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 spent the past two days in Buffalo, conducting research at the University of Buffalo’s Special Collections and at the Buffalo History Museum’s Research Library. My focus was on the Adeline Levine Love Canal collections at both institutions. It was a fruitful trip, tying up loose ends and discovering new avenues of inquiry.
I woke early this morning for the drive home, and stopped to visit the Love Canal site. The Love Canal story is fairly well known. In the 1950s, Hooker Chemicals sold a patch of land to the School Board for a nominal fee. The site included the incomplete Love Canal, which the chemical company had used as a toxic waste disposal dump prior to the sale (this was acknowledged in the sale, along with the proviso that the company was not responsible for any subsequent liability). A school was built on the site and a community eventually developed around it. By the 1970s, however, concerns that chemicals were seeping into basements and to the surface of the old canal line (where children played) instigated an unprecedented clamour for evacuation. This happened untidily and in waves. And it has entered in to the canon of American environmental catastrophes—along with being a pillar of the new grassroots environmental activism that typified the Reagan years.
Online, there is a wonderfully sober Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places. Love Canal is included. Which is apt. Paired against the anxiety and anger of Love Canal residents in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the tumult of multiple issues present in the archives, Love Canal is a strangely somber place. It has the quiet of a Civil War battleground, even if comparable care and landscaping are absent. And it lacks the commemorative status. No plaque or monument recognizes the recent history of this site. A fence rings 70 acres grassland, which caps the old canal and the chemicals within. Private Property. No Trespassing.
This is a wasteland. A forgotten place. Abandoned. Not just within. But the surrounds. Frontier Avenue to the south, 95th Street to the west, and 101st Street to the east are in disrepair. Where once these quiet numbered streets might have welcomed children’s bicycles, pocked cement, potholes, and weeds make for slow driving in the car.
To the west of the site are senior centers. At 6.30 in the morning, they are distinguished in their quiet.
The children displaced from Love Canal would be my age today. I don’t know that any sociological study has attempted to track them down and investigate the long term effects of the stress associated with the events of their childhood. Throughout the interviews and testimonies I examined in the archives, parents emphasized the fears and illnesses and stresses experienced by their children. Changing schools, worrying that their dolls could be contaminated, hyperactivity.
This visit had a morbid quality to it, in the utter silence of the morning. I wondered about who still lived adjacent to the closed-off site. Did they know what it was? I wondered, too, about my own participation: a kind of eco-tourism, but in reverse. There’s likely a growing fascination in eco-catastrophe tourism. See the Great Barrier Reef before it’s gone. Visit Love Canal. Times Beach today is a park. My interest in environmental disasters probably says more about me in macabre kinds of ways than I would like to consider.
And while the fence is straight, solid, and adamant that this private property should not be trespassed, the surrounding area outside the boundary is unkempt. I think this is 97th Street below. I’m looking north. The tree overhangs the road. Weeds are making considerable headway in their war against the concrete. This is a desolate place.
Conscious of my tourism, I decided not to walk down 100th Street, closed off to traffic, but open—it seemed—to pedestrians.
Turning right on 101st Street, to cover the final side of the Love Canal site before repairing to the safety of the Expressway (audible in the distance), more ramshackle homes and waste. The sacrifice zone of Love Canal extends well beyond the barriers that outline but do not mark the history of this place. Abandoned areas, refuse and waste on the grass and sides of the street. As forgotten as the place. If Love Canal is toxic, who cares about the boundaries and where are the explicit, objective boundaries between clean and contaminated? Of course they do not exist. One bleeds into the other and back again. But in the renounced areas outside the fence there is a clear expression that this place is not wanted.
Back out onto River Road to race for home. In spots, you can make out the top of the fence over the LaSalle Expressway. Fences (with similar private property signs) prevent access to the river on the left. This time, pollution is less the issue. But the fences demarcate where it is safe and appropriate to go. We are allowed to forget about the places we may not pass. Pretend they’re not there, and maybe never existed. Good fences make good neighbours. Then Woody Guthrie comes to mind.
Another short. One of the challenges of engaging with toxic fear in the 1980s was to recognize that discrete events provoked specific fears. Inasmuch as the media played a role (it did, but it was not the sole driver of public anxieties towards chemicals), I found I needed to understand how and where stories received attention. Many incidents—from Love Canal to later, less-publicized events—received national attention, albeit briefly. Invariably, however, the local press told more stories and kept the discussion going for longer. And none of this explains variations in how environmental stories were told. More often than not, the media could have mitigated fears with clear and accessible scientific information. More often than not, however, it tended to pander to captivating readers through sound bytes that fuelled the fire. In national stories, however, sites of toxic fear still had distinct geographies. An example: the national apple scare surrounding the use of Alar, or daminozide, in the late 1980s. It received considerable mainstream news attention, after the Natural Resources Defense Council, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and the actress Meryl Streep brought the issue to the public.
Media analysis also permits some opportunity to evaluate the geography of toxic fear. For example, a 1996 study on media reporting on Alar found that west coast newspapers—The Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The San Jose Mercury News—reported more frequently than comparable newspapers on the eastern seaboard. Careful analysis of the reporting, however, revealed that many of the articles recounted the controversy without recording the competing scientific interpretations of the inherent risks. Many newspapers were captivated by the storm and rhetoric and debate, leaving readers with no better framework for understanding the potential hazards (or lack thereof) posed by eating apples. Which is to say that an information deficit regarding Alar’s risks persisted. Media outlets capitalized on the controversy and sold newspapers and captured viewers by aggravating Americans’ latent fear of chemicals.
 Table on page 10 of Friedman et al., “Alar and Apples: Newspapers, Risk and Media Responsibility,” Public Understanding of Science 5 (1996), 1-20.
 Jane Gregory & Steve Miller, Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 168-173.
I’m spending the summer frantically writing. The current project with an end-of-summer writing deadline is a history of toxic fear in the American 1980s. Title to be determined, but I hope to trace an American history of toxic chemicals in the 1980s, and how pollution produced unprecedented fears. From Three Mile Island and Love Canal to Times Beach and Woburn, the decade was punctuated by a series of local crises, which gained national media attention. But I mean to argue that toxic fear was a good deal more than a simple shift in media reporting. I’ll save themes and methodologies for subsequent posts.
After spending most of the last decade trying to escape my training as an American historian—much of my work on mercury has attempted more global and/or transnational perspectives—this project has been a happy return to US history. And the 1980s is a relatively new decade for me. Given, though, that 1980 marks the halfway point between the end of World War II and the present, it’s probably high time to acknowledge that the decade deserves careful study. Much groundwork has already been done, but the environmental history remains somewhat light.
This long preamble is a preface for a comparison that struck me this morning while writing. Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) features prominently in my reading of toxic fear in the 1980s. Not just because of the book’s “toxic airborne event,” which throws DeLillo’s narrative into chaos, but because of its funny, poignant, and deliberate descriptions of American culture run adrift. His final paragraph is wonderful (apologies for the poor reading):
I’m especially fond of White Noise, so its inclusion in my work is a special pleasure and a personal conceit. And while I am no literary scholar and only a “reforming” American historian, it’s hardly my place to claim that it is a definite candidate as one the great American novels, even if only for the moment in which it was written. I’m not alone, of course: White Noise was awarded the National Book Award for 1985. But I think it also holds up especially well.
DeLillo’s conclusion also put me in mind of another favourite concluding paragraph, this one from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which I read over and over when I first discovered Kerouac more than twenty years ago:
I don’t want to make a meal of the comparison, but I was struck by the disparate tones of hope and despair—or sad promise (Kerouac) and numbed satire (DeLillo). The youthful energy of On the Road contrasts with the implicit defeat of DeLillo’s America almost thirty years later. Of course, no one needed to wait thirty years: in Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962), Cody Pomeranz and Lorenzo Monsanto chop down trees. Cody, the vivacious reincarnation of Neal Cassady, formerly On the Road‘s Dean Moriarty, lays into his axe with gusto. The older Monsanto is slower, more deliberate. His tree falls first.
The road and the grocery store aisle as windows to knowledge and sustenance offer polar opposites to the American experience. What happened? Kerouac was writing at the dawn of the 1960s, an “age of contradiction,” as historian Howard Brick has contended. Brick’s chapter titles outline the coming tensions: this was a decade marked by knowledge and ideology; authenticity and artifice; community and mass society; systems and the distrust of order; peace and violence. Kerouac’s sunset in On the Road is also evening in an America bent on conformity. The 1960s would be loud. But DeLillo’s 1980s would be quite different again. In contrast to an age of contradiction, the historian Daniel T. Rodgers examined the last quarter of the twentieth century and described an “age of fracture.” The social, moral, and economic boundaries that defined previous American generations lost concrete definition, creating a certain ambivalence that trades on a new chapter of American exceptionalism—and, indeed, postmodernism, where scepticism towards metanarratives, heightened superficiality, and consumerism reign supreme. Which is very much the world of White Noise.
On the one hand, the lazy point to make is how these two literary conclusions suggest a dissolution of the American dream. But there is also a fascinating expression of the American sadness described some years later by David Foster Wallace in The Infinite Jest (1996). I need to do more to situate toxic fear within this grander context, but uncertainty, changing risk perceptions, and widespread fear are consistent with many of the cultural themes Rodgers sees in his age of fracture.
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’d love to say the paper was well-received. Maybe it was. The Twittersphere got this far:
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…