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The Illusory Boundary

The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History

Martin Reuss
Stephen H. Cutcliffe
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    The Illusory Boundary
    Book Description:

    The view of nature and technology inhabiting totally different, even opposite, spheres persists across time and cultures. Most people would consider an English countryside or a Louisiana bayou to be "natural," though each is to an extent the product of technology. Pollution, widely thought to be a purely man-made phenomenon, results partly from natural processes. All around us, things from the natural world are brought into the human world. At what point do we consider them part of culture rather than nature? And does such a distinction illuminate our world or obscure its workings?

    This compelling new book challenges the view that a clear and unwavering boundary exists between nature and technology. Rejecting this dichotomy, the contributors show how the history of each can be united in a constantly shifting panorama where definitions of "nature" and "technology" alter and overlap.

    In addition to recognizing the artificial divide between these two concepts, the essays in this book demonstrate how such thinking may affect societies' ability to survive and prosper. The answers and ideas are as numerous as the landscapes they consider, for there is no single path toward a more harmonious vision of technology and nature. Technologies that work in one place may not in another. Nature that is preserved in one community might become the raw material of technological progress somewhere else. Add to this the fact that the natural world and technology are not passive players, but are profoundly involved in cultural construction. Understanding such dynamics not only reveals a new historical complexity; it prepares us for coping with many of the most difficult and pressing social issues facing us today.


    Peter Coates * Craig E. Colten * Stephen H. Cutcliffe * Hugh S. Gorman * Betsy Mendelsohn * Joy Parr * Peter C. Perdue * Sara B. Pritchard * Martin Reuss * William D. Rowley * Edmund Russell * Joel A. Tarr * Ann Vileisis * James C. Williams * Thomas Zeller

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3053-4
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)
    Martin Reuss and Stephen H. Cutcliffe

    This anthology is a contribution to a historical reframing of questions involving the interaction of humans with the world around them. Thus, the individual essays do not provide a new methodology, although an emphasis on interdisciplinary research is clearly evident. Nor do the authors stretch the boundaries of traditional historical authority. Their conclusions are based on solid research and are as unbiased as one is likely to find. Rather, the distinguishing feature of these essays is the authors’ implicit (and sometimes explicit) denial that environment and technology are separable and generally opposing historical subjects. In fact, they argue that technology...

  5. Part I Nature, Technology, and the Human Element

    • Understanding the Place of Humans in Nature
      (pp. 9-25)
      James C. Williams

      The relationship between people and nature is dynamic, interactive, complex, and messy. To be sure, humankind has not always understood its relationship to nature in the same ways, for we come from many cultures and experiences that continuously change over time. Nevertheless, we are all part of nature, and our physical beings comprise many of the same elements and rhythms that make up the world around us. Yet, while we are part of nature, we also see ourselves as distinct from it, standing outside, if not above, the rest of the natural world. This is particularly true of those of...

    • Our Bodies and Our Histories of Technology and the Environment
      (pp. 26-42)
      Joy Parr

      A key self-help text of second-wave feminism,Our Bodies, Ourselves,¹ increased readers’ awareness of their bodies and of how their bodies influenced how they lived daily and how they understood themselves. I argue here, with some theory and some examples from work in the histories of technology and the environment, that students and researchers in the histories of technology and the environment similarly have much to gain by attending more closely to bodies. They are a fundamental connection between the people whose histories we read and write and the physical form of their tools and the places where they live,...

    • Can Nature Improve Technology?
      (pp. 43-66)
      Peter Coates

      In his renowned essay “What is an American?” (1782), J.Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, the Frenchman-turned-American, invited an English settler fresh off the boat to contemplate previous colonists’ tremendous accomplishments: “Here he beholds fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields, an immense country filled with decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where an hundred years ago all was wild, woody, and uncultivated!”¹ Though he chose the adjectiveuncultivatedrather thanunimproved,at the core of Crèvecoeur’s environmental ideology resided the notion of improvement. Applied alike to the nonhuman world of nature and the mental, moral, and spiritual faculties of...

  6. Part II Constructing Landscape

    • The Nature of Industrialization
      (pp. 69-100)
      Sara B. Pritchard and Thomas Zeller

      Most people born after 1960 and raised in Western Europe or North America have experienced more deindustrialization than industrialization. The closing of large-scale integrated factories since World War II has contributed to the economic decline of many historically important and once proud regions, including Germany’s Ruhr Valley and the Rust Belt of the American Midwest. Decontaminating former industrial sites and deciding how to use old steel mills and other facilities, now tellingly called brownfields, are some of the most pressing issues these communities face today. For example, entire landscapes in eastern Germany, once vast, open-pit coal mines, have been turned...

    • Is There a Chinese View of Technology and Nature?
      (pp. 101-119)
      Peter C. Perdue

      The envirotech program aims to promote discussion between scholars from two distinct fields of study: environmental history and the history of technology. These two historical subfields have different origins and different out-looks on processes of social change. Environmental historians derive, on the one hand, from the interest in historical geography and long-term social and natural change represented by French historians of the Annales school and, on the other, from the interest of historians in the transformation of the American continent by European settlers.¹ Both schools tend to focus on agrarian change, stressing either its continuity over thelongue duréeor...

    • Out West in Places and Spaces
      (pp. 120-142)
      William D. Rowley

      Nation-states draw much of their identity from stories about their creation. The United States is no exception. The westward settlement (or conquest) across a continent almost overshadows competing creation stories that feature the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, and the writing of the Constitution. As open space the American West is comparable to Argentina’s Patagonia, Australia’s Outback, South Africa’s Transvaal, and, some suggest, the frozen steppes of Siberia. Yet, in contrast to these far-flung parts of the earth, western America’s steppe lands, deserts, mountains, and coastal ports saw a rapid introduction of technological innovation. A...

  7. Part III Development and Waste

    • The City as an Artifact of Technology and the Environment
      (pp. 145-170)
      Joel A. Tarr

      It is useful to think of cities as human creations imposed upon the natural landscape.¹ Cities are actually interrelated systems that depend on the utilization of technology for their continued existence. Yet, as systems, cities and their built environments bear many similarities to living environments, or ecosystems. Over time, the technologies used by urban inhabitants to form their built environments placed increasing burdens on the natural environments of their sites and their hinterlands. Through their use of technology, urbanites reshaped and scarred the landscape, constructed a built environment above- and underground, and contaminated air, land, surface water, and groundwater as their ecological...

    • Waste and Pollution: Changing Views and Environmental Consequences
      (pp. 171-208)
      Craig E. Colten

      Human societies have always had to deal with unwanted residue. As the distinguished sanitary engineer Abel Wolman wrote, “All living organisms, by the very nature of their metabolism, produce wastes of varying composition, weight and hazard.”¹ When residents of farms or cities release byproducts into the environment, the discarded materials have the potential to cause pollution, but only when the concentration exceeds acceptable levels. Through technological means society measures the environmental impacts of waste and gauges what levels constitute pollution. Thus wastes are inextricably linked to pollution, but society determines how much waste in air, in water, or on land...

  8. Part IV Biology and Technology

    • Are Tomatoes Natural?
      (pp. 211-248)
      Ann Vileisis

      Just imagine that it is late August and you are holding in your hand a big red tomato warm from sitting on a sunny windowsill. Now imagine setting it onto a cutting board and slicing into its glossy skin with a serrated knife. Inside you see meaty walls, compartments of oozing juice, and white seeds set in gel and arranged in neat crescent-shaped lines. Imagine that the distinctive tomato scent makes your mouth water. As you pop a wedge into your mouth, it would seem the very pinnacle of tomato-dom is the wonderful moment about to ensue: the crushing of...

    • Can Organisms Be Technology?
      (pp. 249-262)
      Edmund Russell

      When environmental historians think about organisms at the intersection of environmental and technological history, they probably picture ways in which technology has harmed, first, wild species and, second, human health. These responses should not surprise us, for these topics have accounted for some of the most important works in the field. Historians of technology, on the other hand, might be more likely to call to mind ways in which human beings have used technology to remake the environment to serve human needs.¹ But can organisms themselves be technology? Some who have considered the question have answered in the negative.² This...

  9. Part V Historiographic Retrospect and Concluding Reflections

    • Where Does Nature End and Culture Begin? Converging Themes in the History of Technology and Environmental History
      (pp. 265-290)
      Hugh S. Gorman and Betsy Mendelsohn

      The interest that historians have shown in how technologies shape human interactions with natural systems has increased significantly over the last several decades. Before about 1980 those interested in technological change generally viewed society’s ability to manipulate and shape environments as important, but they rarely paid much attention to that manipulation or, for that matter, to more subtle interactions between society, technology, and nature. Similarly, historians writing about society’s interactions with and perceptions of nature recognized the power of technology to alter environments and experiences, but few saw any need to examine technological change in any detail.

      By the 1990s,...

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 291-302)
    Martin Reuss

    The essays in this book illustrate the difficulties in defining the boundary between the human and nonhuman worlds. Nature, we learn, is not as natural as some have assumed, and technology is not just about artifacts. If any boundary exists, it is more in the geometry of the mind than in the geometry of the earth, and it fades as our understanding of the ongoing negotiation between the human and nonhuman worlds evolves. Nature may at one point gain the upper hand, which may prove either beneficial or disastrous to humans. At the same time, humans use technology to transform...

  11. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 303-306)
  12. Index
    (pp. 307-318)