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At the Intersection of Histories: Technology and the Environment

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 39, Number 4, October 1998
pp. 601-640 | 10.1353/tech.1998.0101

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At the Intersection of Histories:
Technology and the Environment

When is a trend a trend? In July 1997 Technology and Culture devoted a full issue to the theme of technology and the environment. The five articles that made up the issue—and that, as the editors noted, had arrived unsolicited at more or less the same time, making their focus on the single broad theme of the environment seem serendipitous and thought-provoking—ranged from the legacy of industrial pollution to technological design choices and landscapes to debates over natural and artificial foods. 1 Although a first for Technology and Culture, other historical journals had recently published special issues on the reciprocal interplay of technology and the environment. What seems clear, however, is that the history of technology, which emerged as a professional pursuit some four decades ago, and environmental history, which has existed as a field of study for approximately half that long, have finally begun to generate sustained attention to those gray areas where the two fields overlap.

It can be difficult to write environmental history without paying at least passing attention to technology. Conversely, it can also be difficult to write technological history without touching on some environmental element. A review of environmental history and the history of technology uncovers numerous superficial references to the intersections of technology and the environment, but until recently this relationship has seldom constituted the [End Page 601] principal focus of concern. This is not to suggest that past historians have published nothing of substance on this topic; the historical interaction of technology and the environment has always attracted some scholarly attention. 2 Lewis Mumford, for instance, was writing about the effects of technology on the urban environment in the 1930s, and expanded on that theme in his later work. 3 In 1956, the then fledgling National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a pathbreaking international symposium titled “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth.” This symposium, held at Princeton University, resulted in a thousand-plus-page tome whose authors plumbed the vast variety of humankind’s past and present technological manipulations of nature. 4

Scholars of American studies had begun to explore the nexus of technology and the environment nearly a decade before Technology and Culture came into existence. Henry Nash Smith articulated a central theme—technology in the garden—in his landmark 1950 work, Virgin Land. His ideas were extended by a trio of equally provocative studies: Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden in 1964, Marvin Fisher’s Workshops in the Wilderness in 1967, and John F. Kasson’s Civilizing the Machine in 1976. To be sure, these authors did not necessarily agree upon the power or content of the “myth of the garden” or of the concepts of “nature” as they confronted American technology. Nor did they concur about the character of the interaction, but together they produced a powerful framework that allowed subsequent scholars to assess the widespread environmental implications of technology. 5 [End Page 602]

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, several prominent members of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) issued wake-up calls about the importance of environmental considerations. It was no coincidence that they wrote just as social critics began denouncing modern technology for exacerbating the nation’s pollution problems. Lynn White jr. published his provocative essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in 1967, which immediately stirred up controversy far beyond the halls of academia. 6 In a 1969 commentary in Technology and Culture, A. Hunter Dupree urged an ecological perspective that understood technology as humankind’s principal means of adapting to and altering the environment. 7 Two years later, Nathan Rosenberg explored the “nature of the technology-environment problem” from an economic perspective, outlining both the positive aspects of technology and its negative side effects, or “externalities.” 8 In his 1975 anthology Changing Attitudes toward American Technology, Thomas Parke Hughes emphasized that America’s growing environmental problems had dampened public attitudes toward technology. He argued that society’s previously positive view of technology as a progressive force for controlling a hostile nature had shifted to an...