Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Prehistory 1
This is the story of how people first reached the Americas and what they did when they got here. We’ll discuss the regular climate cycles that produce ice ages and the changes that result. We’ll discover Beringia, where the ancestors of Native Americans lived for thousands of years. And we’ll talk about the first Americans.
Chapter 2: Recontact 24
The cultures of the Americas developed separately from their Eurasian cousins for about 12,000 years. In this chapter we’ll explore what happened when Europeans discovered the Americas.
Chapter 3: Colonial North America 38
Who came to North America? What did they expect? What did they find? What did they do?
Chapter 4: Frontier and Grid 51
In this chapter we explore the lure of the Western Frontier on colonists and early Americans, and how people began expanding westward from the initial European settlements in North America.
Chapter 5: Commons, Mills, Corporations 77
The Industrial Revolution not only changed America’s economy and spurred the growth of cities; it changed the way Americans relate to the natural environment. In this chapter we trace changes in our ideas of what the environment is for, and who it’s for.
Chapter 6: Transportation Revolution 96
The ability to move people and goods from place to place quickly and affordably changed American society radically. The economic and political changes that went along with transportation technology were equally revolutionary.
Chapter 7: Centers and Peripheries 113
In this chapter we examine the complex relationships between Eastern and Western cities, as centers of production and consumption, and the peripheral places they depended on for raw materials and consumers.
Chapter 8: Green Revolution 131
Although we may not be aware of it, the continued existence of the modern world depends on three minerals. In this chapter we’ll explore the history of fertilizer.
Chapter 9: City Life 143
Rapid growth stressed city environments, and growing cities made controversial claims on the environments outside the city limits. Some profited, and others worked to improve city life for everyone.
Chapter 10: Wilderness & Country Life 160
In this chapter we examine both the actions of nineteenth-century Americans with respect to the environment, and the ways their ideas about wilderness and life in rural America influenced those actions.
Chapter 11: Farmers & Agribusiness 176
Farmers have been central to each of the periods we have covered in previous chapters. In this chapter, we focus on the farms themselves and look at how they have changed over time and what those changes might mean.
Chapter 12: Treasures Underground 192
Natural resources have always been an important motivation for nations exploring the Americas. In this chapter we'll explore the treasures Europeans and Americans found in the western hemisphere and the ongoing search for resources.
Chapter 13: Limits to Growth? 206
Are human societies able to continue growing forever, or are there limits to the Earth's carrying capacity? A short explanation of some of the economics concepts that keep coming up in this text.
Chapter 14: Economics & Externalities 218
A short explanation of some of the economics concepts that keep coming up in this text.
Chapter 15: Food and Choice 228
We can take the knowledge we gain studying history and apply it to our present and to the future. Here’s one possibility.
What have I done in the last year? Well, I finished my dissertation in the spring and defended it at UMass during the first week of June. So now I’m a legitimate PhD, which came in very handy in August when a professor at Bemidji State went on sick-leave and I was hired to teach her classes. I taught two sections of World History II (1500 to present) and a section of History of World Religions. A bit out of my wheelhouse, but I’ve done a lot of reading about religion over the years, so I managed it.
The semester just ended last week, and through most of it I was pretty busy writing lectures, quizzes, exams, and discussion notes. And reading the texts I chose, which I was of course unfamiliar with. I tried to insert some Environmental History into the World syllabus, which I thought worked out fairly well. The classes kept me running to stay a couple of steps ahead of the students. I enjoyed working in front of a physical rather than an online class – maybe there will be more opportunities to do it at BSU in the future.
While this was happening, I completed a book proposal and responded to readers reports. The result is, my dissertation Peppermint Kings is under contract for the Yale University Agrarian Studies Series. Yeah, really! So I’ll have something to do this winter, after the holiday guests all go home. I promised to deliver a 100,000-word manuscript by July 1st, but if I’m not working at BSU this spring I hope to turn it in around March 1st so the book will have a chance of being released on the Spring 2019 list, in time for conferences.
And while I was doing all that, I took TopHat up on an offer to convert my American Environmental History textbook into an online text/course for them. I completed that also last week, and it should be hitting TopHat’s marketplace soon. That project gave me an opportunity to revise and complete the print and ebook versions of the text. It’s now a full 15-chapter semester-long book. About 267 pages long, with 196 images and an ample bibliography. Should be hitting Amazon in a week or so – I’ll let you know!
I listened to the audiobook version of Matthew Parker’s book, on my drives to and from work at UMass. I’m writing a dissertation about a commodity and about families, so I was very curious. And some of the characters in my story begin their American careers in the “West India Trade,” out of Middletown CT, so I thought I might pick up some data or ideas. I learned a lot about the chronology of Caribbean settlement, the development of the sugar industry, and even the growth of buccaneering and piracy (which sheds an interesting light on British historian Christopher Hill’s articles about the New Model Army and pirates). And I realized that the sugar trade was a key element in the development of the British colonies in North America that often goes unmentioned in US History textbooks.
And it really is the story of the British West Indies. Although the Spanish and French are present as antagonists, and the Dutch are in Brazil, there’s very little said about their activities or points of view. Even where a description of other nations’ efforts cultivating sugar could have helped contextualize the scope and style of British sugar production, it’s largely missing. Also missing is a discussion or the demand side or the cultural impact of sugar, beyond a few lines describing changes in per capita consumption over time.
An interesting aspect of Parker’s story for me was the impact of sugar and the Caribbean on the development of New England. I used material from Parker’s story in my US History survey, to set the scene for the traditional stories of the Pilgrims, Puritans, and Virginians. Because I think initially, colonists’ expectations for the new world included not only a place to build a new society, but a place where they would get rich. Even religious idealists like the Pilgrims looked forward to opportunities for social mobility that were unavailable to them in England. And right from the start, European colonies in North America were commercial. In addition to fishing, growing tobacco, and trapping beaver, the North American colonies benefited from the booming sugar economy of the Caribbean. Islands such as Barbados that had once produced their own food began to specialize in the highly profitable commodity, so they looked to their neighbor colonies for food supplies. John Winthrop, remembered as the pious Puritan leader who helped establish Boston and was governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony four times before 1650, actually sent his second son Henry to help establish Barbados in 1626. When Cromwell’s English Civil War stopped the flow of trade to the ten-year-old Bay Colony, trade with the West Indies saved Boston’s economy. Winthrop’s younger son Samuel joined the growing community of New England traders in the sugar islands in 1647. And in the southern colonies, commercial cultivation of tobacco for the European market required lots of cheap labor. At first, many of the workers were poor English men and women, who came to the colonies as indentured servants. Later, when the supply of British workers was cut off (by the Civil War, and then again by the American Revolution), southern planters began to rely on enslaved Africans, already present on West Indies sugar plantations, to do the work.
Although there’s slavery throughout the story, Parker steps around much of the brutality and general debauchery when he’s talking about his main characters. Not that he tries to whitewash them — they’re not even really “heroes” in the standard sense. They’re just the central characters of a chapter or two, that the story hangs on or close to. But it might be interesting to dig deeper into the lives of some of these guys, and see them more completely. Slavery is clearly one of the big elephants in the room, but probably not the only one. The younger Christopher Codrington was a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who during his student years hung around with the lights of London. But he was also a bloodthirsty sod who joined William III’s army in the Netherlands just for the joy of battle. These guys are very complicated, and I would have been really interested in a deeper look into their complex, self-contradictory personalities. I wonder if Parker has a whole lot more of that type of material stored away, that got edited out of the final manuscript?
In week three of the UNSW Environmental Humanities class I'm taking online, we're reading "An Ecomodernist Manifesto." I was vaguely aware of this, but hadn't read it. It's quite a document. Here are my initial reactions.
The manifesto's purpose is to advance the idea that "knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene." The authors say, "we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse." Harmonizing with nature is not a solution, they say. "Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind's dependence upon them."
If we're not going to harmonize with nature, what should we do. The answer seems to be "intensifying." I think a lot will hang on how they define "intensifying," especially in agriculture. Chemical-enhanced monoculture and GMOs are capitally intensive, but the type of intensification that concentrates control, power, and money is not what's needed. I also hope the type of intensification they're advocating isn't technology. High-rise hydroponic farms might be a better solution than mile-wide cornfields, but new technological solutions to problems that were solved centuries ago are a waste of energy. We don't need to raise meat in laboratories. We need to adjust our meat-eating and raise animals rationally.
The authors make a series of points in the manifesto. On point 1, I tend to disagree that modernity has resulted in a "growing population able to live in many different environments." Sure, population has exploded. But more of us live in cities than ever before. Yes, humans can even survive in space for extended periods of time, but only at extreme expense. Our tech allows us to do many things, but our dependence on it weakens us and reduces our ability to solve our own problems. Humans may be less "able" than they've ever been.
The authors ask an important question: "Given that humans are completely dependent on the living biosphere, how is it possible that people are doing so much damage to natural systems without doing more harm to themselves?" But I disagree with their "paradox of technology" answer. Yes, technology has replaced less efficient survival techniques like hunting and gathering. But technology has not actually made humans less dependent on ecosystems. It has merely shifted the ecosystems most of us are depending on to faraway locations where we are less aware of them.
Cheap fossil fuels basically enable the whole system. They come from far away, as do the other resources (copper, phosphate, etc.) we extract using their energy. We manufacture nitrogen fertilizer using natural gas, while manure from CAFOs overruns holding ponds and poisons lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Increasingly, we do our manufacturing far away, where environmental contamination and human inequality are out of sight, out of mind.
There may or may not be evidence of limits to growth, but there is certainly evidence that increasing inequity threatens many, even in the face of overabundant capacity. This is not a new phenomenon. Mike Davis wrote very effectively about this in Late Victorian Holocausts.
The second point the authors make is that "long-term trends are today driving significant decoupling of human well-being from environmental impacts." An important element of this decoupling is that "environmental impacts rise at a slower rate than overall economic growth." Wait, what? This is a classic case of comparing apples and oranges. Or, to be blunter, of comparing the real with the unreal.
Environmental impacts are real things. Economic growth is not. Economic growth (as we all know but routinely forget) is a measurement that depends on what is valued. At its heart, the economy is simply a reflection of a very large but finite number of individual decisions in the market. Most economists make no claim to understand the dynamics of these decisions; they just add them up.
So saying the economy is growing faster than environmental impacts is only saying that people don't value the right things in the market. The disease is the cure. Yes, if we were all so happy to be living packed into domed cities eating manufactured food while the environment outside looked like apocalyptic sci-fi, the market would reflect our decision and the economy would continue to outpace the environmental impact. So is the real task of the ecomodernists social engineering to make people happy in domed cities?
Cities, they say, "occupy just one to three percent of the Earth's surface and yet are home to nearly four billion people." This, in their minds, symbolizes the radical decoupling of humanity from the constraints of nature. Really? Where does the food come from? Where does the waste go? Does the electricity appear in the wall outlet by magic? It's almost absurd. Let's make it easy -- when cities can produce even just their own water, you can tell me how decoupled they are.
The authors claim that "modernization is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy." This is in the section on cities, so I assume modernization refers to urbanization, new iPhones, and less work. It's ironic that, like efficiency experts of the early industrial age, the authors are fascinated by the idea of reducing labor when growing populations are either completely unemployed or reduced to working in meaningless jobs. Thank goodness, they say, that only 2 percent of the population feeds the other 98% in America. We wouldn't want more people to live on the land and grow things!
That's my reaction to the first half of the Manifesto. I'm getting annoyed, and this post is getting long. So I'll take a break and read the rest tomorrow.
David Holmgren, 2009
David Holmgren isn’t a historian, he’s one of the two founders of the ecological farming movement known as Permaculture. Bill Mollison is the other, much more visible name behind permaculture. Holmgren has often been described as the quiet guy in the background, but he doesn't lack ideas. Future Scenarios also has a home on the web, where Holmgren has added a new chapter to the book, written in 2012, called “Crash on Demand” that can be downloaded free. Although, like the possible futures outlined in The Collapse of Western Civilization, Holmgren’s sketches are settings waiting for plots and characters, they’re much more engaging than Oreskes's scenario, and they explore more alternatives than the single future presented in Collapse.
Holmgren explores four possible futures, based on the varying severity of two factors: Climate Change and Peak Oil. Holmgren doesn’t waste any time trying to prove either of these factors; if you don't believe in peak oil, there's still a pair of scenarios that will interest you. After a brief introduction to the two ideas, he gets right to business. Although he isn’t a historian, Holmgren borrows Daniel Yergin’s perspective when he says, “the history of the twentieth century makes more sense when interpreted primarily as the struggle for control of oil rather than the clash of ideologies” (7).
The four possibly futures Holmgren explores are “Techno-explosion,” which assumes new energy sources or new technologies will allow us to avoid or fix our problems, “Techno-stability,” where technology like photovoltaics will enable a smooth transition to a “steady state” without much social change, “Energy Descent,” a return to more rural, more pre-industrial energy use and population density as fossil fuels run out, and “Collapse,” rapid, catastrophic failure of many interlocked systems, causing human die-off and loss of infrastructure and knowledge. Basically, a new dark age.
Although this is a small book with a lot of graphic elements, Holmgren makes some interesting technical points. For example:
The promotion by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of research showing an anergy return on energy invested (EROEI) of 1.6 for ethanol as a ‘good result’ indicates how the understanding of these issues is very poor, even by the scientifically literate. A society based on an energy source of this quality would constantly be investing 62 percent of its energy back into the energy industry (the 1 in 1.6), leaving only the remaining 38 percent of the total energy in society for everything else—health, education, culture, food production, law, leisure, and so on. Our modern industrial society has been fueled by energy sources with EROEI rates as high as 100 and no lower than 6 (requiring between 1 percent and 17 percent of the wealth created being invested to get the yield) (44).
Of course, the "investing 62 percent" part is why the USDA is so interested in ethanol in the first place. It gives big corn farmers a reason to keep producing at bonanza levels. It's not really about producing efficient energy, at least not in the US. Holgren gives a succinct explanation of why the USDA's promotion of ethanol is really about enriching big corn farmers and the corporations that run refineries and not about producing a sustainable biofuel. And in contrast to the bland, “welfare loss will occur” language of other futurist books such as Limits to Growth, Holmgren isn’t afraid to say “The low EROEI of biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, suggests biofuels may be a way to deplete natural gas [one of the main ingredients used in manufacturing nitrate fertilizers] while degrading agricultural land and starving the world’s poor” (58).
Holmgren associates four social responses with the four possible futures he describes. The details of these scenarios are a bit arbitrary and there’s room for endless tweaking or argument over the details. But unlike Limits to Growth, Holmgren’s scenarios are fascinating, if only because they’re so alarming. For example, “Brown Tech” (severe climate change, slow energy depletion) leads to fascism, food riots, and forced sterilization (61-5). “Earth Steward” (mild climate change, fast energy depletion) leads to the emptying of cities and starvation for former urban hipsters lacking useful skills (75-8). On the scarier side, “Lifeboats” (severe climate change and fast energy depletion) leads to chaos and “a halving of the global population in a few decades” (82).
These are all dystopias. People have become accustomed to seeing these worlds in science fiction movies and dismissing them. We have a lot of trouble admitting even the remote possibility that this may be the world we’re leaving to our kids. Holmgren’s scenarios may be extreme, but he presents plausible evidence that they’re within the range of possibility. Future Scenarios is an answer to the flippant question, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
The Introductory article by Sarah S. Elkind began by thinking about Environmental History outside the academy:
In preparing to introduce this issue of the OAH Magazine of History, I asked a number of pre-collegiate teachers who include environmental history in their courses what motivated them to amend the traditional U.S. history curriculum. Some of them responded that they found environmental history particularly useful for explaining key moments in American history, from the differences between Native American and colonial European cultures, to the outcome of battles during the American Revolution, Civil War, and Indian wars. Others mentioned that discussing natural resources, climate, and landscape helped them examine regional differences in the United States. Several teachers felt that they owed it to their students to help them understand current environmental issues, from local industrial pollution to global warming. Environmental history, they said, served to put these topics into a larger context. Still others noted that environmental history appealed to students interested in legal or political issues, as well as those who have difficulty with more abstract discussions of politics and economics. Finally, they observed that environmental history helped their students develop a sense of place—locally, regionally, and nationally.
In a second article, Elkind described the results of an informal survey of fifteen middle and high school teachers whose comments she gathered via H-Environment. They reported using surveys such as John McNeill's Something New Under the Sun and Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth, as well as monographs like William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis and Donald Worster's Dust Bowl. I suspect teachers didn't assign these books whole to their classes. I only assign a chapter of Cronon to my undergrads, because we just don't spend long enough on that historical moment in my EnvHist survey to let them get through the whole book. Elkind also mentioned Tarr and Hays's The Search for the Ultimate Sink, which I haven't read but have now downloaded on Kindle.
In an article called "Everything and the Kitchen Sink," Patty Limerick says:
For teachers willing to consider the incorporation of environmental history into their American history survey classes, the omnipresence of the kitchen sink ought to be a pretty good pedagogical aid. If you can persuade your students to stop taking the kitchen sink for granted and to think about this everyday object, the sink is a virtual discussion-section-leader when it comes to raising historical questions aplenty. How did a system come into operation that moves food into the nation's homes, and onto the counters next to the sink, from points of production that are out of sight and out of mind? How did water, originating in a stream or an aquifer or a re-use treatment plant, get transported and channeled to the faucet in that sink? How did the nation move from a circumstance in which its citizens often fell ill and sometimes died from contaminated water supplies into a circumstance in which our drinking water sustains, and so rarely threatens, our lives? Finally, how did Americans slide into such a disconnection between our activities as consumers of resources and our knowledge of the sites at which those resources are produced? The kitchen sink would be ready to mobilize in support of a hundred lesson plans—except for one big problem. It is very, very boring. Asking students who are already bored by history to look with interest at their sinks is going to produce boredom compounded, boredom squared.
Limerick suggests that Environmental History's "advantage comes into play" when teachers incorporate devices like poet Ofelia Zepeda's poem "Kitchen Sink." This solution doesn't really appeal to me -- at least not as the only solution to the problem of interesting students in the issues Limerick outlined in her own description of the kitchen sink. Granted, I lean much more to the "what happened?" side of EnvHist than the culture side. But really, if environmental historians can think of no other way to make investigating those questions interesting and relevant to high school students, then to paraphrase Limerick's own words in a different context, we haven't fully understood our subject.
I'll have more to say about the other articles in this journal soon. Same Bat time, same Bat channel, as they used to say.
I decided instead, to write my own short introduction. It's much shorter than Cronon's essay, and doesn't cover the range of ideas he introduces. Most notably, for me, it leaves out the literary references that I think make "The Trouble with Wilderness" an important essay for culture-oriented Environmental Historians, but less than ideal for my audience.
I do try to complicate the definitions of environment, nature, and history a bit for my students. But in a more introductory way, that I think will open my students up to the bigger picture without taking them too far away from my goal in the first week, which is really to cover the whole period from human origins to 1491.
Anyway, here's what I came up with. It will also become the new Introduction to my textbook (in an example of the instant-revision process I talked about recently):
Environmental History is about looking at the past as if the environment mattered. Well of course the environment matters, you’re probably thinking. Most people consider themselves environmentalists to some degree and believe we should be doing more to protect the world around us. For some that sentiment comes from a sense of stewardship or the impulse to leave things better for our children than we got them. Others believe the natural world has rights every bit as important as the rights of humans. But we should remember that even people we think of as not valuing the environment actually care very deeply. After all, the environment is where the oil comes from, as well as the coal, gold, and copper that make the modern world run.
More specifically, when we say Environmental History is about looking at the past as if the environment mattered, we mean as if the environment influenced events. As if the physical world helped shape what people chose to do. As if landforms, oceans, climate, and resources affected where people lived, what they did, and how they related to each other – all the choices and actions that roll up together to produce our cultures and our history.
Long ago the world seemed so big and human actions seemed so small that it was easy to ignore our effect on the world around us. Today we understand that people have a big impact on our surroundings. Scientists have recently suggested that the Anthropocene – the geological era during which humans have had a significant impact on the planet – actually began when the first farmers started plowing fields about ten thousand years ago. And we're becoming aware that our environment has played a big part in our individual lives and in the growth of our cultures. Instead of being just a neutral backdrop, the environment is now recognized as a powerful shaper of human choices. That is, history.
But what’s the environment? Wilderness only? Does it include natural landscapes that have been altered by people, like farmland and managed forests? What about city neighborhoods where you can’t see anything green? In Environmental History, the environment means everything around us. The natural world, but also the manmade world. Often it's difficult to draw a distinct line between those two. We intuitively feel that wooded suburbs are a bit more natural than the city, and the wilderness even more. But if we look closer we may find that suburban trees and fields were part of a developer's design, and even wilderness areas are special manmade places that have been deliberately protected or sometimes even rehabilitated so they resemble our idea of pristine nature.
The idea of nature, we should remember, is an idea. Throughout our lives we’ve been taught what nature means, even if we’ve never read a book about it or talked about the idea in a classroom. For many people, the idea of nature doesn’t include us. People and our cultures are often considered to be outside nature; sometimes even imagined as the enemies of nature. So it’s useful to remind ourselves that although humans are capable of behaving quite differently from the other species we share the planet with, we’re no less natural. People evolved over millions of years, changing in response to environmental challenges. These changes were physical and behavioral, and since a big part of human behavior involves thought, we ought to remember that the ways we think were shaped by the world we evolved in.
If environment and nature are surprisingly complicated words, so is history. As Americans, we spend a lot of our lives learning and retelling stories that describe who we are and who we ought to be. Often these stories come to us in the form of family traditions and the civics and social studies lessons we absorbed as children. But even when they’ve been celebrated in History books, many of these stories are not as true as we'd like to think.
There’s an old saying that history is written by the winners. Although it’s cynical, there’s some truth to the idea that people in positions of power are more likely to leave documents behind telling their stories and reflecting their points of view. Luckily, historians don’t just accept documents we find in archives without considering the source. Recently, historians have put a lot of work into finding the stories of those who weren’t powerful enough to write their own histories. Environmental Historians have gone a step farther, telling the stories of animals, plants, and other elements of the world that have no voices of their own, but have nonetheless had important impacts on our history.
Another thing we notice when we look closely is that many of our stories have changed quite a bit over time, as have our reasons for telling them. History isn't just data about the past, it's the stories we tell about the past. The stories we choose to tell and the ways we choose to tell them often have a lot to do with the concerns of the present. It’s no accident Environmental History has blossomed precisely when people are looking at the world around them and wondering, “How did we get here, and what can we do about it?”
So where does that leave us? American Environmental History, for the purposes of this course, means looking at our past with special attention to how our surroundings influenced our opportunities, our choices, and our actions. At the same time, we’ll consider how our actions have changed the environment. It’s a feedback loop that has been spinning since people first burned a pasture or built a village.
There are two basic elements of looking at a past that includes the environment. First, we’ll pay close attention to the physical world. For example, the shape of the American continents and the fact that they’re connected to each other but cut off from the rest of the world has influenced American cultures from their prehistoric beginnings to the present. Landforms and waterways, natural resources and climate have all been key factors in how our society has developed and how it continues to change. Second, we’ll remember that how we think about the environment, like how we think about the past, has changed over time, and those changes affect our current choices and actions. You don't have to dig too deeply into the headlines to find debates raging over coal mining, oil pipelines, depleted fisheries, and climate change. Beliefs about the world around us and our role in it are important elements of the competing positions taken by advocates on either side of these contentious issues.
Our goal is to deal with both events and ideas. But realistically, this is a survey of American Environmental History stretching from prehistory to the present. We're going to spend most of our time on events, especially because the environmental influences on many key events in American History are not well understood. Too often our stories of America have devoted all their attention to political debates or to the philosophies of elite leaders like the founding fathers. These tales are often told against a blank background, an invisible environment that isn't part of the story at all. The main goal of this course is to show that it's really not possible to understand our past while ignoring the environment.
Weiner's NPR piece featured a short clip of a student who said she had taken AP World History and none of it connected with anything. Big History, however, allowed her to conceptually connect the Opium Wars to the Big Bang. That's cool, I guess, but really? Isn't it more likely that what's actually happened is that she has connected the Opium Wars to the environment, but mostly much more recently than the actual beginning of the universe. That she's really had an environmental history moment, without realizing it?
One point Weiner made that I hadn't really thought about before is that Big History offers what he called "a modern origin story." It's a way of getting the secular, scientific account of the beginning of the universe and the evolution of life and humans in front of students. That's entirely positive, as far as I'm concerned. Can't have too much of that, with new creation museums opening all the time in the US.
The large-scale structure of the universe, NASA.
But what about the human focus? Weiner says that critics including historians have objected to the fact that people only join the story in the last one-yard line of the football field of the history of the universe. Many of the commenters on the NPR story shared the concern that the human actions and their consequences that fill most history books are important and are lost in the sweep of Big History. I think this is a valid concern. On the one hand, it's important for people to get a glimpse of the duration and significance of humanity on the scale of the universe. On the other, it's very important for us to know our own history.
Again, the solution is Environmental History. My story in my American EnvHist class begins with human origins in Africa. I don't spend the whole semester talking about this, but I do spend a good chunk of the first lecture. Because even from a strictly human perspective, everything we usually teach in US History takes place in the final yards before the goal-line of the present. And I'm not just talking about the birth of stars here or the distribution of heavy elements. I'm talking about the development of the staple crops we all depend on today -- three of the five, maize, potatoes and manioc, developed in pre-historic America. Things that happened long before the start of traditional history books had a lot of influence on the world today, as Christian has said.
Regarding the objection to Bill Gates's advocacy of Big History and financial contribution to the cause; for the most part I think that's just jealousy. I'd take $10 million from the Gates Foundation in a heartbeat, and set up a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing Environmental History to High School students and regular people. So Mr. Gates, if you're listening, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But seriously, what's the problem with Gates helping more kids get access to history? It's not like it's bad history, pushing an ideological agenda. Wait -- is the real problem the "modern origin story"? Is the motivation behind some of the resistance that Big History offers a secular, humanist view of the deep past? If so, I'm even happier David Christian got the grant.
The authors say "the approaches coalescing under the banner of the environmental humanities have explicitly rejected the way in which humanities work on the environment has frequently been cast as ‘non-science’, with the primary role of mediating between the natural sciences and ‘the public'." While I agree there's a larger role for disciplines in the humanities to help re-conceptualize "human agency, social and cultural formation, social change and the entangled relations between human and non-human worlds," I think Environmental Humanities makes a big mistake if it looks down its nose at the work to be done communicating academic arguments and findings to the public. Who do the authors think is going to actually make change happen, if it's ever going to happen?
The authors say, and I see this thought repeated everywhere, that the humanities have traditionally been the home for questions of "meaning, value, ethics, justice, and the politics of knowledge construction." I tend to agree, although I think this is a big-tent humanities that includes many disciplines often considered Social Science in the US (at least when it comes time to fight for funding). They introduce the idea of a "thicker" concept of the human, which "rejects reductionist accounts of self-contained, rational, decision making subjects." Again, I think they have a point. I can think of several disciplines that rely too heavily on statistical or even statistically-modeled behavior of abstract, out-of-context actors. But as valuable as post-modernism is, I think we need to go beyond merely freighting our conversations with deconstruction. Examining "entangled cultural and philosophical frameworks" can get just as far from the contingency faced by actual people on the ground (especially non-elite people) as looking for agency in the convergence of market forces.
The authors say the anthropocene undermines the idea of "the unlimited, autonomous human." Again I agree, but with qualifications. I think the anthropocene actually throws a spotlight onto the very limited nature of the idea of freedom, which has never extended to as many people as we'd like to believe. But if we need the anthropocene to finally convince us that the freedom of the elite was the foam on a really big pitcher of beer, so be it.
The tension between "unsettling" and action may be the most interesting aspect of the essay. In the past, the humanities have been home to critics of "dominant narratives," but with widely varied degrees of actual engagement in the struggles of the present. We may need to look outside the English-speaking world for inspiration and examples here.
The authors give Environmental Historians credit for "highlighting the fact that the 'natural world' is not a passive background to human dramas." Their argument at this point seems to be a subtle re-branding effort, in which Environmental History becomes a subset of their discipline, all motivated by an "ecophilosophical" drive to position humans within a wider environment. A big element of this process involves giving voices to non-human agents in this larger ecology. That's a really fascinating issue, if the discipline can avoid getting lost in the weeds of trying to conceptualize the points of view of inarticulate (or even sometimes inanimate) agents in the environment.
These are important questions for philosophers, but I think if Environmental Humanities is really committed to activism on behalf of the environment, the philosophers need to remember to come back to earth from time to time and communicate with people who don't share their interest in these questions, but desperately want to know what went wrong and what can we do about it right now?
In the end, I think the biggest contribution Environmental Humanities can make to the planet may not be "challenging and unsettling traditional approaches to the humanities." Species facing extinction may be better served by clearly-articulated, understandable descriptions of the situation facing us and explanations of what we might do about it now. "We" being not just philosophers and scholars, but working people, families, and children.
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, 2014
Since I wrote fiction before I became an academic historian (and still do, from time to time), it always interests me when academics cross the big canyon separating these two genres and try their hands at fictions that illustrate important contemporary themes. Once upon a time, this happened a lot more than it does now. Edward Bellamy’s 1889 novel, Looking Backward, was the second most popular American book in the nineteenth century (after Uncle Tom’s Cabin). George Orwell and H. G. Wells also came to mind while I was reading this, but they lived in a time when the separation of disciplinary silos maybe wasn’t as severe as it is now.
Unlike a classic science fiction tale such as 1984 or The Time Machine, The Collapse of Western Civilization doesn’t have any characters (except the narrator who occasionally exhibits a bit of personality), and it doesn’t have a plot. It’s all setting. This is a very little book, whose point is simply to suggest that there is a crisis at hand. The future world the narrator speaks from could easily be the scene of any number of stories. But sometimes setting gets lost behind story. Like Environmental History, this book puts setting front-and-center.
The Collapse of Western Civilization is basically a fictional retrospective on what went wrong in our present, and what happened as a result. The physical consequences are all the ones predicted by the scientific consensus on climate change. Their timing and future societies’ reactions are fictional, but plausible. In a nutshell, the authors blame runaway climate change on the inadequacies of Western scientific culture and the power of neoliberal politics. They are both historians of science, so their choice of emphasis is not surprising. And they make some important points.
Scientific institutions, the authors say, are rigidly locked in a disciplinary silo system “in which specialists developed a high level of expertise in a small area of inquiry” (14). Scientists also impose on themselves an “excessively stringent standard” of proof, they say, perhaps to distinguish their search for truth from common experience or authority-based religious belief. The authors compare the “disciplinary severity” of science to earlier, monastic asceticism (16). I think there’s a lot left unsaid here, about the ways scientific institutions have embraced religious organizational paradigms even while they argue for a standard of truth that is fundamentally different from the authority of sacred texts. But in any case, scientists in this scenario were undercut by their own refusal to abandon 95% statistical significance, by their ignorance of what was happening in adjacent disciplines, and by a huge PR campaign promoting climate change denial.
The most interesting criticism of science, to me, comes in an off-hand remark of the narrator’s, when she criticizes the “archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems” (2). This is the same, in my mind, as the convention that allows economists (neoliberal or otherwise) to ignore “externalities” until (and sometimes even after) they become “market failures.” As the authors suggest, ignoring externalities was much easier when the environmental “sink” seemed infinite. But even in light of our current knowledge, the argument seems only to have shifted from “not a problem” to “not our problem.”
And maybe that leads to the element of The Collapse of Western Civilization’s approach that didn’t work so well for me. There are no people in it. Even though the authors blame the “carbon-combustion complex” for financing a campaign of denialism at the beginning of the 21st century (and it’s very important to note that climate change denialism was manufactured — up until very recently, Americans pretty much believed what the scientists were saying), the only time it gets remotely personal is when they mention that Exxon-Mobil did a deal with the Russian government to exploit the Arctic in 2012. This would have been a great opportunity to say a little more about extra-national corporations and power. Or even, perhaps, to examine why scientists were so respected while their efforts were enabling the military-industrial complex’s profits during the Cold War, but were jettisoned when their science turned against its patrons. Maybe science has never really, independently held the esteemed position the authors claim it lost in American culture. But in any case, the authors shy away from talking about the climate disaster as an abuse of power by people. So it becomes the story of two impersonal historical forces that ruined the world. Not about people who had choices to make, and made the wrong ones.
But then again, I’m the guy who wrote a revenge-tale based on the 2000 water wars in Cochabamba (too violent, so it remains unpublished). The story needs to be personal, for me. And these people are historians, not science fiction authors. And they’ve tried to do something important here. If The Collapse of Western Civilization gets read and discussed, then it’s a huge success. Maybe it will help more academics cross that canyon, and start writing books (fiction or non) that can be read by the general public. And maybe it will inspire people to think more about the actual people making — or evading — the important decisions that will lead us into this disaster or help us bypass some of it.
Gregory Clark, 2014
I just finished reading a book that claims social mobility in modern America is basically the same as in modern Sweden, and that both are in fact just about the same as in sixteenth-century England. Everywhere, Gregory Clark says, persistence of social status is much higher than we normally suppose. Where most sociologists estimate persistence in the range of 40%, Clark puts it between 75% and 80%. And as mentioned, he says it has never really changed throughout history and that it's the same pretty much everywhere. As a result, the descendants of the victorious Normans of 1066 are still disproportionately represented in the British Parliament, and the famous but tiny Pepys family has sent many more than its share of young men to Oxford and Cambridge.
First, I've gotta say that it doesn't really come as a surprise to me that the elite stay elite or that it can take 20 or 30 generations for a family at the top of the heap to "revert to the mean." Although Clark says it's statistically improbable for the Pepys clan to have continued to send more than its share to the best British schools, I don't think it's socially improbable at all. In fact, it's the outcome I expected.
The interesting thing about this book, though, is that Clark posits (without ever really coming right out and saying it) a genetic component to elite status and persistence. Rather than saying that the Pepys boys were accorded special privileges at elite British schools or that the sons and grandsons of hereditary MPs were more likely to be elected to Parliament, Clark says there's something called underlying social competence, and that it is inherited.
Hang on, what? Clark says that elite status is in the genes? Well, not exactly. What he says is that there's an unknown cluster of characteristics that, taken together, make a person socially "competent," and that these characteristics seem to be inherited. Although Clark's equation has a term built in for dumb luck, he thinks the randomness is much less than we normally believe it to be. If you're looking for a marriage partner, Clark says, don't trust the status of the individual alone. It might be luck. Look at the status of the whole family, and you'll get an indication of your potential partner's "competence" genes.
I haven't been able to find any reviews of this idea by historians (and just a couple by economists), possibly because the book was only published in 2014 and the glaciers of academic reviewing haven't ground it down yet. However, Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution wrote a three-part take-down called "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" in March 2014. Reeves, who also recently wrote a long essay supporting the rags-to-riches perspective of Horatio Alger, says Clark's perspective is racist. Or at least genetically deterministic, which he suggests is basically the same thing. Clark responded that he wasn't being racist, some of the elite groups he tracks in the book are in fact of African descent. But Reeves has a point. "Racism is not History," he says. Yeah, the guy from Brookings is saying the effects of slavery and the rest of America's racist history are still being felt. Wow.
Clark's main point isn't really about race, though. He uses adoption and twin studies to suggest that there's an element to life success that isn't explainable by nurture. Even if that effect isn't as complete as Clark implies (I think he brushes by some of the caveats and exceptions in the studies he cites a little to quickly), it's a challenging idea.
The problem is, there's not enough to grab onto. The 11 herbs and spices remain secret -- we never find out what mental, emotional, physical, or other characteristics make a person "socially competent." And it's hard to believe that the factors that made people successful in the sixteenth century are all the same as those that make people successful today. Nor is there any real explanation of how particular families got to the top of the heap in the first place. The mobility equation takes center stage, and we don't really get to look under the hood at the social factors that could have led to success and then sustained it. This is unfortunate, because since Clark hasn't really identified the machine working behind the scenes, it's entirely possible that the effects he's measuring to derive the equation are in fact social rather than biological.
When Clark says the social mobility in Sweden is as low as in America or early-modern England, he's not saying that inequality is the same. The penalty of being at the bottom in a welfare society like Sweden is obviously much lower than it was in England or is in the US (I wonder if the lesser downside of low social mobility in Sweden doesn't have something to do with it continuing?). Clark does suggest that in a society like the US where Reeves's Horatio Alger dream is pretty much an illusion, we ought to think harder about our safety net.
Clark's numbers suggest that a person's status at birth can predict a lot about their life chances. That's a slap in the face to the American Dream. But let's think about it. If he's right at all -- even if we have no idea why he's right and disagree with the theory he advances to explain it -- then we really ought to be doing more to make it less painful to be average or poor in America.
Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact
Vaclav Smil likes technology, but he’s reasonable. In this volume, Smil argues that in spite of the focus usually being on culture and politics, the modern world was largely created by technical advances achieved between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I, in a period he calls the “Age of Synergy.” He observes that although we think we’re living in an age of rapid technological transformation (or even “disruptive innovation”), many products and “techniques whose everyday use keeps defining and shaping the modern civilization ha[ve] not undergone any fundamental change during the course of the 20th century.” (5) Taking aim at prophets of discontinuity like Ray Kurzweil, Smil says that currently fashionable “perceptions of accelerating innovation are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by zealots of electronic faith.” The idea of accelerating evolution, Smil says, is teleological. In its place, he offers a combination of “phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium.” (6) Well, so much for the singularity.
Smil reiterates his belief that the “most far-reaching of all modern technical innovations...[was] the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.” (7) The Haber-Bosch process made nitrogen fertilizers available on an unprecedented scale (relative to previous sources, Peruvian guano and Chilean nitrate), allowing the world’s human population to expand to its current level. Without it, Smil says, “the world could not support more than about 3.5 billion people.” (23) As usual, Smil leaves the other shoe hanging in midair: what happens when the fossil fuel resources that make this cheap nitrogen so abundant begin to dry up?
Interestingly, Smil prefers the words “technical innovation” or “technique” to “technology.” Toward the end of the book he congratulates George Orwell for the same thing (quoting a passage from a 1942 BBC broadcast, 259), and calls attention to the fact that he has not used the fuzzier term “technology” a single time in the text. This might be frustrating for researchers searching keywords in the future, but it’s an interesting distinction.
The key characteristics of the “Unprecedented Saltation” of 1867-1914, Smil says, were:
- that the impact of these technical advances was almost instantaneous,
- the extraordinary concatenation of a large number of scientific and technical advances,
- the rate with which all kinds of innovations were promptly improved after their introduction,
- the imagination and boldness of new proposals, and
- the epoch-making nature of these technical advances. (8-12)
While discussing periodization, Smil mentions that he is “deliberately ignoring” dating technical changes by economic cycles like the Kondratiev wave. He’s also avoiding, although he doesn’t say so, discussion of cultural, economic and social changes that impacted things like producer financing and consumer behavior. Tracing the feedback loops between technical innovation and these other areas is not the mission of this book. But Smil does acknowledge the world beyond science. “Edison’s key insight,” he says, was not technical, but “that any commercially viable lighting system must minimize electricity consumption and hence must use high-resistance filaments with lights connected in parallel across a constant-voltage system” (41). Edison was not designing a light bulb for the laboratory, he was designing a complete electrical generation and delivery system. The bulb was just the visible end-point of a much more complex (and profitable) project.
Smil also calls attention to the fact that “between 1880 and 1896 more than $2 million was spent in prosecuting more than 100 lawsuits” for patent infringement (43). Technology was no place for the faint-hearted, and the best technician didn’t always win. Not until 1943, a few months after Nicola Tesla’s death, did the US Supreme Court finally acknowledge the priority of his patents over Marconi’s, Smil says. And ironically, the court’s decision wasn’t to support Tesla, but was “merely a way for the court to avoid a decision regarding Marconi Co.’s suit against the U.S. government for using its patents” (251). Smil compare’s Marconi’s ability to “package, and slightly improve, what is readily available,” and benefit from “alliances with powerful users” with Microsoft’s success marketing Windows. He identifies Bill Gates with Marconi, whose status as “not a great technical innovator” was exemplified by his insistence that his radio would only be used to transmit Morse code.
Smil gives Edison credit for being able to play the game, but he clearly has a soft spot for Tesla and even George Westinghouse, who he reminds us had 361 patents to his credit (but how many of these were really Tesla's?). The stories of these people and their technical innovations would be even better if they were expanded to include personal and business elements, which will probably lead me to read biographies of many of them when I have some free time. In his conclusion, Smil reiterates his argument for the unique influence of technical change during this period by pointing out that “only two of today’s 10 largest multinationals...were not set up before 1914” (301). In addition to this short list, a quick look at the Fortune 500 would probably show that most of the world’s business is based on techniques whose origins can be traced to Smil’s Age of Synergy. Although that’s clearly a trailing indicator, it does seem fair to conclude that claims about the exceptional nature of the digital age are overblown. Smil shows that technical changes -- and common sense suggests that the associated economic and social changes of the late 19th century still account for most of the world in which we live.
There were certainly things about Walden that surprised me, and that I had not picked up on when I read it as a teenager. One thing was, the way Thoreau seems to jump back and forth from the sublime to the ridiculous. On the same page where he sublimely observes, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau also says, “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave driver of yourself.” Stephen Fender, the editor of the Oxford World Classics edition, apologizes for this passage by saying Thoreau was one of the first critics of the northern factory system. Fender tries hard to put a “free labor” spin on what really amounts to a ridiculous, insensitive statement. But ironically, I think it’s partly Thoreau’s middle-class, northern-white-guy ignorance and self-centeredness that makes Walden so rich and enduring.
Sure, there are enough literary and cultural references to keep classicists and concordance-writers happy. But is this why we still read Walden? And there are beautiful, graphic passages about nature, and about Thoreau’s experience of the woods and the pond. But I don’t think this accounts for his continuing popularity, either. I think it comes down to two things: Thoreau gives us a view of nineteenth-century America from a perspective way outside the frame; and he’s a white, middle-class, suburban intellectual, like most of us.
It’s very difficult to critique the system from within. By leaving and looking at his society from the outside, Thoreau helps us see things that ought to be obvious but are not. He reminds us that “the principal object” of the new textile factories is “not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.” Once we’re pulled out of the frame a bit by that thought, Thoreau continues, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” Thoreau is a sensible guy, but he’s not a saint — he keeps reminding us that his perspective is personal and limited. “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross,” Thoreau says. “It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune.” But just when you want to hit him upside the head with a 2x4, he redeems himself and concludes the paragraph with “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
When Thoreau looks at Concord and sees “the village was literally a com-munity, a league for mutual defense,” it’s easy to recognize echoes of the culture of fear playing itself out in our own time. Thoreau is right: “if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with.” The wish to “live deliberately…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” is as contemporary as it could possibly be. Thoreau’s critique only becomes stronger, as our culture moves farther from simplicity. In the end, it may be the ahistorical nature of Walden that has made it so enduring. Marching to the beat of a different drummer and cultivating wildness (a fabulous oxymoron) are timeless. As opposed to something like Edward Bellamy’s hugely popular contemporary book Looking Backward, which was filled with specific recommendations that don’t wear nearly as well, a hundred years later.
But when I’m reading Walden with my history class, I question the historical accuracy of those “lives of quiet desperation,” even though the statement is intuitive and resonant. I suspect that it’s a bit of a projection, both when Thoreau originally said it and when we read it and nod knowingly. But yeah, there’s something to it, then and now. Similarly, the idea that they built a telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas have nothing meaningful to say to each other is just a bit of a sneering, elitist misrepresentation, isn’t it? There will be a lot of data and facts in my dissertation, but the real meat of the thing will come from thousands of letters that people wrote to family members. They clearly thought they had something meaningful to say to each other, even if it was only “I just planted six acres of potatoes” or “How is Mother?” If Thoreau doesn’t deign to consider that type of communication worth the penny postage, that’s his problem.
But I did still compare the telegraph to Facebook and Twitter, and the students got it.
I’m fairly sympathetic with these ideas, but I’m also a historian. So I wonder whether there have been other periods when this combination of apocalypse and “back to the garden” came together — or what other combinations may have occurred to our ancestors. After all, this is not the first time the country and the city have been set against each other as competing models of the good life.
So I was really excited when I found Bolton Hall’s 1907 book, Three Acres and Liberty. Apparently, this is the book (and he’s the guy) credited with launching the “back to the land” movement in the early 20th century — although he called it by the much more appealing name, “forward-to-the-land.” I’m struck by the number of times what I’m reading in this hundred year old book could have been written by Lodgson, Salatin, or Ussery (or for that matter, by me). Some examples:
“It is hardly too much to say that when we are tired out or ill either we have been doing the wrong thing or doing it wrong.”
“You raise more than vegetables in your garden: you raise your expectation of life.”
And that’s just the first chapter! My reaction after reading the rest of the book is mixed, but that’s typical of my reaction to everything from the Progressive Era, and for that matter, to the Era itself. On the one hand, I’m very impressed that a lot of what passes for state of the art innovation in the organic/sustainable farming world is in fact very old ideas that were abandoned and forgotten under the pressure of the twentieth-century consumer lifestyle and agribusiness model of agriculture. On the other, the author is entirely too impressed with the role of experts in helping poor, benighted workers of the world get back to the land.
The initial thought of the book is a great one, though. So I’ll repeat it again. Hall says, “We are not tied to a desk or to a bench; we stay there only because we think we are tied.”
Among the other important ideas, which somehow we failed to act on in the twentieth century, is this one: “It is more important that small power be developed on the farms of the United States than that we harness Niagara.” Where would the power grid conversation be, that people like Maggie Koerth-Baker are having now, if we had developed local, sustainable power sources?
Hall’s premise in this book is that “One hour a day spent in a garden ten yards long by seven wide will supply vegetables enough for a family of six.” He goes on to say “The world seems to be divided into those who have to count their pennies and those who couldn’t count their thousands.” And since this is the case, those of us who count pennies should take advantage of the opportunity to save most of our food budget by doing it ourselves.
A really interesting aspect of this program is Hall’s idea that by freeing people from having to buy their food, you free one parent from having to work outside the home. Hall is clear in his claim that this is better for the children and the family, and for society at large. Where Hall and his associates made vacant urban land available to poor or unemployed people, he claims that in addition to growing self-reliance they saw actual improvements in people’s health and in the strength of families. Working outdoors and eating an improved diet increased people’s physical health while solving problems and developing hope for the future improved their mental health.
That’s not to say the traditional gender roles are the only possible one. Only that, often, having two parents working isn’t a choice allowing women to fulfill career interests, it’s just how we get by. In addition to these interesting perspectives, Hall provides a lot of information that’s interesting to the historian. We don’t normally think about the fact that only a hundred years ago “what typically attract[ed] the gardener to the great cities is stable manure,” or “the backwoods of the Middle States [was] made accessible by cheap autos” in the first decades of the twentieth century. But this transition from horses and railroads to automobiles was happening just as Hall was writing, and beginning to erode the truth of the old adage that “Wealth, activity, and political power concentrate at the inlet and outlet of the railway funnel.”
Hall’s writing style is very effective. He combines idealistic claims such as “The best and most effective way of helping people in need is to open a way whereby they may help themselves,” with practical observations, like “idle men and idle land are already close to each other—the men can reach their gardens without changing their domiciles or being separated from their families.” Then he throws in a little humor: “‘Quite right, mother, quite right,’ came from a man nearby. ‘The world can never know the evil we men don’t do while we are busy in our little gardens.’”
Hall quotes several other writers whose conclusions match his own. For example, Liberty Hyde Bailey: “An area of 150x100 feet is generally sufficient to supply a family of five people with vegetables.” And here and there he adds a bits of contemporary wisdom that now seem hopelessly lacking in political correctness: “when there is a large job of…weeding to be done, you can hire Italians or other foreigners to do it better and cheaper.” But he also quotes Varro’s De Re Rustica, written in 37 BCE, and says “historians have made a mistake in not reading it.”
Hall recommends a wide variety of intensive gardening techniques: use of manure instead of commercial fertilizers; “super close culture,” (which we might now call square foot gardening) where plants are set very close together to use the land and water efficiently and keep down weeds; “companion cropping” and “double cropping,” to extend the growing season; rotation to reduce the impact of pests; soil inoculation using nitrogen-fixing legumes (long known to farmers, but just recently discovered by agronomists when he wrote); mulching to save water; raising chickens, ducks and rabbits to use waste and produce food and manure; canning and drying to preserve even small quantities of food; and even disposal of city sewage by using human waste on urban gardens. He talks about Robert Owen-inspired British Rochdale cooperatives, politics, and economics as understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. And he quotes a passage from Lincoln that I’ve never run into before: “Population must increase rapidly, more rapidly than in former times, and ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms. Such community will alike be independent of crowned kings, money kings, and land kings.”
The Journal of Political Economy 49, no. 3 (1941): 317-359.
This old article by Clarence Danhof helped change the Turner-inspired idea that the West functioned as a “safety-valve” for American society in the 19th century. Danhof finds the claim that western migration acted as a safety-valve for eastern wage-based industry, keeping wages high with the threat of massive migration, is complicated by the expense of actually starting a farm on the frontier. Using contemporary accounts and estimates provided in guidebooks, Danhof argues it was not only true that a settler needed a minimum of $1,000 “to equip and 80-acre farm, exclusive of land,” (325) but also that this fact was well-known. A wage worker in industry or agriculture was doing well in 1850 if he managed to save a dollar a week. There were very few people who could hope to save a thousand dollars, even in ten years.
Danhof quotes many interesting contemporary sources, including an 1852 address by Horatio Seymour to the New York Agricultural Society that “distinguished between the ‘old’ self-sufficient type of agriculture and the ‘new’ agriculture of the 1850s, focused on profits and markets” (318). Mid-19th century authorities knew “No error is more common that to suppose that the farmer does not require Capital,” according to the Working Farmer magazine in 1859 (319). Even so, according to the Western Farm Journal there were “three hundred thousand men who, it was estimated, would emigrate in 1857 [and] would take $20,000,000 with them” (322). So the question is, where did these emigrants get the money. My own primary research suggests that for many, close family ties and serial family migration were the key.
Contrary to some accounts that complain about the “wage-slavery,” practiced by Western agriculturalists, Danhof says “Wage employment in the rapidly growing western towns and cities was frequently pictured to eastern mechanics as providing excellent opportunities to share in the growth of the West, since labor was in demand and wages were high” (323-4). Perhaps this Western labor demand, more than farm-making itself, was the safety valve and the force that helped keep eastern wages high. As Thernstrom and Knights found, it’s particularly difficult keeping tabs on people who moved around often and didn’t own land. But that’s no reason to conclude the West didn’t have as many transient workers as the East.
Government land sales to individuals totaled nearly fifty million acres from 1850-60, Danhof says (329). And “Under the military land-grant acts of 1847 and subsequent years, the government presented, to more than half a million individuals, tracts of land varying from 40 to 160 acres each and totaling more than 57,000,000 acres. These lands came on the [secondary] market after the warrants granting them were made assignable in 1852, and an active market was conducted in them with prices substantially below the [$1.25 per acre] federal minimum” (330). The federal government assigned to individuals by...sale and grant--about 57 per cent of its total land transfers made during the decade. The remaining [43% of] land conveyances were made as grants to the states...and to canal and railroad companies” (But remember that until the Transcontinental Railroad project began, the federal government granted land to states rather than directly to railroads, 331). Many of these lands came back on the market in the 1850s; most notably those owned by the Illinois Central Railroad, of which by 1860 “1,279,382 acres had been sold at an average price of $11.50 per acre on terms of up to six years’ credit.” Land office officials downplayed the role of speculators, but President Buchanan warned that “large portions of 'the public lands' have become the property of individuals and companies, and thus the price is greatly enhanced to those who desire to purchase for actual settlement” (quoting 1857 Annual Message, 332). This certainly seems to be the case for the Illinois Central. If they got government land free, then bought more at $1.25 or below per acre and sold it for $11.50, they made at least a thousand percent profit on the land alone, not to mention their railroad revenue.
Danhof mentions that many farmers were able to raise “farm-making” money by selling existing farms in the east, where population growth had dramatically pushed up values. He suggests on this basis that the majority of new Western farmers were old Eastern farmers. This could be verified demographically using census data, and I suspect we’d find a lot of Eastern farmers like the Ranneys retiring onto their sons’ new farms in the West. Danhof notes in passing in his conclusion that there were a lot of other things you could do beside farming, if you ran away to the West. These other activities might have been tried by adventurous or desperate single people he says; families would usually have made more solid preparations and thought things through.
Based on my primary reading, I’d suggest that the BIG issue Danhof doesn’t directly address is extended family. Serial migration, I think, was often financed by extended families. People who had gone before and those who (temporarily or permanently) stayed behind contributed to the migrating family’s expenses; with the expectation that when the time came, the previous migrants would contribute to the next. Brothers or cousins in the East helped the new Western farmers find markets for their produce. And people seem to have lived with relatives for what we would consider ridiculously extended periods. I think next time I teach the “moving West” unit of my EnvHist survey, I’ll spend a few more minutes comparing the cowboy image of the West with a more complicated picture of western expansion.
The article begins with the author standing at the foot of a glacier in Iceland, which Ropeik says will someday disappear, but mostly due to forces much larger than anthropogenic climate change. Ropeik continues with a mild criticism of the idea contained in the three Abrahamic religions that humans have dominion over nature. The author rejects this idea, but excuses it. He doesn't say it's ancient superstition, but that it reflects what Einstein called the "optical delusion" of self and other.
But he's much harsher when it comes to modern environmentalists. Bill McKibben's breakthrough book's title, The End of Nature, he says, is arrogantly anthropocentric and scientifically naïve. McKibben is a "modern environmental prophet of hypocrisy," although it's initially unclear to me, aside from the journalistic hyperbole of his title, how McKibben has offended. Biologist Edward Wilson is described as "another high priest of modern environmentalism." Is this continued use of religious language a clue to the real argument of this article?
At the end of part one, Ropeik argues that the "anthropogenic arrogance" that humans are not part of nature is a "central conceit of classical environmentalism." He uses Joni Mitchel's lyric from "Woodstock" to illustrate the naïveté of the idea that we can return to the Garden. And I agree with that sentiment. But he extends this to suggest there's something ridiculous about McKibben's claim that "we possess the possibility of self-restraint." We can't restrain ourselves, he says. Our "believing that we are so intelligent that we can consciously conquer our ancient animal instincts" is pious, ignorant, and dangerous.
In part two, which begins in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Ropeik introduces James Lovelock's Gaia, which he says is an interesting example of "eco rather than anthropo-centrism." The Greek gods punished Prometheus and unleashed Pandora's box of horrors on humans, the same way the Judeo-Christian deity punished humans for gaining knowledge. Knowledge and fire (reason and technology) gave us great gifts, he says, but threaten Nature "in it's current state" (his italics). The point, apparently, is that our view is myopic, short-term, and human-centered. Nature will continue, even if we cause a few extinctions.
This brings Ropeik back to the refrain, the "selective hubris classical environmentalists have" that we can "solve these problems." This is my big beef with the argument. Not the straw-man "classical environmentalists," but the idea that anyone is saying we know how to fix all these problems. A lot of people are saying, let's just try to stop causing the problems! I can't help thinking that the whole point of this article is going to be, let's keep drilling, because in the long run some new Nature will work itself out, regardless of what we do.
I admit, I have some sympathy for the irony of Ambrose Bierce's definition of the brain as "the organ with which we think we think." But I'm also struck by the irony of a guy who teaches at Harvard saying this. Who is this "we" he refers to, anyway? Part two ends with a reiteration of the danger posed by believing we can think ourselves back to the Garden, when religion has been telling us all along that reason is the enemy.
Part three begins in the Himalayas near Tibet. The author has apparently gone there to see an eclipse, which again impresses him with the immensity of nature and the puniness of human intention. He then goes on to draw a series of false dichotomies intended to illustrate the silliness of "classic environmentalism." We're asked to choose between monoculture agribusiness and organic local farming. Between nuclear power and wind; between biotechnology and the paleo diet.
The byproducts of "our" technologies, he says, are "our" monsters, and as Bruno Latour says, we must love them. At no point, though, does Ropeik recognize that those benefiting and profiting from these technologies and those facing the monsters aren't the same people. In a striking moment, he criticizes Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who he says also wants to go back to a biblical Garden. While I sympathize with Ropeik's frustration over the it-all-began-with-Francis-Bacon argument, I think he trivializes Vandana's actual position every bit as much.
The article concludes by admitting that humanity and the biosphere "are headed for an inevitable nasty crash that will certainly largely be our fault." And that this crash is unavoidable, not because we've already passed some ecological tipping point, but because we just can't stop ourselves. Again the we. Is this the we that loses children when American chemical factories explode in India, or the we that can jet off to the Himalayas to watch an eclipse?
In an epilog, Ropeik describes meeting a cuttlefish on a dive in the South Pacific. He remarks that the area where he's diving had been barren ten years earlier, bleached by El Nino warming. The reef recovered, which apparently goes to show that we really aren't doing that much damage after all. Sort of like how a cold day in Harvard Square challenges global climate change.
The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898
It’s interesting, given Walter LaFeber’s reputation as a critic of American Empire, that he refaces this book by saying “I have been profoundly impressed with the statesmen of these decades [the last of the 19th century]…I found both the policymakers and the businessmen of this era to be responsible, conscientious men who accepted the economic and social realities of their day, understood domestic and foreign problems, debated issues vigorously, and especially were unafraid to strike out on new and uncharted paths in order to create what they sincerely hoped would be a better nation and a better world” (ix). This sincere appreciation on LaFeber’s part for the people whose decisions he will be criticizing so thoroughly, suggests his story is much more subtle than the standard good guys vs. bad guys approach taken in many texts (and unfortunately, often by critics of the establishment).
Similarly, LaFeber begins his first chapter by debunking the myth of antebellum isolation. “Between 1850 and 1873,” he says, “despite an almost nonexistent export trade during the Civil War, exports averaged $274,000,000 annually; the yearly average during the 1838-1849 period had been only $116,000,000” (1-2). So while it is true, LaFeber admits, that “until the 1890’s the vast Atlantic sheltered America from many European problems,” the fact that we were not drawn into European wars does not mean that many Americans (especially businessmen and financiers) were not intimately connected with the continent. The histories of businesses such as J.P. Morgan's Anglo-American financial empire are ample proof that American businessmen considered themselves players on the Atlantic stage. Even my western New York Peppermint King, Hiram Hotchkiss, made his name by taking his peppermint oil to London's Crystal Palace in 1851 and getting a first prize medallion with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's images on it! These long-standing connections had important implications in politics and diplomacy, as the twentieth century began.
LaFeber says William Henry Seward “deserves to be remembered as the greatest Secretary of State in American history after his beloved Adams. This is so partially because of his astute diplomacy, which kept European powers out of the Civil War, but also because his vision of empire dominated American policy for the next century” (25). “Grant, Hamilton Fish, William M. Evarts, James G. Blaine, Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, and Thomas F. Bayard assume secondary roles,” LaFeber says (24). He notes also that Seward suggested “Mexico City was an excellent site for the future capital of the American empire” (28). This is interesting, not only because it implies some type of U.S. annexation of Mexico, but because Mexico City has nearly always been the largest city in the Americas. It was in 1490, and again in 1600, 1800, and 2000. Seward also predicted that “Russia and the United States may remain good friends until, each having made a circuit of half the globe in opposite directions, they meet and greet each other in the region where civilization first began” (30).
LaFeber’s point is that American empire was seen by nearly every influential contemporary as an inevitable result of the economic changes of the late nineteenth century. LaFeber says there was very little pressure to “occupy every piece of available land in the Pacific,” but I’d add there was clearly pressure to control many of those islands and their resources, as shown by the Guano Islands Act of 1856. There was also a general understanding that “Latin-American and Asian markets were vitally important to the expansive American industrial complex” (416). The machine, late-nineteenth century policy-makers seem to have realized, needed to be constantly fed with both raw materials and new markets. The growth economy had begun.
Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987
In an August 1989 review article in The Western Historical Quarterly, Patricia Limerick said she “wanted to narrow the widening gap between ‘sophisticated, scholarly history’ and ‘readable, simplified, popular history.’ If you cannot express your findings in terms that an intelligent freshman can understand, I have long felt, then you haven’t yet figured out those findings” (318). This is a sentiment I agree with 100%. Limerick wrote Legacy of Conquest in 1987, so she had not only the heroic, Turnerian history of the West to debunk, but the even more wildly out-of-touch Reagan-era western myth. Her attack on the normal view of the West split between history and current events. Limerick argued for the continuity of western history to the present, and for the use of current newspapers as “primary sources” for that current view. Since most of these issues were particularly intense in the 1970s and 1980s, the reader needs to work a little, to bring them up to date. But many of Limerick's arguments have inspired others to expand on them. First is the idea that “the sharp and honest term 'conquest’ ” enhances our understanding of the morally ambivalent nature of western expansion. As one of the 1989 review's panelists remarked, it’s not only the South that Americans need to feel guilty about.
Limerick begins Legacy of Conquest by quoting Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay on history (not "The Significance of the Frontier”): “The aim of history, then, is to know the elements of the present by understanding what came into the present from the past...the historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origin from the past” (17). This T.S. Eliot-esque statement connects historical study with both the present and the public and suggests that Turner, like the West itself, was more complicated and multidimensional than we're often led to think. On the subject of the frontier thesis, Limerick says (paraphrasing Lamar) that it created an artificial barrier between “America’s rural past and its urban-industrial present” (22). The frontier thesis was so widely adopted, she says, because the West had “no watershed comparable to the Revolution or the Civil War.” But it was inaccurate and oversimplified. “One could easily argue,” for example, “that a sudden concentration of population marks the opening stage [of the frontier] and that a population lowered through...the departure of people from a used-up mining region marks the end of the frontier and its opportunities.” However, even that complication may not be enough, since many areas went through cycles of growth, decline and regrowth, as conditions, technologies, and human goals changed. On a more concrete level, Limerick points out that in 1890, when the frontier was declared closed, “one-half of the land remained federal property” (23). She says, “If it is difficult for Americans to imagine that an economy might be stable and also healthy,” their addiction to growth may be related to the frontier myth, with its prospect of endless western opportunity. (28) If so, this is doubly ironic, because Turner’s whole point was that the frontier had closed, and America was going to need to find a new way to uphold its individualist, democratic values.
But, as Limerick observes, “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.” Historians should be interested, she says, in not only what happened, via “the keepers of written records,” but in what people believe happened, via “the tellers of tales” (35). The discrepancy that interests Limerick most is the “idea of innocence.” People moved west, she says, for “improvement and opportunity, not injury to others” (36). This sentiment certainly fits with the apparent motives and sensibility of the Ranneys, whose primary letters I've been using in my classes. But of course, other people were injured in the process. Limerick highlights the contradictions: “Squatters defied the boundaries of Indian territory and then were aggrieved to find themselves harassed and attacked by Indians.” They “felt betrayed when the rains proved inadequate...Contrary to all of the West’s associations with self-reliance and individual responsibility,” she says, “misfortune has usually caused white Westerners to cast themselves in the role of the innocent victim” (42). Because the national government has been an ongoing player in western affairs, Limerick says government became both a favorite scapegoat and a source of recompense (44). She finds the origins of the “injured innocent” attitude all the way back in Colonial Virginia, where “Having practically destroyed the aboriginal population and enslaved the Africans...the white inhabitants of English America began to conceive of themselves as the victims, not the agents, of Old World Colonialism” (quoting Carole Shammas, 48).
The generalizations are broad. It’s quite possible to imagine subgroups in both the colonial and western-expansion periods who did not necessarily share the same degree of “guilt” as the “agents” and main beneficiaries of western development. The rest of the book discusses these groups and the increasing division of wealth and power in the developing west. “ ‘Power always follows property,’ John Adams said bluntly” (58). In the West, “The advantage always accrued to the wealthy man of influence, regardless of what the law said” (quoting Malcolm Rohrbough, 61). A case in point, Limerick says, is William Stewart’s 1866 Mining Law, which established the ground-rules for massive accumulation of patent claims. “A great deal of Western property right,” she says, “rested on this narrow margin of timing” (67). While “Speculation is extremely disillusioning if you are trying to hold onto the illusion that agriculture and commerce are significantly different ways of life,” it might be interesting to highlight the ways property laws were devised to enable accumulation of vast tracts of undeveloped land under the ownership of individuals and corporations.
The ironic contrast between the myth of private enterprise and the reality of federally subsidized railroading, mining, and western state development continues throughout western history. “Western settlers were so abundantly supplied with slogans and democratic formulas,” Limerick says, “that putting our trust in their recorded words alone would be misleading” (83). The seemingly heroic, seemingly populist “squatter government” of Sioux Falls were actually “agents of a land company, financed and organized by Minnesota Democrats” (84). States like Wyoming and Colorado received subsidies far exceeding what their taxpayers “sent to a government [they] considered meddlesome and constitutionally threatening” (87). And the West regularly got more than its share: “Per capita expenditures of federal agencies in Montana from 1933 to 1939...were $710, while they were only $143 in North Carolina” (88).
“Despite the promises of the Homestead Act,” Limerick says, “much good land was already in possession of railroads and states, and ‘purchase continued to be the most usual means to obtain a farm after 1865’ ” (quoting Everett Dick, 125). The cost of outfitting a farm with “a house, draft animals, wagon, plow, well, fencing, and seed grain could be as much as $1,000,” putting homesteading out of reach to many eastern wage-earners (125). When grasshoppers wiped out Minnesota farms, governor John Pillsbury actually argued against state aid for family farmers (127-8). But how much state aid, in the form of subsidized railroads, government flour contracts, and the legal fiction of corporate rights, went into the building of Pillsbury’s flour empire?
The “split character” of the farmers’ social position, halfway between workers and businessmen, “curtailed the radicalism of their protests,” says Limerick (129). This seems like a failure of imagination on the part of radicals, or perhaps it was a social engineering victory for their opponents. Limerick says, “The economy of scale required by certain kinds of irrigation confirmed the pattern” of agribusiness in the dry states (130). But the assumption that no other arrangement of resource use was possible is anachronistic and avoids confronting the forces that enabled the victory of global economic concentration over community and regional self-sufficiency. Limerick agrees with Williams that “attribut[ing] ideal values to rural life that reality cannot match” is as old as history, but it would still be useful to critically examine how rural nostalgia has been mobilized as a propaganda tool, from Jefferson to the present (131).
The rest of the book tells the story of the Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Indian presence in western history, and of the government’s continuing presence, especially in conservation in the era of Pinchot and Roosevelt. Limerick concludes on a hopeful note, suggesting that a closer look at the complex history of the West might help solve some of America’s ongoing problems.
This isn’t academic Environmental History, but I don’t imagine anyone will deny the relevance of McKibben’s claims, even if he's only just a little bit right. And I’ve been particularly interested in working on bringing my American Environmental History syllabus up to the present and engaging students with the issues we face now. So toward the end of the semester, we talk about the science, the propaganda, and what’s at stake in the current debate.
As you might expect, the first part of Eaarth, where McKibben explains how the old world has been destroyed, is much more detailed than the second part, where he offers some suggestions on how we might move forward. The scientific consensus is alarming: “We now know that the climate doesn’t have to warm any more for Greenland to continue losing ice,” says a climatologist from the University of Ohio (pp. 4-5). There’s a “50 percent chance that Lake Mead, which backs up on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, could run dry by 2021 (When that happens, as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority put it, ‘you cut off supply to the fifth largest economy in the world,’ spread across the American West” (p. 6). And “glaciers could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas as early as 2035, including the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 percent of the dry-season water to the Ganges River. That would leave 407 million people looking for a new source of drinking and irrigation water” (p. 7). In other words, we have a solid timetable for the water war.
The oceans are “more acid than anytime in the last eight hundred thousand years, and at current rates by 2050 it will be more corrosive than anytime in the past 20 million years (p. 10). “Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050.” If I recall, that’s where pretty much all the ocean’s remaining biodiversity is.
McKibben is famous as the man behind 350.org, but even in 2009 as he was writing this he said “we’re already past 350—way past it. The planet has nearly 390 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re too high. Forget the grandkids; it turns out this was a problem for our parents…the last time we had carbon levels this high: sea levels rose one hundred feet or more, and temperatures rose as much as ten degrees” (pp. 15-16). And contrary to what others are claiming, McKibben quotes scientists who believe “changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped” (p. 17).
And then there’s peak oil. “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually” (p. 27). Even if some of these labor hours can be saved by switching to sustainable technologies, McKibben’s point that we’ve been getting a free ride and thinking it would last forever is a good one. “So does modernity disappear along with the oil?” he asks (p. 30).
Already, as only the earliest changes were beginning to be acknowledged, the World Bank announced “1.4 billion people, it found, lived below the poverty line, 430 million more than previously estimated. What defines the poverty line? $1.25 a day” (p. 76). The “developed world” sees starving people as a huge future security threat. No wonder “The U.S. military… costs more than the armies of the next forty-five nations combined; the Pentagon accounts for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending” (pp. 144-145). But will that save us at home? According to Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, “the rapid melt of the Sierra snowpack means ‘we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California…I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going’ ” (p. 156). “And if our societies start to tank, we’ll be in worse shape than those who came before,” McKibben warns. “For one thing, our crisis is global, so there’s no place to flee. For another, most of us don’t know how to do very much—in your standard collapse scenario, it’s nice to know how to grow wheat” (pp. 98-99).
So what does all this mean? At the very least, it suggests we have to stop looking to prestigious, pseudo-academic idiots like Larry Summers for answers: “treasury secretary under President Clinton, now Obama’s chief economic adviser: ‘There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of the earth.’ ” (p. 95). I don’t know why anybody would pay attention to this guy—oh, wait! He was president of Harvard! But the problem isn’t just that elite pseudo-academics tend to be tools of the ruling class. Too many Americans still hang on the words of nuts like Jerry Falwell who has announced, “I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We’ll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn’t returned” (p. 12). And liberal politicians have also proven their ineffectiveness. Barack Obama, “speaking about the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks [said] ‘We don’t want to make the best the enemy of the good.’ ” (p. 81). That’s code for “Let’s do nothing and see what happens.”
At the end of the book, McKibben tries to navigate from this laundry-list of disaster to a very short description of localism and community-building. His story ends with a retelling of the 350.org event in October 2009. Maybe he believed at the time this event would lead to a groundswell. Maybe he’s done his job describing the current situation, and it’s up to others to take the next step. But I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to describe what’s at stake, rather than leaving to the imaginations of the reader what he means by “dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent” (p. 212). After all, he did mention Mad Max (p. 146), so it’s clear where McKibben thinks the story could go.
“The Social Relations of Farming in the Early American Republic: A Microhistorical Approach”
Naomi R. Lamoreaux
“Rethinking Microhistory: A Comment”
Journal of the Early Republic 26, Winter 2006
I’ve been reviewing mostly books on this page, which I think is most appropriate since relatively few people have the types of academic access that makes journal articles easy to find and read. But there’s no denying that academics still rely on articles to break new stories and (possibly more interesting) to fight over evidence and interpretation. One of the big battles in Early American History that impacts Environmental History and that has been fought primarily in journals is the question of the “Market Transition,” which at its core may really be a fight over the meaning and importance of Capitalism in American History.
In the first of a recent pair of articles that takes the debate on the market transition to a wider and much more interesting place, Martin Bruegel argues that the economic determinism represented by most business histories can and should be counteracted by a very detailed, microhistorical approach to the tasks and relationships necessary to running an early nineteenth-century farm. Bruegel criticizes histories that simply reduce “the scale of observation to illustrate the local impact of larger processes,” suggesting that they simply “normalize” peculiarities and thus validate the “general hypothesis” held prior to observation (525). In contrast, he says, microhistory “deepens and enriches the analysis of economic transactions” by providing “a more circumscribed, grass-roots focus [that] suggests…the malleability of conventions” (552).
Economic Historian Naomi Lamoreaux responds by suggesting that attempts like Bruegel’s verge dangerously on “antiquarianism” (a term she uses frequently, 555). Speaking for economists, Lamoreaux says she does “not see why making an analysis more complicated should necessarily be considered a good thing” (556). While at first glance, Lamoreaux’s suggestion that historians writing narratives are doing the same thing as economists building models might strike historians as annoying and just, intuitively, wrong; I think it’s incumbent on historians to think about this and articulate the differences.
Lamoreaux suggests that in order to lead to new knowledge, acts of “complication” must not only show us how the previous “simplification” failed to account for something both real and important, but they must then arrive at a new re-simplification that incorporates this new insight (557-61). Lamoreaux deploys Paul David’s elaboration of Robert Solow’s famous growth model to illustrate her point, in a way that I think illustrates both the validity of her point, and a fundamental gap between the interests of economists and those of historians. Her point is that economists have recently begun to understand that “Many economic phenomena are…’path dependent’ in that they are conditional on the particular sequence in which events unfolded” (558). This is important, because in addition to what might seem like a belated acknowledgement by economists of contingency and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it means in Lamoreaux’s words, “that contingency matters—that history matters” (557-8). And maybe it means that economists realize there’s a difference between models and the way things actually work out in the real world. That’s good news for historians who want to work with economists, but Lamoreaux’s argument also highlights the main difference between the two fields.
“The words exogenous and endogenous are economic jargon,” Lamoreaux says, “but they capture an essential feature of all narratives. There is always an inside and outside to a story; there is always something external to the dynamics of a story that sets its events in motion” (558). This may or may not be true, but I suspect it is nowhere near as relevant to the historian as it seems to be to the economist. Lamoreaux argues that the two important elements of any story are the “equilibrium growth path” and the “external shocks” that can alter it. Shocks are usually big events, occasionally big people. “They are unlikely to be induced by the actions of people who are relatively powerless. If that is the case, however, what is the role for microhistory? What is the role for history written ‘on the ground’?” (559)
I think the answer is obvious to historians. But again, I think we have to spell it out. So here’s my answer, as it occurs to me today at least:
History can’t afford to, and most historians couldn’t bear to, reduce the past to a series of equilibrium growth paths and exogenous shocks. We’ve been in that trap before. The path dependency and contingency we see have infinitely more variables than those sought (and therefore usually found) by economists. Historians should take college-level statistics and econometrics courses, so they can understand the way economic models are constructed. No matter how much they strive to be empirically descriptive rather than normative, the fact that they put the equation at the center means that the assumptions, caveats, exceptions are all pushed to the margins. All of Environmental History, viewed this way, is basically an exploration of things economists have regularly dismissed as “externalities.”
And then there’s temperament. The economist wants to simplify: wants to find rules that can be projected into the future. To predict. Most historians I know would prefer to complicate a picture than to “clean it up.” Sometimes this introduces trivialities—but from whose perspective? Is it fair to say that everybody who fails to be big enough to be an “external shock” is irrelevant? Irrelevant to whom? Most historians, I think, are not interested in returning to a whiggish world where only elite white men have agency. In the end, I think it comes down to two things. Epistemology and markets. What do you think is important in the nature of reality? Waves, or particles? And, who do you think you’re working for?
Gene Logsdon, 2010
Gene Logsdon is described on Wikipedia as “An American Man of Letters,” which seems to be accurate, since he has written dozens of non-fiction books and a handful of novels since the seventies. He’s about eighty years old, so he can write about his personal memories of many of the momentous changes in rural life in the last half century (and he can also get away with saying things like “Nothing is more overrated than sex and nothing so underrated as a good healthy bowel movement”).
Holy Shit, Logsdon’s 2010 book about manure and compost is based on his conviction that soil fertility is the key to human survival. He says it very clearly in the introduction: “My bias— it will be called bias anyway— is that only on smaller, decentralized farms and gardens can food and manure be managed in a truly economical way. Only if populations of animals and humans are spread out over the land will we be able to survive” (I’m going to quote without giving page numbers, because the Kindle version of this book wasn’t paginated). This is not unlike the position taken by many of the other Chelsea Green authors, the difference is that Logsdon is an old guy who has been thinking and writing about these ideas for almost five decades. For me at least, that adds a little something to his argument.
The soil destruction = collapse argument has some popular-history credibility, since it was Jared Diamond’s thesis in Collapse. Of course, the situation in the ancient world may have been much different: they were not able to make up for used-up or eroded fertility with chemical fertilizers. But maybe that’s not such a bonus for us. Another way of looking at it is their problems were not exacerbated by reliance on chemical fertilizers, and they still failed. Logsdon observes that many ancient civilizations failed after depending on a monoculture crop (ironically, often maize), and then points out that we don’t understand how serious our situation is: “A society so utterly urbanized as ours may not want to face up to what that means, but the end of cheap chemical fertilizer would be almost as earth-shaking as a nuclear bomb explosion.”
Like some of the other guys I’ve been reading lately, Logsdon cites old books (like F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries, 1911) whose authors seem to have been aware of the issues we’re rediscovering today. I really ought to go through the literature and do a history of soil fertility advocacy. When did it begin? Logsdon quotes a 1908 article in the Breeder’s Gazette, which says “. . . Southern Michigan, denuded of fertility by continued wheat growing, discovered a route to prosperity through the mutton finishing lot and farmers in that state now feed sheep and lambs regardless of the cost, to get a supply of manure.” Were these authors ignored or forgotten? Was it Progressivism? Agribusiness? In any case, Logsdon thinks the age of manure is ahead of us. As chemicals become more expensive, he says “People could raise their own meat, milk, and eggs almost for free by buying feed for their animals with the proceeds from selling the manure.” The big problem with this idea is that manure is heavy. The same oil crunch that’s going to make chemicals outrageously pricey is going to make it impossible to transport compost from where it’s produced to where people might pay big bucks for it. So the only lasting solutions, as he says repeatedly, are local ones.
Other books Logsdon mentions are Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding, 1915, and Alva Agee’s 1912 Crops and Methods for Soil Improvement, which Logsdon says “basically announced the arrival of the manure pack.” Most of the rest of Logsdon’s book is devoted to descriptions of manure handling strategies for different types of animals, including humans. It’s interesting, looking at farm manure not as a nuisance by-product that needs to be dealt with, but as a central product of animal agriculture. Barns, Logsdon remarks at one point, “should have been designed for making and preserving manure of high fertility value and for ease of handling.” Maybe in the future they will be, at least among small farmers who read books like this one.
There’s also an interesting discussion of the differences between thermophilic composting, which is familiar to most gardeners, and the slow composting of the deep manure pack in animal stalls. I’ll need to spend some more time thinking about this – already we have about three or four potentially different things going on outside: a pack of horse manure we inherited from the previous owners, a pack we’re building under the sheep, goats, and chickens, a garden-variety compost pile, and a worm farm. Clearly I have more reading to do on this topic, as well as a good deal of experimenting!
And just when you think the whole thing is based on old, folksy wisdom from the depression era, Logsdon rolls out scientific research done by Harry Hoitink and his students at Ohio State University about the disease-suppressing qualities of composted manure. “We now know,” Logsdon quotes Hoitink, “what the genes are in plants that mediate the natural systemic, induced resistance in plants by active composts. Can you believe that?”
Finally, Logsdon points out the possibly surprising fact that unlike what we were taught for so many years in Agricultural Economics classes, the economics of small production is often better than that of highly capitalized, debt-leveraged corporate farming. For example, Logsdon says, “An up-to-date, 5,000-acre corn and soybean farm needed a corn price of around $ 3.86 a bushel to break even in 2009, economists at the University of Illinois said recently. Others say $ 4 is more like it today. A farmer told me just yesterday he thinks the number is closer to $ 5. Yet anyone with 40 acres of land— and it need not be an Amish farmer either— can plant it to corn and net at least $ 2 a bushel at a $ 4 selling price, using hand, horse, or small tractor power. At 150 bushels per acre, he or she could net $ 12,000 for their labor on 40 acres, a tidy little income for spare-time work, especially in these times of serious unemployment.” And that’s corn – there are any number of more profitable alternatives for small farmers these days. Holy shit! It’s a lot to think about!