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B. W. CLAPP, London: Longman, 1994, 268 pp., illustrations, tables, notes, index.
These are exciting days for the theory and practice of environmental history, particularly in relation to towns and cities. Competing definitions of nature, with a still-dominant orthodoxy championing a broadly agroecological approach, has been central to recent scholarly debate. In addition, a growing number of revisionists have emphasized deep interactions between town and country and the degree to which nature is logically and necessarily present in and mediated by urban structures.(1) Discussion also has centered on subtle gradations between a putatively untouched, natural environment and successive and more civilized and polluting stages, running from pristine wilderness through settlement, hamlet, village, town and city, to metropolis. Inseparable from this latter topic is analysis of powerful ideologies that, since classical times, have idealized the countryside--however dismal rural life may have been for the great majority--and damned the "dark" and "immoral" city.(2) Research has centered, finally, on the evolution of and conflicts between differing environmental and ecological worldviews. A prolific and influential contributor here has been Donald Worster, who in Nature's Economy set the agenda both for a rapidly growing historical community and for undergraduate and postgraduate students in North America and Europe. The critic of Worster's work might argue that it has been shaped too obviously by the progressivist environmentalist mentalite that gained enhanced cultural and political leverage in the aftermath of the publication of Rachel Carson's pathbreaking Silent Spring (1963). However, every form of historical inquiry is located within and partially determined by preexisting paradigms of concern. That the human species and the nature on which it has been immemorially dependent are now widely perceived to be under ever more radical global threat clearly constitutes a more anxiety-laden prospect than the twin processes of industrialization and urbanization over the longue duree between the late eighteenth and earlier twentieth centuries.
Theories of environmental change and modification, uncritically underwritten by the social construction of an unsullied nature, do, however, undoubtedly tend toward oversimplification. In his classic study The Making of the English Landscape (1977), W. G. Hoskins taught a generation of British local and regional historians that it was very nearly impossible to walk across even the most remote rural area without encountering signs of human activity that had significantly changed a preexisting environment. (Toward the end of his life, Hoskins, clad in sou'wester and muddy boots, tramped the Downs, the Highlands, and the Wolds televisually to reinforce precisely that point.) Hoskins opposed and revised an entrenched position within English (though not necessarily British) social and cultural thought that the countryside had been suddenly and traumatically violated and destroyed by the twin engines of urban-industrialism and increasingly egalitarian access to a hitherto unspoiled landscape. G. M. Trevelyan, who kept pernicious waves of depression at bay by walking fifteen or twenty miles a day across his beloved Northumberland, held tenaciously to this catastrophist view. John and Barbara Hammond did as well, along with an exceptionally powerful upper- and upper middle-class conservationist and preservationist establishment between the late nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War II. Town life, urbanism, and the large number of town dwellers, now able for the first time to explore hills, moors, and dales in search of nature, were anathema to such intellectuals. In this case, as well as in other instances, aristocratically rooted attitudes toward nature have buttressed anciently imbedded lineages of authority and power.
Now, in the late twentieth century, environmental historians are building bridges and staging posts between town and country. In his masterly Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991), William Cronon has meticulously traced flows of manufacturing production, transportation, consumption, and waste between the maw-like "filter-city" of Chicago and its sprawling hinterland. Other historians have identified and interpreted systems and public utilities designed to minimize the harmful impact of effluents on urban space itself. Ibis is a task that has demanded consideration, inter alia, of relationships between public water supply and sewage disposal and the social, medical, and engineering theories and ideologies by which each has been shaped and legitimated. It also has directed attention toward chronological variability, detectable within and between regional urban systems. Why did this town in this geographical location opt for this particular solution to its waste-producing problems, while another apparently identically situated and environmentally endowed city followed a quite different path? Why did this community, in this place, at this time, become convinced that a given environmental dilemma could no longer be tolerated? How was it that what had been deemed endurable in terms of filth and stench on a Sunday night had been transformed into a pollution problem by Wednesday morning? Here we have an intriguing urban historical analogue to the kind of anxiety triggered during the late twentieth century by technological systems failure.
Pondering the related issues of environmental crisis and sustainability, readers will benefit greatly from close study of Kate Soper's extended essay on the discourse of "nature and `nature.'" Overmodestly describing her study as an introductory foray designed to clarify crucial issues in contemporary …