of most—if not all—environments as hybrids of human, cultural, technological, and natural parts. When Richard White penned an overview of the field in 2004, his title captured the shift: “From Wilderness to Hybrid Landscapes: The Cultural Turn in Environmental History.” Almost a decade later when the historian Paul Sutter offered a similar survey, he concluded that the transformation was complete: hybridity had become the dominant theoretical approach for the field.17 The wilderness ideal and the related division between culture and nature was well and truly dead, and with its demise had come the possibility of understanding humans and their technologies as contiguous with rather than distinct from the environment.18 However, Worster’s earlier warning of the dangers of putting too much emphasis on human culture and ideas at the expense of nonhuman nature also seemed prescient. As Sutter concluded his survey, he suggested that hybridity, for all its strengths, had also fostered a “haze of moral relativism” which tended to undermine the ability of scholars to advocate for an environment that was better and healthier for both humans and nonhumans.19

Ironically, though, environmental historians had executed their belated cultural turn during a period when many other historians, humanists, and theorists were moving away from it. Many scholars who had embraced postmodernism much earlier were by that point seeking instead to understand the independent agency of the nonhuman environment—the very subject that many environmental historians had once considered to be their central contribution. The field’s emphasis on the agency of the nonhuman was never entirely eclipsed by the turn to culture, however, and it now found a surprising ally among some historians of technology who were beginning to embrace a more environmentally rooted understanding of their subject.

History of Technology: Putting Nature Back into Technology

An offshoot of the history of science that gained prominence during the Cold War space race, the history of technology had initially focused on the agency of the artificial environment, just as environmental historians had focused on the agency of the natural environment. Historians of technology were also just as likely as environmental historians to make a clear conceptual distinction between human technology and the natural environment. However, as historians of technology moved beyond an initial focus on studying the sociocultural effects of discrete individual technologies—how steam engines, automobiles, or computers, for example, shaped or even determined the course of history—they began to develop a more holistic approach that studied a “built environment” that had many affinities with the environmental historian’s study of the natural environment. Thomas P. Hughes, one of the leaders of the discipline, championed a “systems theory” approach. His theory viewed a seemingly discrete technology like the electric light bulb as part of much larger “networks of power” that encompassed not only social and cultural phenomena like governments and corporations, but also hydropower dams that could in turn be understood as part of the rivers that drove them.20 Tellingly, this approach had its roots in postwar cybernetic and feedback theories that had also influenced pioneering ecological scientists such as Howard and Eugene Odum. These theories suggested that there might be more fundamental commonalities between the way anthropogenic and natural systems operated. Indeed, the sociologist Charles Perrow had proposed precisely this idea in his prescient 1984 book, Normal Accidents. He argued that “ecosystem accidents” were essentially a subcategory of the normal accidents that inevitably arise from complex technological systems.21

At roughly the same time that environmental historians such as William Cronon were tying cities into a wider environment, historians of technology were also beginning to study the material and ecological flows of the urban environment. The Western belief that the city is the antithesis of the natural is perhaps even older and more powerful than the idea that technology is inherently unnatural.22 Yet, as urban historians embraced an increasingly materialist analytical position, they began to perceive the city as a place of flows of natural material through technological processes in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably tangled.23 This was especially apparent in the new emphasis on urban environmental history, which produced path-breaking works by Joel Tarr, Martin Melosi, and others explaining how cities both imported and metabolized raw materials from the environment and dealt with the resultant waste and pollution.24 Meanwhile, scholars focusing on health began to study human-built spaces like offices and mobile homes, further erasing the distinction between the natural and technologies environment.25

By 2009, when Melosi considered this growing body of work, he concluded that it was now evident that historians must abandon the idea that humans and their cities constitute “a separate category from the rest of living things.”26 By collapsing the conventional analytical distinctions between city and nature, or technology and environment, urban historians thus increasingly demonstrated how we could and should think of cities—indeed, any space that humans occupy on the planet—as simply material environments in which it is analytically counterproductive to try to make conceptual distinctions between which parts were natural and which were technological. Importantly, not because both are equivalently “social constructs,” but rather because both possess a level of independent material power or agency that transcends human attempts to categorize and control them. Cronon’s “wild” weed growing up in the crack of a city sidewalk had in essence reasserted itself, offering a new way of incorporating the agency of the nonhuman by recognizing that the technological and natural shared an identically creative ability to go their own way.

In his important 2008 revisionist history of the well-known Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, Killing for Coal, the environmental history Thomas Andrews took hybridity to a new level of sophistication. Coal was not just a passive raw material that the workers extracted, Andrews argued, but rather an active agent. The dangerous material nature of Western coal mining—the ever-present risk of a roof collapse or a fall—required that the miners from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities come to trust each others, thus fostering the solidarity necessary for coal miners to fight back against callous industrialists.27 At the same time, other historians drawing on the emerging field of animal history presented an equally powerful challenge to the long-standing assumption that a “technology” must be an unnatural machine or process. If, as the historian Edmund Russell and other scholars convincingly argued, a cow deliberately bred by humans to serve a specific instrumental purpose is best understood as a technology, the line between the technological and the natural further blurs.28 Nor was this claim just semantic. Rather, as Russell subsequently argued in his ambitious call for an “evolutionary history,” the genetic structures of organisms like dogs, cattle, and cotton have coevolved with human sociocultural phenomena.

In this co-evolution, human cultural practices—say, a preference for meaty but docile animals—became embedded in the appearance, behaviors, and genetic code of these animals. Even more importantly, these new types of cattle subsequently affected human biology, culture, and technology, as for example by facilitating the spread of a genetic mutation enabling adults to digest milk. Russell dealt an even more powerful blow to an anthropocentric understanding of technological development with his argument that a plant—a specific strain of cotton that had coevolved with several native peoples of the Americas—was at least as important to the rise of the British industrial revolution as were new technologies or social relations.29 While understanding animals as technologies might at first seem to support Descartes’ reductive claim that all nonhuman creatures are machines, Russell and other scholars suggested that the more profound consequence would be to recognize that important aspects of human intellect, culture, and creativity emerge from the material environments and organisms around us, including other animals.30

Reflecting these new ideas, in the early 2000s several historians who had intellectual and organizational affiliations with both the Society for the History of Technology and the American Society for Environmental History established Envirotech, a special interest group for scholars working at the intersection of the two disciplines. Some scholars in Envirotech largely maintained the traditional distinctions between environment and technology, focusing simply on studying the interactions between the two. However, others, including Sara Pritchard and Thomas Zeller, developed envirotechnical analysis as a novel theoretical approach that sought to transcend modernist distinctions between technological and environmental systems. In their examination of what they term the “nature of industrialization,” Pritchard and Zeller argue that a process that is typically understood as epitomizing the artificial and technological was instead “as natural as other large-scale transformations in human history.” From the standpoint of envirotechnical analysis, industrialization had not distanced humans from the environment, but instead “deepened the links between humans and nonhuman nature.”31 In a somewhat similar manner, Thomas Hughes extended his earlier systems theory approach in a 2005 book to suggest a slightly different term—ecotechnological systems—by which he meant to convey a more normative sense of ecologically sustainable or balanced technological systems. Ecotechnological systems might thus be thought of as an ecologically sensitive subset of all envirotechnical systems.32

Regardless of the term favored, this wider collapsing of the distinctions between technology and the environment—as well as the turn to hybridity in environmental history—was deeply influenced by the rise of Actor Network Theory (ANT), a powerful theoretical and methodological approach initially developed by Bruno Latour, John Law, Michael Callon, and others in the 1980s. With his bold declaration that “we have never been modern,” Latour forcefully challenged the supposedly clear line dividing the human and nonhuman as nothing more than a modernist conceit.33 While emerging out of postmodern constructivism and semiotic theories, ANT nonetheless opened the door to a more materially rooted and less anthropocentric approach by including all manner of potential nonhuman “actants” in its complex networks, and by insisting that agency was therefore distributive rather than isolated among humans. An actant might be a bacteria, an institution, a technology, or even a natural resource such as wood, coal, or copper. Further, ANT stressed that any identifiable properties of a network were always emergent, contingent, and performative. A network was not so much a thing that existed in and of itself, but rather the outcome of the interaction of all the various actors that had to be constantly repeated if the network were to endure.

In this emphasis on the emergent nature of networks, ANT also had affinities with the influential ontological philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, which granted an unusual level of power and agency to nonhuman and even abiotic things. For example, they counterintuitively argued that nonliving metals offered the clearest demonstration of the powerful material vitalism embedded in the human and nonhuman environment: “Even the waters, the grasses and varieties of wood, the animals are populated by salts or mineral elements,” they argued. “Not everything is metal, but metal is everywhere. Metal is the conductor of all matter.”34 The growing hybridity of both environmental history and the history of technology thus combined with Actor Network Theory and the radical ontological theories of philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari to suggest that technology and the environment might be productively brought together in an even more novel synthesis. This synthesis would stress the many complex ways in which creative material things help to create and sustain humans in all their dimensions, social, cultural, and biological.

Beyond the Cultural Turn: The New Materialist Synthesis

In all these attempts to bring technology and the environment together, a much broader theoretical shift was brewing among historians. From its beginnings in the 1980s, the cultural turn had raised concerns among some scholars who warned that it tended to underestimate the independent agency of the nonhuman environment of material things, organisms, and natural earth processes. At a theoretical level, though, postmodernist theorists had often actually sought to undermine the culture–matter divide—not merely to eliminate the material in favor of the cultural. For example, Michel Foucault, whose work is typically seen as seminal to the cultural turn, put considerable emphasis on the importance of material things like prisons, asylums, and printed books in fostering the discourse and culture. In practice, however, many postmodernist scholars devoted most of their efforts to the discursive, while giving little or no attention to the material and nonhuman world. Even Actor Network Theory, which had so clearly intended to transcend such modernist distinctions, had often helped to further them, particularly with the tendency of some scholars to dismiss all scientific knowledge as mere social constructs.

As the historian of science Paul Edwards notes, social constructivism of many stripes created a strange new type of Cartesian dualism: “It depicts physical reality as inaccessible and insignificant even while taking social realities—people’s views and their ways of influencing each other—as transparently and directly knowable, not to mention all-powerful.”35 Further, the distributive nature of ANT, with its emphasis on the action of nonhuman objects and things rather than the internal potential of things which is never fully revealed though action, tended to minimize the ways in which the material environment exists and acts independently of the human element.36 As the archaeologist Ian Hodder argues, “to bring everything into the disperse human/non-human network risks losing one of the main motors of change—the limited unfixed nature of things in themselves and their relationships with each other.”37 Indeed, Latour himself came to critique this lack of attention to the nonhuman, arguing in 2005 that it stemmed from the “position objects have been given in most social sciences, a position that is so ridiculously useless that . . . it will make absolutely impossible any serious consideration of objectivity—I mean of ‘thinginess.’”38 Any adequate materialism, he insists, must now recognize the creativity and generativity of real matter, a dynamic materialism that “accounts for the surprise and opacity that are so typical of techniques-as-things.”39

At roughly the same time, there was a growing sense among scholars in a wide variety of humanistic fields and disciplines that the cultural turn, for all its usefulness, had also fostered a dangerously anthropocentric idealism and neglect of the nonhuman material environment. As the political theorists Diane Coole and Samantha Frost note in the introduction to their 2010 edited volume on what they term the “New Materialisms,” “the dominant constructivist orientation to social analysis is inadequate for thinking about matter, materiality, and politics in ways that do justice to the contemporary context of biopolitics and global political economy.”40 In his surprising 2009 manifesto, “The Climate of History,” the prominent postcolonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty similarly suggests that current postmodern approaches to understanding the past are inadequate to meet the challenges of the present when global climate change has effectively fused human and natural history. Historians, he argues, must instead begin to “look on human history as part of the history of life . . . on this planet.”41

At the same time, revolutionary developments in the scientific understanding of the human microbiome, epigenetics, evolution, and cognition are increasingly challenging our very idea of what it even means to be human. If, as recent research into the microbiome reveals, many of the cells in our bodies are not ours at all, but rather belong to an immense population of diverse microbes that influence our health and perhaps even our psychology, the line between the human and nonhuman environment grows surpassingly thin.42 Indeed, in an insightful 2017 address to the American Society for Environmental History, Donald Worster suggested how human bodily waste might reveal the many intimate ways in which our environments literally move through us and our homes, cities, and technologies. Likewise, epigenetic theory now suggests that those material environments shape us not just over the long, slow process of evolution, but in the course of a single lifetime, rapidly turning genes off and on in response to changes in the material environment.43 Increasingly, evolutionary biologists no longer focus all their attention on our fixed genetic codes, but rather on how the expression of these genes are deeply shaped by environmental influences and the “human niches” that we create—in significant part through technologies.44

Finally, whereas the cultural turn had depended heavily on a largely abstract linguistic theory that separated the human mind from the brain and body, today new insights into language and cognition suggest that we think through and with a highly plastic brain and porous body that are deeply linked to the material world around us.45 Human discourse and culture may construct our ideas about material reality, but they do so through our embodied physical and mental engagement with the very material world that we claim to construct.46

In sum, as the cultural turn is giving way to a less anthropocentric and more materially rooted understanding of the human place in the environment, our understanding of the relationship between technology and the environment must inevitably shift as well. Today it seems increasingly evident that the emphasis should be not on the relationship between clearly distinct spheres of technology and environment, but rather on their unity within a more holistic material environment that profoundly shapes human history. As scholars give renewed attention to the material world, they are discovering the surprisingly powerful role that other creative things, organisms, and technologies around us play in what had previously been understood as solely human cultural creations. As the political ecologist Jane Bennett puts it in her recent argument for a “vital materialism,” scholars must “readjust the status of human actants: not by denying humanity’s awesome, awful powers, but by presenting these powers as evidence of our own constitutions as vital materiality.” In perhaps one of the most succinct statements of the potential significance of new materialist ideas to date, Bennett asserts that “human power itself is a kind of thing-power.”47

As an understanding of the material environment as a dynamic place now comes to the fore, technology can increasingly be understood not as an unnatural and wholly human creation, but rather as the product of a creative, and sometimes dangerous, human entanglement with an environment that is only imperfectly understood and controlled. Technology in this emerging neomaterialist synthesis can be seen not merely as a means by which powerful humans affect their environment, but rather as an extension of a powerful material environment that is constantly acting to help create humans and their cultures. In this view, technologies give rise to novel material environments that shape us as both biological and cognitive creatures, as, for example, when the tens of thousands of new chemicals synthesized since World War II penetrate our bodies and brains and affect our ways of living, acting, and thinking.48 As the cognitive philosopher Andy Clark suggests, such a view “drives home the degree to which environmental engineering is also self-engineering.” In changing our material physical environment, he argues that we also reconfigure “our minds and our capacities of thought and reason.”49 In the emerging neomaterialist paradigm, our technological environment and natural environment are not only logically indistinguishable from each other but logically indistinguishable from us.50

Discussion of the Literature

Initially, the fields of environmental history and the history of technology focused on what seemed to be diametrically opposite topics. Yet, it was also the case that the human effect on the environment, and to a lesser degree the environment’s effect on humans, was a central topic of both fields, steadily drawing them into what would become an increasingly close relationship.

Environmental history’s early focus on the ideal of wilderness and nonhuman landscapes first emerged in such seminal works as Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden.51 Subsequently, other influential studies pioneered the use of ecology to reveal the history of human effects on their environments, such as William Cronon’s Changes in the Land52 and the Marxist-inflected critiques of capitalist exploitation of nature found in works like Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl and Rivers of Empire.53

Humans and their technologies have typically been understood as distinctly apart from, and thus harmful to, the ecological health of environments. Cronon’s work in the 1990s, however, increasingly challenged the separation between human technological environments and natural environments. In his widely influential book, Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon tightly integrated the productive and financial history of that city with its surrounding hinterland.54 Four years later, he published a controversial 1996 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,”55 which effectively challenged the long dominance of the wilderness ideal in the discipline, opening up the possibility of seeing humans and their technologies as part of the environment. Equally important was Richard White, The Organic Machine56 (which demonstrated that human technologies like large dams are best understood not as distinct from nature, but rather as a means of channeling nature toward human ends. White also argued that productive technological labor offered a way of knowing nature in a chapter in the influential edited collection, Uncommon Ground.57

In the early 2000s, environmental historians came together with historians of medicine to place humans and their bodies back into the environment in several influential works, including Conevery Valençius, The Health of the Country, and Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies.58 Freed from the earlier fealty to the wilderness ideal, other historians began to reveal how Americans had to create “the wild” in national parks by removing both native peoples and Euro-Americans, as with Mark David Spence’s Dispossessing the Wilderness and Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature.59

Meanwhile, historians of technology had also begun to move beyond the field’s earlier focus on the study of discrete machines and processes to understand them as parts of larger systems that could include the natural environment, as with Thomas Park Hughes’s Networks of Power.60 Such a “systems approach” was well suited to a new generation of urban environmental historians who increasingly viewed the city not as the antithesis of the natural environment, but rather as a locus of continual flows of materials. Some seminal works were Joel Tarr’s The Search for the Ultimate Sink and Martin Melosi’s The Sanitary City.61 Michelle Murphy’s Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty further extended environmental analysis to indoor spaces, revealing how common office technologies were affecting workers.62 In his influential study of the Colorado Ludlow Massacre, Killing for Coal,63 Thomas Andrews went even further with his argument that an industrial “workscape” like a coal mine could not only affect workers’ bodies, but also play an active role in creating a sense of worker solidarity and identity. Others challenged the conventional distinctions between technology and nature by arguing that domesticated animals should also be understood as technologies, as was articulated in a collection of essays in Scranton and Schrepfer, eds., Industrializing Organisms, and also in the concept of “evolutionary history” presented in Edmund Russell, Evolutionary History.64

In more recent years, both fields have increasingly criticized the distinction between human technology and the nonhuman environment as a modernist conceit predicated on a misleading anthropocentrism. Many scholars have now embraced the hybrid approaches pioneered by Bruno Latour and other architects of Actor Network Theory, which makes no clear ontological distinction between “actants” that can just as well be anthropogenic technologies as nonhuman metals or organisms. Introductory works include Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern and Reassembling the Social, and John Law and John Hassard, eds., Actor Network Theory and After.65 More recently, some scholars have adopted an envirotechnical approach that often suggests that technologies actually deepen the connections between humans and their environment. Two influential edited volumes have been published: Martin Reuss and Stephen Cutcliffe, eds., The Illusory Boundary, and Dolly Jorgenson, Finn Arne Jorgenson, and Sara Pritchard, eds., New Natures.66

As the influence of the postmodern cultural turn now fades, a growing number of scholars are embracing a new materialist approach that expands on the environmental historians’ long-standing emphasis on the independent agency of the nonhuman world to now include a seamless melding of technology and environment. In works like Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, and the edited collection, Diane Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., The New Materialisms,67 scholars are suggesting a more radical synthesis in which humans and their technologies are understood as emerging from and with a creative and dynamic material environment.

Primary Sources

The potential primary sources for American environmental history, history of technology, and their more recent hybrid forms are immense, encompassing everything from historic scientific studies of ecosystems and human minds and bodies to materials chronicling the historical development of individual technologies and their effects on the human and nonhuman environment. A distinguishing feature of many historians in both fields is their ability and willingness to make cautious use of scientific materials to understand the past, which, while clearly not an entirely unbiased source of information, offers one of the only means of arriving at reasonably reliable information about the material nature of nonhuman materials, whether these be natural organisms or anthropogenic technologies. Within this vast range of materials, several primary source collections stand out for the way they integrate environmental and technological materials. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland, offers the most obvious source of primary materials, particularly through its rich collections chronicling the history of federal agencies like the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Forest Service, the United States Geological Survey, and many other federal organizations whose missions often encompassed the intersections between technology and environment. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (Washington, DC) has a rich collection of both artifactual and documentary materials on the history of technology, as do the American Philosophical Society and the Chemical Heritage Foundation (both in Philadelphia). Especially valuable for the American West are the superb collections of archival materials at the Huntington Library (San Marino, California), the American Heritage Center (Laramie, Wyoming), and the Denver Public Library (Denver, Colorado).

Further Reading

Andrews, Thomas G. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

    Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

      Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost, eds. The New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

        Cronon, William, ed. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.Find this resource:

          Harman, Graham. Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2016.Find this resource:

            Hodder, Ian. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things. Malden, MA: Wiley, 2012.Find this resource:

              Jorgenson, Dolly, Finn Arne Jorgenson, and Sara Pritchard, eds. New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

                  LeCain, Timothy James. The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

                    Melosi, Martin. “Humans, Cities, and Nature: How Do Cities Fit in the Material World.” Journal of Urban History 36 (2009): 3–21.Find this resource:

                      Murphy, Michelle. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                        Nash, Linda. Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                          Reuss, Martin, and Stephen H. Cutcliffe. The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                            Russell, Edmund. Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                              Scranton, Philip, and Susan R. Schepfer, eds. Industrializing Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History. New York: Routledge, 2004.Find this resource:

                                White, Richard. The Organic Machine. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.Find this resource:

                                  Notes:

                                  (1.) Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959); Alfred P. Runte, National Parks: The American Experience (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979).

                                  (2.) Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967).

                                  (3.) Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).

                                  (4.) A seminal text was: Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditeranéen a l’époque de Philippe II (Paris: SEVPEN, 1949).

                                  (5.) William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1 (1996): 7–28.

                                  (6.) William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

                                  (7.) Richard White, The Organic Machine (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), and Richard White, “‘Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?’: Work and Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).

                                  (8.) For a good overview, see Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).

                                  (9.) See, for example, the comments accompanying Cronon’s 1996 article by Samuel Hays, Michael Cohen, and Thomas Dunlap. For a collection of essays examining the cultural turn and the environment, see Michael E. Soulé and Gary Lease, eds., Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1995).

                                  (10.) Donald Worster, “Nature and the Disorder of History,” in Soulé and Lease, Reinventing Nature?, 78.

                                  (11.) Quoted in Richard C. Foltz, “Does Nature Have Historical Agency? World History, Environmental History, and How Historians Can Help to Save the Planet?” The History Teacher 37 (2003): 9–28.

                                  (12.) Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

                                  (13.) Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

                                  (14.) Paul Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).

                                  (15.) Conevery Bolton Valençius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

                                  (16.) Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

                                  (17.) Paul Sutter, “The World with Us: The State of American Environmental History,” Journal of American History 100 (2013): 94–119.

                                  (18.) Richard White, “From Wilderness to Hybrid Landscapes: The Cultural Turn in Environmental History,” Historian 66 (2004): 557–564.

                                  (19.) Sutter, “The World with Us,” 119.

                                  (20.) Thomas Parke Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

                                  (21.) Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

                                  (22.) Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).

                                  (23.) On material flows analysis, see, for example, Maria Kaika, City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City (New York: Routldege, 2005).

                                  (24.) Joel A. Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 1996), and Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

                                  (25.) A seminal work is Michelle Murphy, Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006). More recently, Janet Ore has proposed the useful concept of “domestic ecology”: Janet Ore, “Mobile Home Syndrome: Engineered Woods and the Making of a New Domestic Ecology in the Post-World War II Era,” Technology and Culture 52 (2011), 260–286.

                                  (26.) Martin V. Melosi, “Humans, Cities, and Nature: How Do Cities Fit in the Material World,” Journal of Urban History, 36 (2009), 7.

                                  (27.) Thomas G. Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

                                  (28.) Philip Scranton and Susan R. Schrepfer, eds., Industrializing Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History (New York: Routledge, 2004).

                                  (29.) Edmund Russell, Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

                                  (30.) An extended argument for this is made in Timothy James LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

                                  (31.) Sara B. Pritchard and Thomas Zeller, “The Nature of Industrialization,” in Martin Reuss and Stephen Cutcliffe, The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010), 69, 85. See also the introduction to Sara B. Pritchard, Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). Another important collection is Dolly Jorgenson, Finn Arne Jorgenson, and Sara Prichard, eds., New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).

                                  (32.) Thomas P. Hughes, Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

                                  (33.) Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). See also John Law and John Hassard, Actor Network Theory and After (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor–Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

                                  (34.) Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 53; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 411.

                                  (35.) Paul Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Date, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 437–438.

                                  (36.) Graham Harman, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2016).

                                  (37.) Ian Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things (Malden, MA: Wiley, 2012). 93.

                                  (38.) Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 237.

                                  (39.) Bruno Latour, “Can We Get Our Materialism Back Please?” Isis 98 (2007): 140–141.

                                  (40.) Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., The New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 6. Coole and Frost suggest the term should be plural to better convey the diversity of recent materialist thinking.

                                  (41.) Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009), 197–222, quote on 198. For further comments on the significance of Chakrabarty’s ideas, see Timothy James LeCain, “Heralding a New Humanism: The Radical Implications of Chakrabarty’s Four Theses,” in “Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Four Theses,’” eds. Robert Emmett and Thomas Lekan, Rachel Carson Center Perspectives: Transformations in Environment and Society 2 (2016): 15–20.

                                  (42.) Julia Adeney Thomas, “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” American Historical Review 119 (2014): 1587–1607. For a reliable account of the microbiome revolution, see Ann Reid and Shannon Greene, Human Microbiome: A Report from the American Academy of Microbiology (Washington, DC: American Academy of Microbiology, 2013).

                                  (43.) Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

                                  (44.) Kevin Laland, Tobia Uller, Marc Feldman, Kim Stereiny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, John Odling-Smee, Gregory A. Wray, Hopi E. Hoekstra, et al., “Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink? Yes, Urgently,” Nature 514 (2014): 161–164.

                                  (45.) See, for example: Benjamin Bergen, Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mine Makes Meaning (New York: Basic Books, 2012). For a historian’s perspective on brain plasticity, see Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

                                  (46.) All these ideas are examined at length in Timothy James LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

                                  (47.) Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 10.

                                  (48.) An excellent case study is made in Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

                                  (49.) Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xxviii.

                                  (50.) This point regarding the postwar chemical environment is made in Thomas, “History and Biology in the Anthropocene,” especially 1601.

                                  (51.) Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967); Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).

                                  (52.) William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983)

                                  (53.) Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979); Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

                                  (54.) William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992).

                                  (55.) “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1 (1996): 7–28.

                                  (56.) Richard White, The Organic Machine (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).

                                  (57.) William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).

                                  (58.) Conevery Valençius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press).

                                  (59.) Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

                                  (60.) Thomas Park Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

                                  (61.) Joel Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 1996); Martin Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

                                  (62.) Michelle Murphy, Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006),

                                  (63.) Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal, America’s Deadliest Labor War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

                                  (64.) Philip Scranton and Susan R. Schrepfer, eds., Industrializing Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History (New York: Routledge, 2004); Edmund Russell, Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

                                  (65.) Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); John Law and John Hassard, eds., Actor Network Theory and After (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999).

                                  (66.) Martin Reuss and Stephen Cutcliffe, eds., The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010); and Dolly Jorgenson, Finn Arne Jorgenson, and Sara Pritchard, eds., New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

                                  (67.) Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Diane Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., The New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).