On Writing

I’m probably not supposed to admit to it quite so freely, but history is an exercise in storytelling. I revel in writing and in crafting narrative. I’m not especially adept at either, but these creative aspects of my discipline hold me captive and bring me considerable pleasure. The best days consist of uninterrupted time to write. Some of those days are good days. The writing comes smoothly, the ideas are sound, and the arguments develop flawlessly and almost on their own. Other days, writing is a struggle. Words, sentences, mental images, arguments get lost or muddled. Interesting material becomes dry and tangential.

Recently, I’ve been trying to breathe life into mercury’s biogeochemical cycle, the manner in which it circulates through the physical environment. While mercury possesses beguiling characteristics and flows across so much modern environmental history in its capacity as a pollutant and poison, my efforts to make its independent motility interesting (distinct from the fascinating debates in human science and politics) have been less successful. After spending almost a week hammering out three or four pages that described the steps of mercury’s biogeochemical cycle and how we should also start to think about an anthropogenic cycle for mercury, derived from human activities moving mercury around the planet, I became frustrated with just how bored I was. And if I was bored with a topic I found inherently stimulating, this couldn’t be a good sign. From multiple pages and extensive notes, I cut my description down to the following (still a bit rough):

It might suffice to assert that mercury has a natural biogeochemical flow. It goes up into the atmosphere and returns to the surface, where it shuffles around the lithosphere and biosphere, before evaporating again and rising up into the atmosphere in perpetual, independent, and agonizingly slow cycle. Sometimes it returns to the earth’s sediment, replaced in the cycle by mercury loosed from the same source; this cycle can take centuries or millennia. Over the past 2000 years (and especially in the last 200) human activities—primarily digging holes in the ground and burning things—have dramatically increased the amount of mercury in circulation.

Mercury’s biogeochemical cycle is. Since mercury first iterated itself, it always was. This would be of little consequence to human history but for the role humans have played in augmenting the amount of mercury cycling through the environment and its concomitant effect on human health as it bioaccumulates up the food chain. As mercury cycles through the environment, it moves not just through inanimate matter, but also through living organisms. As organisms are eaten by bigger organisms, the mercury increases in concentration at every step. In aquatic systems, phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton, who are eaten by fish, who are eaten by bigger fish, who find their way into the human diet. On land, the process of biomagnification traces a similar route through plants, birds, and mammals to the top of the food chain. Us.

Far from perfect (and maybe still only interesting to me), but the prevailing lesson here is that simplicity trumps exhaustive description, especially when dealing with technical information. This could be longer, but for the purposes of stressing that mercury moves with human intervention and without it (and that both these processes have profound historical implications), maybe shorter is better. That, of course, raises interesting issues surrounding the craft of knowing the technical ins and outs of the science behind the processes and how best to translate them.

History of the Future

At the risk of adding even further to the chaotic eclecticism that’s been the first week of this blog, here’s another direction or angle or perspective that I pursue. 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.

Sverker Sörlin, Libby Robin, and Paul Warde have been doing some exciting work on environmental prediction, and I know of a few historians who have taken an interest in futurism. My own project—very much in the pipeline phase at the moment—is currently 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.

This has also been a teaching interest of mine. I’ve taught “The History of the Future” twice at McMaster over the past few years, 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. The next time I teach it, 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’ll write more about the course concepts in the future; this was an interesting and effective way to talk about technological systems.

A Mercurial History

For a little too long now, I’ve been working on the history of knowing and regulating mercury pollution. The project is more or less global in scale and concentrates on the period since World War II, starting with Minamata in the 1950s. When asked what it’s about, I tend to say that it follows the struggle for epistemic clarity among and between scientists and policy makers—how science and politics work at different speeds and how the twentieth-century environmental crisis has pushed knowledge makers and brokers into novel and curious collaborations. It’s also a book about environmental toxicology, but I still have to work that out more clearly. I’ll be writing about this project from time to time on this blog, largely as a means of trying to organize my own thoughts and prod the writing along. Here’s a recent attempt at providing a summary overview of some of the project’s themes:

Twentieth-century mercury pollution is a slippery subject. Mercury’s transition from elemental isolation to unwelcome ecological integration—a physical and an epistemological journey—offers an intriguing blend of human and natural partnerships of the sort that make environmental history an important avenue of inquiry; in effect, the history of the global mercury problem affords scholars with a valuable lens through which to examine interaction with an element that human practices invoke but do not define.

The challenges inherent in understanding and regulating this dangerous and prolific environmental pollutant across boundaries, jurisdictions, and constituencies constitute a vital testing ground for the examination of how environmental knowledge and policy travel in tandem over time and across boundaries; it also comprises one of the most critical chapters of a larger history of the hazardous chemicals regime—a series of independent but functionally related treaties and programs—that emerged after World War II to address the proliferation of new chemicals and pollutants introduced into the environment. In the decades after World War II, mercury was identified as a pollutant deriving from fungicides, mildew-resistant paint, run-off from gold mining, coal-fired power plant emissions, and the construction of hydroelectric reservoirs. Devastating mercury “epidemics” struck local populations in Japan, Guatemala, Ghana, Pakistan, Iraq, and Canada; high concentrations of mercury were discovered in water systems throughout the developed world, most notably in Sweden, Canada, and the United States; and as mercury became universally recognized as a toxic hazard, its disposal posed myriad new problems. In a focused study of this problem, I propose to examine the development of environmental toxicology in light of growing international concerns over mercury pollution after World War II, and put the budding scientific field in conversation with the policies that urgently sought to control mercury’s dangers.

While national and international governing bodies sought to develop legal and commercial mechanisms to reduce the release of mercury into the environment, sustainable resolutions have been elusive, due in no small measure to the apparent disconnect between scientific knowledge and policy decisions. As mercury proliferated throughout the environment, scientists and policymakers around the world scrambled to make sense of and respond to this new hazard. Within the scientific community, environmental toxicology emerged as an important branch of toxicology studies that aimed to illuminate the relationship between environmental pollution and public health. For their part, politicians at both the national and international levels sought to reconcile competing industrial and public health interests.  That these competing interests were frequently incommensurable only magnifies the tension between our exploitation of the physical environment and our understanding of it.

“All history is the history of unintended consequences,” writes historian David Blackbourn, “but that is especially true when we are trying to untangle humanity’s relationship with the natural environment.” In the case of mercury pollution, the proliferation of mercury and the difficulties inherent in regulating it were the direct result of a new science—and the scientific institutions that drove it—being asked to weigh in on the severity of a problem after the ecological hazard had already presented itself.  The unintended consequences that drive the history of knowing and regulating mercury constitute an important lesson in the politics of scientific engagement.

The Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (part I)

As I was finishing up the Commoner book and getting started on the new mercury project, I remained fascinated with the idea of developing a vernacular science. During the 1950s and 1960s, Barry Commoner was at the vanguard of a new science information movement, which involved making scientific information accessible to a lay audience. His efforts were an explicit expression of the fundamental principles of democracy in action: only an informed public had the tools necessary to participate in debate. To Commoner, the post-WWII privacy and secrecy of scientific endeavors threatened its integrity. His public activities were in response to the following description of recent scientific culture and its relationship to public life. At the end of Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer conclude with an insightful and incisive look at modern science:

Our present-day problems of defining our knowledge, our society, and the relationships between them centre on … dichotomies between the public and the private, [and] between authority and expertise. … We regard our scientific knowledge as open and accessible in principle, but the public does not understand it.  Scientific journals are in our public libraries, but they are written in a language alien to the citizenry.  We say that our laboratories constitute some of our most open professional spaces, yet the public does not enter them.  Our society is said to be democratic, but the public cannot call to account what they cannot comprehend.  A form of knowledge that is the most open in principle has become the most closed in practice (343).

The next—and concluding—sentence in that paragraph is: “To entertain these doubts about our science is to question the constitution of our society.” Barry Commoner spent a career reveling in questioning the constitution of our society, and the larger science information movement saw as its guiding principle an approach to breaking down this barrier between expertise and the public.  I would submit that this scientific activism is a critical and relatively under-appreciated feature of the history of environmentalism and one of the most significant developments in the history of science since World War II.

With that in mind, I keep turning back to the idea of the history of a post-WWII vernacular science and the relationship between scientists and their social responsibility. There’s a lot of rich material here (some of it very ably discussed in Kelly Moore’s book, Disrupting Science), and grounds for more research and analysis. And Commoner’s role, too. In 2007 and 2008, I started doing some preliminary research into the history of Commoner’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, which was established in the mid-1960s and is still going, now at Queens College in Flushing, NY. They do some fascinating work. For more, see their site here. For a variety of reasons, I tabled the project, but I do want to come back to it—maybe there’s an article or two to write down the line. At any rate, here’s a brief overview of the CBNS’s inception. It’s vague, but offers some indication of where it came from (but needs to be flushed out further). The following is the beginning of a close reading of the grant that Commoner wrote for a rather unique Public Health Service grant competition. It is drawn from notes prepared for a presentation I gave at the History of Science Society annual meeting in Pittsburgh in 2008. I share it here in order to spur returning to this material (which has direct overlaps with mercury project) sooner rather than later.

This paper will briefly examine the Center’s inception and role, before circling around to examine the social and scientific significance of the dissemination of a vernacular science and the Center’s role.  By way of caveat, I should stress that I do not mean to imply that the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems invented vernacular science or that its efforts in the 1960s and 1970s were the first examples of it.  Indeed, a host of literature has examined the manner in which knowledge creation has long been considered fundamentally open and accessible.  My interest is in the relationship between science and environmental activism and how that relationship sought to communicate its knowledge to non-scientific audiences.  Nevertheless, the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems is historically significant for a couple of reasons.  First, the Center coalesced around the experiences of scientists who had engaged in using a vernacular approach to warn the public about the hazards associated with radioactive fallout from aboveground nuclear weapons testing.  The Center’s mission and efforts were informed and nuanced by that work from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, Commoner and other scientists at Washington University had been instrumental in producing accessible information about nuclear fallout to the public in a variety of novel ways (this through the Greater St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information).  But as much as the Center is important as a concluding point for an earlier chapter in the history of public science and “communicating knowledge,” it also served as a new departure.  The Center’s founding and funding marked a unique and important milestone in the history of the science information movement.

In September 1965, Barry Commoner submitted a proposal to the Public Health Service for funding for the creation of a scientific research center that would tackle the growing number of environmental threats to human health.[1]  Commoner was listed as the principal investigator of a team of St. Louis-based collaborators, on the grant, whose budget was $3.6 million dollars over six years.  Collaborators included members of the departments of botany, zoology, physics, and chemistry, but the Medical School at Washington University, the St. Louis Zoo, and the Missouri Botanical Garden were also represented.  As Commoner recalled, “The proposal represented a collaboration rather than an individual university-based or discipline-based activity with an elaborate program aimed at the complexities of the natural biological systems in which nature functioned required the attention of basic scientific research.”[2]

(It’s a remarkable document). “The scale and intensity of biological and technological activities of man which affect the environment has now begun to approach the scale of the environment itself.”  Whereas the environment had typically been regarded as an infinite sink for the hazardous products of human activity, the intensity of technological activity after World War II put into question the total environment’s capacity as a reservoir.  Also, the grant proposal asserted, the altered nature of the pollutants threatening the human habitat played a new role.  “In the past,” it stated, “apart from relatively localized inorganic industrial pollutants, human impact on the environment was due almost exclusively to human biology and was represented by the common products of animal excretion: CO2, nitrogenous wastes, and the concomitant microbial flora.”  While these pollutants constituted natural wastes and were subject to biological degradation, the new synthetic pollutants were new to the biosphere.[3]

The proposal not only reflected the environmental imperatives of the program, but also the importance of such research in the scientific climate of the time.  Public health research, the application asserted, was a scientific orphan.  The Public Health Service certainly thought so; more to the point their attempt to develop a comprehensive research program on the environment was something they had not attempted before.  Commoner and his colleagues proposed to connect to the rapidly developing modernization of biological research—including molecularly oriented research—with research in chemistry and physics.  In its formation and mission, then, the proposed research was very intentionally multi-disciplinary—or, as Commoner insisted, adisciplinary—because, he argued, traditional academic disciplines were not independently equipped to tackle environmental problems.  In a period in which scientific investigations tended toward greater reductionism, the more wide-ranging adisciplinarity of the Center’s vision demonstrated a novel reading of the nature of environmental problems.  I should stress that this isn’t ecology but rather a science of the total environment, which resisted being limited to ecological or toxicological methodologies.

The application also outlined the rationale for the center’s proposed name.  The Center for the Biology of Natural Systems was a deliberate response to the increasing molecularization of the biological sciences, which they argued, stressed extractive parts of living systems, but not the living systems themselves.  “The dependence of human health on the environment is an expression of a basic condition of life,” the grant stated, “that every organism functions as part of a natural system which includes other individuals of the same species, a wide variety of other organisms, and their non-living surroundings.”[4]

The scope of the Center’s programs was broad, ranging through: energy conservation and alternative energy issues, agricultural contamination of soil and water systems, appropriate technology for developing nations, the nature and proliferation of environmental carcinogens, organic farming, urban waste disposal and recycling programs, and the social and economic effects of environmental pollution.

[1] In the early 1960s, a Congressional Act made funds available to the Public Health Service to establish ten centers for research on problems in the environment as they related to human health. In spite of several preceding applications from numerous universities, CBNS was the first (and only) center to receive funding.

[2] Barry Commoner interview with author, 11 December 2007.

[3] CBNS, “Public Health Service Application,” 4.

[4] CBNS, “Public Health Service Application,” 3.

The History of a Sustainable Future?

A bit of background on the book series. In 2007, a group of young(ish) scholars across North America created the Sustainable Future History Project, a loosely organized cabal that provided opportunities for networking and collaborative projects. We also shared a strong sense that history’s contemporary relevance—especially with respect to environmental issues (our shared specialization)—was frequently overlooked and that history could provide important context in planning for a more sustainable future. From the Sustainable Future History Project’s website:

It’s a bit of a funny name and a peculiar concept (looking backward to look forward), but the Sustainable Future History Project is predicated on the idea that in order to fully understand the social, political, economic, and ecological extent of our contemporary environmental crisis we need to be conscious of its historical context.  Moreover, resolving our global environmental problems requires careful thought and planning; future success is dependent upon a deeper appreciation of the past.  This is the point: historicizing sustainable futures is based less on the notion that we should learn from past mistakes, but rather on the premise that solving the environmental crisis will demand the most and best information available, and history provides valuable insight into the creation and proliferation of the environmental ills we hope to curb.

Lots of interesting conversations and ideas sprang out of the groups various informal chats and meetings at conferences. The most substantial development thus far was the creation of the MIT Press book series, which was started in 2009. The real tenor of the series is to try something different. The books are short; maybe half the length of a standard academic monograph. The idea is to produce a series of short, smart, and accessible books (complete with the traditional academic apparatus: notes, bibliography, etc.) on the history of topics that have pressing environmental resonance. The point is to produce books that appeal not only to our peers, but also to undergraduate classrooms and policy makers and activists. At the time of writing, we have received considerable interest from a very interesting variety of scholars, and are looking forward to receiving the first manuscript submissions later in 2012. Stay tuned.

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…

CFP: The Bicycle in Environmental History

Proposals are solicited for an edited volume on the bicycle in environmental history. In contemporary society, the bicycle is the lone “green alternative” in the array of transportation options: it requires no parking space, produces no exhaust fumes, and causes no traffic jams. But it also constitutes a form of mechanized transportation that invariably puts the rider in close contact with the elements (and, culturally, with community and surroundings). What would an environmental history of the bicycle look like? What role has the bicycle played in human interactions with place? How does the bicycle as a symbol of mobility and motility shape our historical understanding of the environmental past? In what manner have changes and continuity over time in design variations, materials, manufacturing, and distribution contributed to technological advances in the machine on the one hand, and cycling advocacy networks on the other? And, indeed, vice versa: how have competitive sport and urban bike politics influenced the technological system built up around the bicycle and its relationship to the physical environment?

Perhaps because of its diversity and complexity, the history of the bicycle has received little comprehensive treatment from historians. The most coherent trend in bicycling historiography tends toward emphasis on the bicycle as a liberating technology. In North America, the bicycle’s place in women’s emancipation efforts at the turn of the last century is a dominant theme; similarly, a growing literature on the bicycle as vehicle for social and economic empowerment is prevalent throughout the developing world. In the European literature, business and technology seem to predominate, along with a longstanding interest in sport history. Outside of fleeting discussions of the bicycle in urban environments, the bicycle is conspicuous in its absence in environmental history works; this volume seeks to build on existing literature, while situating its focus squarely on the bicycle’s connection to environmental history.

As a venue for opening conversation about the bicycle in environmental history, this project does not plan to impose geographic boundaries on its analysis of the bicycle. Indeed, transnational, comparative, and global approaches are encouraged. Just as the geographic scope is broad so, too, is the volume’s intended chronological reach. Topics will be considered from a variety of perspectives, ranging from (but not limited to) the bicycle’s role in place-making; human-powered motility; bicycling leisure and culture; gender, bicycling, and nature; the bicycle as economic tool in the developing world; bicycle technology; the bicycle in urban design; mountain bike trails; or bike advocacy.

Inquiries and submissions can be sent to Dr. Michael Egan (McMaster University): egan@mcmaster.ca


6 April 2012: deadline for submission of 300-word abstract

20 April 2012: invitations distributed

1 December 2012: deadline for submission of clean first drafts