Two Book Tuesday: Organic Machine and Billion Black Anthropocenes

Two book Tuesdays are kind of a rare thing largely because I’m hard pressed to find time to read ONE book much less two. The combination of the last week of winter break and two short books made this rare event possible!

Book the First

I’m scratching around in American environmental history largely because I have a small research project (or something) involving some mid-century flood management furniture around the Red River of the North here in Grand Forks. I’m also keen to learn to think in a bit more of an environmentally sensitive way in my research in Greece and Cyprus as well as here in the US.

This gave me a bit of an excuse to enjoy some of the classics in late-20th century environmental history. Richard White’s The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (1996) fits this bill (and I have a used copy of Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (1985) on its way).

White’s book tells the story of the Columbia River as a source of energy for the American northwest. His emphasis on the river as a source of energy allows him to weave together the organic life that existed along its banks and in its hinterland with the powerful flow of the river itself. This meant that salmon burning calories on their final journal up river to spawn and engineers designing dams that would harvest the flow of the river for electrical power operate in a conceptual universe dominated by the river’s energy. The focus on energy in White’s book anticipates some of the moves common to the “ontological-turn” which explicitly questions categorical divisions between humans and animals, the natural and the cultural, the animate and the inanimate. His emphasis on energy created the kind of hybrid space where various forces could interact, combine, dissipate, and develop. It allowed, for example, the wind and human power of the pre-steam ships that attempted to navigate the violent rapids of the Columbia to exist alongside the nuclear power plants of the Hanford Site. It’s a fantastic book as a generation of environmental historians know full well.  

Book the Second

It was an interesting book to read alongside Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2019). Yusoff argues that the concept of the Anthropocene is part of a larger anti-Black and radicalized discourse in geology. Some of her critiques will be familiar. They make clear that the universalizing language of geology and particularly its assigning of “humans”  in a central role of creating a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, erases the role of racialization in the construction of the human. She further notes the parallels between the work of geology in distinguishing strata with the methods used to categories in races. Thus, the very concept of the Anthropocene in anchored in the kind of thinking that produced a radicalized world. This radicalized world was not just an unfortunate side effect of a emergent modernity, but a fundament step in creating the conditions that allowed for the development of geology and Anthropocene. In fact, Yusoff’s stressed the role of  geology in creating economically productive spaces through the identification of natural resources. Enslaved Black people, then, worked and died in mines to extract this geological wealth.

Yusoff’s particularly compelling when she observed that the various dates proposed for the beginning of the Anthropocene from 15th century to 1950 rely on arguments that conspicuously ignore role that  radicalized logic played in creating the conditions in which white Europeans (uncritically defined as the anthropos in the Anthropocene) transformed the geological record. 

Yusoff makes the point that by erasing the role of race in defining the relationship between geology and history, we normalize a white, settler, colonial, conceptualization of humanity (that is the anthropos in the Anthropocene). By using this lens to define a geological epoch, we also inscribe in stone both this exclusionary narrative, but also a method that continues to organize the space of the planet in terms of resources available for colonial exploitation. It is crucial to realize that the concept of the Anthropocene however shallow or recent its historical origins — that is whether we see it as a 15th or 20th century phenomena — serves to define both the origins of a new planetary geological epoch but also the future of the planet.   

In other words, it reminds us that the stories we tell about the past create the conditions for the future and the methods that we use to create these pasts and futures are resistant to kinds of rhetorical purification that attempts to elevate the good that these methods have or can do as a salve for the evil and damage they have done in the past.

Whatever one thinks of Yusoff’s argument (and I think it has much to recommend it), the larger framing of the conversations surrounding the Anthropocene, geology, and white, settler, colonialist epistemologies certainly require continued interrogation. As a reader, I couldn’t help but think about how this kind of epistemological scrutiny could inform recent conversations on pseudoarchaeology, for example, and help my discipline avoid the casting about for specs in the eyes of others while ignoring the log in our own.

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