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  • Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge
  • Zachary J. S. Falck
Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge. By Linda Nash (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006) 346 pp. $60.00 cloth $24.95 paper

This history of California's Central Valley spans its inhabitation and transformation by Native Americans, colonists, settlers, laborers, engineers, and agricultural producers, as well as its emergence as a bountiful but toxic place. Nash argues that people and places remade each other over time because bodies were "intermixed with their environments" (149). Nash also explains how shifting understandings of disease reordered perceptions of, and interactions involving, this relationship. Nineteenth-century immigrants to California believed that their health depended, in part, on establishing balances between their bodies and surroundings. In contrast, twentieth-century public-health officials, sanitary engineers, and scientists attempted to cleanse the valley by purifying the bodies of, and identifying the genetic and behavioral imperfections among, its heterogeneous populations. Reworking the region's lands and waters as well as combating disease with programs based on the germ theory undermined widely held conceptions of, and scientific interest in, how the larger environment shaped people's health. However, the production and perpetuation of sickness, especially in poor and non-white bodies, revealed the persistence of what Nash labels an ecological sense of health.

Nash primarily relies on cultural analysis to elaborate how scientists produced knowledge but also occasionally borrows findings from environmental and health sciences to explain past events. Works from the philosophy and sociology of science and medicine, especially those of Latour and Mol, guide Nash's scrutiny of medical topography, public health, sanitary engineering, industrial hygiene, epidemiology, and toxicogenomics.1 Lefebvre's writings on the production of space inform Nash's location of the consequences of environmental change and contamination in the human bodies living and working in and moving through the region.2 Organophosphate pesticide poisoning and cancer clusters are two controversies that Nash examines to show the divergence of scientists' knowledge of disease and space and local populations' sensitivity to their health and environments. Central Valley ecologies were inescapable because scientists were unable to emancipate human bodies from diseases and illnesses—not because scientists determined how particular environments encompassed and penetrated the body and incontrovertibly caused sicknesses.

Nash's elaboration of the ambiguities and contradictions of various [End Page 627] professional groups' and communities' understandings of the relationship of place and health demonstrates the interdisciplinary challenges that historians face when they study nonhuman nature's contribution to the past and incorporate scientific evidence to do so. Viewing bodies and environments as inseparable permits Nash to critique the practice of isolating microorganisms, chemicals, and genes as etiological agents. Nash finds that analyzing particular organisms, substances, and processes was not completely effective because such knowledge neglected or could not account for the myriad connections of bodies and environments. In some passages, this skepticism of reducing the environment to what it consists of aggregates and blurs everything nonhuman as the environment. Yet, Nash's efforts to address such complexities in Inescapable Ecologies will interest readers committed to recovering and articulating past comprehensions of environment and health, to following and applying the advances in the environmental and health sciences to the study of the past, and to developing intermixtures of cultural and material perspectives that are compelling historical explanations and narratives.

Zachary J. S. Falck
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


1. See, for example, Bruno Latour (trans. Alan Sheridan), The Pasteurization of France (Cambridge, Mass., 1988); Annemarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham, 2002).

2. Henry Lefebvre (trans. Donald Nicholson), The Production of Space (Cambridge, Mass., 1991).