#EnvHist Worth Reading: August 2019

Smokey the Bear #throughglass, Paulo O, Flickr Commons.

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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 August 2019:

1. The Great Land Robbery

This important long-read by Vann R. Newkirk II examines the long history of black land dispossession in the south. 98% of black landowners have been dispossessed of their land, and most of this dispossession has occurred since 1950. After being taken from Indigenous peoples, cultivated by enslaved Africans, and portioned out to some African Americans after Emancipation, “through a variety of means—sometimes legal, often coercive, in many cases legal and coercive, occasionally violent—farmland owned by black people came into the hands of white people.” Newkirk looks at the deep history of land conflict and racism in the Mississippi Delta and then examines how these forces have evolved and continue to affect black residents, who still perform labour on the land, but rarely own it.

2.  ‘Bees, not refugees’: the environmentalist roots of anti-immigrant bigotry

The El Paso shooting suspect, who killed 32 people in August, is linked to both anti-immigrant and environmental ideology. Other recent mass shooters have also been linked to eco-fascism and other radical environmental ideologies. In this Guardian article, Susie Cagle argues that these white terrorists and their anti-immigrant sentiments are direct products of a history of racist environmental activism in the United States. “Anti-immigrant ideology,” Cagle argues, “has been part and parcel of the whole of American conservationism since the first national park was founded, in part to protect wild yet white-owned nature from Mexicans and Native Americans. National purity and natural purity were inextricably linked.” Cagle traces this history from John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt to today.

3. The Hydrographic Confederation of the Ebro under Primo de Rivera, 1926-1930: Dams, canals and new regional identities

This piece by Joel Baker for The Language of Authoritarian Regimes blog examines the way in which the regime of the Spanish dictator, General Miguel Primo de Rivera, used the Ebro River to forward its agenda. In 1926, the government published two Royal Decrees. The first decree dealt with water management planning. The second established a Confederation in the Ebro river basin, which was dedicated to promoting the regime’s rural policy. Paying particular attention to the confederation’s magazine publication, Baker looks at the way in which the Ebro river and its population became symbols for Spanish nationalism. “The use of geographic rather than political boundaries in defining the Confederation’s area of responsibility meant that this community could be presented as more natural than the division of the Ebro basin between political regions,” Baker writes.

4. Exploring How Environmental Dynamics Shaped Modern Iraq

This article on Science Trends illustrates the way in which interdisciplinary research can enhance environmental history. Despite the fact that Southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) was the location of some of the first cities, very little is known about the environment of the region at that time. The authors note that conflict and sanctions in the area over the past several decades have made long-term research difficult in Iraq, but that recently more research has been possible. They describe their use of satellite imagery and sediment analysis as a means to learning about the ancient landscape. Their findings suggest that initial settlement in Southern Mesopotamia occurred earlier than was assumed, as did the cultivation of the date palm.

5. Why Smokey Bear Desperately Needs a Makeover

August marked the 75th anniversary of Smokey the Bear, which led to a wide array of anniversary articles that ranged from the overly laudatory to the critical. One of my favourites in the critical camp was Sarah Berns’ article for Outside magazine. Berns notes that Smokey is the longest running public service campaign in the United States and that during this time his image and message have remained relatively unchanged, despite the fact that our knowledge and practices of fire management have evolved. Today “Smokey needs to do more than point an index finger and scold the public. He needs to educate,” Berns asserts. Smokey the Bear remains a powerful spokes-model, but he needs a message makeover and even, Berns suggests, a voice and appearance makeover to make him relevant again.


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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Jessica DeWitt is an environmental historian of the American and Canadian environment, editor, and digital communications strategist. She is an editor and social media editor for NiCHE.

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