Reflections on a Mentor

Scholars accumulate a lot of intellectual debt. Every project receives inspiration or direction or modification from any number of colleagues near and far. But another form of intellectual debt runs a lot deeper. Young academics cutting their teeth are frequently a composite of numerous professors they have had in the past, whose styles in the classroom or on the written page they try to adopt or mimic (having witnessed TAs cultivate some of my own mannerisms, I take this as a form of flattery). In the classroom, I remain—many years later—a mixture of several instructors whose teaching style I admired.

Foremost among those was Michael Fellman’s. He passed away earlier this week. Which gave me pause to think about a number of people who had influenced my approach to teaching. Fellman taught US history at Simon Fraser; his History 213, US history since 1877, was one of the first undergraduate courses I took that completely absorbed me (I had the privilege to teach this course twice at SFU, on consecutive summers while I worked on my dissertation). He was wildly charismatic in the lecture hall and in the seminar room, and found ways to make US history come to life. He was interesting. That might sound mildly reserved, but I don’t think enough of us think carefully about our undergraduate audiences and how best to reach them—not just on content and course requirements, but in actually engaging their imaginations. Fellman mastered that. I remember spending more hours on a research paper on medicine shows for his US cultural history seminar than on any other paper during my undergraduate career. And I also recall sitting in for a second time (when I wasn’t even registered in his course) on his lecture on the 1980s, which he themed around Michael Douglas’s famous “greed is good” monologue in Wall Street (I subsequently “borrowed” this lecture—or arranged some fairly decent imitation of it—the numerous times I taught US history).

In the classroom, he also spoke quite candidly about the craft of teaching and researching. “I make my money with this,” he would say, pointing to his tongue. His pen was an extension of his spoken word. I still regret not having been able to take his Civil War seminar (which I also got to teach) or his US history seminar based on fiction. I was not a terribly good undergraduate student. I think I was a combination of lazy, distracted, and busy with extra-curricular activities. As a result, my transcripts might not indicate how much I enjoyed his courses. But I never missed a class.

As a doctoral student at Washington State University, I organized a Canadian Studies speakers’ series with funds from the Canadian Consulate in Seattle. One of the first people I invited down was Michael Fellman, who was born in the United States but spent his career in Canada. He had written in a popular outlet about the experience of being an American in Canada, and the WSU series gave me an opportunity to reconnect with him. He gave a great talk, which is probably still archived in some archaic video format (VHS, if memory serves) at Holland Library. I remember his poise in juxtaposition with my rather jumpy-looking introduction when I viewed the tape. He clearly knew how to speak in front of a camera. Me: not so much. We had breakfast the following morning before his departure. During my time at SFU, he (very justifiably) had his doubts about my potential as a scholar, but something shifted during his visit in Pullman, and he became much warmer about my work. He gave great guidance, and we stayed in touch as the dissertation finished up and went out to press. We also talked about his work-in-progress, which became In the Name of God and Country: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History. I seem to recall that his working title at the time was the provocative “Twisting the Cross.” His epilogue poignantly described the Bush-Cheney administration’s use of terrorism in the so-called war on terror. This was early 2004. It was an important—albeit indirect—lesson that history could and should be relevant to contemporary audiences. And that it could be politically engaging.

I doubt that I’m alone as a former student who found Fellman’s mentoring both compelling but also worth imitating. I suspect much of his approach lives on among students who went on to graduate studies and then stumbled into the academy. A couple of years ago, he contacted me with a draft of a review for The Tyee, which was subsequently published. I was one of his anonymous examples (it’s not hard to work out which one). I don’t remember my response to his initial query, although I did spend a bit of time writing a reply. More than anything else I learned from him, I have adhered to the notion of facilitating more than creating as a teacher. I don’t think this was solely his invention or influence—actually, I know it wasn’t—but reflecting back on news of his passing, I am reminded of this.

Historiographic Mash-Up

Previously, I wrote about the hybrid or interdisciplinary interstice in which my work rests. One of the exciting features of such an in-between area of focus is the freedom to read eclectically across a number of different fields. Here’s a very brief overview of some of the literature that is influencing my approach to the mercury project. Not present is the larger theoretical discussion—and associated literature—behind the politics of post-normal science and interdisciplinarity, discussed elsewhere.

Because my project functions at the intersections of environmental history, the history of science, and policy studies, it is indebted to an interdisciplinary and eclectic body of scholarly literature. The emergence of world environmental history suggests an important intellectual home for my work. John McNeill, Alfred W. Crosby, J. Donald Hughes, Clive Ponting, Richard H. Grove, and John Richards have each examined environmental history, putting particular emphasis on the idea that nature transcends national boundaries and paying careful attention to comparative transfers of materials and ideas across time and place. Further, Alf Hornborg has challenged historians to make distinctions and draw correlations between the social “world system” and the environmental “earth system,” in global historical contexts. But while these works have typically sought to survey the role of nature in world history or within the framework of a specific time period, the new trend—in which I see my project—is interested in tracing the place of a discrete piece of nature through world history. Popular accounts of cod and spice in world history provide popular examples of this trend, while scholars in environmental history are engaged in similar studies on quinine and the coffee rust virus. In exploring a single pollutant and the scientific and regulatory efforts to control that pollutant, I see my project as contributing to a world environmental history from mercury’s point of view.

Understanding mercury’s role in my account also demands that I put environmental history and the history of science in conversation with each other.  Strangely, the overlap between these two fields is limited to histories of ecology and—from the environmental history perspective—criticisms of the ecologically destructive nature of western science and technology. Peter Bowler’s methodical evaluation of the environmental sciences and their evolution is a solid example of important work that has been more roundly adopted by historians of science interested in the history of the expansion of ecological knowledge. Stephen Bocking’s discussion of professional ecology and ecologists provides a template for discussing ecology as both a scientific discipline and a political tool. New work on toxicological studies also offers a bridge between the two historical fields. Christopher Sellers, Gerald Markowitz, and David Rosner have discussed the relationship between toxicology and occupational health and safety as environmental issues. Underpinning my entire discussion of the science and regulation of mercury pollution is the specter of its threat to human health and how this is a critical step in what Sverker Sörlin calls “environing,” the expansion of social environmental awareness.

Addressing the relationship between science, environment, and policy might sensibly be divided into two spheres, one examining the sociology of scientific knowledge—which seeks to illuminate both the structure of scientific disciplines and scientific knowledge more generally—and the other exploring scholarship on international environmental policy. A number of studies have analyzed the “birth” of new scientific disciplines and the manner in which knowledge is manufactured and accepted. The prevailing theme here, championed by Robert Kohler, Harrison Echols, and others is that the development of new sciences is a fundamentally social undertaking. Perhaps the most significant work in this vein is Jan Golinski’s, which highlights scientific knowledge as a product of human culture. At the nexus of scientific knowledge and environmental policy, Chandra Mukerji takes this argument even further, by suggesting a complex interdependence between scientists and the state, in which scientists provide the state not with knowledge but rather legitimacy in return for financial support. From the perspective of policy studies, Sheila Jasanoff’s work follows modern political cultures and their struggles to control scientific knowledge in the public interest, while she and Sylvia Noble Tesh consider the social dynamics of scientists in the public and political arena.  Another important policy avenue involves the study of the chemical regime, writ large.  Jennifer Clapp and Henrik Selin provide valuable guidance in the politics of chemicals, their motility, and their disposal in international treaties, while Elizabeth DeSombre and others critique the dynamics of global environmental governance.

Another important direction in the sociology of scientific knowledge involves questions pertaining to the geography of science and the important assertion that science occurs in places, and is not singularly abstract or universal.  Put more succinctly, scientific knowledge is situated, but mobile.  This is an extension of Bruno Latour’s work and, indeed, Golinski’s, and David N. Livingstone, Nigel Thrift, and others have stressed the role of geography in the production and consumption of scientific knowledge.  In the context of mercury pollution, it matters where mercury is found—and that some people in some places were looking for it—where environmental toxicology was developed, and where and in what shape mercury regulation took place.  But while much of the current scholarship underscores the situated but mobile nature of scientific knowledge, one of the curious—and recurring—characteristics of the mercury story is that the science is situated, but not nearly as mobile as the existing literature might indicate it should be. Indeed, one of the most interesting intellectual features of this project is the tension between the global phenomenon of mercury as a pollutant, the more limited transnational exchange of scientific ideas pertaining to environmental toxicology—spurred forward by specific cases of mercury pollution—and the national and international processes integral to the negotiation and passage of environmental regulation. This warrants further analysis and consideration, but it opens up a fascinating historiographic question about the motility of scientific knowledge and its communication.

Mercury, Science, Policy: History & STS

The mercury project invites investigation in a series of provocative directions that are informed by the history of science and STS. Below, I outline a couple. The idea of doing interdisciplinary (or adisciplinary) work is compelling. The growing significance of problem-solving in responding to the environmental crisis constitutes a sea-change in how scientific practice conducts its inquiries, observations, and investigations. It also brings together specialists from a variety of different backgrounds, who must shape a common vocabulary around the problem rather than around the jargon of their respective fields. These hybridized knowledge fields are rich ground for historians and science studies scholars.

Another angle, too: In their 2007 book, Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins and Robert Evans reiterated their contention that “science, if it can deliver truth, cannot deliver it at the speed of politics.” This is the enduring tension of the mercury project in general. Since the Commoner book, I’ve been drawn to some older work by Jerome Ravetz, where he introduces the notion of post-normal science, which is a reflection of science occurring in conjunction with social, political, and economic values weighing in on the results. In effect, Ravetz is especially interested in public participation in science and subsequent political decision-making. He sees it as a positive and viable—indeed necessary—direction for contemporary science. Post-normal science reflects the new nature of scientific inputs to policy processes. According to Ravetz, “only through post-normal science can scientific endeavor recover from the loss of morale and commitment that started with the Bomb … and is now rampant under the capture of science by globalization.” Similarly, in a 1992 article in Theory, Culture, & Society, Ulrich Beck also raised another potential boon for scientific uncertainty. “The exposure of scientific uncertainty,” he wrote, “is the liberation of politics, law, and the public sphere from their patronization by technocracy.” Public science has and will continue to foster greater scientific literacy and a more informed public. That was certainly my interpretation of post-normal science in the Commoner book. Commoner was a scientist-activist, who devoted an incredible amount of time and energy to ensuring that the public was informed and had the necessary tools with which to participate in public debate. My interest here is to make less of a judgment on the moral nature of post-normal science, but rather to recognize its mechanisms as a prevalent feature of the scientific landscape after World War II

The rapid development of scientific knowledge about mercury in the environment provokes two rather interesting channels of inquiry, namely how new scientific disciplines and interdisciplines are formed, and how science functions when social needs dictate immediate recommendations from experts. Both these channels are a product of a modern science that is increasingly characterized by heterogeneity, hybridity, complexity, and interdisciplinarity in knowledge creation. Central to my account is the question of how interdisciplinary research shapes stories about nature. Interdisciplines constitute hybridized knowledge fields situated between existing disciplines, and are composed of a variety of different research specialties. As Scott Frickel observes, whereas “disciplines tend to lead to knowledge that deepens understanding of specific phenomena … interdisciplinary knowledge is often guided by a collective interest in problem solving.” Growing environmental knowledge and deeper understanding of the post-World War II ecological crisis provided a fertile breeding ground for many such interdisciplines, because newly discovered environmental problems rarely conformed to traditional scientific disciplines, which, in turn, precipitated the collaboration and communication of experts with disparate backgrounds.  These interdisciplines, therefore, provide intriguing points of communication for telling especially novel stories about stories about nature, to use William Cronon’s phrase. Another important feature of scientific interdisciplines as they emerged to address environmental issues after World War II involved the relative urgency of procuring information.  In a 1985 article on the development of conservation biology, Michael Soulé discussed the precarious nature of what he called “crisis disciplines,” where, he claims, “one must act before knowing all the facts.”  Soulé argues that “crisis disciplines” require more than “just science.”  In fact, they are “a mixture of science and art, and their pursuit requires intuition as well as information.” Put another way, Brian Wynne and Sue Mayer assert “Where the environment is at risk, there is no clear-cut boundary between science and policy.”

In my reading, the production of scientific knowledge necessary to understand the problems surrounding mercury pollution takes place in the incipient stages of what Jerome Ravetz has called “post-normal” science, where knowledge “is uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent.” From nuclear fallout to global warming, scientific communities have been pressed into action to weigh in—quickly—on the issues of the day.  Let me stress “quickly.”  In advocating a “third wave” of science studies, which examines the boundaries between experts and the public, H. M. Collins and Robert Evans observe that “the speed of political decision-making is faster than the speed of scientific consensus formation.” Indeed, when pressed to regulate mercury in Sweden, the National Institute for Public Health was forced to use data from the Minamata disaster, rather than starting their own tests and experiments to exhaustively determine the highest zero-effect dosage of mercury. Time was of the essence. But this is not how modern science was designed to work. The project of this post-normal science—a derivative of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm-based normal science—is not to collect and present definitive knowledge, but rather to function within a highly complex network of policymaking interests, best described by Latour’s notion of “co-production,” which marries the production of knowledge with the production of social order.

And if understanding the nature of mercury pollution posed difficulties, regulating mercury on limited or incomplete scientific knowledge was equally problematic. In Japan, Sweden, Canada, Guatemala, Iraq, the Seychelles, the Faroe Islands, and the United States, government authorities either acted very quickly, erring on the side of caution, or did not act quickly enough, or acted ineffectively. In addition, international bodies like the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organization, and the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission engaged in discussions that transcended national borders. That these political debates gave rise to considerable adjustment of environmental policies pertaining to acceptable limits for mercury exposure further points to an interesting dialogue between the importance of political capital and the social demands of scientific knowledge.

While my investigation of national and international environmental policy treats the complexity of working with a body of knowledge that is incomplete, it also trades on the basic premise of environmental history that nature—in this case mercury—is more than just a backdrop to human history.  What happens to environmental policy history and the history of science when its subject (nature) is not a static canvas, but is continually introducing new and puzzling variants of pollution? Moreover, how do science and international politics reconcile when they, too, are in constant motion and change? As a result, the story of mercury pollution emerges as a legislative subject with fluid characteristics; human understandings of this problem shifted over time and place. And these efforts to manage mercury emissions suggest that nature was an active participant in this history. Mercury’s transition from elemental isolation to unwelcome ecological integration offers an intriguing blend of human and natural agencies. On the one hand the release of methylmercury into the environment is part of a well-documented history of the tragedy of unintended environmental consequences spurred by technology and visions of progress. On the other, it serves as an interesting opportunity to engage with themes of natural agency in heretofore under-examined ways. Mercury has a nature; in its transmutation from benign element to toxic pollutant, nature suggests an agency that palpably organizes how mercury and humanity mix.