Roundtable: Enclosing Water

In Man and Nature, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s envoy to Italy George Perkins Marsh warned his readers against repeating the mistakes of southern Europeans.  Over centuries, he said, they had cut down too many trees and allowed their rivers to erode the best soil. The most beautiful and productive parts of the Roman Empire had come to ruin, “no longer capable of affording sustenance to civilized man.” Humans were to blame for these changes, in Marsh’s view, because nature, left undisturbed, “so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form.”[1]

As Marsh and his contemporaries lamented the lost natural wealth of the land, environmental changes still were taking place in Italy. Areas like the Liri River Valley became drivers of industrialization.  Some called the region the “Manchester of the Two Sicilies.” In factories along the river, machines benefited from a power that neither humans nor animals could produce.  The enclosures of land and water as private property during that era seemed to mark a contrast with centuries of feudal carelessness and held great promise not only in financial, but also natural, wealth.  After all, if Italy was backward because of wastefulness and longstanding feudal traditions, some reasoned, wouldn’t the relatively new political economy of private property restore order where there was chaos?

In Enclosing Water, Stefania Barca presents an environmental history of the Industrial Revolution, through the lens of the Liri River Valley. She takes on conventional views about environmental degradation and suggests that new instruments of controlling water in the nineteenth century reconfigured nature and exposed people to increased risk. The book won the 2011 Turku Prize from the European Society for Environmental History.

I asked Stéphane Castonguay to comment on Enclosing Water because he also has devoted scholarly attention to the causes and impacts of river flooding.  In his study of the St. Francis River in Quebec, he shows how nineteenth-century rapid industrialization and intensification of agriculture modified the flow of water, and dramatically increased the risks of disasters such as floods. When floods were particularly severe, he has claimed, economic and political elites portrayed them as natural disasters.  Castonguay has suggested that consciousness of vulnerability made it likely that future disasters would be perceived as natural occurrences.  In other work he has shown how government sponsorship of science contributed to environmental transformation, as scientists helped to bring a large portion of Canada’s rural areas into regimes of state management.[2]

Charles-François Mathis is a specialist on the emergence of environmental thought in nineteenth-century England, and has written on the links between land practices and broader intellectual trends.  In his study of the 1894 creation of the National Trust, he explores how the forces of industrialization evolved alongside renewed appreciation for natural landscapes.  His work reveals how influential figures such as the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) blended patriotism with aesthetic and spiritual themes, creating a sentimental conception about the natural world that would inform nature protection well into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His book on the English countryside amidst industrialization explores this further, showing how land enclosures threatened urbanites’ access to the countryside.[3]

Marcus Hall has written on environmental rehabilitation and impacts in a variety of contexts, especially North America and Europe.  In Earth Repair, Hall showcases the Piedmont region of Italy, and he notes how cultural perspectives shaped responses to challenges, even in the nineteenth century.  For example, while Americans were blaming damage on human activities such as mining and logging, Italians tended to see natural events such as floods and avalanches as the crucial agents of change.  Hall’s essay “Environmental Imperialism in Sardinia” analyzes the twentieth-century pressures on the Italian people and countryside from those who hoped to solve their problems, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, a philanthropic organization whose International Health Division supported widespread spraying of DDT to control malaria.[4]

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[1] George P. Marsh, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York: Scribner, 1864). 5, 27.

[2] Stéphane Castonguay, “The Production of Flood as Natural Catastrophe: Extreme Events and the Construction of Vulnerability in the Drainage Basin of the St. Francis River (Quebec), Mid-Nineteenth to Mid-Twentieth Century,” Environmental History 12 (2007), 820-844. Stéphane Castonguay, Protections des Cultures, Construction de la Nature: Agriculture, Foresterie et Entomologie au Canada, 1884-1959 (Sillery, Quebec: Septentrion, 2004).

[3] Charles-François Mathis, “De Wordsworth au National Trust: La Naissance d’une Conception Sentimentale de l’Environnement,” Histoire, Économie et Société 28:4 (2009), 51-68. Charles-François Mathis, In Nature We Trust: Les Paysages Anglais à l’Ère Industrielle (Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2010).

[4] Marcus Hall, Earth Repair: A Transatlantic History of Environmental Restoration (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005). Marcus Hall, “Environmental Imperialism in Sardinia: Pesticides and Politics in the Struggle Against Malaria,” in Marco Armerio and Marcus Hall, eds., Nature and History in Modern Italy (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010), 70-88.

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