#EnvHist Worth Reading: January 2015

Workers slaughter a sperm whale. Sperm whales produce about 41 barrels of oil.— Photo Credit: Victoria News and the Maritime Museum Of B.C.

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Every month I carefully track the most popular and significant environmental history articles, videos, audio, and other items making their way through the online environmental history (#envhist) community. Also check out the fifth instalment of our #EnvHist Worth Reading videos. Here are my choices for items most worth reading from January 2015.

1. Blizzards and the Birth of the Modern Mayor

In this piece, Yoni Appelbaum demonstrates how one instance of extreme weather can have a significant effect on the way in which society functions. The Blizzard of 1888, Appelbaum shows, caught the residents of New York and New England unprepared. 400 people died and the region’s cities were paralyzed. Urban citizens had grown complacent about extreme weather because it was believed that the infrastructure of the modern city was immune to the perils of Mother Nature. The Blizzard of 1888 exposed the weaknesses of this kind of thinking as the transit system, electrical grid, and other infrastructure succumbed to the storm. As a result, cities began to demand that their mayors become more proactive during inclement weather situations, calming their fears and assuring them that services will continue. The effects of the Blizzard of 1888 can be connected to the way in which mayors, like New York City’s Bill de Blasio, publicly flex their leadership muscles before a large storm is expected to hit.

2. The Fracking Report In Historical Perspective

In December, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, banned hydrofracking in the state. Bruce Dearstyne argues that Cuomo’s decision follows “in a tradition of New York governors who relied on expert scientific reports as a basis for making a policy on hard environmental issues.” Dearstyne gives several historical examples, such as Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s action on water pollution based on a report by a subcommittee on pollution during the late 1940s.

3. Environmental Racism, Environmental Justice, and the Legacy of the Memphis Strike

This post is based on a chapter from Carl Zimring’s upcoming book, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States from Monticello to Memphis. In the post, Zimring discusses the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. Sanitation work was particularly important in Memphis due to the city’s history of epidemic diseases, like yellow fever. Sanitation work in Memphis, such as sewage system construction and maintenance and garbage collection, was done almost exclusively by African Americans. The strike illustrated both the importance of sanitation work and the racist undertones that surrounded the occupation, as white people saw the work as beneath them–too dirty and dangerous– and they painted the strikers as lazy and shiftless. Zimring connects the strike to today,  pointing out that “people of color continue to make up a disproportionate amount of the labor force handling American’s waste.”

4. Here’s why 76 beavers were forced to skydive into the Idaho wilderness in 1948

After World War II, people began moving into previously undeveloped sections of Idaho, land that was inhabited by beavers. This development and the beavers inevitably came into conflict and the Idaho Fish and Game Department was tasked with rehoming the beavers. At the time, Idaho’s countryside was inaccessible by way of automobile. At first they relied on packhorses and mules to transport the beavers to their new habitat, but this led to annoyance among the humans and animals involved. They wanted a cheaper, more humane method for rehoming. The solution was to use planes and surplus army parachutes. Seventy-six beavers were dropped down into the Idaho wilderness using this method.

5. B.C. Whaling: An Uncomfortable History

In this post, Kate Humble, discusses the way that certain topics are considered “sexier” than others. For example, working at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, Humble has noticed that visitors to the museum are often fascinated by shipwrecks and naval battles, but shy away from topics related to B.C.’s economy, like the region’s historical dependence on whaling and fishing and the ecological degradation that these industries caused. She then discusses the history of the whaling industry and the way that the industry over-hunted whales. Though it is uncomfortable, she contends, the history is still important. “The purpose of history,” she concludes, “is not to allow us to pick and choose which stories we like and therefore which stories we tell, though that is inevitably what occurs. History happened. There is nothing we can do to change it.”

Remember to follow #envhist hashtag and NiCHE (@NiCHE_Canada) on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ to keep up with the latest environmental history content.

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Jessica DeWitt is an environmental historian of the American and Canadian environment, editor, and digital communications strategist. She is an editor and social media editor for NiCHE.

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