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)
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.
At the end of March, I attended the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting in Seattle, WA. I gave a slightly shorter and more coherent version of this talk. It’s basically an overview of the project as a whole, which comes with the advantages of trying to map out bigger themes, but the disadvantages of feeling a little too vague and general. I’d like to think there’s more narrative force and structure in the manuscript. I’ve been meaning to convert the talk to slidecast for some time (I get my students to do these fairly regularly, so it seemed only right for me to try to struggle with the format—I need to work on it).
I’ve been grumbling under my breath instead of typing on a number of topics, recently. Or typing, but in book manuscripts rather than this blog. I should get back to writing/thinking here. But a sort of placeholder in the short term.
The series takes as its primary mission the dissemination of accessible historical information and resources for scholars and teachers, policy makers, activists, and concerned citizens. The driving theme behind this series involves making environmental history more relevant to 21st century concerns about the environment.
More to the point, we are still soliciting manuscripts. Please feel free to contact any one of us (or our partner in crime at MIT Press, Beth Clevenger) to discuss projects that you think might fit the series. Our proposal summary and guidelines are listed at the top of this page under the hamburger menu, but I also link to them here.
This post draws on two lines of work. This fall, I have been introducing students to some (very) basic digital visualization techniques as a means of training them to ask historical questions. I have also been thinking further about the history of toxic fear—and whether a fear of toxic chemicals produced a distinct kind of fear during the Toxic Century. In A New Species of Trouble, Kai Erikson argues that the new, silent toxins of the post-World War II period “scare human beings in new and special ways, … [and] … elicit an uncanny fear in us” (144). I use Erikson as a departure point, and propose that it is time to examine toxic fear through an historical lens.
These two lines of work came together this week in my first year course on the Toxic Century (HIST 1EE3: The Historical Roots of Contemporary Issues). Working in groups of four or five, students have been tasked with identifying an appropriate keyword search, collecting ~500 newspaper articles in digital form, compiling them into a single, text-searchable file, and running them through some web-based reading and analysis tools. Groups were assigned a specific newspaper (for ease, we limited searches to 1950-1980 in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Globe and Mail, all readily available through McMaster University’s subscription to “Proquest Historical Newspapers”). ~500 articles constitutes a fairly small data set, but I am more interested in teaching the method and process than expecting very specific or accurate results.
Their assignment involves developing a series of word clouds in order to chart change and continuity in the Toxic Century’s vocabulary over time to see if their analysis can identify trends in that vocabulary. Each group would create a chronological suite of word clouds (1950s, 1960s, 1970s, for example) in order to “see” the articles they had collected. I recommended that students play with wordle for simple word cloud generation: I find it easy to use and it seems to generate some of the more aesthetically pleasing clusters. To better contextualize and quantify their results, I urged that they run the same material through Voyant-Tools, which offers some more sophisticated options. Building on this collaborative investigation and analysis, students will co-write a short paper on their findings. I should stress that these papers do not mean to offer anything but a bird’s-eye view of a singular primary source. The exercise is less about acquiring any conclusive historical understanding about a particular time or event. Instead, I introduce this process as a method of starting inquiry into a new topic (my third-year “Social History of Truth” class is doing something similar, but with scientific journals).
Which brings me back to toxic fear. To provide a mock example and case study for the class to take them through the assignment, I conducted a search for New York Times articles between 1950-1990 that adhered to the following criteria:
[toxic AND (fear OR anxiety) AND (chemical OR pollution)]
The search parameters were far from perfect, and I had to “weed” out some articles that debated marijuana use. But a cursory scan of article titles suggested there was not too much noise—non-relevant results that would interfere with the data visualization. I added the 1980s, since we had covered Bhopal and Chernobyl already in lecture, and I thought it would be interesting to see if we could “see” American coverage of international crises. But it’s probably just as well that I did. Of the 729 articles that came back, 504 (69%) were from the 1980s. Another 39 were from 1990. Remove “fear OR anxiety” from the search:
[toxic AND (chemical OR pollution)]
and The New York Times yields 5657 articles (of which a still surprisingly high 3535—62%—are from the 1980s. I haven’t done anything yet, but already I was surprised. While some literature engages the Reagan administration’s deregulation as a catalyst for swelling registration in environmental organizations in the 1980s, I had typically associated fear of toxic chemicals with the Age of Ecology writ large. Yes: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring featured in the 1960s findings—and maybe my search parameters were skewed to leave out issues surrounding radioactive fallout. However, if The New York Times is at all representative of American print media, it would seem as though the 1980s was the decade of environmental fear (and toxic issues in general). Casting a wider net would be worthwhile. But even the more conservative Wall Street Journal, which returned only 168 hits for the first search including fear, had 122 of them (73%) come from the 1980s. Remove “fear OR anxiety” and you get 858 from 1240 articles (69%) from the 1980s.
Maybe this is simply media hype and marks a lexical transition in print journalism, but I’m not so sure. I have written about the rise and fall of the environmental jeremiad during the 1960s and 1970s, and argued that the effectiveness of alarmist rhetoric subsided during the 1970s. So it would seem out of place for media hyperbole on environmental fear to crescendo so dramatically in the 1980s. Something to investigate, though. On the one hand, perhaps this is just a sign of mainstream media catching up with a slow burning fire in American political thought. But it’s also possible that these results are not wholly surprising, even if the historical literature’s interest in the Age of Ecology tapers off somewhat after the energy crisis. We talk about the environment crisis as a post-World War II phenomenon, best articulated in Barry Commoner’s social activism, in Rachel Carson’s influence, and in the emergence of a number of public health concerns that emerged in the 1960s. And we typically associate the 1970s as a period of expansive environmental regulation in the United States—and, globally, as a key moment in the rise of contemporary global environmental governance. That’s the environmental crisis and its socio-political response. But we also know that the 1980s was punctuated by a series of intense environmental crises: Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Times Beach, Bhopal, Chernobyl. And perhaps these events prompted a more palpable recognition of interest and fear and anxiety surrounding toxins in the environment. Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised by the abundance of 1980s hits in my search.
Nevertheless, I spent yesterday afternoon focusing my efforts on the 1980s. This was quick and lazy work, and I only gave the files the most cursory of scrubs (and not satisfactorily: eliminating “New York Times” from the word clouds, for example, had the unhappy effect of problematizing: “Times Beach.” And I made the mistake of clearing “the” out of the text before I put it into Voyant. This produced “there” and “their,” which are prominent in some of the clouds (wordle automatically leaves out smaller words). As it happened, I had roughly 100 articles for every two years. I’ll spare you the detailed, more quantified analysis rendered in Voyant Tools. Here’s what each wordle-generated word cloud looked like.
It’s entirely likely certain that I’m working with too small a data set and too narrow a timeframe. But even here, I think there are opportunities for students to interpret and inquire. Dioxin features in 1982-1983 as a result of the Times Beach crisis; Bhopal and Union Carbide are (tragically) prominent in the 1984-1985 cloud. More useful for the undergraduate classroom is the opportunity to compare general topics, such as waste, water, air, etc. One can do a little of that with a preliminary eye- or smell-test with the clouds above. But this is where Voyant becomes a much more effective tool. It is possible to quantify and contextualize reference terms and compare their chronologies through the text. For instance, my New York Times articles for 1982-1983 contained almost 120,000 words (16,439 unique words). “Toxic” was present 270 times, “waste” 250 times, “health” 196 times, and “chemical” 180 times. All well and good.
But we can use Voyant to dig deeper and examine trends in the usage. For example, “dioxin” occurred 174 times. According to Google Books’ ngram generator, interest in dioxin increased through the 1980s and 1990s:
Back to Voyant, the chronology of dioxin references in my text from 1982-1983 looks like this:
The two spikes correlate with the discovery of dioxin and then the town’s evacuation. Which is to say that dioxin’s featuring in the 1982-1983 word cloud has a lot to do with Times Beach emerging as a national story. I’m learning with my students to become more proficient with Voyant, but it’s neat to play with. Voyant makes it possible to fiddle with the number of segments and analyze relative (rather than raw) frequencies. It is also possible to compare trends in terms:
That example is probably not instructive: since “chemical” was one of my search terms—and seems to experience mild spikes along with “dioxin”—I’m not sure what I’m learning here. And neither method shown here organizes the newspaper articles into an accurate chronology. The chronology is dictated by the raw number of articles and not divided into month-by-month sections, which might yield a different perspective. To wit:
Breaking the trend analysis into 25 segments (roughly one point for each month), it’s apparent that dioxin features too early (the story broke in December 1982). So the dumping large amounts of data into a reader does not necessarily return complete information for the historian. I could conduct a raw count of articles by month, of course, to determine the extent to which Times Beach dominated other issues during this two-year sample (it did). The wordle cloud also hints at some of those issues—Bhopal, above in 1984-1985, for example—but it does not indicate whether “dioxin” or “Bhopal” was used repeatedly within a small subset of articles or whether their prevalence is the result of a larger number of articles (or both).
But, still: too small and narrow a data set (though, arguably, this is a pragmatic start for in-class use at the undergraduate level). The work above could be bolstered with a range of newspapers that cover the United States. Having eliminated “New” and “York,” there are no references to city and state, though “Jersey” is present, and suggests regional coverage/emphasis of toxic issues. Perhaps midwestern newspapers such as The St. Louis Post-Dispatch or Chicago Tribune would return a greater number of relative hits (and emphasis) on Times Beach, Missouri, for example. And while adding to the raw data would be interesting, separating it geographically might also turn up some interesting variations in emphasis. Could we compare west coast reporting against east coast reporting, and what differences might be present? Of course, none of this precludes actually reading stuff! But it’s an interesting departure point that generates new and different questions. My less period-specific reading indicates that toxic fear exists and that it is galvanized by uncertainty and/or a lack of information. If that holds true under further and deeper scrutiny, what does that tell us about the 1980s if fear and anxiety increased? One knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that mass deregulation in the Reagan 1980s prompted less understanding and control over environmental problems. But Love Canal and Three Mile Island definitely fit into this story and they predate the Reagan administration. Perhaps this is a Superfund story—and the very idea of Superfund was enough to generate more toxic fear? Or, simply, the proliferation of crises prompted a distinct wave of environmental angst and fear.
Takeaway conclusions: we need to do more work that investigates environmental history in the 1980s. As I note evermore grey on my chin in the mornings, I’m reminded that the 1980s are receding in the rearview mirror, and it’s time we put that decade under the microscope. In American and global contexts, we know the basic story, but that narrative needs to be picked apart and complicated. Some good literature exists in environmental justice scholarship—and we should continue to expand on that—but we have little more to work with. The 1980s constitute a fascinating decade for environmental regulation agencies the world over. After the growth and (relative) successes of the 1970s, what happened in the 1980s? There’s also a distinct dearth of historical work on dioxin (Agent Orange and Vietnam notwithstanding).
I should emphasize that the above discussion of data visualization is (1) a teaching experiment, and (2) not a quantum shift in historical research. So far, I like the assignment and am drawn to the possibilities associated with coaxing first-year students into collaborative research and discovery (which can be tricky in a big survey course). But I don’t yet know what the results will be. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that digital scholarship will transplant traditional archival research. But I do think visualization has helped me to shift my focus from a broader timeframe to a more concentrated examination of the 1980s—and to ask questions about how and why fear and anxiety proliferated during that decade.
Edit: On further analysis, I suspect the problem above is that “toxic” is the limiting term. A non-discriminatory search for “fear” in The New York Times finds only a modest increase in the word’s frequency:
Compare with “toxic”:
Could “toxic” be the problem? According to the ngram (which doesn’t relate to the NYT searches in any tangible way), “toxic” increased steadily through the 1970s:
Removing “toxic” from the search parameters raises some interesting perspectives, though. Searching for “pollution” AND “fear” changes the frequency of newspaper articles quite markedly.
But try again with “fear” AND “chemical,” and the trend indicates growth into the 1980s:
Does this make us less scared of pollution and more frightened by toxic chemicals? Or is this simply a shift in language? Or do our responses to environmental problems concentrate more specifically around toxic chemicals by the 1980s? And does this constitute some kind of evolution worth exploring in greater depth?
Because I’m not currently going in nearly enough directions, I thought I would share this kernel of an idea that I hope to develop in the coming months. On a whim, I submitted a proposal for the “Framing Nature: Signs, Stories, and Ecologies of Meaning” semiotics conference in Tartu, Estonia. On some impish level, I rather liked the idea of attending a semiotics conference in Estonia, but it was a terrific event full of interesting paper. And I met some wonderful people. The call for papers came out while I was working on a broader grant proposal surrounding the toxic century (more on which soon), which I see as being a useful organizing theme for much of my mercury work and other research interests on the history of chemical hazards since World War II. Coming out of that grant proposal, I had found my curiosity piqued by the assertion in some sociological circles that toxic chemicals provoked new kinds of fear. It’s an interesting proposition, and I flirted with it in the grant proposal, but was reluctant to take the idea too far. Along came the call for papers, and maybe this was my chance to play with some of the ideas that had captured my imagination. Here’s the proposal I submitted to the conference (the paper’s title serves as the title of this post):
We live in a toxic century. While we cannot see it, each of us is a walking, breathing artifact of humanity’s toxic trespasses into nature. Sociological findings suggest that persistent organic pollutants scare human beings in new and special ways. This has more to do with what we do not know about their danger than what we do know, and those unknowns strike at the epicentre of how fear is individually and culturally manifested. The method through which persistent organic pollutants assault human and environmental health, the manner in which they proliferated after World War II, and the unanticipated consequences of their spread are key characteristics of this new landscape of fear. Persistent organic pollutants contaminate rather than merely damage; their pollution penetrates human tissue indirectly rather than attacking the surface in a more straightforward manner; and the threat from exposure is not acute, but rather slow, chronic, and enduring. That we lack a full understanding of the hazards they pose and have little control over environmental mobility distinguishes chemical toxins in the litany of environmental hazards. As a result, a rising culture of fear associated with new toxins is an explicit and unmistakable feature of the post-World War II world.
I mean to investigate fear’s environmental narrative and how it has unfolded during the toxic century. A growing fear of chemicals over the past seventy years is a distinct cultural phenomenon, and it warrants some careful historical analysis. My paper proposes to develop an environmental history of fear, using the global proliferation of persistent organic pollutants as its vehicle. I am especially interested in charting change and continuity in chemical fear as an abstract notion—over time and across geographic space—drawing on cultural responses to chemical threats in Canada, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. I argue that chemical hazards combine with scientific uncertainty, industrial obfuscation, regulatory inaction, and ineffective public communication to formulate an algorithm for social malaise centred on environmental fear.
The good news/bad news upshot was that my paper was accepted. Good news, because it afforded me the opportunity to explore the history of toxic fear a little further. Bad news, because I was embarking on another project before wrapping up an earlier one. It turns out the session was filmed, and you can see my paper in truncated form (I managed to eke out ~5000 words in preparation for the conference):
I did get some very good feedback after the session and a number of good ideas I ought to pursue. But the presentation and the conference served its purpose in providing me a chance to test-drive a rough draft.
So: toxic fear. In a future post, I’ll expand on its historiography. Or, rather, how drawing from other aspects of the history of psychology and emotions and fear, we might start to draw up a framework for thinking about the history of toxic fear. Just before leaving for Estonia, I was taking the train between Hamilton and Toronto. In the hour it took to get to Toronto, I had mapped out a series of questions and what form a book project on toxic fear might take (note to self: try to find the essay on the back of which I did that scribbling). But the moral of the story is you never know how or when a new project idea—however good, poor, or foolish—might jump out at you. Or how quickly its scope will come together into a viable outline…
I’ve been thinking a lot about mosquitoes recently. I came home from a ride in early March to discover that one had bitten me just beside my temple and that seemed rather early in the year to be getting a mosquito bite. But, mainly, I’ve been reading about mosquitoes. In preparing my doctoral students for their major field readings, I was catching up with the reading list, which included John McNeill’s Mosquito Empires. McNeill argues that malaria and yellow fever had a profound impact on preserving the dominance of the Spanish Empire; in effect, the mosquito was a chief ally of the Spanish during the mid-eighteenth century, by literally wiping out entire fleets of British invaders without a single shot being fired. “Strictly speaking,” McNeill states in his introduction, mosquito-borne diseases,
did not determine the outcome of struggles for power, but they governed the probabilities of success and failure in military expeditions and settlement schemes. It is perhaps a rude blow to the amour propre of our species to think that lowly mosquitoes and mindless viruses can shape our international affairs. But they can.
As an aside, just previously I was looking at Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts, a study of techno-politics in Egypt, which opens with the similarly provocative question: “Can Mosquitoes Speak?” The first chapter traces the malaria outbreak that ravaged Egypt in the early 1940s.
Keep in mind that there were really two invaders. In the summer of 1942, Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps entered Egypt from Lybia. The key moment was the battle at El-Alamein, where between 50,000 and 70,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. Meanwhile, Anopheles gambiae, a mosquito native to sub-Saharan Africa—unknown in Egypt—began descending down the Nile Valley from Sudan. This mosquito carried in its stomach a deadly form of the malaria parasite. With no local defenses or immunities, the parasite was lethal. Over the three years of the epidemic roughly 750,000 contracted malaria and between 100,000 and 200,000 died.
But there’s more to both stories than simply counting bodies (and I hope you will indulge me a little further). What allowed for the mosquito’s relative success in both the Caribbean and in Egypt was an intricate collection of environmental changes that humans (often unwittingly) set in motion.
Let’s concentrate on the Egyptian case study (Mitchell’s book might be less familiar to readers than McNeill’s, although I heartily endorse both). First, there was the damming of the Nile River. The original Aswan Dam was finished in 1902 (raised higher in 1933) and helped bring in a new era of large-scale engineering, which promised not just agricultural development and technical progress, but also for many post-colonial governments, dams represented an expression of the modern state as techno-economic power; they represented transformation and modernization on a massive scale. In India, for example, Jawaharlal Neru referred to dams as the temples of modern India. The Aswan Dam transformed the ecology of the river, by altering the distribution and timing of its flow, as well as the temperature and chemistry of the water. Further, in providing irrigation pools for mosquito larvae and in creating conditions that allowed for the invasion of aggressive plant species—such as pondweed—clumps of which the river’s current carried downstream, transporting mosquito larvae from one breeding area to the next much faster than the mosquito could spread independently, malaria moved northward at an alarming rate.
Even with the Aswan Dam, Egyptians were heavily dependent on fertilizers, especially ammonium nitrate, which came from Germany… until the war’s outbreak. Ammonium nitrate was also essential in explosives manufacturing, and the war both diverted resources for Germany’s war effort (strategically, the Germans likely saw little merit in selling military materiel to the enemy). A lack of fertilizer led to a depletion in Egypt’s wheat crop. Wheat and other crops dropped by 25%. With the population in many regions already weakened by famine and malnutrition, the number of people who succumbed to malaria climbed rapidly.
The war itself also—obviously—played an important role in both malaria’s spread and the death rates. Concentrating on the human invader, British authorities in Egypt downplayed the malaria epidemic, hoping to contain it. But their half-hearted efforts helped the gambiae mosquito to advance. And failure to treat it only compounded the problem. Mind you, this wasn’t strictly a British failing. Half a world away, the Japanese had cut off Java, resulting in a global quinine shortage. The war also expedited the movement of mosquitoes. The mosquito only has a range of two miles; to reach Egypt, it needed vectors of its own. The dam helped, but the Germans already had control of the Mediterranean Sea, so the British supply route to Egypt consisted of reaching Cairo by plane from West Africa and Sudan; it’s entirely conceivable that Anopheles gambiae hitched a ride on the British supply train, enabling its successful spread throughout Egypt.
The above is a light and simple thumbnail sketch of the causes for malaria’s spread throughout Egypt in the 1940s. Many other factors contributed and the story is much more complicated, but McNeill and Mitchell offer an interesting entry into environmental history. Malaria, for example, spreads using mosquito as a vector. But the relationship requires the input of several human and nonhuman actors. As the two examples above suggest, a series of human and nonhuman environmental changes coincided to spread malaria.
This has parallel interests to another project I’m spitballing at the moment. Not quite the same, but I’m developing a growing interest in fungi and their impact on modern agriculture. I submit that fungi constitute one of the most overlooked-but-critical features of environmental history in the modern era. Akin to the mosquito discussion above, fungi have benefited from the technological innovations and economic imperatives of the modern era; their spread and the efforts to control them have had a transformative effect on the modern world.
Where does an interest in fungi come from? My work on mercury is focusing primarily on responses to the discovery of mercury in the physical environment (and the concomitant health crises that erupted); the obvious question I’ve been asked a few times—and which falls outside the scope of project—is where did the mercury come from in the first place? One of those sources is mercury-based fungicides and their place in the industrialization of agriculture at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In response to a recent call for papers, I submitted a proposal for a rather intriguing edited volume on agriculture and the life sciences (my paper was accepted, and I have to supply a clean draft in January 2013). Adopting the working title “From the New Botany to Chemical Control: Mycology, Fungicides, and Environment in Scientific Agriculture, 1885-1915,” I want to explore the crossroads at which fungi, science, agriculture, and environment meet. Here’s what I wrote:
Nature abhors a monoculture almost as much as it abhors a vacuum. In response to single crop farming practices—the template of colonial and industrial agriculture—nature has responded by increasing the conditions for crops’ susceptibility to pathogens. In this capacity, fungi have played a pivotal role in shaping the modern world. And while an array of rusts, smuts, blights, blasts, and bunts are recognized as prominent agents in transforming agricultural fortunes on regional and even global scales, the history of mycology and its place in a larger history of agricultural science is frequently overlooked.
This paper examines the global exchange between mycologists, plant pathologists, chemists, agricultural engineers, and industry in the discovery, laboratory and field testing, and commercial application of chemicals designed to stem the tide of fungal epidemics in food and cash crops in the thirty years straddling the turn of the last century. Influenced, certainly, by the aftermath of the 1840s potato blight and subsequent outbreaks of fungal disease among colonial plantation cash crops, it traces developments in mycological understanding (and importance) and overlays a concomitant expansion of chemical fungicides, from early sulphur and copper mixtures to the industrial production of organo-mercurials just before World War I. It engages these narrative threads by asking the deceptively simple question: what did scientists and farmers learn and what were they seeking to learn? In so doing the paper works to identify the relationship and tensions between the new botany, which clearly promoted mycology as a professional discipline; the chemistry that evolved to arrest fungal outbreaks in fields and plantations all over the world; and the market that stressed the sanctity of western agricultural practices (monoculturing) in the face of nature’s warnings.
Already, I’m conscious of the impossibility of the task I have set out for myself. This is likely a large book project, not a simple article-length piece. But I’m especially intrigued in the relationship between the development of mycological knowledge during the 19th century—and influenced by the new botany—and the rise of chemical control of fungi, and I welcome the opportunity to dip into something a little different. There seem to be competing narratives between the development of biological knowledge on the one hand and chemical knowledge on the other. And how one of these narratives stresses faith in human ingenuity and its capacity to control nature and defy its preordained limits, while the other suggests a more tentative relationship with the physical environment.
As blog posts go, this one is rather incomplete or unsatisfactory. It needs further discussion—and substantiation—of the relationship between mosquitoes and spores as themes in environmental history. I aim to develop this further over the next few months.