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…

Roundtable: Wired Wilderness

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

Will 2013 be the Year of Environmental Security?

Happy new year, folks.  The Mayans were wrong, and I hope you haven’t cashed in the retirement fund.  We’re still here.  And yet the rhetoric of doom is alive and well, as the lead up to the entirely-avoidable “fiscal cliff” in the United States testifies.  It seems like we always enjoy flirting with disaster.  And…

Buying the Mirage: Are We All Implicated in Newtown?

I find myself trying to explain American gun culture a lot when I am with historians from other countries.  These days, with Twitter, Facebook, and this blog, I don’t have to travel at all to interact with colleagues from abroad.  They are often appalled that we have lenient gun laws, and – as when I…

Roundtable: In the Field, Among the Feathered

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

Roundtable: Enclosing Water

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

It’s Relativity Time!

It’s that time of year again.  The week when I attempt to explain Einstein’s special theory of relativity.  It’s one of those days when, if I don’t get the correct proportion of caffeine into my system, the synapses fail and I find myself staring into my own powerpoint presentation and speaking in tongues.  If you’ve…

Our Friend the Atom Goes to Mexico

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

The Last Republican Tree-Hugger

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

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

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

Roundtable: Quagmire

Vietnam and “the environment” seem to go hand in hand.  After all, the experience of the Vietnam War is a fundamental chapter in most narratives of the rise of global environmental consciousness.  The environmental movement of the 1960s and early 1970s shared many of the same participants with the movement against the Vietnam War.  Some…

Are Real-Time Strategy Games ‘Environmental’?

“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…

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…

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…

Arms of Precision and Weapons of Mass Destruction

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…

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…

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…

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…

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,…

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…

Japan Forum: Fukushima and the Motifs of Nuclear History

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…

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…

The Long Cold Nuclear Winter

Reviewing a book by one’s own mentor, especially when that mentor has recently passed on, can be a difficult enterprise. And yet Larry Badash’s final book, published the year before his death, is worth the task. For those who knew him, A Nuclear Winter’s Tale appears as an expression of a life’s work in scholarship.…

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…

Plutonium's Rich (albeit recent) History

Plutonium is an exemplary case of fine science writing, combining scientific expertise and smooth narrative, enlivened by a personal touch. A physicist and former staff writer for The New Yorker, Jeremy Bernstein has a deep well of experience from which he can draw, and he has a gift for bringing even the most obscure technical…

The Nuclear Promise

In November I traveled to Boca Raton, Florida, to give the annual John O’Sullivan Memorial Lecture at Florida Atlantic University. John O’Sullivan was a scholar of the twentieth century, and was deeply concerned with nuclear issues. I was honored to be asked to talk to a packed auditorium of locals wanting to learn how to…

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…

NATO and Environmentalism

Did you know that Richard Nixon tried to turn NATO into an environmental organization?  It was pretty baffling for the allies, who took the alliance seriously as a military organization, and also took seriously their scientific bodies devoted to environmental issues.  But Nixon had a different agenda, to link environmental issues to American foreign policy…

Finding Perspective on Nuclear Concerns

This was the cover story in my local paper, part of the flurry of media attention about my work after the Fukushima disaster.  I had very mixed emotions about gaining such local notoriety (something any scholar enjoys, especially when kids see their dad on the front page of the paper!), when the real hardship and…

Impact of Radiation on Ocean Water may be Seen in Long Term

Recently I was interviewed by a reporter for the China-focused newspaper The Epoch Times to discuss the Fukushima incident.  Here is the article, with a link to the whole thing (free to read): — Since the first explosion occurred at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 12, steam and smoke carrying radioactive…

What will our Energy Legacy Be?

I recently wrote an opinion piece for The Oregonian, in response to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan.  Here is the start of it (with a link to the rest of it, which you can read for free).  Comments appreciated! The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan is a potent reminder of how vulnerable…

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…

Environmental Histories of the Cold War

I was excited to be part of this volume, writing about biological weapons and radioactive contamination in the early years of the Cold War.  The books emerged from a conference at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., and is edited by J. R. McNeill and Corinna Unger.  Here’s the description: Environmental Histories of the…