March 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.”