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Published by EH.NET (May 2001)

Diana Muir, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New

England. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000. x + 312 pp.

$26 (cloth); ISBN 0-87451-909-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jane Knodell, Department of Economics, University of

Vermont.

This is a history of the material lives of the peoples who have lived in the

area we know today as New England, starting with the original

hunter-gatherers, dwelling on the farmers and mechanics of the nineteenth

century, and ending with affluent suburban commuter-consumers. The author,

herself a New Englander of the latter variety who lives on Bullough’s Pond in

Newton, Massachusetts, is interested in the way in which the material

conditions of life have, time and time again over the span of tens of

thousands of years, eventually encountered ecological constraints, and in the

way New Englanders have repeatedly responded. The story is punctuated by two

“revolutions,” the Neolithic and the Industrial, which were the responses to

two different ecological-economic crises, and ends with the author’s

contemplation on the need for a comparable third revolution today.

The book’s scope is fairly vast. Its contribution is to weave disparate social

and natural scientific literatures together into a well-written, interesting

narrative. This is history made palpable and personal, written by one who has

hiked New England’s mountains and wandered along its beaches. It is written to

enlighten a general audience, not to engage in scholarly debate (although Muir

draws on a number of literatures within economic history and does not hesitate

to stake a claim here and there). Muir starts at the beginning. Drawing on

archeology, anthropology, and ethnohistory, she explains how, after early

hunter-gatherers depleted the population of large game animals, they

eventually turned to agriculture (the “Neolithic Revolution”) combined with

fishing and small game hunting in managed forests. This way of provisioning

depended on an ample supply of forested land near the coast, a supply which

was being depleted as the first Europeans arrived in southern New England. But

before the “crisis of coastal deforestation” could be joined, the native New

Englanders faced a crisis of “extermination” through exposure to Old World

diseases to which they had no immunity (pp. 21-22). This, of course,

facilitated the settlement and expansion of the European population.

We hear very little about the fate of the original New Englanders from this

point on, as the author turns to the colonial economy created with the

migration of the Puritans and the westward expansion of the European

economies. From the very beginning, immigration, and then export markets

provided the external demand needed to propel a largely agricultural economy

forward. By the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, given the

British-imposed limit on westward settlement, this economy had occupied all

the decent farmland. The response? Manufacturing, followed by

industrialization — the second revolution. For Muir, the threat of a decline

in economic status was a powerful incentive to entrepreneurship. Although the

region “faced the prospect of economic decline, . . . standards of nutruition,

health, and education were high enough to enable men to search for new ways

to earn a living” (p. 107).

Shoes were the most successful of many preindustrial solutions. The book

details the advance of protoindustrialization and the peddling system of

distribution in the early nineteenth century, by which time the region was no

longer feeding itself. Muir suggests, though, that economic decline would only

be forestalled once Yankees began to invent “machines that made machines.”

Muir does a masterful job of reviewing the important inventions and process

innovations that culminated in mechanized production across the array of

consumer and capital goods produced in New England. Government munitions

contracts helped to fund the development of new metal-working tools and

processes, which were then adopted in other sectors. Along the way, the motive

shifted from preserving a middle-class way of life to earning greater profits

from standardization, lower costs, lower prices, and greater sales. This was

now an economy organized around the principle of expansion which faced

barriers to expansion located within itself (in this case the size of the

internal market), not in nature. And it was an economy that would subsequently

fail to avert economic decline in the early twentieth century, but this

receives relatively little attention here other than to credit federal defense

spending for the postwar Massachusetts Miracle.

The ecological angle comes back in as Muir details the environmental

degradation brought about by industrialization and urbanization. We learn

about the ecological impacts of agriculture, husbandry, charcoal production,

mills and dams, commercial logging, city sewers, and commercial fishing.

Although the earlier material ways of life also changed their natural

environments, modern industry and modern life have degraded the rivers,

forests, and atmosphere in ways that now, Muir argues, threaten to undermine

our well-being. Muir hopes that the pressure of population on limited

resources is pushing us into a Third Revolution, in which we will develop and

adopt alternatives to fossil energy. But it is far from clear that either the

profit incentive, assisted by government fiscal policy, as in the Second

Revolution, or declining living standards among those in a position to address

the problem, as in the First Revolution, will move us in this direction.

Jane Knodell conducts research on the evolution and performance of antebellum

monetary institutions, with an emphasis on interregional payments and finance.

She recently published “The Demise of Central Banking and the Domestic

Exchanges: Evidence from Antebellum Ohio”, Journal of Economic History,

September 1998. At the University of Vermont, she teaches a course on the

economic history of early New England.