I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge1

Linda Nash

In Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge, Linda Nash advocates her professional viewpoint that the study of humans and nature cannot be separated from the study of bodies and the environment. The two analyses are unavoidably linked. “By placing the human body at the center of an environmental history,” she brilliantly writes, “this work challenges the modern dichotomy that separates human beings from the rest of nature, a dichotomy that underwrites the very discipline of history.” (8) Nash asserts that the contemporary understanding of humans being actors in a greater ecosystem that originated after the publishing of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is actually not a new concept, but an old understanding of the human/nature relationship expressed in a new, modern way. Thus, Inescapable Ecologies is both a narrative of the changing understandings surrounding health and the environment and a study illustrating mankind’s broader struggles with concepts of capitalism and modernity.

The book is based on a case study of the Central Valley of California. However, the narrative does not read like a case study. Nash presents the information in a way that easily convinces the reader that these are not unique, localized experiences, but part of a broader, national experience, which, I think, is the mark of a microhistory that is well-done. Unlike Diamond, Melville, or many other environmental historians, Nash does not rely heavily on the scientific. Instead, she is more interested in individual perceptions and observations of the environment. She does this because she wants to tell a more complicated environmental history, which, she hopes, has the ability to stir personal emotion. She also wants to draw a clear connection between 19th and 20th century experiences, which she says can only be done “if we set aside the scientific narrative of medical progress, as well as the environmentalist narrative of regret.” (6)

Nash starts this connective narrative in the late 19th century by looking at the personal accounts of settlers in the Central Valley. By looking at these accounts, Nash states, one finds that people were very concerned about the environment’s effects on their health. The environment was viewed as an aggressive force, and their bodies were believed to permeable and vulnerable. This relationship with the environment led the settlers to circumvent some areas that they thought were unhealthy, such as those areas surrounding water sources, which were seen (rightly so) to cause disease, and to increase their efforts to transform the land into agricultural fields. Agriculture equated civilization, and civilization was equated to improved health.

Moving into the early 20th Century, perceptions of the human body changed as germ theory and modernity came into vogue. Human bodies were no longer viewed as permeable, but rather as separate entities that were disconnected from nature. The key to health was now hygiene and sanitation, which were most easily achieved by distancing humans from natural landscapes as much as possible. Modern, industrial landscapes were viewed as the bastions of health. As a result, man-made environmental controls, such as insecticides, skyrocketed. Paradoxically, as mankind entered the late 20th century, it was realized that these industrial centers were actually the most threatening health to human wellbeing. Human bodies are once again viewed a permeable and vulnerable to environmental forces, particularly those forces, such as air pollution, that were caused by uncontrolled industrialism. Nash portrays the evolution of human/environment perception as a kind of cycle. One must wonder if this cycle will continue to the next stage (or if it already has) and mankind will once again view itself above the forces of nature.

Feature Photo:

  • Title: First camp. In the Sangre de Cristo Mts. / G.H. Heap del. ; lith. of P.S. Duval & Co. Phila.
  • Creator(s): P.S. Duval & Co., printer

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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