In The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, Richard White examines the evolution of the Columbia River and how man transformed the river into a technological feat. Once a river teeming with life and wild salmon, the Columbia stood as a vital part of society and culture in the northwest. Original life along the Columbia River revolved around the seasonality of salmon runs, and salmon was embedding into the culture of these societies. While these Indian cultures used salmon runs to their advantage, they remained acutely aware that their society stood below the power of nature; that with a sudden drought or flood salmon populations would be impacted and thus so would their people. As Europeans from the east coast began to move out west, they devalued salmon by offering nonfood items in exchange for food during trade. This moment in history changed the course of the Columbia River, as its societal value was altered.
Westerners saw the Columbia River in a vastly different light and used technology to turn it into an “organic machine.” The river went from providing food to people to being used to expand societies and the economy. People’s relationship to the river began to change as technologies that used the rivers power and energy were built. As the government allowed for more and more dams to be constructed, salmon populations diminished, and human’s power over the river grew. Each year brought a new federally funded project to the river to help improve agriculture, or provide electricity. With each dam human’s power over nature was exerted, this is a common theme throughout history, but the example of the Columbia River fully encompasses what happens when humans act as though they are above nature.
The Columbia River still flows. It remains a river, but a different river. Each type of phytoplankton that grows comes from an excess of nutrients that enter the river by human means, each fish that swims was born in a hatchery and transported to the river in a truck, and the river itself flows over different areas of land than it once did. Yet it is still called a river. It is still considered nature. Just like the Columbia River, man has altered every piece of the earth that surrounds us. We have used technology to grow our societies, our culture, and our economy. And now look where we stand. Our relationship to the natural world is vastly different from the Indians that used to live along the Columbia. The entire globe is an organic machine, to be used by and for mankind.
Yet what I find most fascinating is the lengths to which humans have gone to keep salmon running in the Columbia River. Just like the Columbia is a different river than it once was, so are the salmon, and their cultural significance. At each phase of their life they are impacted in some way by humans, they are no longer a wild species, but a genetically manufactured one. It is not profitable to keep them in the river, humans go through great trouble to ensure a future generation, and if they were to go extinct in the Columbia River, it would be a direct result of the commodification of a natural ecosystem. This thought is terrifying as we look at the Columbia River as an example of what has happened to the entire world. What does it mean for humans to live in a virtual world? Because that is where we currently are. Humans will always live below natural forces, no matter the technology we build or the genetically modified animals and crops we produce. Hatchery produced salmon are genetically inferior to wild salmon, dams still stand at the whim of floods or droughts, and no matter how hard humans try nature will always be able to overcome our influence.