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The Illusory Boundary

Environment and Technology in History
Edited by Martin Reuss and Stephen H. Cutcliffe

BUY Cloth · 328 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813929880 · $65.00 · Sep 2010
BUY Paper · 328 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813929897 · $32.50 · Sep 2010
BUY Ebook · 328 pp. · ISBN 9780813930534 · $32.50 · Sep 2010

The view of nature and technology inhabiting totally different, even opposite, spheres persists across time and cultures. Most people would consider an English countryside or a Louisiana bayou to be "natural," though each is to an extent the product of technology. Pollution, widely thought to be a purely man-made phenomenon, results partly from natural processes. All around us, things from the natural world are brought into the human world. At what point do we consider them part of culture rather than nature? And does such a distinction illuminate our world or obscure its workings?

This compelling new book challenges the view that a clear and unwavering boundary exists between nature and technology. Rejecting this dichotomy, the contributors show how the history of each can be united in a constantly shifting panorama where definitions of "nature" and "technology" alter and overlap.

In addition to recognizing the artificial divide between these two concepts, the essays in this book demonstrate how such thinking may affect societies’ ability to survive and prosper. The answers and ideas are as numerous as the landscapes they consider, for there is no single path toward a more harmonious vision of technology and nature. Technologies that work in one place may not in another. Nature that is preserved in one community might become the raw material of technological progress somewhere else. Add to this the fact that the natural world and technology are not passive players, but are profoundly involved in cultural construction. Understanding such dynamics not only reveals a new historical complexity; it prepares us for coping with many of the most difficult and pressing social issues facing us today.


Peter Coates * Craig E. Colten * Stephen H. Cutcliffe * Hugh S. Gorman * Betsy Mendelsohn * Joy Parr * Peter C. Perdue * Sara B. Pritchard * Martin Reuss * William D. Rowley * Edmund Russell * Joel A. Tarr * Ann Vileisis * James C. Williams * Thomas Zeller


An exciting collection of essays elucidating the ‘Envirotech’ approach to history. This important work not only challenges a traditional nature-technology dualism but stakes new intellectual ground. It demonstrates the meaning of ‘Envirotech’ through essays that address matters of historical interest and debate—industrialization, the American West, cities, food, agriculture, science. This volume is an original, substantial, and significant accomplishment.

Ann N. Greene, University of Pennsylvania, author of Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America

About the Author(s): 

Martin Reuss served as Senior Historian, Water Resources, in the Office of History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for nearly twenty-five years. He is the author of Designing the Bayous: The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800–1995. Stephen H. Cutcliffe is Chair of the Department of History at Lehigh University and the author of Ideas, Machines, and Values: An Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society Studies.

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