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  • Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge
  • Michelle Murphy
Linda Nash . Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. xiii + 332 pp. Ill. $60.00, £38.95 (cloth, ISBN-10: 0-520-24891-0; ISBN-13: 978-0-520-24891-5), $24.95, £15.95 (paperbound, ISBN-10: 0-520-24887-2, ISBN-13: 978-0-520-24887-8).

Today, the Central Valley of California is an important nexus for the industrialized production of produce in the United States. The history of this land is not just a story of industrialization but also a longer story of colonialism. Inescapable Ecologies weaves together questions from the history of medicine, environmental history, and labor history to chart, over a century, how health was connected to environment at the intersection of colonialism and industrialism in the Central Valley. The book contributes to a growing interest in the interplay of health and environment. In particular, with its focus on the Central Valley, Nash's book importantly highlights the role of racial conceptions of bodily difference, racialized divisions of labor, colonial political economies, and industrialized agriculture in the shaping of health and place in the United States.

The book begins by describing the intimate relation between landscape and health as a nineteenth-century "ecological body." As European settlers moved west, their "bodies were thus instruments of colonialism," (p. 18), not only by virtue of their physical presence but also as barometers of the success of settling white bodies in a new site. As Nash indicates, the salubriousness of the nineteenth-century Central Valley was not just a concern of white settlers but also of Alte California's Mexican inhabitants, as well as of Indians who faced devastating epidemics, especially malaria. So while today California's climate is popularly considered healthful, Nash demonstrates that as a site of frontier and colonial encounter, conceptions of California health were much more fraught and complex. [End Page 489]

With particular attention to the development of agriculture, Nash describes how the irrigation systems of the 1860s and 1970s not only changed the landscape and offered abundant foods, but also yielded malaria. This tension between modernization projects and the resultant environmental health outcomes is a major theme of the book, leading to Nash's discussion of the rise of professional public health in the West. Nash both underlines the import of bacteriology and standardization as new universalizing epistemological formations while arguing that there remained a continuity with the earlier ecological entwining of place and health. While bacteriological methods emphasized specific pathogens, public health practice in the Central Valley—now the home to thousands of acres of orchards, rice, and alfalfa watered by hundreds of miles of canals—was still very much concerned with questions of water and local conditions within a stigmatized rural landscape dotted with agricultural labor camps.

The book's most striking contribution comes as it carries this story forward to the post–World War II transformations of labor, place, and health. New chemical compounds, called organophosphates, were rapidly introduced to the Central Valley as a highly toxic pesticide, inaugurating new kinds of illness for farm workers, many of whom were now migrants within the flows of a transnational labor market. The scope of pesticide use in the Central Valley was the highest in the country, helping to make agriculture the most dangerous industry in the state. Using interviews by public health fieldworkers, Nash shows how workers themselves were keenly aware of their plight. Yet, as with so many other kinds of chemical exposures, public and occupational health investigators of the 1950s were not able to standardize tests for pesticide exposure or to establish safety levels for farm workers who both labored and lived in the fields.

By the 1960s, many in public health sought to put the specificities of place back into their understanding of health and so, too, did members of the public influenced by Rachel Carson and others. At the same time, the National Farm Workers Association opened a clinic, gathered worker testimony, and politicized the health conditions of field work. The Central Valley, once understood to pose natural dangers fixable with...