Although the French naming of lac Supérieur referred to its “upper” location in the Great Lakes chain, it is an appropriate appellation given the enormous size of this inland sea. Lake Superior can swallow all the other Great Lakes whole and then go back for additional helpings of Erie. Yet neither Lake Superior, nor the other constituent parts of the world’s largest freshwater system, has received much attention from North American environmental historians. Nancy Langston’s excellent Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World will go a long way toward rectifying this blind spot. This massive waterbody is both in the heart of the continent and far removed from major urban centers. Lake Superior is considered a recreational playground, but this apparent wildness masks a long toxic history, one of the central paradoxes that Langston engages in this book. It opens with an ecological background, followed by a chapter on lumbering that spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Langston devotes most of the book to pollutants since World War II. A discussion of the synthetic chemical revolution in the Great Acceleration sets the stage for the focus of the later chapters: chemical changes to resource extraction—pulp and paper, mining—and the attendant environmental impacts. Water scarcity, rather than abundance, has been a disproportionate focus of US water historians. But notions of abundance are key to Langston’s story, for in the past it was assumed that Lake Superior’s size meant that the “solution to pollution is dilution.” Although such lines are often attributed to industrial apologists, Langston iconoclastically contends that this principle, along with “assimilative capacity,” in fact reveals an early understanding of natural processes and resiliency. Granted, industrial claims about the lake eventually became disingenuous, since after a few decades into the twentieth century the ability of these waters to absorb and deal with pollution had been circumscribed because of cumulative impacts and the pernicious nature of new synthetic contaminants. By the 1960s, Lake Superior and its environs were at a tipping point—and apparently headed in the wrong direction. But since then there have been some notable recoveries, as Langston amply demonstrates,although we should not forget that these are partial, contingent, and vulnerable. In this study of “gichi-gami”—the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior—one of the many strengths is the foregrounding of Native issues. The author effortlessly crosses multiple borders, treating Canada as an equal actor rather than a blank space on the other side of an artificial line. The author’s passion for this place jumps off the pages. As noted in the preface, Langston lives and teaches on the shores of Lake Superior. The resulting place-based insights, however, do not result in an insular book, for the author repeatedly illuminates the local-global interface including processes such as toxin migration in the atmosphere. Langston does not restrict herself to the interplay between water, land, and atmosphere, but extends to the bodies of humans and other organisms, such as fish. The book foregrounds the agency of ecologies and nonhuman forces in coproducing human history, demonstrating why materialist approaches to environmental history are among the most exciting future avenues for environmental history. Langston expertly synthesizes historical and scientific evidence, building on her own path-breaking work on toxins and endocrine disruptors, as well as Theo Colborn’s Our Stolen Future (which was based on research in the Great Lakes). One of the take-home messages is that Lake Superior is resilient. Indeed, this book provides a template for writing the history of resilience and changing ecosystems. But there are limits: the recovery of Lake Superior was only accomplished with hard work and local commitments, and cannot be taken for granted considering the pernicious nature of toxins and the uncertainty of climate change. Sustaining Lake Superior ends with a consideration of climate change’s impact on Lake Superior. But this is not the perfunctory epilogue provided by so many historians but an extensive and nuanced analysis. The book’s title is apt since this truly is a history of sustainability—and the subtitle is equally apt since Lake Superior truly is “extraordinary.” © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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