Technology, nature, and American origin stories

David E. Nye

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations

Abstract

During the past decade, environmental historians have become interested in how narratives express values. Increasingly, they have realized that narrative is not merely a literary concern. People tell stories in order to make sense of their world, and some of the most frequently repeated narratives contain a society's basic assumptions about its relationship to the environment. To change our relationship with nature, therefore, we need to change our stories. From this perspective, environmental history charts oppositions between different ethics, embodied in contrasting narratives that are rooted in incompatible conceptions of space. My own research suggests that one account of how Americans subdued the earth has been so widespread that it can be called a master narrative, which is to say that it defined the white entitlement to the land. White Americans long imagined that their history began in an Edenic new world, yet they charted the national story as continual technological improvement of that initial perfection. The master narrative slowly became widespread after 1776, as the newly independent colonies started to re-imagine themselves as a self-created community. When repudiating the colonial past, Americans wove stories of origin that emphasized particular technologies, notably the ax, the mill, the canal, the steamboat, the railroad, the steel plow, and the irrigation dam. The use of these technologies to reshape the land defined an American story of origins, in which the nation was conceived as a second creation built in harmony with God's first creation. This essay will focus on this master narrative, analyze its underlying assumptions, and suggest the range of counternarratives that have opposed it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8-24
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironmental History
Volume8
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2003

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