Notes on David Blackbourn’s “Conquest of Nature”

“The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany,” by David Blackbourn tells the story of how Germans transformed their landscape over the course  of 250 years.[1] The modification of the landscape included reclaiming marshes, draining wetlands, stream restoration, and dam construction. These hydrological projects, Blackbourn informs, changed the face of the land and embodied the ushering in of the modern Germany to come.

Blackbourn in writing about how landscape shaped modern Germany details a metanarrative of how Germany developed as a nation state.  He describes two views of  Germany’s modernity story in terms of internal improvements. Blackbourn writes:

“Call them the optimistic and pessimistic approaches, one an account cast in the heroic mode, the other a modern morality tale of just deserts. The first tells a straightforward story of progress. Growing human control over the natural world meant new land for colonization and more food to support a growing population…”[2]

Here Blackbourn introduces readers to the ways that Germany’s landscape modification efforts were interpreted through history. The pessimistic version is outlined in greater detail here:

The “conquest of water led to a decline in biodiversity and brought damaging invasive species…Hydrological projects also wiped out human communities, and with them valuable forms of knowledge: carefully calibrated ways of living with and from the water.[3]

The author notes that neither framing is sufficient for showing the complexity of the German conquest of nature…

Ultimately Blackbourn is concerned with “the long-term consequences and manipulating and mechanizing Germany water sources” and in so doing provides a more complete historical account of past.




[1] David Blackbourn, The conquest of nature water, landscape and the making of modern Germany(London: Pimlico, 2007). 2

[2] Ibid, 7

[3] Ibid, 11

Notes on Darwin’s Origin of Species


The nineteenth century was rife with cataclysmic changes in economics, technology, and science. An increasingly diversified market of goods and services, new inventions, and population shifts were just some aspects of the rapid innovation and progress made during the 1800’s. Additionally the ideological discourses thrived with print material that challenged, provoked and brought new insights into the public mind. No other publication shook the foundation of how people saw the world more than Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. This book collapsed the relative peace between religion and the sciences, threatened the Victorian social order, and made Darwin himself vulnerable to reproof from traditionalist practitioners in his field.  For this reason Darwin’s work can be quite radical during the Victorian period.

Charles Darwin writes, “changed habits produce an inherited effect…with animals the increased use or disuse of parts…has marked influence…Hence if man goes on selecting and thus augmenting…he will almost certainly modify unintentionally other parts of structure.”(Darwin 14) Here Darwin speaks to the variability of characteristics among living things domesticated and compares them with attributes of the same species in a “state of nature” (the wild). Darwin said, “I fear great evil from vast opposition on all subjects of classification. I must work out hypothesis and compare with results. If I acted otherwise my premises would be disputed.” Here Darwin gives his reasoning for his scientific approach with his extensive time spent gathering evidence and traveling the world to assure the validity of his results.

Correct as Darwin’s theories may have been, religious authorities during the nineteenth century would not readily accept Darwin’s theory of species change. Though Darwin’s use of descriptive examples draw from zoology, botany, morphology  this evidence supported how selective breeding affected species change; the church’s stance on the biblical origins of creation ran counter to Darwin’s evidence.  This would disturb the so-called “harmony” between sciences and the church. If God made all living things in seven days then Darwin’s theory would be considered heresy. In spite of such an implication, Darwin was committed to methodological practice.

“A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase.” (Darwin 63) Here Darwin’s theory of natural selection gives example to the chaotic state of the natural world. Darwin writes on that “In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing considerations always in mind-never to forget that every single organic being may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life’ that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or old, during each generation or at recurrent intervals. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little and the number of species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.” (Darwin 65) This explains to Darwin’s reader the state of struggle in which living things have to endure in order to survive. These things being clear and rational, unfortunately implied a subtext that would cause the Victorians to bristle. Such a naturalistic, chaotic world was anathematic to one that was controlled by the eyes of an all seeing God. Darwin did not mention a divine presence in this passage. It was wholly material the laws within the state of nature. It seemed a merciless world that was not dependent upon the powers of prayer- but dependent only on survival. Such a world could presumably translate to some readers that a Judeo-Christian ethos was inconsequential when the true powers of fate lay in the uncontrollable laws of nature.

When Darwin wrote of the importance of the “largeness of area” he gave his readers some hope of how a species could “endure” for a longer length of time. Again there is no mention of a divine presence that ensures the safety of a living thing- only certain conditions that have proved “favorable” to the organisms he has studied over time. To think of “largeness of area” in human terms, one thinks of the types of dwellings the poor would find themselves living. The influx of immigrants into Ellis Island during the nineteenth century forced them into crowded tenements because of their lack of resources. Additionally on plantations, the enslaved were placed into one room cabins where one or two families would reside. Applying Darwin’s thesis it is no wonder that many of them suffered disease, abject poverty and due to their social location, social death.

Ironically as time would progress Darwin’s ideas would reach an audience that could reason with his evidence and apply the variables found in a “state of nature” to human beings.

Social Darwinism would find a large following in the United States. This theory attempted to explain human progress and posited that “like animals, society evolved adapting to the environment. Herbert Spencer’s term “survival of the fittest” kept the strong and cast out the weak. Such a belief system would impact how some policy makers viewed government intervention with those rendered indigent. Reform would “disturb” the nature’s intended purpose: to obliterate the weak and leave the strong. Such a thought pattern would jibe well with the capitalist ideology of the nineteenth century and exemplifies how easily scientific evidence can be used politically in service to whatever hegemonic impulse served those in power.

For the Victorians, any aspect of knowledge that threatened the status quo was dangerous- Darwin’s evidence implicitly highlighted a natural world devoid of manners, form and ceremony. The state of nature was a dangerous place that relied purely on instinct. Since many of the rules of Victorian behavior were undergirded by a Judeo-Christian ethos, Darwin’s ideas were subversive. But in Darwin’s view it was truth as he had studied, researched and written about. Keepers of conservative tradition, Victorians, and the religious establishment would all oppose much of the content in The Origin of Species.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Croce, Paul. Nineteenth Century Science and Religion. Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History 1999


Notes on Thomas Rogers’ Deepest Wounds

Thomas Rogers’ “The Deepest Wounds: Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil” expands our knowledge in understanding the rupture, continuity and change in the zona da mata region of Brazil. Rogers’ foremost concern in the book is assessing the damage that monoculture did to landscape and society in the region as well as the degree of exploitation within agricultural and labor systems from the colonial to the present day.

Through narratives of labor and agro-environmental history “The Deepest Wounds” examines a wealth of facets within the relations between workers and planters.  Additionally Rogers’ intent is to “reinterpret the episodes of mobilization that reverberated around the country offering broader lessons about how a history of labor overlaps with the agricultural environment’s history.”[1]

Rogers utilizes a diverse set of source materials for this examination including colonial as well as imperial period chroniclers’ and travelers’ accounts, geographic studies, environmental histories, and intellectual reflections of the Permambucan elite class. Rogers gets closer to sugarcane worker’s lives through the slithers of biographical accounts, oral histories, folklore and visitor stories. Rogers admits that sources used to illuminate worker’s lives are thin by comparison with the Permambucan elite, yet the evidence he was able to glean still manages to provide a contextual aspect in the historical genealogy of their day to day lives.

Rogers brings the patrician and plebian together in his discussion on the emergence of modernization within sugarcane cultivation. Rogers explains that by examining the impact of modernization on workers as well as elites a greater contextualization emerges in trying to understand the role of political institutions in modern re-organization of labor.[2]

Thomas Rogers treatment of the zona de mata helps to “make sense of a history characterized as an infliction of wounds.”[3] More than just an environmental determinism wrought by monoculture, Rogers provides the historical, cultural, and political underpinnings of landscape exploitation in the zona de mata.



[1] Thomas D. Rogers, The Deepest Wounds a Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).4

[2] Ibid, 16

[3] Ibid, 16

Notes on Kate Brown’s Plutopia

Kate Brown presents the first decisive account of the major plutonium disasters of the United States and the Soviet Union in “Plutopia : Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters.”  Drawing on interpretation gleaned from government records as well as oral testimonies Brown tells an astounding story of two nuclear power towns, Ozersk, Russia and Richland, Washington. What unfolds is a complex history of how American and Soviet leaders created what Brown calls “plutopias”—ideal communities for nuclear families in exchange for their cooperation with state control over bodies.

The residents of these nuclears towns were gainfully employed with extensive health monitoring and enjoyed an elevated standard of living compared with locales outside of their plutopian boundaries. Brown’s study enjoyed all the pleasures of consumer society, while nearby, migrants, prisoners, and soldiers were banned from plutopia–they lived in temporary “staging grounds” and often performed the most dangerous work at the plant. For the “plutopians” it seemed as if they were willing to concede the health surveillance over their bodies in exchange for the commodified treasures of their toxic locales. Brown’s study emphasizes the questions inherent in such a trade off as it related to residents of Ozersk while juxtaposing the rights of “plutopians” in Richland, Washington:

“At this writing, Ozersk remains in a state of incarceration, fenced and guarded. I wondered about these choices. Why did residents of these plutonium cities choose to give up their civil and political rights? Soviet citizens had no electoral politics, no independent media, but the residents of Richland lived in a thriving democracy. Why did the famed checks and balances fail to the extent that a calamity surpassing Chernobyl occurred in America’s heartland?”[1]

It is through telling the story of Plutopia that Kate Brown’s shows how “risk, was calibrated along the lines of class and affluence.”[2] From this revelation readers are introduced to a history of nuclear energy and its attendant effects on landscape and society.  Brown’s text explores racial and class dimensions as well while commenting on the repressive political tactics that kept the class elements of society in place. All these elements enliven our understanding of the power of corporate and state control of energy sources and the people slated to live and be surveilled within its exclusive dominions.


[1] Kate Brown, Plutopia: nuclear families, atomic cities, and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).4

[2] Ibid, 7

Currently Reading…

The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History synthesizes developments and resources in the field. This volume presents a survey of environmental history including an overview of significant topics and themes as well as a compendium of historical actors and policy…

Also reading Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South by the late Jack Temple Kirby. I stumbled upon this exciting work while mining the archive for information on Camp Manufacturing(a paper products corporation that extracted trees from the Great Dismal Swamp and other forested areas). Kirby’s intent is to “foster an understanding of the poetics, politics, and portions of the sciences within the human relationship to nature in the American south.”

I will post some notes on both texts within a week.

Notes on Slow Violence by Rob Nixon


Perhaps it is because of Rob Nixon’s background in environmental justice and the humanities that influenced him to explore what he terms slow violence through rethinking the political, imaginative and theoretical dimensions of this form of violence. Nixon defines slow violence as a “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight; a delayed destruction often dispersed across time and space.”[1]

“Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor” engages the representational, narrative, and strategic challenges posed by the invisibility of slow violence. Characterizing slow violence is the “long dyings”- staggered, dispensable casualties both human and ecological which carry the weight of trauma and degradation but lack the political salience needed to afford significant outrage.[2] Nixon wastes no time in providing the reader with an example of actions emblematic of slow violence, the quote preceding the introduction is a compelling, yet disturbing account by Lawrence Summers, former president of the World Bank advocating the dumping of toxic waste into countries in Africa considered “least developed.” Nixon points out that Summers advocating toxic waste dumping into certain countries in Africa and not invading with weapons of mass destruction ensure that Summers suggestion would not be considered a conventional form of violence.[3] Nixon explains the difficulty of amplifying the effects of slow violence are among the most “critical challenges of our time.”[4]

“Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor” takes on the challenge of amplifying the degrading effects of slow violence by highlighting the voices of writer/activists from around the world who engage a variety of discursive forms. A common thread among the writers Nixon engages are  lived experiences within or adjacent to corrosive transnational forces, antihuman conservation practices, neocolonial tourism, among others. Writers such a Wangari Maathi, Arundhati Roy, June Jordan, and Jamaica Kincaid give “imaginative definition to the issues at stake.”[5]

Nixon’s contribution to the field of environmental studies and justice are much needed. Synthesizing environmental degradation, political suppression of environmental justice, and diverse writers witnessing these things, “Slow Violence” opens up a new way to address environmental studies that seek to redress the wrongs of slow violence.



[1] Rob Nixon, Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).2

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Ibid, 6