Brute Force Technology my last book review sourced from the course I’m taking on environmental history, I hinted that some of the authors we read were very keen to list our failures of the past and quantify the damage we’ve done. Paul R. Josephson, in his Industrialized Nature, does just this, seeking to demonstrate how large-scale resource management systems almost always ensure environmental degradation and long-term losses in different ways. Dubbing these systems “brute force technologies,” Josephson studies how they were employed by varied combinations of diverse political systems, social groups, and economic goals on different types of raw materials in several countries. All led to similarly disastrous results for the ecosystems in question, but, the author argues, man’s hubris is strong enough to convince political and scientific spheres that further innovation can solve problems and maintain profitable advances in the future. While describing the ecological damage caused by brute force technologies, Josephson makes sure to include social stresses inflicted upon local communities, such as native tribes and other underrepresented groups directly affected by the overwhelmingly negative changes.

Covering several countries (Brazil, Norway, the US, and the former USSR) and different fields of management (primarily hydroelectricity, aquaculture, and forestry), Industrialized Nature contains accounts of the apathy, ineptitude and greed seemingly inherent in many scientific and political projects purportedly put in motion to meliorate the public good while enhancing human control over nature. While Johnson is wary of taking sides, it seems that the former Soviet Union, not only for its size but also due to its leadership, exemplifies the most rigorous and failed undertakings of industrializing the natural environment in all three types of resource he explores. Stalin in particular is frequently cited as the source of unwise or amoral management decisions, from the “war on nature” to that on “primitivism,” and the massive propaganda and policing system he built allowed for the effective stifling of any dissenting voice regarding projects to dam a river multiple times or ignore potential effects of industrial waste; water pollution became one of the greatest problems in Siberia and elsewhere for both human and ichthyoid (fish) populations.

But the steel fist of socialism was clearly not the only catalyst of brute force technology: the United States’ various government and scientific bodies developed—often ahead of the Soviets’—many of the exact same problems as their cold war enemies, most likely because the incentives of capitalism were just as driving as the fears used in Soviet communism when it came to resource extraction. One of the problems inherent in all the different case studies Josephson provides is that of perceived inexhaustibility of the resource being exploited (e.g. white pines or cod); another significant factor is the influence of an urban ethos in the design and purpose of the projects: the Grand Coulee Dam was erected not truly for the miles of potato fields in arid lands, but for the large human populations that would or could rely on the significant sources of food.

Douglas Weiner, a seminal environmental historian, writes that, “Every environmental story is a story about power.” Josephson’s text is certainly saturated with this sentiment. The very phrase he coins to refer to the mechanism that has been transforming the natural world evokes the image of a struggle for control, a massive expenditure of energy in an attempt to dominate something entirely. The problem, as Josephson tries to show the reader, is that humans’ insatiable need for power—in both the sense of energy and control—will be the environment’s demise, and thus our own.

3 thoughts on “Brute Force Technology

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