Category Archives: environmental history

Field Report: ESEH Graduate Student Summer School

I was lucky enough to spend four days this past July in sunny Porto, Portugal, where I participated in the European Society for Environmental History’s graduate student Summer School. The theme this year was “The Sea as a Whole: Ideological Resource and Environmental Concerns.” The conference brought together a truly fantastic group of young international scholars whose work all relates in some way to the ocean.  As an American, the school was particularly useful as a way to see how environmental history is defined and pursued in various academic and national settings. 
Summer School students and faculty on a field trip to the Maritime Museum of Ílhavo. (Photo courtesy Elke Ackermann.)

 The meeting kicked off with a plenary lecture by Dolly Jørgensen, current President of ESEH, on the politics behind “rigs-to-reefs” initiatives. Rigs-to-reefs are programs that turn decommissioned offshore oilrig structures into artificial coral reefs. Dolly examined the fate of these initiatives in three places: the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and off the coast of California. Drawing on the work of John Law and Annemarie Mol, Dolly looked for the enactment of nature in each case to show how the implementation or rejection of these initiatives was contingent, at least in part, on what the different actors involved (environmental groups, trawler fishermen, recreational fishermen, etc.) took as ‘natural.’* Dolly’s STS approach to ocean history was just one of many modes of analysis that emerged during the meeting and, taken as a whole, the scholarship presented at Summer School demonstrated the multiple analytic valences and registers that a field like ocean history affords scholars.

A rig-to-reef structure in the Gulf of Mexico (Times-Picayune Archives)

To explain, I’ll flag a few of the junior scholars’ presentations that I found particularly provocative.

The first was Anna Wilson of the University of Melbourne’s talk, “Uprooting Melbourne: A Story of a City as Revealed by Trees.” Anna’s project decenters the human side of Melbourne’s history to foreground the multiple cultural meanings that trees took on at different moments in the city’s past. Oceans make an appearance in her work as a mode of transport: in the nineteenth century, tree seeds and saplings destined for the burgeoning Melbourne timber trade were brought via ships from Britain. This manifestation of the ocean in Melbourne’s history is part of the larger motif of temporality that undergirds Anna’s scholarship. Though it may seem self-evident, transporting, growing, and harvesting trees take time. Anna’s scholarship reminds us that environmental change is always a process, and that attending to the temporalities of a landscape can often reveal surprising changes in the kinds of value ascribed to both built and natural environments.

 “The History of the Galapagos Islands as a World Heritage Site,” a project presented by Elke Ackermann of the Institute of European History Mainz / JGU Mainz, was particularly resonant with the historians of science in the room, as the campaign to designate the Galapagos as a World Heritage Site intersected with several key events in the history of the natural sciences: the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), the 1959 Darwin Centennial Celebration, and the nascent environmental movement of the early 1960s. In her talk, Elke explained how the Galapagos at this time were cast as a “laboratory for global concepts of nature protection,” as it became a site where a number of biodiversity protection initiatives were executed for the first time.** The case of the Galapagos is an early example of how local environmental politics in the twentieth century became deeply entwined in trans-local ideas not only about wilderness preservation, but about global cultural and historical heritage. (In this case, for example, Western science’s collective memory of Darwin’s relationship to the Galapagos lent a particular urgency to conservationists’ work there.)

Craig Venter, a polarizing figure in oceanic property debates. (
Finally, in “Anything under the Sea: The Ownership of Life in the Oceans” Alyssa Battistoni of Yale juxtaposed history of science with political theory to historicize recent intellectual and territorial property claims over living and natural resources of the sea. At the heart of these legal cases are differing notions of how to define the ocean: Should it be seen as a global commons or a place where the free market reigns? Alyssa’s scholarship demonstrates the multiple scalar levels that debates about oceanic territorial divisions can assume—from the oceans themselves to the seafloor to the natural objects that reside in the sea down to the very genomes of these creatures.

I left the meeting with the sense that it’s an exciting time to be working on ocean history. As Naomi Oreskes noted in her recent contribution to the Isis Focus section, “Knowing the Ocean,” ocean history has the potential to speak to a number of contemporary concerns: globalization, industrialization, climate change, human migration, etc. As evidenced by the scholarship presented in Porto, ocean history is also rife for engagement with the allied fields of anthropology, animal studies, political economy, and post-colonial studies, to name just a few. In short, ocean history promises to be a stimulating field to watch as historians of science continue to take it up. Congratulations to all the participants, and here’s to continuing the conversation! 

*I find this concept of ‘enactment’ useful as one way to move beyond debates about the nature/culture divide that so often arise in environmental history.

**As an aside, a recent RadioLab episode on contemporary biodiversity conservation debates in the Galapagos neatly complements Elke’s historical analysis.

Toward an Environmental History of Psychology: A Conversation with Michael Pettit

The Inspiration: A Toronto Raccoon, photo by Michael Pettit

The Forum for the History of Science in America’s newsletter regularly prints conversations between accomplished scholars in the history of American science and younger historians. In the most recent number, (PDF available here) FHSA editor, Dan Bouk (Me!), claimed the privilege to speak with 2011 FHSA Article Prize winner, Michael Pettit.

We enjoyed ourselves and hope you’ll enjoy listening in, so to speak. There is something for everyone: Raccoons (so cute!);  history of psychology and the human sciences (so cerebral!); Canadian institutions for HOS (so interdisciplinary!); and even a few musings on the intersection of HOS with environmental science (so relevant to the discussion Lukas introduced here!)

Bouk: Mike, I can see why the committee awarded you the FHSA article prize for 2011. Yours is a fascinating article (download here). One thing that struck me was that it lives in liminal spaces in a variety of ways: you talk about comparative psychologists on the edge of a behavioral revolution, about semi-domesticated raccoons that were not pets and yet not quite wild, about an animal (the raccoon) that thrives on the edges of human society, and about studies that get caught between an ascendant lab culture on one side and “nature faker” controversies among naturalists on the other. Did you go into this paper expecting to tell story about psychology at the margins?

Pettit: Thanks for the kind words about my article. As a historian, I do tend towards studying the margins of scientific fields and telling stories of failure. This has been a common feature of a number of pieces I have written over the years. I don’t think I have ever directly written about anyone who is typically considered a canonical figure in the history of science. I seem to write screwball comedies rather than epics or tragedies.

Michael Pettit

The immediate impetus for the article comes from living in Toronto, a city with a particularly dense raccoon population. The city-issued compost bins have a lock on them to make them raccoon proof. This strategy worked for a week or two. People have devised all kinds of alternative means of securing their garbage. Thinking about these locks, I wondered why no one had ever used the raccoon in a puzzle box experiment, the foundational experiment in comparative psychology. After doing a little searching in databases, I soon found out that they had and I knew I had a story I wanted to tell.

Bouk: Raccoons are really quite remarkable animals! Changing direction a bit, I was interested throughout the paper in the relative invisibility of rabies. Raccoons in your presentation seemed less threatening than we often fear them to be these days. Those pictures of experimenters “playing” with raccoons strike us today as particularly odd for this reason. It led me to wonder when the fear of rabies came to dominate Americans’ perceptions of raccoons.

But what I really want to ask you about are two other aspects of your response: puzzle boxes and Toronto. Let’s start with puzzle boxes. I thought I saw you making an implicit argument about a transition from standardized experiments (puzzle boxes) in the comparative framework, to standardized animal subjects in the behaviorist model. Is that right? Did Thorndike think his puzzle box would yield different results for different species? If so, was the point of the comparative psychology project largely one of ranking species within some linear hierarchy based on competence with a puzzle box? Or is it more complicated than that?

Pettit: I too was struck by the absence of discussions of rabies in my sources. Jessica Wang recently published a fascinating article dealing with the intertwined histories of rabies, dogs, and animal control policy in New York City. I was surprised that raccoons do not appear in her story.

The comparative psychology of this era was definitely grounded in scala naturae type arguments. This is particularly apparent in the 1935 Handbook of Social Psychology edited by Carl Murchison, which presents a picture of social psychology that is totally unrecognizable today. It consisted of chapters on various racial groups and chapters on the social behaviour of various species written by both psychologists and zoologists.

I am not sure if the transition is one of exchanging standardization in apparatus for standardization of organisms. Behaviorism was predicated on the importance of control and was famous for its apparatus (e.g. Skinner box). The European ethologists repeatedly attacked American behaviorism for studying animals under artificial conditions. What interests me more is how model organisms function differently in the behavioral sciences. What happens when standardized organisms start behaving in unstandardized, unexpected ways? How do different scientists view and theorize such behaviors differently?

Bouk: So we’re back to an interest in the margins, to the uncontrollable, to the screwball comedies. Now I would like to move on to the topic of Toronto. How much does it matter, do you think, that you’re doing history of the United States from the outside? Does your Canadian position impact your scholarship in any particular way? Do you think you get a different sense of what the “history of science in America” looks like because, unlike most FHSA members (who hail from all over the world, but are very heavily concentrated in US institutions) you work in Toronto?

Pettit: I find that in many US history graduate programs in history there is a pretty firm line between those who study the United States and those that didn’t. One of the things I liked most about my graduate cohort was that no one region dominated as we spent a lot of time together talking about history. I think this instilled an implicit comparative perspective even when I wasn’t doing explicit comparative history. I think one disadvantage is that I may be more likely to speak of a singular American culture than I think most Americanists would. They tend to see it as quite fragmented along lines of identity, politics, and region.

Toronto is a great place to do history of science these days. There are about ten faculty members in the region who work on some aspect of the history of psychology. At York, the new STS graduate program and research institute underscore the wonderful relationships which exist among historians, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists studying science. Finally, there has been more regional integration with workshops and conferences among universities in Southern Ontario. All these relations shape my thinking for the better.

Bouk: Speaking of shaping your thinking, where is your thinking taking you next? That is, what are you working on now?

Pettit: The raccoon article was a bit of a transition piece for me. I had just finished the writing of my first book, The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press at the end of this year). Like the book, the raccoon article is interested in how psychology as a discipline was carved out of a series encounters with various trickster figures. My current project examines how various scientists and social reformers have grappled with and represented animal sexual behavior from the 1920s to 1970s. It focuses on the question: under what historical conditions and to whom do queer forms of life and behaviors become legible and for whom are they ignored and marginalized? Somewhat implicit in the raccoon article is the idea that one can write an ecocritical or environmental history of psychology. This is a perspective that is becoming more prominent in the current project. Recently, I have been spending a fair bit of time tracing the history of tilapia as different species of the fish move out of African lakes and rivers into American animal behavior labs and simultaneously become a central feature Pacific Rim aquaculture. These interests are also reflected in a new course I am currently designing at York on global health histories designed for health majors.

JAS-BIO 2012

Hard to believe it has been a year since I reported on the Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology, (see here).  This year’s meeting, held at Penn, was one of the most well-attended in recent memory and featured a dozen well-crafted and dynamically-presented papers from grad students as local as Philadelphia and as distant as Arizona.

The meeting was kicked off by a plenary from Penn anthropologist Adriana Petryna, who spoke about work-in-progress on the demise of the sick role and the right to recovery.  I am biased (I have worked with Petryna for a number of years), but I appreciated the choice of an anthropologist of bioscience, following on the plenary given by anthropologist Marcia Inhorn last year. Anthropologists’ attention to the life sciences have been informed by historians of biology and the methodological insights being generated through conversations across fields is responsible for some truly important work (here, I’m thinking of Hannah Landecker’s Culturing Life, Stefan Helmreich’s Alien Ocean, and Hugh Raffles’ In Amazonia, though there are many others). Creating a space for anthropology at our table is an opportunity to recognize that our work matters to communities other than our own, which is a good thing.

Read about some resonant themes from the meeting after the jump.

The first is the question of “phenomenology,” and its connection to empathy.  In his talk on Otto Potzl’s neuropsychiatry, Harvard’s Scott Phelps grappled with early 20th century efforts to fathom the brain as a scientific object and the self (cue Hank). He spoke of this in terms of “neuro-phenomenology,” an approach to the physics of subjectivity that required “perceptual empathy.”  Ok, there’s a lot going on in that sentence, but what I think Phelps might be talking about is the personal equation that characterizes encounter in the human field sciences.  Or, perhaps literary analysis, as was beautifully described by Princeton’s Sarah Eldrige in her account of the family and the rise of the novel in 18th century Germany.  She spoke of empathy as a way into understanding new ideas about interiority and epigenesis.  What work does “phenomenology” do for Potzl . . . and for Phelps?  Is it an effective way of linking the material to the affective?  Or does it obscure that very relation?

Phenomenology was also invoked by Hopkins’ Adrianna Link on efforts to create a film archive of disappearing human cultures in the mid-20th century.  She described how these 8 million feet of anthropological film were intended to be a “phenomenological” resource for the science of man.  What kind of “perceptual empathy” is called upon to make sense of this sort of evidence?  Again, I found myself wondering about what phenomenology, as an actors’ category, obscured. As historians of life science dip into anthropology, history of technology, etc., we can reconstitute ways of thinking and talking about the material and the social.

I was fascinated by the resurgence of risk in several papers.  Robin Scheffler, from Yale, gave us a remarkable  story of role of Simian Virus 40, first a contaminant and then an experimental organism, in driving research in cancer biology and regulation of vaccine production. Scheffler went beyond the “follow the thing” approach to show how the thing is constituted in relation to a broader physical infrastructure and affective context of anxiety about health and security.  Penn’s Mary Mitchell engaged with risk in a different way, trying to make sense of how human geneticists reckoned with the application of their insights in the realm of prenatal screening.  Mitchell linked the clinic, lab, and field as she tracked concerns about risks to individuals and to populations. 

The tension between the individual and the collective is an old theme, newly rendered at this JAS-BIO.  Richard Nash from Hopkins’ has bravely begun to rethink the eclipse of Darwin to reveal a richer landscape or “milky way” of efforts to understand variation.  Penn’s Maxwell Rogoski’s account of Curt Stern’s travels in the American South demonstrated how theories of variation were constructed with regard to shifting racial politics. Harvard’s Myra Perez examined the multiple personas of Stephen Jay Gould and their relative impacts on debates over the role of science in American democracy. 

On this last theme of individuals and collectives, I want to offer another explanation as to why environmental history was relatively absent from this year’s meeting: the proliferation of new forums dedicated to the subject.  Along with the ASEH, the fledgling Yale graduate student conference met the week before JAS-BIO.  It’s probably safe to say that if the two meetings had been scheduled further apart, we might have seen overlap in participants. The more places people have to gather, the better, but this will surely have consequences for group identity.  I agree with Lukas that the burgeoning relationship between environmental history and history of science is one to watch.

So, I’m casting my vote for an environmental historian as plenary speaker next year, when JAS-BIO meets at Woods Hole!

Environmental History & History of Science: The New Synthesis?

Alpine lake with wildflowers in Switzerland, a natural environment manicured by grazing ungulates.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to attend the 3rd Northeast Environmental History Conference at Yale.  The theme this year was “Two Kingdoms: New Perspectives on Flora and Fauna in Environmental History.”  And a few weeks prior, I was in Madison for the American Society for Environmental History Conference, where the theme was “From the Local to the Global.”

What struck me at both occasions was the number of Historians of Science and Technology in attendance.  This was my first time at either event, and I was glad to meet many old friends I had not expected to see before next year’s History of Science Society Meeting in San Diego.  But beyond this, I also heard a large number of presentations by people I’ve never met before, people who primarily self-identify as Environmental Historians, that could have just as well been presented at HSS or SHOT.

What’s going on here?  Are the two field converging on one another?

In at least two ways, I think that they are.  And, so far as I’m concerned, the development is a welcome one.

In a mundane sense, Historians of Science have become increasingly interested in biological fields of study such as ecology, evolution, and behavior that used to be eclipsed by the physical sciences.  So on a purely thematic level, there is increasingly commonality with Environmental History.

But there is also a deeper and ultimately more interesting sense in which the two fields are in dialogue with one another.  My sense is that Environmental Historians have become increasingly aware that one cannot simply take the natural world as a given.  Nature is now routinely interrogated as category of historical analysis.  (Of course, this is not entirely new.  People like William Cronon who are on the vanguard of the discipline have been doing it for a long time.  But what used to be a fairly radical position seems to have become more or less mainstream.)  In so doing, environmental history has found much inspiration from historians of science, scholars who have sought to embed our knowledge and experience of the natural world within narratives of social and cultural change for several decades.

At the same time, Historians of Science have much to learn from Environmental History.  While it is certainly true that nature should be historicized alongside of everything else, this does not mean everything is cultural.  Although plants and animals–to take up the theme of yesterday’s conference at Yale–do not exist independently of human culture, they also exhibit a certain degree of resilience and push back against our efforts at control.  There is a quote in David Blackbourn‘s most recent book, a fairly longue durée history of German efforts to divert rivers and streams, largely for the purposes of land reclamation, of which I’m quite fond:

“when I read yet another book or article about an ‘imagined landscape,’ it is sometimes tempting to complain, like Gertrude Stein, that ‘there is no there there.’  And I want to ask: are all topographies in the mind, is every river nothing more than a flowing symbol?”

What makes Blackbourn’s Conquest of Nature such an intriguing book is not that he simply denies the impact of humans upon their landscape.  Nor does he deny that our imaginations matter.  Rather, he looks at how the social, cultural, and political imaginary of Germans exerted a material impact on their landscape.  Over the centuries, Germans sought, and to some extent succeeded, in imposing their vision onto the natural world.  They diverted streams and rivers, drained swamps, and executed ambitious hydrological projects.  But the landscape was not merely inert matter, sitting there for people to shape after their own image.  Rather, he narrates a complex and messy dialectical process in which nature and culture interact to the point that it is hard to say where one ends and the other begins.

Historians of science have been moving in that direction, but I think there is much that remains to be learned from the best and most sophisticated work being done by Environmental Historians today.  The title of this post is meant to be tongue in cheek, harkening back to E.O. Wilson’s controversial 1976 publication of Sociobilogy: The New Synthesis.  Still, the conversations we’ve been having about the material construction of scientific evidence (especially here, as well as here and here) might point to one way in which a synthesis of Hist. Sci. and Environmental History that would benefit both sides might be achieved.

Asbestos, and Pesticides, and Web-links, Oh My!

I’ve recently happened upon a couple different attempts to recreate the history of two sci-enviro-tech villains of the late twentieth century. Each, I think has its merits for passive amusement or even as a teaching tool—although I’ve yet to try either out with students.

First, consider the history of Asbestos, Quebec, as told through the eyes of the world’s largest Asbestos mine, in graphical form. With pleasant drawings and nice-enough background theme, this graphic novel emphasizes the rise and fall of an industrial town, with plenty of pathos, and approaching the right sort of ambivalence about the fire-proofing material (I’m reminded of Don Worster’s mantra from Rivers of Empire: “How in the remaking of nature, do we remake ourselves?”—How in the eradication of fire, do we poison ourselves?) There’s also an affiliated documentary about the town of Asbestos from the Network in Canadian History and Environment.

DDT gets a similarly inventive treatment, but with much more science, thanks to the University of Minnesota’s “SHIPS” resource center. Among the simulation modules (targeted at high school science students, but fun for all, if you ask me), is one focused on the 1963 Advisory Committee on Pesticides, a panel brought into the world by President Kennedy in response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. My favorite part: you can pick a person who testified to the committee to play act (I think I smell a new party game here). I’d go as George Wallace personally (not that George Wallace)—I long ago wrote an undergrad thesis about his DDT work at Michigan State. But LaMont Cole looks pretty good too (I’d never read his “Impending Emergence of Ecological Thought” essay from 1964. It’s available on the site.)