#EnvHist Worth Reading: March 2015

Aerial View of Johannesburg Illustrates Divide Between Wealthy Neighborhoods with Trees and Barren Poorer Neighborhoods. Source: Flickr/ Michis

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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 seventh installment of our #EnvHist Worth Reading videos. Here are my choices for items most worth reading from March 2015.

1. ASEH 2015: A Grad Student Walks into a Room…

The annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History occurred March 18-22 in Washington, D.C. The meeting, one of the most important of the year  for environmental historians, sparked quite a few reflection pieces. My favourite collection of reflections were written by Sarah Wilson on her blog, The Americanist Diversion. Wilson is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at Penn State. In the final post about the conference, “A Grad Student Walks into a Room…,” Wilson describes how attending ASEH served as a kind of academic renewal process for her. She describes her experience networking and talks about the conference’s welcoming and open atmosphere. She observes that environmental historians seem particularly keen to examine their place in academia critically. She concludes by comparing the conference to a room full of conversations. “I walked into the conversation,” she writes, “and I am listening.” The enthusiasm and level of curiosity in her other posts about the conference are also refreshing and entertaining and can be found here.

2. This 19th Century ‘Stench Map’ Shows How Smells Reshaped New York City

This article is about a really interesting map from the nineteenth century that shows the location of stench-producing industries–or ‘offensive trades’–in New York City. At the time, smell was still believed to be closely connected to disease. The article discusses how smells are difficult to record because they are ephemeral, intangible, and subject to personal levels of tolerance. The map shows how particular industries were moved due to their odour and how this helped to lead Brooklyn to become a centre of industry. This article pairs well with the New Scholars discussion of smellscapes with Julia Feuer-Cotter in December.

3. The Inhuman Anthropocene

Dana Luciano is writing in response to the recent study in Nature by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin that argues that the start of the Anthropocene should be placed in 1610 CE based on changes brought about by colonialism–including the death of 50 million Indigenous peoples by disease–global trade, and coal. Luciano discusses the definition of the Anthropocene and competing start dates. Luciano takes issue with those who claim that the Anthropocene began six to eleven thousand years ago because it takes away the term’s political agency. Luciano argues that the Anthropocene is at its base a political term, specifically a term that hopes to raise awareness of the negative effects that humans have had on the planet. Luciano concludes that “the aftermath of 1492…is the spread of a humanism that has failed much of humanity, a failure to which even the Artic ice cores can bear witness, and that in doing so has deeply damaged the planet as well: an inhuman humanism. The contradiction that some have seen in the name of the proposed epoch—that the “Anthropocene” was not brought about by all members of the species it names—is precisely the problem it is now up to us to solve.”

4. Baja California’s Sea Turtles Swim Out of the Past

Michelle María Early Capistrán, a cultural anthropologist, is currently working on a project  that tracks changes in the population of the East Pacific Green Turtle  in the Central Baja California Peninsula using archival records, like explorer diaries, the memories of current fishermen, and scientific literature. In this article, Michelle discusses how the sea turtle was an essential part of the diet of missions located in isolated desert areas and  for sailors and  whalers who were at sea for months. In the 20th century, sea turtles were hunted for subsistence and how this changed in the 1960s when the area underwent a population increase. The boom in population led to higher demand for turtle meat and to a population collapse in the 1980s. The hunting of sea turtles has been illegal in Mexico since 1990.

5. Not just trees: The politics of the jacaranda, eucalyptus and hyacinth in Africa

Christine Mungai opens her article by stating that trees are usually not thought of beyond their  utilitarian virtues: shade, increased property value, etc. Mungai argues that trees, particularly in Africa, are political and often demarcate ownership. She gives several examples of the political nature of trees in the article. One of the most compelling examples is the  way in which she shows how trees, which are not naturally found in the arid climate of Johannesburg, symbolize the historical divide between white and black neighbourhoods, and subsequently rich and poor neighbourhoods. She also looks at other trees, like the jacaranda tree, which she argues is a symbol of British presence in Kenya and elsewhere.

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