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

Let’s get this out of the way right at the outset: there are very few people whose work I admire, appreciate, and enjoy more than Libby Robin’s. Her writing, talks, and insights into environmental history, the history of science, and the intersections between the two are always worth heeding. More: her work on the future and the Anthropocene are incisive and provide valuable direction for engaging with these difficult and under-considered topics. I was thrilled when she was willing to sit down for an interview, even if catching up with her globe-trotting posed some tricky time zone challenges. Our catastrophic conversation ranged across themes of the Anthropocene (there’s a terrific oral history here) and into ideas about how to tackle the history of the future.

[EDIT]: Note that this interview was conducted in October 2016. The world has changed since then. More markedly than any of us might have imagined. Too: my audio introduction to Libby Robin includes information that was current then, but not now. By way of updated introduction, Robin is an historian based at the Fenner School for the Environment and Society at the Australian National University. I first met her through her work on Expertise for the Future, an international and interdisciplinary venture that married history, technology, environment, and society to use the past to reflect upon our environmental futures. That project curated a terrific collection of primary source documents tracing The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change (Yale University Press, 2013). The Environment: A History, co-authored with Paul Warde and Sverker Sörlinis in preparation with Johns Hopkins University Press.

Next week: 10 October: “Günther Anders & the Catastrophic Imagination” (with Jason Dawsey)

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)

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)

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.

723_Syllabus_2017