Minds in a Groove: A Blog
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 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 (more…)
I learned today that a portion (chapter 6, to be exact) of my book Arming Mother Nature has been excerpted on Salon. The excerpt is titled “We Tried to Weaponize the Weather,” which is much more direct that the chapter’s title, “Wildcat Ideas for Environmental Warfare.” It’s the natural one to excerpt, I think, because 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:
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. (more…)
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 (more…)
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? (more…)
Who knew that recycling machines could be so controversial? I recently edited another roundtable for H-Environment, and the experience was slightly different from previous ones. I approached Finn Arne Jørgensen to participate in it because I thought his book (his first) was a nice example of the nexus between history of technology and environmental history. 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. (more…)