One More Look at Down to Earth

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I remember someone saying to me they thought Ted Steinberg's Environmental History textbook, Down to Earth, was stronger when he was exploring contemporary issues than when he was covering colonial and early America. I can't remember who said it, but I think the reason might be that Steinberg seems to have taken an editor's advice. The text tries to organize itself thematically from the outset. Steinberg divides the book into three thematic sections: Chaos to Simplicity, Rationalization and Its Discontents, and Consuming Nature. That's one of the reasons, I think, that I consider this as more of a "History Majors" or even a "Grad Survey" textbook than as a "Gen Ed" text or a survey for popular audiences.

But to get back to the comment on the more contemporary chapters, I thought they were very effective and I think it's more appropriate to handle the contemporary material thematically, because so much of it overlaps. Especially the closer we get to the present. Also, I think Steinberg's focus on the law is extremely useful and gives the legal elements of environmental change attention they don't get in other texts.

In the Moveable Feast chapter, for example, Steinberg outlines how food regulation went beyond the Pure Food and Drug Act's response to
The Jungle. Laws like the 1917 Fresh Fruit, Nut, and Vegetable Standardization Act not only helped turn agricultural produce into an "identical commodity," they were sponsored and supported by the representatives of the big growers who would benefit the most. Later in the same chapter, Steinberg outlines the 1937 Central Valley Project, which brought northern California water to the southern growers and "left agriculture largely in the hands of the corporate growers--the main beneficiaries of government intervention" (183). I have family in the Central Valley, so I visit there occasionally. There's such a strong sense of inevitability about the way California ended up, that I think is probably echoed in a lot of other places. We need to talk much more about issues like this.

Another passage with a lot of law in it is Steinberg's discussion of how environmentalism led to legislation in the 1970s in the chapter titled Shades of Green. Although he doesn't describe each piece of legislation, the list of specific laws is useful for people wanting to learn more. Steinberg calls the legislation "a gigantic handbook on how to counter the ills of a corporate, consumption-oriented society" (251). I'd like to read more about how the legal and cultural overlapped. Personally, I'm much more comfortable  tracing actions (like "In 1932, GM launched a plan to buy up urban transit systems throughout the nation" on page 208. There's probably a great story in that!) than culture and
mentalities, so that's an where area I'd love to have the dots connected a little more.

Maybe that's my overall reaction to
Down to Earth. There are some really great descriptions of interesting moments and events (another one is the Planned Obsolescence movement pioneered by GE in the 1930s, 228), that I'd really like to learn more about. But not quite enough events to be a complete survey of what happened in American Environmental History. And there are some really interesting hints and suggestions about culture, which I'd also like to know more about. But there aren't quite enough of either, and how the two fit together isn't clear to me. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Probably means there's enough material here for a bigger (or two-volume) new edition.

Illustrations that get almost a full page

Since I'm planning on self-publishing my Environmental History textbook, I'm being very careful to use only illustrations from Creative Commons sources. It's not that hard, since I've already accumulated hundreds of images for each of my chapter topics, to use in my video lectures. But I'm trying to hold myself to a stricter level of sourcing for the book, take down the url of the source, etc.

Most of the images will become basic illustrations, occupying at most four of the "columns" I use as placement guides in the app (InDesign). A few seem so important that I'm giving them eight columns -- letting them extend from margin to margin across the top of a page. One is the diagram of the Grid produced under the National Land Ordinance, from
Wikipedia's "Land Ordinance of 1785" page:

1785_land_ordinance_diagram

I include that one not only because I think it's incredibly important that people understand why the land they see while flying over America looks the way it does, but because until I moved to the country, I never knew what the dimensions of an acre were or how many there were in a square mile. Appalling.

The second image, so far, that I've given a full spread across the page is Henry Gannett's census map of Government Land Grants. I got my copy direct from the out-of-copyright book (it's b&w because all my illustrations have to be, to make the book affordable to publish), but you can see it on
David Rumsey's excellent map website. This one gets the full spread because there's a lot of detail, and because one of the themes of the text has to do with the relationship between the public and private sectors. And again, because people just don't remember this stuff.

govt-land-grants-railways-1880-reduced

Edit: I almost forgot, this one too (although also in b&w):

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Ethanol and the Illusion of Inevitability

Today I'm writing a textbook chapter on transportation. As  I’m writing about internal combustion and energy,  I'm thinking about the illusion of inevitability.

The argument about energy independence, renewability, and ethanol isn’t new: it has been going on for nearly a century. Samuel Morey’s 1826 internal combustion engine burned ethyl alcohol because it was readily available. Henry Ford and Charles Kettering both expected their future cars would burn alcohol fuels. Ford saw ethanol as a way to support American farmers and use grain surpluses that were depressing prices. Kettering’s statement that alcohol was the best way to convert solar energy to fuel reflected a belief that it was better to live on annual solar “income” than to become dependent on drawing down fossil fuel “capital.” And both men worried that gasoline would involve the United States in the affairs of faraway regions. A speaker at a 1936 conference sponsored by Ford remarked that the biggest known oil reserves were “in Persia…and in Russia. Do you think that is much defense for your children?”

Since energy is such an important and contentious issue today, why aren’t we more aware that these debates are not new? General-purpose American History textbooks have a lot to cover, it’s true. They can’t go into detail on every issue. Checking the indexes of several popular textbooks reveals that if they address the petroleum industry at all, it’s usually just to mention that Standard Oil pioneered horizontal business integration and that John D. Rockefeller eventually controlled 90% of the industry. But even respected histories of technology like Vaclav Smil’s 2005 book,
Creating the Twentieth Century, tell the story of early internal combustion as if gasoline was the only fuel used until the end of World War I, when diesel trucks began entering the market. In Smil’s history, there was no solution to the “violent knocking that came with higher compression. That is why all pre-WWI engines worked with compression ratios no higher than 4.3-1 and why the ratio began to rise to modern levels (between 8 and 10) only after the introduction of leaded gasoline.” This is simply not true, so why doesn’t an expert like Smil know the facts?

ethyl-gasoline-ads-from-the-1950s-2

Ethyl alcohol fuels were already widely used before the beginning of the kerosene and petroleum boom dominated by Standard Oil. Engineers at both Ford and General Motors were aware that ethyl alcohol ran at high compression ratios without knocking. So how is it possible that historians, even historians of technology, seem to be unaware of the battles fought in the early years of the twentieth century over what American drivers would put in their tanks?

Part of the answer, I think, is that the winners of those battles left more records for historians than the losers. History depends on evidence. A seemingly comprehensive history of the petroleum industry can be written, based on mountains of documents in academic libraries and corporate archives. Books about companies like DuPont and Standard Oil, written by both supporters and opponents, could fill a library. Anyone who undertakes a new history of these subjects must read all this material, which leaves little time to dig for other perspectives.

The makers of ethanol in the early twentieth century, unlike the corporations, left few documents. And finding the story of alcohol in the archives of Ford or General Motors requires dedication and persistence. A good percentage of the records left by these companies, after all, are not objective accounts at all. They’re advertisements, public relations statements, and internal documents arguing not about what could be done, but about what they wanted to do.

As a result, the history we read tells the story of an apparently inevitable, unstoppable journey toward the petroleum-powered world we live in today. This type of history celebrates the winners while at the same time excusing them. When we assume the outcome was inevitable, we conclude that if it hadn’t been Rockefeller, it would just have been somebody else. And that’s the biggest problem. When we believe the present was inevitable, we lose the ability to imagine alternatives. In the past, and also in the present and the future.

Corporations & Environment in Early America

Before I tell the story of commons, mills, and corporations in my Environmental History class, I like to set the scene by talking about one of America's first experiences with corporate scope-creep. Here's how I'm thinking of talking about the Charles River Bridge case in my textbook:

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Although it includes additional construction and bridges, this 1842 map of Boston illustrates why the battle between the Warren and Charles River Bridge companies (top of Boston) was so contentious.

Some projects to provide public goods such as colleges or hospitals cost more than individuals can conveniently raise. Early America’s answer was the corporation. Corporations during the colonial period had been quasi-public organizations given a royal charter to do a particular job. The Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company had been royally chartered corporations. They earned profits for their shareholders, but they also had, or at least claimed to have, an important social function that transcended mere business. Without this social dimension, businesses—even very large ones—were normally organized as partnerships or sole proprietorships. State legislatures in early America continued the English tradition and chartered corporations to do particular tasks in the public interest. Colonial governments began this practice very early in our history, when the Massachusetts legislature established Harvard College in 1636 and then chartered the Harvard Corporation, America’s first corporation, in 1650.

Corporate influence on the environment begins with this first American corporation. In 1640, the Massachusetts legislature gave Harvard a license to run a ferry between Boston and Charlestown across the Charles River, to raise money to operate the college. When the State of Massachusetts granted a corporate charter to the Charles River Bridge Company in 1785, to build the first bridge across the river, the charter specified that the company had to pay Harvard £200 per year to compensate the college for the revenue the old ferry operation would lose.

The Charles River Bridge was a privately operated toll bridge. Originally conceived as a public corporation that would provide a social benefit, the bridge company was wildly successful. The corporation had been capitalized at $50,000, meaning that $50,000 had been raised to build the bridge by selling shares to investors. Once built, the bridge collected $824,798 in tolls between 1786 and 1827. Although the original plan had been to eliminate the tolls once the bridge had paid for itself, the shareholders decided to continue profiting from their monopoly.

Enriching shareholders was not what the legislature had in mind when they granted the corporation a charter to build a bridge that would monopolize river crossing. So the legislature chartered the Warren Bridge Company to build a second bridge next to the Charles River Bridge. The new charter specified that the Warren Bridge would only be allowed to collect tolls for six years or until it paid for itself, whichever came first. Then ownership would revert to the Commonwealth and the bridge would be toll-free.

The Charles River Bridge Company sued the Warren Bridge Company, claiming their 1785 charter had granted a perpetual monopoly on traffic across the river. Charles River Bridge revenues disappeared, as travelers chose to pay the lower tolls on the new bridge. The lawsuit failed in Massachusetts courts, and the plaintiffs took their complaint all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In spite of hiring famous orator Daniel Webster to argue their case, the Charles River Bridge Company lost. The court’s decision reflected the judges’ belief that the profits of the corporation and the interests of its shareholders were less important—and legally came second—to the right of the state to charter corporations to meet public needs. Even so, the tremendous profits taken by Charles River Bridge shareholders and their ability to push their lawsuit to the highest court signaled the beginning of a change in the way corporations viewed their role in society and the responsibilities that went with their public charters.

Why US History textbooks need Environmental History

I don't think there's a really good general EnvHist textbook for undergrads, so I'm writing one based on the American Environmental History course I teach at UMass. I'm currently working on polishing this up, so I can use it in my Spring 2016 class. The text is narrative (my objection to the other texts available is they dwell too much on historiography and the story of Environmental History, and not enough on what happened -- which I think makes them more suited to grad seminars than undergrad surveys), but at the end of each chapter, I'm going to add a little supplement that gets a little "meta" and talks about some of the big texts in the field, etc.

The first chapter is about American Prehistory (what happened before Columbus arrived), so at the end I decided to talk about how mainstream history textbooks have dealt with this period. When I surveyed the college textbooks on my shelf, I decided to call this little section "Challenging American History." I guess I could also have called it, "Why American History Needs EnvHist." Here it is:

Now that we’ve looked at America before its discovery by Europeans, let’s consider how this story has been told in the past. As I mentioned earlier, as new information becomes available, history changes, often challenging long-held traditions. In most older American History textbooks, the story begins in 1492. While some of the archaeological information available today was unknown to earlier historians, many were just not particularly interested in Indians or prehistory. Pre-Columbian America was considered remote, unknowable, and irrelevant. Lately, textbook authors have tried to say something about pre-Columbian America. For example, in the 1987 edition of his classic textbook,
American History, Richard N. Current devoted four pages to his description of America before Columbus. Current said Native Americans shared a common Asian ancestry that enabled Europeans to think of them all as a single race, although he acknowledged “natives had no reason to consider themselves part of one race or culture.” Current described the introduction of old world crops like sugar and bananas that “Indian tribes in time learned to cultivate,” but he failed to mention that they had independently developed their own staple crops long before Europeans arrived. Current commented that Indian farming “would often seem crude to Europeans” without explaining that most of the time the Europeans’ disdain for native practices arose from their profound ignorance of the environment and climate of the new world.

But that was the 80s, you’re thinking. Surely things have changed. You’re half right. In his extremely popular 2011 textbook
Experience History, James West Davidson and his team of co-authors give just three paragraphs to the arrival of humans in the Americas. Davidson calls the people who came “nomads,” highlighting the term in one of the textbook’s few uses of bold-face type. “Nomads” is a code-word used in the past to suggest that Indians never had quite the same relationship with the land that whites do, and thus had no claim of “ownership” of their territories. Many Americans throughout history have called the Indians nomads; a college history textbook should explain the term rather than just repeating it.

Describing pre-Columbian agriculture,
Experience History says, “pioneers in Mesoamerica began domesticating squash 10,000 years ago.” But in spite of this, the text claims most Indians were simple hunter-gatherers who “continued to subsist largely on animals, fish, and nuts, all of which were abundant enough to meet their needs and even to expand their numbers.” Davidson characterizes the Adena and Hopewell cultures as “peoples who did not farm,” in spite of the fact they lived in cities of tens of thousands of people. He explains that Indians didn’t learn to farm in the Pacific Northwest because “Agriculture was unnecessary in such a bountiful place.”

Davidson does mention the fact that the modern world’s most important food crop, maize, was developed by Indians – but this is how he explains it:

Modern-day species of corn, for example, probably derive from a Mesoamerican grass known as teosinte. It seems that ancient peoples gathered teosinte to collect its small grains. By selecting the grains that best suited them and bringing them back to their settlements, and by returning the grains to the soil through spillage or waste disposal, they unintentionally began the process of domestic cultivation.
800px-maize-teosinte-copy

The problem with this description, beside the fact that it portrays early farmers as bumbling idiots, is that in spite of being written only a few years ago it isn’t based on the abundant archaeological information available about early American agriculture. There’s no doubt that corn comes from teosinte. That’s clear from the plant’s genome. And Davidson suggests that a multi-generational process that changed teosinte, a self-seeding native grass, into maize, a hybrid that needs humans to plant it, was an accident. This claim is ridiculous and obscures the fact that ancient Americans knew what they were doing and had the long-term cultural capital to do it.

Experience History does its best to trivialize early America’s contribution to modern agriculture. In spite of admitting that “plants domesticated by indigenous Americans account for three-fifths of the world’s crops” today, Davidson manages to make it seem like that’s no big deal, and was almost an accident. Davidson’s discussion of ancient American farming ends with a chart of the “Place and Timing of Pioneering Plant and Animal Domestications.” Southwest Asia tops the list, with the development of wheat, peas, olives, sheep and goats. All these developments are dated to 8500 BCE. Next comes China, with rice, millet, pigs and silkworms, dated 7500 BCE. New Guinea and the African Sahel are next, followed finally by Mesoamerica and the Andes & Amazonia, which produced corn, beans, squash, potatoes, manioc, turkey, llamas, and guinea pigs “by 3500 BCE,” which is nearly six thousand years after archaeologists date the development of maize, potatoes, and cassava. At best, this is an error that a reputable team of historians should never have let slip into their textbook. At worst, it’s a throwback to Eurocentric histories of an earlier era that tried to minimize the tragedy of colonialism by suggesting there was really not much happening in the Americas before Columbus.

Davidson concludes his coverage of pre-Columbian America by observing that “a few centuries before European contact…the continent’s most impressive civilizations collapsed.” Davidson says the “sudden” and “mysterious” disappearance of cultures like the Mayan, Olmec, Mogollon, Hohokam, Anasazi, and Cahokian was due to “a complex and still poorly understood combination of ecological and social factors.” In other words, through some combination of ecological mismanagement and social ineptitude, Indians “went into eclipse by the twelfth century…[and] had faded by the fourteenth,” making room for whites from Europe. That’s a bit too convenient. It almost seems like Boston theologian Cotton Mather’s famous explanation in
Magnalia Christi Americana of how Providence had cleared the woods “of those pernicious creatures, making room for better growth.”

As you can imagine, I'll be self-publishing this textbook. Look for it on Amazon.

More thoughts on Part 2 of Steinberg's Down to Earth

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Once again, because this book is one of the de facto EnvHist textbooks, I thought I'd look at it very closely. So I'm being much more critical than maybe I ought to be. This is a fine book -- but it's also a model and an opportunity to explore the choices the author made and consider other options.

Down to Earth is broken into three parts (I've already said some things about Part 1). Part 2 is called "Rationalization and its Discontents." As before, I question the idea of going with a thematic organization. I wonder if everything that needs to be said to cover the "middle" of American Environmental History can be captured in this net of "rationalization?" What if the theme of the early industrial era was conceived not as the rationalization of nature but the uneven distribution of outcomes? Wouldn't a chronological presentation help us explore more perspectives and find themes that present themselves from events?

Chapter 4, "A World of Commodities," commences with Henry David Thoreau, who we are told "saw in apples, not dollar signs, but the wondrous glories of life on earth" (57). I know I'm repeating myself here, but is anybody else even a little suspicious of the degree to which we lean on Thoreau for our critique of modernity? There are plenty of other critics of early commercialism and industrialization. Some of them even offered alternatives. The conversion of nature into a mere input for the capitalist mill is a serious issue. I'm not sure a guy who fled to a woodlot he didn't own and lived on the largess of his rich friends is really the best champion for the other side of the argument.

Steinberg, of course, is aware of the distributive dimensions of this "rationalization." He concludes the pages devoted to water power in New England (based on his own fine work in
Nature Incorporated) by suggesting that there's an element of class conflict in the struggle over nature. Industrialization, he concludes, "led to a major rationalization and reallocation of natural resources, enriching some at the expense of others" (61). I might emphasize that element a bit more -- maybe even to the point of titling the chapter "A Class Conflict Over Nature."

In the next sections, Steinberg tells the story of the grid and grain, and then of the timber business. The template for this material seems to be Cronon's
Nature's Metropolis, and like Cronon he talks about how monocultures spread and how wheat became an "abstract commodity." Again, I may be nitpicking here, but is abstraction really the historical point here, or is it a point that's attractive to historians? Put another way, is the abstraction of actual grain into futures contracts on the CBT really the crucial historical change? I'd suggest that although it's an interesting and sort-of postmodern cognitive shift, the bigger and more widespread change was the consolidation of sacks of grain belonging to particular farmers into an undifferentiated pile of grain in elevators and rail cars. The point is not what happens in the mind, but what happens on the ground when farmers go from being identifiable people providing a product to consumers, to faceless suppliers of a raw material for an industrial process. Again, it's about who benefits and who loses in this altered transaction.

Similarly, Steinberg points out the lumber barons' carelessness regarding both future yields and ecological consequences in the forests they clearcut. This seems like an opportune time to talk about the alienation of public resources. About the idea that a distant capitalist is
naturally going to be less concerned with these issues than, say, a local community that controlled nearby resources. The outcome wasn't inevitable, but on the other hand, you can't really blame the lumber barons for their "stick-and-move" strategy. Or, if you want to blame them, you'd need to examine more closely how they helped create the social and legal regime in which they operated.

A passage I particularly liked was Steinberg's discussion of industrial change as "a kind of war waged against seasonal variation" (71). Or really, variation of any kind. He goes on to say that commodities "lost binding ties with their place of origin." That the "almighty dollar" became a "frightful leveler" that eliminated uniqueness and identity in favor of "unconditional interchangeability." This is what he means when he says rationalization, I suppose. But I like it better when he spells it out. The local becomes global. The particular becomes generic. Individuals fade into masses. And most important, who benefits and how does society change when this happens?

Part 2 continues with a look at "King Climate in Dixie" that incorporates a reference to E.P. Thompson's moral economy and a passage describing the importance of Peruvian guano in the mid-19th century. I liked the suggestion that the guano trade helped start a process where "Farming began to lose its attachment to place." And I thought Steinberg's conclusion was right on: that the "commercial farming of staples split production off from consumption" and made the social and ecological costs less visible to consumers. The next couple of chapters, about the Civil War and the Reconstructed South, continue these themes and throw in a few more interesting elements. I was particularly fascinated by the story of chestnut trees. And by the fact (which I had not known) that Gifford Pinchot had been the forester for George Vanderbilt's hundred thousand acre estate.

Next come a chapter on the "Unforgiving West," following Marc Reisner's
Cadillac Desert, which illustrates the wishful thinking and bad science that led to problems like the Dust Bowl. Interesting points include the fact that the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo "respected the prevailing Hispanic property rights regime" (120). A key feature of Latin American property law was the long tradition that subsurface resources (minerals, oil) belonged to society, not to the individuals holding deeds to the acreage. This tradition was repudiated by a series of California legal decisions between 1859 and 1861 which "overturned the public nature of mineral resources." That probably warrants a closer look. Similarly, the story of the early cattle industry and the overstocking of the plains shows how incredibly inefficient and careless people were. In the winter of 1871-2, half the cattle in parts of Nebraska and Kansas died. In 1884-5 in Nebraska and Colorado, "cattle die-offs reached as high as 90 percent" (131). Steinberg mentions that some people blamed fences. But it's pretty clear that overstocking the plains with a creature that wasn't adapted to survive harsh winters was the real problem. Ignorance and greed.

Finally, Steinberg reaches the Progressive Era, with chapters on conservation and urban sanitary reform. The conservation chapter discusses the battles between the conservationists and preservationists and criticizes the idea of "efficient use" of nature, comparing Gifford Pinchot with time-study pioneer, Frederick Taylor. Steinberg criticizes the forest managers' extermination of predators and suppression of fires, which led to unanticipated problems. But he doesn't really connect the fire-suppression program to the dozens of devastating fires that swept the cutover region in the last decade of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th. The Peshtigo Fire, which happened the same day as the Great Chicago Fire and killed at least five times as many people, was just one of the disasters that followed the clearcutting of the pines in the upper midwest. Hubris and unintended consequences are also central to the story of the national parks, which follows Karl Jacoby's
Crimes Against Nature. And the final chapter, "The Death of the Organic City," compares the relatively closed system of waste-composting and local market-farming of 19th-century cities to the "flush-and-forget" sanitation and globalized commercial agriculture of today. This is a really interesting section -- I'm looking forward to reading more about this in Gotham Unbound.

Ideas v. Chronology Again

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Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (Connecticut River near Northampton), 1836

I'm rereading Leo Marx's 2008 essay, "The Idea of Nature in America," to decide whether I want to use it again as an introductory reading in my EnvHist class. I was thinking I might assign it, but urge the students to try to read it critically. The article brings up some important ideas, but in a way I think is too long, intellectualized, and roundabout.

The essay is a little like a journey. In the first paragraph, Marx states his thesis that the "idea of nature" has been one of the core ideas, along with freedom, democracy, and progress, that have defined what it means to be American. Up until the closing of the frontier in 1890, Marx says, "wilderness -- unaltered nature -- was
the defining American experience" (the article appears in Daedalus, Spring 2008, p.8-18).  As I'm reading this section, I'm thinking I will assign the piece, but with a series of "discussion questions" to point out a few things to the students along the way. For example: How is the idea of nature like and unlike the ideas of freedom, democracy, or progress? (I think we'll find over the course of the semester that it is both vaguer and more subject to change over time than these other ideas) Or: "wilderness -- unaltered nature"? Is this what most Americans have experienced? Even white settlers on the frontier?

But Marx does have a point that by the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, more than half of Americans lived in cities. Of course, that means that up until a hundred years ago, most Americans lived "on the land." why does this lifestyle not count in Marx's mind as a connection with nature?

Marx remarks that in the seventies (when Environmental History became a field of study) the word nature was partly replaced by the "refurbished, matter-of-fact word
environment" -- the implication being that there's something wrong with trying to be a little more specific. Marx then turns to the many meanings of the word Nature, which he observes can also be used to describe the "nature" of something. This usage, he says, is "idealist or essentialist -- hence ahistorical." As if people are unable to distinguish between "human nature" and trees, grass, mountains, and animals; and might be misled into believing the "nature" out their windows is some type of unchanging ideal.

The only people likely to fall into this trap, I think, are people who never go outside. Marx is impressed by Raymond Williams's assertion that "
nature is probably the most complex word in the English language," and he wants to explore the "historical trajectory traced by the idea of nature in American thought." But what is "American thought"? How many Americans have ever really been so completely in their heads that this type of discussion even makes any sense? Is this "historical trajectory" about the way most Americans experienced the natural world? Or about how writers and painters used it in their art? Or about how preachers and politicians used it in their polemics?

The essay moves on to the idea of mankind's loss of a connection with nature. Emerson worried about it in 1836, Marx says. And Darwin defined nature as "all that is
separate from us." Again interesting -- but this is material for either intellectual history or high-cultural history. Is this environmental history? Carolyn Merchant seems to think so, as Marx notes. Her Death of Nature is the story of patriarchy and in-the-head "male-oriented Newtonian-Cartesian philosophy" conquering a more grounded and obviously matriarchal reverence for Earth. But once again, what does this imagined war between Bacon and the Mother Goddess have to do with the environmental history of America?

The point of Marx's essay, I think, is to take the reader on a journey of sorts. We tend to go along with the argument in this type of piece, and Marx uses this tendency to try to give the reader an aha moment of discovery. You get all comfortable in the ideas I challenged at the start, and then at the end he flips them over. The "mythic image of a 'virgin, uninhabited land,'" he says, "was an ideological weapon in the service of the white European conquest of the Americas." But he notes that even William Cronon (whose
Changes in the Land debunked that myth of virgin land) "cannot bring himself to repudiate the idea of wilderness." In the end, Marx proposes a perspective that embraces a "first nature" (the physical world as it existed before humans) and a "second nature" ("the artificial -- material and cultural -- environment that humanity has superimposed upon first nature").

But how much help is this, really? Is second nature the Merrimack River in the 1850s, dammed for the hydropower needs of the Boston Associates' textile mills? Or is it Turner's idea of the closing frontier? In other words, how does it distinguish between the altered physical environment that we actually live in (and that
everyone, including the Indians, has always lived in) and our ideas and cultural constructions? Sure, there's an interaction between the two, and that interaction is central to Environmental History. But I don't think we're any closer to it a the end of this essay.

So I guess that's it. I won't assign this essay. My goal in this class is to tell the story of American Environmental History to regular people. The students in an online class are almost never History majors. Most often they're adults finishing a degree program in another field, filling the Gen Ed requirement they had left to the last minute. But that's great for me, because it's an opportunity to get outside the academic box and try to figure out how and why environmental history is important to regular people (it is, and it should be!) -- and then how to communicate this importance. I'm going to have to keep looking for a way to introduce the dialog between chronology and ideas in Environmental History. Maybe I'll just write it myself.

The Map is Not the Territory

"The map is not the territory." Although this idea has been picked up by everybody from post-modernists to new-agers, the guy who said it was Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-Russian aristocrat who established the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago in 1938. But what's even more interesting about Korzybski is that most people who recognize the name or the quote learned of it not in school or by reading philosophy, but in the Null-A book series by science fiction author A.E. Van Vogt.

I
did not bring golden age sci-fi or Korzybski's name into my Environmental History class this week. Our topic was the Columbian Exchange, the transfer of biological material between Europe and the Americas that resulted in the deaths of 90% of the natives living here. So there was quite enough drama and suspense already, which I really didn't want to distract people from. But I did talk about maps and how they alter our perception of the environment and our ideas about it.

The world map we're most accustomed to is the Mercator projection, which was developed by a Flemish merchant in 1569. Its purpose was to help travelers get from one place to another, so its point to point accuracy is really good. But there are always trade-offs when you project a sphere onto a flat surface. Mercator got distances from point A to point B right. He got sizes and areas of the continents very wrong.

For example, on the standard Mercator map, Africa and Greenland look about the same size. But you could fit 14 Greenlands in Africa. What does it do to our perception of the relative importance of Africa, when it looks so small? The image below shows the two maps in overlay.

peters-projection-comparison-world-map

I've been using diagrams last week and this week drawn on a Peters Projection map. The Peters map gets relative size and area right; it's not so good if you want to measure distances. But given what we normally use maps for, it's probably a less culturally biased point of view. And unlike many (but not all) Mercator maps, Peters gives equal space to the northern and southern hemispheres.

Now if they would just make one that didn't follow the convention of always putting the Atlantic in the middle and marginalizing the Pacific…

Columbian Exchange or 1491?

It's interesting that "Columbian Exchange" is now shorthand for the series of unintended consequences of the early European voyages of discovery -- especially the diseases that killed something like 90% of the American natives. I had a chance to converse with Alfred Crosby by email a couple years ago, and his most vivid recollections of his career were the difficulty he had finding a published for this book. His manuscript was rejected by a dozen reputable publishers, and finally printed by a small house specializing in short-run antiquarian monographs. Were lucky Crosby was as tenacious as he was -- maybe there's a lesson in this for authors and also for readers.

 
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Last time I taught, rather than assigning a chapter from
The Columbian Exchange, I used the journal article that led up to it. Crosby wrote "Conquistadores y Pestilencia" in 1969, and it covers the gist of his argument in the book, but slightly more economically. Even this, however, is an academic article, and part of my focus this semester is on the interface between Environmental and popular history. So I'm thinking this time I'll find an excerpt in Charles Mann's 1491. This will give me an opportunity to write a short piece about the way Mann has popularized Crosby's ideas, and how he has added to them.
I think when I rework the EnvHist textbook project, the chapters are going to include short essays about the big books of the field. This will fill the hole left open by not being able to include long passages of these texts -- as you can when you're assigning readings in a University class. The "how have our ideas about the environment changed over time" element of the course can be partly illustrated by this, what would you call it? Popular historiography?

My full review of Crosby's book is up at
Goodreads and LibraryThing. Also on my own EnvHist Library, until I decide what I'm doing about that website.

Chronological or Thematic?

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Last spring I was approached by an editor at a major academic publisher and invited to propose a new American Environmental History textbook. I had been shooting my mouth off a bit about how I didn't think there was a really good undergraduate generalist textbook. There are plenty of books for history majors, and there's a wide "historiography" for grad students. And there are also a number of good popular histories that deal with an particular period or issue. But there really isn't a comprehensive synthesis of American History from an environmental perspective.

The editor apparently got wind of this (I mentioned it to a sales rep at his press who passed it along), and invited me to put my money where my mouth was. Interestingly, he was the editor who had managed (and some say who had commissioned) the book that's most often used in undergraduate courses, which I had criticized. So I worked up a proposal and he critiqued it. Then I revised it a bit and he sent it out to five reviewers.

The reviews came back mixed. A few people said they would definitely use my book, a couple said they wouldn't. All gave detailed criticism which is extremely valuable as I redesign the course for this coming semester and rethink the textbook. And, most interesting, all agreed that a general textbook was badly needed in American Environmental History.

One of the issues the editor and one or two readers challenged me on was whether I was going to go with a chronological or a thematic approach. When I taught the course, it was a little of both. There's definitely a chronological element -- the material begins in prehistory and ends in the present day. But there are also several themes we keep coming back to. So as I redevelop the course material for this semester, I'm going to try to be more explicit about this. Or at least to think about it and try to reconcile it for myself, even if it ends up in the background and isn't in sharp focus for the reader.

My gut feeling is that I should stick with the chronological approach. What do other readers think?