Catastrophic Meanings: Consuming the Great Flood of 1927 (with Susan Scott Parrish)

This is the first of two “Bedtime Stories” podcasts that use the 1927 Mississippi Flood as their departure point. As I was starting to work on this podcast, I was also preparing to teach my catastrophic history course for the first time. I was also racing through multiple histories of the blues at the same time. Around that time, one of these interests stumbled upon Susan Scott Parrish’s imminently forthcoming book, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History. I ordered it immediately. And started reading as soon as it arrived. The reading was a happy balance of work and pleasure: I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but justified it as “work.” I summoned up the courage to e-mail Parrish and ask if she might be willing to submit to an interview on the book.

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. The Flood Year 1927 is a marvellous combination of literary analysis and environmental history.

Next week: 31 October: “Disaster, Race, & Diaspora” (Richard Mizelle, Jr.)

Previous:

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

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

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

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

3 October: “Histories of the Future & the Anthropocene” (with Libby Robin)

10 October: “Günther Anders and the Catastrophic Imagination” (with Jason Dawsey)

17 October: “Convergence: Capitalism, Climate, Catastrophe” (with Andreas Malm)

Convergence: Capitalism, Climate, Catastrophe (with Andreas Malm)

Last fall, I taught a graduate seminar in global environmental history. The focus for the course was the Anthropocene, which was beginning to dominate much of the recent environmental discourse (see my recent podcast conversation with Libby Robin on the Anthropocene here). I opened selected weeks to the larger environmental history community, which attracted an eclectic group of conversationalists for those weeks. None was more vibrant than the session on Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. It’s a terrific book, and it provoked some interesting discussion. Just as I was settling down to read Malm’s book, I came across this article in Jacobin, which I thought would inspire good debate about the term and its possible misdirections. I was delighted, then, when Malm was amenable to a chat about his book, his sequel, Fossil Empire, and the role of capitalism in the contemporary environmental crisis.

Andreas Malm is a human ecologist at Lund University in Sweden. His work examines the historical power relations of climate change. In addition to Fossil Capital, his next book is The Progress of this Storm: On Society and Nature in a Warming World, which will be published by Verso in early 2018.

Next week: 24 October: “Catastrophic Meanings: Consuming the Great Flood of 1927” (with Susan Scott Parrish)

Previous:

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

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

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

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

3 October: “Histories of the Future & the Anthropocene” (with Libby Robin)

10 October: “Günther Anders and the Catastrophic Imagination” (with Jason Dawsey)

Günther Anders & the Catastrophic Imagination (with Jason Dawsey)

This week is Günther Anders week on the “Bedtime Stories” podcast. Anders might be little known amongst environmental historians, but he is arguably one of the most important catastrophic thinkers of the twentieth century, and would reward some study. I came across Anders’s work while reading Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s work on “enlightened catastrophism,” and was immediately hooked. There is a moving lucidity in his writing when it comes to catastrophe. His correspondence with Claude Eatherly is particularly powerful as an introduction, but there are bits and pieces of his work that have been translated. I have referred to Anders a few times on this blog (start here and here and here). But the truth is that the bulk of his work has not yet been translated into English, which is a shame.

Which is not to say that Anders’s work has received any attention from English-speaking scholars. Looking for more access to Anders and his writing on catastrophe, I discovered Jason Dawsey’s PhD dissertation, “The Limits of the Human in the Age of Technological Revolution: Günther Anders, Post-Marxism, and the Emergence of Technology Critique.” The discussion below is another result of a cold call to a gracious colleague I’d not met before. It serves as a terrific introduction to Anders’s work and thinking. Dawsey is an historian at the University of Tennessee, and the editor, with Günther Bischof and Bernhard Fetz, of The Life and Work of Günther Anders: Émigré, Iconoclast, Philosopher, Man of Letters (Transatlantica Series, Volume 8).  (Review here).

Next week: 17 October: “Convergence: Climate, Capitalism, Catastrophe” (with Andreas Malm)

Previous:

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

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

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

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

3 October: “Histories of the Future & the Anthropocene” (with Libby Robin)

Catastrophe in the Age of Revolutions

One of the great pleasures of doing this podcast was meeting new people. Cindy Ermus and I had never met. There might have been a few quick Twitter interactions, but that was about it. Her work on the Plague of Provence and on disasters in the Gulf South make explicit and important connections with catastrophic history, and I was also especially keen to get her insight on the relationship between disaster and revolution. This turned out to be one of my favourite interviews—made all the richer for the fact that we started out as relative strangers. The conversation was fascinating, and it went in a number of directions I hadn’t anticipated.

Cindy Ermus is an historian at the University of Lethbridge. She is the editor of Environmental Disasters in the Gulf South: Two Centuries of Catastrophe, Risk, and Resilience, forthcoming in January 2018 from LSU Press. In addition, she is a co-founder and editor of Age of Revolutions, an historical blog that helps to situate these questions within a critical and broader context.

Next week: 3 October: “Histories of the Future & the Anthropocene” (with Libby Robin)

Previous:

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

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

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

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)

Previous:

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)