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Reviewed by:
  • Reasonable Use: The People, the Environment, and the State, New England 1790—1930
  • Christopher Mc Grory Klyza
Reasonable Use: The People, the Environment, and the State, New England 1790—1930. By John T. Cumbler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 268pp. $45.00).

John Cumbler’s book is an admirable addition to the shelf of environmental histories of New England, building on and extending the work of Cronon, Judd, Merchant, and Steinberg. The main focus of his work is the rise of societal concern with water pollution—how this concern shifted from the effect of pollution on anadromous fish such as salmon and shad as a food source for the working classes of the region, to sewage as a cause of diseases such as typhoid, to finally a focus on recreation and sport fishing—and how societal interests looked to the state to play the major role in addressing these problems. I think it is tracing the rise of state involvement in fisheries management and pollution control—including the creation of the first permanent governmental institutions in the United States devoted entirely to natural resource management and regulation—that is Cumbler’s chief contribution. As he notes in his conclusion, the development of the state fish commissions in the late 1860s and the public health commissions over the next few decades pioneered a new kind of state, decades before the federal government began creating Progressive Era institutions such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation. Cumbler also adds to the literature fleshing out the beginnings of environmentalism by expanding beyond the more familiar stories of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, beyond land conservation and preservation. He quotes the Massachusetts State Board of Health in 1869 stating that “all citizens have an inherent right to the enjoyment of pure and uncontaminated air, and water, and soil” (p. 3).

The catalyst driving Cumbler’s narrative is what Merchant called the capitalist ecological revolution in New England—the shift from a rural society centered on subsistence and small market agriculture to an increasingly urban one based on manufacturing and commercial agriculture. It was this capitalist ecological revolution and its effects on the previous social and economic relationships that stimulated the political debate over fish, dams, and water pollution. Although sawmills and gristmills were built almost as soon as colonial towns were established throughout New England, these mills had limited effects on fish runs. With the rise of major industrial centers for textiles and paper making in places like Holyoke and Lawrence, Massachusetts, the dams became much larger and the manufacturers reliant on these dams were unwilling to alter water flows for [End Page 246] the benefit of fish. Further problems of a different nature arose as the new factories and the cities they were located in expanded: industrial wastes and sewage disposal from thousands of people.

This rise of water pollution united farmers, health officials, and reformers who all sought to control this pollution, and they looked to the state for help. At first the water advocates turned to the courts to achieve their goals. Judges sought to balance the legitimate demands of landowners whose property was flooded and those denied traditional access to fish against the needs of mill owners, who brought a new economic vitality to the region. The courts, and later the legislature, increasingly supported the mill owners, whose factories were the economic engine of New England. When it became clear that these problems could not be solved simply through balancing, many reformers turned with optimism to science and technology, such as fish breeding and fishways around dams, as a solution.

Soon issues of public health joined and surpassed the fish problem. As the population of New England cities grew, sewage problems grew as well. Diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, diarrhea, and cholera became increasingly serious, stimulating the creation of the nation’s first state board of health in Massachusetts in 1869. Less than a decade later the board was empowered to regulate sewage and industrial water pollution. The manufacturing interests responded swiftly to this threat to their operations and profits, gutting the board of health and the new law. With the rise of the germ...

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