Grassroots Activism in the ‘Burbs

sellers_crabgrass-197x300Suburbia is the Rodney Dangerfield of environmental history. It gets no respect.  Cities are fascinating metropoles where cultures blend and clash, creating stories of great historical significance, while rural areas have the great appeal of being natural spaces of pastoral or wild beauty, raising perennial questions about land use and conservation.  But suburbs? Blech.

Christophers Sellers wants to change how you think about suburbs. His 2012 New York Times op-ed “How Green Was My Lawn” attempted to reorient our attention toward what he sees as the suburban foundations of environmental activism. I asked him if he’d be willing to subject his book, Crabgrass Crucible, to some scrutiny in an H-Environment roundtable, and to respond to the comments. He graciously agreed. Continue reading

War Against Nature, the Backbone of the South

war-upon-land-military-strategy-transformation-southern-landscapes-lisa-m-brady-paperback-cover-artYou’ve heard the phrase “war is hell.”  But you probably haven’t heard the phrase “war is when you attack agroecosystems.”  It’s a lesser known aphorism of General Sherman’s, to be sure, mainly because he didn’t actually say it.  But reading Lisa Brady’s book, War Upon the Land, made me wonder how much Sherman understood about what he was doing as he plundered and burned the South during the American Civil War.

I asked Brady, the current editor of Environmental History, if she would be willing to have me convene an online roundtable on her book. She graciously agreed, and the final product includes a response by her.  I’m including my introduction to the roundtable here. The link below will take you to the full pdf (it’s free).  Here’s my intro: Continue reading

Roundtable on Arming Mother Nature

Screen Shot 2012-09-08 at 2.44.05 PMAfter editing a couple of dozen H-Environment roundtables myself, it was fun to have one of my own books, Arming Mother Nature, as the subject of one, this time guest-edited by Michael Egan of McMaster University.  It was a great opportunity to engage directly with commentators.  One of them, Dolly Jørgensen, recently featured my book on Environmental Humanities Book Chat.  The other participants were Libby Robin and Kristine Harper.  Thanks to everyone for giving my book your time and attention, and helping me to think through the issues! Continue reading

Endangered Species and Contested Lands

AlagonaFor most people, saving a critter from extinction is a laudable goal with a fairly straightforward action-item: don’t kill the animal. The 1973 the Endangered Species Act in the United States set forth guidelines for compiling lists of such species, such as the California condor. In practice, however, the law did not just establish a list of do-not-kills. Instead, it implied a commitment to understanding how species thrived, and to setting aside areas to provide an appropriate ecological home. Although few put it in such terms back in 1973, the federal law was also about habitat protection.

In American society, preventing genetic obliteration was one thing, but restricting land use required an entirely different level of commitment, and it opened a political can of worms. Was it enough that the condor, for example, did not die out completely and was still able to reproduce in captivity? Or should there have been large areas of land where the bird could nest, mate, and carry on?

In the state of California, where a growing human population and intensive agriculture produced one of the world’s leading economies in the twentieth century, these questions were always contested. California was home to at least one famous failure to preserve a species. The iconic animal there was, and remains, the grizzly bear. It still exists as an image on the state flag and serves as a mascot at universities and high schools—yet it was extinct in California by 1930.

In After the Grizzly, Peter S. Alagona tells the story of endangered species in California through the lens of habitat, to highlight how much the “politics of place” shaped the fates of key species—the condor, the desert tortoise, the kit fox, and the delta smelt. Each has its own ecological relationships and unique histories. And yet Alagona’s narrative tells a similar tale in each—that the struggles over preserving rare and endangered species have centered more on cordoning off huge tracts of land as protected natural areas, in the name of habitat, than on saving a particular animal. Alagona sees the “protected areas paradigm” as a product of ecological science, environmental law, and resource management. The book tracks the development of this approach and evaluates whether it achieved its goals in California.

I asked Laura A. Watt, an associate professor at Sonoma State University, to join this roundtable because of her expertise in preservation and parks, including the efforts to integrate environmental history interpretations at Joshua Tree National Park. Like Alagona, Watt has explored how the idea of preservation “does not deal well with change.” She and her collaborators have shown how the Endangered Species Act was similar to other kinds of preservation stories. For example, the Act evolved in a similar trajectory to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Just as the ESA’s remit extended to entire ecosystems, the NHPA has turned out to be concerned with “preserving dynamic systems of place and community.”[1]

Our second commentator is Philip Garone, an associate professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus. He has a deep interest in the ecological dilemmas of central California. His book, The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California’s Great Central Valley, will be the subject of a future roundtable. The story he tells is one of near-destruction of wetlands because of irrigation projects. Unlike many stories of decline in environmental history, Garone has outlined the recovery efforts by a coalition of conservationists, duck hunters, and scientists, and he crafts a narrative of the political tensions in a giant agribusiness.[2]

Finally, Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor at York University, specializing in environmental history and Canadian history. Kheraj brings essential perspective on similar issues from outside California. His recent book, Inventing Stanley Park, won the Canadian Historical Association’s 2014 Clio Prize for outstanding work in British Columbia History. It explores the creation of a major urban park in Vancouver, while engaging with broader issues, such as the eviction of humans, expectations of “wildness,” and changes to ecosystems over time.   His work highlights how dynamic ecosystems should be more fully embraced as part of our historical record.[3]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

Roundtables page:

The full roundtable on After the Grizzly is here:

Please circulate and enjoy!

[1] Laura A. Watt, Leigh Raymond, and Meryl L. Eschen, “On Preserving Ecological and Cultural Landscapes,” Environmental History 9:4 (2004), 620-647; Laura A. Watt, “Re-Imagining Joshua Tree: Applying Environmental History to National Park Interpretation,” Journal of the West 50:3 (2011), 15-20.

[2] Philip Garone, The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California’s Great Central Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

[3] Sean Kheraj, Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013).


Elusive Evidence of the Ocean’s Past

mortalsea(1)It’s fun to be a historian of the oceans these days.  Environmental scholarship has yielded some fascinating clashes of perspective in recent years, and the conversations are lively.  Scientists, historians of science, and environmental scholars are all working intensively to establish a narrative of the sea’s life forms, its physical and chemical conditions, and the impact of human activities.  They are doing so over extraordinary periods of time — hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.  Interpretation abound, opening a wide space for disagreement.

I recently asked Jeff Bolster to participate in an online roundtable about his Bancroft prize-winning book, The Mortal Sea.  The comments, and his response, stand up an ideal primer for some of the major issues involved in incorporating the oceans — and ocean life — into a broader story of human relations with the natural world.   Continue reading

My First Ultra—The Slippery Slope

Cronemiller Lake, near the start of the Mac 50K.

Running the McDonald Forest 50k, this past Saturday, taught me a lot.  About myself, the place I live, the forest, and about the people who are drawn to sign up for a 31-mile forest run.

In my “real” life, I’m an academic historian. I teach history of science and environmental history at Oregon State, and I write essays and books. It’s a fascinating job in which I get to help students debate subjects like the value of wilderness, the historical understandings of natural and human-built worlds, the pros and cons of scientific management, and the idea of an experimental forest next to a land grant university. Continue reading

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Does Crisis in Ukraine Shatter the Nuclear Order?

Ukraine’s inability to stop Russia from seizing Crimea may sound the death knell for the global nuclear order.

For years I have written about the environmental dimensions of nuclear power and nuclear weapons programs, and more recently I have been exploring the connection between environmental crisis rhetoric and the proliferation of nuclear communities all over the world.  Earlier this month I participated in a two-day symposium in Switzerland on the creation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty—-the origins of the nuclear order.

The unexpected backdrop of that workshop-—the casual takeover of Crimea by Russian-speaking soldiers—-might turn out to be the end of the very international order we were there to discuss. It was surreal to listen to one participant, Mariana Budjeryn, tell us about Ukraine’s decision to join the treaty in the 1990s, while most of our coffee-break conversations turned upon the uncertainty in Crimea.  We all grappled for the lessons of history, and it was hard not to wonder how different the situation would be now, had Ukraine never signed on the proverbial dotted line. Continue reading

Bonneville Dam

Hydro Power and the Public Good

wired-northwest-history-electric-power-1870s-1970s-paul-w-hirt-hardcover-cover-artDriving eastward from Portland, Oregon, in the shadow of Mount Hood, it is easy to get the feeling of entering a gorgeous wilderness, away from human development.  On the right, the verdant cliffs and hills of the Cascades.  On the left, the wide Columbia River, flowing toward the Pacific.  Depending on your mood, the scene can take on mythic proportions—so huge are the cliffs, so tall the trees, so impressive the river.  A few miles later, any thinking person has to make some sort of adjustment, as the Bonneville Dam comes into view.  The scene is no less breathtaking.  The dam appears as a fortress.  It is a wall of gray, holding back immense pressure, and when the water flows, its violence is captured by brilliant white foam, amidst the majesty of the area’s natural beauty.  For the imaginative, the sight is downright Tolkienesque.

Continue reading

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A Dr. Strangelove for All Seasons

WolfeIncluded here is my review of Audra Wolfe’s fine book Competing with the Soviets, which I read shortly after completing my own Arming Mother Nature.  I mention this because the gloom I felt after writing my book may have fallen over me a bit while reading Competing with the Soviets.  Although others have evaluated the book principally for its scope and content (it is slim enough to be very useful in a classroom, and fills a crucial niche by connecting science to politics), I read it as an indictment of America’s faith in scientists.  The editors at Chemical Heritage, where the review appeared, encouraged me to tone down the negativity (about scientists, not about Wolfe) in my first version, which I’d called “A Dr. Strangelove for All Seasons.”  Fair enough.  Here is the upbeat version, which appeared under the title “Promises, Promises.” Continue reading

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Agent Orange and the Burden of Proof

Included here is my review of Edwin Martini’s book on Agent Orange, originally published in Pacific Historical Review 83:1 (2014), 179-180.

9781558499751Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty. By Edwin A. Martini. (Boston, University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. xvi + 302 pp. $24.95 paper)

In this provocative book, Edwin A. Martini provides an international history of the Agent Orange controversy.  The U.S. Air Force’s herbicide spray campaigns in Vietnam became infamous because one of the chemicals, Agent Orange, was linked to birth defects and other ailments in humans. The numbers of those who claim to have been exposed to these chemicals include veterans, the people of Vietnam, and people exposed to chemical wastes.  Some have earned compensation, some not. Martini’s perspective about these decisions is repeated early and often in the book, namely that they are “based on political rather than scientific grounds” (7). Continue reading

Where is Nature in the Iconic Moments of American History?

republic-of-natureIf your New Year’s resolution includes reading more environmental history, you are in luck!  A new installment of H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available!  This one focuses on environmental interpretations of iconic events in American history. My introduction is here:

Should environmental historians confine themselves to subjects that clearly have environmental links, such as stories of pollution, natural degradation, conservation, and wilderness protection?  If the answer is “no,” perhaps the field of environmental history implies a deeper commitment.  Guided by the premise that nature is the essential part of humanity’s experience, shouldn’t environmental scholars have crucial insights on the fundamental episodes of the past? Continue reading

Can environmental scholars rethink Middle East history?

Surely there are too few environmental histories of the Middle East.  With its distinctive landscapes and impressive features—the intimidating mountains of Iran, the nourishing rivers of Mesopotamia, the dangerous yet life-giving floods of the Nile, and the harsh deserts of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, to name just a few—it is perhaps surprising that only a few scholars have provided explicitly environmental interpretations of the region’s past events.  So when Cambridge University Press published two environmental histories of the Ottoman Empire, one by Sam White and the other by Alan Mikhail, as part of its “Studies in Environment and History” series, I was excited about the opportunity to invite one of the authors to participate in a roundtable.  In the end, rather than choose between the two books, I invited both authors to contribute and they graciously agreed.  I asked the kind roundtable participants to comment not on a single book, but on both of them together.  The result is a stimulating discussion about the environmental dimensions of the Ottoman Empire and a provocative discussion of the future of scholarship on the Middle East’s environmental history. Continue reading

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Don’t Ever Whisper: The Marshall Islands Story

I was delighted to have Giff Johnson come to my class yesterday.  It was bizarrely good timing.  A fellow professor contacted me to ask if there was anything I was teaching that might be relevant to the radioactive fallout that afflicted the Marshall Islanders beginning in the 1950s.  It turned out that Giff Johnson, husband to Darlene Keju, longtime advocate for education about the victims near the US nuclear proving grounds in the Pacific, was planning to be in town on Wednesday.  It just so happened (crazy timing!) that I was lecturing that day on the Bravo test at Bikini atoll in 1954–the infamous 15 megaton blast that coated the Japanese Lucky Dragon fishing boat with debris, surprised the scientists who underestimated its size, and introduced a new phrase to global consciousness: nuclear fallout. Continue reading


Mark Finlay, 1960-2013

Today I learned through the scholarly grapevine, specifically from my colleague Audra Wolfe, that historian Mark Finlay was killed last week in a car accident.  My heart goes out to his family.  Details can be found here and here.

I’m sure Mark was missed this weekend in Portland, Maine, at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology, where he might have attended the “envirotech” breakfast. Some years ago, at a similar meeting, that’s where I met Mark.  Personally, since then, I’ve always been glad to see him.  We walked in many of the same circles and shared lots of interests in history of science, environmental history, history of technology, and international relations.  Someone recently asked me to recommend an accomplished scholar with expertise relevant to all these fields, and Mark’s was the name that sprung to mind.  His prize-winning Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and Politics of National Security united all of them. Continue reading

A Nobel Prize for Higgs and Englert: Another Blow Against “Real” Science?

Ernst Mach is not amused.
Ernst Mach is not amused.

Skipping over the experimentalists?  Ernst Mach is rolling over in his grave.  So are most of the Nazis.  Let me explain.

Even though the Higgs particle has been in the news over the past year because of the extraordinary work in Geneva at CERN, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to the scientists who first proposed its existence nearly half a century ago, namely Peter W. Higgs and François Englert.

The Nobel Prize committee helpfully explains the significance of their work here, and they say pithily that the award was for “the theory of how particles acquire mass.”  (Oh, is that all?  I thought we were looking for the God particle!) Continue reading

Putting the Earth on a Ration Card

French ration stamps from World War II. Source: Wikipedia
French ration stamps from World War II. Source: Wikipedia

Is there such a thing as “world heritage” when it comes to food?  We are outraged when an intolerant regime destroys artifacts, buildings, or other objects of cultural significance in their own countries, and we take steps to encourage them to realize their global importance.  After all, these are the common heritage of humankind.  But what about food?  Are the bananas of Honduras, the coconuts of the Philippines, and the rice of east Asia ours to manage, for the good of all?

Should a global, United Nations agency have the power to dictate crop growing and food preservation practices to individual countries?

After World War II, so many people faced starvation that new UN agencies tried to find ways of forestalling disaster, and they raised this very question.  The experts working for these agencies differed dramatically on the subject, and some felt strongly that the earth, like individual countries, had to be managed centrally.  After all, it worked during World War II.  Who doubted the necessity of rationing?  Governments decided where the sources of food were, and where to send them.  Wasn’t the same approach workable for the entire globe?

I’ve recently published an essay in Global Environment that explores this controversy, and it pits American experts against British ones.  It’s called “The Vulnerability of Nations.” I think the essay is especially useful because most of the action predates the Marshall Plan, which understandably has obscured most of the food-related activities in that period.  One take-away is that wartime experiences had a dramatic effect on how scientists approached the problem of global food security.  Topics include health, nutrition, and the vulnerability of plants and humans to ecological devastation.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that key ideas about global food security, not to mention environmental management, were born in this tumultuous period.

Although many of the ideas in the essay were stimulated by researching my book Arming Mother Nature, the essay isn’t drawn from the book.  So any feedback would be appreciated, especially as I develop these ideas later.

I’ve posted a link to the essay here.  You can also check out the other essays in the same issue of Global Environment.  Some of them, like mine, came out of a conference on the environmental history of World War II held in Helsinki, Finland, in September 2012.


Who are the Voices of the Mountains?

9780300142198Throughout “Appalachia,” a vast mountain region stretching from northern Alabama to Quebec, it is easy to betray one’s outsider status.  In many Southern parts, one might simply pronounce the third syllable in Appalachia with a long A, as in “name,” and it will be obvious to anyone that you are not from there.  Instead, it is pronounced with a short A, as in “apple.” The opposite is true in some Northern parts.  That syllable is one of a thousand indicators separating locals from even the most well-intentioned outsiders.

Outsiders have a long history of trying to change Appalachia, for better or for worse.  In the second decade of the twentieth century, after the passage of the 1911 Weeks Act, the federal government began to reacquire private land throughout the region, with a view toward implementing Progressive-era ideas about best practices, efficiency, and resource conservation.  Over time, federal legislation protected or regulated use of considerable stretches of land, including parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Green Mountains.  New Deal enthusiasts of the 1930s took this further with conservation, recreation, and social programs.  And yet the people who engineered these changes often did so from Washington, D.C., or elsewhere, creating federal landscapes with enormous impacts on local people while opening up long-standing disputes about local autonomy.

In Managing the Mountains, Sara M. Gregg takes us through this tumultuous and complicated history, demonstrating how these areas changed under new land use regimes.  Many of them today wear the false appearance of being untouched by humans.  In telling the story, Gregg showcases the goals of federal planners and the abilities of locals to influence the outcomes of policy.  She focuses in particular on the mountains of Virginia and Vermont, two regions with distinct traditions and histories but with a number of geological and economic similarities.  The differences in locals’ abilities to control outcomes were astonishingly sharp.  How could it be that some major federal projects were halted by local resistance, as happened in Vermont, while elsewhere the people were virtually ignored, as when Virginians had to move against their will to make way for Shenandoah National Park?

Rather than focus on cultural differences, Gregg explores structural ones that determined how well local people were able to control outcomes.  She sees the outstanding factor as the organization of political systems.  The small township system of Vermont allowed locals routinely to influence outcomes in regional planning decisions, whereas the large, dispersed areas governed by counties in Virginia gave individuals only a tenuous connection to decision-making.

I invited Geoffrey L. Buckley to contribute to this roundtable because of his expertise in the history of mining in several Appalachian states.  A professor of geography at Ohio University, he shares with Sara Gregg a sense of how local communities were either heeded or, more often, circumvented to favor the goals of outsiders. In Extracting Appalachia, Buckley explores the industrial and cultural history of coal mining through the use of photographs originally printed in a company publication.  He suggests that the company in question, Consolidation Coal, used the images to suggest consent in coal mining communities.  By analyzing the photos, Buckley was able not only to show the company’s intent but also to document environmental change over time.[1]

Another commentator, independent scholar Donald Edward Davis, has explored the environmental dimensions of Southern Appalachia from a cultural perspective.  Davis’s sweeping approach includes not only widespread impacts of industrial logging and dam building in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but also earlier profound events such as the introduction of diseases in the sixteenth century, alterations to Cherokee culture due to declines in fur animals in the eighteenth century, and the impacts of major plant diseases such as chestnut blight.[2]

Cheryl Morse, an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Vermont, writes about rural communities.  I was particularly interested in her perspectives given her expertise on the region in Sara Gregg’s book not typically associated with Appalachian studies, namely Vermont.  Morse teaches Vermont Studies, and one of her projects is on therapeutic landscapes, which links perceptions of wilderness to the construction of identity in young people.[3]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

The roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at

A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is

[1] Geoffrey L. Buckley, Extracting Appalachia: Images of the Consolidation Coal Company, 1910 – 1945 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004)

[2] Donald Edward Davis, Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000)

[3] Morse previously published under the surname Dunkley.  C. M. Dunkley, “A Therapeutic Taskscape: Theorizing Place-Making, Discipline, and Care at a Camp for Troubled Youth,” Health & Place 15:1 (2009), 88-96.

The Starfish Prime blast, as seen from Hawaii in 1962. Source: Wikipedia

Environmental Legacy of the Limited Test Ban Treaty

The Starfish Prime blast, as seen from Hawaii in 1962. Source: Wikipedia
The Starfish Prime blast, as seen from Hawaii in 1962. Source: Wikipedia

We know that the treaty signed fifty years ago was an important arms control document.  Was it an environmental document too?

On the face of it, the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 seems like two giant leaps forward, for world peace and for diminishing the contamination of the earth.  But the closer we look at the events surrounding the treaty, the less clear the environmental legacy becomes.  That’s especially true given the nuclear testing extravaganza that preceded the treaty.

I wrote a historical reflection for Oxford University Press’s blog to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing.  It’s available if you click here and I welcome comments, disagreements, and discussion here (or there).

The strange military origins of environmentalism

Sendai, Japan after the 2011 tsunami: imagine nature’s destruction at the push of a button
Sendai, Japan after the 2011 tsunami: imagine nature’s destruction at the push of a button

The words “environmentalism” and “military” are not typically found in the same sentence. Yet ideas about our vulnerability to environmental change are directly linked to military plans for a third world war.

Scientists planned to fight an unconventional war using the potential threats of the natural environment, calling it “environmental warfare”. Envisioning major threats to populations all over the world, it is from this historical chapter that our ideas about environmental security developed.

While some saw horror in natural disasters, others saw opportunity. In 1960, when a massive earthquake rocked Chile, most commentators noted how helpless humans were to the whims of Mother Nature. But creative military thinkers at NATO thought differently. They saw a frightening future, using hydrogen bombs to manipulate the natural environment.

These detonations could be made thousands of times the size of the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were poised to act as triggers for larger geophysical events. If scientists could find areas of instability in the earth’s crust, a well-placed hydrogen bomb might unleash more quakes. That would send tsunamis across the ocean. Such a bomb could also be used to alter the path of a hurricane, or redirect an ocean current.

NATO explicitly called it environmental warfare. Scientists partnered with the military to work on radiological contamination, biological weapons, and weather control. Other ideas were enormous in scope: nuclear detonations to melt polar ice caps, raising global sea levels and drowning coastal cities. They imagined setting fire to huge expanses of vegetation to change local climates, or targeting vital links in enemy ecosystems.

Today we might regard these ideas as if coming from the delusional Dr. Strangelove, like mad scientists playing with the forces of nature. Yet they had a peculiar logic, given how the strategic bombing of cities at the end of World War II had become an accepted practice. Admiral William Leahy pointed out in the late 1940s that, in a third world war, civilians would be drawn into conflict more than ever before. He and other officers expected to target population centers.

Formerly classified materials document the future they expected. It was a future of global war, of planetary contamination, and of epic struggles to survive an apocalypse. A new “total war” might include the ancient scourges of humankind, such as bubonic plague. Or they might include new ones, such as radioactive contamination.

While imagining a horrific future, scientists and war planners began to ask an important question. Could humans make drastic and long-lasting alterations to the earth?

With today’s concerns about climate change, it is easy to assume that only scientists’ discovery of global warming, combined with public environmental concerns, led us to believe humans were heading toward catastrophe. But as I discovered researching my book, Arming Mother Nature, this is a simplification. It runs the risk of ignoring those who thought the most deeply about vulnerabilities to environmental change.

Boundaries between military questions and environmental ones were hazy throughout the Cold War. Sometimes the same scientists who worked on military questions then turned their expertise toward peacetime environmental issues. For example, Oxford botanists who published on biodiversity also advised on agricultural defence, and helped British military commanders in Malaya kill enemy crops. The US Air Force worried their reliance on technology made Americans more susceptible to disease and starvation, which could be exploited by the Soviets.

Several of the biologists, oceanographers, and atmospheric scientists who advised governments on the 1977 treaty to ban military uses of environmental modification (the ENMOD convention) also helped craft the first studies of anthropogenic climate change. Many of these scientists had spent years trying to imagine whether large-scale catastrophic changes were really possible. They also developed ideas about the long-term consequences of human action.

As scientists, military leaders, and diplomats tried to figure out how realistic environmental weapons were, in doing so they fundamentally shaped conversations about peacetime changes to the environment.

The collaboration between scientists and the armed forces during the Cold War created a worldview obsessed with environmental change and vulnerability. For nearly half a century, military establishments supported research on environmental warfare. They kept up global surveillance of the atmosphere and oceans. They made it their mission to assess the vulnerabilities of their homelands and those of others.

As environmental scientists were trying to harness the power of nature against their foes, they discovered how vulnerable humanity was to a changing environment, even in the absence of war.

By Jacob Hamblin, Oregon State University.  Jacob Hamblin has received funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation. This article was originally published at The Conversation.

Read the original article.


When Race and Environment Collide

KahrlEnvironmental historians: want to take discussions of race beyond questions of environmental justice?  I’ve got just the book for you.

In fact, I’ve got something short and sweet that will give you a great idea of how scholars are exploring the interactions of different ethnic groups with the natural world.  Four scholars agreed to take part in a roundtable on Andrew W. Kahrl’s excellent book, The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).   It turned out to be a thought-provoking discussion of capitalism, race, opportunism, and of course, changing natural environments in coastal areas.

Here’s my introduction to the roundtable, which gives some idea of its contents but also introduces the participants:

Nature’s role in facilitating social change, for better or for worse, is not easily denied.  As an extreme example, one need only point to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the racial tensions that accompanied the emergency management efforts, and the remaking of New Orleans afterward. After any natural disaster, some will choose not to rebuild, while others will see opportunities in the chaos.  Some may leave and never return.  Historically, in coastal areas where change by erosion and storms are constant, environmental transformations have been catalysts for demographic adjustments even when they were so gradual as to be imperceptible.

Such reconfigurations amidst environmental change offer opportunities for environmental historians wanting to understand how different groups of people have encountered the natural world.  Much of the literature of environmental history may be skewed toward the perspectives of privileged whites, whether on the topic of wilderness preservation, natural resource conservation, or environmental activism of the latter twentieth century. Important exceptions are social justice issues, such as the sites of landfills or toxic waste dumps, and we encapsulate these with the terms environmental justice, environmental racism, and environmental equity.  But increasingly scholars are going further, attempting to assess a wider range of experiences among racial minorities, to integrate their histories into the broad narrative of environmental history.

In The Land Was Ours, Andrew W. Kahrl sees the coastal American South as an ideal way to explore the interconnections between race, space, and environmental change.  It was there that, during the Jim Crow era, African Americans had an enormous yet under-studied connection to land and sea, largely because privileged whites tended to avoid such land.  And yet over time African Americans lost control to resort developers, for complex reasons that involve whites and blacks seeking political and economic opportunities in a natural environment that itself was changing.  For Kahrl, it is a tale that compels us not only to see injustice, but also to related African American experiences to other processes in such as the commodification of beaches, the creation of unsustainable environmental practices, and the interaction between culture and place.

I invited Sarah S. Elkind to provide comments because of her long interest in unequal access to water, beaches, and resources in growing urban areas.  Elkind is a professor of history at San Diego State University.  In her introduction to a Pacific Historical Review forum on water and cities on the West Coast, she observed that urban growth in San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles distanced the waters from several ethnic minorities, including Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.  Not only did this limit leisure activity, but also it hampered these groups’ abilities to engage in important economic activities such as fishing and foraging.  Work such as Elkind’s has opened up serious questions about the long-term and unequal consequences of supposed modernization and economic development.[1]

Another commentator, Christopher J. Manganiello, is the policy director of the Georgia River Network, an organization that works to ensure clean river water in Georgia.  His Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Georgia assessed the consequences of dam construction in the South, and it won the Rachel Carson Prize for best dissertation in environmental history in 2010.  Manganiello has written about the political context of the water resources in the American South, analyzing how water access evolved amidst competing demands from manufacturers, electrical power plants, and pleasure-seekers.[2]

Cassandra Johnson-Gaither, a research social scientist at the USDA Forest Service, has written numerous articles exploring how a variety of ethnic groups view and engage with nature.  Her essay (with Josh McDaniel) “Turpentine Negro” grapples with the gap between African American and white interaction the natural environment, and points out that the answer may lie in the history of labor.  She reveals how working in the turpentine extraction industry gave African Americans an intimate knowledge of forested areas but that the negative connotations of oppressive work practices made them less likely to seek them out for leisure.  As a social scientist, Johnson-Gaither also is actively engaged in offering solutions to contemporary environmental equity problems, such as access to nature parks.[3]

Colin Fisher, an associate professor of history at the University of San Diego, shares many interests with Andrew Kahrl, including the uses of outdoor areas by African Americans.  Fisher has shown that disadvantaged Americans did not necessarily lack the desire to pursue leisure in the wilderness.  In an essay on the 1919 Chicago race riot, for example, Fisher pointed out that passion for nature and wilderness were not unique to privileged European Americans, and that nature provided an important escape from unhealthy and harsh conditions in the city.  The difference was that when blacks attempted to cross the line between city and country, they had to overcome numerous social obstacles. These became a major source of tension, and even violence.[4]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

The roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at

A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is

[1] Sarah Elkind, “Environmental Inequality and the Urbanization of West Coast Watersheds,” Pacific Historical Review 75:1 (2006), 53-61.

[2] Christopher J. Manganiello, ““Dam Crazy with Wild Consequences: Artificial Lakes and Natural Rivers in the American South, 1845-1990,” University of Georgia Ph.D. dissertation, 2010; Christopher J. Manganiello, “Hitching the New South to “White Coal”: Water and Power, 1890-1933,” Journal of Southern History 78:2 (2012), 255-292.

[3] Cassandra Y. Johnson and Josh McDaniel, “Turpentine Negro,” in Dianne D. Glave and Mark Stoll, eds., “To Love the Wind and the Rain:” African Americans and Environmental History (Pittsburgh, 2004), 50-62; Cassandra Johnson-Gaither, “Latino Park Access: Examining Environmental Equity in a ‘New Destination’ County in the South,” Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 29:4 (2011), 37-52.

[4] Colin Fisher, “African Americans, Outdoor Recreation, and the 1919 Race Riot,” in in Dianne D. Glave and Mark Stoll, eds., “To Love the Wind and the Rain:” African Americans and Environmental History (Pittsburgh, 2004), 63-76.


Who Would Do Such a Thing?

American biological weapons researchers at Camp Detrick, Maryland, in the 1940s

As American politicians discuss “red lines” about Middle East governments using weapons of mass destruction, it is easy to forget that Western nations like the US and UK initially pioneered in the development and use of them.  I wrote a brief essay called “Beyond Narcissism and Evil,” for Oxford University Press’s blog, discussing our tendency to look for mental disorders or evil in foreign leaders who consider using, say, chemical weapons.  While I think it is important to consider all variables, the most important ones relate to how those leaders assess their options, and understanding the political context (can they get away with it?).  Why resort to obscure psychological diagnoses or demonization when more sensible causes are at hand?  Read the full blog post here.  Comments welcome, here or there.  And as a nod to my colleagues who have taken this as a call to abandon ethical analyses, I should clarify: far from it.  We do need to understand why government officials, even dictators, think their choices are justified, and we can’t understand that without an understanding of their ethics.  Historians should marvel at how the ethics of using such weapons has evolved in the West over the years, and I’m not sure we all agree on why the changes occurred.


How the Cold War Created Environmental Science

1011687_10200485731438473_1895646167_nWho knew live interviews could be fun?

I had a fantastic time today in Portland talking with David Miller, the host of the radio program Think Out Loud.  It was a live interview recorded at the studio of Oregon Public Broadcasting.  It was great to have a real, in-person conversation rather than a phone call, and it was fun to talk for half an hour on a major radio program here in Oregon.  And if you aren’t from Oregon, it’s still a great conversation!  If you’d like to sit back, relax, and listen to the silky smooth sounds of my voice (ha!) waxing about my book, Arming Mother Nature, as well as assorted topics in the history of science and the environment after World War II, click this link!  What a fun day.

Stalin statue in Grutas Park, Lithuania

Was Stalin an Environmentalist?

Stalin statue in Grutas Park, Lithuania
Stalin statue in Grutas Park, Lithuania

Remember that photograph of Joseph Stalin with the flower in his hair on his way to San Francisco?  It’s in the archives.

Well, no it isn’t.  The environmental credentials of longtime Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, at first glance, don’t seem very credible.  And yet he and his scientific experts did have strong ideas about the ways to use the natural world in what they imagined was a rational, planned way.  Yet Stalin’s big projects, notably the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature (don’t confuse it with the Not-So-Great Plan) were not pitched toward protecting the natural world but transforming it to fit human desires and needs. Like so many Soviet state-sponsored programs, its ambitions did not suffer from many constraints, making his regime a fascinating case for the historian wishing to see what centrally planned nature-transformation looks like.  Like programs outside the Soviet Union during the same era (Stalin died in 1953), the “Great Plan” was based on the idea that the natural world could be bent to human will with the latest scientific advice.

I’ve just finished coordinating an online roundtable discussion about Stephen Brain’s book Song for the Forest, which makes a pretty strong case Continue reading

Want to speed up the pulse of nature?

Atoms For Peace symbol
Symbol used by the United States Atomic Energy Commission to promote the Atoms For Peace program, circa 1955. Note on the left-hand side the wheat-sheaf representing agricultural applications.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

I am fanatically enthusiastic about the organizers of this summer’s Congress on the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, in Manchester, UK.  This is how conferences should be done! They have rejected curmudgeon-hood and have fully embraced social media. They have started a blog beforehand, and they have included a list of presenting historians of science — there are many — in the twittersphere! The following was written for them, and it is also posted on their blog.  Thanks especially to Alex Hall (@greengambit) for soliciting it.  It’s about my paper on the death, and rebirth, of atomic agriculture:

They said it was like condensing a thousand years of evolutionary history into one intense moment.  Quickening nature’s pulse.

If you want to feed the world, Norman Borlaug said when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, you have to use science to help food supplies match the rate of population. He knew all about the supposed miracles of science, although he refused to call them miracles. He’d seen his own hybrid strains of wheat double and triple yields in India and Pakistan in the 1960s. Here was a region of the world that everyone agreed was on the brink of collapse.  It called to mind the Malthusian thinking that Paul Ehrlich would panic about in The Population Bomb and that historian Tom Robertson and others wrote about in the H-Environment round-table on his recent book The Malthusian Moment.

I came at the story from a different angle. I was researching my book Arming Mother Nature, looking for evidence that military-style thinking about crop vulnerabilities influenced planning at major institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), based in Rome. But what I found at FAO astonished me and got me thinking Continue reading

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Arming Mother Nature Excerpted in Salon

Arming Mother NatureI learned today that a portion (chapter 6, to be exact) of my book Arming Mother Nature has been excerpted on Salon.  The excerpt is titled “We Tried to Weaponize the Weather,” which is much more direct that the chapter’s title, “Wildcat Ideas for Environmental Warfare.”  It’s the natural one to excerpt, I think, because it lays out what most people usually ask me about, namely the specific ideas raised about using the natural world to fight in the projected global war against the Soviet Union.  It makes for dark reading, and some of the ideas just seem nutty.  But I hope that I can challenge readers not simply to conclude “can you believe how crazy we were back then?” but rather to think about the ways that these ideas inform how we think about environmental threats today.  And of course, I’d love it if people would come to question their assumptions about how Americans thought they would use science after 1945, which doesn’t always paint a pretty picture.

The Salon excerpt is great, though I should say that the subheadings are not mine, but come from Salon‘s editors.  I don’t have anything against them, just pointing it out.  And the opening graphic, which is appropriately dramatic, might suggest that there are aliens involved in my book.  There aren’t.  I swear.  Don’t believe me?  Well, maybe you should just read the article… and the book!

Here’s the link:

Notes from the Ground

Roundtable: Cohen, Notes from the Ground

Notes from the GroundIt’s a classic tale of book learnin’ versus street smarts.

Sort of.  I just finished coordinating a roundtable on Ben Cohen’s first book, Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil and Society in the American Countryside.  I remember seeing it for the first time at a book exhibit during the meeting of the American Society for Environmental History.  I just liked the title.  Aha! I thought.  A sly reference to Russian literature, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, in a book about — what — soil and society in nineteenth century America?  I was a little puzzled, but mostly intrigued.

Later that day I met Cohen and I asked him to let me organize a roundtable on the book, and I was delighted that he agreed.

While reading the book, it was hard for me to get the image out of my head of countless movies I’ve seen when the grizzled, experienced veteran (an Army sergeant, an older partner in a buddy-cop movie, a jaded employee in a corporate office space, you name it) says “there are some things they can’t teach you in college.”  Or movies in which someone is nicknamed “College,” out of disrespect. Continue reading


Roundtable: Robertson, The Malthusian Moment

9780813552729_p0_v1_s260x420Population.  It’s the bomb!

Having just finished teaching my environmental history course, I can attest that population control is one of the most contentious of all issues that students discuss.  Even though I bring in Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb as part of a general discussion about the rise of the environmental movement, the discussion from it often dominates class, at the expense of other issues.  And well it should.  Population control isn’t just about China’s one-child policy, or the earth’s dwindling resources.  It also touches on hot-button issues such as racism, eugenics, and birth control.  It’s a wonderful lens through which we can examine an enormous range of problems that don’t seem, at first glance, to be related to the environment.

I was reminded of this by reading Continue reading


Why We’ll Never Understand Fukushima’s Impact

Flag_of_WHO.svgSame report, different headlines.

The World Health Organization’s first major assessment of the impacts of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is unlikely to resolve anyone’s concerns.  That’s because media coverage will happily reinforce whatever you expected to learn.  Like all radiation reports since the first ones were created in the mid-1950s, the details are immensely vulnerable to manipulation, depending on what you wish to emphasize.

Because I get email digests of news related to “radiation effects,” I got a few about this one, released today (Feb 28, 2013).

Bloomberg’s headline: “Fukushima Radiation Increases Cancer Risk for Girls: WHO.”  Sounds bad, doesn’t it?   Continue reading


Roundtable: Jørgensen, Making a Green Machine

making-a-green-machineWho knew that recycling machines could be so controversial?  I recently edited another roundtable for H-Environment, and the experience was slightly different from previous ones.  I approached Finn Arne Jørgensen to participate in it because I thought his book (his first) was a nice example of the nexus between history of technology and environmental history.  There’s even an interest group with the name “envirotech” that meets at both fields’ annual meetings.  Jørgensen graciously agreed to take part, subjecting himself (like every roundtable author does!) to the slings and arrows of 3-4 commentators.  These roundtables are designed to generate discussion.

The result was a provocative set of comments that touched on the social construction of “trash,” the far-flung technological networks of our so-called solutions to environmental problems, and even a strongly-worded critique about the disturbing trends in environmental history.  In short, it was far more contentious a story than I imagined.  I encourage you to read it.  I’m including my brief intro, which tells you something about the participants, here, but there’s a link at the end to the whole roundtable.    Continue reading

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The Grim Logic of Biological Weapons

Screen Shot 2013-02-08 at 10.33.17 AM

Biological weapons are not weapons of mass destruction.  They are weapons of widespread death.

The recent bombing of a Syrian research facility by Israel has brought into our view once again the future of the Middle East as a place of continuing political, religious and ethnic conflict, and a place where the worst manifestations of scientific research may come to fruition.  The facility in question allegedly trained people who worked on biological and chemical weapons.

News and commentary on the subject of bioweapons usually fall under that easily understood no-no, “weapons of mass destruction.”  The term itself raises the stakes of the conversation immediately, which is useful, but like so many useful terms, it also is a distortion of the past.

What we call “weapons of mass destruction” are all heinous, it is true.  But lumping them together misses an enormous distinction about their purpose.  The atomic bomb, as horrific as it is, was conceived during World War II as an enormous explosive, one that could accomplish in a single bomb what weeks of bombing missions with conventional explosives would do.  The yield of a weapon, in kilotons or (later with fusion weapons) megatons, was measured against the equivalent tonnage of dynamite. Don’t get me wrong, there are many effects of nuclear weapons that go beyond this: biological effects, geophysical effects, and long-term contamination.  And I do not defend the scale of destruction in any fission or fusion weapon.  But the atomic bomb was not designed to accomplish its debilitating radiation effects. Continue reading

Waterhouse, The Crystal Ball

Can’t Historians Predict the Future?

Waterhouse, The Crystal Ball
Waterhouse, The Crystal Ball

Nostradamus could have been a policy wonk.

My favorite not-so-witty quip during my public talks is “historians are always asked to predict the future.”  It usually gets a chuckle.  I say it as a cop-out when someone asks me about anything controversial: the future of nuclear power, the future face of warfare, or whether Iran will eventually have nuclear weapons.  I have lots of musings and predictions, but unfortunately no crystal ball.  Really, how could I possibly know these things?

But Arming Mother Nature, my forthcoming book, is filled with human dreams, modeling, and gaming about the war-that-wasn’t with the Soviet Union and the future of the earth itself.  When I talk about the ideas born of the Cold War, it’s quite natural to take the story one step further, into the future.

Here’s a question: will nuclear weapons be sometime used in the future?  First of all, the future is a long time.  So I’m pretty confident that “yes” is the answer.  But the question is usually more circumscribed: will the United States use nuclear weapons?  I kind of doubt it.  Or, will another country use them – say, a smaller country in a volatile region rife with civil wars, revolutions, and religious conflict?  The answer is, annoyingly: it depends.  Will the IAEA inspection regime be enough to keep upstart nations from building nuclear bombs?  Again: it depends.

The more interesting questions for a historian, in these examples, are: why hasn’t the United States used nuclear weapons since 1945, and are those reasons likely to change in the coming years?  Or, what has motivated small countries to pursue nuclear weapons, and are those reasons likely to change?  And last, what worldviews led to the creation of the IAEA in 1957 and Non-Proliferation Treaty just over a decade later, and were they sound—then or now? Continue reading


World War II and the Environment

“World War II was wide ranging in its human, animal, and material destruction, it halted certain political ideologies in their tracks and strengthened others, and entailed the mobilization of natural resources on an unprecedented scale.  And yet scholars have been slow to assess the war’s environmental dimensions.”

So begins my recent essay on the environmental dimensions of the Second World War, a historiographical salvo that is meant as a beginning rather than a final statement.  It’s part of Wiley-Blackwell’s recent volume Companion to World War II, edited by Tom Zeiler with Daniel DuBois.

After I began to write it, I realized just how overwhelming the topic was.  And yet it totally drew me in.  There were so many massive transformations in such a short time, and also so many indications that the war itself was just a blip on the screen for even larger processes happening in peacetime.  Writing the essay, it was difficult to decide what to hone in on.  Just considering the movement of organisms aboard ships over new sea routes could amount to book of its own.  But there were many other dimensions, including ideological ones, natural extraction, and of course the physical and biological destruction that the global war brought about.  Not to mention Hitler’s vegetarianism. Continue reading

Benson cover

Roundtable: Wired Wilderness

Benson coverOne of the jarring elements of the blockbuster sci-fi film The Hunger Games was the setting of its quasi-gladiatorial combat.  Rather than enter an arena and fight to the death, kids from all over the land arrived in the woods, in what appeared to be a gorgeous wilderness.  As the characters try to survive, the movie seems poised to take on the classic “human vs. nature” plot characteristics.  But it soon becomes clear that the wilderness is wired.  It is a completely controlled environment, with its contours and “wild” inhabitants manufactured at will by the game managers.  Everyone and everything is tracked, never able to hide, never out of surveillance.  The film draws on familiar Orwellian tropes, but puts even the natural world under the watchful eye and controlling hand of Big Brother.

Is this the future we have wanted – electronic surveillance, control, and management of the natural world? In the latter half of the twentieth century, scientists acquired extraordinary technological tools for tracking.  The idea of putting identifying markers on animals was not new, but using radiotelemetry to keep tabs on them over long distances certainly was.  It allowed for a wired, or rather wireless, wilderness.  For the ambitious scientist, being able to track wildlife across vast terrain had extraordinary appeal, as it moved field sciences ever closer to controlled experiment.  For conservationists it promised a new era of wildlife management, and for animal lovers it seemed to offer a means to find ways to protect favored critters from harm.  It brought lots of people together who shared a singular faith in science and technology.

In Wired Wilderness, Etienne Benson tells the story of wildlife radiotelemetry, and in doing so he tackles the enthronement, as he puts it, of science and technology as keys to mitigating wildlife challenges. In the postwar era, radiotelemetry became the ultimate machine in the garden, a sophisticated tracking tool for the surveillance and study of animals in their habitats. And yet the use of this technology, Benson suggests, highlighted serious points of discord. Radiotelemetry became a focal point for clashes about the meaning and value of wildlife. Continue reading

Will 2013 be the Year of Environmental Security?

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Happy new year, folks.  The Mayans were wrong, and I hope you haven’t cashed in the retirement fund.  We’re still here.  And yet the rhetoric of doom is alive and well, as the lead up to the entirely-avoidable “fiscal cliff” in the United States testifies.  It seems like we always enjoy flirting with disaster.  And in the spirit of disasters and catastrophes, I’d like to make a prediction.  The notion of environmental security will become far better known in 2013.

Sure, we all like laying blame when disasters strike.  After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2006 and broke the levees, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, became a household name and President George W. Bush took a lot of political fire for not handling the disaster well.  And since that time, with hurricanes continuing their dirty work in highly populated areas — as in the case of Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 havoc in the Northeast USA — we will continue to ask important questions about whether these are entirely natural events, whether global climate change is responsible, whether we are responsible for that, and then the hardest one: who is responsible for protecting us?  As extraordinary natural events affect more people, Americans are going to become more acquainted with a kind of national security that attempts to gauge the sources and effects of major events in the natural world, such as famines, disease, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes — you name it.

Maybe you haven’t heard of it.  If not, now you have: it’s called environmental security. Continue reading

Where should historians send policy-relevant scholarship?

Clio! Who will she talk to?
Clio! Who will she talk to?

Here’s a fairly mundane post but on a subject that I could use some advice about.  And I imagine it touches on a question that others face.

It’s the holiday season and I am in limbo, with time to think about publication strategies and next steps in my academic life.  My book Arming Mother Nature is still in Oxford’s hands and my next project, Nuclear Outposts, is still “congealing.”  That’s the best euphemism I can think of, though recently I’ve been telling folks that “I haven’t yet developed the full frame of my analysis.”  Wink wink, nudge nudge: I’m not sure what to do with it. My working premise/thesis changes on a regular basis (I can admit this now, ha ha, tenure!). Basically it’s a nuclear book that deals with the developing world.  I initially thought that I would focus mainly on the oddities of the “peaceful atom,” namely agricultural techniques, but now the project is full-blown nuclear, no pun intended.  It will raise all kinds of puzzling questions that still resonate today, like the role of the IAEA, the unintended consequences of nonproliferation treaties, and the responsibilities of scientists and political leaders in international organizations. Continue reading

Buying the Mirage: Are We All Implicated in Newtown?

French-designed Mirage for Israeli Air Force
French-designed Mirage for Israeli Air Force

I find myself trying to explain American gun culture a lot when I am with historians from other countries.  These days, with Twitter, Facebook, and this blog, I don’t have to travel at all to interact with colleagues from abroad.  They are often appalled that we have lenient gun laws, and – as when I unsuccessfully attempted to demystify the 2000 presidential election to non-Americans – I have mostly given up trying to explain these peculiarities. They’ve all seen Bowling for Columbine and they think we’re nuts.  After the December 14 killings of nearly thirty people, mostly elementary school children, in Newtown, Connecticut, the same exasperation resurfaced. My American pro-gun friends tell me to say that it’s about freedom, and that foreigners – usually the French, in such conversations – can’t understand.  I should say that when I lived in France, my French friends could not understand why Americans abided by traffic laws, because in France they did not care about them due to the French commitment to liberté.

The truth of these matters is often more structural than ideological.  Did the French really care about their liberté so much on the road, or was it simply that the gendarmerie was not set up to enforce the laws efficiently?  A friend of mine in the French transportation ministry was then spearheading a study of how to initiate a system in France based on the California Highway Patrol. Continue reading

Science vs. Technology Smackdown: Have We Survived the 1950s?

220px-Centaure_Malmaison_cropOn a recent trip to Mexico I had a conversation that totally perplexed me about my academic life and work.  An accomplished scholar from Europe asked me if I, as a historian of science, ever considered reading anything in the history of technology.  “Yes, of course,” was my answer.  She followed up with something like, “there is still discord between historians of science and historians of technology.”  I mentioned that I couldn’t speak for others, but that I didn’t feel the discord.  She continued with the question that I hoped she would ask:  “But would you ever consider publishing in Technology and Culture“?

I hoped she would ask it because, indeed, I have published in Technology and Culture.  And Isis (the journal of the History of Science Society).  And History and Technology.  And Osiris, the Journal of the History of Biology, Physics in Perspective, and lots of other journals that I’m happy to say have foiled others’ attempts to categorize my scholarship.  (The science folks like their mythical creatures and deities: I have also published in Minerva, but so far not Centaurus).  And let’s even mention that my work has appeared off these folks’ radar in other places, like Environmental History, Diplomatic History, and the International History Review!

If you don’t know anything about our little academic world, this should puzzle you — in fact, regardless of your background, it should puzzle you.  But historians of science and technology will be quite familiar with it.  It’s the lore of the disciplines.  The historians of technology felt so shunned by the historians of science during History of Science Society meetings back in the 1950s that they — gasp! — broke off into their own group, founding the Society for the History of Technology.  Battle lines were drawn, self-identification happened in droves, etc. Continue reading

Roundtable: In the Field, Among the Feathered

One of the attractive features of the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History is its commitment to field trips.  On at least one day, historians are encouraged to get out of their hotels, change into comfortable clothes, and hop on a bus to one of several optional locations—a museum, an interesting building, a park, or perhaps a wilderness area.  Usually there is a trip for birding (or as many know it, bird-watching). There are at least two species of humans who sign up for these birding field trips.  Some call themselves birders: they know a lot about birds, how to differentiate them, and how to identify them. They carry scopes or binoculars, they dress appropriately, and they typically wield some kind of pre-printed list. The other group—and I confess to have belonged to it—are those who are curious about the enterprise, are happy to be outside, and count themselves lucky if they can differentiate ducks from non-ducks. At the 2012 trip to a wildlife area outside Madison, Wisconsin, I personally witnessed some ducks and several of what I termed “regular birds.” Back on the bus, I was stunned to learn that my companions had identified dozens of different species. Continue reading

Roundtable: Enclosing Water

In Man and Nature, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s envoy to Italy George Perkins Marsh warned his readers against repeating the mistakes of southern Europeans.  Over centuries, he said, they had cut down too many trees and allowed their rivers to erode the best soil. The most beautiful and productive parts of the Roman Empire had come to ruin, “no longer capable of affording sustenance to civilized man.” Humans were to blame for these changes, in Marsh’s view, because nature, left undisturbed, “so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form.”[1] Continue reading

It’s Relativity Time!

It’s that time of year again.  The week when I attempt to explain Einstein’s special theory of relativity.  It’s one of those days when, if I don’t get the correct proportion of caffeine into my system, the synapses fail and I find myself staring into my own powerpoint presentation and speaking in tongues.  If you’ve ever taught this concept, as I do every Fall in my twentieth century science class, you’ve probably experienced this.  As the story goes, astrophysicist Arthur Eddington was once told by an interviewer that supposedly there were only three people in the world who properly understood Einstein’s theories of relativity, and Eddington was one.  To which Eddington reportedly responded, who’s number three? Continue reading

Our Friend the Atom Goes to Mexico

As Arming Mother Nature goes to press, I’m deeply involved in my next project.  This one’s on the promotion of nuclear technology in the developing world.  The tentative title is Nuclear Outposts.  I will soon be in Mexico City presenting at a colloquium at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) with a few other scholars working on the production and distribution of isotopes–and peaceful atomic research generally–in various places around the world.

It’s exciting to be connecting with other scholars working on this topic, and I couldn’t resist sharing the poster, which draws on the images from the 1956 Disney short Our Friend the Atom.  It was an episode of the series Disneyland.  The episode touches on many of the scientific applications that the scholars at the meeting this month are writing about, including the use of radioactive material to study crops, irradiate food, or induce mutations.  The film is fascinating, entertaining, and is guaranteed to make you smile.  Who doesn’t love seeing Walt Disney talk about nuclear physics? Continue reading

The Last Republican Tree-Hugger

Although it was covered in the New York Times, the passing of Russell Train last Monday (Sep 17, 2012) went without much notice in the media. It’s easy to imagine why: the man has no natural allies in the present political landscape.  For Republicans, he was just another nutty environmentalist who believed that regulations and international agreements mattered more than unfettered growth.  For Democrats, he was… well… a Republican.

No one today takes ownership of Russell Train, despite his influential role in the Nixon White House when the environmental movement finally hit the big time, reaching the highest levels of national and international policy.  It’s a pity. Continue reading

Shooting Sprees, Ender’s Game, and the U.S. Military

I’m not sure if it is fascinating or horrifying—perhaps both—to discover that life is like a video game.  At least since the Columbine shootings, the Virginia Tech shootings, and certainly into the more recent Aurora shooting, pundits have lamented the fact that young men are inspired by video games to enact cruelty on a shocking scale.

The moralizing that goes hand-in-hand with anti-video game rhetoric often targets parents. During his 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama pulled no punches, saying that parents needed to stop blaming teachers for failing to raise good citizens.  Tell your kids to put down the video games and read a book, he said.  And keeping to this theme of growing up, he exhorted us as a nation to set aside our petty squabbling.  During his 2009 inaugural address he referenced the Bible—specifically, a passage from Corinthians—and told us to set aside childish things.  When we were children, we spoke and thought as children, but when we grew up, we were supposed to put away childish things. Continue reading

Roundtable: Quagmire

Vietnam and “the environment” seem to go hand in hand.  After all, the experience of the Vietnam War is a fundamental chapter in most narratives of the rise of global environmental consciousness.  The environmental movement of the 1960s and early 1970s shared many of the same participants with the movement against the Vietnam War.  Some of the most egregious widespread damage to the natural environment (and human health) took place during the decade-long American herbicide campaigns of the war.  Even the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, a precursor to the UN Environment Programme, was widely perceived as a reaction to American activities in Vietnam.  In charting the past, our attention often focuses on those years of immense ecological transformation and heightened awareness. Continue reading

Are Real-Time Strategy Games ‘Environmental’?

Back cover of “Lords of Conquest” game by EA

“Nice Guys End Up With Madagascar.”

This was the phrase on the back of the box for one of the most addictive strategy games of the late 1980s, Lords of Conquest, by Electronic Arts.  I played this as a teenager and, looking back from this era of virtual-world games, I’m a little surprised at how compelling it was.  But as gaming goes, the basic concept has stood the test of time: manage resources, equip armies, and take over the world.

I recently was reminded of it because I reviewed Gabrielle Hecht’s new book on the uranium trade in Africa, Being Nuclear. (I’ll link to the review later when it is published).  It turns out that Madagascar—surprise!—is not quite the meaningless backwater portrayed in the game. Madagascar was an essential part of France’s nuclear program, and President Charles De Gaulle went out of his way to ensure that, throughout the process of decolonization, no one tried to wrest Madagascar from France. In Lords of Conquest, Madagascar didn’t even make it onto the screen, too unimportant to merit conquest by intrepid game-playing teenagers.  Ironically, that fits quite well with Hecht’s theme in the book, because the uranium mines in Madagascar were fairly invisible too.  They went unnoticed by most of the world, and even the miners themselves seemed unaware that they were subjecting themselves to potentially harmful doses of radiation in the service of the French force de frappe. Continue reading

Wikileaks and Information Control

As a historian of science and technology, I am fascinated by Wikileaks.  But I’m also guilty of benefiting from it as a scholar, because I’ve used the cables for research in my work, much in the same way that I’ve used the Pentagon Papers for research.  As a scholar, it’s impossible to resist punching keywords into the various online search engines that tap into the vast network of exposed classified diplomatic cables and other documents.  After all, if it’s in the New York Times, surely I don’t have to feel guilty, right?  Maybe.

As an American citizen, I find myself uncomfortable with the disconnect I feel between my desire to read the cables and the hard-line stance about the cables taken by the United States government.  Daniel Ellsberg (the Pentagon Papers whistleblower) is one of my heroes, exposing the lies of successive presidents during the Vietnam war era.  And let’s be honest, he probably is revered by the same people in today’s government who would like to see Julian Assange hang from a tree.  It’s hard to reconcile.  Forty years from now, I wonder how Wikileaks will be perceived.  Actually, I don’t wonder.  I’m pretty sure I already know. Continue reading

Roundtable: The Passage to Cosmos

What does it mean to describe a worldview as Humboldtean?  Prussian aristocrat Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) traveled extensively, gathered specimens, produced drawings, formulated grand geophysical theories, and never shied from describing the earth’s processes on a global scale.  While his brother Wilhelm lent his name to “Humboldtean education,” Alexander is associated with “Humboldtean science,” expansive and ambitious.  Most geographers see Humboldt as an intellectual forebear, and it is hard to find works on the rise of environmental consciousness that do not acknowledge him.  His convictions that all phenomena were connected make him a sympathetic figure to modern scientists, environmentalists, and environmental historians alike.[1] Moreover, Humboldt exemplified the Romantic-era tradition that embraced the world of science and the world of letters as if they were part of the same whole.  His five-volume opus, Cosmos, was an enormous attempt to demonstrate the unity of knowledge, written long after his traveling years were behind him. Continue reading

Arms of Precision and Weapons of Mass Destruction

1898 Battle of Omdurman

I am currently researching the spread of nuclear technology in the developing world, which means I have to confront the politics of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Although I support the NPT, as a historian it is hard to analyze it without some kind of nod to the “haves” and “have nots” aspect of it.  As someone very interested in the history of technology, I cannot help but see parallels with a similar technological regime established at the end of the nineteenth century.  I’m hoping I’ll get some emails or replies to this post, to help punch holes in this parallel, so that when I write the book I can anticipate problems with it.  So here goes: Continue reading

Nuclear Proliferation Begins with Peace

I’m at the end of my second full day in the United Kingdom’s National Archives, and I fell asleep three times at my research desk… still suffering a bit from the jet lag.  But it is not (I swear!) from lack of interest in the files I am reading.  It’s true that I get a little restless in there.  That’s especially so because I’m between book projects at the moment, still needing to make edits on Arming Mother Nature but waiting for my editor’s comments.  And I haven’t yet fully committed to the subject of the next one.  So my eyes are easily drawn away in several directions at once, from nuclear proliferation, to agricultural genetics, and to animal experimentation in weapons laboratories.

I’m in the UK for the “Cold War, Blue Planet” symposium at the University of Manchester, so I thought I’d spend a few days in Kew getting a little legwork done for the next project.  But the only legwork I’ve really done is a jetlagged five-mile run along the Thames (which, on the footpath in Kew, is gorgeous at 530am, and remarkably quiet before the planes start landing at Heathrow).

For many years I’ve been working on nuclear topics but I have almost always avoided nuclear weapons themselves.  It may sound strange, but to any budding Ph.D. dissertator out there, it probably doesn’t sound odd.  Like them, I have wanted to explore off the beaten path, in the belief that doing so offers the best chance to make genuine contributions to scholarship.  Nukes came into my first book as a form of propulsion in submarines, or as a way to make the U.S. Navy’s fleet part of the deterrence force.  Nukes came into my second book as a source of radioactive waste in the oceans.  And in my most recent book, they come in mainly because of the post-nuclear war consequences or as triggers for massive environment-altering events.

But now … I don’t think I can avoid nuclear weapons any longer.  I thought I was going to write another off-path nuclear book on the agricultural applications of atomic energy.  And I will, but the book may turn out to be about a much bigger problem.  Namely the connection between promoting peaceful applications in the developing world, and the immense international problems that come from having competent nuclear trained scientists everywhere on the planet, whether they work on projects mainly for war, or mainly for peace.

Today I was looking through documents on Iraq’s nuclear program circa 1980, before one of its neighbors (guess who?) bombed the primary facility at Osirak.  Even then, Saddam Hussein claimed that the country’s programs were just peaceful. Iraq was building a research reactor, with France’s help, which was a natural and peaceful thing to do.  But it required highly enriched (i.e. “weapons grade”) uranium.  And from Italy it ordered technology for reprocessing, which meant that it could make plutonium.

Obvious red flags? Yes, for some, but for others the amounts were too small to seem worthwhile.  It would take years before Iraq could make enough plutonium with that technology, and in any event they were subjected to IAEA inspectors, having signed on as members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  So, not a big deal (Israel felt differently).

Behind closed doors, Western diplomats pointed out that even if Iraq had no actual weapons project, it made sense for Saddam to build a peaceful program so that it would have a ready-made labor force of scientists and engineers if it ever wanted a bomb program in the future. And Europeans had the technology, the know-how, and the willingness to sell…. Especially to Iraq, which could supply oil in return.

In this case, the most generous view of Iraq’s program circa 1980—and by that I mean a program that fit precisely within the vision established with the creation of the IAEA in 1957—had the country following the rules, building a research community, and finding ways to apply nuclear technology into peaceful domains.  But that knowledge, that manpower, that community… might come in handy one day.

Is it more realistic to build bombs when you have an existing expert labor pool?  Is it too optimistic to expect less lead time for make weapons-grade fuel when your scientists already know the basics? I’ll give you three guesses :)

On the docket for tomorrow:  Iran and the CENTO research laboratory.  Pre-1979, Iran was quite the place to go for nuclear research, American-style.   Some of this was in agriculture.  But not all of it.


My O'Sullivan Memorial Lecture on nuclear technology is now online

Back in November, I wasn’t sure if anyone would mind that I used Wikileaks for historical research.  Some might have called it unpatriotic.  But I should have expected that no one seemed to mind (or care?).  I did it because I was about to give a lecture on the promotion of nuclear technology, and found that typing in “IAEA” into the keyword-searchable databases of Wikileaks yielded some interesting results.  It was like being a fly on the wall for discussions among people who were dealing with the decades-long legacy of America’s attempt to promote nuclear technology in the developing world.  It was perfect material with which to open a lecture.  And since that also will be the subject of my next book project (after Arming Mother Nature comes out, of course), how could I resist using it?

My concerns proved unwarranted, at least thus far.  I mention my trepidation because, before boarding my flight back in November, I received an email warning me to think carefully about whether I wanted to bring radioactive materials to Florida from Oregon.  (note to careful readers: I did not do any such thing).  The person had heard about my upcoming lecture and had begun to panic about my starting cancer in the local population.  (again: I did nothing of the kind).

I was getting on a plane all right, but with far less interesting carry-ons, unless you count my iPad.

The truth was that I was invited in November to give the annual John O’Sullivan Memorial Lecture, in Boca Raton Florida, hosted by the Department of History at Florida Atlantic University.  I enjoyed every moment I was there.  I met so many wonderful folks that it was hard to leave, and I learned a great deal about the research interests of the faculty member for whom the lecture is named.  It was a privilege to meet John O’Sullivan’s wife and grown son.  John O’Sullivan clearly left his mark on the community, and I was honored to be a part of it by giving the memorial lecture.

My lecture was titled “The Nuclear Promise: Global Consequences of an American Dream.”

I mention all this because Florida Atlantic University has published my lecture as a PDF pamphlet.  It contains information about the lecture series, about O’Sullivan, and of course my lecture.  Enjoy!



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