Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Explorations in Science, Technology and the Natural Environment

Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Archives for H-Environment

Roundtable: In the Field, Among the Feathered

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    One of the attractive features of the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History is its commitment to field trips.  On at least one day, historians are encouraged to get out of their hotels, change into comfortable clothes, and hop on a bus to one of several optional locations—a museum, an interesting building, a park, or perhaps a wilderness area.  Usually there is a trip for birding (or as many know it, bird-watching). There are at least two species of humans who sign up for these birding field trips.  Some call themselves birders: they know a lot about birds, how to differentiate them, and how to identify them. They carry scopes or binoculars, they dress appropriately, and they typically wield some kind of pre-printed list. The other group—and I confess to have belonged to it—are those who are curious about the enterprise, are happy to be outside, and count themselves lucky if they can differentiate ducks from non-ducks. At the 2012 trip to a wildlife area outside Madison, Wisconsin, I personally witnessed some ducks and several of what I termed “regular birds.” Back on the bus, I was stunned to learn that my companions had identified dozens of different species.

    It is easy to envy these birders, whose hobby has imparted to them not only a discriminating eye and some cool gear, but also a working knowledge of nature, including ornithology, ecology, and natural history.  They seem to be products of an informal nature education that exists outside the walls of any school or university.   Their source, besides one another, is the printed field guide. The guides themselves might at first appear as technical manuals, or something like a stamp-collector’s toolkit.  But don’t they also serve as a conduit of knowledge?  If so, what kinds of values, what kinds of science, do they convey?  How has that changed in the past century or so?

    Such questions motivate Thomas R. Dunlap in his book In the Field, Among the Feathered. If there were millions of people buying them and tramping around in natural settings, birding guides should bear investigation as primary sources for environmental historians and historians of science. In Dunlap’s hands, the guides serve as a lens for those who watched, those who read, those who studied, and those who quested to fill up their lists.  He starts with the first American guides written by aristocrats toting opera-glasses, and he culminates in an era that, he suggests, reflected the values of environmentalism.

    I asked Kristin Johnson to provide commentary because of her expertise in the history of science, particularly ornithology.  Like Dunlap, she has resisted studying natural history as mere stamp-collecting, and has looked to key publications to trace important transformations in the perceptions of birds.  She has argued for example that the British Ornithologists’ Union’s journal The Ibis can be taken as evidence of the increasing infiltration of specific scientific values from evolutionary theory, ecology, and ethology.  In Johnson’s study, the printed journal became a venue for reshaping scientists’ identities.[1]

    Paul J. Baicich offers a rather different perspective, as an author, editor, and longtime birdwatcher.  Unlike the other contributors to this roundtable, he has written numerous columns about birding and has written and edited a number of bird guides, including one on nests, eggs, and nestlings.  The latter was a new edition of a late-1970s field guide by Colin Harrison, and Baicich not only updated the taxonomy and added new illustrations, but offered a portrait of what remained to be learned about the habits of several species.[2]

    Akihisa Setoguchi has devoted considerable scholarly attention to the place of animals in historical narratives.  His interests cross between environmental history and the history of biology, including the introduction of scientific values from one culture to another, and the importation of cultural practices such as hunting.  He has written, for example, about the Japanese royal family’s interest in ornithology as a product of the rise of hunting after the Meiji Restoration.  He shows how a Japanese sport hunting magazine, Ryôyû, shaped the earliest Japanese ornithologists and also encouraged women to participate in sport hunting.[3]

    Jeremy Vetter is an environmental historian and historian of science, and has been particularly interested in drawing scholars’ attention to the field sciences.  He shares with Dunlap an interest in laypeople’s involvement in science, and has argued that despite the purportedly sharp distinctions between professionals and amateurs, the lines often blurred—especially for sciences whose activities entailed fieldwork, where negotiations with local people could shape the practice of science, or perhaps create a network of knowledge production.[4]

    The full roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables.html

    A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is  http://h-net.org/~environ/roundtables/env-roundtable-2-7.pdf

    [1] Kristin Johnson, “The Ibis: Transformations in a Twentieth Century British Natural History Journal,” Journal of the History of Biology 37 (2004), 515-555.

    [2] Paul J. Baicich and Colin J. O. Harrison, A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (San Diego: AP Natural World, 1997).

    [3] Akihisa Setoguchi, “Hunting and the Japanese Royal Family: Politics, Science and Gender on Animals in Ryôyû Magazine,” Thinking of Animals, (2008) 13:39-50 [in Japanese].  Abstract in English here: http://homepage3.nifty.com/stg/abstact.html#0812

    [4] Jeremy Vetter, “Cowboys, Scientists, and Fossils: The Field Site and Local Collaborations in the American West,” Isis 99:2 (2008), 273-303; Jeremy Vetter, “Lay Observers, Telegraph Lines, and Kansas Weather: The Field Network as a Mode of Knowledge Production,” Science in Context 24:2 (2011), 259-280.

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      Roundtable: Enclosing Water

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        In Man and Nature, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s envoy to Italy George Perkins Marsh warned his readers against repeating the mistakes of southern Europeans.  Over centuries, he said, they had cut down too many trees and allowed their rivers to erode the best soil. The most beautiful and productive parts of the Roman Empire had come to ruin, “no longer capable of affording sustenance to civilized man.” Humans were to blame for these changes, in Marsh’s view, because nature, left undisturbed, “so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form.”[1]

        As Marsh and his contemporaries lamented the lost natural wealth of the land, environmental changes still were taking place in Italy. Areas like the Liri River Valley became drivers of industrialization.  Some called the region the “Manchester of the Two Sicilies.” In factories along the river, machines benefited from a power that neither humans nor animals could produce.  The enclosures of land and water as private property during that era seemed to mark a contrast with centuries of feudal carelessness and held great promise not only in financial, but also natural, wealth.  After all, if Italy was backward because of wastefulness and longstanding feudal traditions, some reasoned, wouldn’t the relatively new political economy of private property restore order where there was chaos?

        In Enclosing Water, Stefania Barca presents an environmental history of the Industrial Revolution, through the lens of the Liri River Valley. She takes on conventional views about environmental degradation and suggests that new instruments of controlling water in the nineteenth century reconfigured nature and exposed people to increased risk. The book won the 2011 Turku Prize from the European Society for Environmental History.

        I asked Stéphane Castonguay to comment on Enclosing Water because he also has devoted scholarly attention to the causes and impacts of river flooding.  In his study of the St. Francis River in Quebec, he shows how nineteenth-century rapid industrialization and intensification of agriculture modified the flow of water, and dramatically increased the risks of disasters such as floods. When floods were particularly severe, he has claimed, economic and political elites portrayed them as natural disasters.  Castonguay has suggested that consciousness of vulnerability made it likely that future disasters would be perceived as natural occurrences.  In other work he has shown how government sponsorship of science contributed to environmental transformation, as scientists helped to bring a large portion of Canada’s rural areas into regimes of state management.[2]

        Charles-François Mathis is a specialist on the emergence of environmental thought in nineteenth-century England, and has written on the links between land practices and broader intellectual trends.  In his study of the 1894 creation of the National Trust, he explores how the forces of industrialization evolved alongside renewed appreciation for natural landscapes.  His work reveals how influential figures such as the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) blended patriotism with aesthetic and spiritual themes, creating a sentimental conception about the natural world that would inform nature protection well into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His book on the English countryside amidst industrialization explores this further, showing how land enclosures threatened urbanites’ access to the countryside.[3]

        Marcus Hall has written on environmental rehabilitation and impacts in a variety of contexts, especially North America and Europe.  In Earth Repair, Hall showcases the Piedmont region of Italy, and he notes how cultural perspectives shaped responses to challenges, even in the nineteenth century.  For example, while Americans were blaming damage on human activities such as mining and logging, Italians tended to see natural events such as floods and avalanches as the crucial agents of change.  Hall’s essay “Environmental Imperialism in Sardinia” analyzes the twentieth-century pressures on the Italian people and countryside from those who hoped to solve their problems, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, a philanthropic organization whose International Health Division supported widespread spraying of DDT to control malaria.[4]

        A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is http://h-net.org/~environ/roundtables/env-roundtable-2-6.pdf

        The roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables.html


        [1] George P. Marsh, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York: Scribner, 1864). 5, 27.

        [2] Stéphane Castonguay, “The Production of Flood as Natural Catastrophe: Extreme Events and the Construction of Vulnerability in the Drainage Basin of the St. Francis River (Quebec), Mid-Nineteenth to Mid-Twentieth Century,” Environmental History 12 (2007), 820-844. Stéphane Castonguay, Protections des Cultures, Construction de la Nature: Agriculture, Foresterie et Entomologie au Canada, 1884-1959 (Sillery, Quebec: Septentrion, 2004).

        [3] Charles-François Mathis, “De Wordsworth au National Trust: La Naissance d’une Conception Sentimentale de l’Environnement,” Histoire, Économie et Société 28:4 (2009), 51-68. Charles-François Mathis, In Nature We Trust: Les Paysages Anglais à l’Ère Industrielle (Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2010).

        [4] Marcus Hall, Earth Repair: A Transatlantic History of Environmental Restoration (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005). Marcus Hall, “Environmental Imperialism in Sardinia: Pesticides and Politics in the Struggle Against Malaria,” in Marco Armerio and Marcus Hall, eds., Nature and History in Modern Italy (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010), 70-88.

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          Roundtable: Quagmire

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            Vietnam and “the environment” seem to go hand in hand.  After all, the experience of the Vietnam War is a fundamental chapter in most narratives of the rise of global environmental consciousness.  The environmental movement of the 1960s and early 1970s shared many of the same participants with the movement against the Vietnam War.  Some of the most egregious widespread damage to the natural environment (and human health) took place during the decade-long American herbicide campaigns of the war.  Even the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, a precursor to the UN Environment Programme, was widely perceived as a reaction to American activities in Vietnam.  In charting the past, our attention often focuses on those years of immense ecological transformation and heightened awareness.

            An almost entirely separate literature exists on “modernization” schemes of economic development, the failures of which have been subjects of high-profile books such as James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State.[1] In Vietnam, French colonial administrators and over-confident American nation-builders tried to bulldoze and engineer Vietnam’s way to economic prosperity.  Their shortcomings have been traced to many causes, such as inattention to local knowledge, desires, and capabilities.  Rarely has the natural world itself featured in a starring role.  That is, until now.

            In Quagmire, David Biggs has written a book that, on the face of it, requires no introduction.  For most Americans, the word “Quagmire” is already associated with the war in Vietnam.  Why not take a metaphor and make it literal?  It seems to be an ideal vehicle for exploring the actual uses of land and water in Vietnam through its troubled history.  However, the book is not specifically about the American war in Vietnam, but rather takes a longer view, trying to understand the role of pre- and post-colonial experts, Vietnamese people, and the landscape itself, in making or breaking economic schemes.

            To comment on this roundtable, I solicited scholars with a range of historical and anthropological interests, all of whom have written about environmental change in Southeast Asia.  Greg Bankoff’s work has focused primarily on the Philippines.  His recent research has focused on the idea of natural disasters, and the ways in which human societies denote them as such.[2] In the Philippines, he writes, disasters are simply a fact of life, but we assess their effects through a very narrow lens.  By contrasting the impacts of events (such as floods) on humans and on livestock, he has shown how “natural disasters” were constructed almost entirely in relation to effects on human communities, rendering the animals’ roles (and their vulnerabilities) virtually invisible to the historian.[3]

            David Zierler shares with David Biggs the distinction of having recently written a book that blends environmental history, history of science, and the history of Vietnam.  Their approaches differ in that Zierler’s work addresses the influence of the Agent Orange controversy—part of the massive herbicide spraying program conducted by the U.S. Air Force during the American war—on American scientists and the environmental movement.  Zierler’s The Invention of Ecocide was the subject of H-Environment Roundtable Reviews 2:1 (2012).[4]

            Holly High’s research also focuses on Southeast Asia, specifically on Laos.  High brings an anthropologist’s perspective to this roundtable, reflecting her work on concepts of desire in everyday politics and economy.  Her past work has shown how changes in landscape are inscriptions of science, planning, politics, and often violent intervention, and that these changes continue to influence people’s outlooks.  “To be in Vieng Say today,” she writes of a village in Laos, thirty years after the end of American bombing, “to walk among the caves, gardens, fields and homesteads, is to walk in a violent landscape.”[5]

            John Kleinen is a historian and anthropologist with a keen interest in Vietnam’s history.  He began his career by studying anti-colonial peasant movements, and in recent years he has looked more closely at global and regional changes in climate, water levels, and land use.[6] His study of Pierre Gourou, the French colonial geographer who penned a 1936 study of the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam, underlines the persistence of certain geographic ideas, despite enormous political and social changes since the 1940s.[7]

            Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

            The roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables.html

            A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is http://h-net.org/~environ/roundtables/env-roundtable-2-5.pdf

            [1] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

            [2] Greg Bankoff, Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines (London: RoutledgeCurzon Press, 2003).)

            [3] Greg Bankoff, “Bodies on the Beach: Domesticates and Disasters in the Spanish Philippines, 1750-1898,” Environment and History 13:3 (2007), 285-306.

            [4] David Zierler, The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

            [5] Holly High, “Violent Landscape: Global Explosions and Lao Life-Worlds,” Global Environment 1:1 (2005), 58-81.

            [6] John Kleinen, Facing the Future, Reviving the Past: A Study of Social Change in a Northern Vietnamese Village (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1999).

            [7] John Kleinen, “Tropicality and Topicality: Pierre Gourou and the Genealogy of French Colonial Scholarship on Rural Vietnam,” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 26 (2005), 339-58.

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              Roundtable: The Passage to Cosmos

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                What does it mean to describe a worldview as Humboldtean?  Prussian aristocrat Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) traveled extensively, gathered specimens, produced drawings, formulated grand geophysical theories, and never shied from describing the earth’s processes on a global scale.  While his brother Wilhelm lent his name to “Humboldtean education,” Alexander is associated with “Humboldtean science,” expansive and ambitious.  Most geographers see Humboldt as an intellectual forebear, and it is hard to find works on the rise of environmental consciousness that do not acknowledge him.  His convictions that all phenomena were connected make him a sympathetic figure to modern scientists, environmentalists, and environmental historians alike.[1] Moreover, Humboldt exemplified the Romantic-era tradition that embraced the world of science and the world of letters as if they were part of the same whole.  His five-volume opus, Cosmos, was an enormous attempt to demonstrate the unity of knowledge, written long after his traveling years were behind him.

                In The Passage to Cosmos, literary scholar Laura Dassow Walls has shown us how Humboldt the explorer produced this unitary worldview.  Throughout the book is a sense that the division between the humanistic and scientific traditions is itself an unfortunate historical development.  Perhaps we can learn something from Humboldt.  It seems appropriate that the book itself easily crosses over stiff academic boundaries, not just between science and the humanities, but also between literary criticism and history.  The book already has won several awards, and the range is indicative of the book’s appeal across such boundaries.  The Organization of American Historians awarded it the Merle Curti Prize for intellectual history; the Modern Languages Association awarded it the James Russell Lowell Prize for literary studies; and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts awarded it the Michelle Kendrick Memorial Book Prize.

                For this roundtable, I solicited comments from scholars of exploration, geography, and the history of science.  Felipe Fernández-Armesto has written that history has two big stories: how human cultures diverged thousands of years ago, and how they found one another again.  Since the 1970s, Fernández-Armesto has been writing about these encounters, beginning with the quintessential patrons of exploration, Ferdinand and Isabella, and later exploring the creation of colonial society in the Canaries, an area often perceived a template for later colonial expansion.  Since then he has written books about Columbus, pre-Columbian exploration, the Spanish Armada, and other topics on a scale that has made him a leading scholar of world history.[2]

                Michael F. Robinson also writes on the history of expeditions and uses it as a lens for understanding the meaning of exploration in American culture.  For Robinson, the scientific content of the voyages often gave way to stories of masculinity and conquest, as ships traveled to more obscure and harsh environments in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  For Robinson the stories do not stop with the voyages themselves, but rather they continue to the process of men coming home, defending claims, and trying to “cast themselves as men worthy of the nation’s full attention.”[3] Robinson continues to probe these topics through his exploration history blog, “Time to Eat the Dogs.” See timetoeatthedogs.com.

                Michael S. Reidy and Daniel Zizzamia have co-authored comments here that reflect Reidy’s existing expertise, while introducing us to Zizzamia’s insight as he works on his doctoral dissertation. Reidy’s past work has illuminated the rise of geophysical sciences in the nineteenth century, showing the relationship between natural philosophers and the Royal Navy that was so central to the success of voyages and expeditions.  His work not only contextualizes the story of disciplinary growth, but also implicates men of science in the consolidation of empires.  He has argued that natural philosophers adopted the spatial approach of Humboldt, with its influence on mapping and data collection over large areas, and in so doing complemented the expansion of British imperialism.[4]

                Innes M. Keighren shares with Walls a fascination with the reception of geographic texts over time.  He has written about the influence of German geography on the United States during a later era, particularly the westward movement of Friedrich Ratzel’s ideas through Ellen Churchill Semple, who studied with Ratzel in Leipzig at the close of the nineteenth century. Semple’s 1911 Influences of Geographic Environment is the classic of environmental determinism that shaped geographical thought in the English-speaking world (especially the United States) for a generation.[5]

                Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

                The roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables.html 

                A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is http://h-net.org/~environ/roundtables/env-roundtable-2-4.pdf

                [1] A recent book that draws the connection to environmental thought explicitly is Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (New York: Viking, 2006).

                [2] Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Ferdinand and Isabella (New York: Taplinger, 1975); Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Canary Islands after the Conquest: The Making of a Colonial Society in the Early Sixteenth Century (New York: Oxford, 1982); Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonization from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229-1492 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987); Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588 (New York: Oxford, 1988); Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus (New York: Oxford, 1991); Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration (New York: Norton, 2006).

                [3] Michael F. Robinson: The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Quote on p. 2.

                [4] Michael S. Reidy, Tides of History: Ocean Science and Her Majesty’s Navy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

                [5] Innes M. Keighren, Bringing Geography to Book: Ellen Semple and the Reception of Geographical Knowledge (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010).

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                  Roundtable: Evolutionary History

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                    One of the consequences of the educational system in the United States and Europe (perhaps elsewhere too) is that, at an early age, children make decisions about whether they are good at math and science or good at the humanities.  They choose a side.  Commentators have harped upon the great divide for many years, from today’s debates about the importance of the STEM fields, on back to the post-Sputnik “two cultures” conversation launched by C. P. Snow, and earlier in time to Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England.[1] There are many permutations of it in the “science wars” and “culture wars.”  Those of us who research and write history for a living know that this socialization process has an enormous effect on how we tell the story of the past.  After all, didn’t most historians decide long ago that they were “humanities” people rather than “science” people? Who can deny that the topics we choose reflect our values, interests, experiences, and education?  Historians of science and environmental historians are among those who make forays into the process of integrating the humanities and sciences, often armed only with the knowledge that it is folly to tell the story of the past while ignoring the natural world, including biological processes in humans, animals, and plants.

                    And yet there are many social pitfalls to uniting history and science, particularly biology.  Change to organisms over time—evolution—remains a controversial subject among millions of non-scientists, particularly in the United States.  Complaining about teaching evolution in schools is a time-honored tradition, as are demands to give “creation science” equal time.  Occasional discomfort with “revisionist” history notwithstanding, historians have not seen their entire discipline under siege in the way that evolutionary biologists have.  If historians embrace biological science and attempt to tell the story of the past—even the recent past—through that lens, is there a major storm on the horizon?

                    Edmund Russell has thrown caution to the wind by adopting a view of history that draws unflinchingly upon the lessons of evolutionary biology.  He provided a taster on this approach in a prize-winning essay in 2003 that argued for a much closer connection between historical and biological research.[2] In Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth, he provides more than a story about deep time, which one might expect from a story about evolution. Instead, Russell employs the notion of coevolution of plants, animals, and microorganisms to explain the causes and consequences of a broad range of events.  These include the activities of daily life, such as picking up dog feces and using hand sanitizer, to episodes of enormous historical import, such as the natural causes of the Industrial Revolution.  Throughout, Russell wants to convince us that evolution is everywhere, happening all the time, and that humans have played an enormous role—conscious or not—in shaping evolutionary processes.  He also hopes to encourage scholars to incorporate evolution into their own historical work.

                    With such a provocative premise, I was delighted to solicit comments from four scholars, all of whom already have engaged in some way with the relationships between humans and other species in their work. Joseph E. Taylor III has written about reasons for the decline in fish populations over long periods of time, and has pointed out the futility of certain fisheries policies in keeping these populations robust and thriving.  In Making Salmon, Taylor pointed out a long-standing attitude that humans could “make” salmon in a way that served human needs, finding ways to propagate them anew rather than enforcing measures of conservation or avoiding habitat destruction.[3]

                    Anita Guerrini also has written about human intervention in animals’ lives, but in a slightly different vein: as subjects in scientific experimentation.  Many of the fundamental ideas of human biology—such as William Harvey’s seventeenth-century conception that blood circulates throughout the body—came from gruesome vivisections of animals, including dogs.  Even blood transfusions from animals to humans were attempted in those years, under the short-lived premise that animals produced purer, more wholesome blood.  In Guerrini’s work we can see the scientific, cultural, and moral dimensions of the interactions between humans and other species.[4]

                    Also concerned with the fate of animals, but on a much larger scale, is Mark V. Barrow, Jr. His Nature’s Ghosts examined those species whose evolutionary paths halted abruptly, or are at risk of doing so.[5] Part environmental history and part history of science, Barrow’s research assesses the extinction idea itself, from the controversial fossil investigations of Georges Cuvier to the twentieth-century debates about wildlife protection.  Barrow invites us to consider the causes and consequences of human-induced changes to, or even complete destruction of, other species.

                    Julianne Lutz Warren shares with Edmund Russell a desire to see more ecology in history—and in fact she wants to see it in other domains as well.   She has been critical of writers who fail to incorporate nature, and has been outspoken about the need to bring the natural world into political discourse, beyond token references to “green” politics or particular environmental issues. Also, her Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey (writing as Julianne Lutz Newton) examines the change in Leopold’s worldview from a resource-minded conservationist to an ecology-minded philosopher concerned with the role of all species.   There may be a parallel here to the kind of worldview change urged by Edmund Russell among historians—to writing about the past with all living things in mind.[6]

                    Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

                    The full roundtable, along with all the other H-Environment roundtables, can be accessed (for free) here.

                    A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is here.

                    [1] Debates about STEM can be found on numerous blogs.  An example of a widely re-posted one is Cathy N. Davidson, Paula Barker Duffy, and Martha Wagner Weinberg, “Why STEM is Not Enough (and We Still Need the Humanities),” Washington Post (5 Mar 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/why-stem-is-not-enough-and-we-still-need-the-humanities/2012/03/04/gIQAniScrR_blog.html.  Accessed on May 10, 2012. See also C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and A Second Look (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963); Charles Babbage, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes (London: B. Fellowes, 1830).

                    [2] Edmund Russell, “Evolutionary History: Prospectus for a New Field,” Environmental History 8 (2003), 204-228.

                    [3] Joseph E. Taylor III, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle: Univesity of Washington Press, 1999).

                    [4] Anita Guerrini, “The Ethics of Animal Experimentation in Seventeenth Century England,” Journal of the History of Ideas 50:3 (1989), 391-407.  See also Anita Guerrini, Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

                    [5] Mark V. Barrow, Jr., Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

                    [6] Julianne Lutz Newton, Eric T. Freyfogle, and William C. Sullivan, “Land, Ecology, and Democracy: A Twenty-first Century View,” Politics and the Life Sciences 25:1/2 (2006), 42-56.  Julianne Lutz Newton, Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey: Rediscovering the Author of A Sand County Almanac (New York: Island Press, 2006).

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                      Roundtable: Toxic Bodies

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                        Our bodies may be toxic waste sites. Today we take it for granted that there are unwanted substances in our bodies, coming from things we’ve eaten, from drugs our doctors prescribed, from smog, or perhaps from our drinking water.  Yet we hope that poison is a matter of dose—that there is a threshold of safety, and that whatever we are carrying is below that threshold.  We willingly ingest food preservatives, hormones, and antibiotics, trusting that the experts know what they are doing.  After all, if scientists knew these substances to be harmful, governments would ban them.  True, there are reasons to be skeptical: we do not always trust governments to make the right decisions, we rarely count on corporations to be ethical entities, and we wonder if scientists have the knowledge, the will, or the power to make a difference.  But it is another thing entirely to imagine tossing out the whole notion of thresholds.  If the dose doesn’t make the poison, what does?

                        This question stands at the heart of Nancy Langston’s book, Toxic Bodies.  Langston tells us of the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES), a hormone disruptor that doctors prescribed to pregnant women for decades in the mid-twentieth century.  Although scientists knew of its potential risks, they were apparently impotent in the face of industry to persuade the U.S. government to impose federal regulations until long after there were names for the victims: DES daughters and DES sons. By the end of the twentieth century, scientists linked the disruption of hormones by synthetic chemicals such as DES to an array of problems: reproductive health in wildlife, birth defects in humans, increases in prostate cancer, infertility, and sexual maturity at young ages.  Because hormones regulate communication between cells and organs, disrupting them can have dire consequences in the development of animals and humans.

                        In telling the story of DES, Langston takes issue with the prevailing idea of threshold doses of exposure.  She links DES’s history to that of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and to the chemical compounds found in many plastics today.   These stories have commonalities, not simply in terms of corporate irresponsibility or scientific uncertainty, but in illustrating how the threshold view of environmental contamination continues to constrain our actions.  Langston argues for a new ecology of health emphasizing that “the body is enmeshed in a web of relationships, not isolated within a castle whose threshold can only be breached by a sustained attack from the outside” (p. 147).

                        I asked Mark Hamilton Lytle to comment on Toxic Bodies because of my own—and, I imagine, many others’—temptation to draw parallels between the histories of DES and DDT. Lytle’s exploration into Rachel Carson’s life in The Gentle Subversive highlights the dilemmas of setting up adversarial relationships with big industries.  The title for Silent Spring, for example, was almost The War Against Nature, and had started out as Man Against the Earth.  Even though Carson chose something more poetic than polemical for her title, Carson’s book amounted to a critique of corporate irresponsibility and government complicity.  Lytle writes that Carson “taught my generation to appreciate ecology or, what in the early 1960s biologist Paul Sears called, ‘the subversive science.’”[1]

                        Like Lytle, Frederick Rowe Davis has researched key figures in the history of conservation and environmental protection, but he also is an expert on the developing science of toxicology during the period discussed in Langston’s book.  Davis’s first book was on the savior of sea turtles, Archie Carr.  His latest project is on the relationship between pesticide use and the development of toxicology.  It has won substantial financial support from the National Institutes of Health, and will soon appear as Pesticides and Toxicology: A Century of Risk and Benefit.  While his first book was on the origins of conservation biology, the work on toxicology expands upon his 2001 Yale dissertation on risk assessment from 1936-1997.[2]

                        Thomas R. Dunlap has written numerous works in environmental history, often with a keen eye toward the history of science. In his 1981 study of DDT, he emphasized the ways in which citizens action groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, sought redress in courts and hearings rather than simply relying on publicity or education.  Over the years Dunlap has demonstrated wide-ranging expertise in environmental ideas, exemplified by his books Nature and the English Diaspora and Faith in Nature.  More recently he has returned to DDT with an edited collection of “classic texts” for the Weyerhaeuser series at University of Washington Press.[3]

                        Stephen Bocking is especially interested the development of scientific ideas, fully contextualized in social values and politics.  In his 1997 book Ecologists and Environmental Politics, he criticized historical outlooks that presented scientists (in Bocking’s study, ecologists in particular) as either exemplifying or opposing dominant social values.  Instead he proposed studying the diverse contexts in which they worked, fully embracing “the complexity of environmental politics and the historical contingency of the relationship between ecology and social values.” These contingencies, and the myriad problems of scientific authority, he discussed in a later book, Nature’s Experts.[4]

                        Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to thank all the roundtable participants for their participation and for their patience.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

                        This and other roundtables can be read in their entirety (for free) here.

                        [1] Mark Hamilton Lytle, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford, 2007), p. 237.

                        [2] Frederick Rowe Davis, The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology (New York: Oxford, 2007). Frederick Rowe Davis, Pesticides and Toxicology: Episodes in the Evolution of Environmental Risk Assessment (1937-1997) (Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, 2001).

                        [3] Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Thomas R. Dunlap, Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Thomas R. Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as a Religious Quest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004); Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT, Silent Spring, and the Rise of Environmentalism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

                        [4] Stephen Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (New Have: Yale, 1997). Quote on p. 203.  See also Stephen Bocking, Nature’s Experts: Science, Politics, and the Environment (Piscataway, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

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                          Roundtable: The Invention of Ecocide

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                            Thirty years ago, U.S. Air Force Major William A. Buckingham, Jr., published the first comprehensive history of Operation Ranch Hand—the codename for American spraying of herbicides over South Vietnam and Laos during the Vietnam war. Buckingham’s narrative was part science, part politics, and part military operations. Even that official history acknowledged that twenty percent of South Vietnam’s forests—including some thirty-six percent of its mangrove forests—received eighteen million gallons of the best plant killers that American chemical companies could furnish. Derived from the same compounds used in commercial weed killers, these chemical agents had unimaginative names: Agent Pink, Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent White, Agent Green—and most infamously, Agent Orange.  In the late 1960s, Agent Orange was identified by American scientists as carcinogenic, responsible for birth defects in the Vietnamese and for health problems among veterans.  There was no index entry for “ecocide” in Buckingham’s tale, but he did reflect on what remained to be done at the end of combat operations: “Finally, the ecological consequences and long-range health effects of the herbicide program had to be assessed, a process which still continues.”[1] Decades later, the same statement could be made, with the environmental and health impacts of these herbicides still contested, and the U.S. government taking slow steps to compensate selected veterans and to mitigate the environmental problems in Vietnam.[2] And yet, the U.S. government did eventually stop using Agent Orange during the war, and subsequently promised not to be the first to use herbicides in future wars.

                            In The Invention of Ecocide, David Zierler asks a straightforward question: why did the campaign against herbicidal warfare succeed?  His book places considerable responsibility on the scientists who invoked the notion of “ecocide”—the destruction of entire ecosystems in Vietnam.  As his subtitle suggests, their efforts went further—changing the way we think about the environment.  “Ecocide” implied a problem that was much bigger than particular health risks to human beings, and it may even have suggested a challenge of planetary proportions. And yet despite the employment of a word that invoked such calamity, Zierler notes, these scientists’ success may be due to their attempts to stand aloof from both the antiwar movement and the environmental movement.

                            Like Buckingham, Zierler published his study while employed by the United States government.  However, Zierler’s book is not an “official” history, and it originated in his research as a doctoral student at Temple University, prior to his work at the United States Department of State.

                            I asked Brian Balogh to comment on Zierler’s book because his work spans the history of technology and environmental history, engaging politics throughout.  Like The Invention of Ecocide, Balogh’s book Chain Reaction examines the public dimensions of science—in Balogh’s case, the interplay of expertise and public participation in the American debates about nuclear power.  In that work, Balogh pointed out that the public dimension of science is not simply a matter of experts educating the ignorant; instead, when these experts take the public stage, they give widespread attention to legitimate differences among scientists.  Balogh more recently has been exploring the environmental dimensions of these issues from the nineteenth century to the present.[3]

                            Amy M. Hay’s work is complementary to Zierler’s as well, because she is currently writing a history of American attitudes toward the Agent Orange controversy.  I was intrigued by the connections between this project and her prior work on community activism and public health at Love Canal—not just during the controversy there, but in the decades that followed.  Hay already has argued for widening our understanding of these controversies.  Regarding Love Canal, she underscored how public rhetoric drew from a sense of obligation to protect homes, children, and reproduction itself, while cultivating a strong connection between environmental damage and broader issues of social justice.[4] Aside from the obvious connection—toxic chemicals—I was particularly interested to have her comments on Zierler’s thesis about how “ecocide” entered scientific and public discourse.

                            I also wanted to solicit comments from experts on some of the important figures in Zierler’s book.  Michael Egan has written extensively about Barry Commoner, whose own warnings about environmental peril were rivaled only by (his rival) Paul Ehrlich.[5] In Egan’s telling, Commoner’s notoriety stemmed from his dissent from the mainstream, and he consistently railed against scientists who did not take their social responsibility seriously.  This stands in remarkable contrast with many of the scientists in Zierler’s book who characterized themselves as detached experts.  Egan’s current project on the global history of mercury pollution suggests a kind of ecological thinking that surely has one or two roots in the mangroves of Vietnam.

                            Finally, I was delighted that J. Brooks Flippen agreed to participate in this roundtable.  Over the past decade, Flippen’s Nixon and the Environment has become a standard work, and is an excellent entry point for those looking for an in-depth analysis of presidential policymaking on environmental issues.  One of Flippen’s central points was that Nixon’s environmental successes were half-hearted at best, targeting a constituency that his Vietnam policies had lost him. Another of his books, Conservative Conservationist, traces the career of Nixon’s environmental guru, Russell Train, through successive presidencies, and is an instructive guide through the evolution of “the environment” in American politics in the past half-century.[6]

                            Before turning to the reviews, I would like to thank all the roundtable participants.  Bringing one of these to fruition requires of them careful reading, insightful writing, collegiality, and considerable patience.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.  Download the PDF of the roundtable full review here or visit http://www.h-net.org/~environ/


                            [1] William A. Buckingham, Jr., Operation Ranch Hand: The Air Force and Herbicides in Southeast Asia, 1961-1971 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1982). See p. 184.

                            [2] “U.S. Helps Vietnam to Eradicate Deadly Agent Orange,” BBC News Asia-Pacific, online, 17 Jun 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13808753.  Accessed on February 10, 2012.

                            [3] Brian Balogh, Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American Commercial Nuclear Power, 1945-1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

                            [4] Amy M. Hay, “Recipe for Disaster: Motherhood and Citizenship at Love Canal,” Journal of Women’s History 21:1 (2009), 111-134; Amy M. Hay, “A New Earthly Vision: Religious Community Activism in the Love Canal Chemical Disaster,” Environmental History 14:3 (2009), 502-527.

                            [5] Michael Egan, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).

                            [6] J. Brooks Flippen, Nixon and the Environment (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000); J. Brooks Flippen, Conservative Conservationist: Russell E. Train and the Emergence of American Environmentalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006).

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                              Roundtable: In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers

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                                Global warming has become the stuff of history.  While politicians and scientists hash out the details and jockey for authority, historians are beginning to integrate contemporary global warming into existing historical narratives.  Granted, there have been climate changes in the past, and these have entered the historical record with names such as the Medieval Climate Anomaly and Little Ice Age.  Such events continue to fascinate historians, scientists and politicians alike, because they seem to offer insight on the crucial question of what causes climate change.[1] Yet our obsession with causes might divert attention from effects.  Or better yet, it can blind us to the importance of environmental change itself as a cause for the unfolding of power relations in various parts of the world.

                                In his recent book, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers, Mark Carey identifies glacial retreat as a historical reality that has played a substantial role in the political, economic, and social dramas of South America.  Carey’s book challenges us to think less like climate modelers and more like historians, anthropologists, and geographers.  Understanding the true effects of climate change “requires knowledge of distinct societies,” he writes, along with their particular governments, institutions, scientific knowledge, religious values, and all the other trappings of life (p. 5).  Doing so might seem like a daunting task, but Carey takes up the challenge with relish, and delivers an analysis of how disasters wrought by glacial retreat have refashioned both the natural and political landscapes of the Peruvian Andes in the twentieth century.

                                The gallery of commentators assembled here is truly interdisciplinary.  I asked anthropologist Julie Cruikshank to contribute because of her work on glaciers in an entirely different society, the Yukon Territory of Canada.  She has spent years exploring the tensions between indigenous knowledge and Western science.  In her 2005 book Do Glaciers Listen? she outlined the conflicts of worldviews between indigenous peoples who attributed spiritual, sentient qualities to glaciers, and colonial Europeans who treated them as inanimate objects.  Her work also has shown how divergent historical narratives have represented power struggles between indigenous people and Westerners.[2]

                                Shawn Van Ausdal is a geographer, and his work takes us closer to the scene of the action in Carey’s book. He is the only one of the commentators to be physically located in the region, though in the Colombian rather than Peruvian Andes.  His writing explores the relationship between economic systems and the environment, and like Carey he confronts the competing political ideologies behind economic projects and business ventures.  For example, he rejects as a stereotype the notion that cattle ranching in Colombia served mainly as a tool of territorial expansion.  Instead, he has used corporate archives to demonstrate what he calls “the logic of livestock,” namely that it was indeed intended to turn a profit.[3]

                                Eve Buckley’s work has been at the intersection of environmental history, the history of science and technology, and the history of Brazil.  Like Carey, she investigates the political motivations and implications of major public works projects, such as roads and dams. Her work has demonstrated how civil engineers in Brazil, true technological optimists, believed that such works would lessen social inequality in rural, impoverished areas, by giving them access to urban areas and services.  And yet the influx of federal money actually had the opposite effect, by increasing elites’ control over land, water sources, and labor.  This work highlights the political uses of science by “reigning powerbrokers,” revealing how contingent regional development schemes have been upon local politics and culture.[4]

                                As a final commentator, I asked geographer Gregory Knapp to contribute, given his longstanding interest in the region’s peoples and environmental conditions.  Knapp has written numerous accounts of the Andes, covering vast stretches of time from prehistory to the present.  This has included reconstructions of past farming practices and attempts to map indigenous territories using census data.  He also has written at length on the “adaptive dynamics” of cultures in the Andes region, revealing how peoples (particularly in Ecuador) have changed their food production strategies over time.  Methodologically, he has blended historical documents, ethnography, soil analysis, and mathematical modeling to produce convincing portraits of how societies have adapted not only to environmental conditions but also to changing views of territorial rights and labor practices.[5]

                                Before turning to the comments, I would like to extend my thanks to Mark Carey and all the participants in this roundtable, for writing in the spirit of productive debate and dialogue. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge.  (read the PDF of the full roundtable here) or browse other roundtables at http://www.h-net.org/~environ/

                                [1] Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Scott Rutherford, Raymond S. Bradley, Malcolm K. Hughes, Drew Shindell, Caspar Ammann, Greg Faluvegi, and Fenbiao Ni, “Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly,” Science 326:5957 (2009), 1256-1260.

                                [2] Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005).  See also Julie Cruikshank, “Images of Society in Klondike Gold Rush Narratives: Skookum Jim and the Discovery of Gold,” Ethnohistory 39:1 (1992), 20-41.

                                [3] Shawn Van Ausdal, “Pasture, Profit, and Power: An Environmental History of Cattle Ranching in Colombia, 1850-1950” Geoforum 40:5, 2009, 707-719.

                                [4] Eve E. Buckley, “Political Impediments to Technological Diffusion in Northeast Brazil, 1909-1964,” Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 7:2 (2009), 146-171.

                                [5] Gregory Knapp, Geografia Quichua de la Sierra del Ecuador (Quito: Ediciones Abya Yala, 1987).  Gregory Knapp, Andean Ecology: Adaptive Dynamics in Ecuador (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991).

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                                  Roundtable: Fixing the Sky

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                                    In 1968, the Whole Earth Catalog proclaimed “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”  Amidst the environmental crisis of the 1960s, the publication’s founder Stewart Brand wanted to provide access to tools, and he was remarkably friendly to technological solutions.  His kind of environmentalism drew from human ingenuity and achievement, and unlike many of the commentators of that era, he was optimistic about a future in human hands.  In more recent years, Brand and others have argued forcefully in favor of “geoengineering.”  If the planet is changing for the worst, they maintain, let’s use our know-how to make it better.[1]

                                    If climate change mitigation through political agreement has no hope of succeeding, does tinkering with the climate make sense?  In May 2011, the National Research Council (of the U.S.’s National Academies) published the final part of its report, America’s Climate Choices.  The report called for more research on ways to manage not only greenhouse gases but also the solar radiation reaching the earth.  And yet despite the call for research, the report unequivocally described any near-term attempts to manipulate the earth as “imprudent,” and any long-term planning based upon them as “unwise.”[2]

                                    After reading James Rodger Fleming’s Fixing the Sky, it is clear that such ideas have tempted scientists and natural philosophers for centuries and more.  In his telling, some of these folks come across as charlatans, others as well-meaning dreamers, and very few as wise.  Fleming is best known for his work in the history of meteorology, including Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (Oxford, 2005) and Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (Johns Hopkins, 2000).  He also is the biographer of Guy Stewart Callendar, one of the key figures in the history of the science of global warming.[3] Fleming’s skepticism toward weather and climate control is evident throughout Fixing the Sky, and it is hard to come away from it with anything but a jaded view of the modern era’s penchant for problem-solving on a gargantuan scale.

                                    I asked Ted Steinberg to comment upon Fixing the Sky because of his close familiarity with many of the weather engineers in Fleming’s book, particularly the cloud seeders.  But also, Steinberg already has raised tough questions about the line between natural and human-induced change.  In Acts of God, Steinberg pointed out the numerous ways in which natural disasters are linked to human activities, and he showed that people still cling to the belief that most calamities are accidental.  Such a view places disasters “outside the moral compass of our culture,” he writes, constraining our sense of responsibility.[4]

                                    R. S. Deese shares with Fleming the notion that controversies about expertise and the environment often turn on the notion of hubris.  On the one hand, scientists have faith in their ability to manage the world.  On the other hand rests a deep and abiding skepticism—and a suspicion that scientists are changing the world in harmful ways.  Deese has explored this tension through two brothers, both quite famous within their own domains: Julian Huxley, the first director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; and Aldous Huxley, renowned for his critique of a society driven by scientific expertise in Brave New World.[5]

                                    Matthew Farish’s recent book, The Contours of America’s Cold War, takes the notion of control to its extreme, showing the extent of the militarization of academic disciplines in the United States after World War II.[6] In Farish’s telling, the ever-increasing spatial knowledge of the globe served the interests of the state, leading to a transformation of the social sciences. Reading Farish alongside Fleming, it is easy to see why geographers and weather “fixers” alike rarely lacked military funding.

                                    Paul Edwards has written extensively about notions of control in the era after World War II.  In The Closed World, he traced the discourse of command and control from the electronic battlefield of Vietnam to the visions of a vengeful Skynet in the Terminator films.  More recently, he has extended this work into the realm of climate modeling, to show how the science of global warming has evolved based on an extraordinarily broad range of data only comprehensible through computer analyses.[7]

                                    I offer my thanks to James Rodger Fleming and all the commentators, who have provided their thoughts with an eye toward increasing scholarly dialogue.  As an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, free of charge.  This particular subject is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.  We will revisit ways to “fix” the sky again and again, as the climate evolves under our influence.

                                    Read the whole roundtable as pdf here or visit H-Environment.

                                    [1] Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011); Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering are Necessary (New York: Penguin, 2010).

                                    [2] National Research Council, America’s Climate Choices (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2011), 53.

                                    [3] James Rodger Fleming, The Callendar Effect: The Life and Work of Guy Stewart Callendar (1898-1964) (American Meteorological Society, 2009).

                                    [4] Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: the Unnatural History of Natural Disaster (New York: Oxford, 2000), xix.

                                    [5] R. S. Deese, “The New Ecology of Power: Julian and Aldous Huxley in the Cold War Era,” in J. R. McNeill and Corinna Unger, eds., Environmental Histories of the Cold War (Cambridge, 2010), 279-300.

                                    [6] Matthew Farish, The Contours of America’s Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

                                    [7] Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997); Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010).

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                                      Roundtable: Merchants of Doubt

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                                        In his Discourse on Method, René Descartes famously propounded that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt.  Though he acknowledged the value of subjecting any truth to scrutiny, he distanced himself from those who would “doubt only that they may doubt, and seek nothing beyond uncertainty itself.”[1] And yet today who doesn’t use uncertainty in opportunistic ways?  Doubts and uncertainties are routinely played up to illuminate dangers, to point toward fruitful avenues of research, or simply to gain funding for a research project or summer salary.  Doubt also has been useful for tobacco companies who resist linking cigarettes to cancer, and to big agribusinesses that wish to tone down links between health problems and the array of strange substances that end up in our food.  And of course, doubt is the fuel for climate change skeptics.

                                        The science of climate change—and its human causes—appears to be a matter of dispute, percolating up to the top tiers of political discussion.  In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was not willing to attribute climate change to human causes.  Since then, several prominent figures in the so-called Tea Party movement have explicitly rejected the science of climate change.  At best, they describe the issue as “not settled.”[2]

                                        In a 2004 Science article reporting on nearly a thousand peer-reviewed papers on climate change, Naomi Oreskes found no evidence of dissent to the view that humans were causing climate change.  The notion that there remained substantive disagreement about the reality of anthropogenic climate change, she maintained, was simply incorrect.[3]

                                        So why do we continue to talk about the debate over global warming as if it remains a scientific controversy?  It is easy to explain why politicians, economists, and global oil corporations might want to do away the science of climate change.  But what is the basis of the scientific counterpoint to the “consensus” view outlined by Oreskes?  This is the subject of Merchants of Doubt, a team effort by Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, the historian of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Aside from her Science article, Oreskes is best known by historians for her work on the history of continental drift, plate tectonics, and oceanography, while Conway is known for his work on the atmospheric sciences and the history of technology.  They bring to bear their expertise as historians of the sciences of land, sea, and air, though the book is for a wide audience and published by a trade press.

                                        The authors attribute most of the responsibility for climate science skepticism to very small group of people who exercised a powerful influence not only in the debates over global warming, but also in earlier disputes such as the carcinogenic effects of tobacco smoke.  Their thesis is bound to be controversial, and in fact it already has stirred up both praise and scorn.  A hint of their thesis had appeared in the journal Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (HSNS), in which Oreskes, Conway, and then co-author Matthew Shindell singled out physicist (and former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography) William Nierenberg for shaping major scientific reports on climate change to fit his conservative views.[4] This work came under fire on the web and in print because Nierenberg’s son, Nicolas Nierenberg, disagreed with their characterization, claiming that they took a great deal out of context.  He then teamed up with Walter and Victoria Tschinkel to write a long rejoinder, also in HSNS, attempting to show that Nierenberg’s views were not out of step with those of other scientists writing the report.[5] Now with Merchants of Doubt, we have the story fleshed out on a larger scale, on subjects ranging from DDT to tobacco smoke and climate change.

                                        I asked Spencer Weart to comment upon Merchants of Doubt because of his long association with the history of the physical sciences, as former director of the Center for the History of Physics, at the American Institute of Physics.  Scholars of nuclear power and weapons will know Weart’s work from Nuclear Fear.[6] More recently, he authored an exhaustive web-based history of the questions, patronage strategies, and political dimensions of the science of climate change.  A much-shortened version became a book, The Discovery of Global Warming.[7]

                                        Mark Carey’s work also crosses over between environmental history and the history of science.  His 2007 article “The History of Ice: How Glaciers became an Endangered Species,” won the Leopold-Hidy prize for best article in Environmental History.[8] Rather than debate the reality of climate change, he investigates how people in a high-impact area such as the Peruvian Andes have dealt with it, sometimes with the aid of scientific advice and sometimes despite it.  Carey’s own recent book In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers, will be the subject of a future roundtable.[9]

                                        Neil M. Maher works at the intersection of environmental history and the history of technology.  He shares with Erik Conway a deep interest in the technology of space exploration and its connection to environmental issues. He is currently writing a political and environmental history of the space race. His previous book, Nature’s New Deal, won the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Book Award for the best book on conservation history.[10]

                                        And finally, Ronald E. Doel has published extensively on science during the Cold War era, with particular attention to the earth and environmental sciences.[11] When he was postdoctoral fellow at the American Institute of Physics he spent many hours interviewing scientists who were important in climate research.  Those of us who have utilized these and others’ oral histories know how useful they are as resources in the history of recent science.[12] Since then, Doel has devoted considerable energy to highlighting the opportunities and difficulties in writing about recent science, and is the co-editor of The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology and Medicine: Writing Recent Science.[13]

                                        I thank the participants for sharing their time and energy to comment on Merchants of Doubt.  As an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, free of charge.  I hope that this particular roundtable is perceived as one round, neither the first nor the last, of an ongoing conversation about the connection between historical scholarship and today’s environmental issues.  Read the PDF of the full roundtable here, or browse all the roundtables at http://www.h-net.org/~environ/

                                        [1] René Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, trans. by John Veitch (Chicago: Open Court, 1910), 30.

                                        [2] John M. Broder, “Climate Change Doubt is Tea Party Article of Faith,” New York Times (20 Oct 2010).  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html

                                        [3] Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science 306:5702 (2004), 1686.

                                        [4] Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway, and Matthew Shindell, “From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, Global Warming, and the Social Deconstruction of Scientific Knowledge,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38:1 (2008), 109-152.

                                        [5] Nicolas Nierenberg, Walter R. Tschinkel, and Victoria J. Tschinkel, “Early Climate Change Consensus at the National Academy: the Origins and Making of Changing Climate,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 40:3 (2010), 318-349.

                                        [6] Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

                                        [7] Weart’s full site is here: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm.  The short version is Spencer R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).

                                        [8] Mark Carey, “The History of Ice: How Glaciers became an Endangered Species,” Environmental History 12:3 (2007), 497-527.

                                        [9] Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

                                        [10] Neil Maher, Nature’s New Deal: Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

                                        [11] For example, see Ronald E. Doel, “Constituting the Postwar Earth Sciences: the Military’s Influence on the Environmental Sciences in the USA after 1945,” Social Studies of Science 33:5 (2003), 635-666.

                                        [12] These oral histories are available through the Niels Bohr Library and Archives.  http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/transcripts.html

                                        [13] Ronald E. Doel and Thomas Söderqvist, eds., The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology, and Medicine: Writing Recent Science (New York: Routledge, 2006).



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                                          Roundtable: Mosquito Empires

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                                            This inaugural roundtable for H-Environment centers upon one of the key concepts that students and scholars of environmental history confront: environmental determinism.  Many found their way to the field after reading Alfred W. Crosby’s 1972 The Columbian Exchange, which brought plants, animals, and diseases out of the footnotes and into a prominent place in the grand sweep of history.  In that book, Europeans gained syphilis from North America while Native Americans gained smallpox.  Europeans gained tomatoes and chocolate, while Native Americans gained large beasts of burden.  Some of these ideas Crosby later disavowed (particularly his emphasis on syphilis).  However, most of the book, especially its overall premise, has stood the test of time for several decades.  It was a kind of approach to history that emphasized how biological entities had lives of their own, often determining outcomes in human history beyond the usual political, social, and economic explanations.  Younger scholars may have encountered this perspective more recently, due to high-profile books emphasizing the importance of geography and climate in the development of societies, as with the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.[1]

                                            For J. R. McNeill, the key influence clearly was Crosby.  As he wrote in a forward to the 2003 edition of The Columbian Exchange, “My first encounter with the book came on a rainy afternoon in 1982 when I picked it off of a shoulder-high shelf in an office I temporarily occupied. I read it in one gulp, neglecting the possibility of supper.  Only rarely can I recall precisely the circumstances in which I read a book long ago, but The Columbian Exchange, and the sense of excitement it provoked in me, etched itself into my memory.”[2] We can also see influence upon McNeill by a later book by Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, which emphasized the myriad ways in which biological exchanges could be asymmetrical, benefiting some while crippling others.[3] McNeill has applied this approach toward answering one of the tough problems of colonial and Caribbean history: why were powerful Atlantic powers unable to dislodge the waning Spanish empire in the Caribbean during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, despite numerous costly efforts to do so?

                                            The result is Mosquito Empires, a book that spans nearly three centuries and the histories of many peoples, nations, and empires in the American tropical world.  As the title suggests, it places considerable responsibility for the course of events upon mosquitoes, those formidable vectors of yellow fever and malaria.  McNeill’s focus is on differential resistance—an inequality in disease susceptibility that killed off some humans while others soldiered on unperturbed.  It not only reinforced the status quo before the late eighteenth century, disallowing serious imperial reconfigurations, but also strengthened independence movements from the 1770s onward.

                                            I approached Lisa Brady to comment upon Mosquito Empires because she has demonstrated a keen interest in the intersections between war and the environment.  Her article “The Wilderness of War” explained the relationship between nature and strategy in ways beyond the usual determinants of the battlefield such as terrain and weather.  Instead she argued that nature, physically and conceptually, assumed an active role in warfare, particularly in the American Civil War.  Like McNeill, she highlighted not simply the constraints of the environmental factors upon conflict, but their psychological importance, as when General Sherman’s march to the sea laid waste to what she called “the ecological foundation of the Confederacy.”[4] In her review of McNeill she applies this expertise in Civil War history to assess the impact of differential immunity in the “Greater Caribbean,” which includes the American South.

                                            Stuart McCook has written extensively about the process of nation-building in the Spanish Caribbean during the same period that McNeill investigates.  For McCook, the key story has been the development what he called “creole science,” a cooperative relationship between scientists and agricultural elites as they attempted to maintain agricultural, export-based economies.   McCook has made clear that the ability to exert power in the Caribbean has often depended upon the ability to understand nature and the desire to control it.[5]

                                            Richard Tucker’s work also has honed in on the tropical world, though not limited to the Caribbean.  His work has educated numerous scholars—and more of my own undergraduates than I can count—on the disturbing effects of viewing nature as a commodity in a global capitalist economy.  Whereas McNeill emphasizes the ability of empires, governments and armies to dig in for the long term, Tucker has written about the dislocations of power in the region due to corporations and expanding markets.[6]

                                            Paul Sutter’s work has ranged quite broadly, from cars and the twentieth-century wilderness movement to the history of American imperialism in the tropics.  Like McNeill, he has devoted considerable attention to the significance of insects and disease vectors in the projection of power in the Caribbean.  A recent article in Isis, the recipient of the Alice Hamilton Prize (of the American Society for Environmental History), explores the role of entomological workers in combating yellow fever and malaria in the Panama Canal Zone.  Sutter wrote that scientists were not just attempting to control nature, but that the threat from nature was a direct result of American practices in the Zone.[7] This perspective is shared by McNeill, who makes clear in Mosquito Empires that imperialism itself, particularly the transformation of landscapes to support agriculture for export, created ideal environments for mosquitoes and the diseases they carried.

                                            Before turning to the comments and response, I wish to thank all five contributors to this roundtable for their thoughtful comments.  Their willingness to raise issues for scholarly discussion and debate will undoubtedly aid in creating fruitful dialogue about the shifts in power and ecological relationships during this long and tumultuous period.

                                            Read the whole roundtable here or visit H-Environment.

                                            [1] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

                                            [2] J. R. McNeill, “Forward,” in Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003), xi-xvi. Quote on p. xii.

                                            [3] Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

                                            [4] Lisa M. Brady, “The Wilderness of War: Nature and Strategy in the American Civil War,” Environmental History 10:3 (2005), 441-427.

                                            [5] Stuart McCook, States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

                                            [6] Richard P. Tucker, Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World, Concise revised edition (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).

                                            [7] Paul S. Sutter, “Nature’s Agents or Agents of Empire? Entomological Workers and Environmental Change during the Construction of the Panama Canal,” Isis 98:4 (2007), 724-753.

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