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Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England.

Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England. By Theodore Steinberg (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. xii plus 284 pp.).

Histories of American industrialization have multiplied in recent years. The technology, class conflicts, and gender relations of the process of industrializing have all been explored. While social historians have been looking at the impact of the coming of the factory system on social relations, the new field of environmental history has been exploring human impact on the natural world and the effects of the environment on human history. Most of that work has concentrated on either agricultural or wilderness areas, or early colonial settlement. (1)

Theodore Steinberg has brought the concerns and perspectives of environmental history to the study of industrialization. In doing so he offers us new insights into the vision of the early entrepreneurs, the relationship between industrialization and natural resources, particularly water, and how these first generation industrialized Americans came to view nature. Steinberg argues that with industrialization humans took a far more aggressive and controlling attitude toward nature. Industrial expansion entailed, Steinberg tells us, a far more systematic control and mastery over nature.

Steinberg uses the rise of the Waltham-Lowell system as the vehicle for this story. The history of the Boston Associates and their development of the water powered mills is a well-told story. Steinberg looks at his story from the perspective of the river systems that were their source of power. Capturing enough power to run the machinery of those mills radically transformed the ecology, first of the Charles, then, and to an even greater extent, the Merrimack river valleys, the flow and quality of their waters, migrating fish, and the land around the rivers. Steinberg shows just how sweeping this transformation was. The men who built the dams and canals which powered their mills, flooded fields, blocked the passage of lumber down river, and stopped the migration of anadromous fish, not only changed the environment in creating their hydraulic empire, they also found themselves confronted with opponents who objected to the way the industrialists were changing the natural world. In thwarting their opponents the Boston Associates worked to change customary understanding of rights and the law. Riparian rights became defined in terms of economic progress; instrumental use took precedence over customary use or natural flow.

Steinberg is most impressive in his description of how the Boston Associates transformed flowing water from a resource to a commodity. When they decided to develop the water power of the Merrimack River, they not only built dams and canals, and flooded fields, they also created separate corporations to manage their hydraulic system and sell water power to their mills. In doing so they created the concept of selling specific quantities of water power "mill power"; they separated water from land, by selling "mill power" without any land attached. They commodified water.

The Boston Associates' vision of water power not only led them to control the water of the Merrimack as it flowed up to their dams and through their canals, it also led them to control the whole of the river valley itself. Realizing that nature could not be depended upon for continuous water power at maximum capacity which was needed for full realization of their productive ability--summer droughts and spring freshlets interfering with that goal--the Boston Associates built a series of canals, trenches, and dams at the very headwaters of the Merrimack. By controlling the river at its source, the lakes of northern New Hampshire, the Boston Associates created a massive system of control over nature's resource, a level of control unimagined by the pre-industrial age.

If this was all that Steinberg accomplished in his book, it would still represent a significant contribution to our understanding of industrialization. But Steinberg does much more. In his discussion of the development of the Boston Associates' hydraulic empire, Steinberg shows how common law came to be redefined to accommodate the new uses of water. His legal and intellectual history of the changing understanding of riparian and property rights demonstrates the influence of the ideology of progress and the reality of power in political and legal history. In his discussion of the state's involvement in pollution and fisheries protection we see an evolving activist role of the state. In his discussions of the opposition to the Boston Associates' empire over nature, Steinberg provides a picture of the social history of environmental change.

Steinberg argues that industrialization engendered a massive change in how we understand nature and in our incorporation of nature into the human agenda. Although I believe that he has shown that industrialization significantly extended human control over the environment, I am less sure that the change he shows is so much a radical transformation as an extension of the already radical transformation of scientific and market oriented agriculture which predated the industrial revolution. Indeed, Steinberg suggests just such an analysis in his discussion of the development of a capitalist commodity vision, which he argues emerged in late eighteenth-century New England. Steinberg has shown us a significant transformation. He seems to be ambivalent about how radical we are to understand that change to be.

Steinberg has written a major contribution to not only environmental history, but to the history of industrialization itself. He has used the tools of legal history, social history, and technological history to created an environmental history of industrialization which should be read by all students of nineteenth-century America.


(1.) See Donald Worster, The Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York, 1979); Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill, 1989); William Cronon, Changing Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, 1983); Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological Consequences of 1492 (Westport, 1972).

John T. Cumbler University of Louisville
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Author:Cumbler, John T.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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