The Matter of History
How Things Create the Past
Cambridge University Press 2017
New Books in Environmental StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books in Science, Technology, and SocietyNew Books in World AffairsNew Books Network September 30, 2019 Jason L. Newton
Timothy LeCain is an award-winning environmental historian whose past work has focused on the connections between open-pit copper mines, technology, and the natural world. LeCain’s newest book The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (Cambridge University Press, 2017) presents a path-breaking approach to the study of the environment and history. In it LeCain argues that humans are inseparable from the material world around them. Living and non-living “things” not only deserve their own histories, according to LeCain, but the history of humans cannot be told without recognition of the autonomy of material things. LeCain’s neo-materialist agenda merges S.T.S. and environmental history, and calls for scholars to consider writing histories of the world in toto.
More than just explaining his approach, LeCain employs it in three case studies, one on longhorn cattle in the American west, another on Japanese silkworms, and finally a history of the copper atom. Viewing the material world as inseparable from humans leads LeCain to challenge the idea of the Anthropocene, suggesting that the term gives humans too much credit. People, according to LeCain can do little without the material things that surround them. Current climatic changes were not solely caused by “anthropo,” or humans, but the cause lies with humans working with material things like carbon. Moreover humans cannot solve the problem of climate change without utilizing the unique material properties of the living and non-living world in which they are completely and perpetually embedded within. The Matter of History is an important work for the present moment and is sure to shape future discourse on humans and the environment.
Jason L. Newton is a visiting assistant professor of history at Cornell University. His book manuscript, “Cutover Capitalism: The Industrialization of the Northern Forest, 1850-1950,” is a history of the changing types of labor performed by people, trees, and the landscape in the American Northeast as that area industrialized. He has also published on nature, race, and immigration. He teaches classes on labor and the environment and tweets @Jason_L_Newton.