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. You can watch all of our #EnvHist Worth Reading videos right here. Here are my choices for items most worth reading from October 2017:
In this thorough long-read, Rebecca Altman explores the origins of the world’s current, ubiquitous PCB contamination. Altman opens by discussing how PCBs – a now-known carcinogen, the production of which is now regulated – have even been discovered in the bodies of deep-sea creatures, demonstrating one of the most quietly sinister aspects of the anthropocene. Altman then lays out the origins of PCBs, beginning with their production at a factory in 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, describing how PCBs became “ubiquitous while remaining anonymous.” Altman then takes the story even deeper to late nineteenth-century Germany, where German chemists isolated the benzene molecule and discovered the “benzene tree.” Altman then builds upon this scientific discovery, showing how benzene was used in early industrial production and takes the narrative back to the present.
In this set of posts on Inhabiting the Anthropocene, Kyle Harper highlights the connection between microbial organisms and the anthropocene. Harper begins the first post with an example from Ancient Rome: the Antonine Plague. This plague, which is possibly the first true pandemic, killed an estimated 7 to 8 million people throughout the Roman Empire and was, Harper argues, a demographic catastrophe that changed the trajectory of Rome’s future. Harper writes that “From a germ’s point of view, human transformation of the evolutionary environment extends back millennia. To assess the human impact on the prevalence and diversity of infectious disease, we have to imagine the various mechanisms by which human transformation of the environment has altered the selection pressures operative for pathogenic microbe.” The second post looks at the ways in which the old theory of disease history is crumbling and lists categories and examples of how human behaviour and actions have altered the world for infectious microbes.
Staying on the topic of pathogens, this post in the Environment and Society Portal by Keven Pometti looks at the malarial epidemic of 1783 and 1786 in Barcelona, Spain. One million people were infected by this outbreak and about 100,000 died, Pometti writes. One of the aspects that this episode in history highlight, according to Pometti, is the way in which physicians had very little influence over policy and the municipal authorities that made those policies. Pometti highlights some of the conditions, both man-made and natural, that contributed to the epidemic. He then focuses on sanitation professionals and sanitation policies, paying particular attention to those policies that were put forward, but not adopted, despite the fact that, as Pometti illustrates well, officials did understand that the dirty marshlands and rivers were contributing to the epidemic.
In this article, Adam M. Sowards argues that in the American West (and elsewhere) “conflict followed sheep like an invasive weed.” Sowards opens his piece with a discussion of Idaho’s “Trailing of the Sheep” Festival, which was founded in the 1990s to ease tensions between recreational users in the area and sheepherders. He writes that sheep actually colonized the West before groups of human colonizers, including Spanish missionaries and homesteaders. Echoing historians like Elinor Melville, Sowards looks at the way in which sheep herding caused massive ecological problems. In the American West, he writes that sheepherders and cattle ranchers continuously competed for scarce land and labour, leading to many range wars. Sowards concludes that the festival is “more than just a celebration, really. Only by recognizing these constant negotiations between old and new, between animal and environment, and between tradition and innovation can we appreciate the gravity of this task of smoothing the way. Sheep paths in America have been rough for ages.”
Rather than looking at an invasive species that thrived alongside colonization, this post by Matt Stanfield looks at one of the many casualties that accompanied imperialism. Stanfield looks specifically at the Mauritius flying fox, a species of bat which was known to the French on the island as the “rougette.” Stanfield traces the Dutch and then French colonization of the island. In 1720, when the French took over Mauritius, the rougette was still common. He then looks at the way in which the sugar industry and the institution of slavery negatively affected the environment and diminished rougette habitat. Rougettes, Stanfield writes, were particularly vulnerable to deforestation because they roosted in large groups, up to 400 individuals, in old-growth trees. The most surprising part of Stanfields post is the way in which he demonstrates that the emancipation of the island’s slaves in 1835 actually exacerbated environmental problems and led to the extinction of the rougette by 1864.
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