Thoughts on Not Attending the 2017 ASEH Meeting

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.

EPA Under Siege

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.

Sitting on Top of the World

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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.

https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=19Yk544hn1Mu3ZdfoCCGmso4XW0a30PuZa-U_h-LQiMo&font=Bitter-Raleway&lang=en&initial_zoom=2&height=650

Experimenting with Digital Tools

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!).

https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1cCN5ygr51CJkzr7tRy4IcPOO9aC3-CdvbAzjFiXloso&font=Default&lang=en&initial_zoom=2&height=650

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.

Parameters of Catastrophic History

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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.

Margaret Mead & How to Change the World

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May we live in interesting times. This is a curse that history says we can never avoid. My reading of catastrophic history dictates that we live the disasters we create. And the events of last week promise that we are bound for evermore interesting times ahead. Stick with me, baby, croons Bob Dylan in “Mississippi,” stick with me anyhow. Things should start to get interesting right about now. Too right.

Since Tuesday night, my corner of the Twittersphere has been laden with laments for what is to come and with rallying cries for more organization, more protests, and more efforts to unite concerned citizens against the worries of xenophobia, homophobia, and the multitude of phobias that have given rise to the Age of Trump. In the backdrop of this, I’m reminded of the famous assertion above from Margaret Mead (1901-1978), who died 38 years ago today.

Mead might be the most famous American anthropologist of the twentieth century—or indeed the world’s most recognizable anthropologist. Bold claims, perhaps. But her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, made her an immediate public intellectual, and she maintained that role for the next fifty years. Maybe I’ve missed it, but I’d love to see a good and recent biography that considers especially her role as a public intellectual and science activist.

I first encountered Mead, in my work on Barry Commoner. In the 1950s, the two collaborated in promoting science activism and social responsibility within the American Association for the Advancement of Science during fraught divisions over the potential hazards of nuclear weapons testing and fallout. Commoner regarded her as an important ally and mentor. He also spoke highly and warmly of her in a number of oral histories I conducted with him. Commoner’s correspondence files at the Library of Congress contained numerous letters to and from Mead. And I also dipped into Mead’s papers, which are also held at the Library of Congress.

Mead’s suggestion that activists should not be discouraged by the scale and scope of the opposition that confronts them—that commitment and dedication to a cause—against all odds—and that thoughtful engagements with “the good” are not only necessary but history-making—has long been a tenet and famous defence of grassroots organizing. From a humble seed grows the giant oak. It is a powerful reminder that change comes from inside all of us. And that we should act. It’s an important message, and one I regularly share with students.

But something about last week presented to me my first glimpse at a cynical rereading of Mead’s clarion call for grassroots activists. You can subvert that message. Rather than conveying hope, it can express despair. Small groups of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Not always for good. And they’re not always doing it from kitchen tables or church basements. Sometimes those small groups live in gilded towers and wield inconceivable amounts of power. I can’t believe this is what Margaret Mead meant, but I’m prompted into this reinterpretation by the current climate of our newly interesting times.

Bill Hicks: It’s Just a Ride

In his “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” the young Bob Dylan conveys a beautifully hopeful message during the uncertain 1960s. It’s a long poem. The bootlegged recording of him reading it above is well worth a full listen. I don’t want to play spoiler, but toward the end, Dylan asks: And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’. His answer is that there are two options: the church of your choice or Brooklyn State Hospital.

You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

I’ve spent much of the last week delving into art, literature, and music. Ostensibly, I’ve been looking for hopeful messages (and there’s likely no better artist worth revisiting these days than Woody Guthrie—if Woody Guthrie is a new name to you: stop reading this now and go find everything you can on Woody Guthrie). There’s a light and encouraging tone to the young Bob Dylan’s voice and words. And it carries over into many of his “protest songs.” But, subject for another post, perhaps: the older Bob Dylan provides the perfect soundtrack for the kind of catastrophic history I’m exploring at the moment. His songs are heavy, world-weary, tough, hardened. No less brilliant or beautiful. But that gravelly voice carries the weight of the world, one too many mornings, and bears witness to pain, violence, and burdens of the soul. Another time.

Because I’ve spent less time thinking about Bob Dylan’s younger work lately. In fact, the first voice I turned to last week was the comedian Bill Hicks. Hicks might be an acquired taste, but I suspect we will come to appreciate him as one of the most important comedians of the 1980s (he died in his thirties in 1994). His act followed in the spirit of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and viscerally and vociferously challenged the political status quo. He viciously lampooned mainstream media and popular culture. With another of my artistic heroes, the author Don DeLillo, Hicks shared a fascination with the Kennedy assassination. On occasion, he veered into paranoid conspiracy theory territory, but he was always clear, poignant, provocative, and profoundly clever. Like Kerouac, however, love was a key point of emphasis in Hicks’s work. There are numerous iterations of the following conclusion to his 1992 “Revelations” special, performed in London, and billed as the last authorized filming of his stand-up. In it, he offers up a simple choice for humanity.

Not shown in this clip is the typical Hicks finale. At the end of his act—after noting that so many forces of good (Gandhi, JFK, MLK, Lennon) are assassinated—Hicks would enact his own assassination. Gun shot and he would collapse onstage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that footage (he did it frequently) without tearing up. The comedian transcended entertainment. Good comedy is always a powerful form of social commentary. But “it’s just a ride” is the social commentary. The assassination goes beyond that. And it transforms and complicates the message he delivers in the video above. In that split second, his statement of hope devolves—shatters—into a statement of hopeless futility. And reinforces the importance of the message.