Histories of Science, Technology, and the Environment

When I was hired at McMaster (in 2005), the position called for an historian of science & technology. Which I sort of was. A little, anyway. I had completed my PhD in environmental history, but my dissertation considered the biologist Barry Commoner’s career as a social and environmental activist. As a result, I was rather interested in questions pertaining to science and society and the scientist’s social responsibility. For Commoner, the post-World War II environmental crisis was a product of poor technological decisions and short-sighted modes of production. I spent the year after completing my PhD as a fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, where I began work on my current mercury project. Much of that year was spent transforming myself into something approximating an historian of science (I’d had no previous formal training in this field). So: sort of, kind of, an historian of science and technology.

Caveat: the histories of science and technology writ large are two very distinct fields with very distinct disciplinary and professional backgrounds and markedly different historiographies. I made a point of stressing this during my interview, but then concentrated on the ways they could be brought together. After all, as much as they are distinct fields or sub disciplines of history, there are some explicit overlaps, especially in the context of twentieth-century history. And those overlaps, especially when they intersected with environmental issues, were at the heart of my own research agenda. Environmental historians are an accepting bunch, but the kinds of work I do have long been outside the realm of “real” history of science. Which is odd, and a shame. At conferences, blue-blood history of science colleagues would be disparaging about my efforts to teach a global history of science and technology as a second-year survey course. All this to say that I’ve long thought of myself as working between three fields. Or four. The other natural intersection here is with STS, and I’ve found myself an eclectic reader in that over the past several years.

Things are starting to change, though, and rather than thinking about myself as not having a singular intellectual home, there seems to be a growing trend among a younger generation of scholars intent on working in much the same kinds of interstices as I am. In August 2010, I attended a workshop in Trondheim, Norway, that sought to bring STS and environmental history in more explicit conversation with each other and the warm reception to the MIT series suggests there is strong interest in seeing how these sub disciplines talk to each other. Earlier this week, I came across this bio of my friend and colleague, Ben Cohen (he of anti-ant fame). It’s a nice write-up (and his office looks much nicer than mine), but midway through the article, Ben says:

The history of science, technology, and the environment reveals a world where people made decisions based on particular conditions in particular places about how to live in nature.

Nice. But what struck me was Ben’s singular use of “history.” Where I’ve been trying to juggle three things, Ben is doing one (and he does it very well, by the way; check out his book, Notes from the Ground). Maybe this is all semantics. Maybe it’s silly, academic territoriality that really doesn’t mean much of anything. But it suggests an appealing intellectual starting point for what I do. I may have to start thinking about my field in a singular manner…

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