Richard White’s Organic Machine, and William Cronon’s Changes in the
Land, both examine environments as energy flow systems. The energy flow model
was utilized by the authors to explain relationships within ecosystems.
Richard White’s thesis is to examine the river as an organic machine, as
an energy system that, although modified by human intervention, maintains it’s
natural, its unmade qualities. White emphasizes on energy because it is a
useful concept that can be easily understood. He says, the flow of the river
is energy, so is the electricity that comes from the dams that block that flow.
Human labor is energy; so are the calories that are stored as fat by salmon for
their journey upstream. White notes that energy is as concrete as salmon,
human bodies, and the Grand Coulee Dam. White wants his readers to think about
nature and its relationship with humanity.
White explains how the river is energy. The Columbia River works as
gravity pulls it to the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia is continuously cutting
into the terrain that it flows through. Over millions of years water rushed
through the Columbia Basin to form the Columbia River. Water carries soil, silt,
and debris downstream. The constant movement of material in the river cuts and
shapes the river basin into the land. This movement is a slow and inefficient
use of energy. According to White, only two percent of water’s potential energy
results in the work of erosion. The other ninety-eight percent of water’s energy
was lost as water molecules rub against themselves, the river bed, and the river
banks. This energy was released as heat into the river.
Often the energy of flowing water was not recognized. There are
occasions when rivers do show their power is destructive ways. Power was
usually demonstrated through floods, and more so in flash floods. Thousands of
years ago, an ice dam in the Columbia River, holding the glacial lake Missoula,
broke and created the largest known freshwater flood in earth’s history. The
flood rushed into the Columbia Channel and created the Grand Coulee and other
rock channels that would have taken the Mississippi River three hundred years at
full flood to create.
Salmon are also a part of the Colombian energy model. As the river
works its way downward to the Pacific Ocean, the salmon work their way up the
Columbia to spawn. The energy in salmon can be measured by their body fat and
caloric value. Salmon start their run upstream prepared for the long hard run.
Their bodies have stored fat and oil after a year worth of feeding at sea. The
stored energy in salmon is used as energy as they battle head to head against
the force(energy) of the Columbia River. As the salmon work upstream, they use
their stored energy and their bodies become leaner. When the salmon reach their
destination, they are in ill condition. The skinny salmon lay their eggs and
die of exhaustion.
Work and energy also link humans to the Columbia River energy model.
Alexander Ross and his crew learned how powerful the river was in 1811. They
attempted to enter the mouth of the Columbia from the Pacific. Ross learned
that the river’s current and the ocean’s tide work against each other creating
an astonishing amount of friction. Fresh water is pushed several miles out to
sea and the ocean tides can be felt one hundred and forty miles up river. The
tide form sandbars at the mouth of the river and the current crashing on them
produces huge waves and foaming breakers. These breakers form barriers that
Alexander Ross and his crew had to cross.
Human energy challenged the energy of the river mouth in 1811. The
first attempt to cross the barrier was a failure. Ross’s friend Fox and his
crew were lost while battling the waves of the seemingly unapproachable mouth of
the Columbia. Ross and his crew with will and muscle somehow survived the force
of the tide and current and made it across the river’s mouth for the first time.
Ross’s drama to enter the river was explained by White by using the
energy cycle. White explains that lunar energy causes the ocean tide and the
sun provides all of the remaining energy of the cycle. The sun heats the
atmosphere that heats and evaporates the ocean water and provides the wind to
move the moisture to the mountains. The clouds cool and moisture is released as
rain or snow that falls to the land. Gravity pulls the water to the ocean again
through the rivers and the process starts over again.
Man attempts to slow down the natural energy cycle to extract energy
from the river by building dams.Dams are used to store and regulate water
that is used to turn turbines. These turbines power generators that produce
Hydroelectricity was first in abundance. Electricity was a product
without much demand. Soon farmers used electricity to light their homes and to
run small electrical devices such as toasters, irons, and washing machines.
Electricity was also used to light city homes, factories, and streets. The
hydroelectric companies still needed more customers to consume the electricity
being produced. Californians bought electricity and soon major industries were
attracted to the Columbia area because of the abundance of electricity.
Electricity was a necessity for the production of aluminum. Aluminum and
Electricity were the perfect combination for the production of airplanes. U.S.
plane manufacturers are centrally located in the Colombian area because of this
unique utopia of energy.
Later, electric energy in the Colombian river basin was produced
automatically. The Columbia River was fist a sewer for radioactive waste
produced by the production of Uranium. The Columbia was also used to cool
nuclear reactors.The result of waste dumping was contamination, and the
result of the Columbia cooling the nuclear reactors was the river’s temperature
rose after the warm water returned to the river.
White’s model of the energy cycle in the Columbia River Basin fully
describes how energy is a naturally reassuring process that is altered by man,
but can never be destroyed.
William Cronon also uses an energy flow cycle in his book Changes in
the Land. Cronon describes how the Indians and the Colonists create different
cycles with the same environment.
The European farmers cleared the forest for fields to plant corn and
grain. Farmers also cleared land for their animals to graze on. The corn and
grain growing in the fields took energy from the rich soil and the water.This
energy was then passed to humans or animals that ate the food. The animals that
grazed the land, took energy from the grass and water. They to would pass
energy to humans by the form of labor or in the form of food.
The energy in the soil came from the trees that held the water and rich
top soil in place. As the trees were cut, the valuable topsoil was washed away
from the rain and snow that easily washes into the streams and rivers. Soon the
soil dries and is lifeless because the energy system was disturbed.
Cronon’s solution to the European’s problem was to sustain the farm land.
Wood should be cut when necessary and new trees should be replaced to preserve
the soil. In farm lands, crops need to be rotated ignored to sustain sufficient
minerals in the soil for the harvest. The trees will hold topsoil and
importantly water in the ground. The fields being sustained avoids the need to
clear other fields for farm use.
American Indians manipulated their natural environment in a different
way. Indian women were the farm workers. They grew their crops among the trees.
The trees held the soil and water. Indian women would also grow many crops
together. This created a balance of mineral replacement and water replacement.
Indian men hunted for meat instead of grazing domesticated animals. Indians
would create utopias for game by burning the forest floor annually.By doing
this, the Indians create growth of small shrubs for the animals to hide in
without destroying the forest. The sustained yield of crops and animals
supported the Indian lifestyle until it was disturbed by European influences.
White and Cronon both use energy flow systems to explain environmental
history. Energy is easy to look at in history because man has used it and
changed it throughout time. Energy sustains life and is and ever lasting cycle.