Linda Nash. Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. xiii + 332 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-24891-5; $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-24887-8.
Reviewed by Michelle Kleehammer (Department of History, University of Illinois)
Published on H-Environment (September, 2007)
Body and Environment in California's Central Valley
Linda Nash's Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge delves into the often neglected relationship between human health and the natural environment, presenting a unique and effective method of tackling issues of human and environmental agency, interaction, and consequences. Like Warwick Anderson, Conevery Bolton Valencius, and Gregg Mitman, Nash examines the environment through the lens of health, and in doing so reflects upon a wide array of historical questions including the contingency of scientific knowledge, the significance of personal experience, the racialization of the human body, and the often troubled relationship humans have formulated and reformulated with nature in the face of modernity. Inescapable Ecologies is an absorbing work that manages to be both ambitious in its scope and detailed in its analysis, and should engage not only environmental historians, but also scholars concerned with histories of science, medicine, and public health, and histories of California and the West, as well as issues of race, class, and the role of the state in the twentieth-century American context.
Inescapable Ecologies is divided roughly into two parts, shifting from a wider cultural lens on beliefs about the permeability of bodies and the impact of the germ theory, around the turn of the twentieth century, into a sharp focus on the health problems experienced by many agricultural workers and farming communities in California's Central Valley in the last decades of the twentieth century. The first half of the book deals with the sense white Americans made of their bodies in the California landscape as they settled and transformed the land of the Central Valley into the most productive agricultural landscape in the world. Nash begins her narrative by examining the ways white settlers viewed the land they encountered in California by placing their experiences into a wider context of colonization and conquest. Her first two chapters, "Body and Environment in an Era of Colonization" and "Placing Health and Disease," explore the period before the advent of the germ theory in which both laypeople and physicians viewed human bodies as existing within a state of flux dependent in large part upon the very environment in which they existed. As Nash explains, "in this world, the local landscape was sometimes healthful and sometimes threatening--but it was always active, contingent, and relevant to the bodies that resided there" (p. 48). And for white Americans settling the western United States, California's Central Valley proved to be a more threatening place than most.
The third chapter, "Producing a Sanitary Landscape," serves as the turning point in Nash's narrative. Here she examines the effects "on the ground" of the germ theory of disease and the ensuing rash of public health measures that emerged alongside the explosion of agricultural improvements in the Central Valley. The shift in medicine toward the germ theory necessitated a transformation in understandings of the way the body interacted with the ebbs and flows of the climate and environment; rather than a porous body vulnerable to distinctive landscapes, doctors and health officials now recognized a body that could be infected by pathogens regardless of the landscape it inhabited. According to Nash, "modern medicine and public health would now cast pristine landscapes as physically harmless while portraying disease as an invader" (p. 84). The new goal became the eradication of specific pathogens and the rendering of a pure and neutral environment, a view of health that Nash terms "modern" in contrast to the "ecological" approach of nineteenth-century miasmatic medicine (p. 12). As other historians have similarly demonstrated, the advent of the germ theory did not elicit a sudden break from old understandings of personal hygiene and sanitation, but it did constitute a "radical relocation of emphasis" toward epidemiology and the laboratory, embodied in the newly formed California Department of Public Health (CDPH) (p. 84). The draining of swamps and wetlands, the attempted eradication of anopheles mosquitoes and malaria, and the widespread irrigation and ordering of the farmland of the Central Valley became some of the most obvious and tangible outcomes of this blending of an epidemiological public health approach and a market-driven economy.
The second half of the book utilizes this background to examine in depth the way notions of bodies and environments persisted and evolved when faced with the deleterious effects of pesticides. The knowledge acquired by the modern environmentalist movement, particularly influenced by Rachel Carson's pioneering work, Silent Spring (1962), was also rooted in the lived experiences of farmworkers and farming communities, as expressed through newspaper reports and numerous public health investigations. In this way, Nash's culminating focus on particular pesticides and "cancer clusters" in 1980s rural California takes on even greater significance as the sites of contentious negotiations about what it means to be scientific in method, environmentally safe, medically sound, and, ultimately, "modern."
In her fourth chapter, "Modern Landscapes and Ecological Bodies," Nash traces the uneasy resurgence of a concept of "environmental health" (and illness) caused by the extensive use of chemicals such as parathion and DDT throughout the landscape of the industrialized environment of the Central Valley (p. 129). The rise of chronic illnesses caused by pesticide exposure in the place of such infectious diseases as malaria and yellow fever marked the triumph of capitalism in this highly productive landscape. In the immediate postwar decades, with the impact of the bracero program bringing increasing numbers of Mexican workers into the United States (many as farmworkers due to the extensive agricultural lobby), Nash begins to locate a disparate approach to concepts of health, disease, and environment (p. 132). Challenging long held racist beliefs about "ignorant," "lazy," and otherwise pathologized Mexican bodies, the farmworkers concluded through their lived experiences that it was the environment itself that was diseased. As Nash puts it, "in their epistemology, the modern environment, rather than Mexican bodies, was the site of pathology" (p. 138). Although largely invisible to the science of epidemiology and slow to infiltrate the bureaucracy of public health, the diseased bodies of the agricultural workers themselves forced officials to acknowledge, however insufficiently, "that toxicity could not be adequately understood in the laboratory" and a reassessment of environmental factors was in order (p. 144).
Nash's final chapter, "Contesting the Space of Disease," explores these tensions through selected case studies, in particular the rural community of McFarland ("the West's best-known cancer cluster"), which became the site of a heated and protracted battle (among farmworkers, state and federal health bureaucrats, epidemiologists and toxicologists, produce consumers, and community members) over the health of the land, its drinking water, and its inhabitants (p. 171). The use of chemicals in McFarland and other Central Valley towns and the frightening increase of childhood cancers in these locales caused people to ask difficult questions about the efficacy of pesticides and their impact on entire communities (p. 191). Despite inconclusive investigations about ground water contamination levels and unsatisfying reports by the CDPH and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), residents became and remain today convinced of the vulnerability of the human body to its surrounding environment. "The cluster," Nash notes, "had no cause that modern epidemiology could identify" and yet was "undeniably 'real'" (p. 192). Notably, she concludes that the existence and acknowledgment of disease in McFarland "revealed that modernist ideas of place and health in the Central Valley were no longer widely shared, and perhaps never had been" (p. 172). Through this case study Nash demonstrates that despite the germ theory, the commitment to capitalism and modernity, and the steadfast belief that humans can create a nonthreatening landscape through technology and science, both ecological and modern approaches to health have operated and continue to operate inextricable from one another.
Inescapable Ecologies utilizes several guiding principles of particular interest to environmental historians. The author's treatment of the agency of the natural world and her attention to people's relationship to their environments are especially instructive. Rejecting a simple dichotomy between humans and "the rest of nature," Nash instead argues that a focus on the health of the human body blurs such distinctions traditionally made in historical studies, and indeed by contemporary society. Through the lenses of landscape and health, we are forced "to acknowledge that humans are not simply agents of environmental changes but also objects of that change" just as the environment "is more than an object upon which change is enacted; it is also an agent of sorts" (p. 8). By drawing continuities between human responses to nineteenth-century miasmas, early twentieth-century mosquitoes, and late twentieth-century pesticides, Nash effectively demonstrates a slippage of boundaries between the human body and nonhuman nature.
Also of significance to environmental historians is Nash's commitment to a dual approach, both cultural and material. She is concerned with "understandings and perceptions" of the health of the body as situated in various landscapes over time, but at the same time is "interested not only in how people talked about environment and disease but also in what happened on the ground" (p. 10). It is her attention to the voices of those most affected by pesticides in the postwar period that lends the monograph its complexity, as she carefully balances the authority of the lived experience of Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers with the investigations of modern public health bureaucracies like the CDPH and EPA. Ultimately, as Nash concludes, "there is no single 'right way' to conceptualize human and nonhuman nature, though there are better and worse ways" (p. 214). Inescapable Ecologies advocates a blended worldview, one that takes into account life experience and human perception alongside modern epidemiology, toxicology, and medicine, but also insists on the permeability of the body and its intimate relationship with its environment.
One of the strengths of Inescapable Ecologies is its attention to the shifting narratives of race alongside the concurrent story of environment and disease. Nash explicates how nineteenth-century American medicine racialized bodies in ways that paralleled or grew out of European imperial projects. Her attention to race is most clearly articulated with regard to the invisibility of Mexican and Mexican American agricultural workers amid mainstream medical and political views in the postwar period. Although these points are well made, Nash does little to tie them together across time. Her periodization essentially skips over the 1950s in favor of following the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, with the result that the impact of the civil rights movement on public health across the second half of the twentieth century is left relatively unexplored. Further, Nash's analysis elicits intriguing questions about the relationship between gender constructions and environmental ideologies. A significant portion of her first-person accounts of farmworkers and environmental critics are from women, yet Nash does not fully seize the opportunity to analyze how gender is at work in these contexts. Women were ostensibly charged with the responsibilities of monitoring the health of their families and communities, and in her study of McFarland's battle with cancer Nash considers the "construction of the female body as especially vulnerable" and the unique fears associated with toxins entering the womb during pregnancy (p. 184). Yet such analysis is largely lacking in discussions of the factors influencing the development of an "ecological" versus a "modern" world view, where gender may have played a significant role.
Ultimately, Inescapable Ecologies is a clear, persuasive, and creative work that demonstrates the inextricability of human bodies from their environments. By laying a broad and compelling background of white settlers' understandings of the land, and tracing these transformations over key points in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Nash is able to deliver a satisfyingly in-depth analysis of postwar public health and its relationship to scientific study and environmental advocacy. Her complicated assessment of human agency in the face of natural (and human-made) environmental factors is a welcome addition to studies not only of public health and industrial hazards, but also can be applied to cultural histories of landscapes, climates, and diseases. Nash's work should encourage all scholars to take more seriously the significance of the human body as it exists in, interacts with, and is affected by the landscapes in which it operates.
. Examples include Warwick Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia (New York: Basic Books, 2003); and Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). Other examples are works by Gregg Mitman, "In Search of Health: Landscape and Disease in American Environmental History," Environmental History 10, no. 2 (April 2005): 184-210; and Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007). See Conevery Bolton Valencius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land (New York: Basic Books, 2002). Also see other works by Linda Nash, especially "Finishing Nature: Harmonizing Bodies and Environments in Late-Nineteenth-Century California," Environmental History 8, no.1 (January 2003): 26-52.
. See Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Michelle Kleehammer. Review of Nash, Linda, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.