The Author’s Corner with Strother Roberts

StrotherStrother Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. This interview is based on his book Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: As an undergrad I double-majored in economics along with history. The melding of these two disciplines has influenced my research over the years and, in particular, helped spark my interest in environmental history as a sub-field. Economics, at its heart, considers how societies allocate scarce resources. Environmental history similarly studies how past human societies have grappled with the challenges of scarce natural resources, but within the social, cultural, and historical context that is all too often absent from purely economic models. Economics also has a very explicit focus on the power of trade. A number of excellent scholars before me have written about the environmental history of New England, but I often found their work too insular. In the United States today we are used to thinking of ourselves as living in a globalized world. We are less likely to appreciate the fact that the indigenous and European inhabitants of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America were also experiencing the influences of relatively rapid globalization. I wrote Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy to tie the ecological changes that settler societies introduced into New England to the transatlantic commercial and political forces that drove them.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: Colonial New England was an integral part of England/Britain’s imperial commercial empire and everyone from imperial planners to its earliest settlers fully expected colonization to contribute exports to the imperial economy and the larger Atlantic World of which it was a part. Colonists and indigenous communities responded to the incentives offered by transatlantic markets to selectively extract resources from the region’s environment and in the process transformed New England’s physical and political landscape to the point that, by 1790, both would have been unrecognizable to an observer living two centuries earlier.

JF: Why do we need to read Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy?

SR: The book takes a number of disparate threads from the contemporary historiography of early America and weaves them together into a coherent pattern – while also introducing significant new insights along the way. As I mentioned in my response to your first question, other scholars have done excellent research on the environmental history of New England, but the most influential studies are from the 1980s (and are becoming a bit dated) while even more recent works have tended to be rather insular in their focus. By contrast, most of the rest of the field of early American history stresses the interconnectedness of “the Atlantic World” or self-consciously situates the individual colonies or regions within a #VastEarlyAmerica. One manifestation of this trend has been the proliferation of so-called commodity histories, histories that trace the life of individual commodities from their site of production – usually in the colonies of America – through their processing and marketing, and eventually into the hands of their final owners – usually in Europe or colonial urban centers. Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy combines this new interest in commodity exchange networks and weds it to older discussions of environmental change, to show how the colonial ecology of New England was inextricably tied to the broader transatlantic economy beyond its shores.

The book also cuts through the decades-old argument over whether New England’s economic development was driven by domestic production and demand or by trade with Europe and other colonial regions. A similar argument over whether the consumer revolution and industrial revolution were the result of domestic economic forces or whether they were driven by overseas colonialism has long plagued British history. The best histories, in my opinion, recognize that these are false dichotomies. For instance, the New England farmer who felled an oak to make barrel staves and then sold them to a local merchant likely did not know or care whether those staves were ultimately fated to hold locally-milled flour that would never leave his township, or whether they would be traded to the West Indies to hold slave-grown sugar on a sea-voyage to London. Settlers, from the very first colonists up to the citizens of the early Republic, fully expected to participate in an interconnected system of local, regional, and transatlantic markets. The indigenous inhabitants of New England, too, contributed commodities to these markets, either as the eager consumers of novel European goods and weapons or, increasingly in later decades, as a result of the violent and/or legal coercion exercised by the region’s increasingly hegemonic Anglo-American society. Much of this participation in colonial and Atlantic markets, at whatever level, necessarily rested on the extraction of resources from the regional environment, and each act of extraction had a physical impact on that environment.

Previous environmental histories of New England have failed to appreciate just how profound these physical changes were, or how early they began. In fact, I even surprised myself with some of what I discovered. Take the fur trade, for instance. Gripped by the “Little Ice Age” and facing the depletion of furbearer populations in Europe and eastern Asia, European consumers purchased a tremendous number of furs – most notably beaver pelts – from North America over the course of the early modern period. Native American hunters in New England gladly embraced the trade as a source of European tools, weapons, and cloth, sacrificing tens-of-thousands of beaver for use in European cold-weather fashion. The result was the extirpation of beaver from much of New England by the 1670s and the drainage of hundreds-of-thousands of ponds and wetlands – formerly maintained by beaver dams – by the turn of the seventeenth century. While other scholars have argued that significant ecological change did not come to New England until the supposed advent of commercial farming at the turn of the nineteenth century, my work shows that New Englanders were always commercially-oriented and that profound change began much earlier. In fact, my work on the fur trade suggests large swathes of the New England landscape had been profoundly altered by transatlantic trade before any European ever laid eyes on  its “natural” (or, at least, pre-European encounter) state.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SR: That depends on what you mean by “American” historian – my Master’s thesis and my early work in my PhD program focused on First Nations history in Canada. But as I began to consider possible dissertation topics, my PhD advisor pragmatically suggested that a more southerly focus would serve me better with publishers and on the U.S. job market. Since I was most interested in the processes of North American history – the meeting and clashing of indigenous and settler societies and the subsequent formation of new systems and economies that came out of those transatlantic encounters – I shifted my attention to the source-rich and historiographically-storied archives of New England. Both Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Ecology and my next project are defined, at least partially, by the geography of New England (and specifically by the Connecticut River Valley in the case of Colonial Ecology). At the same time, though, I have never wanted to be limited by this geography, which is why the book focuses so much attention on how connections to different parts of North America (and Europe) influenced New England’s environmental history.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next book project is an environmental and social history of dogs in the indigenous and Euro-American societies of early New England and New France – which means I get a chance to return to Canadian history. The Cliff’s Notes version so far  is that dogs were essential to indigenous economies as hunting partners and sources of meat, that English settlers intentionally persecuted indigenous dogs as a way to weaken Native American societies to the degree that they were extirpated and replaced by dogs of European descent, that European settlers also relied on dogs for economic purposes and as weapons of war, and that the ecological success of introduced dogs eventually led Euro-American societies to implement policies to control their populations. Today, dogs are the most populous large, non-human, omnivorous predator in the world. Now, that last sentence contains a lot of qualifiers, but it essentially means that once you start looking at things bigger that bugs, rats, and chickens – it’s just dogs and us as the most numerous meat-eaters out there. This was certainly true of the indigenous dogs that inhabited the northeast prior to 1600.  A conservative estimate would suggest that the region was home to at least twice as many dogs as it was wild wolves, while some sources suggest that this ratio would have been far higher. Early English records suggest that introduced colonial dogs were just as numerous as their indigenous cousins were. And yet, I can’t think of a single environmental history that seriously considers the effect that dogs had on the natural environment prior to the nineteenth century. And even those tend to focus on urban environments. Dogs were humanity’s first domesticated partners and the only form of livestock kept by New England’s Indians. They played important roles in the economies and societies on both sides of the European conquest of New England, and, in an important cultural sense, helped define how all of the cultures involved understood what it meant to be human. It is, in my opinion, high time that someone wrote a dogs’ history of early America.

JF: Thanks Strother!

Joseph Ellis: The Founding Fathers Wanted a Green New Deal

Mount Vernon gardens

Mount Vernon

Would the founding fathers have supported a Green New Deal?  I have no idea.

But historian Joseph Ellis‘s thoughts at CNN are worth considering here.  A taste:

From the very beginning, there were critics who challenged the claim that “We the people” referred to a collective or public interest shared by all American citizens. This is what the most vocal opponents of the Green New Deal get wrong when they call the plan “socialist” — they fail to realize that pursuit of a collective good is the very essence of the Founding Fathers’ vision for America. There is an alternative vision. It includes: the Antifederalists, who lost the debate over the Constitution in 1787-88; the leaders of the Confederate States of America; the captains of industry who dominated the first Gilded Age; the Southern defenders of Jim Crow and enemies of the civil rights movement; and the current corporate leaders of our second Gilded Age. What ties all these apparently different groups together is an anti-government ethos with libertarian implications and deep-seated reluctance to share resources with multiple versions of “them.”

Read the entire piece here.

Is Jimmy Carter an Antidote to Trump?

David Siders thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Politico:

“Carter almost takes us out of the entire realm of what our politics has become,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Carter and Howard Dean. “He’s the anti-Trump … I mean, we have almost the polar opposite as president, somebody who is so an affront to everything that’s good and kind and decent.”

Maslin said, “I have felt for some time that a candidate who is not just good on the issues but can marshal a moral clarity about what our politics ought to be, in contrast to what it has become, that person … that could be the currency of 2020.”

In fact, Carter has become a constant point of reference early in the campaign for Democrats polling outside of the top tier. John Delaney, the little-known former Maryland congressman who by August 2018 had already campaigned in all 99 counties in Iowa, has likened his focus on the first-in-the-nation caucus state to Carter’s.

And after her pilgrimage to see Carter this year, Klobuchar wrote on social media, “Wonderful lunch with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter today at their home in Plains. Tomato soup and pimento cheese sandwiches! Got some good advice and helpful to hear about their grassroots presidential campaign (when no one thought they could win but they did)!”

Read the entire piece here.

I still think Carter’s 1979 “malaise speech” is one of the best presidential speeches I have heard in my lifetime.

  • Notice that Carter used the phrase “I feel your pain” before Bill Clinton popularized it.
  • The speech has a streak of populism in it.
  • It is deeply honest and humble. Can you imagine a president today reading criticism of his presidency before a national audience?
  • Carter identifies the loss of national purpose and a “crisis of confidence” as a “fundamental threat to American democracy.”  It is a forward-looking message of hope and progress.  Carter speaks with conviction, often raising his fist to strengthen his points.
  • Carter says that self-indulgence, consumption, and materialism undermines citizenship. According to historian Kevin Mattson, this comes directly from historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch and his best-selling The Culture of Narcissism.
  • Carter points to the many ways the country has gone astray–Vietnam and Watergate and economic dependence on Middle East oil.
  • Carter offers “honest answers” not “easy answers.”  Of course no one wants to work hard and make sacrifices, they want individualism and freedom instead.  A little over a year after this speech Ronald Reagan defeated Carter with just such a message of individualism and freedom.
  • Carter warns us about the path of self-interest and fragmentation.  This is what America got with Reagan.  See Daniel T. Rodgers’s The Age of Fracture.
  • Carter sees the national discussion of energy as way of bringing a divided nation together.  This seems more relevant than ever today.  Green New Deal aside, a green solution to energy would create jobs and strengthen the economy.
  • When Carter talks about foreign oil and America’s dependence upon it, he is invoking founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton who worked tirelessly to make the nation economically independent.
  • Interesting that in the 1970s Democrats still saw coal as a vital energy source.  He also champions pipelines and refineries.
  • Carter calls for a strengthening of public transportation and local acts of conservation.  This kind of self-sacrifice, Carter says, “is an act of patriotism.”  This reminds me of the non-importation agreements during the American Revolution.    To stop drinking tea or buying British goods was seen as a similar act of patriotism. See T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution.  Carter says “there is no way to avoid sacrifice.”
  • As I have noted above, this speech hurt Carter politically.  But it is deeply honest and, in my opinion, true.

FDR’s New Deal Was Also Green

CCC

Over at JSTOR Daily, Livia Gershon draws on scholarship by Neil Maher to remind us that the first New Deal was concerned with the environment.  Here is a taste of her piece:

The Green New Deal concept championed by Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aims to address looming environmental catastrophe while creating good-paying jobs. Some critics argue that these two goals should be kept separate. But, as historian Neil M. Maher writes, there’s a strong precedent for the two goals going hand-in-hand. Take, for example, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was part of the original New Deal.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Erin Mauldin

51pZylgYBPL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Erin Mauldin is an assistant professor of History and Politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. This interview is based on her new book Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Unredeemed Land?

EM: While reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution for a graduate seminar in US Political History at Georgetown University, I realized that many of the economic, legislative, and political issues of that period are intimately tied to the use of natural and agricultural landscapes: fights over land redistribution (or the lack thereof), crop lien legislation, animal theft laws, the timbering boom, and of course, the expansion of cotton production. Yet very few environmental histories of the US South even discussed the period between the end of slavery and the Gilded Age, and the dynamic literature on Reconstruction had failed to absorb any of the insights or approaches of environmental history.

I set out, then, to write an environmental history of Reconstruction in the South, and over time, narrowed the focus to the changes occurring in rural areas (rather than urban ones). As I worked on my dissertation, however, I realized that one cannot explain the events of Reconstruction without grappling with the war. Fortunately, a flowering of scholarship appeared on the environmental impacts of the Civil War around the time of my graduate studies, and so my project follows those works and asks simply, “what happened next?” If the Civil War was a truly environmental event, then one would assume those changes did not stop being relevant after 1865. As a result, my book is an environmental history of Reconstruction in the rural U.S. South that connects large-scale economic changes of the period, such as sharecropping, the expansion of cotton production, and the closing of the open range, to environmental changes wrought by the Civil War.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unredeemed Land?

EM: The Civil War and emancipation accelerated ongoing ecological change and destroyed traditional systems of land use in ways that hastened the postbellum collapse of the region’s subsistence economy, encouraged the expansion of cotton production, and ultimately kept cotton farmers trapped in a cycle of debt and tenancy. Southern farmers both black and white found themselves unable to “redeem” their lands and fortunes, with serious consequences for the long-term trajectory of the regional economy.

JF: Why do we need to read Unredeemed Land?

EM: I think that anyone interested in the Civil War, Reconstruction, race in America, economic inequality, or environmental history might find something here to like or, at least, argue with. So much of what we read in the news about the ecological and economic aspects of war zones in the Middle East, and the ways that environmental changes push people into refugee situations around the world—all those truths held in the American past, too. It’s time we started thinking about them.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

EM: As an undergraduate, I wanted to go to medical school. However, I loved studying history, and performed well in those classes. I was attracted to the story-telling that happens in history classes and books, as well as the investigative work of piecing together past events. So, I combined coursework in both History and Biology, reluctant to give up either. When it came time to write my senior thesis for my History major, my undergraduate mentor in that department suggested I draw on my interest in the sciences, and I produced work that investigated early air pollution control efforts in Birmingham, Alabama. Through that experience, I decided I would rather research and write for a living than go to medical school. I was very, very fortunate to receive a doctoral fellowship to study environmental history with J.R. McNeill at Georgetown University, and haven’t looked back.

JF: What is your next project?

EM: Tentatively called “The First White Flight: Industrial Pollution and Racial Segregation in New South Cities,” my next book will investigate the role of environmental racism in racially segmenting the geographies of 19th-century cities. The poverty and debt of postwar cotton farming I describe in Unredeemed Land spurred tens of thousands of freed  people to abandon rural spaces in the decades after the Civil War and find employment in recently “reconstructed” cities such as Atlanta and Richmond; and newly established industrial centers such as Birmingham. Not only did minority enclaves or company houses exist among higher levels of pollution, filth, disease, and industrial contamination, but the white public’s representations of those conditions attached a persistent stigma both to people and place in these neighborhoods.

This project, then, argues that industrial pollution caused the cementing of an urban black/suburban white dynamic long before the Civil Rights Era, which, over time, reinforced disenfranchisement, engendered racially segmented economies, and allowed further environmental degradation.

JF: Thanks, Erin!

The Author’s Corner with Joan Cashin

CashinJoan Cashin is Professor of History at The Ohio State University.  This interview is based on her new book War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write War Stuff?

JC: I wrote War Stuff because I kept coming across references in the archives to the intense struggle over resources between armies and white civilians, regardless of their politics. 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of War Stuff?

JC: A terrific struggle broke out between armies and white civilians over food, timber, and housing, as well as the skills and knowledge that civilians had to offer.  In this struggle, the civilian population lost.

JF: Why do we need to read War Stuff?

JC: This is the first full environmental history of the War, discussing both armies. 

JF:  When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JC: I fell in love with the subject matter of American history years ago when I was an undergraduate at American University.  To quote a sage, history is an adventure story that happens to be true. 

JF: What is your next project?

JC: My next project is a material culture history of the Shelby family of Kentucky and Virginia, covering the Revolution through the Civil War.   

JF: Thanks, Joan!  

How did the GOP Become the Anti-Environmentalist Party?

muir_and_roosevelt_restored

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite

In the wake of the Scott Pruitt resignation, historian Christopher Sellers of Stony Brook University explains how the Republican Party came to embrace anti-environmentalism.  Here is a taste of his piece at VOX:

It’s ironic that today’s Republicans see America’s environmental state as such a liability, given that Republican presidents had such a big hand in constructing it. In the early 20th century Teddy Roosevelt pushed a federal system of parks, forests, and monuments. In 1970, it was Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed many foundational laws. Even during the last Republican administration of George W. Bush, longtime EPA employees have told me there was considerable if often tacit support by party leaders.

So how has the current Republican anti-environmentalism come so far so fast? Why this extreme Republican animus toward the environmental state?

For starters, it helps to recall where the strongest environmental support came from in the 1960s and 1970s, during the great bipartisan build-out of America’s environmental laws and agencies: those regions where urbanizing and industrializing had gone the furthest, across the cities of the coasts and the Great Lakes and especially in their suburbs. A new political language of “the environment” was born along urban edges; it interwove homeowner concerns about pollution and developer intrusions that state and local governments had failed to address.

Read the rest here.

Eager Beavers

GoldfarbOver at Pacific Standard, Kate Wheeling interviews Ben Goldfarb, the author of Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.  

Here is Wheeling’s introduction to the interview:

Since I first picked up Ben Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, I haven’t been able to stop talking about these semi-aquatic rodents.

If you’ve interacted with me at all in the last several weeks, I might have mentioned that beavers have transparent eyelids so they can see underwater! That they secrete a musky oil that contains the active ingredient in aspirin! That a half-mile-long structure built by beavers is visible from space! That an ancient member of the beaver family the size of a small black bear once roamed much of the modern-day United States! (To find out just how seriously the U.S. considered using beavers as a defensive weapon of sorts during the Cold War, you’ll have to read the book.)

But none of those facts are what converted me into a “Beaver Believer,” as the group of scientists, land-managers, and environmentally minded folks who are working tirelessly to bolster beaver populations around the U.S. are known. It’s not that beavers need our help—the animals are not even remotely endangered, though their numbers are also nowhere near what they were before Europeans arrived in North America—but we certainly need them.

Beavers are not content simply to survive in the environment that nature provides them. Instead, the animals engineer it to ensure access to things like food and shelter, reshaping entire landscapes in the process. Sound familiar? Humans, for better or for worse, may be the most planet-altering species—but beavers did it first. To quote Goldfarb, “We are living in the world that beavers created.”

Before their numbers were devastated by the fur trade, North America looked much different. For one thing, it was a much soggier landscape. Beavers don’t just build lodges and dams, but entire wetlands. Thanks to the beavers’ efforts, streams back up behind their dams, forming ponds, marshes, and swamps, filled with stumps and dead or dying trees and bustling with frogs, fish, and otters, to name just a few of the countless creatures that rely on beavers to make their habitat possible. Beaver ponds help store water, recharge aquifers, filter out pollutants, mitigate floods, and stop wildfires in their tracks.

Read the interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Victoria Johnson

AmericanEden+Final+Cover+DesignVictoria Johnson is Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York.  This interview is based on her new book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright, a division of W.W Norton, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Eden?

VJEight years ago, in the course of research for a journal article on contemporary American botanical gardens, I came across David Hosack (1769-1835) for the first time (in Peter Mickulas’s Britton’s Botanical Empire). I love New York City, and I was floored to learn that Rockefeller Center had once been a botanical garden—the first founded in and for the young United States. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a book about Hosack. He was a polymath and involved in several dozen organizations (quite a few of which he helped found) and he was not famous enough to have had a critical edition of his papers published. Following his trail as I reconstructed his life eventually took me to about thirty archives in the US and Europe.

JFIn 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Eden?

VJ: There is a botanical garden two centuries old buried under one of the most iconic urban spaces in the world. The man who created it, David Hosack, is a forgotten architect of New York’s rise to civic primacy in the nineteenth-century United States, and his life story thrusts us into the post-Revolutionary generation’s battles over what kinds of institutions make cities and nations truly great and stable.

JF: Why do we need to read American Eden?

VJMany, many historians have written eloquently and rigorously on politics and natural history in the early Republic, and I’m deeply indebted to them for their scholarship. Because American Eden is a biography, we get to see through David Hosack’s eyes the very fraught political relationships all around him and to feel the excitement and heartbreak of institution-building and scientific inquiry. In the process, certain figures from the Founding era take on new complexity: not only the shadowy Hosack, long known simply as the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel, but also Hamilton and Burr themselves, both of whom loved botany and horticulture. New York City likewise comes into clearer focus in American Eden. We don’t usually think of nature, agriculture, and natural history when we think of New York in the early Republic, but Hosack botanized right in the city as well as on Manhattan’s beaches and farms and in its meadows and woodlands. Finally, I’d add that while history is a field of intellectual inquiry that matters regardless of any explicit links we make to our present circumstances, I’ve found Hosack’s struggles enlightening as I try to make sense of contemporary American political culture and our divided views on science and nature.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

VJ:  I’ll answer the “historian” part first and then the “American” part. My PhD is in sociology, with a specialty in organizational sociology, but I was drawn to historical research early. One of my dissertation advisors in Columbia’s sociology department was Charles Tilly, who had a huge influence on my choice of dissertation topic: political relations between the French government and the Paris Opera from Louis XIV to Napoleon. That became Backstage at the Revolution (Chicago, 2008). For my second book, American Eden, I crossed the Atlantic and began studying American history because of my fascination with David Hosack and his enormous, unacknowledged contributions to New York, his young country, and translantic scientific networks.

JF: What is your next project?

VJ: Book tour! I will be sharing Hosack’s story of intense civic engagement and devotion to science with as broad an audience as wants to listen, in both the US and the UK; I have talks lined up running through 2020. In the meantime, I’m slowly starting to think about what comes next (to quote a certain king).

JF:  Thanks, Victoria!

Alfred Crosby, RIP

CrosbyI just learned about this today.  Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 was one of the first books I read in graduate school.  Later I read The Columbian ExchangeCrosby‘s work continues to inform many of my lectures, both in my U.S. Survey Course and my Colonial America course.  He was such an innovative thinker.

Here is a taste of the New York Times obituary:

In the eyes of many of his peers, Alfred W. Crosby was the father of environmental history, and he owed that distinction in large part to his childhood infatuation with Christopher Columbus. He revered him as much as he did his comic strip hero Superman.

That fascination led him, as a scholar, to delve into the biological and cultural impact of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas. And to purse that investigation he expanded the historian’s toolkit.

In groundbreaking feats of interdisciplinary research, he incorporated studies of biology, ecology, geography and other sciences in his efforts to chronicle and understand human events — work that introduced sweeping explanatory concepts like “the Columbian Exchange” and “ecological imperialism.”

“For historians, Crosby framed a new subject,” the historian J. R. McNeil, author of several books on environmental history, wrote.

Read the rest here.  Crosby was 87.

The Author’s Corner with Sam White

51eyPpHtiAL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Sam White is associate professor of History at The Ohio State University. This interview is based on his new book, A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write A Cold Welcome?

SW: About seven years ago, I finished a book about climate and crisis in the Middle East—The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. Researching that book had meant a lot of time away from family reading through difficult records in archives in Turkey and Europe, and so this time I wanted to work on something closer to home. Colonial American history also attracted me because, while its narrative may seem familiar, a closer look reveals that there is always so much more going on underneath the surface and more ways to find it out.  By bringing in new perspectives from ongoing historical, archaeological, and scientific research, I could tell a story much more compelling than the one I had learned in school—and much more relevant to the present day.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Cold Welcome?

SW: In A Cold Welcome, I show how the first European explorers and settlers came to North America unprepared for the continent’s stronger seasons and the extreme weather characteristic of the Little Ice Age. Thanks to new research, we can understand how those challenges shaped colonial history in ways both subtle and profound.

JF: Why do we need to read A Cold Welcome?

SW: First, these early colonial ventures make for fascinating stories. I wrote A Cold Welcome to be a book that anyone could read and enjoy. Second, the rapid climatic and environmental change of our own times means that we need to rethink the ways we look at the past as well. We have new climate data that can give us remarkable new insights into historical events. Moreover, I believe there are lessons in our history as we confront global warming, and these lessons are not as simple or straightforward as we might imagine. 

JF:  When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

SW: That’s a long story—and even with the book out, I’m still not sure I’d call myself an American historian. To me, A Cold Welcome is not so much a story about America as a story about the confusion of people from one continent encountering a new continent with different climates and environments. It was that historical experience—and its parallels to our experience of rapid environmental change—that concerned me most as I wrote this book.

JF: What is your next project?

SW: At the moment, I’m mostly working with historical climatologists on technical issues of how we can combine natural records (such as tree rings) with man-made records (such as weather diaries) in order to better reconstruct historical climate variability and its impacts. I’m the lead editor of a big textbook on that subject, The Handbook of Climate History, which is coming out in early 2018. Beyond that, I’d like to write a book about disasters and migration to the United States from colonial times to the 20th century.

JF: Thanks, Sam!

How Might Environmental History Find Its Way Into Our U.S. Survey Courses?

republic-of-natureI am not an environmental historian, but I do teach a United States History to 1865 survey course.  Ellen Stroud‘s post at Process has me thinking about how I might incorporate more environmental history into my course.

I try to bring some environmental history into my discussion of European and Indian encounters, and a little bit more into my lecture on the Lousiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark, but that is about it.  I need to read more and think more.

Here is a taste of Stroud’s post:

Environmental history need not be particularly green; I don’t think of it as being defined by environmental topics or framed by environmental politics, but rather as a particular way of looking at the past. When the environment only surfaces in an occasional lecture—on the Columbian Exchange, or the Dust Bowl, or Love Canal—it can to feel peripheral to the task at hand. Paying attention to moments when nature matters in less dramatic or obvious ways, however, can highlight connections, dependencies, and structures of inequality central to understanding the past.

Attention to three related themes suggests multiple ways to include environmental history in almost any lecture. The themes are not novel, nor are they unique to environmental history, though they are central to that field: attention to place, consideration of resources, and tracking technological change. All three themes can help students more viscerally understand not just what happened in the past, but also how it felt: What did it smell like? How exhausting was it? What kind of noise did it make?

Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature and Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth are helpful books to have on the shelf, offering environmental takes on topics ranging from the Louisiana Purchase to school desegragation to Disney. Fiege’s chapter on Brown v. Board, is a particularly helpful example of the ways an environmental lens can be used to understand more about a topic seemingly far removed from nature.  In the chapter, subtitled “An Environmental History of the Color Line,” Fiege asks about technology: What were the roles of railroads in creating Topeka’s segregated landscapes? What new factors did buses and cars introduce? And he asks about resources: What things, what goods, what supplies for schools did white Kansans have access to that black Kansans did not?

But the most compelling questions Fiege asks are about place: what was Linda Brown’s morning walk to the bus stop like? How would the young girl’s experience of Topeka and the school day morning have differed had she been allowed to attend the school much closer to her home? And how, if they did, did school children’s experiences of place in Topeka change after the Supereme Court decision came down? Fiege’s environmental lens does not transform Linda Brown’s story into one focused on environmental politics or fundamentally shaped by nature; human choices remain at the center of the story, as they must. But Fiege’s attention to Linda Brown’s physical world helps us understanding not only how much colder one winter walk to school was than another, but also more about the pervasiveness and persistence of discrimination and segregation in Topeka long after the Supreme Court decision was made.

Read the entire post here.

History Teaches Us That Pollution Hurts Some People More Than Others

Tosco Refinery Fire May Fuel Spiraling Gas Prices

Arica Coleman has a great piece at Time reminding us that pollution does not affect everyone equally. (HT: History News Network)

Here is a taste:

According to Carl A. Zimring in his book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, this phenomenon — defined by former NAACP President Benjamin Chavis in 1992 as, “the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities” — was part and parcel to the construction of race during the post-Civil War era.

In the late 19th century, some subscribed to notions of hygiene that claimed, as Zimring puts it, that “whites were cleaner than non-whites.” Industrialization and migration to urban centers during the period led to overcrowding in northern cities, suffocating pollution and widespread epidemics. Nativists, particularly among the elite class, blamed the problem on the moral depravity of southern and eastern European immigrants, who were considered “less than white.” Yet, some politicians and civic leaders disagreed and focused on developing a sufficient sanitation infrastructure to address waste management, a public health campaign underscored by notions of hygiene to combat disease, and the creation of jobs in sanitation to lower unemployment.

As Zimring notes, the U. S. census shows that between 1870 and 1930 street sanitation work, also known as “dirty work,” was performed primarily by first- and second-generation eastern and southern European immigrants and blacks. Some of these foreign-born individuals, categorized during the early decades of the 20th century as white ethnics (to distinguish them from the native-born Anglo Saxon Protestants), went into the waste-management business while others obtained “cleaner occupations” and left sanitation altogether. With white ethnic categories eliminated from the census after WWII and assistance from the 1944 GI Bill, those occupying the margins of whiteness were granted full integration into white American society, fleeing “dirty jobs and dirty cities” for the clean and white life of suburban America.

In a world of de jure and de facto segregation, this situation meant that blacks, Hispanics and American Indian communities were left to bear much of the environmental burden of the 20th century. As one Chicago lawyer put it, according to Zimring, “Gentlemen, in every great city there must be a part of that city segregated for unpleasant things.” Segregated employment also justified relegating non-white workers to performing the most hazardous jobs in the worst unsanitary conditions, an issue that became central to the civils rights movement during the latter years of the 1960s.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Author’s Corner with William Thomas Okie

georgia-peachWilliam Thomas Okie is Assistant Professor of History Education at Kennesaw State University. This interview is based on his new book, The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Georgia Peach?

TO: I came to the project from two directions. As a scholar, I’m trained in environmental history, and so I’m fascinated with the ways we humans deal with the plants, animals, weather, and dirt we usually call “nature.” I started studying environmental history as the field was turning its attention to agriculture – arguably the most important site of human-nature interaction. When I got to graduate school, I found, to my surprise, that although we had books about oranges, rice, bananas, and tobacco (to name just a few), very little had been written about the peach, one of the South’s most visible agricultural symbols.

At the same time, the peach seemed like an obvious choice because of my childhood. Since I was very young, I’ve catalogued wildflowers, planted gardens, saved seeds, and experimented with asexual propagation. I grew up near the center of the Georgia peach industry, and my father was a stone fruit breeder (think peaches, plums, apricots) for the USDA experiment station in Byron, Georgia. I guess you could say – and I apologize in advance for this – that the peach didn’t fall far from the tree.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Georgia Peach?

TO: The Georgia Peach is famous because peaches emerged as a cash crop at a critical juncture for the South around the turn of the century, when evidence was mounting that the South was socially, environmentally, and culturally ugly. That historical phenomenon created the myth of the Georgia peach, which helps to explain the crop’s staying power as a cultural icon well into the twenty-first century – which in turn suggests that we routinely underestimate the power and the historical dimensions of beauty.

JF: Why do we need to read The Georgia Peach?

TO: I’ll give you two reasons. First, If you’ve ever wondered about the peachoid on I–85 (or its competitors on I–59 and I–75), or “The Peach State” moniker – especially if you’ve learned that California and South Carolina produce many more peaches than Georgia – then read this book to understand how Georgia became the peach state in the first place. Second, although it’s easy for the prosperous to forget in the midst of today’s “permanent global summertime” agriculture matters. The Georgia Peach examines the interplay of the biological and cultural features of a particular crop (especially the fruit’s perishability and popularity) with the economic and social features of a particular place (especially the cotton economy and the impoverished labor force on which that economy depended).

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TO: I’ve always loved plants and animals; I’ve also always loved stories. As an undergraduate at Covenant College, I had the surprising privilege (the department had only three historians!) of taking Paul Morton’s American Environmental History course, which taught me that I could marry those two great loves in a field that told stories about nature. After graduating with a history degree, working as an administrative assistant, living in Honduras, and teaching middle school social studies, I decided to try studying further. American environmental history seemed like a natural fit, but it was also a practical choice: my first child was born just a few months before I started graduate study, and I knew that American archives would be easier to access.

JF: What is your next project?

TO: Right now I’m writing a piece about nineteenth-century horticulturists (fruit breeders, landscape designers, kitchen gardeners) as environmental thinkers and actors, which will hopefully give me a chance to work out some of the themes I could only touch on in The Georgia Peach. In the longer term, I’m working on an environmental history of Christian relief and development, in which I’ll examine the role of American non-governmental organizations and missionaries in imagining and reshaping the environments.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

The Author’s Corner with Donald Worster

ShrinkingtheEarthDonald Worster is Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas. This interview is based on his new book, Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance (Oxford University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Shrinking the Earth?

DW: I wrote my new book to try to make historical sense of this moment we find ourselves in. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Shrinking the Earth?

DW: It seems to me that we have reached the end of what we have been calling the “modern era,” which is now about 500 years old.  It began with Columbus and the explorers who gave the Old World a new one, “Second Earth” I call it, touching off a long period of economic growth and visions of infinite abundance.  Now that era is coming to an end, creating deep anxiety but also offering positive opportunities for creating new values and institutions. 

JF: Why do we need to read Shrinking the Earth?

DW: There is an enormous anger and anxiety running through American society today, although Americans remain among the most privileged and successful peoples on earth.  We need to understand more clearly where we have been and what it has done to us, both good and bad, and then using that historical perspective, get ready for change. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DW: I became an American historian during graduate schools at Yale University in the 1960s, but always I have tried to see the US experience in broader transnational and global perspective. 

JF: What is your next project?

DW: My next project is a book on China and its long history of intensive food production and how that country is experiencing profound change in its relation to the land.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

Spotted in Oxford: Mark Stoll, *Inherit the Holy Mountain*

One of the most popular features of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog is our Author’s Corner series in which we interview authors of new books.

Over the course of the next several days I will be posting pics of books we have featured in the Author’s Corner and that I spotted last week at the Oxford University Press bookstore in Oxford, England.

Here is Mark Stoll’s Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism Read his Author’s Corner interview here.

Stoll

 

 

The Author’s Corner with Mark Stoll

Mark Stoll is Associate Professor of History and Director of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University.  This interview is based on his new book, Inherit the Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2015)

JF: What led you to write Inherit the Holy Mountain?

MS: Back in 1987, I was thinking about John Muir, the popular nature writer and environmental activist. At the time, the famous Lynn White thesis had convinced many that Christianity was innately hostile to nature, and that, of the Christian traditions, Protestantism was the most hostile. This supposedly explained why Protestant nations had been the first to industrialize and to exploit and pollute the environment. Muir’s deeply religious upbringing made me wonder how he went from Protestant to environmental icon. My first book, Protestantism, Capitalism, and Nature in America (1997), examined the interesting paradox that environmental figures like Muir tended to be raised in the very same denominations as America’s early captains of industry, showing the environmental ambiguity of Christian theology. As I finished revising the manuscript, it occurred to me that individual denominations — Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Baptist, and so on — tended to produce people with certain characteristic attitudes towards nature and environment, regardless of adult beliefs. I intended to explore that insight in a followup book. In writing it, it became clear that the influence of denominations were not constant over time. Their contributions to conservation and environmental thought and activism rose and fell. These cycles of denominational influence explained a great deal about the evolution of conservation and environmentalism from the middle nineteenth century until today.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Inherit the Holy Mountain?

MS: A passion for nature born in Reformed Protestantism shaped dominant American attitudes towards nature and environment until at least the 1970s. In particular, the near-total Congregational domination of nineteenth-century conservation and heavy Presbyterian influence on environmentalism in most of the twentieth explains much about the histories of conservation and environmentalism.

JF: Why do we need to read Inherit the Holy Mountain?

MS: Inherit the Holy Mountain presents a completely new perspective on environmentalism and its sources. For example, I found it very interesting that conservation originated in the desire to preserve sustainable and equitable communities in New England towns. I think embedding environmental goals in an overall vision of a just, moral, and sustainable society is inspirational. There are also lessons to be learned from Presbyterianism’s influence. Presbyterians gave environmentalism a moral conscience, a drive to preach and proselytize, and a political will that led to victories from the Progressive Era to the Great Society. Environmentalism today suffers from the dying of the Presbyterian fire that formerly made it so politically formidable. Now, politically effective evangelism is the property of the right, which allies with great concentrations of wealth and power rather than standing against them. Finally, contemporary religious environmentalists advocate respect for creation as the foundation for environmental action. Inherit the Holy Mountain shows that campaigns to convert individuals to environmental consciousness are doomed to be relatively ineffective politically.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MS: I love to write, and the history profession combined steady income and benefits (important when I was a new husband and father) with an outlet for my writing.

JF: What is your next project?

MS: I’ve been working on this book for many years, so at the moment I am glad to have completed a work that I think is original, significant, and powerful. But I have been invited to write a sequel of sorts.


JF: Thanks, Mark.


The Author’s Corner with Catherine McNeur

Catherine McNeur is Assistant Professor of Environmental History and Public History at Portland State University. This interview is based on her new book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Harvard University Press, November 2014).

JF: What led you to write Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?

CM: Before I got started on Taming Manhattan, I had read a passing reference to New York’s hog riots in the early nineteenth century. I was amused by the fact that pigs freely sauntered through the streets, let alone that they were the cause of riots. My reaction, I’ve come to realize, reflects that like many others I make assumptions about what belongs in a city and what doesn’t. As I began to look into these riots and several other environmental battles, I found that the nineteenth century was a moment where these lines between urban and rural were being drawn. The act of drawing those lines legally and culturally was highly contentious because many stood to lose quite a lot as the municipal government pushed livestock and agriculture out of the city and made it harder to earn a living from urban land.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?

CM: As cities such as New York transformed beyond recognition from the influx of immigrants and the construction of new buildings, residents found in the urban environment a way to seize control of the seemingly uncontrollable city. While the battles that erupted over the use of the urban environment often led to a tamer, cleaner, and more regulated city, they also amplified environmental injustices and economic disparities.

JF: Why do we need to read Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?

CM: Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about how to make cities sustainable. Taming Manhattan shows us that “sustainability” meant something completely different in the nineteenth century and will likely mean something completely different in years to come. Today keeping backyard chickens or rooftop beehives is trendy and acceptable by a range of different people and municipalities. You can even buy a $100,000 chicken coop from Nieman Marcus if you were so inclined. However, 150 years ago it was far from fashionable to keep livestock or tend a garden and wealthier New Yorkers actively tried to bring about the death or urban agriculture. In their eyes, getting rid of local food sources would make the city healthier and more sustainable. What we need to remember is that attempts to improve cities usually come with significant social costs that we often overlook.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CM: I actually majored in urban design rather than history when I was an undergrad. One of the courses I took for that major, though, focused on the architectural history of New York City. Each week the professor led us on walking tours through a different neighborhood, discussing the specific histories of buildings and communities. Having grown up around New York, I was used to the city and its built environment. In fact, it seemed like more of a backdrop than anything else. This class, however, opened my eyes up to the wealth of stories about people, politics, economics, and environments that led to something as simple as the design of a city block. As I got further into that major, I researched the work of an architect in the early republic. I fell in love with the detective work necessary in the archives and there’s been no turning back since.

JF: What is your next project?

CM: Taming Manhattan involves New Yorkers fighting over sizable animals, like sows among other things. For my next project, I’m interested in looking at how early Americans reacted to much smaller creatures from amoeba to insects and what that meant for the way they understood their own bodies and environments. While today we see a budding respect for bacteria as people increasingly embrace probiotics and newspapers report on the importance “good bacteria,” the fear of tiny things has yet to go away. I’m interested in seeing how nineteenth-century Americans confronted these fears.

JF: Good stuff, thanks Catherine!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Ted Steinberg

Ted Steinberg is the Adeline Barry Davee Distinguished Professor of History & Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.  This interview is based on his book Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York (Simon & Schuster, June 2014)
JF: What led you to write Gotham Unbound?
TS: The book began in earnest on September 11, 2001. As a child, I had watched the Twin Towers rise and I knew the foundation of the site was ringed by a steel-reinforced concrete wall, the so-called bathtub. The bathtub was there to keep the Hudson River—less than two hundred feet away—at bay. I have given that wall a lot of thought. Without it there is little question that the scale of the 9/11 tragedy would have been even more immense, the wretchedness of that day even more wretched. If the wall represented something invincible about New York, it also said something about the city’s relationship with its surrounding waters: a desire to shut the door on them.

It was while thinking over the meaning of this wall that I came back to a project I first proposed in 1990: a book about the history of land and water in the New York metropolitan area, the place where I was born and raised.

Then I read about a photographer who described that retaining wall at Ground Zero as the equivalent of New York’s Parthenon. Indeed, it turned out, as I later learned, that the retaining wall, if it was going to be viewed as planned by visitors to the 9/11 Memorial, required its own retaining wall. That was the only way to ward off the brackish water lapping at this concrete manifestation of the city’s unconquerable spirit. Slowly the organizing framework for a book about the struggle between New York and the natural world took root.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gotham Unbound?
TS: The point is often made that New York, because of its location along a large river and with deep water near to shore, was destined to be a great port city. But my argument in Gotham Unbound is not that geography is destiny but in a sense the reverse, that a dense city evolved in the estuary of the Hudson River because of the belief in limitless growth as articulated by those who have run the city since the 1800s.
JF: Why do we need to read Gotham Unbound ?
TS: Two reasons. First, New York’s ecological history is important because the past structures what is possible here in the present and into the future. The fact that so much of Greater New York rests in the one-in-a-hundred-year floodplain, for example, shapes what is possible with respect to the city’s relations with land and sea. Understanding that the metropolitan area sits in the estuary of the Hudson River and what that unique environment means can also help New Yorkers make better sense of their lives today and is a point of entry into discussions about what to do going forward in a world of rising seas. But this is not simply a New York story, which brings me to the second reason behind the book’s importance. Urbanization is raging across the globe. By midcentury, seven out of ten people in the world will live in cities. The bulk of the planet’s largest cities, it turns out, are located in estuaries, precisely the same environment we find in New York. So New York, one of the most engineered landscapes in the world, is a crucially important case study.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TS: I was fresh out of college in 1983 and working for a publishing company in Boston on a book series titled the Vietnam Experience. There were a lot of interesting and smart people working on this massive multi-volume work. I was given various research tasks, which, to be honest, I never felt particularly motivated to accomplish. I thought: Wouldn’t it be nice to decide for myself what to research and, even better, have the opportunity to write up my own findings.
JF: What is your next project?
TS: I am working on a book about the Tennessee Valley Authority. The idea is to examine the rise and fall of the modern world’s first and most famous example of integrated water control.
JF:  Thanks, Ted!