Richard White

The Organic Machine

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The Organic Machine Summary

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Richard White’s local environmental history, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, focuses on the eponymous river, making one of the strongest cases for the reality of environmental degradation in North America, touching on its climatological, geological, biological, and anthropological aspects. White contends that the state of the Columbia River is quintessential in climate change discourse because it offers a case where a region has collapsed systemically. Beginning with unsustainable corporate overfishing, the construction of dams, and the human pollution of the river, the scarcity of its famous salmon increased, depriving the Native communities on its banks of a vital resource. Further, the United States Government systematically marginalized the voices of these local communities to further its politicized imperatives for the region. White’s book is a survey of both the natural history of this wide swath of land, and a critique of the unflagging “progress” of advanced civilizations and technologies with regard to environmental change.

In the introduction, White argues that natural history and human history are entangled in a perpetual, co-dependent relationship. These ties have been made virtually irreversible by human societies’ logic of commodification and overconsumption pursued under the umbrellas of capitalism writ large, and more recently, of neoliberalism. Further, he asserts that the histories of humans and of their natural world have actually never been separable under any effective forms of analysis. He compares his view to the arguments of two environmental philosophers, Lewis Mumford and Rent Dubos. These men believed that all inquiry into environmental systems must take into consideration the bond between man and nature.

White elaborates this thesis into the subject of the Columbia River, stating that he conceives of it as an “organic machine.” He unpacks this claim, arguing that the “organic machine” signifies natural, inalienable purpose, and can exist freely, in an abstract way, from human intervention. He theorizes that the river, or any other organic machine, aspires in its very nature to move energy in an optimal, life-affirming way through the world. He suggests that human involvement taxes its machinations, polluting it in ways other than the strictly chemical, which scientists do not yet grasp.

In expounding on his thesis about energy with respect to the Columbia River, White notably departs from historical writings on the landform that focus on its obvious and tragic degradation. Instead, he looks at it as a literal and metaphorical system and store of energy. He explains the river’s energy dynamics from within the domain of physics, showing how the imposition of dams has interrupted the natural, continuous flow of kinetic energy and displaced it into stores of potential energy for human use. He argues that not only this river, but also most major water systems in the northern and western regions of the United States, are already being utilized for human energy. He suggests that the siphoning of energy from these systems has contributed to a number of fraught human relationships, starting more than 150 years ago. Many of these originated with early white colonists who traveled west and began feuds with Native peoples. White takes care to acknowledge the social and political “energies” that emerged out of the physical passage down the river as whites’ interactions with Natives increased. As the river was further populated and developed, it became reimagined, not as a precious natural resource, but as a boundless source of energy in the capitalist philosophical vein. White notes that during its most threatened moments, the river’s energy has remained ironically neutral, powering the Native’s canoe just as it powers the hydroelectric dam giving power to his oppressors.

Despite his scathing critique of the misuse of the Columbia River, White ends on an optimistic note. Rather than revisit the old adage about technological and industrial evolution’s division of man from nature, he suggests that the capacity for leisure that these luxuries enabled has allowed him to newly reflect on the environment’s intrinsic value. Extolling man’s ability to feel connection, even compassion, for natural systems, White depicts his relationship with nature not as deterministically exploitative and grim, but rather as synergistic. The Organic Machine attempts to reunite the (now overly sterilized) concept of the “economy” with the phenomena of life processes and human relations.