November 21, 2017

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

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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

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“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

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

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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

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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

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

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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

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

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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

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Lewis Mumford’s Urbanism and the Problem of Environmental Modernity by Aaron Sachs

Abstract

This essay reconsiders the early career of Lewis Mumford and the assumption that modernity has been disastrous environmentally. Might it be possible to see Mumford, especially in his writings of the 1930s, as an early exemplar of green urbanism? Within environmental history, Mumford has been treated mostly as a regionalist—sometimes even as an opponent of the city. This essay argues that in fact his path toward ecological “balance” led directly through the city, not out of it. Indeed, he gives us access to modernity’s ambivalence and complexity by accompanying his trenchant critique of modern cities with a positive vision for how people might design and occupy urban spaces more sustainably. To rediscover Mumford is to reconsider the city not just as a site of erasure and hubristic “renewal” but also as a landscape full of what he called “remnants” and “persistents”; it is to rediscover modernity’s environmental possibilities, in line with current trends in urban ecology and design, and with the new momentum in urban environmental history to combine material and cultural perspectives.

by Aaron Sachs

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Nature Sounds: Anthony Philip Heinrich and the Music of the American Environment by John Herron

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Abstract

This essay examines the life and legacy of Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781–1861), a European-born composer who migrated to America in 1811. Heinrich is a nearly forgotten musician who spent his professional career working in an equally forgotten repertoire of music—the American symphony. In the nineteenth century, European composers, especially the German masters, dominated musical tastes on both sides of the Atlantic. Throughout this period, however, many Americans longed for a distinct musical identity, but the effort to place music from American authors in the performing canon was often rebuffed by critics and audiences alike. As a result, Heinrich would never become a mainstream voice, but in this battle for artistic supremacy, he deserves our attention because he wrote unique compositions influenced by the physical environment. Like the romantic poetry and landscape paintings drawn from the same era, Heinrich’s nature-inspired symphonies celebrated American political achievement by glorifying the nation’s environment.

by John Herron

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Wolves at Heart: How Dog Evolution Shaped Whites’ Perceptions of Indians in North America by Joshua Abram Kercsmar

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Abstract

This article explores how, as dogs evolved and were bred into distinct varieties in Europe and North America from precontact to the present, whites in America used them to judge both Indians and themselves as natural improvers. When colonists first compared their own dogs to those of Native Americans, they found Indian dogs too wolf-like and vicious. But as ecological pressures in cities and rural spaces threatened to undo European breeds during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many whites came to doubt their status as nature’s masters. It was only during the twentieth century, as whites observed the spread of feral dogs on reservations, that they reimagined Indians and their dogs as savage and themselves as potential rescuers. This study highlights the importance of biological evolution to European perceptions of Indians. It also refines the field of evolutionary history by treating biology and history less as distinct forces and more as mutual processes.

by Joshua Abram Kercsmar

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