#EnvHist Worth Reading: July 2019

Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King preparing to ride on an elephant, January 25, 1909, Benares, India. Library and Archives Canada / C-055527

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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. You can read all of our past #EnvHist Worth Reading lists right here. Here are my choices for items most worth reading from July 2019:

1. No 63: Elephant Ivory, Zoos, and Extinction in the Age of Imperialism (1870s–1940s)

This post features the research of Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Postdoctoral Fellow
Marianna Szczygielska, which focuses on the colonial trade of both elephants and ivory. Szczygielska “shows how elephant bodies, as proxies of imperial power, shape the material links between species, race, and transnational commodity networks reaching beyond the direct means of colonial dominance.” The piece looks at why western colonial powers were attracted to elephant bodies, the way in which live elephant bodies were commodified as attractions in zoos and elsewhere, and how ivory became a global commodity. This commodification of elephants during the Age of Imperialism is directly connected to the species’ extinction threat today. Similarly to Joshua Macfadyen’s focus on the flax commodity web in Flax Americana, Szczygielska argues that focusing on one species enables one to trace the intricacies of its role in institutional networks and commodity chains.

2.  The Woman Who Discovered the Cause of Global Warming Was Long Overlooked. Her Story Is a Reminder to Champion All Women Leading on Climate

In this article Katharine Wilkinson brings attention to the accomplishments of the first woman in climate science, Eunice Newton Foote. Born 200 years ago, Foote was the first to discover that carbon dioxide could affect Earth’s temperature. Foote’s finding was presented and published in 1856, three years before John Tyndall who is usually credited as the founder of climate science. Wilkinson connects Foote’s experience to other women who have had their work overlooked. She also connects Foote to the July 17th Women’s Connected Leadership Declaration on Climate Justice. Wilkinson declares that we need to make sure that we are championing and giving credit to the women who are working within the climate movement, and this includes celebrating climate science foremothers like Foote.

3. The Myth of Blubber Town, an Arctic Metropolis

In this article for The Public Domain Review, Matthew H. Birkhold recounts the myth that grew around the town of Smeerenburg, a Dutch settlement founded in 1619 on what is now Svalbard. Known as “Blubber Town,” Smeerenburg was the busiest site in the polar region for the rendering of oil from blubber. Due to changes in hunting grounds and technologies, Smeerenburg quickly became obsolete and was abandoned by 1663. The collective memory of Smeerenburg lived well past this abandonment though, Birkhold demonstrates. Birkland describes the myths that surrounded this small settlement. Despite few people actually ever landing there, accounts of the town described a bustling settlement of tens of thousands with markets, shops, and a thriving sex industry. Birkland explores the way this myth evolved through time. He offers three explanations for the persistence of the myth, “but ultimately, like many myths,” he writes, “Blubber Town was meant to entertain, to provide an escape for readers at sea and at home alike.”

4. To know the African wild was to know the African subject’—What training as a field guide taught Jacob Dlamini about culture, nature, power and race

Jacob Dlamini began an examination of South Africa’s Kruger National Park’s labour history. However, as he recounts in this engaging article, his project eventually evolved into “an examination of how black people deal with being cast as either nature’s denizens, or its enemy.” Dlamini opens by describing the colonial nature of the park and how he initially wished to study the park’s behind-the-scenes labour in order to understand the relationship between conservation and capitalism. Like many early American and Canadian national parks, Dlamini notes that Kruger was chosen as a national park location because it was otherwise ‘useless’ land. Dlamini describes his experience visiting the park on several occasions and how his experience led him to expand his topic to examine the black experience in relation to the park more broadly. “I saw the park as more than a victimiser and saw black people occupying many positions besides that of victim. But I also wanted to write about what the bush taught me about the persistence of certain ideas about culture, nature, power and race, and about the impress of history on the present,” Dlamini writes.

5. UNDERMINE: Beneath Canada’s Ghost Towns

Those of you that follow me on Twitter have probably noticed that I’ve been in the depths of an abandoned mine YouTube rabbit hole for months now. My favourite channel of this ilk is the Canadian-based Exploring  Abandoned Mines. This past month they released their first official documentary, UNDERMINE: Beneath  Canada’s  Ghost  Towns. Enjoy!


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

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