A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape

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A nature guide is a useful companion when you venture into the deep woods or the mountains. For better or worse, however, few of us spend much time in the wilderness; we live in an environment where most of what we see is man-made. Perhaps on your summer vacation you have a chance to hike the Appalachian Trail, but the rest of the year you drive through refinery row on the New Jersey Turnpike. Once in a lifetime, if you are incredibly lucky, you might look up a tree and spot an ivory-billed woodpecker, but on most days you are more likely to look up a utility pole and see the finned steel casing of an electrical transformer.

This book adopts the form of a nature guide, but its subject matter is everything that isn’t nature. It is a guide to the common sights of the built environment—the power lines, water tanks, street lights, manholes, traffic signals, cellular-telephone towers—that we pass by every day and yet seldom really notice. In these pages I identify and classify some of the species that inhabit this familiar urban ecosystem. Farther afield, there are more exotic industrial habitats to explore: coal mines, oil refineries, railroad freight yards, power plants, garbage incinerators. These are places that most of us never see close up; many of us would go out of our way to avoid seeing them. But they are nonetheless a part of modern life—and worth a visit. There can be just as much of interest happening on a factory rooftop as there is in the forest canopy, just as much to marvel at in the operation of a strip-mining dragline as in the geological carving of a river canyon.

Some may find puzzling or distasteful the parallel I am drawing between the study of nature and the study of technology. After all, nature is good and good for you, whereas everyone knows that technology is ugly, evil, and dangerous. The mention of nature brings to mind majestic landscapes: Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon. The mention of industrial technology brings to mind a long list of disasters: Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Chernobyl, Love Canal. In the presence of nature we hold our breath in hushed reverence; in the presence of industry we hold our nose.

A few centuries ago—say, on the American western frontier—a quite different view prevailed. Nature was seen as savage, hostile, cruel. Mountains and forests were barriers, not refuges. The lights of civilization were a comforting sight. We took our charter from the book of Genesis, which grants mankind dominion over the beasts, and felt it was both our entitlement and our duty to tame the wilderness, fell the trees, plow the land, dam the rivers. In the most extreme version of this ideology, everything on the planet was put here explicitly for human use. At the opposite extreme, today, the earth-first sensibility urges us to treat the entire planet according to the campsite ethic: carry out what you carry in, and leave no trace of your passage.

It is not my mission to mediate between these strangely polarized positions. My chief aim is simply to describe and explain the technological fabric of society, not to judge whether it is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. And yet I would not argue that technology is neutral or value-free. Quite the contrary: I submit that the signs of human presence are the only elements of the landscape that have any moral or aesthetic significance at all. In nature undisturbed, a desert is not better or worse than a forest or a glacier; there is simply no scale on which to rank such things unless it is a human scale of utility or beauty. Only when people intervene in nature is there any question of right or wrong, better or worse. When we look on a pristine glade, we are mere bystanders, but when we walk down a city street, we are responsible for what we see (and what we hear and smell), and we are therefore called on to pass judgment....

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