January 19, 2018

Archives for December 2016

Faces of the Climate Movement


In September 2011, an environmental group uploaded a video on YouTube titled Tar Sands Action: Phase One.1 The first image in the three-minute film shows a group of protesters sitting quietly in the rain in front of the White House holding a banner that reads “NO TAR SANDS” (figure 1). In the following scenes, police handcuff three protesters as the voice of environmentalist Bill McKibben is heard in the background. “Because of what you’ve done over the past few weeks,” he says, “an issue that really wasn’t a national issue has emerged as the … crux test between now and the election for Barack Obama and a real chance for once to make a dent in the carbon pouring into the atmosphere.” Later clips show additional arrests, more protesters with signs, and short clips of activists addressing the crowd. Yet perhaps the most striking images are the many tight close-ups of individual activists staring mute into the camera, their faces expressionless.

The video was one of many produced in the summer and fall of 2011 by Tar Sands Action, an organization closely affiliated with 350.org, a climate group created by McKibben and seven Middlebury College students in 2007.2 Tar Sands Action released the video shortly after the end of two weeks of sit-ins at the White House where police …

by Robert M. Wilson

Robert M. Wilson is an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University and author of Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010). His current research examines the coalition of groups that make up the American climate movement.

Full text (HTML) >> Full text (PDF) >> Extract on Oxford Journals >>

The Torrey Canyon Disaster, Everyday Life, and the “Greening” of Britain


This article challenges the predominant narrative of the rise of modern environmentalism that supports much of the historiography on environmental ideas and movements. Through a study of the effects of the Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967, we show that everyday life is a vital mediator of environmental catastrophes and has played a crucial role in rendering ambiguous popular attitudes toward the impact of disasters on the natural world. Using oral interview evidence, neglected by much environmental history, we trace the connections between the experience of the disaster and the contradictory ways in which this experience was or, more commonly, was not translated into environmentalist sensibility. We study the ways in which everyday concerns about economic insecurity created antagonistic understandings of the disaster that both magnified its unfortunate impact and complicated its subsequent


meaning. We argue that attitudes toward the spill and its effects on nature were often contradictory. On the one hand, there was a powerful association with the suffering of wildlife affected by the spill. Yet, simultaneously, many of those interviewed rejected explicit environmental activism or drew only weak lines of connection between green ideas and their own experience of environmental disaster. We suggest that everyday environmental discourse should be seen as more geographically specific, ambiguous, and self-aware than that which is traditionally associated with the conservation movement, and that oral history can be a vital tool in developing a more sophisticated understanding of the complex social nature of modern environmentalism.

by Timothy Cooper and Anna Green

Full text (HTML) >> Full text (PDF) >> Abstract on Oxford Journals >>

Engaging and Narrating the Antarctic Ice Sheet: The History of an Earthly Body


First explored at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Antarctic ice sheet is the largest body of ice in the world and plays a significant part in the earth’s atmospheric and oceanic processes. With its massive spatial and temporal scales, the ice sheet has challenged human attempts to conceptualize and understand it; the ice sheet’s dynamic responses to global warming have further challenged understanding. While there has been a substantial increase in knowledge, there has also been a continuous thread of dealing with the unknown and imaginative aspects of the ice sheet. This article explores the history of scientific engagements with and narrations of the Antarctic ice sheet since the early twentieth century. It looks at two aspects. First, it examines the ways in which explorers and scientists have come to understand the ice sheet as a spatial entity, particularly noting the limits of human engagements along lines of movement with particular technologies. Second, this article examines the ways in which the ice sheet has been understood as an entity in time, a stable or unstable earthly body with geo-histories and potential futures, with changing narrations over time. I argue that we must recognize that the Antarctic ice sheet, although manifestly objective and present in the world, had to be conceptualized and made.

by Alessandro Antonello

Full text (HTML) >> Full text (PDF) >> Abstract on Oxford Journals >>

“A Fighter Pilot’s Heaven”: Finding Cold War Utility in the North African Desert


During the Cold War, the United States constructed an unprecedented network of military bases around the world. This expansion forced US policymakers to rethink not only their strategic interests around the world, but also the environments they would encompass. Perhaps nowhere was this more obvious than in Libya, where in the late 1940s the US Air Force began building a massive installation on the shores of Tripoli. This is not, however, the now familiar story of how military bases impact ecosystems. Instead I am interested in the ways that US officials in Libya used ideas about this novel environment—the desert—to justify the appropriation of sovereign


territory for military facilities. By comparing US and European views on the Libya environment, I argue that the Americans developed a utilitarian view of the desert that enabled ever-more militarization. By the 1960s, large swaths of the Sahara had been converted into testing and practice ranges. Similar to military facilities in the American West, the Air Force hid its Cold War installations away in the desert. So effective was this strategy, in fact, that the existence of these facilities remains difficult to uncover today.

by Gretchen Heefner

Full text (HTML) >> Full text (PDF) >> Abstract on Oxford Journals >>

“A Catastrophe Happening in Front of Our Very Eyes”: The Environmental History of a Comet Crash on Jupiter



Earth is part of a vast cosmic environment, thus environmental history should embrace the whole universe. This article argues that changes in environments far removed from Earth have had profound consequences for human history. It explores complex intellectual, cultural, and political responses to the collision between Jupiter and the fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. In 1993 the discovery of the disintegrated comet was made possible by environmental changes in the vicinity of Jupiter, and by scientific, technological, and cultural developments that changed what astronomers looked for in the heavens. When scientists realized that the comet’s remnants would collide with Jupiter, they set up an unprecedented observation program. The impacts of the cometary fragments in July 1994 altered scholarly understandings both of the solar system and of Earth’s natural history. Millions of people followed the collisions not only in traditional media, but also online, in a breakthrough moment for the early internet. Others directly viewed the impacts through small telescopes and binoculars in ways that transformed how they understood the security of life on Earth. Political responses to the collisions intensified existing programs for detecting Earth-approaching objects, which made possible government and corporate initiatives aimed at exploiting the alien environments of those objects. By revealing the fragile nature of earthly environments, environmental changes in one part of the solar system may provoke humans to change environments in another.

by Dagomar Degroot

Full text (HTML) >> Full text (PDF) >> Abstract on Oxford Journals >>

Forgotten Paths of Empire: Ecology, Disease, and Commerce in the Making of Liberia’s Plantation Economy: President’s Address


This essay follows the journey of a 1926 Harvard expedition to Liberia and also the more recent journey of its remains—nearly six hundred photographs and more than two hours of motion picture footage. My goal is to make visible the forgotten paths of empire that led to widespread economic, environmental, and cultural change in the West African republic of Liberia. In tracing the transnational flows of capital, knowledge, commodities, and microbes associated with the rise of industrial plantations instrumental in advancing American economic and political interests across the globe, I offer a materialist approach to the history of scientific


ideas and objects that takes both epistemology and environmental change seriously. The transformation of landscapes on an industrial scale was critical, I argue, in bringing ecological and evolutionary understandings of disease into being. And the photographs and film footage left behind have the potential to acquire new agency and meaning as they bring forth stories from Liberians that reanimate places and give voice to ancestors, who were much more than laboring bodies, reservoirs of biological specimens, or objects of a scientific gaze.

by Gregg Mitman

Full text (HTML) >> Full text (PDF) >> Abstract on Oxford Journals >>