April 27, 2017

Faces of the Climate Movement

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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.

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

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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

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On Drawing Dead Fish by Leah Aronowsky

Drawing dead fish

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Deep in the storerooms of the Smithsonian Institution resides a collection of specimens that could aptly be described as “very dead.” Long forgotten by most scientists—the collection is in fact housed at an off-site storage facility in Suitland, Maryland, about ten miles south of the National Museum of Natural History in D.C.—these are the fish of the US Exploring Expedition, the nation’s first major foray into the world of global maritime exploration. Encompassing a squadron of six ships and just over four hundred naval officers and sailors, the expedition sailed from August 1838 to June 1842, making anchorages in South America, Tahiti, the Fiji Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, and Antarctica. Along the way, the crew’s nine civilian “scientifics”—naturalists culled from the small but growing coteries of urban elite gentlemen-scientists—collected hundreds of thousands of zoological, botanical, and geologic specimens (including these fish), many of which made their way into the foundational collection of what became the Smithsonian. Preserved in spirits, their vibrant colors now faded, these fish today are but sinewy versions of their living selves.

by Leah Aronowsky

Leah Aronowsky is a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her current research focuses on the history of the concept of the biosphere in late twentieth-century earth and environmental sciences, especially as it related to new ideas about “life” as a biogeochemical phenomenon and process.

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“Still Life with Vitamins: Art and Science at the 1939 New York World’s Fair”

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Abstract

At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, artist Witold Gordon created a mural depicting common foods such as dairy, fruits, vegetables, and seafood on the exterior of the main food exhibition hall. Alongside the foods of the mural, Gordon painted vitamins in little circles and letters. This essay argues that the inclusion of vitamins in the mural illustrates a moment when nutritional science was becoming an important way of understanding the relationship between food and health. To do this conceptual work, Gordon played with abstraction and painterly styles to create a scene that both emulated the scientific message of the fair and depicted reverence toward nature as a guiding force in human life. The end result was an optimistic still-life mural that demonstrated the effort to popularize scientific ideas about vitamins and nutrition to the American public in the 1930s.

by Raechel Lutz

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The Bulldozer in the Watershed: Conservation, Water, and Technological Optimism in the Post–World War II United States

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Joshua Nygren is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Missouri. He is preparing a book manuscript on the history of soil and water conservation and its relationship to state-building in the twentieth-century United States.

In April 1960, Caterpillar Tractor Company ran a two-page full-color advertisement in popular magazines such as Newsweek, Time, and Saturday Evening Post (figure 1).1 The spread featured an illustration of an idealized, orderly watershed encompassing city, town, and country. Although land occupies the majority of the image, Caterpillar focuses its audience’s attention on water. A ribbon of blue slices through the greens and golds of the countryside and the soft grays and browns of the city, bisecting the prosperous and serene landscape. This water originates in the hills to the upper left, where a menacing black cloud threatens to send torrents of water cascading downstream. The storm amounts to little, however. The river flows quietly past the small town to the crystal-clear reservoir at the center of the image. Thereafter, it obeys its bounds while passing through a bustling city in the lower right foreground. The contrast of blue against a sea of earth tones suggests that the thriving state of terrestrial life depends on a well-regulated, flood-free hydrosphere. This was achieved by the Small Watershed Program of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and, as the accompanying text makes clear, “powerful Caterpillar earthmoving machines.” …

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Smallpox Denaturalized, Demonized, and Eradicable

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by Bob H. Reinhardt

Bob H. Reinhardt is the author of The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era, published by the University of North Carolina Press. He is the executive director of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon.

These images from the global smallpox eradication effort in the 1960s and 1970s offer a variety of contrasts: a barnyard animal inside the rationalized space of a vaccine production laboratory; a white-coated expert working with a family in more traditional attire; humans wielding bow and arrow versus a giant demon that spews disease and death. All were part of a broader scheme to advertise and market smallpox vaccination to the millions of people in the so-called less developed world targeted by the global smallpox eradication program (1958–77). The World Health Organization coordinated this international effort in conjunction with a bilateral US program in West and Central Africa (1965–70) organized by the Communicable Disease Center (the CDC; now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Global health authorities and national health ministries produced dozens of illustrative posters, handbills, stamps, and periodical pieces like these that constructed smallpox as a deserving target for elimination. They did so in part by denaturalizing vaccination, moving the vaccine production and application process into the safe, technologically advanced, and sanitary confines of the laboratory and physician’s office, thereby hiding the potentially dangerous nature of the vaccine. Advertisements also tried to deflect concerns about neocolonialism and doubts about the program’s viability by emphasizing a confident sense of cooperation, with everyone uniting to fight the demon of smallpox. In contrast to narratives of smallpox eradication that emphasize the creativity, determination, and luck that led to smallpox’s demise, these three images from the campaign in Nigeria suggest just how much smallpox eradication relied on…

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Gallery: Looking at the Wind: Paintings of the Mistral in Fin-de-Siècle France

DunlopFig1crop-550By Catherine Tatiana Dunlop

Catherine Tatiana Dunlop is assistant professor of modern European history at Montana State University, Bozeman. Her work explores the connections between visual culture, geography, and environmental history. She is the author, most recently, of Cartophilia: Maps and the Search for Identity in the French-German Borderland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). This article draws from her new book research on the cultural and environmental history of the Mistral in nineteenth-century France.

On the days when a cold northwesterly wind called the Mistral sweeps across Provence, the typically warm and tranquil region in the south of France undergoes a dramatic transformation. Wheat fields begin to swirl like ocean waves, cypress trees tilt violently from side to side, and the peaceful Mediterranean waters become frothy and tempestuous. So powerful is this regional French wind that locals have called it a curse “equal to the seven plagues of Egypt.”1 Originally named after the Latin word for “master,” the Mistral can blow for forty-five days at a time and reach speeds of 100 kilometers per hour.2 Yet for all of its power to shape, and even dominate, the lives of people in Provence, the Mistral has remained an elusive topic of historical inquiry. By most accounts, the Mistral has existed apart from historical change, a peculiar aspect of the timeless physical setting in which the history of southern France unfolded.3 But what if we decided to take the Mistral’s role in history more seriously? What connections might we find between the “master” of Provence and the transformation of French society over time?

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Gallery Editor´s Note: This Is Nature; This Is Un-Nature: Reading the Keeling Curve

Fig3HoweBy Neil M. Maher and Cindy Ott

In its Gallery essays, Environmental History has yet to examine the visual culture of scientific data. Joshua Howe corrects this oversight with a wonderful essay on the Keeling Curve, first made famous by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and now one of the most iconic images of scientific data worldwide. According to Howe, the Keeling Curve, that upward sloping oscillating line that documents global warming, tells two distinct narratives—one seemingly natural, the other cultural. Just as important, Howe reminds environmental historians that scientific data, whether presented visually in graphs, charts, or tables, can be read as cultural evidence much like historical photographs, works of art, or handwritten diaries.

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