Engineering Nature: Water, Development, and the Global Spread of American Environmental Expertise. University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
By Jessica B. Teisch
Focusing on globalization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jessica Teisch examines the processes by which American water and mining engineers who rose to prominence during and after the California Gold Rush of 1849 exported the United States’ growing technical and environmental knowledge and associated social and political institutions. In the frontiers of Australia, South Africa, Hawaii, and Palestine–semiarid regions that shared a need for water to support growing populations and economies–California water engineers applied their expertise in irrigation and mining projects on behalf of foreign governments and business interests.
Engineering Nature explores how controlling the vagaries of nature abroad required more than the export of blueprints for dams, canals, or mines; it also entailed the problematic transfer of the new technology’s sociopolitical context. Water engineers confronted unforeseen variables in each region as they worked to implement their visions of agrarian settlement and industrial growth, including the role of the market, government institutions, property rights, indigenous peoples, labor, and, not last, the environment. Teisch argues that by examining the successes and failures of various projects as American influence spread, we can see the complex role of globalization at work, often with incredibly disproportionate results.
Reviews of Engineering Nature
“Beautifully written, deeply researched, and shrewdly argued, Engineering Nature is a model study of the fraught relationship between water and power, between the technocratic impulse and social reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Teisch’s superb, compelling book internationalizes a subject that long has needed a global perspective.”
–Char Miller, W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis, Pomona College
“Engineering Nature is the first in-depth study of the California engineers who were instrumental in shaping the contours of water politics and technology worldwide. Teisch’s excellent and engaging research will make a deep, significant impact on a wide variety of interrelated fields including environmental history, historical geography, the history of science and technology, economic history, and California history.”
–Mark Cioc, University of California, Santa Cruz, and editor, Environmental History journal
“This is a readable, even fascinating, history. . . . There are lessons here for how engineering can and cannot be used to implement social change. Highly recommended. All levels of readership.”
“Not only does Engineering Nature help us to situate “progress,” identifying its ideological foundations, it also allows us to understand how expertise contributed to globalization.”
“Teisch’s book resounds for historians and concerned global citizens alike. . . . Engineering Nature provides an opportunity to learn from both the successes and the failures of the past–particularly at the confluence of natural resources, technological prowess, and economic promise.”
—Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences
“An intriguing and balanced narrative about one of the more problematical eras of environmental history. . . . Teisch has created one of those relatively rare books that has plenty to offer those of us with a long lineage in the area of environmental history but that is also accessible to readers beginning their explorations in the field.”
—Journal of American History
Click here for the New Books in Science, Technology, and Society (NBSTS) Podcast Interview conducted by Patrick Slaney on June 15, 2012.