The Organic Machine: A Discussion of Human Relationships with Nature

By Derek Newberry, Advocacy Fellow on 4/13/2017

            As a concerned environmentalist and general lover of history, I have recently taken up reading about the dynamic relationships between humans and the natural world. Last week, I read Richard White’s 1995 book, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, and I was moved by the seeming unending relevance and difficulty in establishing a clear and sustainable relationship with the natural world.

            This short yet surprisingly effective environmental history tells the story of the Columbia River from its inception in the early Miocene Epoch until 1995 BCE. White focuses his discussion on the interactions between Northwestern American peoples and their environment during the 19th and 20th centuries and describes how energy, labor, competition, and (in)justice bring people and nature together. He argues that the inevitable interactions between humans and nature have culminated in a misplaced overconfidence in human agency and ability to replace natural systems. Centuries of narrow and exploitative thinking have obfuscated healthier and more holistic interpretations of proper human-nature relationships and created the overworked and transformed Columbia of today. By viewing the Columbia and environment in general as interconnected and interdependent systems instead of as fragmented purposes and parts, society can prevent continued overuse, destruction, and pollution while reducing conflict, ethical injustice and loss of cultural heritage and social wellbeing. This message has a nearly universal application, from USGBC MA’s promotion of integrated green building and the sustainable built environment to the National Park Service’s protection of natural lands and our decisions on what we buy, where we get our food, and how we vote.

            From the beginning, White underscores how society has forgotten its close intimacy with nature, especially in regards to the Columbia River and the myriad of services it offers. Early on, he notes how the 258,200 square miles of river watershed create a dynamic energy system that constantly adjusts to “compensate for events that affect [it]”: suggesting that society should follow suit (White 6, 12). Yet many have lacked the heightened awareness necessary for effective adaptation and have experienced serious difficulties in their attempts to conquer or harness the power of the river. White provides an expansive backstory to demonstrate the foolhardy fishing and sailing journeys of newly established white settlers and entrepreneurs looking to exploit the river in the mid 19th century. Despite the many lives lost, white Americans focused on the singular aspects of the river, largely in the form of economic benefits from fishing, and ignored the natural balances and boundaries followed by all other organisms in the area for millions of years; balances understood by Native Americans for centuries were quickly forgotten.

            Unsurprisingly, the history of the Columbia has come to depict a classic example of careless environmental consumption and local destruction. As Americans moved in, Native Americans died in catastrophic smallpox and malaria epidemics, salmon were transformed from a valuable cultural symbol to an economic commodity to be canned and shipped away for profit, and the river became a haven for steamboats and small industry. As White says, “Oregonians sought to transform the river – to tame the bar, deepen the channels, and blast passages through rapids […] Humans forced the river to remove part of the sands and silt it annually deposited, and they took the rest, filling in marshes and creating new land” (37). The army corps of engineers and railroads started to reimagine the physical landscape, many pushed for more, for the contraction of dams, and expansion of farms, irrigation, and infrastructure. From the late 19th century on, increasing population size and demand for food led to overfishing that quickly spiraled out of control. Many conflicts also arose as fish started disappearing, capitalist became more powerful, and the river became more and more engineered; as some said, the rich industrialists and capitalists had “perverted work by using machines to plunder nature and displace human labor” (44).  

            In response, many people turned to the government to save their way of life. However, during the early to mid 20th century, the government had little idea of how to accurately manage natural systems. To stop fish stocks from disappearing, an intervention was targeted at enhancing the spawning process and building fish ladders or passes through dams (as pictured above at the John Day Dam) instead of preventing overfishing and blockages in the first place. The new salmon “hatcheries sought to wed technology and biology, to merge factory-like production with natural reproduction. The canners, many fishermen, and many experts on the fisheries came to regard nature as inefficient” (47). Desires to improve nature’s efficiency remain strong to this day despite their failure to actually increase salmon population sizes, improve relationships between Native Americans and others, and stop capitalist magnates from outcompeting smaller fishermen: a theme that rings true throughout much of human-environmental interaction around the world.

            Salmon population control became a particularly poignant topic of debate during the early 1920s. Over time government bodies took control of the entire salmon life cycle, from the ineffective “Frankensteinian” hatcheries to physically shipping young fish from the spawning grounds out to sea so they could avoid the dozens of dams built during the 20th century (47). Habitat destruction, deforestation, building, and overfishing have all but caused salmon to disappear today and now require humans to grow and move them from place to place so that they may mature to adulthood: all so that they may be fished by local fishermen later. White points out, “Salmon had knit together the energy of land and sea; they had knit together human and nonhuman labor; salmon had defined the river for millennia” (89). Now that they were disappearing, both native and local peoples loudly voiced their desires to save the salmon, but they rarely pushed to reduce the dams and infrastructure that caused their decline.

            The new equilibrium has decimated the salmon populations and made carp and shad the dominant fish species in the river. Meanwhile, Native Americans have desperately fought to enforce treaties “securing” their rights to fish salmon, and many other Americans in the Northwestern US argue for their rights to fish salmon. Consequently, the US government has hemorrhaged billions to breed and protect the once ubiquitous salmon population in the Columbia. These expenditures now outweigh the economic benefits from fishing the salmon, but to the locals, “Salmon are not so much a means of making a good living as symbols of the good life itself” (92). The misuse and increasing human influence have destroyed the most recognizable and culturally beloved aspect of the Columbia and encouraged an entrenched misunderstanding of healthy human-nature relationships.

            White also discusses the growth of dams and mixing of the organic and inorganic to utilize energy. During WWI, the need for centralized electrical power became an absolute necessity to reduce the coal burden on railways and make room for soldiers and supplies. However, while the “Columbia was the country’s greatest single source of hydroelectricity,” there was not enough demand to make their construction economic until FDR’s New Deal (54). FDR created thousands of local jobs and expanded jobs through dam building throughout the Columbia and facilitated the growth of heavy industry (such as the plant shown here, note the water pollution and proximity to the river). Leading into WWII, areas around the Columbia became hives of aluminum production which increased demand for additional dam building and provided an “immediate service as an outlet for human labor” (56). Interestingly, engineers viewed dams as mimicking nature since some of the largest glacial dams in the world existed in the same area during the Pleistocene epoch; in their view, they were returning it to a previous natural state (57). Nonetheless, increased damming harmed local wildlife, prevented fish from moving to spawning grounds, overstressed the landscape, and allowed for another and more harmful industry. After WWII, the plutonium industry (the Hanford site pictured here) took off with little understanding of the environmental impacts of nuclear materials and a possibility for local contamination. Eventually, nuclear power joined the mix and together these industries released large amounts of radionuclides and other toxins into the environment including arsenic, chromium, and iodine 131 to name a few (81). As with the management of salmon, after billions of dollars of cleanup, we still did not seem to understand, and we still had and have a “failed relationship with nature” (59).

            Overall, Richard White’s, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, provides a distinct regional perspective on the mixing of social, economic, and cultural influences on the environment and the intense and constant relationship they share. Some of the notable and popular 19th century influences on the Columbia included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lewis Mumford’s belief in a “utopian future” created through the mixing of machinery, labor, nature and society (58, 60). Of course, the dams and infrastructure provided power, irrigation, grew the economy and increased standards of living in the minds of most. Yet how much benefit did the industry and damming really bring when they also caused billions in toxic cleanup (Columbia river pollution pictured here) and natural management and irreplaceable losses of other natural systems and cultural pastimes such as fishing. These projects have brought about an uncompromising view of human dominance and control that has allowed salmon to transform from a once prosperous species to a “swimming genetic bank” (105). These ideals led to today’s oversimplified representation natural systems, an ignorance of our past, and belief that humans can disassemble and reassemble nature just like a machine (110).

            However, as the title suggests, the Columbia and natural systems around the world are not regular machines, but are instead “organic machines,” and regardless of our influence they are “still tied to larger organic cycles beyond our control” (112). Nature clearly “has purposes of its own which do not readily yield to desires to maximize profit,” and society must come together and understand the mutualistic relationship of nature and human society through careful analysis of the effectiveness and non-monetary impacts of change (113). Preventative measures and increased awareness through education and advocacy will help solve many of the issues society spends so much time mitigating. Using a preventative approach will prepare society for climate change and mitigate its impacts, it will enhance renewable energy initiatives, expand net zero building policies, and reduce toxic contamination of the environment we are so wholly dependent upon. No longer shall the future be “forged amidst our inattention,” but instead be carefully and humbly prepared for through socially and environmentally responsible work: and lots of it (64).



White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. Hill and Wang, 1995.

Images Listed in Order of Appearance 

Stanley, John Mix. Scene on the Columbia River. 1852, oil on canvas, Tacoma Art Museum, Washington. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain,

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Cascade Locks and Falls." Wikimedia Commons, Oct. 2007, Public Domain,

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Fish ladder at John Day Dam." Wikimedia Commons, Nov. 2005. Public Domain,

United States Department of Energy. "Hanford N Reactor adjusted." Wikimedia Commons, Feb. 2008, Image N1D0069267, Public Domain,

Falconer, David. "Industrial Plant on the Upper Columbia River." Wikimedia Commons, Oct. 2011, NARA record: 1427627, Public Domain,

Daniels, Gene. "Effluent From Pulp Mills Pollutes Columbia River." Wikimedia Commons, Oct. 2011, NARA record: 8463941, Public Domain,



Green Building Tags: