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400 Years Of Freethought
Samuel Porter Putnam
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Jon Meacham
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Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England

Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England - Theodore Steinberg This was Steinberg’s dissertation; his advisors were David Fischer, Morton Horwitz, and Donald Worster. Steinberg’s thesis is that “industrial capitalism is not only and economic system, but a system of ecological relations as well.” (11) This idea goes beyond the obvious (but important) recognition that environment constrains social and economic choices, towards a more subtle discussion of how “the natural world came to represent new sources of energy and raw materials…perceived more and more as a set of inputs.” Steinberg mentions Cronon and Merchant in this context, but the thrust of his argument develops Horwitz’s theme of “an instrumental conception” of both resources and “law that sanctioned the maximization of economic growth.” (16) A critical issue in Horwitz, which Steinberg picks up, is that this sneaky institutionalization of common law and the attitudes toward ownership and the public and private sectors that spring from it has distributional 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 belong to the few, to the exclusion of the many.Steinberg’s narrative of the beginning of textile milling in Massachusetts calls attention not only to the contested nature of all the changes the mills tried to make to the flow and control of rivers like the Charles, but also to how much these changes owed not to free competition in the market, but to government interference through the courts. Despite the regular complaints of area farmers, by 1795 people in the Charles valley believed “their natural rights stolen from them, and their best property at the mercy of one or two Millers, still the luck 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) Along the way, Steinberg’s story brushes up against several interesting people (Nathaniel Ames, Robert Owen, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens), whose personal reactions to what they saw in the Charles and Merrimack valleys would have added an interesting dimension to the account.Steinberg continues the story with accounts of the Boston Associates’ campaign to control Lake Winnepissiogee, the destruction of fisheries and the capitalists’ attempt to reintroduce and manage what was formerly a common good, and the problem of industrial and urban pollution in the 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. Clearly Thoreau would have been horrified by what he saw, but I don’t think Steinberg makes a strong case that Thoreau represents any type of viable alternative. At the end, 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) This conclusion steps beyond the scope of the book, and although Steinberg may have felt that it was implied by his approach, it is not a natural end to the story and requires either a leap of faith or a prior agreement and understanding that makes the book’s very valuable argument weaker.