I (finally) prepared my syllabus for my grad seminar on “Global Environmental History.” It’s attached below. I treat the title fairly liberally as a means of unapologetically giving myself unlimited access to topics and readings as and where I please. In its recent iterations, the course has been fairly light on readings and has been more driven by collaborative research projects and forays into digital scholarship. This year, I’d like to pull back and do something a little more traditional. I want to read more—and catch up on some of the terrific titles in environmental history that I’ve not had a chance to sit down with (about half this list). I further gave myself the challenge of putting together a course limited to titles published in the last two years. I think I may have made one exception. But I’m interested in the themes we can explore based on the inspiration these books offer, not to mention the course trajectory.
There’s some kind of glitch in our course outline portal, which means I am unable to post my syllabus for HIST 3UA3 (History of the Future), which I’m offering in January. Older syllabi out there might give you a flavour of the course, but I wanted to share the updated syllabus, especially since there are some marked changes this year. Not least: the course will meet in the new active learning classrooms in the Wilson Building. I’m excited about the class dynamic this affords. Some of the course themes have changed, and I’m really looking forward to the readings. For students thinking about the course, don’t hesitate to reach out to me egan(AT)mcmaster.ca with any questions.
Syllabus attached 3UA3_Syllabus_2018.
After a lot of painful wavering, I have decided against attending the American Society for Environmental History meeting in Chicago at the end of this month. I have been to every conference since Tucson in 1999. It is, without question, the annual highlight of my professional life, not to mention one of the big social events I genuinely look forward to: catching up with some of my closest and best friends, most of whom I only see at the conference.
But this year, I won’t be going. The first two months of the Trump regime have made the United States—a country whose history I know quite well—a most uninviting idea. I’m not boycotting the US. I’m not protesting. I’ve wrestled with the divisive nature of the current presidential administration, and whether it would be more fruitful to resist it by showing solidarity with colleagues: attending and celebrating the sharing of knowledge that typifies the good academic work done all over the country. But in the end I am uncomfortable crossing a border that many of my colleagues and graduate students either can’t cross, or wouldn’t feel safe crossing at the moment.
To my many ASEH friends: I’ll miss you. See you soon.
A recent news piece about the EPA finding itself in a holding pattern since the Trump election reminded of some of the work from my fear book. During the early 1980s, in a critical misreading of the American public’s interests in environmental protection, the Reagan administration sought to gut the agency, and even put a moratorium on a number of different control measures surrounding waste disposal. There was a backlash, and the Republicans back-pedalled quickly and more than a little sheepishly. Here’s a paragraph from my work in progress.
The cuts and dismissive attitude toward environmental hazards did not sit well with the American public. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment that was exploring revisions to the Clean Air Act in 1981, the pollster Louis Harris warned against gutting the Act’s authority. “Clean air happens to be one of the sacred cows of the American people,” he reported on public attitudes. Indeed, that applied to environmental pollution writ large. After attempting to reverse a ban on dumping drums of toxic liquids into landfills in 1982, the Reagan Administration confessed surprise at the vociferous backlash their rollback inspired. Their 90-day trial was curtailed after 27 days. Americans wanted stricter controls over dumping, not regulatory relief. A Roper survey from September 1982 found that only 21% of those polled thought “environmental protection laws and regulations have gone too far.” In contrast, 69% approved of the existing laws or thought they didn’t go far enough. Surveys also showed Americans willing to sacrifice some economic growth for waste controls. A 1983 ABC-Washington Post poll, for example, found that 75% of Americans acknowledged that while compliance with antipollution laws cost business firms a considerable amount of money, those laws were worth the cost. The tide was swelling against deregulation. In September 1981 45% of Americans agreed with the statement that “protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high.” In April 1983—little over a month after the Times Beach evacuation was announced and Anne Gorsuch resigned as EPA head—58% of Americans shared this view.
I can only imagine that the Trump regime will be more dogmatic at charting its own path, but a failure to ensure environmental protection has historically been a sore point among Americans.
More play with Timeline JS. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I delight in the subtle evolution of chess theory and song lyrics. Chess: another time. But as a longtime Bob Dylan fan, I’ve long been interested in his capacity to change his own songs, but to draw heavily from a vast array of older musical influences. He is “a thief of thought, not I pray, a stealer of souls,” as he remarked in the liner notes to The Times They Are A-Changin’. If you look carefully through his songbook, however, there is a wealth of footnotes evident in his lyrics. If you play enough old blues or folk or country ballads, you will find no end of material that inspired a song here, a verse there, or even a line.
But this isn’t really about Bob Dylan. Instead, the link below plays a history of the old Mississippi Sheiks’ classic standard, “Sitting on Top of the World.” It’s been covered and revisioned many times over. Listen to the variations, but also pause and consider the lyrical changes, too.
This is an experiment. In January, I will be teaching a new course called “Catastrophic History.” One of the student group projects will involve using Timeline JS to reconstruct and visualize disasters. It occurred to me that I should play around with the tool before turning it over to students. Surprisingly, my problem stemmed most from having to identify a quick and manageable project to itemize in the tool’s accessible spreadsheet. My toxic fear research, for example, consisted of an almost infinite number of prospective moments to fit along a timeline. As a result, I turned to something a little more frivolous. As part of a present for my older children, I’m compiling (read: imposing) a playlist of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs for their listening education. They will be grateful. Here’s the playlist, in chronological order (of course!).
For the record: this all took less than half an hour, while getting my littlest ready for bed. Timeline JS makes this very easy. I see, however, that it’s possible to vary all kinds of aesthetics, including typeface, background colour (which I simply alternated one page from the next), etc. The finished products can be visually impressive and, I hope, instructive to students.
Is there a better or more important time to be thinking about catastrophic history? During the Winter 2017 semester, I will be teaching HIST 3CH3, Catastrophic History: Natural & Technological Disasters, for the first time. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of conceiving of the class and in imagining its trajectory, not least because it will be taught in McMaster’s new Wilson Building, in a new active classroom. Rather than offering a more traditional lecture course, I will be turning much of the adventure over to students. The key emphasis will be on student discovery through a series of introductory digital research skills that I will be teaching.
The course begins with an investigation of responses to and rationalizations for the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Trying to make sense of catastrophe, I submit, is as historically significant (maybe more so) than the explosive moment of a catastrophe itself. I likely don’t have any specific endpoint for the class mapped out, but the last week of readings will consider Hurricane Katrina in the context of neoliberalism.
But another series of questions for students will involve establishing parameters for the course itself. What is a disaster? Does war or genocide or economic collapse belong within the boundaries of catastrophic history and our examination of it? We certainly think of them as disasters—historical actors refer to crises and disasters in the context of war and genocide and fiscal uncertainty. What distinguishes them from earthquakes or tsunamis or dam failures? With these kinds of questions in mind, another tack involves asking what is a natural disaster? And what is the difference between a natural and a technological disaster? Scott Knowles, for example, asks whether Hurricane Katrina was a weather event or a technology failure (302). It’s an pretty provocative question, and one that undermines our much-too-comfortable reading of “natural” disasters as “acts of god”: chance happenings that are beyond human control. That idea—that disaster and catastrophe both trade in surprise or fate (note how both have etymological roots in the idea of fate being in the stars)—requires careful exploration.
Another subtext—one I don’t mean to impress heavily on students, unless the course tenor warrant it—is engaging with the catastrophic more directly. Here, I’ve been reading and thinking about Walter Benjamin, Günther Anders, and other philosophers who sought to situate catastrophe at the heart of the human condition. Rather than uncontrolled, uncontrollable syncopation in the fundamentally progressive narrative of human history, what happens if catastrophe is the norm, undermining traditional faith in progress? That idea resonates with many of the philosophical reflections on the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire found himself rejecting any belief in a benevolent god in Candide, and lampooning (not to mentioning executing) his Dr. Pangloss, an all-too-unsubtle caricature of Leibniz as defender of the “best of all possible worlds” worldview. The same uncomfortable sense of catastrophe as a lynchpin for human history is prevalent in Benjamin’s witnessing of the failure of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich. Benjamin would commit suicide in 1940, before his capture by the Gestapo. But his cousin, Anders, saw the triumph of the Allied forces, but watched the world devolve into Cold War and saw, in the growing atomic arsenal, a new and even more ominous expression of civilizational destruction. Today, the Holocaust and nuclear apocalypse leave scars, but they are less immediately threatening. Instead, we reckon with refugee crises, climate change, new economic collapses, a new wave of fascist politics, a broadening gulf between wealth and poverty the world over with an elite class managing to insulate themselves evermore from the masses. In brief, a side project—working only in the shadows of this undergraduate course—is to develop a new theory for catastrophic history for the twenty-first century.