Big vs. Environmental History

Eric Weiner did an NPR story on Big History a couple of days ago, which I noticed due to Jessica DeWitt's twitter comment. Jessica said, "Doesn't seem that revolutionary coming from an #EnvHist background." I've read David Christian's book and thought it injected some energy into the retelling of the long story. But I agree with Jessica, and I'd even go a step farther and suggest that Environmental History is really what High School teachers should be getting excited about. Here's why:

Weiner's NPR piece featured a short clip of a student who said she had taken AP World History and none of it connected with anything. Big History, however, allowed her to conceptually connect the Opium Wars to the Big Bang. That's cool, I guess, but really? Isn't it more likely that what's actually happened is that she has connected the Opium Wars to the environment, but mostly much more recently than the actual beginning of the universe. That she's really had an environmental history moment, without realizing it?

One point Weiner made that I hadn't really thought about before is that Big History offers what he called "a modern origin story." It's a way of getting the secular, scientific account of the beginning of the universe and the evolution of life and humans in front of students. That's entirely positive, as far as I'm concerned. Can't have too much of that, with new creation museums opening all the time in the US.

The large-scale structure of the universe, NASA.
But what about the human focus? Weiner says that critics including historians have objected to the fact that people only join the story in the last one-yard line of the football field of the history of the universe. Many of the commenters on the NPR story shared the concern that the human actions and their consequences that fill most history books are important and are lost in the sweep of Big History. I think this is a valid concern. On the one hand, it's important for people to get a glimpse of the duration and significance of humanity on the scale of the universe. On the other, it's
very important for us to know our own history.

Again, the solution is Environmental History. My story in my American EnvHist class begins with human origins in Africa. I don't spend the whole semester talking about this, but I do spend a good chunk of the first lecture. Because even from a strictly human perspective, everything we usually teach in US History takes place in the final yards before the goal-line of the present. And I'm not just talking about the birth of stars here or the distribution of heavy elements. I'm talking about the development of the staple crops we all depend on today -- three of the five, maize, potatoes and manioc, developed in pre-historic America. Things that happened long before the start of traditional history books had a lot of influence on the world today, as Christian has said.

Regarding the objection to Bill Gates's advocacy of Big History and financial contribution to the cause; for the most part I think that's just jealousy. I'd take $10 million from the Gates Foundation in a heartbeat, and set up a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing Environmental History to High School students and regular people.
So Mr. Gates, if you're listening, you can reach me at

But seriously, what's the problem with Gates helping more kids get access to history? It's not like it's bad history, pushing an ideological agenda. Wait -- is the real problem the "modern origin story"? Is the motivation behind some of the resistance that Big History offers a secular, humanist view of the deep past? If so, I'm even happier David Christian got the grant.

The Dangerous Naivete of Risk Consultants

I'm always looking for places online to read and possibly write about Environmental History and current issues. Recently I discovered Medium, and today I searched on "environment" to see what would turn up. One of the articles returned was called "The Dangerous Naivete of Back-to-the-Garden Environmentalism," by Harvard instructor and Risk Perception Consultant David Ropeik. I don't know how many other people have read this article (I was first to comment; it also appeared on BigThink, Google+, and elsewhere), but I thought it represented a particular attitude I wanted to respond to.
The article begins with the author standing at the foot of a glacier in Iceland, which Ropeik says will someday disappear, but mostly due to forces much larger than anthropogenic climate change. Ropeik continues with a mild criticism of the idea contained in the three Abrahamic religions that humans have dominion over nature. The author rejects this idea, but excuses it. He doesn't say it's ancient superstition, but that it reflects what Einstein called the "optical delusion" of self and other.
But he's much harsher when it comes to modern environmentalists. Bill McKibben's breakthrough book's title,
The End of Nature, he says, is arrogantly anthropocentric and scientifically naïve. McKibben is a "modern environmental prophet of hypocrisy," although it's initially unclear to me, aside from the journalistic hyperbole of his title, how McKibben has offended. Biologist Edward Wilson is described as "another high priest of modern environmentalism." Is this continued use of religious language a clue to the real argument of this article?
At the end of part one, Ropeik argues that the "anthropogenic arrogance" that humans are not part of nature is a "central conceit of classical environmentalism." He uses Joni Mitchel's lyric from "Woodstock" to illustrate the naïveté of the idea that we can return to the Garden. And I agree with that sentiment. But he extends this to suggest there's something ridiculous about McKibben's claim that "we possess the possibility of self-restraint." We can't restrain ourselves, he says. Our "believing that we are
so intelligent that we can consciously conquer our ancient animal instincts" is pious, ignorant, and dangerous.
In part two, which begins in the White Mountains of New Hampshire,
Ropeik introduces James Lovelock's Gaia, which he says is an interesting example of "eco rather than anthropo-centrism." The Greek gods punished Prometheus and unleashed Pandora's box of horrors on humans, the same way the Judeo-Christian deity punished humans for gaining knowledge. Knowledge and fire (reason and technology) gave us great gifts, he says, but threaten Nature "in it's current state" (his italics). The point, apparently, is that our view is myopic, short-term, and human-centered. Nature will continue, even if we cause a few extinctions.
This brings Ropeik back to the refrain, the "selective hubris classical environmentalists have" that we can "solve these problems." This is my big beef with the argument. Not the straw-man "classical environmentalists," but the idea that anyone is saying we know how to fix all these problems. A lot of people are saying,
let's just try to stop causing the problems! I can't help thinking that the whole point of this article is going to be, let's keep drilling, because in the long run some new Nature will work itself out, regardless of what we do.
I admit, I have some sympathy for the irony of Ambrose Bierce's definition of the brain as "
the organ with which we think we think." But I'm also struck by the irony of a guy who teaches at Harvard saying this. Who is this "we" he refers to, anyway? Part two ends with a reiteration of the danger posed by believing we can think ourselves back to the Garden, when  religion has been telling us all along that reason is the enemy.
Part three begins in the Himalayas near Tibet. The author has apparently gone there to see an eclipse, which again impresses him with the immensity of nature and the puniness of human intention. He then goes on to draw a series of false dichotomies intended to illustrate the silliness of "classic environmentalism." We're asked to choose between monoculture agribusiness and organic local farming. Between nuclear power and wind; between biotechnology and the paleo diet.
The byproducts of "our" technologies, he says, are "our" monsters, and as Bruno Latour says, we must love them. At no point, though, does Ropeik recognize that those benefiting and profiting from these technologies and those facing the monsters aren't the same people. In a striking moment, he criticizes Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who he says also wants to go back to a biblical Garden. While I sympathize with Ropeik's frustration over the it-all-began-with-Francis-Bacon argument, I think he trivializes Vandana's actual position every bit as much.
The article concludes by admitting that humanity and the biosphere "are headed for an inevitable nasty crash that will certainly largely be our fault." And that this crash is
unavoidable, not because we've already passed some ecological tipping point, but because we just can't stop ourselves. Again the we. Is this the we that loses children when American chemical factories explode in India, or the we that can jet off to the Himalayas to watch an eclipse?
In an epilog, Ropeik describes meeting a cuttlefish on a dive in the South Pacific. He remarks that the area where he's diving had been barren ten years earlier, bleached by El Nino warming. The reef recovered, which apparently goes to show that we really aren't doing that much damage after all. Sort of like how a cold day in Harvard Square challenges global climate change.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Not Yesterday's Tomorrow


Watched the movie Tomorrowland twice this weekend. Kudos to Disney. Best film I've seen in a while. And best Disney movie since Tron Legacy. But that's another story. The story today is that this movie was pretty well hated by reviewers and the public. People complained about a muddled plot, and I agree there were holes (scroll to the end, but be warned: spoilers). But they were no bigger than the plot holes in any other movie you can name, that people missed because they were comfortable with the movie's theme. I think the real issue was that this movie made people squirm a bit. Especially in the climactic scene, when David Nix, the boss of Tomorrowland and the guy we had assumed was the villain says this:

Just imagine --
If you glimpsed the future, and were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? Would you go to...who? Politicians? Captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck.
The only facts they won't challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if...
What if there was a way of skipping the middleman and putting the critical news directly into everyone's head?
The probability of widespread annihilation kept going up, and the only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn't be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they had ever known or loved?
To save civilization, I would show its collapse.
And how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom?  
They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair. They didn't fear their demise. They repackaged it. It can be enjoyed as video games, as TV shows, as books, movies -- the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon.
Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one.
Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you, the coalmine canaries are dropping dead and you won't take the hint.
In every moment, there is the possibility of a better future, yet you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it, you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality. So you dwell on this terrible future and you resign yourselves to it, for one reason.
Because that future doesn't ask anything of you today.
So, yes. We saw the iceberg, warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why?
Because you want to sink. You gave up. That's not the monitor's fault. That's yours.

The premise of the movie, established brilliantly in the first few seconds of dialog, is that the future isn't what it used to be. This idea is familiar to the science fiction crowd, who have been asking "where's my flying car?" for some time now. There are a lot of reasons the Tom Swift future gave way to the cyberpunk future. It wasn't a technically feasible future. It wasn't a particularly environment-friendly future -- if there was even an environment in it. But in my opinion, the main reasons were technocracy and inequality. The future was something that was going to be made for us by smart people. And, as William Gibson famously said, the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed.
Both of those problems are present in some degree in the
Tomorrowland future. The creative people have actually found a place (unexplained, but apparently a pocket universe or a separate/parallel dimension) where they can be free to create without constraint. It's almost a Galt's Gulch, except that they had intended to bring the rest of the world along with them, or at least to share the fruits of their creativity. The Frank character is a bit complicated, and it's unclear why he was banished long before the story begins. He's clearly not in a sharing mood when we first meet him.
But those issues don't really detract from the point that Nix made. The signs are there, but the stories we're telling celebrate the post-apocalyptic struggle because that allows us to wait for the apocalypse. And let's face it, even if Tina Turner is singing "We Don't Need Another Hero" in the background, Mad Max is still doing all the work for us.
So the challenge, I guess, is to imagine a future that acknowledges the problems we face but retains some hope we'll figure them out. I thought
Tomorrowland made a decent start on that road. Gotta make sure I try and do the same, when I build Part Two of my Environmental History class and textbook.

The plot holes? I thought they were forgivable, and ironically probably due to the fact that Disney knew how unpopular their  theme was going to be. The biggest plot error is that after giving that intelligent and obviously caring speech, David Nix tries to shoot Frank and ends up killing Athena. This is ridiculous. Nix likes Frank, and he loves Athena. And he has just explained the situation with the monitor. He wasn't trying to destroy the world, he was trying to save it. He believes the monitor can't be turned off, not that it shouldn't be. So it's entirely out of character for him to act the villain at that point. It advances the action, but makes it a bit nonsensical.

Year of the Bird-flu

I decided to bring my chapter on the transformation of farms into agribusiness all the way to the present, and conclude with this:

2015 will be remembered by many American farmers as the year of the Avian Influenza. According to poultry industry sources, bird flu swept through the Midwest in the Spring of 2015 in the worst epidemic ever experienced. At least 223 outbreaks were recorded, causing the destruction of tens of millions of chickens and turkeys.

By late spring, the epidemic was national news. The
New York Times reported on an Iowa farm that was being forced to euthanize 5.5 million laying hens. The farm, located in an Iowa county that earns close to $2 billion annually from agriculture, had housed its layers in battery cages in 26 barns. Although the farmers had isolated the outbreak to just two of those barns, the article said, they were being forced to dispose of all their birds and thoroughly disinfect the entire operation.

While this was clearly frustrating for the farmers and tragic for all the chickens that had to be killed, there was more to the story than the
Times reported. The Iowa farm they described was part of the Center Fresh Group, a corporation owned by eight Iowa families that controls 17 percent of the nation's poultry and is the largest producer of eggs and shell products in America. Although the operators of the farm in the story were "forced" by the USDA to destroy their birds, Center Fresh, like all the other operations that disposed of birds suspected of being diseased, was compensated by the USDA for the birds they destroyed. Birds that died of the disease were not covered by the reimbursement program, which provided growers with a lot of incentive to cooperate with the government's biosecurity protocols.

The outbreaks were blamed by the poultry industry on migratory waterfowl, and the
USDA issued instructions on maintaining biosecurity in commercial poultry operations. The precautions they recommended included eliminating wetlands and seasonal ponds used by migrating flocks of ducks and geese, and eliminating food sources for wild birds. Neither the industry nor the government commented on how the H5N2 and H5N8 influenza viruses, known to have originated in Asian commercial poultry, migrated to the Americas and infected migrating ducks. The industry and government biosecurity experts also failed to explain how so many flocks of commercial chickens, raised in cages indoors, managed to come in contact with the droppings of wild waterfowl. The media cooperated, reprinting the press releases issued by industry sources and the USDA without asking any questions.


The poultry industry did notice that 90 percent of the flu outbreaks were in commercial flocks and only 10 percent in "backyard" flocks. But when the media mentioned this statistic, it was usually to emphasize the potential economic impact to growers forced to destroy million-bird flocks. No one asked why most backyard birds didn't get the flu, just as no one had asked why wild birds, claimed to be the vector spreading the infection, weren't sick.

Turkey producers were especially hard hit. The Hormel corporation, whose Jennie-O brand is the world leader in turkey products, warned that prices would rise steeply and their corporate profits would suffer. Biosecurity experts in the turkey industry claimed commercial flocks had caught the virus from wild turkeys. In Minnesota, the nation's leading turkey-producing state, newspapers carried stories of the nightmare virus and helpless farmers. Once again, wild turkeys, which regularly survive outdoors through Minnesota's harsh winters, didn't seem to be suffering. And no one could explain how barn-raised birds had caught the virus from their elusive woodland cousins.


When scientists at the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced there was no evidence linking wild birds to the flu outbreaks, the industry issued angry statements to the press,  discrediting the scientists and reiterating their wild-bird theories. In late April, Minnesota's Governor declared a state of emergency and visited a poultry company in southern Minnesota. A few miles from where the Governor commiserated with area residents, a commercial hatchery ships 45 million day-old turkey poults to Minnesota growers every year. But no one has examined any of the centralized supply chains of the commercial poultry industry as possible vectors for disease. Minnesota's leading newspaper, covering the Governor's visit, quoted a local woman worrying about the scary, mysterious disease threatening the region's economy. "What is the source?" she asked. "Are they ever going to find the source?"

Question: Chronology or Themes? Answer: Yes!

One of the most constructive critiques I got when I submitted my textbook proposal to Oxford USA was that I really hadn't made a firm commitment to writing either a chronological history or a thematic textbook. The editor who told me that was spot on. I hadn't. Still haven't, as a matter of fact. Which is one of the reasons I didn't send him a new proposal. The other is, I want it to be available this fall, not next fall.

My class begins with a very chronological presentation of prehistory, pre-Columbian America, the Columbian exchange, Colonial North America, the early industrial revolution, etc. Toward the middle I start talking about things that overlap in time, such as improvements in transportation technology and the development of first natural and then artificial fertilizers like green manure, guano, nitrate, and ammonia, which happened pretty much simultaneously over the nineteenth century. By the end I'm talking about specific themes like mines, water, energy, limits to growth, and finally individual action. It doesn't seem to bother my students, but I can see how it might be confusing for some readers. So how would I solve this problem of drifting from chronology to themes in a textbook?

This is another image I'm giving almost its own full page.

I don't want to abandon the chronology. One of my objections to the books that pass for textbooks in this field is that most of them aren't really about American Environmental History, despite their titles. They're more often about the history of environmentalism, the historiography of Environmental History, or special topics in Environmental History. But you don't necessarily come away from reading them with a comprehensive view of the broad sweep of American History from a perspective that includes the environment. You don't finish the book and understand what happened in American History in a new way.

I think as academics we often forget that for most people, one of the biggest questions answered by learning a little history is "What happened?" We know that stuff back, front, and sideways. We want to complicate rather than simplify the chain of causes and effects. We introduce contingency, and then, still not satisfied, we talk about subjectivity and culture. And yeah, of course those are all valid and important issues. The past is complex beyond human understanding.

And yet. For most people, the questions are, "What happened?" and "So what?"

My undergraduate class is a Junior/Senior level elective, but I teach it online through my university's Division of Continuing Education. That means most of my students are older than average. They're also rarely History majors, and very often they're in the final phase of completing their degree, taking the General Education credits they missed along the way. So maybe this influences my course design. I'd certainly spend more time on the historiography if I was lecturing to a room full of History majors or beginning grad students.

But I think the audience I'm writing lectures for affords me a special opportunity. Because, aside from needing the Gen Ed credits to finish their degrees, these are regular people from all walks of life. My classes are filled with regular people, with regular people's concerns and interests. So I tell them what happened. I don't assume they know too much history, beyond what we all got in civics and social studies classes. I tell them things they didn't know, and I try to make the class relevant not only to the course objectives but to their lives. My favorite types of evaluation responses are the ones that say things like;

"One of the few classes I'm really sad is ending, the subject matter is fascinating and Dan is a great guide to it. His approach should be required of all students attending UMass as it teaches an appreciation for a newer and better way of living." (2014)
"It is just a perfect course that I think should be mandatory if we want to save our planet and live responsibly." (2015)

I guess that makes me at best an activist and at worst a presentist. So be it. I don't make stuff up. I actually try to present the complexity of the history I'm telling, along with the idea that people often had limited power to choose and limited information on which to base their choices. But that doesn't mean we don't get to evaluate their choices and use them to inform ours.

So, to make a long story shorter, back to the original question. Chronology or themes? My answer is, both. So I've divided the textbook into two parts. The first part covers the chronology, from prehistory to the early twentieth century (specifically, the Dust Bowl). Part two covers farms and agribusiness, mines, energy, water, city life, country life, environmentalism, the question of limits to growth, and then concludes with an epilogue about individual action. People will be able to choose between them -- although my students will still have to do both. Hopefully everybody will want to read both (yeah, there will be a combined version at a bargain price), and the division will just make the books easier to lug around and easier for readers to get their heads around.

A different view of the world

I was playing with the public-domain Gall-Peters projection in Photoshop, and came up with this. I haven't decided if I'm going to use it in textbook, but it'll be a good conversation-starter in class.


Why US History textbooks need Environmental History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Religious Backgrounds of Environmentalists

I just listened to Jan Oosthoek's latest podcast, in which he interviews Mark Stoll about Stoll's new book, Inherit the Holy Mountain. I haven't read this book yet, and as an atheist it's not the first book I might naturally be inclined to pick up. But as a historian, I have to be curious about the way religious beliefs, organizations, and thought structures influenced people. And, listening to the podcast, I thought Stoll made some interesting points I'd like to read more about.

Oosthoek begins the interview by citing Lynn White's 1967 essay which Stoll says is overly critical of religion as an anti-environmental force. Oosthoek says religion seems too anthropocentric to be really environmentally focused. Stoll reminds us that Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, was an anti-environmentalist and a devout Christian. But that's not the only religious approach toward nature, Stoll says. John Muir was from what we'd now call a fundamentalist tradition.


Stoll wonders how people like Muir "got from A to B." But I wonder, did Muir really leave his background behind? Or just his religious beliefs? Although it was new information to me, I wasn't particularly surprised Muir was from a fundamentalist background. So I wondered whether the real point is that people's early religious exposure teaches them ways of thinking and acting that stick with them when they become environmentalists. Even if they leave the religion behind.

Stoll notes that religion can be cited as a source for both environmentalism and capitalism. Protestantism produces exploitation and also conservation. "You could sort-of tell what sort of environmentalist a person would become by knowing their denomination," he says. But is this a function of their particular affiliation, or of their historical moment? The first group of 19th-century environmentalists were Western New England Congregationalists, and then they vanish at the end of the 19th century. Then the Presbyterians create the National Park System, and dominate environmentalism until the 1960s. But is this causal or just coincidental? Doesn't this development parallel the relative dominance of these denominations, at least among a certain type of intellectual likely to become an environmentalist?

Lynn White blames Calvinists for the worst abuses, Stoll says. Calvinism has a reputation for hostility to nature. But Calvin himself was "more effusive about nature" than he ever was about humans. Passages in Calvin remind Stoll of Emerson. The Calvinist Puritans, Stoll says, were the only people interested in sustainability and social justice. He connects the New England village described by Brian Donahue with religion. The New England village then becomes the prototype for the Conservation movement, Stoll says.

Oosthoek found it interesting that early environmentalists embraced both religion and science. But isn't the question, in a completely religious society, how religious you are
relative to your peers? Is it really relevant that science first existed "within" religion? Everything existed within religion, including the farming styles described by Donahue. But does that mean all these traditions spring from religion? Or just that they coexist with religion during their infancy?

Stoll locates the beginning of religious rejection of science in the 1960s. Oosthoek asks about  global warming denial; Stoll says Creationism paves the way for all this type of fundamentalist rejection of science. Stoll says many environmentalists are hostile to conservative Christianity -- or at least have no idea how to engage with it. But is this the chicken or the egg? In 1972 Southern Baptists released a statement supporting the environment, but Stoll says they were put off by environmentalists' rejection of them and acceptance of neo-paganism and "earth worship." By 1980 there's a split between environmentalists and fundamentalists. And the religious are more connected to libertarianism and suspicious of government, Stoll says. This seems to locate the "fault" for this rift with the hippies and to ignore the big changes in conservative religion that began in the 80s. It almost sounds a bit like the statements you sometimes hear from Christians that they are the persecuted minority in our culture.

The part I thought was most interesting was Stoll's statement that Calvinist tradition relies on a "super-literal interpretation of the Bible." This is a problem, he says, especially in religions that
also value an educated ministry. Seems to me this is because these educated religious folks are more exposed to the conflicts between religion and science than others. But again, the interesting thing for me is how these religious social structures and habits of mind remain relevant in the story. Black Baptist churches become organizing centers for environmentalism. But is this about organizing movements, or about the religion? The church could be an "organizing center" for these issues simply because that's how black communities organize.

Finally, there's the question of upbringing vs. adulthood Stoll mentions near the close of the interview. Most of the environmentalists he cites had lapsed from their religions by the time they become environmentalists. This suggests that there's something they learned while part of the religions that influenced both the causes they later embraced, and the methods they used in their activism. But doesn't it also raise the question of why people who
stayed in the religion didn't become significant environmentalists? There's something complicated and fascinating going on with these folks, and with "bridge" groups like the French Huguenots Stoll mentions. This may be an interesting area for someone coming from my perspective to study -- how people leave religion and use some of the skills and structures they learned there in their later pursuits.