How Historians and Economists differ

Martin Bruegel
“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?

Saving the World with Manure

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
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!

Energy and Progressives

Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, Maggie Koerth-Baker, 2011

I’m going to be critical of this book, so I ought to say at the outset that it’s a really effective introduction to contemporary energy issues. Maggie Koerth-Baker makes several really interesting points, and raises a bunch of questions that more people need to be thinking about. This is not a book of academic Environmental History. But it’s about energy, and it has a historical element. And I like my EnvHist reading to be about more than just the academic literature, and I’d especially like them to be relevant to current issues.

That said, I think that in addition to the story of how the power grid got to be the way it is, the other interesting historical element in Koerth-Baker’s account is the Progressive idea she seems to channel that the only way to change things is from the top down. This is old-fashioned Progressivism from a hundred years ago -- not whatever the word is supposed to mean when politicians hurl it at each other today It includes a degree of faith in central planners and technologists that I find uncomfortable, given where they’ve taken us in the past. Also, I think it puts the cart in front of the horse, in terms of how social change happens.

The first important distinction Koerth-Baker makes, though, is between the difference between “what the activists thought the public believed” and what has actually inspired people to change their energy behaviors in the past (p. 2). This goes part of the way toward mitigating her own assumptions, if the reader keeps it in mind. And it’s a good point. Opinions about the sources of (or even the validity of) climate change can get in the way of finding
actions people can agree to take. Do we care that some people conserve out of a sense of stewardship or nationalism or a love of efficiency, rather than because they’re alarmed about global warming? Should we?

“Americans used only a little less energy per person in 2009 than we did in 1981 (and in 2007, we used more),” Koerth-Baker says. “Basically, our energy efficiency has made us wealthier, but it hasn’t done much to solve our energy problems” (p. 4). And probably the increase in wealth wasn’t spread too evenly across the population. The way changing energy use affects the growing inequality of American life is outside the scope of this book, but it’s probably important to think about.

One of Koerth-Baker’s big points is that the energy system is very complicated. The national electrical grid, which she spends most of her time discussing, is limited by the haphazard way it was built. Electricity is not stored, but is generated and used in real-time. This means central managers in several key locations have to balance supply and demand. This means it’s difficult adding local alternative sources to the grid. That seems intuitive, until you remember that if these local sources removed demand from the grid, they’d be self-balancing. That’s a way to implement alternative power sources Koerth-Baker fails to adequately explore.

Rural America didn’t get electricity, she reminds us, until the government stepped in. And life will go on, whatever society does: “it’s not the planet that needs saving. It’s our way of life. More important, I’m not going to save anything, and neither are you. Not alone. The way we use energy is determined by the systems we share” (p. 28). Koerth-Baker insists we “won’t get a 21 quadrillion BTU cut in our energy use in eighteen years by relying on everyone to do his or her small part on a voluntary basis” (p. 31). And she may be right, but that doesn’t exactly square with the changes she reports in places like the military, without accepting some big assumptions about what initially motivated the changes and why individuals responded to the institutional initiatives the way they did.

Energy isn’t obvious, Koerth-Baker reminds us, and it’s hard to see in spite of being all around us. “People don’t make a choice between ‘undermine the efficiency and emissions benefits produced by my utility company’ and ‘go without a DVR,’” she says. “They simply decide how they’d prefer to watch TV and don’t have the information they need to make an energy-efficient choice even if they wanted to” (because they’re always on, DVRs use as much energy as refrigerators! p. 158). Koerth-Baker wants to try to maintain current standards of living by becoming more efficient at a systemic level: “Conservation says, ‘Don’t do it.’ Efficiency says, ‘Do it better.’ That’s a really, really, really important distinction, because it gets to the heart of where we—human beings, that is—have been, where we’re going, and what we’re afraid of,” she says (pp. 143-144). Koerth-Baker can’t seem to get to the point of admitting that things can’t go on as they have – can’t acknowledge the elephant in the living room. So she’s left with improving the efficiency of the system; rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

“You have to give people insights, not data,” she says, quoting Ogi Kavazovic, VP of Opower (p. 164). And it would definitely help to make efficiency (or even conservation) the default option, as Koerth-Baker suggests. But she also says, “There were downsides to the rural Industrial Revolution, but given the benefits industrialization brought his family—free time, health, educational opportunities, financial security—I don’t know that my grandpa would have traded those drawbacks for a less energy-intensive world where he’d have had to work harder at an already hard job and maybe not done as well” (p. 144). Okay, that’s true as far as it goes, but it assumes the only choices her grandpa had were the two she mentions. That’s anachronistic, and it hides the fact that her grandpa dealt with limited information, and that these really big
systems she puts so much hope in pretty much guarantee that regular people are not going to be able to see all the effects and externalities of their choices. But not telling people and relying on the technocrats is not the option people like the folks at Opower seem to be trying to choose.

At one point, when Koerth-Baker is arguing for carbon taxes, she says “A price on carbon would tell us what we want to know instantly, with up-to-the-minute accuracy—like trading out that beat-up Rand McNally for an iPhone” (p. 171). The core of my problem with this book is right here. An iPhone? Wouldn’t another metaphorical option be using the old map (which, after all, still gets most of the roads right), with a few penciled-in corrections and additions? Or even asking a local, and relying on some of that informal
MÄ“tis knowledge James Scott was talking about in Seeing Like a State? Wouldn’t that be the best way to do efficiency and conservation?

Corporate Responsibility and its Elite Opponents

Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe
Erik Loomis, 2015

The story Erik Loomis tells in this dissertation-book is basically about hiding externalities. I picked this up because I've been thinking about how I'm going to talk about economic externality in my American Environmental History class this spring. Loomis argues pretty effectively that the two big reasons for American companies moving offshore or contracting with foreign producers are evading environmental regulations and reducing labor costs. I've been focusing on the environmental, but I think Loomis has convinced me to add a bit of labor history to this section of my course.

Loomis begins with New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911. He mentions in the first few pages that millions of American workers faced dangers, and lists the death-tolls of several mine accidents in the early 1900s. But the Triangle fire is important because it was so visible. The fire happened someplace where the consumers of the factory's product as well as upper-middle class and elite activists could actually witness the charred corpses in the locked factory and the broken bodies of women who had jumped to their deaths rather than being burned alive. The horror of these events and the complicity people felt when confronted with them both helped set the scene for reform.

In my lecture and
chapter on industrialization, I mention the Pemberton disaster of 1860, when a textile factory in Massachusetts collapsed, killing 145 workers and injuring another 166. This was a visible disaster, too, and in terms of what happened was probably a closer match to the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 workers and injured at least 2,500. But unlike the Triangle fire, the Pemberton collapse didn't result in any consequences for the factory's owners, and didn't really change anything. I think this supports Loomis's point that when these things happen out of sight, they're easy to push out of mind.


The most memorable moment, for me, was when Loomis quoted Lawrence Summers, the nephew of famous economist Paul Samuelson who has been Chief Economist for the World Bank, President of Harvard, and partner in a $30 billion private equity firm. Summers, who advocated deregulation of the derivatives markets while Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, is still a respected adviser of neo-liberal politicians like Clinton and Obama. Loomis quotes Summers's attitude toward externality:

I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa  are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City." Loomis didn't include Summer's conclusion, but here it is: "health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."

Read that again. Let it sink in.

The fact is, based on the way many economists define their field, the economic logic behind dumping really is impeccable. This is NOT how all economists define their field, but it's worth remembering that Summers became a professor of economics at and president of Harvard long after his thoughts on these issues were well-known. This narrow approach to economic logic illustrates why important issues cannot be decided using only the decision-making tools provided by mainstream economics. Academic economists might object that the work they do is much more nuanced than the Summers memo suggests. If so, they need to stand up and challenge this type of argument when it is made by a Chief Economist of the World Bank, just as historians need to stand up and challenge presidential candidates when they misuse history. (In an ironic coda,
Harvard Magazine basically forgave Summers for his "whopper" of a mistake in 2001. The article's concluding paragraph equates the dangerous worldview of the memo with a "break of service" in a company-picnic tennis game. See, Harvard says, it's no big deal. Larry's a great competitor and a swell guy.)

But back to
Out of Sight. Loomis argues that the era of relatively active government regulation following the Great Depression gave us strong labor unions and later, environmental regulation. Organizations like the EPA and OSHA were essential, Loomis argues, to help codify and cement the gains made by labor activists and environmentalists during periods of high popular awareness and support. Loomis describes the conservative attack on "nanny" government regulation in the 1980s. And then he says the most effective tactic of businesses seeking to avoid labor and environmental oversight was to move to places without regulations.

There are several items along the way I thought were particularly interesting. First, I was struck by how many times in the 19th century labor disputes weren't caused by workers banding together to force employers to give them more, but when they objected to employers demanding they take less. Rent increases in factory dormitories, wage reductions, and higher prices in company stores caused strikes. Not workers deciding they wanted something new and unprecedented that the company couldn't afford to give them. This is a fact that has been forgotten in most history textbooks. While it would be completely legitimate for people to desire workplace improvements, especially when the companies they work for are wildly profitable, workers were usually fighting corporations seeking even more profit by squeezing out costs.

Loomis shows the movement of industry to lower-wage regions didn't begin with NAFTA. The textile industry moved to the South in the early 20th century, and then to Latin America and Asia. RCA moved from New Jersey to Indiana in the 1930s; then to Tennessee and Mexico. Loomis calls attention to the fact that the Obama-supported TPP would create a free-trade zone including Vietnam, which has a 28 cent per hour minimum wage. Loomis says a former Federal Reserve vice-chairman estimated TPP would result in an additional 36 million jobs moving to Asia. I'm not really sure how neo-liberals like Obama and Clinton suppose we'd recover from that.

The only problem I see with the idea of returning to a society where government is used to check the excesses of the market is that last time, it took the Great Depression to wake people up to the need for government involvement in markets. Several times when Loomis describes the gains of the twentieth century, I find myself thinking it would help to explain how bad it had to get, before people supported change. In the end, Loomis calls for a return to effective government regulation that imposes reasonable requirements on businesses, no matter where they operate. Basically, he's suggesting that if businesses selling to American consumers are not allowed to trash the environment or poison their workers in America, they shouldn't be allowed to do it in Bangladesh either. I agree completely. The question is, how do we get there?

Carl Becker and a little Douglas Adams


Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker Carl Lotus Becker, 1958

Carl Becker is, along with Charles Beard, the most influential “relativist” in American historiography, according to Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream. So I thought I’d read some of Becker’s essays. They seem pretty even-handed and insightful. Becker isn’t arguing for anything more radical than Hume (who he calls on in one of the pieces), and he's pretty much writing in plain English. I wonder, if we had understood this material deeply enough, if postmodernism would have evolved differently?

Something about Becker's writing seems really comfortable and reasonable. Maybe that's because, like many grad students, I was exposed years ago to the objective/subjective battle in historiography, in the form of Arthur Marwick and Hayden White. I liked White better, but I was disappointed he couldn't render his thoughts in more standard English. I've ground this axe before, but I really think there are few ideas that are really so complex they can't be described in ways that regular people could understand -- and that it's our job to try to do this, if we want to be relevant beyond the walls of the academy. That's probably why I like Becker, because he seems to agree with me.

Things that I thought worth keeping on hand, for occasional inspiration:

the historical fact is a thing wonderfully elusive after all, very difficult to fix, almost impossible to distinguish from ‘theory,’ to which it is supposed to be completely antithetical.” (10)

while we speak of historical facts as it they were pebbles to be gathered in a cup, there is in truth no unit fact in history. The historical reality is continuous, and infinitely complex; and the cold hard facts into which it is said to be analyzed are not concrete portions of the reality, but only aspects of it. The reality of history has forever disappeared, and the ‘facts’ of history, whatever they once were, are only mental images or pictures which the historian makes in order to comprehend it.” (11)

I think it’s interesting how this anticipates postmodernism -- but then so does Plato’s
Allegory of the Cave. The question, I suppose, really is: what do we do with this understanding? Most historians are careful to limit and qualify our claims when we're writing for each other. But if only a small number of elite historians write "magisterial" histories for public audiences, is this humility lost?

It seems, then, that the great point in historical synthesis is selection: which of the numberless particular facts will the historian select?” (18)

Regarding “facts,” “
the historian...cannot deal directly with this event itself, since the event itself has disappeared. What he can deal with directly is a statement about the event. He deals in short not with the event, but affirmation...There is thus a distinction of capital importance to be made: the distinction between the ephemeral event which disappears, and the affirmation about the event which persists...If so the historical fact is not the past event, but a symbol which enables us to recreate it imaginatively...The safest thing to say about a symbol is that it is more or less appropriate.” (47)

The most important question to ask may be, what was the motivation to remember this particular event in this particular way? But I read and wrote novels before I read and wrote history -- I'm always asking myself whether my characters' actions make sense and whether their motivations are plausible.

One historian will therefore necessarily choose certain affirmations about the event, and relate them in a certain way, rejecting other affirmations and other ways of relating them...What is it that leads one historian to make, out of all the possible true affirmations about the given event, certain affirmations and not others? Why, the purpose he has in mind will determine that. And so the purpose he has in mind will determine the precise meaning which he derives from the event.” (55)

I'm okay with admitting this, as long as the historian also tries to judge the "affirmation" for consistency with others. Tries to understand the author’s point of view and motivation for affirming. Tries to integrate this into an overall understanding based on context and agreement of sources, rather than just cherry-picking the ones he thinks are most interesting or agree with his thesis. But again, we probably need a more thorough peer review process for popular history.

On the difference between history and science: “
The historian has to judge the significance of the series of events from the one single performance, never to be repeated, and never, since the records are incomplete and imperfect, capable of being fully known or fully affirmed.” (57) I thought that was interesting, because as the sample size collapses to one, statistical inference goes out the window and we have to rely on other types of pattern recognition. This reminds me of what Douglas Adams says in one of my favorite books, The Long Dark teatime of the Soul:

“What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? ‘Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ ”
“I reject that entirely,” said Dirk sharply. “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbably lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is that it is hopelessly improbable?...The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don’t know about, and...there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality.”

But back to Becker: “
the kind of history that has the most influence on the life of the community and the course of events is the history that common men carry around in their heads. It won’t do to say that history has no influence on the course of events because people refuse to read history books. Whether the general run of people read history books or not, they inevitably picture the past in some fashion or other, and this picture, however little it corresponds to the real past, helps to determine their ideas about politics and society. This is especially true in times of excitement, in critical times, in time of war above all.” (61) That's what I'm talking about.

Becker also said it was "
not wholly the historian’s fault that the mass of men will not read good history willingly and with understanding; but I think we should not be too complacent about it.” (64)

Where should we get our copper?

Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World
Bill Carter, 2012

I picked this book up because it struck me that I might build my lectures and chapter about mining around copper mining. Although gold and silver mines were prominent in
Part One of my class and textbook, copper is even more vital to creating and maintaining the modern world than precious metals. The modern world could arguably live without gold. But not without copper.

Another advantage of focusing a chapter on copper is that I've already done a bit of research on copper mining in the Americas. I wrote a Masters Thesis on Chilean copper and then when I returned to grad school I spent a season reading about Michigan mining communities. Bill Carter lived in Bisbee, Arizona, so his 2012 book includes some Arizona mining history. Even more interesting is the way Carter weaves his personal experience and the current state of the copper industry into his story.

Bisbee Arizona was once a center of copper mining in the Southwest. Phelps Dodge took $8 billion worth of copper out of the ground there between 1880 and 1975, and the
Freeport-McMoRan which bought out Phelps Dodge reopened mining operations in Bisbee in 2013. Concerned over how the town would change when the mine reopened, Carter and his family moved out at the end of his story. But although he decided not to raise a family by the mine, Carter says if it had been up to him, he would have chosen to reopen the mine.

Carter's thoughts about where copper should be mined are an important element of the book. The modern world can't survive without copper, so it has to come from somewhere. In addition to being a Bisbee resident and an author, Carter is a fisherman who has spent several seasons working in
Bristol Bay, Alaska during the salmon run. Bristol Bay is the site of the planet's biggest sockeye salmon run. Although the area is sparsely populated, 75% of residents make their livings fishing and processing salmon. And the area is seismically active.

A consortium of international mining corporations calling themselves the
Pebble Partnership want to open the largest mine in the Americas, fourteen miles from the headwaters of the salmon run. Carter reports on a visit to a scientist concerned with copper contaminating the streams. "As little as two parts per billion of copper above normal background copper in the water," he says "can make a salmon lose its sense of direction." In other words, locating a mine next to the biggest salmon run in the world is probably a bad idea, even if the mines don't spill or leach any of the chemicals they use to process copper into the environment (122). And mines rarely, if ever, manage to stop chemical spills. It's not really a matter of if, but of when.

Carter must have done a pretty good job disguising his feelings while he was researching the book, because he gets a lot of access to mine company executives, prospectors, and other pro-mining types. He is invited to tour the site with guests of the Pebble Partnership, and then interviews the company's CEO, John Shively. During the conversation, Shively tells Carter he doesn't believe the Exxon Valdez spill "actually hurt the salmon at all" (158). Carter comments that "To even hint that the spill's long-term effects are negligible is borderline psychotic and definitely delusional," and yet Shively impresses him as a fairly decent guy. Again and again, though, Carter shows mining company people projecting sincerity and concern as they overconfidently predict that they have everything well in hand and won't let anything go wrong.

Grasberg Mine
Returning to Bisbee, Carter wonders whether he can trust the promises of the mine company to respect the town and its environment if they reopen operations. Freeport-McMoRan, which bought the Phelps Dodge mine, also owns the world's largest gold reserve and third largest copper operation, at the
Grasberg mine in New Guinea. The company has bribed Indonesian officials, hired the country's military and intelligence services to intimidate critics of the mine, and the mine's environmental record is so bad that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation revoked Freeport's insurance policy for environmental violations. This is one of the interesting elements of the story of mining in the 21st century. Although technically, US laws would prohibit many of the practices used at Grasberg, do government officials in Phoenix or Washington have the will or the power to make them stick? As decisions about mine operations are increasingly made in the boardrooms of stateless global corporations, will practices once restricted to powerless, "third-world" mines become prevalent everywhere? Maybe being treated the way the residents of faraway resource peripheries have always been treated will help people in developed countries develop a sense of solidarity with environmentalists in the developing world.

And yet, as Carter says, the modern world needs copper. It has to be mined somewhere. Carter's conclusion suggests we need to develop better criteria than NIMBY to decide where the mines should be and how they should operate. Bisbee was always a mining town, Carter says, which is a good point. But more important, Bisbee is in the desert. It seems reasonable to suspect there may be less environmental damage associated with digging a big pit in the Arizona desert (or in the Atacama) than next to the world's biggest salmon run. Not that there's no damage -- that's not a choice available to us. But less.

Elon Musk: Can Government Challenge Money?

While COP21 was underway in Paris, Tesla CEO Elon Musk visited the Sorbonne and talked to a group of graduate students about taxing carbon. His message was pretty simple, and cut through a lot of the rhetoric and confusion that often surrounds the issue. Basically, Musk said that people do what they're paid to do.

The problem is, right now people are being paid to release carbon into the atmosphere. According to the International Monetary Fund, governments throughout the world subsidize carbon-producing activity to the tune of $5.3 trillion annually. These subsidies come mostly in the form of not having to pay for the damage carbon-producing does to the environment. In economic terms, the environmental damage is an unpriced externality. Musk's point is that by allowing these damages to be ignored, society is lowering the cost of doing business for carbon-producing companies. This gives them an economic advantage -- especially over companies producing less carbon.

Musk's solution to the problem is to tax carbon emission. This would eliminate the subsidy and put high carbon-producing companies on a level economic playing field with low carbon-producing companies. The increased costs experienced by high-carbon producers would be reflected in higher prices, and the market would move toward low-carbon solutions. The high-carbon companies would have an economic incentive to invest in lower-carbon technologies, and consumers would have a compelling reason (lower prices) to buy low-carbon products.

The big question, it seemed to me while listening to the talk and the QA session that followed it, is whether governments still have the power to do it?

Musk was optimistic that "governments respond to popular pressure" and that the young people he was addressing had the power to lead a movement for change. But after a grad student asked him if the answer was for sustainability activists to send more lobbyists to Washington, he said this:

Tesla and Solar City, my companies are very tiny. We're tiny, tiny companies. In order for there to be a big move toward sustainability, the giant companies have to know that that is what the governments are demanding for the future; what the people are demanding for the future...Let me tell you, we definitely can't beat the oil and gas industry on lobbyists. Okay? That would be a losing battle...Exxon makes more profit in a year than the value of the entire solar industry in the Unites States. So if you take every solar company in the United States, it's less than Exxon's profit for one year. There's no way you can win on money. It's impossible (at about 45:00).

I thought that was an honest way to frame the issue. Can government win against money anymore?

Responsibility of Experts to Set the Record Straight

For the second time this week, a scientific article has been picked up by the mainstream press challenging the assumption that Norse settlements in Greenland were caused by the Medieval Warming Period and ended by the Little Ice Age. The first, "Cultural adaptation, compounding vulnerabilities and conjunctures in Norse Greenland," was published March 6, 2012 in PNAS. In spite of never arguing that climate change was the single driver of Viking settlement or evacuation of Greenland, the article led to the headlines:

Vikings were not spurred to Greenland by warm weather, research shows (Guardian),
Vikings’ mysterious abandonment of Greenland was not due to climate change, study suggests (Washington Post), and
Climate change didn't force Vikings to abandon Greenland, scientists say (Fox News)

Actually, the 2012 article concluded environmental changes probably
did affect Norse settlers' experience in Greenland, and thus almost certainly influenced their decision-making process. The article's conclusion put it this way:

Collectively, these environmental changes would have degraded subsistence flexibility, decreased environmental predictability, and driven threshold crossing in the marine ecosystems related to the Eastern Settlement. The small Western Settlement (with a maximum likely population of 600–800) failed sometime in the late 14th century. Although the end of the Western Settlement is not completely understood, a likely proximate cause was isolation combined with late winter subsistence failure, plausibly connected to climate change.

The main point of this 2012 article, actually, was that the Vikings were smart and resilient and that there's never a
single cause of major historical change. That seems pretty uncontroversial.


The second article, titled "
Glacial maxima in Baffin Bay during the Medieval Warm Period coeval with Norse settlement," was published Dec. 4, 2015 in Science Advances. In the abstract, the authors of this recent article say their dating of moraines on Baffin Island and western Greenland "point to nonclimatic factors as contributing to the Norse exodus from the western North Atlantic region." The article makes some interesting suggestions; among them, that temperatures varied in different parts of the North Atlantic during the Medieval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age, that warm temperatures around Iceland may have encouraged the Vikings to ship out, but they may have found it wasn't that warm when they got to western Greenland, and that the moraines they studied really didn't tell them much about ocean temperatures and ease of navigation in the North Atlantic during this period. The article suggests that the market for walrus tusks, shifts in trade and travel between Norway and Iceland, and conflicts with the Inuit may have contributed to the Vikings' decisions about maintaining a presence on Greenland. This all seems reasonable, but it's fair to wonder whether some of these changes might not have been influenced by climate? Could harsher conditions in the interior and northern coast of western Greenland have brought Inuits into closer contact and conflict with the Norse settlements at this time? The article's authors never claim to have found the final, single answer to this mystery. But will that prevent their study from becoming the basis of a new series of "it wasn't climate change" stories in the mainstream media?

The first mainstream article I've seen based on this new study is from
Smithsonian, dated December 4, 2015. Although it's a pretty balanced article, Smithsonian couldn't resist the temptation to title it "Did Climate Change Make the Norse Disappear from Greenland?" The article is interesting, includes several useful links, and concludes that even if scientists embrace this new data, it's still reasonable to say "climate change is very much part of the mix." But based on the comments following the article, the subtleties are falling to the wayside. Like the previous newspaper articles, this is also being understood as part of the current debate about whether climate change is real. I suspect if other news outlets report on this story, their stories will be less balanced than Smithsonian's and more like those I mentioned above.

So my question is, do scientists and other professionals (like Environmental Historians) have any responsibility for how their work is used? Presumably the authors of these studies, who discussed the complexity of the issue and the lack of monocausal explanations, do not support the use of their work to confuse the public regarding climate change. The authors of the 2012 article may even be surprised that three years after its publication, their article has become the basis of this raft of stories (timed to precede the new publication?). If I had written that article, I'd be shaking my head with frustration about now, muttering "but that's
not what we said."

If I had written that initial article, I'd be a little dismayed that my work was being used in major newspapers (and the myriad of smaller papers and blogs that pick up this story) to confuse readers regarding the influence of climate on human societies. I'd be writing letters to the editors of those papers. I'd be tweeting about it, trying to set the record straight. Given that the initial motivation for their research was probably to help set the record straight about the complex nature of historical change, I've got to imagine these scientists would like everybody to understand that point, not just their professional peers.

A final thought, and I apologize if this seems cranky, but I've noticed a lot of historians and even EnvHist folks have retweeted these mainstream articles without comment. In spite of the convention that "RT=/ Endorsement," I think when a large number of historians' feeds start presenting these news reports without any qualification, they're furthering someone else's agenda.

A Really Long View of American History

Tim Flannery is an Australian paleontologist specializing in mammals and an environmental activist. I wasn't really aware of Flannery, until a reader of my blog reviews asked if I had read anything by him. So I read his 2001 book, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples. Although I liked the entire book quite a bit, I think the title is a bit misleading. Flannery's story of pre-human America, brilliantly described in the first half of the book, is much more comprehensive than his story of humans in the Americas.

Most of the reading I've done about prehistory, recently, has focused on the rise of humans. Flannery offers a detailed view of the story leading up to humans. Beginning with the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, Flannery traces the re-population of the planet by the plants and animals that survived the disaster. This material really made up the meat of the book, and I learned quite a bit about the evolution and migration of mammals across the planet. I had not known, for example, that "North America can be thought of as having given rise, at an early stage, to virtually all of the larger herbivorous mammal lineages inhabiting the planet today" (53). Hadn't really thought about America as a "climatic trumpet" whose geography amplifies climate changes and even seasonal weather extremes. And it was interesting to watch Flannery apply the rules of his specialty, and explain how "Centripetal evolution constantly generates new species at the centre of a group's range," but leaves peripheral species unchanged (78). I was a little more skeptical when Flannery started applying the rules of his specialty to American society.

In the introduction, Flannery says he is seeking "the quintessential determinants of life in North America" (6). In the concluding chapter, he sums these factors up as "the founder effect, ecological (and social) release, and adaptation" (394). Although I'm fascinated by idea that adaptation really doesn't begin until we begin to hit environmental limits, I thought the way Flannery equated ecological and social release was a little too casual.

I also had a problem with Flannery's casual dismissal of Tim Dillehay's discoveries in Monte Verde. I tried to remind myself that Flannery was writing in 2000, and a lot has changed in the field since then. But even so, I had a bit of a negative reaction to his rejection of anything pre-Clovis and then his immediate embrace of a "Nadene" migration at a time when Beringia was again submerged by rising post-Glacial sea-levels. Flannery says it is hard to believe people sailed all the way from Beringia to southern Chile, as if they never stopped along the way. They may in fact have stopped all along the way, and left remains that were then erased as the coastlines of the glacial era disappeared under the rising ocean. Flannery also seems to suggest that human migration (like animal migration?) had to be an all or nothing affair, when more recent evidence suggests there were several waves of migration from Beringia/Alaska into America. So maybe there's something a bit more variable happening in "social release" than there would have been in ecological release?

Flannery's interest in Frederick Jackson Turner is evident from the book's title, and he returns to Turner in his conclusion. Flannery suggests that academic historians' rejection of Turner might be a bit faddish and premature, which is probably a fair assessment. But the portion of his story dealing with the historic period might have benefited from a bit more engagement with the work historians have done in the field. Flannery leans heavily on Jared Diamond's
Guns, Germs and Steel, and Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. While I think one of those sources was an excellent choice, Flannery should probably have read a few more books before writing these chapters outside his own specialty.

But these later chapters still have a lot of interesting material in them. Flannery's description of bison changing in response to Indian hunting is fascinating, and seems to occupy an interesting middle ground between evolution and selective breeding that probably deserves more study--especially for people interested in the beginnings of agriculture and animal husbandry. The way western society often made "ruthless exploitation, greed and senseless environmental honored tradition" is also described clearly and Flannery connects this with "breakdown of authority" in an interesting way. Finally, Flannery's suggestion that "a society genuinely adapted to North American conditions" won't emerge until we confront the end of the growth economy is interesting and appropriately ominous.

REALLY Bad History

The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People Oscar Handlin, 1951

Yesterday while I was making a case for teaching historians to write in ways that appeal to general audiences, I bashed this book. I think Oscar and Mary Flug Hamlin's Handlin’s 1947 work, Commonwealth, was valuable. But I think The Uprooted is an embarrassment to the profession. Here's why:

Handlin's thesis is that the “history of immigration is a history of alienation and its consequences” (4). But he never mentions anyone in particular. “I have not found it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation,” he says (308). Freed from any obligation to support his generalizations with the experiences (much less the voices) of real people, Handlin paints a picture of superstitious, ignorant peasants who are too thick to understand the new society they find in America. They huddle together in ghettos until they are told by their social betters that they must become American; and then they discover the depth of their alienation -- they will never belong, and they can never go home.

It’s a real tale of woe. “The mighty collapse” of “the peasant heart of Europe...left without homes millions of helpless, bewildered people,” Handlin says (7). These peasant immigrants belong to a pre-modern, pre-commercial, and definitely pre-industrial world in Handlin’s account; so it makes sense that they are naively religious, believe in fairies, and feel attuned to the rhythms of nature (94-9). Their village communities give structure and meaning to their lives; so they are adrift the moment they leave. The horror of the passage weeded out the weakest and hardened the rest (43). Once here, peasants who had known only the land were unable to escape the cities and find a place in the countryside. Instead, they became unskilled workers on canal, then railroad, and then highway crews (66).

“Often,” Handlin says, “they would try to understand. They would think about it in the pauses of their work, speculate sometimes as their minds wandered, tired, at the close of a long day” (94). It’s as if he’s talking about an alien species -- and perhaps from his perspective, he is. The incredible condescension and sheer distance between the historian and his subjects is remarkable, in a book still regarded by many as a classic text. Handlin consistently denies the immigrants agency: they are orphan birds forced from their “nests” and unable to return; “and if they failed to reach the soil which had once been so much a part of their being, it was only because the town had somehow trapped them” (64).

There are some interesting facts sprinkled into the melodrama, that suggest the skeleton of a more accurate and more interesting story. “A single year in the 1830’s saw seventeen vessels founder on the run from Liverpool to Quebec alone,” Handlin says (48). And in 1847, he says, “eighty-four ships were held at Grosse Isle below Quebec...ten thousand died.” Unfortunately, he continues this passage not with facts, but with an italicized but unattributed statement written in slang, to sound like it’s a first-person account: “
I have seen them lyin on the beach, crawlin on the mud, and dyin like fish out of water” (55). By 1910, Handlin says, there were not only 350,000 miles of railway, but 200,000 miles of paved highway (66). And he says that Henry George was popular with foreign-born voters (218). Interesting details that could have been the basis of an interesting book.

Two of the most problematic elements of
The Uprooted are Handlin’s discussions of why the immigrants didn’t move to country, and his musings on their sexual difficulties. “Reluctance to pitch on the cheapest frontier lands,” he says, was based on “the expensive compulsion to settle on farms already brought under cultivation by others,” rather than the timing of their arrival and availability of accessible land (84). Isolated farms, where “neighbors lived two or three miles off,” also discouraged village-oriented peasants, Handlin claims (165). But this is a very late, high plains type of farming; for much of the period he’s discussing it would not have applied. And Handlin completely mis-characterizes truck farming close to urban centers; turning it into a sad affair where “Would-be agriculturalists...found used-up bits of ground...[and] took up the sterile, neglected acres” (88). The fact that they were successful and provided perishable foods to city-people while re-establishing their relationship with the land, goes almost unnoticed in Handlin’s gloomy account.

On the sexual front -- I’m not even going to go there, except to say that it’s unnecessary, it’s a blatantly condescending caricature, and it’s probably a figment of Handlin’s own fevered imagination. “
Better sleep out on the fire escape, Joe” (238) ...REALLY?  This is a Pulitzer-winning book from a revered historian. Give me a break.

Who Reads History?

A couple of days ago, I listened to Liz Covart's Ben Franklin's World podcast while washing dishes after dinner. It was Episode 58, an interview with Andrew Schocket about his book, Fighting Over the Founders. Sounds like an interesting book, about a topic of perennial interest to American historians.

One thing that jumped out at me and has stuck with me over the past few days, was the part of the conversation where Liz and Andrew talked about readership. Unlike Netflix, who knows exactly who watched what, when, they agreed, book publishers don't really know who is buying their products. But the assumption is that most of the people reading history (or at least the great man-oriented, essentialist history that seems to dominate bestseller lists) are affluent, middle-aged, white guys.

This is an interesting thought. Does the inability to see who's buying and reading books lead to a higher level of conservatism among publishers? Is it true that the big market for popular history is, basically, members of the ruling class who want to celebrate or justify their positions at the top of the social pyramid? Is there anything historians could do to reach wider audiences. Do they even want to?

The big, visible exception in recent years to the essentialist, celebratory tradition would probably be Howard Zinn's
A People's History. Published in 1980, Zinn's revisionist story of America was a lightning rod and a litmus test. Eric Foner noted that "Professor Zinn writes with an enthusiasm rarely encountered in the leaden prose of academic history," but concluded that while exposing important information, Zinn's history was a "deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience."

Oscar Handlin, on the other hand, described
A People's History as a "deranged...fairy tale," and suggested, because "whoever hated America hated mankind...hatred of mankind is the dominant tone of Zinn's book." Handlin, on the other hand, only despised part of mankind, and his fairy tales were apparently justified. I refer to the passages in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 book, The Uprooted, where Handlin invents interior monologues for dim-witted Italian American women who tell their oversexed husbands "Better sleep out on the fire escape, Joe." I guess it matters a lot who you hate on, if you want to win prestigious awards.

But bestselling histories weren't always for rich white dudes. Charles and Mary Beard wrote mainstream history for general audiences. Carl Becker delivered a presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1931, about the relationship between professional historians and "Everyman." Stewart Holbrook called himself a "lowbrow historian" and wrote about the "Lost Men of American History."

Yes, all this happened half or three-quarters of a century ago. The temper of the times was different, you might say. And more people could read at a higher level. But really, was it? and could they? People are still writing history for the general reader. Mostly it's people like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck -- they both have bestselling series they produce with teams of ghost-writers. On the other side, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert have both produced books that engage with American history. So it's not as if there's no market.

Maybe the real issue is the first part of Eric Foner's comment on Zinn. Even if the "leaden prose of academic history" is an exaggeration, is it easier for academic historians to write in a way that appeals to affluent, middle-aged, white dudes than it is to write for, say, twenty-somethings raised on graphic novels, science fiction, and Chuck Palahniuk?


But you can't tell a complicated story or deal with nuanced ideas if you write that way, you may be thinking. I'm not so sure. I think we need to distinguish between content and form. And let's not kid ourselves. It's not as if the bestselling histories using New York Times Friday Crossword vocabulary are inherently more objective than Zinn or even Beck.

Maybe grad schools should be giving budding historians assignments like, "take your favorite nuanced, complex historical argument and render it in language a (Non-AP) high school social studies class can understand
and will find interesting." The goal is to get people who liked reading Fight Club to like reading history. Because they need to know some history.

Popularizing (& Confusing) the Market Transition

The Market Revolution : Jacksonian America, 1815-1846
Charles Grier Sellers, 1991

I read this after reading a lot of books and articles debating the market transition, and it was a strange experience. While the debate was usually conducted within the academy, this book crossed over a bit into th realm of popular history. And Sellers really doesn't engage with the academics who had been writing about the subject for a couple of decades. Instead, he tells his own story of antinomianism, arminianism, and peasant animism, wavering between a sort-of determinist conspiracy theory where “Lawyers were the shock troops of capitalism” and a religious morality play, where “Edwards’s revolutionary New Light, as finally modulated to the stresses of capitalist accommodation by Finney’s genius, nerved Americans for the personal transformation required by a competitive market” (47, 235). Neither is satisfying, but along the way there’s plenty of interesting information I can look into further.

The Jeffersonians aren’t heroes in Sellers’ story. In 1802 Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin “convinced Congress to allocate land revenues from the new state of Ohio for a National Road connecting it with the Potomac via southwestern Pennsylvania, where his own investments were concentrated”(62). The “Fourteenth Congress, convening in prosperous peace in December 1815, was filled with enterprise-minded lawyers” who took credit for “saving the republic from the military ineptitude of penny-pinching, old-fogy Republicanism” (70). Monroe “falling thousands of dollars in debt to the [Second] Bank’s chief promotor, John Jacob Astor, who regularly subsidized his habit of living beyond his means,” is also interesting (80). But “The Adamses epitomized both the fruits and human costs of the self-repressive effort exacted by capitalist transformation.  The sublimation of psychic energy that fueled the country’s astonishing surge of production also generated the emotional intensity that John Quincy Adams displaced onto his beloved republic” (95). I agree Adams was high-strung, but seriously, what do these sentences mean? I think the story flows much more smoothly when Sellers describes events like “the dramatic reversal of Republican tradition” when, in President Madison’s words, Republicans were “reconciled to certain measures and arrangements which may be as proper now as they were premature or suspicious when urged by champions of Federalism” (101). Sellers has an eye for irony: this is a beautiful explanation of the role of parties in American politics.

In another ironic passage, Sellers describes Senator John Taylor (“of Caroline”) and his 1814
Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the United States. Taylor’s analysis of “capitalist exploitation of American agricultural labor” anticipates Marx, Sellers suggests. But it’s also absurd. “This doomed aristocrat, elaborating the labor theory of value while slave labor supplied his every want,” Sellers says, “epitomized the contradictions of the capitalist transformation” (120). This is the tension I always feel when reading Foner. Is it possible for a group as wrong as Southern Congressmen were, to articulate a valid indictment of Northern wage-based industry? And if not, is part of the tragedy of the antebellum period the fact that there was no one in a credible position to say what needed to be said about the way capitalist institutions were developing? Is that the lesson of American politics in this period, that both sides are so compromised that there is never any pure ground to stand on, so you make your choice of the lesser evil? Did people at the time “get” this?  “Rotation in office” became the “spoils system” under Jackson -- was anyone surprised?

Sellers says “it is not surprising that the state banks, most having suspended specie payments during the war [of 1812], were reluctant to resume redeeming their notes in gold or silver coin on demand. With specie payments suspended, new banks could open on no other capital than stock loans and a little borrowed specie, and then force their notes into circulation by lending freely. Established banks could earn dividends of 12 to 20 percent by extending loans and note issues far beyond their specie reserves. The resulting uncontrolled inflation threatened sound growth,” but of course it seemed like a good idea at the time, to each person who took the notes or loans from their eager local banker (133). The question Sellers doesn’t really address is, how is it these banks were
allowed  to do this? There’s more going on than just an old fashioned culture (in which Jefferson cosigns his friend Nicholas’ loan and loses his fortune, 138) that doesn’t understand what’s happening, isn’t there?  Time to read some books on banking history.

In 1818, “with Henry Clay as its well-rewarded supervising attorney, the [new] national Bank [began] ruthlessly stripping its western debtors of their property. Most of Cincinnati fell into its hands” (138). But the people reacted and “General William Henry Harrison, popular hero of Tippecanoe, bank director, and longtime grandee, was hard run for the state senate by an upstart radical lawyer and hero of the city’s working class” (165). Image politics began in 1828, Sellers says, when “Farmers and workers were baffled as well as threatened by the abstraction and complexity of the interests and issues that engaged calculating elites,” and as a result “Jackson’s charisma froze voters into a pattern of party identifications favoring his entourage” (297). Were the issues that difficult? Were the people that dim? Who, then, was the audience for “self-taught mechanic/intellectual” William M. Gouge’s 1833
Short History of Paper Money and Banking?

When Jackson vetoed the Bank recharter, was he leading or following?  The rhetoric was right on target: “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes...Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress” (325) If the “Bank War was the acid test of American democracy,” how is it no one in Jackson’s administration understood what throwing control back to unregulated state banks was going to do to the money supply? (321) It’s hard to see, recalling the post-1812 inflation Sellers described, how anyone believed that without controls the result would be a return to metallic “real” money. So either part of the story is missing, or people weren’t honest. “Legislatures chartered over two hundred new banks in three years, pushing the total over six hundred. As the money supply (bank notes, deposits, and circulating specie [he forgets promissory notes, which were used extensively and functioned as cash]) swelled from $172 million in 1834 to $276 million in 1836, prices shot up 50%.” Thomas Hart Benton complained “I did not join in putting down the Bank of the United States, to put up a wilderness of local banks...I did not join in putting down the paper currency of a national bank, to put up a national paper currency of a thousand local banks” (344). What
had he expected?

The Specie Circular was overturned by Congress in December 1836 by Whigs and “Conservative Democrats,” and “Jackson’s last official act was a pocket veto sustaining his hard-money policy against the bipartisan dismay of politicians.” Jackson came to Washington as a result of the Panic of 1819, and left after setting off the Panic of 1837. “Economic disaster and multiplying immigrants--from 38,914 in 1838 to 104,565 in 1842--soon brought plebeian nativism to a boil” and launched America on its irrevocable path toward urban industrial capitalism. Really?  US population in 1840 totaled 17,069,453. The 1842 "tsunami" of immigration amounted to less than one percent of the total population. Even if the immigrants had all arrived in and remained in New York City (they didn’t), they would have made up only about 25% of that city’s population. A little more engagement with data, and a little less armchair psychology, would have made this a more readable and persuasive book.

So how did the academy react? In 1992, the
Journal of the Early Republic invited a panel to participate in a Symposium on Market Revolution  (Somehow, the Journal managed to not invite a number of social historians who had been working on the market revolution for decades. But many of these historians had a chance to be heard in Stokes and Conway’s 1996 book). Kicking off was Richard Ellis, a former student of Sellers’ who said that although the book did “not pay the careful attention to detail” that people had come to expect from Sellers, his comprehensiveness [and]...aggressive presentation of meaningful and provocative generalizations...will act as a catalyst for numerous doctoral dissertations” (447). Mary Blewett hinted that social historians had already moved well beyond Sellers’ generalizations and suspected they would be frustrated and disappointed by his synthesis (454). Joel Silbey subtly suggested that Sellers was simply following a line of argument “so well explored and synthesized previously by Harry Watson." In his turn, Watson recalled that resistance to the market transition has been discussed in the terms Sellers uses by Henretta, Clark, Kulikoff, etc.

In his defense, Sellers admitted that the “theologisms” in the book are daunting, but says that’s the way it has to be. He reiterated his belief that “the Protestant tension between antinomianism and arminianism was the central tension in early American life.” Religion, he said, “demands the special attention of historians because through it, as through politics, the largest numbers of people most visibly register their reactions to their circumstances.” This is probably my biggest issue with Sellers approach.  Politics is an imperfect mirror of regular people’s ideas about life and society, because they most often are choosing from a set menu (between the giant douche or the turd sandwich, to put it in South Park terminology). But
at least there are no institutional barriers to political participation. Regular people are at least theoretically eligible to play. The whole point of the religious game in early America was control from above. Even where the message was individual, internal salvation through grace, the medium was still an elite white guy in the pulpit, who the lay people were indoctrinated to believe and follow. “Nothing could be more liberating for American historians,” Sellers says, “than recognizing our own embeddedness in the liberal ideology we should be subjecting to critical analysis” (475). I actually agree, but I think the same goes for Sellers’ own embeddedness in theology.

Change starts in the local library


One of the things I really like about teaching an online American Environmental History class at UMass is that my course is offered through the university's Division of Continuing Education. That means my students tend to be older and are mostly non-history majors. Many are non-traditional students: working people finishing up a bachelor's degree they've been working on at night or, more recently, online. Taking the General Education requirement they missed along the way.

So I've tried to build my class and my textbook for these people. And my hope is that, in addition to being useful in college courses like my own, the textbook might be interesting and useful to regular people. Because I think a widespread public understanding of our history that includes the environment is critical, if we're going to make any progress toward a more sustainable social order in the twenty-first century

I know, it seems like a kind-of high-falutin idea, when I write it down like that. But isn't that pretty much what we're really working for? So I've been thinking, how do I get this message out to more people? There just aren't enough regular people getting on Goodreads or Amazon and searching for new books about Environmental History.

But there are a lot of regular people visiting their local libraries

So I've decided to donate copies of the book to libraries. There are a lot of libraries in the U.S. and lots of people still use them pretty extensively. So maybe if my book is sitting on a shelf of newly acquired titles, people will pick it up and take a look. The way the math works out, I'll break even if I send a copy to a library for every three books I sell. If I don't sell a lot of books, maybe I'll try some type of crowd-funding scheme.

I'm not saying my American Environmental History textbook is the only EnvHist title that ought to be available for people in local libraries. But I can buy my own book for a fraction of the cost of other people's titles. Maybe someday there'll be a big foundation stocking local library shelves with EnvHist titles. That would be pretty cool. In the meantime, I'm going to start sending copies of my book to libraries later this week, when my first box of books arrives.

Climate talks and Joan Scott


One of the things I've been noticing, as the COP21 talks have progressed, is the media attempting to tell the climate change story as if it's not an argument, and as if the time for hope and positive action was not past. I think the second point is important, that there's  reason for hope and immediate action based on the idea that we can still mitigate the negative effects of modern life. But the shift in the language used in some of these stories, and the widespread avoidance of identifying the "sides" in the debate has reminded me of some observations Joan Scott made in a different context.

I read Scott when I was thinking about how to do histories of outsiders. According to Scott, “Positive definitions rest always...on the negation or repression of something represented as antithetical to it.” The definition of anything naturally  involves the exclusion of those things that are not considered part of, or germane to, or important in its nature. That's the common sense part. It gets interesting when she says the thing's “nature” is based on its perceived use or value to particular people in a particular time and place.

Maybe a better way of thinking about definition would be in terms of set theory rather than some type of unitary equality or inequality. A thing (noun) is a set of attributes (adjectives); the most crucial ones “defining” its nature -- but only in a given place and time, based on the locally predominant values. Looking at identity this way would enable us to observe changes in the set of attributes considered most important, and to ask questions about these changes. It would also allow us to ask questions like, "why didn't urban wage workers and farmers find more political common ground in the nineteenth century?"

Scott points out that “categorical oppositions repress the internal ambiguities of either category” (in
Gender and the Politics of History). When people define things as binary pairs, the characteristics that separate them may not do so as completely as the definers believe. The characteristic that differentiates two "opposite" things may not be as clear-cut and unambiguous as it seems to the definers. Or as clearly-perceived by the members of the opposing groups. And there may be other characteristics of the “opposites” that are similar or the same -- but these are not considered “essential” at the particular time and place where definition is being done.

Scott says a major element of Derrida’s deconstruction spoke “precisely to this arrangement [in which] the second term is present and central because required for the definition of the first.” This focus on opposition tends to ignore the “non-essential” characteristics and zero in on the binary, which may validate the initial definition to an undeserved degree. It’s okay as far as it goes -- we just have to remember it only goes so far. Conflicts over meaning thus “attempt to expose repressed terms, to challenge the natural status of seemingly dichotomous pairs, and to expose their interdependence and their internal instability.”

I’d add that, inasmuch as meanings continue to be “constructed through exclusions,” the changing relevance of specific elements in a definition set over time is a particularly interesting question for the historian. What happens when an apparently “natural” category’s definition changes? Especially, when characteristics that were once considered “essential” slip in importance, to be replaced by other characteristics that were less important when the initial dichotomy was formed? Does the binary evaporate? Or does it persist, even though the elements that constituted the initial definition-by-exclusion are no longer relevant?

Scott says academic history is based on “a politics that sets and enforces priorities, represses some subjects in the name of the greater importance of others, naturalizes certain categories, and disqualifies others.” She reminds us that “history, through its practices, produces (rather than gathers or reflects) knowledge about the past,” which means that “history operates as a particular kind of cultural institution endorsing and announcing constructions of” (she says gender, I’m going to substitute) social identity.

What I was thinking, as I read this, was that I could formulate an “outsider history” along some of the same lines Scott used to define gender history. One of the interesting questions would be, what happens when outsiders win? What happens to people and ideas, defined by opposition to something no longer relevant, when they achieve some type of legitimacy.

One of the things I’d want to do, would be to keep it about people and ideas. Not about ideas and categories. Even if the “meanings of concepts are taken to be unstable [and to] require vigilant repetition, reassertion, and implementation,” I keep wondering,
why do people choose to continue expending energy on their maintenance? When you bring people back into the story, you have to start asking about actual choices rather than set theory. I think that leads pretty quickly to the classic forensic question, Cui bono? That's a question that's relevant to the current situation.

A Personal View of the Rise of Agribusiness

A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 Paul K. Conkin, 2008

Paul Conkin is an intellectual historian who wrote extensively about the Progressive Era and the New Deal. He's also the historian who bashed David Danbom's book, The Resisted Revolution, saying Danbom's work “illustrates how a historian, by the intellectual games he plays with his sources, can do much more to impede than to aid understanding.” Conkin said Danbom's “imprecise word use, indefinite or illegitimate groupings of people, the reification of ideal types, and unwarranted references from evidence all make it impossible for me to understand, let alone accept, Danbom’s major contentions.” This review appeared in Agricultural History, the same journal in which David Danbom had used more or less the same words in 1975 to bash William L. Bowers's The Country Life Movement in America: 1900-1920, which had basically followed Conkin's interpretation of the period. So the man had a long memory.

Conkin was 80 when he published
A Revolution Down on the Farm.  He features his own memories and the farming experiences of members of his family, which illustrate a history drawn from statistics and other primary and secondary sources. Conkin spent most of his career doing intellectual history, focusing on utopian movements. Arthur Schlesinger praised Conkin’s 1959 book about the New Deal, Tomorrow a New World, despite what he called its “certain woodenness of style and a consequent failure always to convey the human dimension of the communitarian experiments.” The personal reflections and recollections in this book provide a good balance for what might otherwise be a dry, slightly intellectual history of farming.

One of the points Conkin stresses is that the popular notion that agriculture has “declined” in America depends on your point of view. Conkin says, “agriculture has been the most successful sector in the recent economic history of the United States” (x). Technology, but also markets, economic change and government policy decisions, “reduced the number of farm operators needed to produce 89 percent of our agricultural output from around 6 million in the 1930s to less than 350,000 today” (xi). This was a victory from the perspective of economic efficiency, and Conkin seems to think critics of this change haven't focused enough on the benefits of this change. So, what does he think the benefits were, and who benefited?

Conkin begins by trying to change our perspective on the origin of commercial farming in America. While farmers supplied many of their own needs, he says, “from the beginning [they] depended on markets” (1). As recently as 1800, Conkin says, “it took more than 50 percent of human labor worldwide to procure food” (2). It now takes only a few percent.  This change is clearly beneficial in that it frees people up to do other things, but Conkin never really assesses the cost of these changes in terms of either the resources that enabled them or the social changes that followed them. In both cases, what happened is treated as somehow inevitable, and resistance to it, both by populists and by contemporary advocates of sustainability, is portrayed as backward-looking and wrongheaded. Ironically, this is the same portrayal of rural people by Progressive intellectuals that Danbom had objected to in the book Conkin didn't like.

Conkin's reminiscences of farm life in the first half of the twentieth century don't always seem to match his thesis. He remembers “the pace of farmwork to be leisurely, with rest periods, long lunch breaks, and the slow handling of more routine tasks” (4). At harvest time, he says, work was more strenuous and prolonged. I guess this is inefficient from a particular point of view. In my mind, it depends on what you spend those extra hours doing.

One of the important points Conkin makes in his reminiscences is that as new technology was introduced, its adoption took time. While larger farms may have jumped right in (“By 1860,” he says, reapers were at work on a minority of farms (60,000)” 9), many smaller farms continued using old tools and horse power well into the twentieth century. Resistance to new technology may be too strong a term here -- smaller farmers may simply have been unable to afford a new tractor or combine. It's also possible that smaller operators didn't buy into the the logic of expansion. If you don’t buy the big combine that only makes economic sense on a farm of 1000 acres, you may be able to continue to make ends meet on 250.

Conkin portrays Calvin Coolidge as an enemy of export bounties (28), and Herbert Hoover as a farm supporter who passed the 1929 Agricultural Marketing Act, “by far the most ambitious farm legislation to date” (30).  Conkin credits new deal farm policy largely to Hoover, which is an interesting claim that may merit a closer look sometime (52). But the digression into politics doesn't completely fit into what had been a story of what people experienced "down on the farm."

Farm life in 1930, Conkin says, “was closer to that of 1830 than 1960,” and he gives some examples from his own experience (49). These passages will be especially valuable to students with no farm experience of their own (note to self, for future classroom use). Conkin’s economic perspective seems to have originated in seeing farmers begin “to buy more food in town and grow less on the farm. For those who did not sell milk,” he says, “it was soon uneconomical to keep a cow” (49). He continues, “After World War II, the efficiency of production in almost every specialized area of agriculture and the efficiencies in the processing and marketing of foods made it cheaper to buy almost any type of food than to grow one’s own.” The fact that this change was enabled by a rapid increase in industrial inputs from off the farm (oil, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery) is not apparent from Conkin’s point of view, nor are the externalities and subsidies associated with many of these inputs. But it's important to note that just as they are not obvious to Conkin, they may have been equally hidden to other people who experienced the change.

Conkin also describes the transition of his boyhood farm community to a rural suburb. Because his home was seventeen miles from three industrial centers, Conkin was able to witness “the gradual development of a single labor market embracing both urban and rural areas, accompanied by a complex array of lifestyle choices” (84). And his family experience reinforced the idea that expensive equipment created a “mandate to grow or die” and to specialize in corn and soybeans (94). But Conkin does not examine any alternatives to individual ownership of all this equipment, despite his professional expertise in historical communitarian movements. A large section of the book describes government farm policies from the New Deal to the present, without actually shedding too much light on the subject.

In 2002, Conkin says, “2,902 dairy farms had more than 500 cows, and almost all had annual sales of more than $1 million. The average herd size for farms with more than $1 million in sales was 1,500 cows. In total, these farms accounted for more than 45 percent of all milk cows in the United States” (96). This trend towards concentration, he says, continues in almost all areas of farming. Labor efficiency has also increased dramatically. In 1900, Conkin says, “it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1950 this had shrunk to only 14, and by 1990 to only 6...In 1929 it took 85 hours of work to produce 1,000 pounds of broilers; by 1980 it took less than 1 hour.” In this case, his metric of success isn't even overall economic efficiency -- it's strictly labor efficiency. Economic issues such as the corn subsidies that contribute to raising the chickens or the illegal-immigrant status of the people processing the broilers it only took a man-hour to raise are completely absent from his analysis.

Introducing his section on “Critics and Criticisms,” Conkin says, “Everyone has to concede one point: American farmers have achieved a level of efficient food production unprecedented in world history” (164). His frustration that certain malcontents might wish to disagree with that claim seems to animate this section of the book. It doesn’t seem to occur to Conkin that as conditions like energy prices, resource depletion, and the risks associated with new techniques continue to change, the rational economic decision-makers he praises might legitimately need to reconsider practices that have become as traditional for modern farmers as cradling and crop rotation once were for their ancestors.

The word “ now so popular, so widely embraced, that it always begs contextual definition,” Conkin says. This is absolutely true, but no more so than many of the concepts that support the agricultural status quo, which Conkin tacitly accepts. Conkin describes several of the leaders of alternative movements, like the Rodales and Wendell Berry, without giving much attention to the substance of their sustainability arguments or the strength of the movements. Only in his afterword does Conkin break free of the boosterism that has propelled him through the book, to argue that food prices need to rise. Farm products should be more expensive, and “the shift to higher costs should be based in large part on the pricing of as many externalities as possible,” he says, and I couldn't agree more.

Conkin seems to realize that something weird has just happened to his argument. “If this seems like a prescription for the types of alternative agriculture described in chapter 8,” he concludes, “so be it” (205). I think it's great that he ends with a call for more accurate cost accounting and greater responsibility for externalities. It's unfortunate that Conkin didn't really see the flaws in the arguments and experiential impressions that led to the present situation, but it's very helpful that he gave us a personal view of where those arguments and impressions came from.

Vikings, Climate, and Self-Publishing

Yesterday NiCHE re-tweeted a link from Tina Loo, calling attention to a Guardian article about climate change and the Viking settlement on Greenland. Tina's comment, "Now I have to rewrite my #envhist lecture," struck a chord, because I'm preparing my lectures for Spring semester, and because I've just released Part One of my textbook, which discusses the Vikings, Greenland, and Vinland. My first thought was the same. Am I going to have to revise that chapter the first week the book is out?


I took a look at
the study the Guardian article was reporting on. After reading it, I don't think I need to rush back and rewrite. The main point of the study seems to be that the Norse were not idiots prone to "maladaptation by an inflexible temperate zone society" as the article puts it, but instead "show greater resilience [and] more willingness to expand sources of TEK [and]...ability to resolve conflicts between climate change and core social ideology" than we have so far, to quote the study's conclusion. The Vikings did manage to survive in Greenland for five hundred years, after all. They must have been pretty tough and pretty smart.

I was hoping the article would say more about fishing and Vinland. But the main thing I was looking for was an explanation for the two headlines I saw:

Vikings were not spurred to Greenland by warm weather, research shows (Guardian)
Vikings’ mysterious abandonment of Greenland was not due to climate change, study suggests (Washington Post)

The target of both articles seems to be the "so-called medieval warm period," in the
Guardian's words. The Washington Post goes a bit farther, and uses caps and quotes not only for "Medieval Warm Period" but for "Little Ice Age." The Post goes on to say the article challenges "whether the so-called Medieval Warm Period was really so warm...suggesting that the tale of the Vikings colonizing but then abandoning Greenland due to climatic changes may be too simplistic." Well, yeah. Suggesting that anybody does anything for just one reason is probably too simplistic. But it bothers me just a bit that as you scroll down this Post article, there are three Shell Oil ads inserted into the text, in addition to the big one on the sidebar.

In case you were wondering, the article concludes that although the situation was more complicated than monocausal explanations of the past may have implied, climate played a big role in the Norse experience of Greenland, and probably in the settlement's end. Here are their words:

Collectively, these environmental changes would have degraded subsistence flexibility, decreased environmental predictability, and driven threshold crossing in the marine ecosystems related to the Eastern Settlement. The small Western Settlement (with a maximum likely population of 600–800) failed sometime in the late 14th century. Although the end of the Western Settlement is not completely understood, a likely proximate cause was isolation combined with late winter subsistence failure, plausibly connected to climate change.

So, as far as I'm concerned, a lecture or a textbook that had avoided a simplistic telling of the story in the first place should be okay. I don't have to revise my chapter on European discovery of the Americas.


But I think it's worth noting that if the evidence had really contradicted what I had said in that chapter, in a really compelling way, I could have changed it. That's a distinct feature of a self-published text. I would not have had to burn a thousand copies, because there was no press run. The book prints on demand in Amazon's warehouse. Just like most of the paperback books you buy nowadays, actually. But, unlike those other books, I can upload a changed file to Createspace (which is also Amazon) anytime, day or night. My book can change instantly to respond to new discoveries or to comment on new data or interpretations. Or if not instantly, then in less time than passes between the moment you order a copy and the moment it ships. No need to wait a couple years for the second edition.

That's another part of the publishing world I think self-publishing can help shake up. So let's shake things up.

Suggestive rather than Conclusive

The Resisted Revolution: Urban America and the Industrialization of Agriculture, 1900-1930 David B. Danbom, 1979

David Danbom portrays the Country Life Movement as an urban-led crusade to save rural America, but he argues that the movement's Progressive leaders were frequently hostile to rural people and their interests. Ultimately, he says, the goal of the reformers was to ensure steady supplies of cheap food to support urban growth and low-wage industry. This thesis interests me, because I've often thought the people leading the Progressive Movement were just a bit too urban, educated, and elite.

Danbom takes a sort-of cultural approach to demonstrating his claim, using a wide array of print primary sources, rather than letters or journals of the reformers or the testimony of rural people. So there's no smoking gun document, where one reformer says to another, "these damn country folk. All they're good for is feeding city wage workers." Luckily, many of his print sources are now available online via Google Books, so we can read them ourselves and see if we see the same things Danbom did.


Danbom's narrative tends to portray good guys and bad guys, when the reality (even in primary passages he quotes from, in my opinion) is clearly more layered and complex. But Hofstadter and others have done the same with the Progressives. It’s a contentious period, and one that seems to invite over-generalization. Or is that just my discomfort with the cultural/intellectual history approach? I often find arguments of this type suggestive rather than conclusive, especially when they rely mostly on elite sources. Although he cites a lot of texts, Danbom doesn't use some of the obvious ones you'd expect to see. There's no
Horace Plunkett, for example. Is that because Plunkett, though a foreign aristocrat, was too sympathetic to farmers to fit the mold?

In the end, Danbom concludes that, although there was a net loss in farms in the 1920s, medium sized farms fared worst. Tiny and gigantic farms both increased in number, just as they seem to have done in the recent Ag. Census (when the giant farms were agribusiness corn producers and the tiny ones were CAFOs). An inference that might be drawn from this is that the “farmers” Hofstadter focuses on in
Age of Reform may be different from the rural people Danbom writes about. A change in what we define as farmers in this transitional period might explain a lot. A more balanced sample of sources that included some rural voices might also help. Reading the sources Danbom cites, I get more of a sense of privilege and technocracy than hostility. But I'd really like to know how the farmers felt.

Of the eight reviews I found of
Resisted Revolution, several were positive, a couple called attention to flaws in characterization, and one (Paul Conkin's in Ag. Hist.) blasted Danbom for shoddy and ideologically tainted work. There's a story behind that, which I'll explore tomorrow.

Some of the sources Danbom used:

Bailey, The Country Life Movement in the United States Bailey, The Training of Farmers Bailey, New York State Rural Problems Bailey, The State and the Farmer Bryan, Farming as an Occupation Butterfield, A Campaign for Rural Progress Blackmar, Social Degeneration in Towns and Rural Districts Boyle, Agricultural Economics Butterfield, The Farmer and the New Day Butterfield, Chapters in Rural Progress Cance, Immigrant Rural Communities Carstens, The Rural Community and Prostitution Carver, Principles of Rural Economics Carver, Selected Readings in Rural Economics REPORT OF THE COMMISSION ON COUNTRY LIFE Coulter, Influence of Immigration of Agricultural Development The Craftsman, Why Back to the Farm? The Craftsman, Getting Back to Our Base of Supplies Danielson, The Hill Folk (Hereditary Defectives) Devine, Misery and Its Causes Dugdale, The Jukes Dillingham, Recent Immigrants in Agriculture Fiske, Challenge of the Country Forbes-Lindsay, The Rural Settlement Galpin, Rural Life Gathany, What's the Matter with the Eastern Farmer? Gillette, Constructive Rural Sociology Gillette, Rural Sociology Goddard, The Kallikak Family Groves, The Rural Mind and Social Welfare Hall, Three Acres and Liberty Hall, A Little Land and a Living Harger, Middle West's Peace Problems Harmon, What's the Matter with the Pennsylvania Farmer? Harris, Health on the Farm James Jerome Hill, Highways of Progress Hill, The Natural Wealth of the Land and Its Conservation Hill, Addresses by James Jerome Hill Holmes, The Passing of the Farmer Holmes, Movement from City and Town to Farms Jenks, The Immigration Problem, “Recent Immigrants in Agriculture” Knapp, Causes of Southern Rural Conditions and the Small Farm as an Important Remedy Kolb, Rural Primary Groups C.L., Two Views of the Back to the Land Movement Lighton, "The Riches of a Rural State" McKeever, Farm Boys and Girls Mills, What's the Matter with the Farmer? Northrup, Rural Improvement (1880) Nourse, The War and the Back to the Land Movement Phelan, Rural Economics and Rural Sociology Ross, Agrarian Changes in the Middle West Spillman, Farming as an Occupation for City-Bred Men Steiner, Our Recent Immigrants as Farmers Strong, The Challenge of the Country Twitchell, Outlook for New England Agriculture USDA 1940 Yearbook: Farmers in a Changing World Vandercook, Rural Delinquency Vincent, “Countryside and Nation” Waugh, Rural Improvement Wilson, “Country Versus City”

One More Look at Down to Earth


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.

Bam! American Environmental History Part One


I've gone ahead and pulled the trigger. Part One of my American Environmental History is now available on Amazon as a print book and a Kindle Ebook. I self-published this, which I think I ought to explain, since although plenty of novelists (myself included) have had success self-publishing, it isn't something that has really caught on yet in nonfiction, and especially in not academic publishing. So what's this all about?

I've been teaching American Environmental History for UMass/Amherst for several years. I actually TA-ed the class while I was doing my PhD coursework there, after taking the graduate version of the class with David Glassberg. Then I did a Global Environmental History teaching field with Ted Melillo down the road at Amherst College. Then I wrote my own syllabus and taught the class online in 2014 and 2015. I'll be teaching it again in the Spring semester, 2016, beginning in a few weeks.

All of that, to be honest, is me establishing my platform. I had a chat with an editor many years ago at a writers' conference. He said I could submit any fiction I wanted to him, but nonfiction would need to be accompanied by a convincing platform in order to be considered. That's actually what convinced me to go back to UMass for the PhD. That PhD is nearly completed--all that's left is the pesky detail of finishing the dissertation. But in any case, I think I have at least a plausible claim to a platform for this book.

I think so, but one of the reviewers the Oxford University Press sent my book proposal out to last year didn't agree. Of the six reviews, three were negative and three positive. So I didn't get a contract offer. One of the reviewers was simply not buying the project from an author without the PhD. The other two had constructive criticisms that I used to make the manuscript better. The outline was too New England-centric, one reviewer said. That was true.  It isn't anymore. I hadn't made a firm commitment to chronological or thematic presentation, said the other. That was true, too, but a little more complicated. I've split the project into a mostly-chronological Part One and a mostly-thematic Part Two as a result.

But then there were the other three reviewers, who all said they would use the book as proposed. That was
very encouraging. One reviewer said "I have long wanted a straightforward account of environmental history to use with undergraduate classes." Another agreed with me that there is currently no comprehensive survey available. Ted Steinberg's and Carolyn Merchant's textbooks, I had argued, are more oriented toward historiography, theory, and special topics. A reviewer agreed that "Neither Steinberg nor Merchant emphasize momentous events. This study will focus students' attention on the most significant moments in American Environmental History."

So all that gave me the confidence to revise my course and my manuscript. And then I decided not to resubmit the proposal to Oxford America. Why not?

It took nearly six months for my first proposal to go through the process. I didn't want to do that again. And even after the book was accepted somewhere, I'd still be looking at another year before it hit the shelves. Life's too short.

The suggested price-points mentioned in the reviews ranged from $45 to $75. I didn't want my work to have that high a tag on it. I'd really like some general readers outside the academy to pick this up. That's not going to happen if the book is priced like a college textbook. I don't blame publishers for pricing books the way they do. They have a lot of overhead to pay for. But I don't.

What if I could get the thing out for under $25? Okay, there would be some sacrifices. It would be printed on regular paper rather than glossy textbook stock. The illustrations would all have to be in black and white. More significantly, they'd all have to be public domain images, since I don't have the administrative capability or the budget to license hundreds of maps, photos, and drawings. And I'd have to handle all the page layout and proofreading myself. I taught myself InDesign and learned the tricks to submitting a clean interior to Createspace and then a completely different format to Kindle Direct Publishing. The big nail-biter, frankly, was the proofreading. We're all aware how easy it is to miss errors in your own writing. Luckily, I have talented friends and family to help with that.

So there are a lot of reasons to try the self-publishing route, I think. Some challenges I've tried to work through.  And one big, uncontrollable unknown. Will anybody buy it?

Because, let's face it, in addition to the editing and production expertise a publisher like Oxford brings to the table, there's the logo on the spine. It's a lot safer to buy a history with a label authenticating it. Yes, we can all point to something that managed to sneak into a major publisher's catalog that shouldn't be there. But there's still a sense of safety. I'm not an enemy of the publishing industry, I just think it should change with the times. A really good self-published history might help shake things up.

I can't change the power of branding. What I
can do is make it easy to take the risk. Part One is on Amazon for $11.99 in print and $8.99 on Kindle; the Kindle is free when you buy the print book. And I'll be happy to send a free (print) copy to anyone who'll write a review.

So come on. Let's shake things up a bit.

Presentism 60 Years Later

The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R. Richard Hofstadter, 1955

I referred to this book the other day, so I thought I ought to say something more about it. Introducing his subject in 1955, Richard Hofstadter said “Our conception of Populism and Progressivism has...been intimately bound up with the new Deal experience” (4).  While admitting a progressive movement would have been impossible “without the impetus given by certain social grievances,” Hofstadter preferred to separate out a cultural spirit of  progressivism, which he said was “not nearly so much the movement of any social class,” as “a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation.” (5)  Why?  Because by distinguishing a generalized, apolitical spirit of improvement called progressivism, he could cut its ties with the Populist political movement that preceded it.  And the Populist Party, in Hofstadter’s judgment, was at best anachronistic and backward-looking, and at worst a haven for racist, xenophobic kooks.

But this separation leads to a paradox Hofstadter recognized as “One of the more ironic problems confronting reformers...that the very activities they pursued in attempting to defend or restore the individualistic values they admired brought them closer to the techniques of organization they feared” (7).  Hofstadter tried to separate the Populist and Progressive movements, because he “found much that was retrograde and delusive, a little that was vicious, and a good deal that was comic” in populism, and he wanted to purge those elements from progressivism (11).  Populism leads, he said, to “the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time,” and he wanted progressivism to lead somewhere purer, nobler, and more useful in the present day (15).

The problem is, Hofstadter’s definitions and the bundles of ideas he called liberalism and conservatism were presentist (in 1955), and his concerns were very much those of his own day. Attempting to shoe-horn the past so you can draw a lineage from progressivism to the 1950s Democratic platform while claiming the crazy, racist populists begat the Republicans seems a bit problematic. Did nobody notice at the time? This book was big. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

“The United States,” Hofstadter famously began Chapter One, “was born in the country and has moved to the city” (23).  It’s a mistake, then, to project contemporary, urban ideas back onto the radical farmers of the Gilded Age.  The “continued coexistence of reformism and reaction” and the contradiction of “liberal totalitarianism” might look substantially different, if viewed from a 19th century, rural point of view (20).  And on some level, Hofstadter was clearly aware of this. He reminded his readers that “in origin the agrarian myth was not a popular but a literary idea, a preoccupation of the upper classes” (25).  Hofstadter concluded too readily, I think, that farmers embraced the Jeffersonian agrarian myth -- which he admitted was a political device, “the basis of a strategy of continental development” (29).  That this led to a political rhetoric of “producers,” and later of “an innocent and victimized populace” does not prove that this was the way most rural people really thought of themselves and their world (35).  I think Hofstadter lost sight of the “most characteristic thinking” of the “ordinary culture” he said he wanted to find (6).

There are lots of great details in the book, that I’d like to learn more about.  I didn’t know that “In 1914, Canadian officials estimated that 925,000 Americans had the lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan” (53).  Didn’t know that Ignatius Donnelly’s book
Caesar’s Column was one of the most widely read books of the 1890s (67).  These are both interesting facts, and I think they both complicate Hofstadter’s claim that because of the agrarian myth, the “utopia of the Populists was in the past,” and country people really wanted to “restore the conditions prevailing before the development of industrialism and the commercialization of agriculture” (62).  At the very least, I think we might be able to separate those two phrases and examine whether farmers were really objecting in total to either of them--or just to their excesses.

I think the interpretation hangs on which conditions farmers wanted to reverse.  When Hofstadter called attention to Populists' use of the Jacksonian slogan “Equal Rights for All, Special Privileges for None,” I think he hit the nail on the head and simultaneously undermined his argument.  Maybe the core of the issue is an even earlier misinterpretation by John Hicks, who had characterized populism as “the last phase of a long and...losing save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America” (quoting
The Populist Revolt p. 237, 94). What if the populists weren’t objecting so much to the changes that were happening in modernizing America (as Postel suggests), but to who benefited from change and how power was being misused to achieve those changes.

Jefferson's commercial yeoman, via Appleby

Joyce Appleby "Commercial Farming and the 'Agrarian Myth' in the Early Republic" Journal of American History 68:4, March 1982
Joyce Appleby uses Early Republic agriculture as a jumping-off place for an argument about the Jeffersonian Republicans’ attitudes toward commerce and national growth. Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 book,
The Age of Reform, had found “the roots of the nostalgia that flowered with the Populists” in Jefferson’s feelings for the “noncommercial, nonpecuniary, self-sufficient aspects of American farm life.” Appleby says Hofstadter’s Jeffersonians “created an ‘agrarian myth’ and fashioned for the new nation a folk hero, the yeoman farmer” (833-4). Hofstadter misunderstood or misrepresented Jefferson's attitude toward commerce, she claims, based on two “very shaky” citations (834). Neither A.W. Griswold nor C.E. Eisinger were saying what Hofstadter thought they were, Appleby says. In fact, they were arguing not for a Jeffersonian preoccupation with noncommercial yeoman self-sufficiency, but for a freehold concept linked to rising population, increasing demand for food production, and foreign grain markets.

Although “yeoman has become a favorite designation” for early American farmers, and “a code word for a man of simple tastes, sturdy independence, and admirable disdain for all things newfangled,...Anyone searching for the word yeoman in the writings of the 1790s will be disappointed...The error in current scholarly usage, however, is not lexical, but conceptual” (835, 837). In reality, she says, after a post-war depression that ended in 1788, American farmers enjoyed a generation of rising wheat prices based on the growing inability of Europe to meet its own needs. Farmers “anticipated participation in an expanding international commerce in foodstuffs created the material base for a new social vision...the battle between Jeffersonians and Federalists appears not as a conflict between the patrons of agrarian self-sufficiency and the proponents of modern commerce, but rather as a struggle between two different elaborations of capitalistic development in America” (836). Appleby’s Jeffersonians, unaware of the impending technological revolution we see so clearly in hindsight, looked to the “long upward climb of prices...[of] crops that ordinary farmers could easily grow” as the basis of continued growth and stability in the new republic (839). The shift from tobacco to wheat farming in the mid-Atlantic “promoted in two decades the cities, towns, and hamlets that had eluded the Chesapeake region during the previous century of tobacco production” (839-40). “Philadelphia and New York, both drawing on a grain-raising hinterland, surpassed Boston in population, wealth, and shipping” (840).

This is an interesting approach to data that Allan Kulikoff uses quite differently. “In the single decade of the 1790s,” Appleby says, America’s 75 post offices increased to 903 while the mileage of post routes went from 1,875 to 20,817. The number of newspapers more than doubled; circulation itself increased threefold” (841). Things were going well for many American farmers and communities. And maybe this leads to the main point: after “1788 a new upward surge in grain and livestock prices ushered in a thirty-year period of prosperity” (840). Increased opportunity for American farmers, rather than a successful political settlement, insured the peace after 1787. Appleby stresses the idea that international demand for grain allowed farmers “to increase surpluses without giving up the basic structure of the family farm.” There was no wide, difficult transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture: farmers could remain diversified, meet their families' needs and still “could participate in the market with increasing profits without taking the risks associated with cash crops” (841). In a complete reversal of conventional wisdom, Appleby suggests “diversification, not specialization, held the key to raising crop yields and maintaining soil fertility...Economies of scale had no bearing” (842). To support this claim, she notes that “the wealth of the North surpassed that of the South for the first time in the period from 1774 to 1798,” before Northern industrialization.

Appleby goes on to make a case for the Jeffersonians’ belief in commercial agriculture, rather than some pristine pre-capitalist yeoman competency. A growth-oriented agricultural vision meshes better with Jefferson’s political program of western growth. She notes that “Hamilton’s response to the Louisiana Purchase” was that “the extension of America’s agricultural frontier...threatened to remove citizens from the coercive power of the state” (848). From this point (and in several later articles), the argument goes toward  interpretations of democratic versus federalist issues. The value of the argument, from my perspective, is that it suggests there was change in the way these Jeffersonian ideas have been understood. By the time the Populists called on Jefferson, America believed he had said something different. This may or may not be what Hofstadter says it was -- that will take more investigation. But long before the end of the nineteenth century, the myth was already in motion.