Are Cars the Ultimate Myth of Individual Choice?

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

The Wetlands Shall Rise Again!

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

Grassroots Activism in the ‘Burbs

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

War Against Nature, the Backbone of the South

You’ve heard the phrase “war is hell.”  But you probably haven’t heard the phrase “war is when you attack agroecosystems.”  It’s a lesser known aphorism of General Sherman’s, to be sure, mainly because he didn’t actually say it.  But reading Lisa Brady’s book, War Upon the Land, made me wonder how much Sherman understood about…

Roundtable on Arming Mother Nature

After editing a couple of dozen H-Environment roundtables myself, it was fun to have one of my own books, Arming Mother Nature, as the subject of one, this time guest-edited by Michael Egan of McMaster University.  It was a great opportunity to engage directly with commentators.  One of them, Dolly Jørgensen, recently featured my book…

Endangered Species and Contested Lands

For most people, saving a critter from extinction is a laudable goal with a fairly straightforward action-item: don’t kill the animal. The 1973 the Endangered Species Act in the United States set forth guidelines for compiling lists of such species, such as the California condor. In practice, however, the law did not just establish a…

Elusive Evidence of the Ocean’s Past

It’s fun to be a historian of the oceans these days.  Environmental scholarship has yielded some fascinating clashes of perspective in recent years, and the conversations are lively.  Scientists, historians of science, and environmental scholars are all working intensively to establish a narrative of the sea’s life forms, its physical and chemical conditions, and the impact of…

Hydro Power and the Public Good

Driving eastward from Portland, Oregon, in the shadow of Mount Hood, it is easy to get the feeling of entering a gorgeous wilderness, away from human development.  On the right, the verdant cliffs and hills of the Cascades.  On the left, the wide Columbia River, flowing toward the Pacific.  Depending on your mood, the scene…

Where is Nature in the Iconic Moments of American History?

If your New Year’s resolution includes reading more environmental history, you are in luck!  A new installment of H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available!  This one focuses on environmental interpretations of iconic events in American history. My introduction is here: Should environmental historians confine themselves to subjects that clearly have environmental links, such as stories of…

Who are the Voices of the Mountains?

Throughout “Appalachia,” a vast mountain region stretching from northern Alabama to Quebec, it is easy to betray one’s outsider status.  In many Southern parts, one might simply pronounce the third syllable in Appalachia with a long A, as in “name,” and it will be obvious to anyone that you are not from there.  Instead, it…

When Race and Environment Collide

Environmental historians: want to take discussions of race beyond questions of environmental justice?  I’ve got just the book for you. In fact, I’ve got something short and sweet that will give you a great idea of how scholars are exploring the interactions of different ethnic groups with the natural world.  Four scholars agreed to take…

Was Stalin an Environmentalist?

Remember that photograph of Joseph Stalin with the flower in his hair on his way to San Francisco?  It’s in the archives. Well, no it isn’t.  The environmental credentials of longtime Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, at first glance, don’t seem very credible.  And yet he and his scientific experts did have strong ideas about the…

Roundtable: Cohen, Notes from the Ground

It’s a classic tale of book learnin’ versus street smarts. Sort of.  I just finished coordinating a roundtable on Ben Cohen’s first book, Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil and Society in the American Countryside.  I remember seeing it for the first time at a book exhibit during the meeting of the American Society for…

Roundtable: Robertson, The Malthusian Moment

Population.  It’s the bomb! Having just finished teaching my environmental history course, I can attest that population control is one of the most contentious of all issues that students discuss.  Even though I bring in Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb as part of a general discussion about the rise of the environmental movement, the discussion…

Roundtable: Jørgensen, Making a Green Machine

Who knew that recycling machines could be so controversial?  I recently edited another roundtable for H-Environment, and the experience was slightly different from previous ones.  I approached Finn Arne Jørgensen to participate in it because I thought his book (his first) was a nice example of the nexus between history of technology and environmental history.…

Roundtable: Wired Wilderness

One of the jarring elements of the blockbuster sci-fi film The Hunger Games was the setting of its quasi-gladiatorial combat.  Rather than enter an arena and fight to the death, kids from all over the land arrived in the woods, in what appeared to be a gorgeous wilderness.  As the characters try to survive, the…

Roundtable: In the Field, Among the Feathered

One of the attractive features of the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History is its commitment to field trips.  On at least one day, historians are encouraged to get out of their hotels, change into comfortable clothes, and hop on a bus to one of several optional locations—a museum, an interesting building,…

Roundtable: Enclosing Water

In Man and Nature, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s envoy to Italy George Perkins Marsh warned his readers against repeating the mistakes of southern Europeans.  Over centuries, he said, they had cut down too many trees and allowed their rivers to erode the best soil. The most beautiful and productive parts of the Roman Empire had…

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…

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…

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…

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,…

Roundtable: The Invention of Ecocide

Thirty years ago, U.S. Air Force Major William A. Buckingham, Jr., published the first comprehensive history of Operation Ranch Hand—the codename for American spraying of herbicides over South Vietnam and Laos during the Vietnam war. Buckingham’s narrative was part science, part politics, and part military operations. Even that official history acknowledged that twenty percent of…

Roundtable: In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers

Global warming has become the stuff of history.  While politicians and scientists hash out the details and jockey for authority, historians are beginning to integrate contemporary global warming into existing historical narratives.  Granted, there have been climate changes in the past, and these have entered the historical record with names such as the Medieval Climate…

Roundtable: Fixing the Sky

In 1968, the Whole Earth Catalog proclaimed “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”  Amidst the environmental crisis of the 1960s, the publication’s founder Stewart Brand wanted to provide access to tools, and he was remarkably friendly to technological solutions.  His kind of environmentalism drew from human ingenuity and achievement,…

Roundtable: Merchants of Doubt

In his Discourse on Method, René Descartes famously propounded that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt.  Though he acknowledged the value of subjecting any truth to scrutiny, he distanced himself from those who would “doubt only that they may doubt, and seek nothing beyond uncertainty itself.”[1] And yet today who doesn’t…

Roundtable: Mosquito Empires

This inaugural roundtable for H-Environment centers upon one of the key concepts that students and scholars of environmental history confront: environmental determinism.  Many found their way to the field after reading Alfred W. Crosby’s 1972 The Columbian Exchange, which brought plants, animals, and diseases out of the footnotes and into a prominent place in the…