July 28, 2017

Editor’s Note January 2017 by Lisa Brady

History allows us to journey to the far off, the unfamiliar, the umapped, and unexplored. Each of this issue’s essays examines a place that may be nearby and well known to some readers, but to those inside these narratives—to those about whom they are written—the landscapes were new and, depending on perspective, full of promise or peril. For us, the readers, these essays may introduce novel environments or places, or they may reintroduce familiar landscapes through unique lenses, methodologies, or sources. In either case, they offer original insight into the ways in which human societies interact with and perceive the non-human world.

In his compelling 2015 ASEH Presidential Address, Gregg Mitman takes us to Liberia, where we follow the trail of the Harvard African Expedition of 1926, one of America’s “forgotten paths of empire.” That expedition sought to understand the ecological and medical implications of the recently introduced rubber plantations that connected Liberia with Central and North America through the flows of capital, commodities, and disease. Mitman argues that the introduction of industrial plantation agriculture—primarily to support the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company—transformed Liberia’s physical and cultural landscapes and contributed to new ecological and evolutionary understandings of disease. Mitman also suggests that the expedition was one of the critical imperial routes the United States blazed, one that left behind material evidence of its history not only in the plantations’ plants, diseases, and landscapes, but also in the form of a rich archive of images, both still and moving. This “imperial debris” has new purpose in Mitman’s larger project, the public history initiative A Liberian Journey: History, Memory, and the Making of a Nation, which makes these images, as well as oral histories, documents, and other materials freely available through the website. In telling the history of these material artifacts as well as the context within which they were created, Mitman provides an important map for how to connect academic and public scholarship, a path many of us may wish to travel but feel ill prepared to navigate.

In “‘A catastrophe happening in front of our very eyes’,” Dagomar Degroot also focuses on images, pictures he argues transformed our perceptions of and relationship to the universe. Degroot suggests that the photos taken of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) comet, fragments of which collided with Jupiter in mid-1994, had a powerful effect on how scientists and the general public understood the solar system as well as Earth’s environment. Degroot persuasively argues that the SL9 images, both as scientific data and as cultural artifacts, raised questions about the Earth in relation to other cosmic bodies, highlighting the planet’s vulnerability and inspiring “the mental and imminent material colonization of diverse environments across the solar system.” A major reason for the images’ influence was their ready availability through the new technology of the Internet. Professional and amateur astronomers around the world could both access and share data collected during what came to be called “Impact Week.” Beyond documenting changes in Jupiter’s environment, the events of 1994 reinvigorated interest in learning about the cosmos, a development Degroot urges environmental historians to take seriously. Degroot avers that environmental historians “are uniquely qualified to disentangle complex connections between human histories and environmental changes beyond Earth” and urges us to forge new paths in our research. “By examining human responses to environmental changes in outer space,” Degroot concludes, “environmental historians can fruitfully test both the conceptual boundaries and methodological distinctiveness of their discipline.”

Like Degroot, Gretchen Heefner explores transformations in environmental perception. In her article, “‘A fighter pilot’s heaven’,” Heefner analyzes the process through which the United States appropriated the Libyan desert for its own strategic uses by characterizing it as a wasteland, an environment suited for nothing other than military purposes. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, US military and diplomatic advisers in the region rejected earlier colonial depictions of the desert as a degraded environment created by local mismanagement, ripe for redemption through Western innovation; instead, they suggested that it was naturally deficient and “argued that given its grim agricultural and industrial potential, Libya’s best option was to sell off its location and sections of territory for strategic installations.” This new utilitarian view persuaded the cash-strapped Libyan government and its desert thus became one of the most important training grounds for the US Air Force during the Cold War. Heefner artfully narrates these shifts in both depictions and uses of the Libyan desert, revealing that ideas and material realities work together to manifest environmental change. “The sand and the environment were factors in how people made decisions; it shaped their perceptions about Libya and served to explain and justify decisions made about the region’s future,” she argued. “People did not act despite the desert; they acted because of it.”

Although a vastly different environment from Libya’s desert, Antarctica, too, has undergone a number of definitional changes, all of which have affected the ways humans have related to it. In “Engaging and Narrating the Antarctic Ice Sheet,” Alessandro Antonello traces the various paths explorers and scientists have taken physically and intellectually to understand the polar continent and its vast ice sheet. Merging spatial and temporal analyses, Antonello contends that although “manifestly objective and present in the world,” the Antarctic ice sheet has also been “conceptualized and made.” Over the course of a century of exploration and investigation, simplistic descriptions of Antarctica as an empty continent have given way to characterizations of the ice sheet as diverse and changing. Essential to this process are the panoply of technologies—from sledges to satellites—that have mediated the researchers’ interactions with the ice. By juxtaposing the material and the conceptual, Antonello makes a convincing argument for rigorous investigation into both how and by whom environmental knowledge is generated as well as into the implications of allowing narratives to be dominated by a small subset of society, scientists in the case of Antarctica. If we understand the processes behind the creation of these narratives, then we can more clearly see the complexity of the ice, one that embodies a “fullness … of materiality and physicality, scale and volume, and of time, history, and futures.”

Our final essay, by Timothy Cooper and Anna Green, tracks locals’ responses to the wreck of the Torrey Canyon oil tanker off the coast of Cornwall in March 1967 and their path toward an “everyday environmentalism”. Using oral histories, which Cooper and Green contend play too small a role in environmental history research, they reveal complex and contradictory reactions by residents of the towns affected by the oil spill and the toxic detergents used to clean up the disaster. These communities relied heavily on tourism and the spill threatened to undermine their economic foundations. Thus, while the spill’s harmful effects on wildlife and the coastal ecosystem dismayed residents, many were more concerned by the potential consequences the disaster would have to their livelihoods and thereby supported the use of the detergents to save the upcoming tourist season. These competing anxieties illustrate the importance of place and circumstance to the evolution of environmental consciousness. Indeed, Cooper and Green suggest “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 persuasively argue that “oral history can be a vital tool in developing a more sophisticated understanding of the complex social nature of modern environmentalism.”

Faces of the Climate Movement

Extract

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

Abstract

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

Abstract

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

Abstract

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

degrootfig2-550

Abstract

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

Abstract

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 >>

Photographing Slow Disaster: Zoe Strauss’s Grand Isle Beach by Ellen Stroud

stroudfig1x550

Extract

The shock of orange shouts a warning: Danger. Pay Attention. You might miss it, so be careful and Look. Grand Isle Beach by photographer Zoe Strauss is a brown and gray beach scene, cut sharply by an orange gash (figure 1). What are those bright, odd, out-of-place plastic tubes running parallel to the waves? Are they pipes, carrying something foul or expensive across the sand? Are they a barrier, keeping poison away from water? Barring a toxin from reaching land? Would the beach be beautiful without them, or bland? Are they temporary, or are they now a fixture in this place?

The ambiguous orange stripe and the distant horizon between sea and sky trisect this photograph into a series of tidy strips: the solid land on which the viewer stands, perhaps on the side of safety, or possibly amid disaster; a chaotic middle stripe, with the orange plastic barrier, sand being lapped by waves, and bubbling water that may be dangerous, or is perhaps being shielded from harm; and then sky. Wherever it is that the danger lies, we are on the sandy side of the barrier, the place that has no water and no sky, and something troubling is happening in that middle band, just beyond our reach.

Strauss made this image along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in the summer of 2010. On that same trip, she photographed flames in the water, oil speckling the beach, and …

by Ellen Stroud

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

Capital in Nature/Nature by Capital: Global Integration and New Zealand’s Forests, 1870–2000 by John Weaver

weaverx550

Abstract

From earliest colonization, New Zealand’s forests have been altered by timber merchants, land-hunting settlers, acculturation societies, and plantation enthusiasts. Many stages in remaking the forests involved the state. From 1920 forward, the State Forest Service established pine plantations; these extensive tracts of introduced species inspired private corporations that planted further acreage. A salubrious climate allowed radiata pine in particular to mature in thirty rather than sixty years. Consequently, by the early 1950s, public and private forestry industries, managing immense plantations, emerged as substantial employers and town builders in the central North Island. A Labour Party government in the late 1980s resolved to privatize the state plantation forests for fiscal reasons and to end the conflict of interest that existed with locating conservation and commercialization in a single Department of Forests. The decision to sell forests precipitated impassioned debates about national identity, recreation, aesthetics, the organization of industry, the paternalism of state forestry towns, and the relations of Māori with the state.

by John Weaver

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

Nature’s Emporium: The Botanical Drug Trade and the Commons Tradition in Southern Appalachia, 1847–1917 by Luke Manget

mangetfig6x550

Abstract

From the 1840s through the end of the nineteenth century, the southern Appalachian region emerged as the United States’ most important supplier of so-called crude botanical drugs to the growing pharmaceutical industry centered in the northeastern and Midwestern United States. This article investigates the role of ecology, markets, and local culture in sustaining this trend. It argues that mountain entrepreneurs and the remarkable biodiversity of the Appalachian ecosystems combined with harvesters’ intimate knowledge of the landscape and a local commitment to common rights to make the region the nation’s foremost supplier of crude drugs. The botanical drug trade provides an interesting divergence from the typical narrative of commodification. Instead of restructuring nature into productive landscapes governed by capitalist values, the commodification of medicinal herbs helped reinforce common rights and expand ecological knowledge of the landscape. This process shaped late nineteenth-century Appalachian life by increasing the importance of the forests in rural economies. Although mountain people continued to harvest medicinal herbs well into the twentieth century, resource depletion, habitat destruction, economic changes, and other factors fundamentally changed the dynamics of this gathering commons.

by Luke Manget

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