Thinking Food, Agriculture, Local, Corporate-type Things…

A new Starbucks recently opened in Dundas, which is distressing to me insofar as Dundas was a small strip of small businesses until now. One of which is a terrific bike-themed café with the best espresso I’ve ever had. The coffee is roasted locally in Concord, Ontario with one eye on environmental sustainability, which raises a series of interesting questions about sustainable and fair trade practices, priorities, and processes. I’m less concerned about the longevity of my local café, which I think has identified a niche that should allow it to thrive, and more about the aesthetics of the downtown shops.

But that’s not what I want to talk about (today). Just a couple of doors away from the new Starbucks is a wonderful butcher that draws its meat from its own local farms and a family-owned (since 1915) grocer’s. Across the street is a cheese shop with a variety of local and international cheeses. My brother is in town this term, teaching a course on animals and technology. He’s a vegetarian and experimenting with veganism at the moment.

All of which has had me thinking about food and where we get it from and the relationship we have with our foods. I wish I could say that my family does all its shopping in the various shops in Dundas, but our budget sadly doesn’t afford that luxury. But between my brother’s course and Starbucks’ arrival, I’ve been ruminating more about this. Also, too, a very promising doctoral student interested in the history of cheese (more on that some other time).

Almost a decade ago, I wrote this as part of a larger conversation about foods, their history, and how they influence our social and environmental pasts and futures. It was subsequently published on Common Dreams (complete with pretty pictures) and a variety of other places, too. José Bové is a pretty interesting character. He’s not really an environmentalist, but you can see how he might be considered one. It serves as a reminder that environmentalism increasingly extends well beyond nature and into a number of social contexts.

Mercury, Science, Policy: History & STS

The mercury project invites investigation in a series of provocative directions that are informed by the history of science and STS. Below, I outline a couple. The idea of doing interdisciplinary (or adisciplinary) work is compelling. The growing significance of problem-solving in responding to the environmental crisis constitutes a sea-change in how scientific practice conducts its inquiries, observations, and investigations. It also brings together specialists from a variety of different backgrounds, who must shape a common vocabulary around the problem rather than around the jargon of their respective fields. These hybridized knowledge fields are rich ground for historians and science studies scholars.

Another angle, too: In their 2007 book, Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins and Robert Evans reiterated their contention that “science, if it can deliver truth, cannot deliver it at the speed of politics.” This is the enduring tension of the mercury project in general. Since the Commoner book, I’ve been drawn to some older work by Jerome Ravetz, where he introduces the notion of post-normal science, which is a reflection of science occurring in conjunction with social, political, and economic values weighing in on the results. In effect, Ravetz is especially interested in public participation in science and subsequent political decision-making. He sees it as a positive and viable—indeed necessary—direction for contemporary science. Post-normal science reflects the new nature of scientific inputs to policy processes. According to Ravetz, “only through post-normal science can scientific endeavor recover from the loss of morale and commitment that started with the Bomb … and is now rampant under the capture of science by globalization.” Similarly, in a 1992 article in Theory, Culture, & Society, Ulrich Beck also raised another potential boon for scientific uncertainty. “The exposure of scientific uncertainty,” he wrote, “is the liberation of politics, law, and the public sphere from their patronization by technocracy.” Public science has and will continue to foster greater scientific literacy and a more informed public. That was certainly my interpretation of post-normal science in the Commoner book. Commoner was a scientist-activist, who devoted an incredible amount of time and energy to ensuring that the public was informed and had the necessary tools with which to participate in public debate. My interest here is to make less of a judgment on the moral nature of post-normal science, but rather to recognize its mechanisms as a prevalent feature of the scientific landscape after World War II

The rapid development of scientific knowledge about mercury in the environment provokes two rather interesting channels of inquiry, namely how new scientific disciplines and interdisciplines are formed, and how science functions when social needs dictate immediate recommendations from experts. Both these channels are a product of a modern science that is increasingly characterized by heterogeneity, hybridity, complexity, and interdisciplinarity in knowledge creation. Central to my account is the question of how interdisciplinary research shapes stories about nature. Interdisciplines constitute hybridized knowledge fields situated between existing disciplines, and are composed of a variety of different research specialties. As Scott Frickel observes, whereas “disciplines tend to lead to knowledge that deepens understanding of specific phenomena … interdisciplinary knowledge is often guided by a collective interest in problem solving.” Growing environmental knowledge and deeper understanding of the post-World War II ecological crisis provided a fertile breeding ground for many such interdisciplines, because newly discovered environmental problems rarely conformed to traditional scientific disciplines, which, in turn, precipitated the collaboration and communication of experts with disparate backgrounds.  These interdisciplines, therefore, provide intriguing points of communication for telling especially novel stories about stories about nature, to use William Cronon’s phrase. Another important feature of scientific interdisciplines as they emerged to address environmental issues after World War II involved the relative urgency of procuring information.  In a 1985 article on the development of conservation biology, Michael Soulé discussed the precarious nature of what he called “crisis disciplines,” where, he claims, “one must act before knowing all the facts.”  Soulé argues that “crisis disciplines” require more than “just science.”  In fact, they are “a mixture of science and art, and their pursuit requires intuition as well as information.” Put another way, Brian Wynne and Sue Mayer assert “Where the environment is at risk, there is no clear-cut boundary between science and policy.”

In my reading, the production of scientific knowledge necessary to understand the problems surrounding mercury pollution takes place in the incipient stages of what Jerome Ravetz has called “post-normal” science, where knowledge “is uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent.” From nuclear fallout to global warming, scientific communities have been pressed into action to weigh in—quickly—on the issues of the day.  Let me stress “quickly.”  In advocating a “third wave” of science studies, which examines the boundaries between experts and the public, H. M. Collins and Robert Evans observe that “the speed of political decision-making is faster than the speed of scientific consensus formation.” Indeed, when pressed to regulate mercury in Sweden, the National Institute for Public Health was forced to use data from the Minamata disaster, rather than starting their own tests and experiments to exhaustively determine the highest zero-effect dosage of mercury. Time was of the essence. But this is not how modern science was designed to work. The project of this post-normal science—a derivative of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm-based normal science—is not to collect and present definitive knowledge, but rather to function within a highly complex network of policymaking interests, best described by Latour’s notion of “co-production,” which marries the production of knowledge with the production of social order.

And if understanding the nature of mercury pollution posed difficulties, regulating mercury on limited or incomplete scientific knowledge was equally problematic. In Japan, Sweden, Canada, Guatemala, Iraq, the Seychelles, the Faroe Islands, and the United States, government authorities either acted very quickly, erring on the side of caution, or did not act quickly enough, or acted ineffectively. In addition, international bodies like the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organization, and the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission engaged in discussions that transcended national borders. That these political debates gave rise to considerable adjustment of environmental policies pertaining to acceptable limits for mercury exposure further points to an interesting dialogue between the importance of political capital and the social demands of scientific knowledge.

While my investigation of national and international environmental policy treats the complexity of working with a body of knowledge that is incomplete, it also trades on the basic premise of environmental history that nature—in this case mercury—is more than just a backdrop to human history.  What happens to environmental policy history and the history of science when its subject (nature) is not a static canvas, but is continually introducing new and puzzling variants of pollution? Moreover, how do science and international politics reconcile when they, too, are in constant motion and change? As a result, the story of mercury pollution emerges as a legislative subject with fluid characteristics; human understandings of this problem shifted over time and place. And these efforts to manage mercury emissions suggest that nature was an active participant in this history. Mercury’s transition from elemental isolation to unwelcome ecological integration offers an intriguing blend of human and natural agencies. On the one hand the release of methylmercury into the environment is part of a well-documented history of the tragedy of unintended environmental consequences spurred by technology and visions of progress. On the other, it serves as an interesting opportunity to engage with themes of natural agency in heretofore under-examined ways. Mercury has a nature; in its transmutation from benign element to toxic pollutant, nature suggests an agency that palpably organizes how mercury and humanity mix.

History of the Future Redux

Since graduate school, I’ve been fascinated with the history of the future. Not so much as historians having some special felicity with predicting the future (nope), but how the future is a wildly understudied facet of the human past. We’re constantly thinking about the future (even historians), from checking the weather, to making grocery lists for the week, to looking forward to vacations or travel or time off, etc. It would be very interesting to develop a larger historical project on these kinds of mundane features of the future, but my focus has tended toward the history of technology and its relationship to the environment. More significantly, planning—political, economic, environmental—is a much-neglected historical perspective. There’s a compelling element in the human drama to examine not just what people did, but what they thought they were doing. And what they thought they might achieve: how were they forward-looking. One aspect of this analysis might consider how effectively/accurately different people and societies planned for the future and in what kinds of capacity have past societies been most successful in so doing.

There are a lot of interesting entry points into this investigation. I think my own was prompted by the simple question: why have we been so relatively poor at anticipating the future? This was spurred by the litany of environmental disasters that were derived from unanticipated consequences, but the question can be expanded to ask where our private jetpacks and sky cities, etc. are. I think the short answer has to do with the social and cultural influences of technological systems and the manner in which system-entrenching technologies become so ingrained that it becomes difficult to imagine how technologies alien to the existing system might work. But that’s only part of a simplistic, macro-explanation that deserves further examination.

Sverker Sörlin, Libby Robin, and Paul Warde have been doing some exciting work on environmental prediction, which is starting to concentrate on the 1940s and 1950s. And I know of a few historians who have taken an interest in futurism (which only interests me as an historical project, not as an expression of historians’ expertise with time—that we should be able to look forward as easily as we look backward). Recently, Paul Warde pointed me towards these sessions at the European Social Science History conference, which meets next month (scroll down to sessions Y-9 and Y-10). His paper abstract reads:

Expertise for the Future: the Emergence of ‘Relevant Knowledge’ in Environmental Predictions and Global Change, c.1920-1970.

What characterizes an expert in the field of ‘environmental futures’? This paper considers why certain scientific methods have been favored historically, and especially in the breakthrough moment for the modern concept of ‘environment’ in the post-war years. One important point of departure for the paper is the idea that the emergence of the environment implied new demarcations for what counted as expertise, often transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries, and closely related to the practice and expectation of prediction. Another is point of departure is the increasing extent to which expertise relied on quantification, numeric assessments and iterative methods which had previously been developed as parts of various sciences but reemerge with new institutional and political implications when attached to environmental futures. The predictions that concern us here have clear similarities with the (self-)proclaimed expertise used in projecting futures in financial, economic, demographic and other areas, and their legitimization. Relevant knowledge, especially of integrative techniques such as mathematical modeling is often construed as transcending these, thus establishing new specific realms of expertise which in recent decades have coalesced into phenomena such as ‘global change’ and ‘environmental issues’. This paper will focus a number of issues in surveying the emergence of global change thinking: climate, energy, population, and biodiversity.

Similarly, his co-panelist Jenny Andersson’s (Sciences Po) paper looks very interesting:

The Political Life of Prediction. The Future as a Space of Scientific World Governance in the Cold War Era

This contribution explores the role of the future as a space of scientific exchange and dialogue in the Cold War period. We argue that problems of future governance were, East and West, conceptualized in similar ways as problems that challenged notions of politics and expertise but also led to the development of new forms of scientific governance which sought explicitly to depoliticize the future and turn it into a new transnational domain of technocratic politics. The paper thus focuses on the exchange between American and Soviet futurologists and on important forms of scientific cooperation primarily around the creation of the IIASA, but it inserts this case into a larger discussion of the future as a technoscientific space beyond political dispute – and embryo of new forms of global future governance.

I wish I could be there. But this is a rich and fruitful entry into an important and understudied avenue of historical inquiry. My own timeframe interests are more consistent with the papers in the second panel. After having done some work on The Limits to Growth and The Population Bomb, I’m especially interested in the techniques used during the 1960s and 1970s (especially the early iterations of computer modeling). The second panel includes papers that overlap with my timeline rather nicely, but the central theme seems to be forecasting doom, which is an important element of the period, but ground I covered indirectly while writing about Commoner (chapter 4 examined the role of the environmental jeremiad in American environmentalism and focused on the Commoner-Ehrlich debate over population and pollution). I’d be more interested to explore the practical aspects of future-planning and its relationship with science and policy. Here are a couple of paper abstracts from that second session. First, Elke Seefried (Augsburg University):

Futures Studies of the 1960s and early 1970s: From Creating Futures to Predicting Doom?

‘Future’ became a central political and scientific category in western industrialized countries during the 1960s. As a result of dynamic changes in science and technology and an increasing orientation towards planning, the so-called futures studies (or futurology) boomed. These were scientific approaches to forecast, plan and think about the future. In a process of circulation of knowledge, transnational networks of experts were established as well as national institutions of futures studies in Western industrialized countries during the 1960s. In this paper, I would like to focus on futures studies in West Germany and Britain, arguing that considerable parts of futures studies particularly in West Germany underwent a change around 1970, and this led to profound political consequences. In the 1960s, futures studies were shaped by a perception that the future was open and feasible, based on a belief in modernization and technical progress within the framework of the industrial society. Around 1970, parts of the field were permeated by a polyvalent, especially ecologically tinged criticism of growth and apocalyptic scenarios whereas the belief in planning strategies persisted. The debate on The Limits to Growth and other ‘prophecies of doom’ gave rise to the concepts of ‘quality of life’ and qualitative growth, later to become sustainability. This is particularly true for West Germany where futures studies had a considerable impact on politics by anticipating and constructing the ‘crisis’ of the 1970s and by reconceptualizing the notions of growth and progress towards qualitative and ecological aspects. In contrast, British futures studies and politics were much more bound up with paradigms of industrial society.

And, second, Elodie Vieille Blanchard (Centre Alexandre Koyré):

Technoscientific Cornucopian Futures versus Doomsday Futures: Forecasting and Modelling in the Debate over the Limits to Growth

This paper focuses on the emergence of the “limits to growth” paradigm concerning demography and industry in the developed world during the period 1945-1970. This was a context of generalized material affluence and confidence about the future. Indeed technology was supposed to allow the diffusion of the Western way of life to the whole world, and to solve all social and environmental problems this affluence could bring. The paper also shows the specificity of the Club of Rome project, under contrasted influences of cornucopian futures studies -focused on technology- and of the doomsday theories of environmentalists. It explains how these specific views about future led to the elaboration of a particular model, utilised in the publication of the Limits to Growth in 1972. Finally, the paper brings out how, in the debate over the “limits to growth” in the 1970s, particular visions of technology, environment and social priorities led to different modelling enterprises, which brought about radically divergent conclusions concerning the future of demography and industry. In the broader perspective, my contribution aims to show how the initial controversy over growth gave way to discussions about the specific characteristics of sustainable growth, while the criticism of industrial growth, and the urge to cease it, became the prerogative of very few scientists and activists.

The second paper, especially, is something I’d like to read, especially since I found myself so wrapped up in The Limits to Growth and the work that Jay Wright Forrester pioneered in system dynamics.

The history of the future has also been a teaching interest of mine. I’ve taught “The History of the Future” twice at McMaster over the past few years as a third-year course, and after removing the course from our calendar to make way for teaching the history of sustainability, I reintroduced it this past year, and hope to teach it again soon. Here’s a copy of the syllabus from the last time I taught it: 3UU3_Syllabus_2009. I had a really good group of students who bought in and made this a really fun class. I had roughly 100 students in the room, but the culture of the class made it feel more like a seminar with lots of good questions during and after each session. I’ll write more about the course concepts in the future; this was an interesting and effective way to talk about technological systems.

The next time I teach “The History of the Future,” I will likely revise the courseware materials and the course direction, in order to try to organize the course around the future writing project. I suspect the next iteration of the course will be organized around “Thinkers,” “Planners,” and “Makers.” Loosely, the first involves an intellectual history of the future (and touches on futurism, sci fi, etc.); the second considers planning, design, and prediction; and the final section is still fairly poorly conceived, but I want a place to investigate the Jay Wright Forresters and Buckminster Fullers of the world. Or at least that’s the current plan.

The Limits to Growth

Over the last little while, I have been writing a short excerpt on The Limits to Growth for part of a collection on predicting environmental futures. The volume is being edited by Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin, and it looks like it will make a terrific classroom contribution to teaching environmental history and the history of the future. The volume is organized around short excerpts from seminal works on predicting the future of nature, prefaced by a brief essay from an historian, situating the work in its historical (and futurist) context.

I read The Limits to Growth while I was working on the Commoner book. Donella Meadows et al. approached the environmental crisis rather differently than did Commoner (and I seem to recall Commoner being somewhat critical of their findings—in large part because they failed to think about technological production choices in a more complex manner). Coming back to the book in a different light has been fascinating. I’ve enjoyed the re-read and have been thinking about integrating their work on system dynamics and their World3 model more thoroughly into my own teaching and (eventually) research. Here’s an excerpt from the final chapter on equilibrium. Their modeling was based on a radical and unrealistic about-face in population and industrial growth by 1975. They admit to this, but offer the warning:

A society choosing stability as a goal certainly must approach that goal gradually. It is important to realize, however, that the longer exponential growth is allowed to continue, the fewer possibilities remain for the final stable state.

This is the central point of the book, as inferred from the title: that exponential growth is not sustainable (they use that word in 1972!). The book is part of a whole body of literature from the late 1960s and early 1970s that stressed a drastic revision of resource exploitation. It coincides nicely with the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, and also represents a definitive point in a larger environmental history of sustainability. By 1972, the environmental crisis is unquestionably a human crisis. Environmentalism or the emerging sustainability had become an exercise in saving civilization from itself, rather than saving nature from civilization. This had been a gradual transition since World War II, but it was complete by the Stockholm Conference and the publication of The Limits to Growth. Meadows et al. continue:

Many people will think that the changes we have introduced into the model to avoid the growth-and-collapse behavior mode are not only impossible, but unpleasant, dangerous, even disastrous in themselves. Such policies as reducing the birth rate and diverting capital from production of material goods, by whatever means they might be implemented, seem unnatural and unimaginable, because they have not, in most people’s experience, been tried, or even seriously suggested. Indeed there would be little point even in discussing such fundamental changes in the functioning of modern society if we felt that the present pattern of unrestricted growth were sustainable into the future. All the evidence available to us, however, suggests that of the three alternatives—unrestricted growth, a self-imposed limitation to growth, or a nature-imposed limitation to growth—only the last two are actually possible.

Accepting the nature-imposed limits to growth requires no more effort than letting things take their course and waiting to see what will happen. The most probable result of that decision, as we have tried to show here, will be an uncontrollable decrease in population and capital. The real meaning of such a collapse is difficult to imagine because it might take so many different forms. It might occur at different times in different parts of the world, or it might be worldwide. It could be sudden or gradual. If the limit first reached were that of food production, the nonindustrialized countries would suffer the major population decrease. If the first limit were imposed by exhaustion of nonrenewable resources, the industrialized countries would be most affected. It might be that the collapse would leave the earth with its carrying capacity for animal and plant life undiminished, or it might be that the carrying capacity would be reduced or destroyed. Certainly whatever fraction of the human population remained at the end of the process would have very little left with which to build a new society in any form we can no envision.

Representation of one of the many projections of environmental collapse if population growth, resource depletion, and pollution continue unabated. In the text, the authors indicate that 2000 might be a point of no-return.

Post-Normal Science

In their 2007 book, Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins and Robert Evans reiterated their contention that “science, if it can deliver truth, cannot deliver it at the speed of politics.” This is the enduring tension of the mercury project in general. Since the Commoner book, I’ve been drawn to some older work by Jerome Ravetz, where he introduces the notion of post-normal science, which is a reflection of science occurring in conjunction with social, political, and economic values weighing in on the results. The project of this post-normal science—a derivative of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm-based normal science—is not to collect and present definitive knowledge, but rather to function within a highly complex network of policymaking interests, best described by Latour’s notion of “co-production,” which marries the production of knowledge with the production of social order.

In effect, Ravetz is especially interested in public participation in science and subsequent political decision-making. He sees it as a positive and viable—indeed necessary—direction for contemporary science. Post-normal science reflects the new nature of scientific inputs to policy processes. According to Ravetz, “only through post-normal science can scientific endeavor recover from the loss of morale and commitment that started with the Bomb … and is now rampant under the capture of science by globalization.” Similarly, in a 1992 article in Theory, Culture, & Society, Ulrich Beck also raised another potential boon for scientific democracy. “The exposure of scientific uncertainty,” he wrote, “is the liberation of politics, law, and the public sphere from their patronization by technocracy.”[1] (I’ll need to devote another post to uncertainty; this is also especially fertile ground).

Public science has and will continue to foster greater scientific literacy and a more informed public. That was certainly my interpretation of post-normal science in the Commoner book. Commoner was a scientist-activist, who devoted an incredible amount of time and energy to ensuring that the public was informed and had the necessary tools with which to participate in public debate (I wrote about this kind of vernacular science the other day). In my book, I stressed the importance of Commoner’s activist apparatus, which consisted of science, dissent, and information. In many respects, Commoner was a model of what Ravetz had in mind, both in terms of praxis, but also as a means of restoring scientific integrity.

I still regard Commoner as a central and positive figure in twentieth-century history (I don’t feel at all uncomfortable with the more hagiographic elements of the book—Commoner’s story is essential to the environmental history of the twentieth century and one of the most important players in American environmentalism), but the mercury project has me changing gears a little bit on the idea of post-normal science. Return to the relationship between science and politics: science moves less quickly. In a complex network of competing interests, science can be relegated to participant at a diverse table, equal with economic interests or local knowledge or political imperatives. All well and good, perhaps, but it seems to me that science—while I would question its capacity to deliver unmitigated truths—is about the best and most reliable source of knowledge-gathering we have at our disposal. And sometimes expertise and democracy are at odds. The mercury project shows this in multiple case studies and iterations. So while I adhere to the democratic principle of post-normal science, I wonder, sometimes, about its universal validity.

My interest here is to make less of a judgment on the moral nature of post-normal science, but rather to recognize its mechanisms as a prevalent feature of the scientific landscape after World War II. Too, I’m fascinated by the intricate dance involving science, policy, publics, expertise, and uncertainty.


[1] Ulrich Beck, “From Industrial Society to the Risk Society: Questions of Survival, Social Structure, and Ecological Enlightenment,” Theory, Culture & Society 9 (1992), 97-123.

A Short History of Sustainability

Sustainability has gone mainstream. It now serves as the universally accepted cornerstone of political and ethical guidelines for dealing with the planet’s ecological and social crisis. Just as environmental issues are now entrenched within the popular media, sustainability and sustainable development have become global buzzwords that unite environmentalists, legislators, and industry the world over. As a result, the politics of sustainable development constitute a happy marriage of Northern environmental lobbies and Southern development interests, identifying and stressing their common concerns and building multilateral cooperation toward realizing a greener and more prosperous world.

Here’s the rub: sustainability is a concept whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by political compromising and diffusion. While the vagaries of the idea are appealing insofar as they can bring wildly disparate parties together and breed a superficial consensus, the fact that sustainability means different things to different people has resulted in little substantive change in terms of lasting efforts and successes in curbing the global environmental crisis. To make matters worse, just as sustainability and sustainable development have crashed into the popular imagination, they have continued to evolve without a clear notion of what the goal of global environmental politics should be (witness, for example, the continuing failure to develop any tangible plan to confront climate change).

This is a problem that strikes at the very root of contemporary global environmental governance. After several years of reading and thinking about historical and contemporary issues that influence the global environment—from biodiversity loss and the widespread release of toxic chemicals to resource extraction and climate change—I have begun working toward writing a short book (100 pages) on the history of sustainability, an intellectual and political examination of the idea and its application in the global arena. While sustainability’s political history can be traced through a series of Earth summits and studies—notably Our Common Future—and more focused international conventions that were initiated shortly after the creation of the United Nations, its intellectual history is far older and more nebulous. Both histories and their interactions are pivotal for a deeper understanding of the political climate that is steering our contemporary efforts to address the tenuous state of the global environment.

Historicizing sustainability provides an important contextual lens for engaging with contemporary debates about our environmental future, but I think it also serves a further intellectual purpose insofar as history can help to illuminate one of the foundational obstacles associated with misunderstandings or miscommunications about applying sustainability in a global context. The evolution of sustainability as an idea has emerged out of older strains of environmental thinking that can be linked to stewardship, husbandry, management, conservation, and ecology. With these intellectual ancestors, sustainability shares an energetic capacity for planning for the future, but it is unique insofar as it gives little or no thought to the past. As an unfortunate result, sustainability implies a concerted effort to imagine a greener future, but this effort suggests as its goal an unrealistic end of crisis—or end of history. At the same time, however, sustainability implies hope, which is a much-needed quality in contemporary environmental practice. And its meteoric rise in social, political, economic, and cultural circles warrants careful attention as a valuable lens or portal through which we can examine critical aspects of global politics and nature’s impact on the human condition.

The Poverty of Power: Energies, Economies, and the Relevance of Environmental History

Below is a paper I delivered at the American Historical Association annual meeting in Seattle in 2005. It’s drawn predominantly from work I did on Barry Commoner, but it hints at some directions I’d like to revisit. One topic that interests me especially is the American relationship between energy technologies and economic recession. It seems as though rhetoric and enthusiasm for alternative energy technologies increases during periods of economic decline. Witness the 1930s and 1970s, for example. As the economy recovers, optimism for newer energy technologies subsides. This is an issue that deserves more consideration, but here’s an early departure for my interest in the idea. The title of the post was the title that appeared in the program.

My paper plays with the double entendre in our session’s title, “Environmental Matters.”  On the one hand, my subject material is of an intrinsically environmental persuasion.  In keeping with this panel’s focus on the 1970s, I turn my attention to the oil embargo, the energy crisis, the related economic crisis and their cumulative cultural impact on American environmental understanding.  On the other hand, I propose to use my brief account of the energy crisis to demonstrate environmental history’s significance not just within the larger existing historiography, but also outside the academy.  While this second assertion is hardly novel, it warrants our continued attention, particularly with respect to the study of the more recent past like the 1970s.  More specifically, the current debate over American energy production remains mired in the same polluting and wasteful bind that propelled the energy crisis thirty years ago.  Just as environmental  history argues that nature is an actor in the human drama—not just the backdrop—I want to present this paper as a series of different scenes that, combined, provide us with a deeper understanding of our energies, economies, and history.  So this is a paper of many acts, which, I fear, may conclude as more of a sermon.

[Act I]: To many, the 1970s was a period most aptly interpreted by Doonesbury’s characters, who, at decade’s end, toasted “a kidney stone of a decade.”[1]  During the 1970s, the euphoria that followed World War II dissipated into tension, angst, and crisis, punctuated by the Watergate scandal, defeat in Vietnam, the oil embargo, and severe economic depression.  Noting the popular response to such unsettling events, Tom Wolfe proclaimed the 1970s the “Me Decade,” characterized by self-exploration, fragmentation, and separation; Christopher Lasch called it a “culture of narcissism,” which involved living in the moment and for self, not predecessors or posterity.[2]  “After the political turmoil of the sixties,” wrote Lasch, “Americans … retreated to purely personal preoccupations.”[3]  A sort of spiritual hedonism swept American culture and helped to insulate Americans from the crises that pervaded public and political life.  In a strange sense, it was a perfect and yet impossible condition for the burgeoning environmental consciousness that had progressively become an integral feature of the American mainstream through the 1960s.  On the one hand, the narcissist demanded a clean and beautiful environment; on the other, there existed a disconnect between present, past, and future that rendered almost hopeless efforts for effective, long-term environmental protection.  The perceived immediacy of the crises that struck the 1970s belied their historical origins, and public and policymakers alike exhibited little vision in scrambling for short-term fixes to bigger problems.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the popular response to the energy crisis and the continuing demand for cheap energy, pervasive since the economic boom after the Second World War.

The decade began, of course, with Earth Day and the widespread acceptance of an environmental crisis that demanded public and policy attention.  After the unprecedented success of the first Earth Day, Denis Hayes and other Earth Day organizers targeted “the Dirty Dozen,” the twelve Congressmen with the worst environmental records; during the fall 1970 elections, seven of the twelve lost their seats and the environmental movement presented itself as a legitimate and powerful new force in Washington, D.C.  This victory was followed by strong legislation to clean air and water, control pesticides and pesticide use, and protect endangered species.[4]  The energy crisis in 1973 gave further credence to the importance of the conservation of natural resources as oil shortages caused mass hysteria in the press and at the gas pump, but it also muted the broader environmental agenda and left Americans clamoring for cheap fuel and electricity, not responsible energy use and conservation.  By the middle of the decade, America found itself consumed in a dire economic crisis, and the environmental momentum gained by successes early in the decade was dead.  [End of Act I.  In the interest of time, we’ll forego intermissions between acts and jump straight into Act II, which examines the energy crisis from an economic and socio-political perspective.]

Since the end of World War II, the American economy had been buoyed by unparalleled, rampant prosperity.  Indeed, such was the boom and sense of confidence, during the 1960s President Lyndon Johnson had tried to fight the Vietnam War without raising taxes.  For a time, it seemed as though the bullish economy would sustain Johnson’s efforts, but by the time he left office in 1969, his defiance of economic logic posed difficult problems for the Nixon administration.[5]  After more than two decades of economic growth and prosperity, the bottom fell out in the 1970s and the economy was in an acute state of crisis, which precipitated the onset of stagflation, manifest by a series of related factors: productivity was in decline; unemployment was on the rise and so were interest rates and inflation, in part a result of Johnson’s tax-free war; and trade deficits, unbalanced budgets, and a growing deficit were stalling the national economy.  Sagging productivity, galloping inflation, and stifling unemployment—especially among minorities and the millions of baby boomers now entering the workforce—constituted a difficult challenge for the new Nixon administration, and it proved quickly that it was not up to the challenge.

The socio-economic hazards inherent in the inefficient consumption of energy hit home to Americans with the onset of the 1973 energy crisis.  According to Walter Rosenbaum, “on the eve of the ‘energy crisis’ of 1973, per capita American energy use exceeded the rest of the globe’s per capita consumption by seven times and remained twice the average of that in European nations with comparable living standards.”[6]  In October 1973, Americans experienced a “crude awakening.”  Angered by Nixon’s devaluation of the American dollar—which had already resulted in raised oil prices and contributed to worldwide inflation—and the American support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, Arab leaders of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo on shipments of oil to the United States.  In December 1973, OPEC raised the price of oil to $11.65 a barrel, almost four times the cost prior to the Yom Kippur War.  The oil embargo lasted five months—from 16 October 1973 to 18 March 1974—as Americans contended with what Nixon called “a very stark fact: We are heading toward the most acute shortage of energy since World War II.”[7]

Nixon’s statement belied a dire miscalculation of the global economic climate on the part of his administration.  American policy dictated that Arab oil exporters needed American capital and technology more than Americans needed their oil.  After all, an attempted embargo in 1967 had supported this point of view; amid regional instability and embargoes, the oil still got through.[8]  What had changed by 1973?  In short: domestic oil production peaked in 1970.[9]  The strength of domestic wells had allowed the United States to stockpile a surplus capacity of about 4,000,000 barrels of oil a day between 1957 and 1963.  By the 1970s, that surplus had dropped to 1,000,000 barrels a day, and the United States was forced to become a major oil importer.  American demand for oil, extraction at full capacity at home, and growing dependence on an unstable and volatile part of the world for its lifeblood prompted former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson to wryly claim: “Popeye is running out of spinach.”[10]  It certainly seemed the case.  In 1967, 19% of oil for American consumption came from overseas; by 1972, that figure had risen to 30%, and 38% two years later.[11]  Oil imports more than doubled between 1967 and 1973—from 2.2 million barrels a day to 6,000,000 barrels a day—and the increasing importation of Arab oil, not to mention the enormous quantities of dollars held by Arab oil countries contributed markedly to the devaluation of the dollar in 1971 and again in 1973.[12]

As a result, the Nixon administration’s position dramatically underestimated the American dependence on foreign oil.[13]  According to Bruce Schulman, “the world’s great superpower seemed suddenly toothless, helpless, literally and metaphorically out of gas.”[14]  The oil embargo precipitated a series of events that demonstrated the centrality of oil to the American economic system.  The price of gasoline, heating oil, and propane climbed markedly, as did many petrochemicals like fertilizers and pesticides that were made from petroleum products.  Gasoline prices, combined with the shortage of gasoline, depressed car sales, and the automotive industry experienced a serious decline.  According to a 1975 issue of Survey of Current Business, a Department of Commerce publication, within a year of the embargo, the $5.3 billion decline in gross auto product during the fourth quarter of 1974 accounted for more than 25% of the decline in real Gross National Product.  In simpler terms, the battered auto industry was pinched by the oil embargo and contributed to the spreading economic alarm by laying off over 100,000 autoworkers.[15]  Increased fuel prices raised transportation costs and the price of agricultural chemicals, both of which contributed to inflated grocery bills.  Costs for heating went through the roof.[16]  Energy problems became problems of inflation and unemployment; energy had become firmly enmeshed in the deepening economic crisis.[17]  The energy crisis brought the country to its knees.  As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Business Week late in 1974—ironically a year after receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace—forceful action against Middle Eastern countries withholding oil might be justifiable in preventing “some actual strangulation of the industrialized world.”[18]  A few weeks earlier, Newsweek had quoted a “top U.S. official” as saying that “if the oil-producing nations drive the world into depression in their greed, the West might be forced into a desperate military adventure.”[19] [Fade to black: End of Act II]

On a recent flight across the country, I took with me Wallace Stegner’s biography of Bernard DeVoto.  On one level, I hoped that both Stegner and DeVoto would rub off on the conference paper I still had to finish (it didn’t work).  It made for a thoroughly enjoyable flight, however, and in preparing my paper, I was reminded of DeVoto’s lesson—one pre-iterated and subsequently re-iterated by countless others—that the past is not something historians actually recover.  “We are chained and pinioned in our moment,” DeVoto instructed.  “What we recover from the past is an image of ourselves, and very likely our search sets out to find nothing other than just that.”[20]  This is a declaration that environmental historians have taken to heart.  It’s become a mantra of sorts, no doubt inspired by the persistence of the conservation and environmental issues they study. Within a couple of decades of the energy crisis that rapt the American consciousness during the mid-1970s, for example, American drivership had pushed gas and oil consumption to per capita levels higher than those prior to the oil crisis of the 1970s.  While the average fuel rate (miles per gallon) for vehicles on American roads has increased substantially since 1973 (from 11.9 miles per gallon in 1973 to 16.9 miles per gallon in 2000), recently there has been a distressing move to larger vehicles.  The ratio of cars to total vehicles declined from 80% in 1977 to 64% in 1995.[21]

[Act IV]: Environmental history is engaged in charting what Worster has called a “path across the levee.”  It’s a multi-faceted levee between nature and society, mind and matter, and, from an academic perspective, the humanities and the sciences.[22]  This is a vital exercise, in which environmental historians find themselves especially well situated contemplate a critical social question: how did we come find ourselves immersed in a global environmental crisis.  As we consider this question, we learn that the nature of the question is complex.  Our societies and our economies are driven by our natural resources.  Their misuse, overuse, or depletion, then, take on grave socio-political implications.  The extraction of, use of, and dependence on fossil fuels and the contemporary concerns about the future of energy production mirror the intellectual and political dilemmas of the 1970s.  This leads us to another path across the levee: between the past and the present.  How can an environmental history of the energy crisis inform our contemporary questions?

Can historians tell the story of the 1970s energy crisis without delving into the environmental perspective?  Yes, but we do so at our own peril.  In addition to increased fuel consumption and the abandonment of serious conservation measures, our elected methods of energy production are particularly polluting.  Coal, for example, constitutes a significant percentage of our national power production, while its pollutants—among them mercury vapors—intoxicate our air and contaminate our waters.  Distinct regions, communities, and peoples bear the brunt of our polluting legacy.  The health and economic well-being—and the two are intimately linked—of the inhabitants industrial areas—like the provocatively nicknamed “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana—are indicative of this.  Our landscapes represent not just our interaction with nature, but also our interactions with race, class, gender, and disability.  This is more than simply an environmental story, but one that offers a peculiar lens into the inner dynamics of the origins of social angst that have been such a pervasive feature of American history.

This is a story we need to learn and one that historians need to teach.  I began this paper by invoking the title of our session; let me conclude by invoking my own title, “The Poverty of Power,” which I have borrowed from Barry Commoner, who was an active and tireless opponent of American energy policy during the 1970s.  Just prior to the energy crisis, Commoner warned: “We are living in a false prosperity.  Our burgeoning industry and agriculture has produced lots of food, many cars, huge amounts of power, and fancy new chemical substitutes.  But for all these goods we have been paying a hidden price.”  That price, Commoner argued, was the destruction of the ecological system that supported not only human existence, but also—ironically—the very industries that threatened it.  “What this tells us,” he surmised, “is that our system of productivity is at the heart of the environmental problem.”[23]  By the 1970s, Commoner was a veteran of social and environmental activism, and he very consciously recognized that government and business needed to have environmental destruction explained in economic terms in order to be swayed by the gravity of the situation.  Even before Earth Day, Commoner was conscious of this, and in a 1969 address at the 11th annual meeting of the National Association of Business Economists, he translated the environmental crisis into economic terms:

“The environment makes up a huge, enormously complex living machine—the ecosphere—and on the integrity and proper functioning of that machine depends every human activity, including technology.  Without the photosynthetic activity of green plants there would be no oxygen for our smelters and furnaces, let alone to support human and animal life.  Without the action of plants and animals in aquatic systems, we can have no pure water to supply agriculture, industry, and the cities.  Without the biological processes that have gone on in the soil for thousands of years, we would have neither food, crops, oil, nor coal.  This machine is our biological capital, the basic apparatus on which our total productivity depends.  If we destroy it, our most advanced technology will come to naught and any economic and political system which depends on it will founder.  Yet the major threat to the integrity of this biological capital is technology itself.”[24]

The message was ecological, but it was also unmistakably and profoundly economic.  And it was a damning indictment of the industrial forces behind the technological revolution.  Commoner summarized these ideas in The Closing Circle.  “Environmental problems seem to have an uncanny way of penetrating to the core of those issues that most gravely burden the modern world,” he told his readers.  “There are powerful links between the environmental crisis and the troublesome, conflicting demands on the earth’s resources and on the wealth created from them by society.”[25]  In this context, environmental history does not directly help us with solving the problem at hand, but it ensures that we ask the right questions.


[1] G. B. Trudeau, The People’s Doonesbury: Notes from Underfoot, 1978-1980 (New York: Henry Holt, 1981).

[2] Tom Wolfe, The Purple Decades (New York: Berkley Books, 1983), 265-296; and Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979).  For Wolfe’s famous essay, see also Wolfe, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” New York (23 August 1976), 26-40. For overviews of the 1970s, see Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York: The Free Press, 2001); Peter N. Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened: The Tragedy and Promise of America in the 1970s (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1982); Arlene S. Skolnick, Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty (New York: Basic Books, 1991); Jim Hougan, Decadence: Radical Nostalgia, Narcissism, and Decline in the Seventies (New York: Morrow, 1975); and James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[3] Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 4.

[4] Among the more prominent pieces of legislation were the National Environmental Protection Act (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1970), the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).

[5] Robert Hargreaves notes: “even at its worst, [the war in Vietnam] never directly accounted for more than 3.5% of the gross national product.  But by dissembling about the true costs of the military involvement and attempting to pay for it out of deficit spending, Johnson and [Robert] McNamara had unleashed forces that would sooner or later—but inevitably—bring America to the reckoning.”  Robert Hargreaves, Superpower: A Portrait of America in the 1970s (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973), 111.

[6] Rosenbaum, The Politics of Environmental Concern, 38.

[7] Richard Nixon’s speech was published in the New York Times, 8 November 1973, 32.  Also cited Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 118.  For a good overview of the American energy crisis in relation to the embargo, see Martin V. Melosi, Coping with Abundance: Energy and Environment in Industrial America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985), 277-293.

[8] For the oil crisis of 1967, see Yergin, The Prize, 554-558.

[9] In the spring of 1971, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a cryptic one-sentence announcement: “The Texas Railroad Commission announced a 100 percent allowable for next month.”[9]  [Cited in Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 4].  The Texas Railroad Commission was effectively a government-sanctioned cartel that matched domestic oil production to demand.  In 1971, Texas wells began pumping oil at full capacity and domestic oil fields could no longer keep up with American demand.  In 1960, Americans consumed 9,700,000 barrels of oil a day; by 1970, that number had grown to 14,400,000, and had climbed to 16,200,000 in 1974.  [Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 119].  Said Byron Tunnell, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, after it reached the decision to pump at full capacity: “We feel this to be an historic occasion.  Damned historic, and a sad one.  Texas oil fields have been like a reliable old warrior that could rise to the task, when needed.  That old warrior can’t rise anymore.”  [Hargreaves, Superpower, 176.  Also cited in Yergin, The Prize, 567].

[10] Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 121.  Also cited in Hargreaves, Superpower, 176.

[11] Patterson, Grand Expectations, 785; and Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 119.  Too, the energy crunch extended beyond oil to natural gas.  Indeed, to make matters worse, Martin Melosi notes that “in 1968, for the first time in U.S. history, more natural gas was sold than was discovered.”  Melosi, Coping with Abundance, 282.

[12] Hargreaves, Superpower, 176.  For oil importation numbers, see Yergin, The Prize, 567.  In addition to the limitations of domestic oil, Yergin also stresses the importance of OPEC’s growing strength and its ability to dictate oil prices on the global market as contributing to the severity of the 1973 oil embargo.  See Yergin, The Prize, 554-612.

[13] See Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened, 117-118.

[14] Schulman, The Seventies,125.

[15] United States Department of Commerce, Survey of Current Business 55 (February 1975), 2.

[16] Between January 1973 and January 1974, the average monthly residential bill for #2 fuel oil, for example, increased between 59% to 90%.  Gas heating prices rose by as much as 25% and electricity prices by as much as 63% over the same period.  See Foster Associates, Energy Prices, 1960-1973 (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1974), 5-7.

[17] Commoner, The Poverty of Power, 34.

[18] Cited in Commoner, The Poverty of Power, 265.

[19] “Thinking the Unthinkable,” Newsweek (7 October 1974), 50-51.  Quotation is from page 51.  In addition to such dire language, the article was accompanied by sketches of an airborne attack on oil fields.

[20] Bernard DeVoto, “What’s the Matter with History?,” Harper’s 179 (June 1939), 109, 110.

[21] See George Martin, “Grounding Social Ecology: Landscape, Settlement, and Right of Way,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 13 (March 2002), 3-30.  Bigger vehicles invariably mean greater fuel consumption, so while cars have continued to become more fuel-efficient the average fuel rate for all vehicles has only fluctuated mildly since 1991.  See the Department of Energy website statistics: http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/ptb0209.html.  Further, while per vehicle fuel consumption is lower than the pre-oil crisis rate, it has climbed back up to the 1980 rate, a disturbing rise associated with the increasing popularity of sport utility vehicles.  See John Cloud & Amanda Bower, “Why SUV is all the Rage,” Time 161 (24 February 2003).  See also Keith Bradsher, High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV (New York: Public Affairs, 2003).

[22] See Donald Worster, “Paths Across the Levee,” in The Wealth of nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 16-29.

[23] Barry Commoner, “Untitled Talk,” Harvard University, 21 April 1970 (Barry Commoner Papers, LoC, Box 36), 5.  In 1973, E. F. Schumacher reiterated this general premise in his surprisingly successful book, Small is Beautiful, an economic tract that defied the maxims of growth and bigness, both perceived as integral to the free market.  E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

[24] Commoner, “The Social Significance of Environmental Pollution,” 11th annual meeting of the National Association of Business Economists, Chicago, 26 September 1969 (Barry Commoner Papers, LoC, Box 130), 4.

[25] Commoner, The Closing Circle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), 250.