Monday, July 12, 2010

My book proposal

Back in Mid-may, I submitted a revised book proposal to an academic press[1] that included a sample chapter. The book is tentatively titled the same as my thesis—Working for the “Working River”: Willamette River Pollution, 1926 to 1975[2]—but I understand from the publisher that if the project does move forward the title will have to change. The publisher will send out these materials to a couple of scholars as part of a double-blind review process, who will evaluate the project; if these reviewers and the press' editorial board deem it worthy, we'll then set up a contract and schedule and move forward!

This is an exciting prospect, but I definitely don't want to count my horses before the cart has hatched, so I'm not holding my breath.

In the interest of keeping informed friends, family, and other interested folks, I thought I'd provide some excerpts from the proposal.

Project Overview

    Willamette River water pollution has not gone away like it was supposed to.
    Since the late 1960s, Oregon has been at the forefront of environmental protection in the United States. The state generally, and Portland in particular, continue to have strong “green” credentials well into the twenty-first century. Within this forty-year period of progress, however, the health of the Willamette River has been a consistent news item. Articles continue to highlight a range of concerns in the watershed, including a Superfund site, raw sewage contamination, and an array of industrial effluent, habitat restoration, agricultural runoff, and other issues.
    Citizens, politicians, and experts have had much to say. They have called the Willamette River “sloppy” and “an open sewer,” described pollution abatement efforts as being “on a treadmill,” and characterized success as not only determining “the shape of this region and this nation’s future” but as an issue of learning to evolve or facing death. These conclusions could all have been expressed in reaction to the contemporary threats of hazardous wastes from Portland’s Superfund site, the continued public health concern of Portland’s combined sewer overflows, or the threat to aquatic life from stream bank erosion and habitat removal. In fact, the first two quotes are from the 1930s; water pollution control was on a treadmill by the mid-1950s; future governor Tom McCall connected environmental degradation to our future in his 1962 documentary, Pollution in Paradise; and, finally, a November 2009 Oregonian article framed the issue in stark life-or-death terms.
    How long have we been trying to clean-up the Willamette? The standard historical narrative suggests that nothing much was being done until journalist Tom McCall drew attention to the issue in his 1962 documentary. His presentation spoke to Oregonians in a profound way, and the momentum helped propel McCall into the governorship in 1966. Governor McCall took a personal stake in the issue by reorganizing state agencies to focus on pollution, and, by 1972, Oregon was being lauded in a National Geographic cover story and by the head of the Environmental Protection Agency for enacting the nation’s strongest environmental laws and restoring the foul Willamette.
    This McCall-centric version of events contains grains of truth. As with the issue of water pollution, however, the full story is much more complex—and understanding this complexity is important for much more than academic reasons.
    Working for the “Working River” is the first book to describe Willamette River clean-up efforts between 1926 and 1975. These efforts centered on a struggle between abatement advocates and the two primary polluters in the watershed, the City of Portland and the pulp and paper industry. To address pollution concerns, beginning in 1926 clean streams advocates created ad hoc groups of public health experts, sanitary engineers, conservationists, sportsmen, and others to pressure Portland officials and industry representatives to cease polluting the river. In November 1938, continued activism and lobbying from these groups spurred voters to pass a citizen’s initiative creating the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA). From 1939 to 1962, the OSSA took the lead in water pollution abatement and realized some limited successes, including pushing Portland and other cities to build sewage treatment plants and regulating pulp and paper mill discharges. However, in spite of these accomplishments, the issue of water quality grew more complex and difficult through the 1950s, as reflected in Tom McCall’s November 1962 documentary. As Governor between 1967 and 1975, McCall took the issue of environmental protection personally and provided charisma and leadership critical to the state finally making substantive progress in cleaning the Willamette.
    Willamette River water pollution has not gone away—the problem has, in fact, gotten much more complex. However, understanding the historical roots to the dilemma can help policy makers, advocates, and the voting public become more knowledgeable of the political, fiscal, and technological antecedents to the present-day conundrum. Working for the “Working River” serves this purpose while also filling a much-needed gap in the academic literature on urban and environmental history.

Contributions to the Field

    Working for the “Working River” contributes to our understanding of society’s relationship to the environment in the twentieth century. It does so by drawing upon research from a wide array of scholars throughout North America to contextualize key moments of change and historical contingency in an as-yet overlooked category of urban environmental history in the American West. This book benefits from the work of many scholars, including Matthew Klingle, Joel A. Tarr, Martin V. Melosi, Karl Boyd Brooks, Samuel P. Hays, and others. There are three significant works on topics central to Working for the “Working River” that warrant detailed discussion: Richard W. Judd and Christopher S. Beach, Natural States; William G. Robbins, Landscapes of Conflict; and Gregory Summers, Consuming Nature.
    Richard W. Judd and Christopher S. Beach provide some important insights in their comparative analysis of environmental politics in Oregon and Maine from the 1940s through the 1970s. For example, their focus on state-level initiatives, particularly those in Oregon and Maine, adds much-needed complexity to most narratives on water quality issues that attempt to characterize trends for the entire nation using only examples from the heavily-industrialized Northeast and Great Lakes regions.
    However, their assertion that Oregonians’ push to abate water pollution “emerged out of a nostalgic post-World War II literature of place” that combined elements of the “pastoral” and “wilderness” traditions is only partly accurate (pp. x-xi). First, Working for the “Working River” identifies a citizen-led movement to abate Willamette River pollution that coalesced in the mid-1920s—well before Judd and Beach pick up their narrative—and advocated consistently for at least the next four decades. Second, one finds a diverse range of motivations from abatement advocates and groups allied in their cause, from the beginning of these efforts through and well beyond World War II. These motivations are more diverse, in fact, than Judd and Beach assert. Finally, Judd and Beach may have identified one strand of Oregonians’ motivations to abate pollution, but the pastoral and wilderness ideals they outline do not produce useable scientific data nor actionable legislation and regulation; it was through the long process of gathering scientific data and pressuring polluters to change that Oregon’s clean streams advocates achieved their results.
    William G. Robbins has written a two-part history of Oregon that does much to help us understand “those individuals and groups who valued civic commitment and stewardship” in the face of market forces that “remained the critical determinant in the conduct of human activity” until the 1970s (Landscapes of Conflict, pp. xx, xi). He dedicates an entire chapter to Willamette River clean-up efforts, with Tom McCall identified as the critical participant. Robbins draws extensively on George W. Gleason’s brief history of abatement efforts and Brent Walth’s biography of Tom McCall, a book that also relies heavily on Gleason when discussing the Willamette River pollution issue.
    Working for the “Working River” will both broaden and deepen Robbins’ findings in two important ways. Robbins does not ignore the pre-Pollution in Paradise cleanup efforts, but Working for the “Working River” will add complexity to the McCall-centric narrative that both he and Walth present by providing important details about individuals and groups involved in the struggle. Second, Robbins uses a market-centric lens to frame his narrative, within which prominent figures, such as McCall and Richard Neuberger, served as luminaries. While a capitalist culture prone to excess did dominant in Oregon and throughout the nation, this analytical lens cannot explain all facets of the push to clean the Willamette. For example, other scholars have argued convincingly that a capitalist ideology focused on preserving natural resources in situ for their amenity value—a consumerist view—had begun to evolve by the early twentieth century in reaction to an extractive, producerist, view of natural resources. These findings illustrate that there was a conflicting duality within the capitalist framework itself. For another example, Robbins’ focus on market forces as the most important motivation for human actions concerning the Willamette does not help explain the moral arguments of abatement advocates, nor provide sufficient room to encompass the personal dedication of some scientists, engineers, politicians, and diverse citizens to the decades-long struggle to alleviate pollution.
    Gregory Summers’ narrative of pollution abatement efforts within Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley from the nineteenth century until 1950 is an important work in a number of ways. Summers focuses his attention on a watershed facing the same issues at the same time as Willamette Valley residents: rapid urbanization, increased industrialization, and a regional economy dominated by the pulp and paper industry. Efforts to abate Fox River pollution began in the mid-1920s, at the same time that Oregon was taking its first definitive steps to clean up the Willamette; in both the Fox and Willamette river examples, members of the local, state, and national Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) were intimately involved in the process; and an important abatement advocate in Oregon, bacteriologist David B. Charlton, corresponded with Wisconsin state officials and IWLA leaders consistently through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. In many ways, then, the Willamette and Fox River stories are entwined.
    There is an important difference between Summers’ interpretative framework and the findings of Working for the “Working River,” however. Summers rightly concludes that a major point of contention between polluters and abatement advocates was that they each defined the river’s value to the community in markedly divergent ways. Polluters defined the river as integral to their waste management system and, thereby, as an “economic resource that sustained the local economy” (p. 4). Abatement advocates, on the other hand, often defined the river in aesthetic and recreational terms. Summers then asserts that traditional use of the river as a site of production helped spur a level of affluence that enabled Fox River Valley residents to divorce themselves from a production-centered relationship to the river; this, in turn, led a critical mass of residents to have a new, consumption-centered, relationship, and these residents subsequently pressured traditional industries to cease treating the river as a waste sink.
    In applying this analysis, Summers over-simplifies some critical details that Working for the “Working River” brings to light. The motivations of pollution abatement advocates were more varied than Summers portrays. In Oregon, these advocates included members of the Chamber of Commerce, leaders of lumber, manufacturing, and other industries, and various state and local officials, all of whom desired a cleaner Willamette for distinct reasons, and none of whom were arguing for a pristine watershed. With his analytical oversimplification, the abatement advocates in Summers’ telling become less discernible historical agents than personifications of an idealized type.

[1] That I'll not identify by name at this time.

[2] Readers may note in this title that I have expanded the concluding date range of my thesis title from 1962 (the year of Tom McCall's television documentary Pollution in Paradise) to 1975 (the end of Tom McCall's second term as Oregon governor).

[3] Sources cited in this section include: Richard W. Judd and Christopher S. Beach. Natural States: The Environmental Imagination in Maine, Oregon, and the Nation. Washington, D.C., Resources for the Future, 2003; William G. Robbins. Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000. Seattle, Wash., University of Washington Press, 2004; Gregory Summers. Consuming Nature: Environmentalism in the Fox River Valley, 1850-1950. Lawrence, Kans., University Press of Kansas, 2006; Brent Walth. Fire at Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall & the Oregon Story. Portland, Oreg., Oregon Historical Society Press, 1994; George W. Gleeson. The Return of a River: The Willamette River, Oregon. Corvallis, Oreg., Oregon State University Water Resources Research Institute, 1972.



  1. James, if you need someone to review text as a potential reader (I am very good at editing) feel free to contact me (you have my number and email). I would enjoy reading and giving you feedback on your draft(s).

  2. Hi Jim, Thanks for the offer -- I will certainly take you up on it!

    (The tardiness of my reply is due to my being away for a week in late July, and then scrambling to keep up with the end of the academic quarter & grading through this past Tuesday.)