Book Review: Matthew Klingle's "Emerald City"

By Doctor Comrade

Klingle, Matthew W. Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle. The Lamar Series in Western History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 344 pages.

Klingle Emerald City

Matthew Klingle’s Emerald City is a potent examination of the environmental history of Seattle, the so-called “Emerald City.” Klingle analyzes the significance of efforts to manipulate the environment from pre-contact through the modern environmental movement. He intertwines the efforts to control Nature with the parallel efforts to control various populations with chapters on salmon conservation, commodification of waterfront property, landscape engineering, leisure activities, parks, and water usage. Klingle’s main argument is that culture and nature have been treated as binary categories, rendering analysis of urban growth devoid of “place,” the constructed interplay between humans and nature. By reframing the problems of urban growth as products of the blurring of the lines between nature and humanity, Klingle argues that historians can reveal both flaws in old ethics of environmental exploitation and new ethics that can link social justice to environmental protection (6). For these reasons, Klingle contends that “we alone are responsible for splitting nature from culture, and for injuring it and ourselves as a result” (xiii).

Klingle organizes the chapters chronologically, using each to represent Seattle’s reform movements and the United States’ broader environmental ideologies. Each chapter examines how developers in Seattle—European settlers, railroads, loggers, or urban planners—attempted to shape the environment to their desires, and through newspapers and city archives, Klingle documents the resistance by urbanites and Nature itself. For example, the second chapter outlines how railroad magnates and speculators co-opted the waterfront commons, which “[unleashed] legally sanctioned mayhem masquerading as urban growth” to the detriment of “social inequities… [which] became part of the city’s new environment” (60, 46). In this case, the corporations claimed that the waterfront should be developed for the common good, often at the expense of ethnic minorities and the urban working class who lived there (83).

Klingle’s narrative deconstructs Seattle’s supposed environmental ethos, which he argues is a sham like the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz (280). Each reform movement was variously opposed by both lower class people and Nature itself. When reformers linked social progress to improving nature, they also “inscribed inequality and instability into the landscapes” (118). The results were often catastrophic for both the rich and poor, as Lake Washington and the Duwamish River became polluted by population growth, rivers flooded more unpredictably, and regraded hills pushed unwanted populations into slums.

However, his narrative often fails to include women and their experiences with environmental degradation, which often affects women in different and significant ways. Moreover, Klingle attempted to draw connections between Seattle and eastern cities, but he lacks sources to contextualize or justify how they were similar, though I suspect his model might hold true in those places. But Emerald City is excellently constructed and reveals the deep social divisions in Seattle’s environmental landscape. It should be read by an academic audience that should value Klingle’s deconstruction of the historiographical fissure between nature and culture. Although more attention should have been paid to some groups, his efforts to examine racial and class antagonisms are both historiographically valuable and innovative in the field of environmental history.

Prospective readers should also read these mostly-laudatory reviews: Paul S. Sutter, The American Historical Review 114, no. 1 (2009): 173-174; John Putnam, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 39, no. 3 (2009): 452-453; David Arnold, The Western Historical Quarterly 40, no. 3 (2009): 368; James Longhurts, Environmental History 17, no. 3 (2012): 664-666.