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)
5 September: “Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides” (with Michelle Mart)
12 September: “Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War” (with Jacob Hamblin)
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).