Disaster Narratives: Predictions, Preparedness, & Lessons

It’s important that you know that I think that when I refer to “catastrophic conversations” in the introductions to the podcasts I’m referring to the topic and its tenor, not how I think the conversation went. Last fall I spoke with Scott Knowles, an historian of disasters at Drexel University. He is the author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America. In a pre-Trump era, the discussion ranged rather happily along lines of risk, slow disasters, disaster policy, and how to use history to inform contemporary debate. This first issue—risk—is one that has run in the background of many of my research interests, and so I was very interested to learn from Knowles how he engaged with it.

What I’ve long admired about Knowles’s work is its ability to cross boundaries between academic theory and practical policymaking. A couple of weeks after our conversation, the impossible happened. Trump was elected President of the United States, and the whole idea of disasters and disaster preparedness went out the window. Nobody knew what would happen next. What if—perish the thought—2017 turned out to be a bad hurricane year? As the summer passed and I prepared to publish the podcast series on a weekly basis, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma crashed through the Gulf Coast. While the storms may have subsided, it’s much too early to evaluate the nature of disaster and destruction—or to think about what lessons we might have learned. Nevertheless, Knowles provides valuable insight into how we need to understand, calculate, and manage risk and disaster in the contemporary world.

Next week: 26 September: “Catastrophe in the Age of Revolutions” (with Cindy Ermus)


5 September: “Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides” (with Michelle Mart)

12 September: “Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War” (with Jacob Hamblin)

Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War

The second instalment of the “Bedtime Stories” podcast series is a conversation I had with Jacob Hamblin, an historian at Oregon State University, last fall. A few years ago, Hamblin very kindly skyped into my undergraduate “History of the Future” class to talk about his book, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. They enjoyed the book and got a lot out of his participation in class, which consisted of a bit of a back-and-forth between us and a Q&A with the students. That book and his current work prompted my desire to talk with him for this series on catastrophic history.

Please feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section below.

Next week: 19 September: “Disaster Narratives: Predictions, Preparedness, & Lessons” (with Scott Knowles)

Previous: 5 September: “Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides” (with Michelle Mart)

Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides

This interview with Michelle Mart marks the substantive start to “Catastrophe is our Bedtime Story” podcast series on catastrophic history. I spoke with Mart, an historian at Penn State Berks, last October about her recent book, Pesticides, a Love Story: America’s Enduring Embrace of Dangerous Chemicals. Given my own interest in hazardous materials, this conversation seemed the right place to begin this inaugural series of discussions on catastrophic history.

Please feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section below

Next week: “Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War” ( with Jacob Hamblin)

Catastrophe is our Bedtime Story

Happy new (academic) year. With new years come new resolutions, promises, and projects. I resolve to post/write more. I promise. Here’s a new project!

The embedded Soundcloud tab below is the introductory podcast for a new audio series I am launching this fall. During the fall of 2016 and winter 2017, I interviewed a number of colleagues in and around catastrophic history. What is catastrophic history? Click the audio for a brief introduction. And stay tuned for future conversations. The series title, “Catastrophe is our Bedtime Story,” comes from Don DeLillo’s Zero K. I rather liked the vulgarity of the suggestion.

Thanks for listening!


Global Environmental History

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.


History of the Future

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.

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.