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Review

Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940

Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000

By William G. Robbins

November 4, 2013

Review By Theodore Binnema

This two-volume environmental history of Oregon, written by a distinguished historian of the US Pacific Northwest, sets a new standard for environmental histories of individual states (and provinces). The author is best known for books on the political economy of the US West, with a particular emphasis on the forest industry of the Pacific Northwest. They include Lumberjacks and Legislators: Political Economy of the US Lumber Industry, 1890–1941 (1982) and American Forestry: A History of National, State, and Private Cooperation (1985), and more recently, Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American West (1994), which argues that global capitalism and the “industrial statesmen” from outside the region did more to shape the modern American West than did the rugged individualists of mythology. Although the present two volumes represent a change in topic, they are vintage Robbins. British Columbia historians should find them useful not only because they provide a valuable interpretation of Oregon environmental history but also because the environmental history of Oregon has so many interesting parallels, similarities, contrasts, and intersections with the environmental history of British Columbia. Not only are Oregon and British Columbia similar environmentally and economically, but they both also find themselves in the forefront of environmental politics. 

Robbins focuses upon the effects of the market system on Oregon’s environment. Landscapes of Promise examines this history “from the first inroads of market influences” to the onset of the Second World War (13). Although he suggests that the central thesis is “that culture has been a powerful force in shaping the place we call Oregon,” and that the pace of cultural change has dramatically accelerated the pace of environmental change (16), this does not seem to describe the thrust of the book so well as does the argument expressed in the epilogue: “to grasp the transformation that has taken place across the Pacific Northwest during the last two centuries is to know something of relations between countryside, its urban centers, and distant constellations of capital and markets. Capitalism has been, in brief, the most powerful determinant of environmental change during the last two centuries” (302). 

This argument is also made in Landscapes of Conflict: “Today, native peoples and newcomers alike live amidst the awesome changes that have been wrought to Oregon’s landscape since the forces of market capitalism first penetrated the region in the early nineteenth century” (316). This focus on the market system – which puts it in good company with many other environmental histories, as well as with Robbins’s other books – lends these volumes both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. It gives them coherence and unity at the cost of subtlety and nuance. There is no doubt that capitalism has been a tremendous force for environmental change, but some important factors and trends – industrialism and technological change, the growth of consumerism and the culture of waste, the emergence of environmental movements connected with conservation and preservation of the national parks, the wilderness movement, and the rise of sport hunting and middle-class tourism – are not discussed as much as many readers might like. 

Interestingly, the declensionist theme is less apparent in the second volume than it is in the first. This is because Robbins points to various forces that, since 1970, have somewhat fettered capitalism. Thus, in Landscapes of Conflict, Robbins points to “those individuals and groups who valued civic commitment and stewardship over raw profiteering, who sought to build a society that promised something more than the reduction of all human behavior to market transactions” (xx). After a section that looks at postwar optimism, population growth, and economic growth, culminating with the floods of 1948, the book offers sections on agriculture and forestry. Its last and most optimistic section consists of three chapters that examine those forces that have curbed Oregon’s postwar mania for development and unfettered private enterprise. It emphasizes the interesting history of certain politicians (separate chapters are devoted to Richard Neubeger and Tom McCall) much more than it does environmentalists and environmental organizations. 

These volumes should be of great interest to bc historians not only because they may serve as models for an environmental history of the Pacific province but also because they suggest interesting parallels and comparisons with Oregon. Much about Oregon and British Columbia is comparable. Similarities range from their natural endowments, their Aboriginal societies, and the economic significance of their forests, salmon, and dams to their environmental politics and environmental legislation. Even the floods of 1948 hit both jurisdictions. 

An environmental history organized around a political unit is defensible; however, not surprisingly, Robbins’s books only hint at comparisons between Oregon and its neighbours. Richard White’s Organic Machine (1995)and Matthew Evenden’s recent Fish vs. Power (2004) explore the links in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia environmental history more fully than does Robbins. Other connections are only suggested in Robbins’s studies. Oregon put itself on the cutting edge of environmental legislation when it passed the first bottle-return bill in the United States in 1971 (Landscapes of Conflict, 298). Interestingly, this bill came a little more than a year after British Columbia enacted the first beverage container deposit recovery system in North America. More significantly, Senate Bill 100, Oregon’s pioneering land-use planning law (which solidified the state’s reputation for progressive environmental legislation) was passed on 29 May 1973 (Landscapes of Conflict, 290308); British Columbia’s Land Commission Act passed on 18 April 1973. How intertwined were these developments? On 26 March 1973, ndp premier Dave Barrett answered suggestions that the Agricultural Land Reserves were products of “Marxian socialists” by pointing out that the Republican government of Oregon had just introduced similar legislation (Debates of the Legislative Assembly, bc, 2nd Session, 30th Parliament, 1706). And on 7 May 1992, when the bc government sought to amend the law so that decisions would be rendered less prone to political influence, Bill Barlee, the agriculture minister, remarked: “by the way, the state of Oregon, which is one of the foremost states, wishes they had our agricultural land reserve act, and they’re right” (Debates of the Legislative Assembly, bc, 1st Session, 35th Parliament, 1350). Meanwhile, no one has yet explained why the west coast of North America, from the Mexican border to Alaska, has been on the leading edge of environmental movements for over a century, spawning organizations from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace, even as the same region has been on the leading edge of conspicuous consumption, consumerism, and waste. If, to paraphrase Wallace Stegner, people on the west coast are North Americans, only more so, then environmental histories of the west coast states and provinces are particularly useful. William Robbins has given us a glimpse of how true this is.