In his new book, Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle (Yale University Press, 2007), Assistant Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matthew Klingle explores the history of Seattle and the importance of viewing nature, culture, cities, and the environment—natural history and human history—as inextricably intertwined. He applies the insight that one can’t see nature without seeing human culture and vice-versa to the study of the most seemingly unnatural human creation, the city.
Bowdoin: How did you come across the topic?
Klingle: I wanted to understand the relationship between cities and nature. Seattle was a perfect case study because it’s a city that came of age when America became urban. When we think of North American cities, we tend to class them in two categories. There are those cities that seem to live in harmony with nature, and those that seem to displace nature. I wanted to show that that is a false dichotomy. Seattle, set among stunning beauty, also has this deeply unsettling history that its beauty has been created and preserved at a price to other people [and other creatures]. It’s a story of complexities and entanglements.
Bowdoin: What does studying Seattle teach in a larger scope?
Klingle: That place and history matter. One of the ideas that I tried to examine in this book is an idea I call an ethic of place. How is it that you create a relationship with the natural world, and with the diverse communities that make that natural world their home, and do so in a way that balances environmental protection with questions of social equity and social justice over time? My hope is that though my particulars might be relevant to Seattle, the larger ideas can apply to places as far flung as New York City or Millinocket, Maine.
Bowdoin: Did you find anything surprising about the intersection between nature and culture?
Klingle: Yes. We tend to think of an environmental ethic as only being associated with those groups we see as stereotypically and environmentally minded, like conservation or environmental groups. It was surprising to find that environmentalism isn’t the province of the affluent, the white and the suburban, but it’s a far more diverse and complicated set of ideas.
Bowdoin: What was a lesson that you took away from this project?
Klingle: I learned how powerfully history and place intertwine; that history is place, and place is history. Our ethical understanding and obligation to place can’t be disentangled from history, and thinking historically isn’t a panacea for many of the problems I tried to outline in the book, from pollution to environmental injustice to disappearing salmon, to cities that are unsustainable for human communities because the commute patterns are so long and housing prices are so high. Thinking historically is a check on our hubris; it’s a check on our tendency to see us as being above larger forces that we neither wholly understand or control and it’s a check on our tendency to see the world narrowly and for our own particular interests.