Inventing for the Environment

Edited by Arthur Molella and Joyce Bedi
Copyright 2003
The MIT Press
$29.95, 424 pages

Reviewed by Richard Walthers


I am writing this review in my studio in Chicago, Illinois, a city that has been the beneficiary of the extraction of the great natural wealth from the immense prairie ecosystem of middle America. Chicago continues to be a center of technology, business and culture because its success is deeply rooted, quite literally, in the prairie earth from which it was born. History and the environment have been very kind to Chicago in spite of the way we have traditionally developed our technologies without regard to the needs of our native prairie or our small piece of Lake Michigan shoreline.

The concept that technology and the natural environment be treated in a holistic manner is the unifying idea of a fine collection of essays entitled Inventing for the Environment. The book looks at history and innovation in a search for a new definition of environmentalism. The editors, Arthur Molella and Joyce Bedi, are director and historian, respectively, at the Smithsonian Institution's Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. This book is the result of an interdisciplinary program series held at the Lemelson Center.

The universal development of the city throughout history, technological innovation and its effects on nature are the main themes that unite the specific environmental issues of landscape architecture, urban planning, green architecture, clean water, alternative energy sources and industrial ecology. Each of these topics has its own section consisting of three essays, one by a historian, one by a practitioner and a third that is a biographical sketch of an innovator in the discipline.

Even though many environmental histories are presently being written, most center on a single technology or social issue. This book presents for the first time a multidisciplinary approach using history and technological innovation to light a pathway through the environmental maze we have created for ourselves. The idea to include essays from both historians and practitioners is inspired because they each address the concept of time and change from their own perspective.

Time and change are inherent in both history and ecology. In the opening essay, Richard White writes that history and ecology are the two disciplines that most appreciate contingency. Because the events of history or the components of an ecosystem are connected, when something happens it affects all the following events and remaining components. To insure positive results, the writers believe we must broaden our definition of society to include all species and treat nature and technology as integrated components of the ecological community.

The essays are all well written with some minor exceptions. The Straw Bale Building essay is a bit long and too detailed for the purpose of this book and The Negawatts, Hypercars and Natural Capitalism essay contains familiar pieces from other of the authors' articles. The most engaging of the essays is the concluding one. In it Roderick Nash and Martha Davidson speculate about the year 3000. To create a one thousand year plan, or even just to set the goals and parameters of where we want to be in a thousand years, is heady stuff. The simplest and perhaps most difficult goal to attain is to still be around one thousand years from now.

As Paolo Soleri writes in his essay, the American dream of a single family home in the "open space" of suburbia is so entrenched in our psyche that we are unwilling to change our behavior, no matter how destructive it becomes.

However, we are a nation of technological optimists. The writers of Inventing for the Environment believe that as we understand our environmental history and begin to successfully integrate our technologies with the natural world we will be capable of meeting any challenge with inventive solutions.