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Nature’s Metropolis

I explained three weeks ago how political developments in Wisconsin led me to download and start reading William Cronon‘s 1992 study Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. As I mentioned then, Paul Krugman wrote a post at the end of January in which he spoke of rereading the book, adding that

everyone with any interest in economics should read [Cronon’s] account of the rise of the Chicago Board of Trade. Railroads changed everything. It wasn’t just the fact that stuff could be shipped further, faster, cheaper; the railroad also led to the replacement of concrete with abstract forms of ownership (the farmer owned a receipt for a bushel of grain, not a particular sack), standard-setting, futures markets, and on and on.

I almost bought Cronon’s book at the time. With his appearance in the news last month as a victim of the McCarthy-style tactics of Wisconsin’s Republican party, I delayed no longer. Four days ago, I finished it.

Reading the book was a thrilling experience. It is the most astonishing blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology that I can imagine. You will surely realize that I don’t exactly read a lot of history, geography, economics, or ecology. Perhaps my assessment shouldn’t carry a lot of weight. But let me say this. Find the book, read Part II, and tell me if you disagree.

The book has three parts. The first introduces some of the book’s themes, with a focus on how water, then rails, gave Chicago its central role in the economy of the west over the nineteenth century. Just a few miles up the Chicago River, one reaches a high point whose other side drains into the Illinois River and on into the Mississippi. Thus, Chicago lies virtually at the divide between waterways that take you, in one direction, via the lakes and the Erie Canal, to New York City (or via the lakes to the St. Lawrence, Montreal, and beyond to the Atlantic), and in the other direction, via rivers, to St. Louis, New Orleans, and the Gulf. No sooner did Chicago begin to benefit from this prime location than railways changed everything. But yet again — and Cronon takes pains to point out that this was not inevitable — Chicago found itself in the key location between railways that supplied and brought goods from the great west and railways that sent the west’s produce to the major cities of the east while shipping the east’s manufactured goods back west.

Part II, building on this, is the heart of the book, and a must-read. Titled Nature to Market, it has three chapters: Pricing the Future: Grain, The Wealth of Nature: Lumber, and Annihilating Space: Meat. Each is a gem. I can think of no better microeconomics primer, as we watch capitalism take root and transform the western regions of the country along with the way of life of its population and the land itself. Prairie makes way for farming, the white pine of the north woods makes way to fence the prairie and house its inhabitants, and plains buffalo make way for cattle range land. People’s lives improve, but at a cost, which Cronon always keeps in our field of view.

Part III zooms out a bit, with a broader look at what has been gained and lost. It contains yet another gem, the chapter The Busy Hive, in which we watch Montgomery Ward become a retail force much like Wal-Mart or Costco today. But really, the entire book is a gem.

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Categories: Books, Economics, History
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