The winner of the 2008 Envirotech Prize for the best article examining the relationships between technology and the environment is Paul S. Sutter’s “Nature’s Agents or Agents of Empire? Entomological Workers and Environmental Change during the Construction of the Panama Canal.” (Isis, 2007, 98: 724-754.) Sutter offers a path breaking analysis of the interplay between the physical environment, technological manipulation of nature, and scientific understandings of both natural and human-induced change. The Americans’ conceptualization of the tropical Panama environment and its inhabitants, Sutter argues, interacted with and at times conflicted with their practical experience of how mosquito vectors worked. Through their research on mosquitoes, scientists and sanitary engineers gradually came to realize that human-induced changes from the construction of the canal—like spoils piles and drainage ditches—were a key cause of malarial outbreaks. However, such complex environmental insights and the corresponding attempts to implement technological solutions often contradicted conventional imperial ideologies that emphasized the supposed racial and cultural superiority of the American people. Noting that, “material environmental influence can be seen quite clearly at the points of tension between ideological predisposition and empirical observation,” Sutter’s approach also offers a compelling means for analyzing the material functions of historical environments without unduly privileging contemporary scientific beliefs. Drawing on abundant new primary research and demonstrating great theoretical and historiographical sophistication, “Nature’s Agents or Agents of Empire?” powerfully suggests the importance of technological and environmental factors in understanding the role of race and imperialism in twentieth century American history.
The breadth and depth of the submissions for the 2008 Envirotech Article Prize competition was incredibly impressive. The committee read twenty-five articles published between January 2006 and June 2008 for the prize. The shear number of recent publications in the emerging field of envirotech shows just how far the field has come in the past few years.
The breadth of the articles was most impressive. Articles were published not only in the journals specializing in environmental and technological history such as Environmental History, Environment and History, and Technology and Culture, but also in journals specializing in other fields, including the history of science, environmental policy, economic history, and American studies, and as chapters in edited book collections. Considering the broad range of submission, we cannot discuss each article, but the committee wanted to mention some of the broader themes and trends apparent in recent work in the field.
The submissions revealed how the theoretical frameworks of envirotech inquiries have continued to grow. William Rollins’ piece, “Reflections on a Spare Tire: SUVs and Postmodern Environmental Consciousness,” Environmental History, 2006, 11: 684-723, employs a cultural analysis to explore the relationship between the rise of the SUV and environmental thought. Besides being occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, Rollins’ article offers some very interesting theoretical musings about modernist and post-modernist transportation systems. Several articles, including Sutter’s prize winner and Tsegaye Habte Nega, “Saving Wild Rice: The Rise and Fall of the Nett Lake Dam,” Environment and History 14 (2008): 5-39, explicitly employed Science, Technology & Society (STS) methodologies such as Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to understand how actors and their positions influenced environmental and technological outcomes. Marionne Cronin, “Northern Visions: Aerial Surveying and the Canadian Mining Industry, 1919-1928” (Technology and Culture 2007, 48: 303-330) shows how a well-known history of technology framework – technological styles – can be reanalyzed and assessed by including geography and geology as forces. These articles show an increasing incorporation of frameworks from various historical disciplines into envirotech, strengthening the methodological toolkit considerably.
Subject matter was extremely wide-ranging from medieval water control to nineteenth-century scientific surveys to modern sustainable development, but environmental justice emerged as a key area of inquiry for the envirotech junction. In Nancy Langston’s article, “The Retreat from Precaution: Regulating Diethylstilbestrol (DES), Endocrine Disruptors, and Environmental Health” (Environmental History 2008, 13: 41-65), we see how a conjuncture of political, scientific, and conceptual factors allowed the introduction of DES as a medical treatment and the deplorable environmental consequences. Likewise, Julie Sze framed her contribution on DES, “Boundaries and Border Wars: DES, Technology, and Environmental Justice” (American Quarterly 2006, 58: 791-814) as a study of “technologically polluted bodies,” building on Donna Haraway’s cyborg concept. Other environmental justice pieces included David Torres-Rouff, “Water Use, Ethnic Conflict and Infrastructure in Nineteenth-Century Los Angeles” (Pacific Historical Review 2006, 75: 119-140), Andrew Jenks, “Model City USA: The Environmental Cost of Victory in World War II and the Cold War” (Environmental History 2007, 12: 552-77), and Matthew Gandy, “Landscapes of Disaster: Water, Modernity, and Urban Fragmentation in Mumbai” (Environment and Planning A 2008, 40: 108 – 130).
The 2008 Envirotech Prize submissions show how illuminating including both technology and the environment in our historical stories can be. We hope scholars will continue to explore this fruitful area and make our award-winner in 2010 even more difficult to select.