Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England
Theodore Steinberg, 1991

This book began as Ted Steinberg’s dissertation. His advisors were David Hackett Fischer, Morton J. Horwitz, and Donald Worster. Steinberg’s thesis built directly on Horwitz’s in
The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860, with the additional argument that “industrial capitalism is not only an economic system, but a system of ecological relations as well.” This claim went beyond the obvious (but important) recognition that environment constrains social and economic choices, towards a more subtle discussion of how “the natural world came to represent new sources of energy and raw materials…perceived more and more as a set of inputs.” Steinberg mentioned William Cronon and Carolyn Merchant in this context, but the thrust of his argument developed Horwitz’s theme of “an instrumental conception” of both resources and “law that sanctioned the maximization of economic growth.” A critical issue in Horwitz, which Steinberg picked up, was that this sneaky institutionalization of common law and attitudes toward ownership and the public and private sectors that sprang from it had profound distributional consequences. So the point was not only that over time it became “commonly assumed, even expected, that water should be tapped, controlled, and dominated in the name of progress,” but that the rewards of this control legitimately belonged to the few, to the exclusion of the many.

Steinberg’s narrative of the beginning of textile milling in Massachusetts called attention not only to the contested nature of all the changes the mills tried to make to the flow and control of rivers like the Charles, but also to how much these changes owed not to free competition in the market, but to government interference through the courts. Despite the regular complaints of area farmers, by 1795 people in the Charles River valley believed “their natural rights stolen from them, and their best property at the mercy of one or two millers, still the lucky favorites & likely to remain, so long as the rage for Factory at every place, whether others sink or swim, continues the rage of Government.” Along the way, Steinberg’s story brushed up against several interesting people (Nathaniel Ames, Robert Owen, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens), whose personal reactions to what they saw in the Charles and Merrimack valleys would have added an interesting dimension to the account, had he included them.

Steinberg continued the story with accounts of the Boston Associates’ campaign to control Lake Winnepissiogee, the destruction of fisheries and the capitalists’ attempt to reintroduce and manage what had formerly been considered a common good, and the problem of industrial and urban pollution in the rivers controlled by the industrialists. Each of these topics have been expanded by others, along the lines Steinberg suggested. The only flaw in the book, for me, was the Thoreau-ian wrapper Steinberg added at the beginning and end. Clearly Henry David Thoreau was horrified by what he saw when he traveled on the rivers, but I don’t think Steinberg made a strong case that Thoreau represented or proposed any type of viable alternative. At the end of the book, Steinberg admitted that “greater command over…nature in general, had its positive points.” However, he concluded, “this aggressive, manipulative posture toward the natural world [was] a problem that penetrates to the core of modern American culture.” This conclusion stepped beyond the scope of the book, and although Steinberg may have felt that it was implied by his approach, it did not strike me as a natural end to the story and required either a leap of faith or a prior agreement and understanding that made the book’s very valuable argument somewhat irrelevant.