History of the Future: Narratives of Hope & Despair

Below: scribblings that comprised my presentation at the 2015 American Society for Environmental History annual meeting in Washington, DC. I was the gadfly on a panel that investigated the viability of the history of sustainability as a distinct line of subdisciplinary inquiry. The idea of sustainability began to crescendo in ASEH circles after the annual meeting in Tallahassee in 2009. That conference hosted an informal—and very well attended—open discussion on sustainability and the Society’s Committee for Sustainability was formed thereafter. Sustainability was not explicitly present in the program, but it served as one of the dominant undercurrents in presentations and informal conversations. I don’t think we had explicitly articulated the role sustainability could play in our work, but as our field has continued to mature and expand, each conference births a theme or direction for subsequent work. If you look beyond conference titles and just take in sessions, Q&As, plenaries, and book room chatter (I’ll forego the bar talk), often the richest thematic takeaways are not obviously present in the program. All this to say that in 2009, “sustainability” seemed to be that “a-ha!” theme. By the 2011 meeting in Phoenix, the program was saturated with sustainability topics, driven in no small part by the term appearing in the conference title. As the thoughts below outline, I’m a skeptic. I probably overplay my hand here a little, but I don’t see what the history of sustainability does for historians unless it is a part of a more ambitious history of the future.


History of the Future: Narratives of Hope and Despair

I come to bury sustainability, not to praise it. As a popular ideal and as an organizing theme for environmental history, I find it problematic. It does a disservice to intellectual inquiry by narrowing the field of discussion. It misdirects contemporary and historical understandings of social and environmental crisis. And it limits our capacity to effectively contextualize past, present, and future.

Sustainability is appealing. As a concept, it fosters dialogue and hope. We can talk about scarcity crises, but I defy you to identify two things more scarce than dialogue and hope in our contemporary environmental struggles. Over the past few decades, sustainability succeeded in bringing an impressively eclectic group of activists, economists, policymakers, and industry to the table. After the 1972 Stockholm Conference, what emerged—on the surface—was an intriguing 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. This relationship reinforced the important notion that environmental protection did not function in isolation from peace, social justice, and economic development. (But neither did it invent this broader relationship). Please don’t mistake my attack on sustainability as an attack on the two lines of historical inquiry presented by my co-presenters. This is important work that requires further investigation, not least because it helps us to globalize environmental history.

That work is necessary, because sustainability is a concept whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history also indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by political compromise 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). In short, sustainability is, in Bill McKibben’s words, a “buzzless buzzword,” designed to “obfuscate [and] paper over the tension between the fact that societies are overexploiting the planet’s physical resources and the fact that everyone seems reluctant to stop this rapaciousness.”

Let’s be very clear about the not-so-new problems that gird sustainability. More than twenty years ago, Donald Worster argued that the sustainability ideal rests on an uncritical, unexamined acceptance of the traditional world-view of progressive, secular materialism. The world view that brought us the current environmental crisis is considered completely benign so long as it can be made sustainable. I’m not sure that anything has changed. I can put that more strongly: nothing has changed. To this end, sustainability and sustainable thinking are imbued with what Helga Nowotny has called “the hubris of believing in progress.”

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. To sustain is a conversation between the present and the future—and it has typically been organized thus. 

So I come to bury sustainability. I read its past and present as more ruse than muse for global environmental governance. Let me shift, though, from denouncing the deceased—and alleviating my alliteration—to imagine more constructive methods of engaging the questions that sustainability tried to illuminate. I want to briefly touch on our expanding environmental lexicon before situating the kernel of this work within a more functional intellectual foundation.

In terms of environmental vocabulary, sustainability’s ugly but more competent sibling is resilience. In a 2009 workshop on “Expertise for the Future,” Libby Robin remarked that resilience has two definitions: a mathematical one and another in plain English. The mathematical meaning implies that change is inevitable and something that can generally be predicted. The plain English or cultural definition of this mathematical or predictive model is more intriguing. Like sustainability, resilience can be qualified by society, economics, and the environment. But it pretty much rejects the notion that sustainability is possible (change is inevitable, after all), and implicitly recognizes that bad stuff is going to happen.

That said, having resilience—or being resilient—is a good thing. It means acquiring flexibility; anticipating unknown or unforeseen troubles; and preparing for survival in tough times. As environmental historians start to grapple with the “great acceleration”—as we start to take seriously the idea of the Anthropocene—resilience provides historians with an interesting framework for interacting with global change.

But I want to move beyond semantics. The history of sustainability- and resilience-thinking constitute specific areas of inquiry with a larger history of the future, which I take to mean the study of how past peoples—individually and collectively—imagined the future. The future is omnipresent in the historical record. It is an idea, a proposal, a scenario, rather than an orchestrated series of events. As social constructions, they have their own histories that would reward our investigations.

Because the future plays such a critical role in shaping the human condition, historians would do well to examine the “history of the future,” or how past societies imagined and/or prepared for what was to come. We are in perpetual interaction with the future. On a daily basis we are pre-occupied in planning for it. From memos to to-do lists, our present selves leave communiqués for our future selves. We plan vacations, retirement, grocery lists—all with at least one eye on the future. Most of these activities are mundane, but they consume an inordinate amount of time and social creativity. Socio-politically, economies look forward; so does infrastructure planning and disaster preparedness. Climate models, weather forecasts, famine predictions are all expressions of engagements with the future.

In effect, there are two branches to engaging history, environment, and future. The first involves exploring the institutional interpretation of global change. The scientific and technological interactions with the physical environment and the intellectual inquiry into changing patterns constitute an exciting overlap between the histories of science, technology, the environment, and the future. The second avenue of inquiry traces the cultural ramifications of these more formal frames of analysis. Where the intellectual pursuits of explaining and predicting global change are largely conducted among emerging experts, the cultural response

If history recounts what people did, much of the history of the future examines what they thought they were doing. This perspective invites opportunities to investigate the manner in which new technologies mediated visions of the future and, conversely, how imaginations of the future shaped subsequent technological innovation. Material culture—green design, urban planning, dam removal, dyke reinforcement—offer stories that reflect the temperaments of their time, but also an articulate foray into a future conversation.

Science, technology, environment, future, and their overlapping histories reconvene in the emerging fields of vulnerability and disaster studies. After World War II, disaster preparedness became a science as the developing world sought to insulate its peoples and economies from natural and technological catastrophes. Perhaps not surprisingly these new interests received considerable military support during the Cold War, as Jake Hamblin has shown in his recent work.

Fears around nuclear holocaust, the proliferation of toxic chemicals, and the scientific consensus on global warming drove the developed world into panicked discussions of what the environmental future held. Vulnerability and disaster studies turned into major industries, complete with new kinds of experts who analyzed, predicted, and prepared for different future scenarios, drawing on computer modelling, probability, and big data to do so. In effect, the single greatest development in post-materialist society is that its population became evermore risk averse (this is a forward-looking kind of cultural tension). I think this is an interesting angle that deserves more attention. There is, of course, a counterpoint, where concerns about emerging scarcity and uncertainty invited imaginative optimism over technological futures. If Hamblin’s bleak interpretation of vulnerability and environmental catastrophe offer declensionist prediction, Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers examines how limits inspired human ingenuity.

Cultural responses to environmental risk are interesting historical phenomena, and they sit squarely in the sights of our history of the future. Calculating risk—whatever the scale—is an explicit conversation with the future. In addition, it binds the scientific and the technological with the cultural. In a cultural reading of past environmental futures, analysis of success is less relevant than the optimism or pessimism that courses through the primary sources.

An explicit history of the future promises a novel toolkit for unpacking the Anthropocene and the emerging discovery that humans have irrevocably changed the planet they inhabit. And in so doing, an ambitious history of the future contributes to historical inquiry on a far more critical scale. Political and economic imperatives tend to put emphasis on a shorter timeframe that lacks pragmatic viability when the environmental stakes are so high. David Armitage and Jo Guldi recently argued that historians have enabled this kind of shorter-term thinking. The disciplinary shift away from the longue durée to the analysis of more concentrated time scales has resulted in concomitant shrinking perspectives of the future. In effect, by limiting their scope in exploring the past, historians have contributed to reducing the attention/imagination span of publics to look forward. They note that contemporary society functions within fiscal quarters and political cycles, but that warnings of environmental apocalypse twenty years hence are received as abstractions. Mainstream media has difficulty communicating their scale and scope, while in the political arena there is limited incentive to work in such ambitious timeframes. In response to this, it is time for historians to consider returning to larger syntheses—to take stock of what we have learned. New organizing principles like the Anthropocene hearken back to big history, and provoke historical inquiry: how were portents of change interpreted in the past? And what did historical actors suppose they meant for the future?

In this vein, perhaps we can rehabilitate sustainability, not as an organizing concept, but rather as part of series of tools through which historians might examine past futures.

Remembering Barry Commoner

Three years ago today, I gave probably the most important public talk of my life. I had the extreme honour of having been invited to speak at Barry Commoner’s memorial service. It was a moving event in a full room at the New York Academy of Medicine, across the street from Manhattan’s Central Park. Below: some scribblings in preparation of my remarks that day.


Over the past ten years, I have given dozens of lectures—formal and informal—on why Barry Commoner matters—how Barry and his career serve as the lynchpin for social, economic, environmental, and political justice and for a broader movement for making peace with the planet and with each other. But for me, today offers a new opportunity to reflect on why Barry matters to me.

I first met Barry in November 2001. I was at a conference in Albany and took the train down to meet him at CBNS. I won’t lie: I was nervous. I was meeting with Dr. Barry Commoner and he had nominally agreed to let me interview him for my dissertation that would examine his role in galvanizing the American environmental movement. I don’t remember a lot from that first visit, other than he gave me a tour of the Center at the end of our conversation. And we stopped outside of Sharon [Peyser]’s office and he said: “You’re Michael; I’m Barry.” (no more Dr. Commoner). He also told me that I was tackling an excellent and important topic. I don’t have to tell an audience of friends that he informed me of this without a shred of arrogance, but rather with a kind and genuine sense of purpose.

So, Barry started out as a research subject. As an historian, I wanted to try to maintain a modicum of professional distance—close enough that he trusted me, but sufficiently removed that I could tell his story as I interpreted it. Well, friends, I regret to report that I am not a very good historian. Somewhere during my semi-regular visits between 2001 and 2004, Barry very quickly shifted from research subject to friend. And my most vivid memories are not of the oral histories I conducted, but rather of making lunch together in the CBNS office with fixings he’d brought from his deli in Brooklyn, our informal chats over lunch, and him insisting on driving me back to the Flushing train station at day’s end. Also, a very memorable evening spent with Barry and Lisa in their home. I’ve told Barry and Lisa that Barry turned me on to roasted red pepper (I’ll leave you to find the free lunch joke to be had here, but the colour seems appropriate, too).

And after I completed my dissertation, I enjoyed our friendship all the more. Every few months, I would get a phone call—either at home or at my office. There would be a familiar and warm, but gruff voice on the other side of the line. And he would start by asking me to recall some part of his past. Where did he give such-and-such a lecture, or was the St. Louis AAAS meeting before or after the San Francisco one. Or could I recall the dates of his correspondence with Rosalind Franklin. But then we would chat. I’d learn about how his book was coming along. Now, understand, I’m not a biologist, but Barry never talked down to me (even after I confessed to dropping out of Grade 12 Biology). He explained things on a curious plain somewhere between assuming I had a body of knowledge I didn’t and with an explanatory tone that meant I understood what he was describing. Having studied his career, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this. But here’s my takeaway: I got private biology lessons from Barry Commoner!

So this is what I’m still processing: not just the passing of a friend. Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about Barry as a teacher. As I started my first academic job and settled into publishing my dissertation, I held very tightly to lessons I’d learned from Barry about the public intellectual’s social responsibility and the scholar’s role as knowledge broker. And I reread Barry’s 1962 paper “The Scholar’s Obligation to Dissent” at least once a year to make sure I haven’t drifted too far from the right path. The late 2000s and early 2010s constitute a very different academic landscape than the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but in Barry’s writings and example I see a relevant and important model for social activism and a code of conduct to which I strive to adhere.

I don’t know if Barry would have had me as a student, but I owe him a great debt to how I have approached my teaching, my research, and my role at the university. I might also note that this past term I adopted his notion of hybrid vigor in my graduate seminar, and brought in colleagues from around campus to discuss global environmental issues. Which is to say that on a very practical level, on Monday afternoons over the past few months, Barry was front and center in my thoughts.

Not least, because I had the opportunity to visit him late last August. He was frail, but we spent the entire afternoon together at his home. And we talked and talked. For hours. The consummate teacher: he wanted to talk me through his book project, making sure I understood both the narrative arc, but also the more technical particulars. As ever, I was learning from my friend, Barry. And as he became more passionate about a particular feature, his energy levels would rise. It was a great afternoon, punctuated by Lisa returning home and a cheerful dinner that evening.

So let me finish with Barry’s enduring lesson. In one of our later meetings, he related to me how he had discovered the secret of life. The secret to life, he told me with an almost boyish grin, is life. Now, Barry was teasing out the very clear biological polemic implicit in that statement, but I think it was also a reiteration of his long-held belief that we are what we make, and our heavy investment in creating synthetic chemicals was breaking that cycle of life.

But I want to also address a deeper meaning to suggest that through his work, his acts, his writings, his teaching, his friendships, his beliefs, his sense of social responsibility, his humor, his example: I think Barry had a finger firmly pressed against the pulse of that secret. And he taught that to me (as I’m sure he has—directly and indirectly—to everyone here and to countless others the world over). And it’s important that we continue to share that secret as widely as we can. And maybe, collectively, we can do it almost as well as he did. I miss him.

Photo Essay: Love Canal

I spent the past two days in Buffalo, conducting research at the University of Buffalo’s Special Collections and at the Buffalo History Museum’s Research Library. My focus was on the Adeline Levine Love Canal collections at both institutions. It was a fruitful trip, tying up loose ends and discovering new avenues of inquiry.

I woke early this morning for the drive home, and stopped to visit the Love Canal site. The Love Canal story is fairly well known. In the 1950s, Hooker Chemicals sold a patch of land to the School Board for a nominal fee. The site included the incomplete Love Canal, which the chemical company had used as a toxic waste disposal dump prior to the sale (this was acknowledged in the sale, along with the proviso that the company was not responsible for any subsequent liability). A school was built on the site and a community eventually developed around it. By the 1970s, however, concerns that chemicals were seeping into basements and to the surface of the old canal line (where children played) instigated an unprecedented clamour for evacuation. This happened untidily and in waves. And it has entered in to the canon of American environmental catastrophes—along with being a pillar of the new grassroots environmental activism that typified the Reagan years.

Online, there is a wonderfully sober Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places. Love Canal is included. Which is apt. Paired against the anxiety and anger of Love Canal residents in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the tumult of multiple issues present in the archives, Love Canal is a strangely somber place. It has the quiet of a Civil War battleground, even if comparable care and landscaping are absent. And it lacks the commemorative status. No plaque or monument recognizes the recent history of this site. A fence rings 70 acres grassland, which caps the old canal and the chemicals within. Private Property. No Trespassing.

Fence and private property signs ring the Love Canal site.
Fence and private property signs ring the Love Canal site.

This is a wasteland. A forgotten place. Abandoned. Not just within. But the surrounds. Frontier Avenue to the south, 95th Street to the west, and 101st Street to the east are in disrepair. Where once these quiet numbered streets might have welcomed children’s bicycles, pocked cement, potholes, and weeds make for slow driving in the car.

Abandoned/unused Stop sign on 95th Street, looking north.
Abandoned/unused Stop sign on 95th Street, looking north.


The only remnants of political activism at Love Canal.
The only remnants of political activism at Love Canal.

To the west of the site are senior centers. At 6.30 in the morning, they are distinguished in their quiet.

The site is lined by senior facilities.
The site is lined by senior facilities.

The children displaced from Love Canal would be my age today. I don’t know that any sociological study has attempted to track them down and investigate the long term effects of the stress associated with the events of their childhood. Throughout the interviews and testimonies I examined in the archives, parents emphasized the fears and illnesses and stresses experienced by their children. Changing schools, worrying that their dolls could be contaminated, hyperactivity.


This visit had a morbid quality to it, in the utter silence of the morning. I wondered about who still lived adjacent to the closed-off site. Did they know what it was? I wondered, too, about my own participation: a kind of eco-tourism, but in reverse. There’s likely a growing fascination in eco-catastrophe tourism. See the Great Barrier Reef before it’s gone. Visit Love Canal. Times Beach today is a park. My interest in environmental disasters probably says more about me in macabre kinds of ways than I would like to consider.

Dilapidated roads ring the fenced-off area.
Dilapidated roads ring the fenced-off area.

And while the fence is straight, solid, and adamant that this private property should not be trespassed, the surrounding area outside the boundary is unkempt. I think this is 97th Street below. I’m looking north. The tree overhangs the road. Weeds are making considerable headway in their war against the concrete. This is a desolate place.


Conscious of my tourism, I decided not to walk down 100th Street, closed off to traffic, but open—it seemed—to pedestrians.

100th Street, closed off to traffic.
100th Street, closed off to traffic.
Intersection of 100th & Colvin.
Intersection of 100th & Colvin.

Turning right on 101st Street, to cover the final side of the Love Canal site before repairing to the safety of the Expressway (audible in the distance), more ramshackle homes and waste. The sacrifice zone of Love Canal extends well beyond the barriers that outline but do not mark the history of this place. Abandoned areas, refuse and waste on the grass and sides of the street. As forgotten as the place. If Love Canal is toxic, who cares about the boundaries and where are the explicit, objective boundaries between clean and contaminated? Of course they do not exist. One bleeds into the other and back again. But in the renounced areas outside the fence there is a clear expression that this place is not wanted.

Abandoned boat, off 101st Street.
Abandoned boat, off 101st Street.

Back out onto River Road to race for home. In spots, you can make out the top of the fence over the LaSalle Expressway. Fences (with similar private property signs) prevent access to the river on the left. This time, pollution is less the issue. But the fences demarcate where it is safe and appropriate to go. We are allowed to forget about the places we may not pass. Pretend they’re not there, and maybe never existed. Good fences make good neighbours. Then Woody Guthrie comes to mind.

Welcome to Niagara Falls, NY
Welcome to Niagara Falls, NY