Chicago: The Conference

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Our thanks to Claire Campbell for making the excellent image featured above!

The 40th anniversary meeting of the American Society for Environmental History provided Canadian scholars with much fodder for thought. Earlier this week, NiCHE editors Dan Macfarlane and Claire Campbell reflected, respectively, on the significance of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis 25 years on, and on gender, race, inclusivity, and differential abilities to cross the American border in the wake of last fall’s presidential election.

Today, NiCHE New Scholars Representative Mica Jorgenson and NiCHE editors Tina Adcock and Josh MacFadyen offer shorter reflections on papers, themes, or trends that caught their interest at ASEH 2017.

Mica Jorgensen

Transnational and international environmental history continued to gain momentum at ASEH 2017 in Chicago with panels like “Empires of Knowledge: Environments Between the Colony and the Globe” and “Hydropower, Nationalism, and Foreign Expertise in Africa and Asia.” Of course, transnationalism isn’t a new phenomenon at ASEH — Tina Adcock made the same observation last year in Seattle. Nor has it changed the fact that ASEH is a predominantly American conference, as Claire Campbell recently observed. Yet a quick search of the 2017 conference program reveals that 38 panels or papers included the world “international” in their description, and 17 used “transnational.” This is about the same as 2016, but well up from 2015, when there were only 5 with “international” and 2 with “transnational.”

Dissertations and monographs in environmental history have always featured strong place-based narratives, but the rise of global history has not meant the end of this type of writing. Rather, scholars who presented at ASEH tended to frame their “place” as contributing to disciplinary understandings of international human/nature relationships rather than (or in addition to) local or regional ones.

The cover of the ASEH 2017 program. This year's theme was "Winds of Change: Global Connections Across Space, Time, and Nature."
The cover of the ASEH 2017 program. This year’s theme was “Winds of Change: Global Connections Across Space, Time, and Nature.”

When not place-based, transnational history often went hand in hand with commodity history. This year quite a few scholars picked a “product” (gold, cotton, turtle-meat) and followed it around the globe. Examples included “Viscous Visions: Non-Petroleum Oils and the Making of 19th-Century North America” and “Telling Environmental Histories of Capitalism through Commodities.”

New scholars appear to be at the forefront of the transnational wave. With this topic’s growing cachet, being able to speak to international issues is a powerful scholarly asset. Of course, much of the literature (and comprehensive exam reading lists) remains divided along national lines. This is where ASEH becomes an especially productive space for new scholars. Talking with historians from around the world can help fill in the gaps in our historiographic knowledge, not to mention open doors for collaborative scholarly work.

If teaming up with international colleagues has never been more important, it seems like Canadian graduate students are pretty good at it. As it has in the past, a strong Canadian grad student contingent drew a large number of non-Canadians into its collegial circle in 2017. NiCHE and NiCHE New Scholars, which draw a sizable international audience, is at least partly responsible for our cohesiveness and name recognition south of the border. There was also a strong Canadian presence at the ASEH grad student reception and caucus meeting. Over deep-dish pizza, coffee, and book-tables, we traded lists of new books, asked big questions, and expanded our personal and academic networks. Connectivity strengthens environmental scholarship — let’s keep building on it at ASEH 2018.

Tina Adcock

As a scholar of “extreme environments,” I’m enjoying the exoplanetary turn — extraterrestrial? cosmic? celestial? does it even have a name yet, other than degrooting or randooting? — in environmental history. I was sorry to miss the first-ever ASEH panel on the environmental history of outer space. I’ve enjoyed Lisa Ruth Rand’s smart work on space junk for years, and Dagomar Degroot’s recently published article on a comet crash on Jupiter is at the top of my summer reading list. I did get to hear, and very much enjoyed, Sara Pritchard’s paper on another planetary or synoptic topic, the growing environmental problem of light pollution in the Global North (and the allied problem of light poverty in the Global South). I’ll look forward to reading her brand-new article on this subject, published under the wonderfully evocative title “The Trouble with Darkness.”

Donald Worster speaking at the Presidential Slam, March 31, 2017. Photo by Brett L Walker.
Donald Worster speaking at the Presidential Slam, March 31, 2017. Photo by Brett L Walker.

I’m similarly intrigued by a potential excremental turn in environmental history — by, as Donald Worster put it at the Presidential Slam, “the consequences of stupendous human defecation on the Earth.” This is, I think, a natural outgrowth and ally of recent attempts by environmental and other historians to critically revisit items often discarded as valueless or branded as waste in the past. I’ve wanted to learn more about the interdisciplinary field of discard studies for a while; now, with an incoming MA student (Hailey Venn) studying the environmental history of Vancouver’s landfills, I finally have a good excuse to do so. I learned much from Martin Melosi, Carl Zimring, Lisa Ruth Rand, Steven Corey, and others at the roundtable on critical discard studies and environmental history. As a cultural historian, I was particularly struck by the complex emotional discourses that surround the classification, appraisal, and retention or discard of objects. Why, in other words, do we hang onto ’63 Chevys despite their increasing economic and environmental costliness over time, but happily bin our expensive MacBooks once they cease to function? The discussion left me pondering this and many other points.

On a not-unrelated note, I enjoyed how certain papers engaged with long-standing social historical themes of purity and cleanliness in new ways. Josh MacFadyen’s paper on linseed oil and the manufacture of oil-based paint in the early twentieth century provided an excellent new twist on classic Canadian studies like Mariana Valverde’s The Age of Light, Soap, and Water and postcolonial studies like Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather. Paint, too, it transpires, was marketed as having the ability to purify and cleanse domestic interiors. In like vein, Spring Greeney’s paper on how American commercial chemists manufactured “the smell of clean” in the 1930s and ‘40s also created a lot of buzz on Twitter. I wish I’d heard it live!

Josh MacFadyen

Proposing two ASEH panels on the meaning of hope in environmental history was a bold move in 2016, and it became even more audacious and timely on November 8th after the US election. On that date, a presidential term built on hope and progressive policies was replaced by one built on fear and the restoration of a supposedly greater age. There is much that I don’t understand about this transition, including the evolving role of academics and other specialists in my adopted country, but I was encouraged to see two roundtables on the ways academics are using hope in environmental history teaching and research. The roundtables bookended the conference. The first, “The Pedagogy of Hope: Teaching Hope in the Environmental Classroom,” moderated by Tina Loo, assembled thoughts by Sarah R. Hamilton, Amy Kohout, Brittany Bayless Fremion, Jim Feldman, and George Vrtis. The second hope panel “A Prospectus for Research,” closed the conference on Saturday afternoon and brought together remarks by Tina Adcock, Dorothee Schreiber, Tina Loo, Mark McLaughlin, and Philip Wight.

Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, a key work on hope and environmental issues that several panellists mentioned.
Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, a key work on hope and environmental issues that several panellists mentioned.

It’s impossible to summarize here what each speaker presented, and it’s even more difficult to generalize what historians mean by hope. Still, I’ll offer highlights from the former and take a shot at the latter. Hope is bipartisan, and it is not easily explained through the polar approaches of the optimist or the pessimist. I was reminded of the quote by James Branch Cabell, who argues the optimist and the pessimist tend to make the same statements about reality: “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” Rather, hope is a rallying cry of many diverse groups and societies over time. It is an antidote to despair and an important subject of our environmental histories. As Rebecca Solnit argues, hope is the stuff of revolutions and social movements, but it often emerges in surprising contexts and sometimes “moves” the political establishment in ways that counter our predictions and accepted norms.

The teaching roundtable – and as Claire Campbell remarked, it’s always encouraging to see such a strong focus on pedagogy at the ASEH – generally presented stories of hope from and for the classroom. Most of the presenters found that despite the prevalence of declensionist narratives they usually attempted to bring their students around to recognize the accomplishments of environmentalist movements and the hope this brought for the rest of the world. This prompted the question of what is the historian’s role in telling stories about place and environmental history, and is it incumbent on us to end narratives, and classes, on a positive note? Most of the audience – which oddly enough was overrepresented by Canadians – pushed back on the panelists and argued that a truly global environmental history focus demands that we explain how some of the commonly cited victories of environmentalism simply meant the outsourcing of environmental problems to the developing world.

The final panel on hope and environmental history research offered some wonderful examples of how hope animates research, from Tina Adcock’s discussion of ascensionist narratives to Tina Loo’s discussion of Indigenous co-management of the barren-ground caribou. Coming from a joint appointment with a School of Sustainability, I wanted to see more science and more engagement with scientists in both panels. I asked the research roundtable panelists how they adapted their writing to speak to ecologists and other non-historians. We ran out of time for a full discussion of this, but given another couple of panels at another couple of ASEH conferences, I think we could certainly advance some new strategies for making the environmental historian’s understanding of hope and caution applicable to students and the broader academic community.

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