Leech on McNeill and Vrtis, 'Mining North America: An Environmental History since 1522'

John Robert McNeill, George Vrtis, eds.
Brian Leech

John Robert McNeill, George Vrtis, eds. Mining North America: An Environmental History since 1522. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. xii + 443 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-27916-2; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-27917-9.

Reviewed by Brian Leech (Augustana College) Published on H-LatAm (June, 2018) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51122

With thirteen chapters, an introduction, and an afterword, Mining North America (un)covers a lot of ground. It also succeeds at its major task: describing the intertwined social and environmental consequences of mining in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. As the editors explain, mining has long been overlooked by environmental historians, but, in the last decade, it has actually become a growing, even exciting subfield. The publication of this collection signals just how central the topic of mining has (and should) become to our understanding of North American environmental history, while it points to new trends that will likely define the subfield in the future. Both specialists in mining history and those new to the topic will find this book worth digging into.

All of the book’s entries are of high quality—some are snippets, summaries, or extensions of major research projects that have already become monographs, while others are brand new, often provocative pieces of new projects. The editors have set up three major sections for the book. The first section introduces capitalism as a big driver for mining’s transformation of the environment. The next section is “Industrial Catalysts,” while the final section is titled “Health and Environmental Justice.”

Early chapters devote much time to evaluating the scope and scale of the environmental transformation wrought by mining. The opening chapters, which focus on the precious metals range in northern Mexico, are particularly good examples of this type of contribution. The first chapter, by Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, shows that mining regions are never truly exhausted. The Cerro de San Pedro in Mexico, for instance, has undergone successive mining regimes, each one more productive than the last. Technology and capitalist intensification meant increasingly dramatic change to the area’s “mining ecology” (p. 21). The second chapter, by Antonio Avalos-Lozano and Miguel Aguilar-Robledo, details the deforestation, erosion, and human health hazards created by Mexican silver mining over the longue durée. Another chapter in this vein is by editor George Vrtis. His chapter, which is the first in the “Industrial Catalysts” section, suggests that the scale of Rocky Mountain mining in Colorado eventually led to early conservation impulses. In the face of mining-induced devastation, residents started to question the supposed superabundance of resources.

The next two chapters focus on miners’ bodies and industrial dangers. A great entry by Robert N. Chester III explains that the particular nature of the underground in Nevada’s Comstock Lode led to disasters. To solve these problems, mine owners created capital-intensive corporations and more sophisticated technological systems. A chapter by Thomas G. Andrews then argues that Colorado miners’ reaction to coal mine explosions underground in 1910 led to increasing worker solidarity above ground and a movement to create new safety regulations.

The final chapters about “industrial catalysts” are essays by Jeffrey T. Manuel, who covers mass mining technology in Minnesota, and Timothy James LeCain. LeCain provides the most inventive contribution to the collection. Treating Montana’s Deer Lodge Valley as its own material energy system, LeCain suggests that longhorn cattle served as energy concentrators, while copper smelters became energy dispersers. The entropic disorder caused by mining disrupted the valley’s material energy system, which, in turn led to social conflict. The mining company, which derived its social power from processing minerals, came directly in conflict with ranchers, whose social power came from their cattle.  

The last section of the book focuses on environmental justice. It contains two strong chapters on uranium mining, including one by Eric Mogren about uranium mines, mills, and tailings in the US. Two chapters then cover the long-lasting effects of mine pollution on local communities in Canada. John Sandlos and Arn Keeling contribute a chapter here about Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and the arsenic pollution now facing the Yellowstone Dene First Nation peoples. The authors label the gold mines and their owners agents of “industrial colonization” (p. 282). Two later chapters connect past and present environmental concerns, with Nancy Langston covering contested claims about mining risks in the Lake Superior basin and Steven M. Hoffman detailing fears about Alberta’s tar sands development.

The final chapter in the book is a great description by Jessica van Horssen of company/community relations in the town of Asbestos, Quebec, and the very poisonous (and often hidden) results of the product mined there. Although van Horssen provides the last chapter, Andrew Isenberg gets the last word. His afterword compares the often-sanitized popular view of mining with its commonly deleterious effects.

As with similar collections, the book’s struggles have to do with chronological and geographical balance. While labeled a history “since 1522,” the book only features two chapters that cover mining before the mid-nineteenth century in any detail, although there is good reason to emphasize the later era as the power of industrial mining dramatically altered the continent more than earlier enterprises. Geographical balance is more of a weakness. The first section only contains two chapters and both are the sole chapters in the book about Mexican mining. The next section—“Industrial Catalysts”—contains five sophisticated chapters, but they all focus on the US. There are six chapters in the final section, but this section is actually Canada-centric, with three entries on Canada, two on the US, and one comparing the US and Canada.

There is only one fully comparative chapter—in which Robynne Mellor compares Canada’s uranium mining policy with that of the US (spoiler alert: it was bad in both places). As the editors for Mining North America note, most mining history has been written within a national context. Mellor’s chapter suggests that comparative work will surely be an important way to make mining history as international as the industry itself. Other important directions for new scholarship abound; certainly there are plenty of additional stories to tell about mining’s contribution to colonial and neocolonial relations, for instance, while the connections between material power and social power surely deserve more attention too.

Because of these diverse approaches, Mining North America will prove an effective resource for those who want to better understand environmental change on a continental scale.

Citation: Brian Leech. Review of McNeill, John Robert; Vrtis, George, eds., Mining North America: An Environmental History since 1522. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51122

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