- Canada and Arctic North America: An Environmental History
In this survey text, Graeme Wynn explores how humans have materially transformed the northern North American environment from the trickle of First Peoples to the continent roughly 14,000 years ago to the present-day congestion of urban centers that now dot the landscape. It was written for ABC-CLIO's Nature and Human Societies Series, which provides insights from all over the globe into how human civilization has shaped and been shaped by the natural world. While Canada and Arctic North America does not appear to address the relationship of technology and culture directly, the reader quickly learns that technology has been a vital force in the historical interaction between humans and nature.
Wynn divides his work chronologically into six parts, which are then divided into thematic chapters. He begins with an overview of the changes in climate that enabled the human, animal, and floral colonization of present day Canada and Alaska. Part 2 addresses the period of "contact" between European explorers and First Nations peoples. Wynn emphasizes that contact as a historical point of reference is misleading; "European incursions into native spaces . . . took place on several fronts [and] they occurred at different times" (p. 33). He maintains that trade and technology figured prominently in the developing relationship between First Nations peoples and newcomers. New goods dramatically altered established ways of life, and the diffusion of these technological innovations was more important for cultural development than the migration of people. [End Page 498]
Newcomers who settled in the territory from the seventeenth century through the mid-nineteenth are the focus of part 3. "Exploration," Wynn writes, "was part of the process of possessing," which led the way for domestication and cultivation of the land. Drawing on Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization, Wynn defines this period as Eotechnic and details how the new inhabitants relied on wood, wind, and water to cope with their environmental circumstances. He also devotes considerable attention to the environmental impacts of settlement, an element often neglected in traditional historical narratives.
In part 4 Wynn examines how coal, iron, and steam ushered in the Paleotechnic age, which created a dramatic change in the relationship between humans and the natural world. For Wynn, the railroad, and its ability to compress time and space, made it the ultimate symbol "for humanity's growing power over nature" (p. 169). By the late nineteenth century, the Paleotechnic age had given way to the Neotechnic revolution with the development of hydroelectric power. Wynn demonstrates how major technological innovations led to adjustments in agricultural practices and increased urbanization in the twentieth century. Most significant, his discussion of the harnessing of natural resources reminds us that the history of technology cannot be divorced from a history of the environment.
In part 5 Wynn examines the transformation of the natural world post 1950. Following World War II, Canada entered into a period of high modernism, wherein Canadians exhibited what Wynn calls an "extraordinary faith in the human capacity to alter the world" (p. 277), which often involved brute-force engineering. In his sixth and final part, he reflects on the broader consequences of environmental change and reminds his readers that "the damage wrought by humans in devastating forests, driving species to extinction, and polluting air, soil, and water diminishes us as much as it harms the environments over which we exercise mastery" (p. 391).
It is difficult to find fault in this fine work. By means of a multidisciplinary approach, Wynn pushes the boundaries of accepted historical evidence, thus providing a refreshing perspective on old history. This is one of the first textbooks published on an environmental history of northern North America, and it is evidence of a burgeoning interest in that field. It would be useful in any environmental or Canadian history course, and anyone interested in studying technological developments would find an abundance of useful and insightful information. [End Page 499]
Dorotea Gucciardo, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of...