Richard White’s Organic Machine

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Every summer evening, a panorama of a canyon is projected on the façade of the Grand Coulee Dam. The canyon still exists directly behind the wall, the lasers simply outline what the dam has submerged. This strange nightly mashup of light, concrete, water, and drowned rock is a microcosm of The Organic Machine’s driving argument—nature and humans are inextricably intertwined. There is no clear line separating ‘the environment’ from us. White’s remarkably concise history of the Columbia River Basin proposes the metaphor of an integrated ‘organic machine’ in place of the long-dominant nature-humanity binary. In White’s narrative, the Columbia was not conquered, the river was not raped; instead a wide range of actors—including the river, society, and radioactive isotopes—have reconfigured the basin into a Franken-system only partially controlled by humans.

White’s language of machinery reflects his persistent interest in work as the medium through which we relate to the world.  “It is our work,” White declares, “that ultimately links us, for better or worse, to nature.” The turn to work allows White to use energy as a controlling concept linking a wide-ranging analysis of water, fish, hydroelectric, atomic, and disease ‘geographies’ within the basin over the past two centuries. Each of these geographies of energy cut across conventional human-nature divides, revealing far more extensive, entangled systems. Salmon, for example, historically worked a particularly transgressive energy map. Fattened by their long-distance venture into the solar-enriched food system of the Pacific, adult salmon fed a string of seasonally large human settlements built along key bottlenecks in the fishes’ return migration route. Their foundational role in the diet and migratory rhythms of human populations consequently gave salmon a central place in indigenous ritual and social geographies. Even as the material basis of this geography dried up with the damming of the salmon’s migration route, the symbolic power of the fish persisted with salmon taking on a renewed second life as a defining regional emblem. White’s salmon ‘energy map’ thus reveals a web connecting fish fat to the sun, gender roles, and regional identity. Where exactly, he asks, is the line between nature and society in this picture?

White’s emphasis on work also allows him to highlight what he sees as modernity’s aversion to it. American capitalism sought to reduce human labor and, as exemplified by Emerson, approached nature as a willing enabler of this endeavor. Nineteenth century developments in the Columbia Basin—including fish canneries, steamboats, and railways—all were driven by the promise of a new world of more bounty from less work. The drive for a “liberation from labor” only intensified with the subsequent construction of a vast complex of hydro-structures throughout the basin. For a few brief decades, the ‘neotechnic’ allure of clean and limitless electricity was tied to enabling a broader dream of increased rural independence, decentralization, and freedom from toil. Alas, the accumulative realities of capitalism overcame any pretensions to social reengineering. New electricity went largely to concentrated industry, the new irrigation system watered consolidated agribusinesses. For White, the root of this failure lies in modernity’s attempt to abstract and escape from daily labor in the world. This fundamentally changed humans’ relation to the river and resulted, not in a dominance of nature, but a “failed marriage”.

White traces the contours and consequences of this failed relationship with a set of final, disturbing portraits of the river’s post-war atomic and salmon-conservation industries. Both are characterized by a level of frantic management White sees as tell-tale markers of a machine beyond our control. The life of modern salmon, for example, is increasingly bizarre. Harvested by knife, hatched in a holding pond, trucked and barged around dozens of concrete dams—‘wild’ Columbia salmon are the result of a billion-dollar conservation effort with a bleak future.

One could perhaps quibble with the manner in which the material agency of the river gradually recedes in White’s narrative. For all the early discussion of the power and ‘work’ of the river, White’s focus often suggests it is mostly other humans that entangle each other.  The dams, for example, failed their ‘neotechnic’ promise, in White’s analysis, not because of the stubbornness of the river system, but because of broader capitalist structures and agendas. This is more a matter of chosen narrative focus than underlying logic. The Organic Machine is still a generational study full of prescient insight. White’s spotlight on work helps highlight contemporary western environmentalism’s simplistic conservation agenda as well as its white-collar distance from the material impact of its members’ work. Just like the nightly laser projection of a canyon on a reservoir façade, this slender little book continues to push us to complicate our understanding of nature and human artifice.

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This short article was part of a larger project where I was tasked with a writing a set of book reviews to introduce general audiences to some important works published by an environmentally-focused press. The client wanted reviews that spoke to both subject specialists and lay enthusiasts. Included here is my review of a classic study of the Columbia River Basin.

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