Mining California: An Ecological History by Andrew C. Isenberg

Mining California

An Ecological History

By Andrew C. Isenberg

HILL AND WANG; 242 Pages; $27


In "Mining California," Andrew Isenberg examines how the West's resources were won, and at what cost they were extracted from the California landscape. By tracing the 40 years after the discovery of gold, which coincide with the consolidation of Eastern industrial capital, Isenberg follows an era when waves of prospectors took hold like crabgrass in California, upending American Indians' long-standing resource management patterns in favor of quick, aggressive bouts of resource extraction. Forces of capitalism and industry were unleashed on the environment by settlers who didn't understand their new landscape's nuances. fixed-asset perfectPixelWide noGen: item_perfectpixelwide 19 e fixed-asset perfectPixelWide

Isenberg, a professor of history at Temple University, is interested by the way these economic needs reshaped the landscape, and the book's five chapters, which run from the Gold Rush in 1849 to the early preservation movement of the late 1870s, trace the development of hydraulic mining, the building of Sacramento, the cutting of the redwood forests and the enclosure of the grasslands. Isenberg argues that the arrival of these new people and their methods of living off the land upended ecological balances thousands of years in the making.

"Mining California" might be a familiar litany of ecological and social wrongdoing, but in each chapter Isenberg has enough twists and turns to keep the stories from being reductive. Each has a nuance and specificity that are refreshing, if occasionally a bit ponderous.

Though dense, the book offers a mother lode of descriptions of the sheer scale of projects undertaken, and a keen portrait of the ecological domino effect of new industries. As gold mining booms, it spurs the mercury and logging markets. Other sorts of prospectors make a business of establishing cities in what are often highly unsuitable locations. Isenberg's section on the early years of Sacramento is particularly riveting. Located in a floodplain downriver from streams recently filled with toxic gold-mining rubble, the city spends its first 30 years enduring cholera epidemics, floods and ever-present debt. Sacramento flounders, fighting off the very river that had once been thought to promise benefits.

When not tracing the ways that this "highly efficient" economy didn't always work to its own advantage, Isenberg offers a nuanced picture of gold mining: In its first wave, Isenberg argues, gold mining is unstable, as lone prospectors, lacking investment capital, make small fortunes by the skin of their teeth, or fail entirely. Although there's money to be made, the system is a largely unprofitable and unreliable gamble until capital consolidates and invests to ensure a steadier flow of resource extraction.

By the time profits are largely concentrated in the hands of a few, the market has stabilized, but also effectively closed. Technology plays a hand in this: "Hydraulic mines initiated the transformation of the gold country from a locale dominated by independent prospectors to an industrial place characterized by wage laborers. The key to this transition was the replacement of tools such as pans, picks, and shovels, which were owned and used by independent laborers, with the machines of hydraulic mining, which were controlled by investors." (Any dot-commer will recognize at least some truth there.)

What's more, hydraulic mining extracted gold at the expense of water, mountains, land and streams, devastating mountain ranges, polluting rivers from the Sierra to San Jose, killing off fish and wildlife. Behind this wave of devastation was an eventual bust: After all, there is only so much gold in them thar hills.

The direct comparison to the recent dot-com experience may end there, but California is still growing, and not always in sustainable directions. At a time when the state's residency has been forecast to grow by 13 million in the next 25 years, with its population probably stretching into its farthest regions, "Mining California" offers sobering reading on the consequences of unchecked expansion.