An Evolving Conversation: Environmental History and Current Events

Source: Stephen Melkisethian; "#NoDAPL Emergency Rally DC 20 Washington DC, The White House, February 8, 2017. Around 300 climate justice activists and supporters gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in an emergency action to protest the Army Corps Of Engineer's sudden granting of the required easement to proceed with the construction of the last leg of the Dakota Access pipeline."

Scroll this

In February/March, five new scholars in environmental history, from both the United States and Canada, gathered digitally to begin a discussion of recent environmental trends and issues and how the resulting political and environmental atmosphere affects the field of environmental history. Questions posed by panellists are in bold. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below or on Twitter and Facebook


Jessica DeWitt: In their December 2016 article, “Environmental Knowledge and Environmental Politics in the “Post-Truth” Era,” on Seeing the Woods: A Blog by the Rachel Carson Center, Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper argue that in the past year environmentalism has moved from an “atmosphere of environmental and progressive social activist optimism” to an atmosphere of defensive wariness. Do you agree with this assertion? If so, what events lead you to this conclusion? How does this change, or perceived change, in environmental politics affect the discipline of environmental history?

Mica Jorgenson: What if, instead of moving away from “progressive social activist optimism,” the move was actually toward more practically-focused environmental/social justice? My sense is that environmental issues have actually become rolled into the bundle of social justice issues the political left is worried about following the election, and has therefore become less distinguishable from concerns about women’s rights, race, etc. So maybe environmentalism in the “protecting wilderness” sense has become defensive and wary, but at the same time alternative, popular, material/every-day environmentalism has gained traction.

I’m thinking here of Joan Martinez-Alier’s Environmentalism of the Poor. In chapter 1, Martinez-Alier argues that the “environmentalism of the poor” (or popular environmentalism) stems from material concern for the environment as a source of livelihood – and contrasts it with 2 other environmentalist tendencies: urban American gospels of eco-efficiency and wilderness cults. Later on the book argues that environmental justice as it exists in the U.S. is an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, not environmentalism. Perhaps, as movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) have gained a stronger voice and platform over the last year or so, environmental justice (as an integral part of human rights and social rather than a fringe interest of the wealthy) has also risen in prominence and power in popular discourse.

Black Lives Matter rally, Chinatown, D.C., December 5, 2014. Photograph by Victoria Pickering
Black Lives Matter rally, Chinatown, D.C., December 5, 2014. Photograph by Victoria Pickering

It seems to me that popular racial politics in the United States focuses overwhelmingly on (urban?) blacks/Muslims, not Indigenous people (unlike Canada). In this case, the impression I get is that Dakota Access and, more broadly, Indigenous-environmental politics, are a secondary concern, which can be dealt with after the Trump Crisis is over. I can’t actually think of any direct places from recent headlines where environmental issues have been rolled into stories about race politics, despite the fact that climate change (for example) is an integral part of the refugee story. CBC, for example, talks a lot about frostbite among refugees crossing into Canada, but has less to say about the climate crises that may have driven them from their homes in the first place.

John Baeten:  I agree that there is a noticeable division between the wilderness-ethos and the more contemporary ethos of environmental justice – especially in the past decade. The case in Flint, Michigan- lead contaminated waters – became a somewhat reactionary hot button issue in the U.S. in part because of the political atmosphere – a democratic primary debate in Michigan. So the Flint case could be framed in the ‘environmentalism of the poor’ context. The Flint environmental issue was framed by the media and politicians in a social justice context, albeit in one where the environment (water source/infrastructure) was the component that needed to be addressed, rather than the socio-political system which created the mess in the first place. The activist mentality that drew attention to

"Flint Water Crisis is Ongoing." by George Thomas
“Flint Water Crisis is Ongoing.” Photograph by George Thomas

Flint has similarly waned, as we’ve become glued to our computers in terror by the Trump nominees. Flint still is without clean water. Since we are in the field of history, I do think it is important to remember the environmental struggles that occurred under Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Reagan. I’m thinking Pebble Mine, Alaska and the Keystone Pipeline for example. However, these events were framed in the wilderness ethos, not the social justice – and resentment for them was framed in economics: environment > corporate profits.

Anastasia Day:  The Trump administration has indeed pushed through the Dakota XL pipeline – the protestors’ camp was cleared the week of this writing. However, I agree with Mica that the mainstream response is not environmentalist-, but social-justice-oriented. From my most “woke” activist friends, I hear repetitive emphases on people and bodies throughout discussions of Flint, of pipelines, of women’s rights, of trans* rights, of police brutality, etc. When I attended a post-inauguration “sister march” in Delaware, one marcher had a sign saying “Climate Change- Deal With It.” As they passed I heard a conversation behind me: “Really?! With the attacks on women’s bodily autonomy and the violence against black bodies, someone wants to talk about climate change??? Lives are on the line!”

Examples of protest signs that connected environmental issues with social issues. Women's March, Washington D.C., February 2017. Source: VeryBusyPeople, FlickrCommons
Examples of protest signs that connected environmental issues with social issues. Women’s March, Washington D.C., February 2017. Source: VeryBusyPeople, Flickr Commons

I – and my fellow panelists and environmental historians, I assume – see environmental issues as inextricably social issues. Whether through pollution (as in Gregg Mitman’s Breathing Space) or “natural” disasters (see Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God), those already at disadvantage in our society disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental destruction. Nonetheless, throughout the twentieth century, people have framed social justice popularly – if not uniformly – in conflict with environmental causes, through myths like “environmental regulations take away jobs from the poor to benefit rich whites who want to go hiking.” There are unfortunate historical truths underlying skepticism of white-middle-class environmental movements. Nonetheless, as Robert Gottlieb’s Forcing the Spring first illustrated for me, we need to see environmentalism as inherently social – or else see it fails as both a political and a social movement.

So when people ask: how can you value an abstraction like the environment when people’s bodies are under attack?  My question is: how can we help people see that bodies ARE a part of the environment? That we don’t just inhabit this Earth, but rather exist in a constantly porous and interactive relationship with things we consider “external” like air, water, climate, and food? Increasingly, environmental historians have put the body in environmental history – for example, Nancy Langston’s 2010 Toxic Bodies has inspired a small flood of scholarship. I think a fruitful avenue would be to make the connection between bodies-environment-social justice more clear in popular outreach. This is easier for me than other scholars because I study food; food inequalities are more easily connected to social justice interpretations, but it can still be hard to link that back to the environment. Thoughts on body as a path to tie environment to social justice in possible discourse? Ideas on other tacks we could take from my co-panelists? 

Laura Larsen: To pick up on Anastasia’s point about food and inequalities being difficult/more difficult to link to environment, I wonder if part of that is a product of how western culture/academia thinks about food? Given the way that agricultural commodities are produced there are a lot of links to be made between the health of farmers, the production of food, and the idea of a “healthy” environment.  The on-going debate around GMO crops is an obvious one (for Canadian context see Emily Eaton Growing Resistance; André Magnan, “Chapter 4,” When Wheat was King) but even more than that is the increasing use of agricultural chemicals. Silent Spring pointed out the problems with agricultural chemicals decades ago but I don’t see a big shift between the use of agricultural chemicals then compared to now or indeed much of a change in the discussion around farming vs environment.  From that perspective I don’t know if I’d say environmental activism around agricultural issues has been more optimistic in the past as compared to the current day.

Currently, there are different chemicals used than when Silent Spring was written but the idea of “productive” / “feeding the world” agriculture is still heavily rooted in the idea that it can only be accomplished with chemical-intensive agricultural practices. Listening to activism around agriculture and food, I find it really interesting that there seems to be a strong divide between environmentalism for consumers of food and producers of food.  To me it’s an artificial divide since we need both the farmer and consumer when talking about food. Keeping the division just makes it harder to examine the overall food system and how it interacts with environments and societies Which brings me to the issue of economy and profit. Too often environmentalism gets tied to the idea that it prevents the creation of jobs; essentially costing more to practice than society can afford to pay. As environmental historians, I think it’s important to push the link between environment and social justice to take on the economic aspects too. How to draw the links between environment, social justice, and economics is a question I’m still turning over especially since it seems to be one of those things where the idea of “cost-benefit” economics starts overshadowing the other two points. I’d be curious to know have others also been thinking about this?

Jessica: Like Anastasia, I have noticed in my personal feminist circles and the broader feminist/social justice online community, a disdain for environmentalism. Some of my favourite feminist cultural outlets and personalities, such as Aminatou Sow on the Call Your Girlfriend podcast, practice open disdain for white environmentalists who they think care more about nature and animals than other humans. 61yij+nxMmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ My initial reaction is one of defensive anger, despite the fact that criticisms of mainstream environmentalism and its whiteness are entirely valid. I, however, have come to the realization that it is not my place to change their mind. Scholars, like Carolyn Finney and Lauret Savoy, are making great strides in fleshing out underrepresented environmental stories.

Mental health, or mental health as it is related to environment, is also a contentious issue. A great deal of park scholarship addresses how time spent in wilderness or near-wilderness was lauded for its physical and mental healing properties. These properties, though, were only available to those with the ability to enjoy them, mainly middle-and-upper-class whites with the free-time and mobility to travel to parks. The cultural value placed on being in nature is also one that is not necessarily shared by lower-income, urban communities. I wonder if increased emphasis on destigmatizing mental health issues will act as a catalyst for increased research on the topic in environmental history and other fields.

Somewhat relatedly, today on Seeing the Woods, John McNeill opens their new series on the uses of environmental history with an essay titled, “As Useful as We Want to Be.” In it, McNeill argues that environmental historians have no special obligation to be useful or contemporarily relevant. If they wish, environmental historians can seek to be useful by hoping to influence those in power through popular outlets, by studying a current hot topic, or, most importantly, by introducing students to environmental history. To me, this opinion is one that only a tenured and very successful historian (who has been solicited to contribute to policy debates) can safely hold. Fellow roundtablers, as new scholars in this academic, institutional, and political climate, do we have the luxury of not worrying about our relevance? In a job market where we have to be open to careers outside of academia, do we not have to prove our skills are useful and relevant to the world at large?

Mica: I read the McNeill article too, Jessica, and on further reflection realised that McNeill was given some of the consulting roles he has is precisely because he has chosen to study topics of contemporary relevance at key points in his career. Maybe he was just lucky, but I suspect that the real reason is that relevant topics interest us. I believe we should always strive for relevance, but that we need not worry about it too much – I suspect few of us chose our topics because it was something uninteresting or obscure. Even those whose topics might not immediately look “relevant” can be marketed to be so. Besides, as we talked about a bit last week in our DH discussion, we are entering a job market in which public engagement is an increasingly important line on our academic CV, and even more on our alt-ac resumes.

To return briefly to what John and I were talking about above….let’s also not forget that the coal miners’ issue was one of the most well-covered of the election, and is often cited as one of the reasons many people (especially blue collar workers) voted for him. This is an “environmentalism of the poor” or “anti-environmentalism of the poor” issue. I think Trump’s answer was to cut environmental regulations which restricted mining with the idea that it would free up the industry to hire more people. Of course, most (left?) news sources doubted this move’s actual practical ability to save jobs (but not Fox!).

Anastasia: To pick up the thread of discussion about consumers and producers, I found Laura’s explication of the issue really compelling – probing the constructed tension between the interests of the consumer and the producer, environmentally as well as economically. The discussion made me think of GMOs as an interesting case study in an “environmental cause” that isn’t really environmental at all, or at least, not in the terms that I too often hear it couched. People who don’t buy GMOs or seek to avoid them in their eating choices are rarely informed or motivated by the chemical runoffs and destructive monocultures that GMO crops entail – far more often they are frightened by the health implications on the consumer side alone. Nonetheless, the movement against GMOs is depicted as an environmental movement far more often than a consumer movement, in my experience.

DC March Against Monsanto, May 2014. Photograph by Susan Melkisethian
DC March Against Monsanto, May 2014. Photograph by Susan Melkisethian

One major split between mainstream anti-GMO activism in the contiguous U.S. and the environmental movement, in my mind, is each movement’s respective relationship to science. Those against GMOs often argue that science is corrupt and funded by corporations who stand to gain billions of dollars, rebuking studies showing GMO foods are safe for consumption. Often their rhetoric is full of flawed ideas of “nature” and what is “natural.” An environmental historian could certainly help contextualize this rhetoric of the ‘natural’.” (Read this August 2016 article) However, the environmental movement is almost synonymous with “climate change activism” these days, which has become in turn almost synonymous with “Science Works” in an age of post-truth and post-facts. An illustration of this conflation is that it won’t be a march for the environment happening in D.C. on Earth Day 2017, but rather the March For Science.

To me this is troubling, because, as an environmental historian, I see merit in both sides: yes, science is inherently political and socially constructed. But also yes, it is the best set of tools we have for understanding the mechanisms of the physical world around us, and we need to trust in our tools. In a time when anti-intellectualism runs rampant and we are prone to be defensive, I think it’s important to recognize our culpability. We cannot blame ‘people’ for distrusting science, when we academics do much the same, just with elevated language and rhetoric, thanks to the insights of the cultural turn. In a weird way then, can anti-intellectualism of today can be read as (partially) an example of the academic’s tools dismantling the academic’s house? Where does that leave us as both academics and as citizens in a world actually warming?

I maintain hope. I think we can teach critical thinking, we can teach ways of thinking about connections and interconnections that inculcate moral and environmental values, we can teach about the processes both past and ongoing that help determine the world we live in. But I worry about how to do so when academia itself is broken from within – when the vast majority of instructors are adjuncts whose next course contracts depend on student reviews. As Jessica notes in her reaction to McNeill’s article (which I share!), there are certain privileges only enjoyed by tenured professors, who are still disproportionately male, white, and socio-economically privileged at birth. All of which is to explain why I feel so strongly that fixing the broken and exploitative labour systems of academia is a deeply environmental issue, even as we also work to carve spaces for environmental historians outside the academy. Thoughts?

Mica, I can’t speak to the coal miners’ plights directly, but I feel it is fair to look at them as a case study in the operations of corporate capitalism. This system has fostered incredible amounts of environmental (and social!) destruction, but corporate capital is also funding environmental research and the development of technological solutions. The model of capitalism is even being used by environmentalists to run ‘cost-benefit’ and external cost accounting analyses, as Laura notes. But, I ask again, can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house?

Mica: Anastasia, your reading of the coal miner issue is thought-provoking. Historically we have seen industry protest environmentalism on the grounds that it will cost too much (in jobs especially). The birth of green capitalism temporarily alleviated this by promising we could have jobs and save the environment via the market. I personally see green capitalism as overly optimistic (ie., no you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools). The disconnect between the promises of green capitalism and its actual ability to deliver causes tension – Trump-voting coal miners might be seen as a manifestation of this tension.


John Baeten: @Baetron

Anastasia Day: @Anastasia_C_Day

Jessica DeWitt: @JessicaMDeWitt

Mica Jorgenson: @mica_amy

Laura Larsen: @triticum_red


Suggested Reading:

Eaton, Emily. Growing Resistance: Canadian Farmers and the Politics of Genetically Modified Wheat. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013.

Finney, Carolyn. Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great OutdoorsChapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Gottlieb, Robert. Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Washington, D.C., Island Press, 2005.

Langston, Nancy. Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010.

Magnan, Andre. When Wheat Was King: The Rise and Fall of the Canada-UK Grain Trade. Vancouver, UBC Press, 2016.

Martinez-Alier, Joan. The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation. Northampton, Massachusetts: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2003.

Mittman, Gregg. Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and LandscapesNew Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2008.

Savoy, Lauret. Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American LandscapeBerkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2016.

Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

The following two tabs change content below.
is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States, editor, project manager, and digital communications strategist. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019. She is an executive member, editor-in-chief, and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). Additionally, she is the Managing Editor for the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. She is also a working board member of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society and Girls Rock Saskatoon and a Coordinating Team member of Showing Up for Racial Justice Saskatoon-Treaty Six. A passionate social justice advocate, she focuses on developing digital techniques and communications that bridge the divide between academia and the general public in order to democratize knowledge access. You can find out more about her and her freelance services at


NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.