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Are Cars the Ultimate Myth of Individual Choice?

One of historian Lewis Mumford’s many complaints about modern society was that compulsory action often posed as freedom of choice. In his 1970 book The Pentagon of Power, for example, he marveled at the free-loving, drug-taking, war-protesting hippies at Woodstock, who believed they were defying society’s expectations by acting out against the establishment. He thought…

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OMSI’s Reel Science: Planetary with Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Date: Apr. 22, 2015 Time: 6:30-9:30 p.m. Located at: Empirical Theater at OMSI Who is this for: All ages Cost: $7 non-members; $6 members Reel Science: Planetary with Jacob Darwin Hamblin, author and associate professor of history at Oregon State University Watch and learn at The Empirical Theater as OMSI highlights the science of documentaries on the big screen. Perfect…

Range Wars

Environmental Battles on the Missile Range

Just west of Alamogordo, New Mexico, the site of the first atomic test in 1945, there is an enormous stretch of land that is off-limits to civilians, known as White Sands Missile Range. Since the Second World War, White Sands has been a notorious military proving ground. Not limited to any one armed service, the…

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Were National Parks Actually Mexico’s Best Idea?

On the eve of the Second World War, Mexico led the world in number of national parks. The Mexican government designated hundreds of thousands of hectares in fourteen states as national parks by 1940, during a time when the country was still recovering from the tumultuous revolution and civil war of the century’s second decade.…

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The Wetlands Shall Rise Again!

The English language has not been kind to wetlands. We have swamps, bogs, quagmires, mires, and morasses. These are not words that call to mind productive landscapes. Such terms describe wet or inundated natural areas but they also double as metaphors for being stuck—-being bogged down, swamped with work, in a tangled morass of problems,…

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Plutonium Towns in the Cold War

Note: this is my contribution to an online roundtable on Kate Brown’s book Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford, 2013). The roundtable was published in H-Environment Roundtable Reviews 4:5 (2014). For the full roundtable, including Kate Brown’s response, click here. Few places encapsulate the concept of the Faustian bargain more…

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Grassroots Activism in the ‘Burbs

Suburbia 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…

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War Against Nature, the Backbone of the South

You’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…

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Endangered Species and Contested Lands

For 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…

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Elusive Evidence of the Ocean’s Past

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…

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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…

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Hydro Power and the Public Good

Driving 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…

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A Dr. Strangelove for All Seasons

Included 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…

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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. Agent 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…

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Where is Nature in the Iconic Moments of American History?

If 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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

Putting the Earth on a Ration Card

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…

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Who are the Voices of the Mountains?

Throughout “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…

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

Environmental Legacy of the Limited Test Ban Treaty

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…

The strange military origins of environmentalism

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…

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When Race and Environment Collide

Environmental 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…

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Who Would Do Such a Thing?

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…

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How the Cold War Created Environmental Science

Who 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,…

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Was Stalin an Environmentalist?

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…

Want to speed up the pulse of nature?

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 —…

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Arming Mother Nature Excerpted in Salon

I 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…

Notes from the Ground

Roundtable: Cohen, Notes from the Ground

It’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…

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Roundtable: Robertson, The Malthusian Moment

Population.  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…

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Why We’ll Never Understand Fukushima’s Impact

Same 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…

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Roundtable: Jørgensen, Making a Green Machine

Who 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.…

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The Grim Logic of Biological Weapons

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…

Waterhouse, The Crystal Ball

Can’t Historians Predict the Future?

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…

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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…

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Roundtable: Wired Wilderness

One 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…

Will 2013 be the Year of Environmental Security?

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…

Buying the Mirage: Are We All Implicated in Newtown?

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…

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,…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…