Boston Environmental History Seminar: Weather, Food, and Industrialization

Jason L. Newton's picture

Boston Environmental History Seminar

The Boston Environmental History Seminar is an occasion for scholars as well as interested members of the public to discuss aspects of American environmental history from prehistory to the present day. Presenters come from a variety of disciplines including history, urban planning, and environmental management. Six to eight sessions take place annually during the academic year, and most focus on works in progress.

Seminar meetings revolve around the discussion of a precirculated paper. Sessions open with remarks from the essayist and an assigned commentator, after which the discussion is opened to the floor. After each session, the Society serves a light buffet supper.


14 March 2017 Tuesday, 5:15PM - 7:30PM

The Winter Workscape: Weather and the Meaning of Industrial Capitalism in the Northern Forest, 1850-1950

Jason L. Newton, Syracuse University

Comment: Richard W. Judd, University of Maine

This paper is about snow, ice, baked beans, and lumberjacks. Through these subjects I challenge current understandings of the development of industrial capitalism in America. Some historians conceive of industrialization as the process whereby muscle, water, and wind power were replaced by fossil fuels as the primary motive power for production, thus increasing the efficiency and scale of economies. My research challenges whether the transition to economies based on fossil fuels was a necessary characteristic of industrialization. Using the history of the lumber industry in the American northeast as a case study, this paper argues that as rural America industrialized, the built environment and the bodies of workers and animals became parts of nature, and these natural forces were mobilized to increase the scale and efficiency of production.

The setting of this study is the depleted resource base of the forest of the Northeast from 1850 to 1950. In this part of America, where forests were largely second or third growth, logging operators needed to open new "frontiers" of value to render profit from less valuable forests. They did this by unlocking new "Cheap Natures" in the power of the weather, and the bodies of men and animals. Using historical weather data from the National Centers for Environmental Information, as well as business records from logging operations of various scales across New England and New York, I show how industrial logging operators used the winter weather, simple machines, and muscle power alone to increase the scale of production.

My findings support the recent work of Jason W. Moore, who argues that the only real necessity for the development of capitalism, and perhaps even industrialization, was the separation of nature from society, mixed with a willingness on the part of society to exploit nature for the endless accumulation of capital. This analysis will also test the limits of Moore's thesis by showing non-violent ways the "Cheap Nature" was utilized to scale up production.


RSVP Required

To assist us in our planning, an RSVP is required. All are welcome to attend the sessions at no charge. You should, however, subscribe to the series if you wish to obtain advance copies of the papers that will be discussed (the Biography Seminar does not pre-circulate papers). The modest subscription fee for the series also underwrites the supper or reception that accompanies each program.

To RSVP: Email or phone 617-646-0568. Please give your name, the name of the seminar you will attend, and the names of your guests. Questions? Phone Kate Viens, Research Coordinator, at 617-646-0568 or email