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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

Finlay

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.

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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 http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables.html

A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables/env-roundtable-3-7.pdf


[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.

Kahrl

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 http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables.html

A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is http://www.h-net.org/~environ/roundtables/env-roundtable-3-6.pdf


[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.

B-w-scientists

Who Would Do Such a Thing?

B-w-scientists
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.

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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:

http://www.salon.com/2013/04/27/we_tried_to_weaponize_the_weather/

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 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

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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!

 

Roundtable: Evolutionary History

One of the consequences of the educational system in the United States and Europe (perhaps elsewhere too) is that, at an early age, children make decisions about whether they are good at math and science or good at the humanities.  They choose a side.  Commentators have harped upon the great divide for many years, from today’s debates about the importance of the STEM fields, on back to the post-Sputnik “two cultures” conversation launched by C. P. Snow, and earlier in time to Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England.[1] There are many permutations of it in the “science wars” and “culture wars.”  Those of us who research and write history for a living know that this socialization process has an enormous effect on how we tell the story of the past.  After all, didn’t most historians decide long ago that they were “humanities” people rather than “science” people? Who can deny that the topics we choose reflect our values, interests, experiences, and education?  Historians of science and environmental historians are among those who make forays into the process of integrating the humanities and sciences, often armed only with the knowledge that it is folly to tell the story of the past while ignoring the natural world, including biological processes in humans, animals, and plants.

And yet there are many social pitfalls to uniting history and science, particularly biology.  Change to organisms over time—evolution—remains a controversial subject among millions of non-scientists, particularly in the United States.  Complaining about teaching evolution in schools is a time-honored tradition, as are demands to give “creation science” equal time.  Occasional discomfort with “revisionist” history notwithstanding, historians have not seen their entire discipline under siege in the way that evolutionary biologists have.  If historians embrace biological science and attempt to tell the story of the past—even the recent past—through that lens, is there a major storm on the horizon?

Edmund Russell has thrown caution to the wind by adopting a view of history that draws unflinchingly upon the lessons of evolutionary biology.  He provided a taster on this approach in a prize-winning essay in 2003 that argued for a much closer connection between historical and biological research.[2] In Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth, he provides more than a story about deep time, which one might expect from a story about evolution. Instead, Russell employs the notion of coevolution of plants, animals, and microorganisms to explain the causes and consequences of a broad range of events.  These include the activities of daily life, such as picking up dog feces and using hand sanitizer, to episodes of enormous historical import, such as the natural causes of the Industrial Revolution.  Throughout, Russell wants to convince us that evolution is everywhere, happening all the time, and that humans have played an enormous role—conscious or not—in shaping evolutionary processes.  He also hopes to encourage scholars to incorporate evolution into their own historical work.

With such a provocative premise, I was delighted to solicit comments from four scholars, all of whom already have engaged in some way with the relationships between humans and other species in their work. Joseph E. Taylor III has written about reasons for the decline in fish populations over long periods of time, and has pointed out the futility of certain fisheries policies in keeping these populations robust and thriving.  In Making Salmon, Taylor pointed out a long-standing attitude that humans could “make” salmon in a way that served human needs, finding ways to propagate them anew rather than enforcing measures of conservation or avoiding habitat destruction.[3]

Anita Guerrini also has written about human intervention in animals’ lives, but in a slightly different vein: as subjects in scientific experimentation.  Many of the fundamental ideas of human biology—such as William Harvey’s seventeenth-century conception that blood circulates throughout the body—came from gruesome vivisections of animals, including dogs.  Even blood transfusions from animals to humans were attempted in those years, under the short-lived premise that animals produced purer, more wholesome blood.  In Guerrini’s work we can see the scientific, cultural, and moral dimensions of the interactions between humans and other species.[4]

Also concerned with the fate of animals, but on a much larger scale, is Mark V. Barrow, Jr. His Nature’s Ghosts examined those species whose evolutionary paths halted abruptly, or are at risk of doing so.[5] Part environmental history and part history of science, Barrow’s research assesses the extinction idea itself, from the controversial fossil investigations of Georges Cuvier to the twentieth-century debates about wildlife protection.  Barrow invites us to consider the causes and consequences of human-induced changes to, or even complete destruction of, other species.

Julianne Lutz Warren shares with Edmund Russell a desire to see more ecology in history—and in fact she wants to see it in other domains as well.   She has been critical of writers who fail to incorporate nature, and has been outspoken about the need to bring the natural world into political discourse, beyond token references to “green” politics or particular environmental issues. Also, her Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey (writing as Julianne Lutz Newton) examines the change in Leopold’s worldview from a resource-minded conservationist to an ecology-minded philosopher concerned with the role of all species.   There may be a parallel here to the kind of worldview change urged by Edmund Russell among historians—to writing about the past with all living things in mind.[6]

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 full roundtable, along with all the other H-Environment roundtables, can be accessed (for free) here.

A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is here.


[1] Debates about STEM can be found on numerous blogs.  An example of a widely re-posted one is Cathy N. Davidson, Paula Barker Duffy, and Martha Wagner Weinberg, “Why STEM is Not Enough (and We Still Need the Humanities),” Washington Post (5 Mar 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/why-stem-is-not-enough-and-we-still-need-the-humanities/2012/03/04/gIQAniScrR_blog.html.  Accessed on May 10, 2012. See also C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and A Second Look (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963); Charles Babbage, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes (London: B. Fellowes, 1830).

[2] Edmund Russell, “Evolutionary History: Prospectus for a New Field,” Environmental History 8 (2003), 204-228.

[3] Joseph E. Taylor III, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle: Univesity of Washington Press, 1999).

[4] Anita Guerrini, “The Ethics of Animal Experimentation in Seventeenth Century England,” Journal of the History of Ideas 50:3 (1989), 391-407.  See also Anita Guerrini, Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

[5] Mark V. Barrow, Jr., Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[6] Julianne Lutz Newton, Eric T. Freyfogle, and William C. Sullivan, “Land, Ecology, and Democracy: A Twenty-first Century View,” Politics and the Life Sciences 25:1/2 (2006), 42-56.  Julianne Lutz Newton, Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey: Rediscovering the Author of A Sand County Almanac (New York: Island Press, 2006).

Let's Get Realpolitik about the Global Environment

As we head into the London summer Olympics of 2012, we can pause to reflect upon  what happened four years ago in Beijing, as one of the world’s largest-scale polluters cleaned up its capital for the moment when all eyes were upon it.  It seems like we will see countless flashbacks of that memorable opening ceremony (I don’t envy the Brits having to top that), but behind that facade is a country with unfinished business.  And a reminder that the rest of the world, especially the United States, has its own dirty laundry that has been piling up, languishing in years of indecision about global environmental politics.  And we are in election season again.  Shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, I wrote a reflection piece for the blog of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), suggesting that we get (in italics) Real about the global environment.  My subtle use of italics did not serve me well, as the main point was that we get Realpolitik, not simply to say “let’s get real, people.”  I pointed out that we’d been using G. W. Bush as a bogeyman, and we needed to adopt a pragmatic, even (gasp!)  Nixon-esque strategy of linkage if we hoped to make headway on limiting greenhouse gases.

I was reminded of this when I attended a fascinating talk by Amy Below on role theory in global environmental politics, particularly in relation to the Kyoto Protocol.

As far as I can see, most of what I said then still holds today.

 

Roundtable: Toxic Bodies

Our bodies may be toxic waste sites. Today we take it for granted that there are unwanted substances in our bodies, coming from things we’ve eaten, from drugs our doctors prescribed, from smog, or perhaps from our drinking water.  Yet we hope that poison is a matter of dose—that there is a threshold of safety, and that whatever we are carrying is below that threshold.  We willingly ingest food preservatives, hormones, and antibiotics, trusting that the experts know what they are doing.  After all, if scientists knew these substances to be harmful, governments would ban them.  True, there are reasons to be skeptical: we do not always trust governments to make the right decisions, we rarely count on corporations to be ethical entities, and we wonder if scientists have the knowledge, the will, or the power to make a difference.  But it is another thing entirely to imagine tossing out the whole notion of thresholds.  If the dose doesn’t make the poison, what does?

This question stands at the heart of Nancy Langston’s book, Toxic Bodies.  Langston tells us of the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES), a hormone disruptor that doctors prescribed to pregnant women for decades in the mid-twentieth century.  Although scientists knew of its potential risks, they were apparently impotent in the face of industry to persuade the U.S. government to impose federal regulations until long after there were names for the victims: DES daughters and DES sons. By the end of the twentieth century, scientists linked the disruption of hormones by synthetic chemicals such as DES to an array of problems: reproductive health in wildlife, birth defects in humans, increases in prostate cancer, infertility, and sexual maturity at young ages.  Because hormones regulate communication between cells and organs, disrupting them can have dire consequences in the development of animals and humans.

In telling the story of DES, Langston takes issue with the prevailing idea of threshold doses of exposure.  She links DES’s history to that of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and to the chemical compounds found in many plastics today.   These stories have commonalities, not simply in terms of corporate irresponsibility or scientific uncertainty, but in illustrating how the threshold view of environmental contamination continues to constrain our actions.  Langston argues for a new ecology of health emphasizing that “the body is enmeshed in a web of relationships, not isolated within a castle whose threshold can only be breached by a sustained attack from the outside” (p. 147).

I asked Mark Hamilton Lytle to comment on Toxic Bodies because of my own—and, I imagine, many others’—temptation to draw parallels between the histories of DES and DDT. Lytle’s exploration into Rachel Carson’s life in The Gentle Subversive highlights the dilemmas of setting up adversarial relationships with big industries.  The title for Silent Spring, for example, was almost The War Against Nature, and had started out as Man Against the Earth.  Even though Carson chose something more poetic than polemical for her title, Carson’s book amounted to a critique of corporate irresponsibility and government complicity.  Lytle writes that Carson “taught my generation to appreciate ecology or, what in the early 1960s biologist Paul Sears called, ‘the subversive science.’”[1]

Like Lytle, Frederick Rowe Davis has researched key figures in the history of conservation and environmental protection, but he also is an expert on the developing science of toxicology during the period discussed in Langston’s book.  Davis’s first book was on the savior of sea turtles, Archie Carr.  His latest project is on the relationship between pesticide use and the development of toxicology.  It has won substantial financial support from the National Institutes of Health, and will soon appear as Pesticides and Toxicology: A Century of Risk and Benefit.  While his first book was on the origins of conservation biology, the work on toxicology expands upon his 2001 Yale dissertation on risk assessment from 1936-1997.[2]

Thomas R. Dunlap has written numerous works in environmental history, often with a keen eye toward the history of science. In his 1981 study of DDT, he emphasized the ways in which citizens action groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, sought redress in courts and hearings rather than simply relying on publicity or education.  Over the years Dunlap has demonstrated wide-ranging expertise in environmental ideas, exemplified by his books Nature and the English Diaspora and Faith in Nature.  More recently he has returned to DDT with an edited collection of “classic texts” for the Weyerhaeuser series at University of Washington Press.[3]

Stephen Bocking is especially interested the development of scientific ideas, fully contextualized in social values and politics.  In his 1997 book Ecologists and Environmental Politics, he criticized historical outlooks that presented scientists (in Bocking’s study, ecologists in particular) as either exemplifying or opposing dominant social values.  Instead he proposed studying the diverse contexts in which they worked, fully embracing “the complexity of environmental politics and the historical contingency of the relationship between ecology and social values.” These contingencies, and the myriad problems of scientific authority, he discussed in a later book, Nature’s Experts.[4]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to thank all the roundtable participants for their participation and for their patience.  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.

This and other roundtables can be read in their entirety (for free) here.


[1] Mark Hamilton Lytle, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford, 2007), p. 237.

[2] Frederick Rowe Davis, The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology (New York: Oxford, 2007). Frederick Rowe Davis, Pesticides and Toxicology: Episodes in the Evolution of Environmental Risk Assessment (1937-1997) (Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, 2001).

[3] Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Thomas R. Dunlap, Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Thomas R. Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as a Religious Quest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004); Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT, Silent Spring, and the Rise of Environmentalism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

[4] Stephen Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (New Have: Yale, 1997). Quote on p. 203.  See also Stephen Bocking, Nature’s Experts: Science, Politics, and the Environment (Piscataway, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

Imagining Cold War Environments

I’m looking forward to going to Philadelphia later this month, to meet with fellow scholars working on the environmental dimensions of the Cold War.  The meeting, titled “Imagining Cold War Environments,” will be hosted on April 26 and 27 (2012) by Temple University’s Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy.  A PDF of the program is here.  I’ll be talking about some of the efforts to promote mutation plant breeding as a way of solving the hunger crisis of the 1960s.  It was one of the many atomic energy applications in agriculture–yes, agriculture–touted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Usually, when I discuss these efforts, listeners cock their heads and wonder.  After all, it is not what we  typically associate with the term nuclear!

My paper is called “Quickening Nature’s Pulse: Mutation Plant Breeding, the IAEA, and the Developing World.”  This project of mine is not part of my Arming Mother Nature book (which you can learn about elsewhere on this blog).  It is separate, and I am still conceptualizing what I will do in the next few years as I write about efforts to promote nuclear technologies in the developing world.

Other participants in the conference are Stephen Brain, Petra Goedde, Andrew Isenberg, Vlad Zubok, Mark Lytle, Ryan Edgington, Gretchen Heefner, Sarah Robey, Kurk Dorsey, Neil Maher, and Richard Immerman.

And since I’ve got a copy of The American Way of War on my bookshelf, I’m gratified that the conference will be held in the Russell Weigley Room.  We’ll see if we can revise the idea of war a bit.

Japan Forum: Fukushima and the Motifs of Nuclear History

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano

How do we tell the story of Fukushima?  The finger-pointing frenzy that occurred in the wake of the crisis is extremely useful for historians.  As people tried to blame each other, they enlisted a range of understandings–and misunderstandings–about the history of nuclear issues.  As historians, we need to be conscious of the power of the stories we tell and to reflect critically on them. Otherwise we put ourselves in the position of reinforcing past narratives that were contrived in the first place to deflect blame, avoid responsibility, and frustrate accountability. I wrote an essay about this in Environmental History, in a special “Japan Forum.”  My essay presents motifs—recurrent themes—that implicitly assign or abrogate responsibility for harm. They are the Risk Society Motif, the Nuclear Watchdog Motif, and the Nuclear Fear Motif. All three reemerged in light of the Fukushima disaster.  Read the full article (for free) in either full text or PDF.

The Rhône and Nuclear Power in the South of France

From the Alpine glaciers of Switzerland to the Mediterranean Sea stretches what was once a glorious, untamed river: the Rhône. Used by humans for trade and irrigation for centuries, it attracted investors in the late nineteenth century as a natural source of hydroelectric power. Today, it is lined with cooling towers and is the pride of France, the nation most often cited as relying on nuclear power to supply its energy needs. Over the years, the Rhône has been altered so often that it invites analysis as an “envirotechnical” landscape, where it is hard to find sharp distinctions among human activities, nature, and the designed world.

Sara B. Pritchard has crafted a thoughtful book that places the history of the Rhône at the crossroads—or, rather, the confluence—of the natural and the technological. These don’t merely intersect. Like rivers, they flow together.  

This is a review of Sara B. Pritchard, Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (Harvard, 2011). The full review is published in Isis, please click here

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