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  • Engineering Nature: Water, Development, and the Global Spread of American Environmental Expertise by Jessica B. Teisch
  • Gary Kroll
Engineering Nature: Water, Development, and the Global Spread of American Environmental Expertise. By jessica b. teisch. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 272 pp. $29.95 (paper); $29.99 (ebook).

The rise of mining and hydraulic engineering expertise occurred during the height of imperial expansion. As a strengthening Euro-American empire comingled the social responsibility of the white man’s burden with the lengthening tendrils of extractive capitalism, engineers attempted to manage the settler environment by extending the promise of social and economic progress through technology. Jessica Teisch tracks the histories of a handful of these hydraulic and mining engineers who cut their professional teeth in California and then went on to export both the technology and ideology of engineering qua social progress to the peripheries of empire—Australia, South Africa, Hawai‘i, and Palestine. “California engineers’ technologies and ideas,” notes Teisch, “formed templates of economic growth for other parts of the world” (p. 37). As we would expect, California’s engineers failed to appreciate how historical contingency, local culture, and environmental vagaries put fierce limitations on the efficacy of imperial globalization between 1870 and 1914. Scholars and especially critics interested in the historical context of IMF/World Bank plans of development, particularly the role of engineering in social and economic development, will find much of value in this well-written book.

The monograph begins with California’s slow crawl to establishing William Hammond Hall as the first state engineer in 1878. On state surveyor George Davidson’s recommendation, framed by his high esteem for British irrigation works and policy in northern India, Hall was to reconcile the central valley’s previous history of laissez-faire [End Page 442] hydraulic mining and irrigation with the region’s agricultural future, hopefully to be based on small farming homesteads. While Hall was successful in establishing state water bureaucracies, like the Board of Drainage Commissioners and the State Engineering Office, his vision of state control of California water planning met obstacles from private enterprise in every region. Efforts by the federal Reclamation Service after the turn of the century met with similar resistance. Though the water colonies, like George and William Chaffey’s planned irrigation community of Ontario, in Riverside, fared much better for planned irrigation, “the overall pattern of irrigation in California through the 1920s was one of haphazard, uneven development” (p. 66). Despite the shortcomings, Californian irrigation engineers had developed a cultural infrastructure of policies, laws, ideologies, bureaus, and technologies that were transported to settler societies around the world.

Australia’s Victoria settlement is Teisch’s first case study. The story begins with Victoria’s minister of public works and water supply, Alfred Deakin, traveling to California in 1885 to observe the state’s progress in irrigation works. Given that Victoria’s environment seemed comparable to portions of California, Deakin was impressed with the state’s achievements and invited George and Ben Chaffey to create government-sponsored private irrigation communities modeled after Riverside’s Ontario. The brothers began planning and constructing the Victorian community of Mildura. The feat of irrigation and social engineering (temperance, agricultural education, cooperative farming) flourished for a few years in the early 1890s but then ran aground because of political and economic stresses, as well as the region’s lack of railroads, making distant markets for fruit all but inaccessible. A decade later, Victoria turned to California again and invited the great western irrigation engineer Elwood Mead to become the State Rivers and Water Supply Commissioner. Mead effectively injected a culture of business-minded progressive efficiency into Australia’s “closer settlement” movement—a state sponsored colonization initiative to improve and develop the more barren regions of Victoria. Mead left the post in 1914 after short-lived success, and then went back to California and created the land settlement experiment of Durham, which was, in turn, modeled after the socialist vision of his experience in Victoria. In short, Teisch is not interested in telling a one-directional story. Technologies, ideologies, and dreams are moving quickly in many different directions and all are getting mashed and mangled...


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pp. 442-444
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