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A promising vision but conventional in execution
on July 2, 2007
White wants this book to represent a new approach to ecological history, one built not around humans or the environment, but about relationships - - between humans and the river, between salmon and the river, between humans and salmon, and so forth. To focus on relationships, he develops themes of energy and work.
It's a good idea, but he doesn't pull it off. The first half of the book starts out promisingly enough, telling an ecological story in which humans appear but are not the only actors. White builds the narrative around the concepts of work and energy. The river can do work through mills and dams, humans work, salmon move energy from ocean upstream to bears and eagles, and so forth. Human relationships with the river's energy have changed from Native Americans to European settlers and then through industrialization.
Unfortunately, White is too much a historian to be able to do this right. Telling a story about work would be very interesting, but that involves getting the data and making some calculations - - for example, how much energy do salmon move upstream, how much potential energy lies in the river downstream, how much of the energy do humans appropriate, and how much energy do humans apply? How has the human-river relationship transformed the energy system of the Columbia? White is simply not equipped to follow through on his own ideas, and remains too limited by standard historical methods and narrative structures.
These limitations become particularly visible by the second half of the book. Beginning with the 1930s, White tells the same story as other historians, about the New Deal and dams, about World War II and nuclear power, about the death of salmon runs. He discusses political controversies, such as WPPSS scandal, even when they don't work in the narrative. All too quickly, then, White's narrative has become much more conventional.
In short, White is too much the historian to be able to execute his own vision for this work. Historians read documents in archives, and clearly White has done a lot of this. In that sense, he knows his stuff. But to write a new kind of narrative really requires someone with the eye of a natural scientist, someone who can estimate the amount of energy the rivers does as it flows to the sea, the amount of energy the salmon bring up from the ocean, the amount of energy humans - - and bears, and eagles, and everyone else - - siphon off from the ocean. While White understands basic ecological relationships, he lacks an ecologist's deeper understanding of multiple relationships, feedback systems, and energy cycling. A coauthor would probably have served this project very well.