“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)


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)

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.

The Toxic Century: An Organizing Principle

I thought I’d written this post already. For more than a year I have been organizing my research agenda around the Toxic Century—a period, post-World War II, in which a host of toxic chemicals proliferated the physical environment and created a series of health concerns. My introductory summary in a grant proposal, submitted last year:

We live in a toxic century. Each of us is a walking, breathing artifact of humanity’s toxic trespasses into nature. Unwittingly or not, we are all carrying a chemical cocktail in our blood, our bones, and our tissue, which constitutes the problematic legacy of persistent organic pollutants. This project is a history of that century from within, where “within” refers to the fact that we are still living in the toxic century—it begins after World War II—but also that this is an embodied history, which explores the history of the toxins we carry around inside us.

Persistent organic pollutants, such as synthetic pesticides, plastics, and PCBs, defy environmental degradation. As a result they pose considerable risks to human and environmental health insofar as they are able to move great distances from their points of origin and because they tend to magnify up the food chain and accumulate in human and animal tissue. They are a by-product of the chemical revolution that began at the end of the 19th century and proliferated in the marketplace in the years immediately following World War II. As carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, persistent organic pollutants have become the ominous centrepiece of the global toxic story that continues to haunt us.

The toxic century refers to the contamination of the entire planet. The synthetic chemicals defining this century have become a ubiquitous feature of the human footprint on the global landscape. More than 350 of them have been identified in the Great Lakes, where they would persist, even if their emission were halted tomorrow. They also have demonstrated a distinct capacity to travel over great distances in waterways, in the atmosphere, in our mobile bodies. Multiple chlorinated chemical by-products have been located in measurable quantities in the Canadian Arctic and over the Atlantic Ocean, for example, thousands of kilometers from their point of manufacture.

As a history of persistent organic pollutants and their science in a global context, this project first explores the manufacture and proliferation of toxic chemicals before concentrating on the post-World War II environmental science that raised alarms about their threats to human health and ecological integrity. In this manner, the project merges environmental politics with public health and toxicology to uncover the scale and scope of our toxic crisis, putting special emphasis on the emergence of environmental toxicology as a hybrid discipline designed to confront the uncertainty that has driven so much of the recent history of chemical harm. And it helps readers understand that, since World War II, a variety of military and industrial practices have introduced new chemicals into the environment and into our bodies, many of which pose serious health risks and have wrought damage to the physical environment, the extent of which we do not even know. This project aims to ensure that even if the damage remains uncertain, our understanding of the history that produced these problems—and the history of efforts to repair them—should not.

Over the past year, I moved away from the idea of drafting a project on the Toxic Century writ large. Instead, my interest in toxic fear is an avenue of inquiry within this framework. Further, the idea of telling “history from within,” provides a context for linking the Toxic Century to my other interests in the history of the future. Another angle I mean to pursue involves investigating the history of disaster science, which explicitly links toxics and the future around ideas of planning and anticipating environmental contamination.

The Soothsayers’ Guild

Lecturing on the history of the future this term has had me turning to other creative endeavours. This post’s title is from a piece of short fiction I’m drafting in my mind during my walks to and from campus. It’s a story about a still-vaguely-contoured medieval/early modern European past, maybe immediately prior to, or after, the Black Death—or in the midst of the Protestant Reformation.

When the future is uncertain, augury is in high demand, and the soothsayers’ guild exploits this niche in the market. I’m not sure about its origins, but these fortune tellers are well-organized across Europe. They convene to organize stories about the future to harmonize their message. Universal stories about the future shape trends across Europe and strengthen the soothsayers’ credibility and authority. With growing power and funds, the guild purchases/breeds some of the fastest horses in Europe and develops their own messenger system with stables all over the landscape, moving information—economic, political, cultural—faster than through traditional means. They realize that access to information is valuable, and so their prophecies blend elements of insider knowledge with their own fictional imaginings/preferences. These are shared in courts, taverns, and town squares (in audience-appropriate formats, of course) to whoever will pay to learn the mysteries of the future. Through stories, the guild indirectly moves armies and influences power throughout the continent, all while captivating the imagination of the masses at the same time.

It’s a clever scheme; and by scheme, I mean scam. And you can imagine the winks as soothsayers pass each other in the street, conducting the medieval equivalent of a subtle fist-bump from under their monkish tunics. Maybe the story follows the adventures of a young, soothsaying apprentice, or maybe it’s told by an older, now-disillusioned member of the guild. Perhaps it’s a swashbuckling adventure, but the plot could also proceed along a quieter, but more sinister, narrative of political intrigue. Maybe it’s hilarious.

Of course, I always ask my students what their paper is about, and then ask what it’s really about. In the background, the story examines the rise of knowledge economies and network societies, the politics of power, and how expertise—real and imagined—manifests itself. Maybe it also takes a satirical swipe at contemporary futurology, especially the pundits who make noisy predictions based on limited analysis or research. Or it could be more a thought-piece on the manner in which expertise can be abused and misconstrued. Or just the power of storytelling. Maybe it will never be written. Maybe it will be great.

Course Outline: History of the Future

My most enjoyable classroom experiences seem to come in Level 3 courses. Perhaps it has something to do with being able to move out of the survey and engage with some more nuanced and complicated material, all while sharing it with a diverse student group (McMaster’s History Department restricts entry into our Level 4 seminars to Honours History students). Also, the topics are fun. This semester, I have returned to my “History of the Future” class. I shared the last iteration of the syllabus here. This version is markedly different, and I may try to share some of the lectures here in due course.


The course examines how past societies imagined the future, working on the premise that historians can fruitfully be interested in what pasts didn’t happen. In principle, I try to stress the relationship between technology and historical imaginations of the future and the influential feedback loop between them. The class slowly works its way through utopian and dystopian visions of machines, cities, fiction, and the vocabulary of futurism, before turning its attention to environmental futures—and how modelling, predicting, and fearing environmental crisis has a rich and important history worth exploring.

History of the Future Redux

Since graduate school, I’ve been fascinated with the history of the future. Not so much as historians having some special felicity with predicting the future (nope), but how the future is a wildly understudied facet of the human past. We’re constantly thinking about the future (even historians), from checking the weather, to making grocery lists for the week, to looking forward to vacations or travel or time off, etc. It would be very interesting to develop a larger historical project on these kinds of mundane features of the future, but my focus has tended toward the history of technology and its relationship to the environment. More significantly, planning—political, economic, environmental—is a much-neglected historical perspective. There’s a compelling element in the human drama to examine not just what people did, but what they thought they were doing. And what they thought they might achieve: how were they forward-looking. One aspect of this analysis might consider how effectively/accurately different people and societies planned for the future and in what kinds of capacity have past societies been most successful in so doing.

There are a lot of interesting entry points into this investigation. I think my own was prompted by the simple question: why have we been so relatively poor at anticipating the future? This was spurred by the litany of environmental disasters that were derived from unanticipated consequences, but the question can be expanded to ask where our private jetpacks and sky cities, etc. are. I think the short answer has to do with the social and cultural influences of technological systems and the manner in which system-entrenching technologies become so ingrained that it becomes difficult to imagine how technologies alien to the existing system might work. But that’s only part of a simplistic, macro-explanation that deserves further examination.

Sverker Sörlin, Libby Robin, and Paul Warde have been doing some exciting work on environmental prediction, which is starting to concentrate on the 1940s and 1950s. And I know of a few historians who have taken an interest in futurism (which only interests me as an historical project, not as an expression of historians’ expertise with time—that we should be able to look forward as easily as we look backward). Recently, Paul Warde pointed me towards these sessions at the European Social Science History conference, which meets next month (scroll down to sessions Y-9 and Y-10). His paper abstract reads:

Expertise for the Future: the Emergence of ‘Relevant Knowledge’ in Environmental Predictions and Global Change, c.1920-1970.

What characterizes an expert in the field of ‘environmental futures’? This paper considers why certain scientific methods have been favored historically, and especially in the breakthrough moment for the modern concept of ‘environment’ in the post-war years. One important point of departure for the paper is the idea that the emergence of the environment implied new demarcations for what counted as expertise, often transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries, and closely related to the practice and expectation of prediction. Another is point of departure is the increasing extent to which expertise relied on quantification, numeric assessments and iterative methods which had previously been developed as parts of various sciences but reemerge with new institutional and political implications when attached to environmental futures. The predictions that concern us here have clear similarities with the (self-)proclaimed expertise used in projecting futures in financial, economic, demographic and other areas, and their legitimization. Relevant knowledge, especially of integrative techniques such as mathematical modeling is often construed as transcending these, thus establishing new specific realms of expertise which in recent decades have coalesced into phenomena such as ‘global change’ and ‘environmental issues’. This paper will focus a number of issues in surveying the emergence of global change thinking: climate, energy, population, and biodiversity.

Similarly, his co-panelist Jenny Andersson’s (Sciences Po) paper looks very interesting:

The Political Life of Prediction. The Future as a Space of Scientific World Governance in the Cold War Era

This contribution explores the role of the future as a space of scientific exchange and dialogue in the Cold War period. We argue that problems of future governance were, East and West, conceptualized in similar ways as problems that challenged notions of politics and expertise but also led to the development of new forms of scientific governance which sought explicitly to depoliticize the future and turn it into a new transnational domain of technocratic politics. The paper thus focuses on the exchange between American and Soviet futurologists and on important forms of scientific cooperation primarily around the creation of the IIASA, but it inserts this case into a larger discussion of the future as a technoscientific space beyond political dispute – and embryo of new forms of global future governance.

I wish I could be there. But this is a rich and fruitful entry into an important and understudied avenue of historical inquiry. My own timeframe interests are more consistent with the papers in the second panel. After having done some work on The Limits to Growth and The Population Bomb, I’m especially interested in the techniques used during the 1960s and 1970s (especially the early iterations of computer modeling). The second panel includes papers that overlap with my timeline rather nicely, but the central theme seems to be forecasting doom, which is an important element of the period, but ground I covered indirectly while writing about Commoner (chapter 4 examined the role of the environmental jeremiad in American environmentalism and focused on the Commoner-Ehrlich debate over population and pollution). I’d be more interested to explore the practical aspects of future-planning and its relationship with science and policy. Here are a couple of paper abstracts from that second session. First, Elke Seefried (Augsburg University):

Futures Studies of the 1960s and early 1970s: From Creating Futures to Predicting Doom?

‘Future’ became a central political and scientific category in western industrialized countries during the 1960s. As a result of dynamic changes in science and technology and an increasing orientation towards planning, the so-called futures studies (or futurology) boomed. These were scientific approaches to forecast, plan and think about the future. In a process of circulation of knowledge, transnational networks of experts were established as well as national institutions of futures studies in Western industrialized countries during the 1960s. In this paper, I would like to focus on futures studies in West Germany and Britain, arguing that considerable parts of futures studies particularly in West Germany underwent a change around 1970, and this led to profound political consequences. In the 1960s, futures studies were shaped by a perception that the future was open and feasible, based on a belief in modernization and technical progress within the framework of the industrial society. Around 1970, parts of the field were permeated by a polyvalent, especially ecologically tinged criticism of growth and apocalyptic scenarios whereas the belief in planning strategies persisted. The debate on The Limits to Growth and other ‘prophecies of doom’ gave rise to the concepts of ‘quality of life’ and qualitative growth, later to become sustainability. This is particularly true for West Germany where futures studies had a considerable impact on politics by anticipating and constructing the ‘crisis’ of the 1970s and by reconceptualizing the notions of growth and progress towards qualitative and ecological aspects. In contrast, British futures studies and politics were much more bound up with paradigms of industrial society.

And, second, Elodie Vieille Blanchard (Centre Alexandre Koyré):

Technoscientific Cornucopian Futures versus Doomsday Futures: Forecasting and Modelling in the Debate over the Limits to Growth

This paper focuses on the emergence of the “limits to growth” paradigm concerning demography and industry in the developed world during the period 1945-1970. This was a context of generalized material affluence and confidence about the future. Indeed technology was supposed to allow the diffusion of the Western way of life to the whole world, and to solve all social and environmental problems this affluence could bring. The paper also shows the specificity of the Club of Rome project, under contrasted influences of cornucopian futures studies -focused on technology- and of the doomsday theories of environmentalists. It explains how these specific views about future led to the elaboration of a particular model, utilised in the publication of the Limits to Growth in 1972. Finally, the paper brings out how, in the debate over the “limits to growth” in the 1970s, particular visions of technology, environment and social priorities led to different modelling enterprises, which brought about radically divergent conclusions concerning the future of demography and industry. In the broader perspective, my contribution aims to show how the initial controversy over growth gave way to discussions about the specific characteristics of sustainable growth, while the criticism of industrial growth, and the urge to cease it, became the prerogative of very few scientists and activists.

The second paper, especially, is something I’d like to read, especially since I found myself so wrapped up in The Limits to Growth and the work that Jay Wright Forrester pioneered in system dynamics.

The history of the future has also been a teaching interest of mine. I’ve taught “The History of the Future” twice at McMaster over the past few years as a third-year course, and after removing the course from our calendar to make way for teaching the history of sustainability, I reintroduced it this past year, and hope to teach it again soon. Here’s a copy of the syllabus from the last time I taught it: 3UU3_Syllabus_2009. I had a really good group of students who bought in and made this a really fun class. I had roughly 100 students in the room, but the culture of the class made it feel more like a seminar with lots of good questions during and after each session. I’ll write more about the course concepts in the future; this was an interesting and effective way to talk about technological systems.

The next time I teach “The History of the Future,” I will likely revise the courseware materials and the course direction, in order to try to organize the course around the future writing project. I suspect the next iteration of the course will be organized around “Thinkers,” “Planners,” and “Makers.” Loosely, the first involves an intellectual history of the future (and touches on futurism, sci fi, etc.); the second considers planning, design, and prediction; and the final section is still fairly poorly conceived, but I want a place to investigate the Jay Wright Forresters and Buckminster Fullers of the world. Or at least that’s the current plan.