Martin V. Melosi, Joseph A. Pratt, eds. Energy Metropolis: An Environmental History of Houston and the Gulf Coast. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. vii + 344 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-5963-2; $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4335-8.
Reviewed by David Stradling (Department of History, University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-Urban (May, 2008)
Houston's Understudied Environmental History
You might detect the occasional hint of defensiveness in Energy Metropolis, a collection of essays edited by Martin V. Melosi and Joseph A. Pratt. Undoubtedly, the defensiveness comes from the editors' and contributors' understanding of Houston's reputation as a model of how not to build a city. For this very reason, Houston is a city that demands more scholarly attention, from both urban and environmental historians. Heretofore, Los Angeles has captured the preponderance of attention from scholars hoping to dissect and explain the modern, dystopian American megalopolis. Houston is no Los Angeles, of course, but with its sprawling suburbs and oppressive air pollution, it reveals important similarities. And, as the nation's fourth largest city, Houston may be among America's least studied metropolises. As the essays of this collection make clear, historians' tendency to focus on a few cities--New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, in particular--has prevented a fuller exploration of critical trends in American history, including the evolution of the modern environmental movement.
As a collection of essays that grew out of an environmental history conference held in 2003, this volume makes no pretense at comprehensiveness. It covers a wide variety of critical topics, from environmental justice to deforestation, and through it all several key themes emerge. First, perhaps more than most American cities, Houston developed a culture dedicated to economic growth. As the introductory essay notes, "a majority of the population, rich and poor, favored oil development largely unrestrained by pollution controls" (p. 9). Houston's dedication to economic growth meant remarkable power for energy corporations and equally remarkable negative environmental outcomes. Second, amplifying a common but critical theme in urban environmental history, social inequality in Houston has led to environmental inequality, which Houstonians experience on a metropolitan scale. Third, economic and demographic growth in cities brings a concomitant projection of urban authority into the countryside, through annexation, sprawl, and tourism.
One of the collection's central goals is to explore the links between energy and the environment. Pratt provides a fine overview of Houston's energy history, describing the periods of intense growth, after the initial gush of oil in 1901, during the roaring 1920s, and again in the last three decades of the twentieth century. Pratt's essay is overwhelmingly narrative, with little emphasis on analysis, but it provides good context for what follows, especially by establishing the power of energy companies within the city's political culture. Melosi's contribution, an essay on urban systems, is the collection's most substantial chapter, one in which he describes World War II as a turning point in the projection of metropolitan power through the construction of complex systems to supply water, remove sewage, and handle solid waste.
Among the best essays is Robert S. Thompson's discussion of air conditioning, in which he describes how disparities in access to temperature control heightened class-based disparities in environmental experiences. Those who lived in inner-city neighborhoods and could not afford air conditioning actually found themselves experiencing even higher summer temperatures due to the "heat island" effect caused by continued sprawl and energy consumption in the region. In another innovative essay, sociologist Diane C. Bates analyzes deforestation in the San Jacinto Watershed, part of Houston's northern suburbs, using infrared reflections recorded by LANDSAT images in 1979 and 2000. The accompanying maps reveal forest cover change between those two dates using red and green coloration (unfortunately making them less useful to those of us who are red-green color blind!). Using this data, Bates concludes that "even environmentally conscious master-planned communities" have not retained the characteristics of the pine forest, the dominant ecosystem in region, suggesting that even the best planned sprawl is ecologically destructive (p. 181).
The collection's most disappointing pieces come in the section dedicated to environmental activism, where Robert D. Bullard offers a rather uninspired recitation of the environmental justice battle in which he became a key participant in the 1970s. Much of his essay maps out the city, linking landfills and garbage incinerators with minority neighborhoods. The actual activism gets too little attention. Elizabeth Blum takes up that topic more successfully in the following essay, in which she attempts to link 1970s African American women's activism with similar activism during the Progressive Era. Her essay mostly offers encouragement for historians to do more work to recover the long history of environmental activism among women of color. Kimberly A. Youngblood recounts the 1980s grassroots movement at the Brio Superfund site, in an essay entitled "Voices of Discord," but, unfortunately, she includes too few of those voices in the narrative. The best of the four essays in this part of the book, by archivist Terry Tomkins-Walsh, offers a more general narrative of the region's environmental activism filled with details that are largely of local interest. Tomkins-Walsh also articulates the entire collection's most important argument: "Houston's environmental activism exhibits distinctive characteristics reflecting the city's southern history and political culture" (p. 257). This straightforward, seemingly mundane pronouncement is a reminder that broad statements about the role of the New Left and feminism in fueling the environmental movement have limited explanatory power beyond California, New York, and Madison, Wisconsin. Tomkins-Walsh reminds us why we all must know more about Houston (and Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Buffalo, etc.).
Energy Metropolis appears in the University of Pittsburgh Press's History of the Urban Environment series, edited by Melosi and Joel A. Tarr. It follows the publication of a similar collection on Pittsburgh, Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region (2003), edited by Tarr, which itself followed the publication of Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis (1997), edited by Andrew Hurley. The Houston volume improves on these previous works, mostly because it covers a greater number and diversity of topics, but also because it introduces urban and environmental historians to a city that they have too long ignored. Both Melosi and Pratt are well-known historians at the University of Houston, and several of the essays come from their graduate students, past and present. Even as Energy Metropolis reveals the growing vigor of urban environmental history, it also illustrates the vitality of the history program at the University of Houston.
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David Stradling. Review of Melosi, Martin V.; Pratt, Joseph A., eds., Energy Metropolis: An Environmental History of Houston and the Gulf Coast.
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