Perennial Problems: Histories of Environment and Health

"Toxic Beach, Port Arthur" by readysubjects is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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The connection between human health and environment has been in the spotlight the past several years, with an important increase in recognition of climate change and the Anthropocene, radioactivity and nuclear power, and clean air and water. Within the public realm, media, activists, and publicly engaged scholars have brought necessary attention and awareness to crucial issues related to environment and health such as mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows, the water crisis in Flint, and resistance to Alton Gas in Nova Scotia. Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky, and Jennifer Baichwal’s The Anthropocene Project‘s documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch and museum exhibition in 2018 brought vast public attention to the concept of the Anthropocene. News coverage and social media discussion of natural disasters such as the current Australian wildfires have stimulated global discussion of human and non-human health (one can follow the mentions through #AustralianBushfiresDisaster or #AustralianWildFires). The general public appears to be attuned to a range of interactions between environment and health – and they are not alone.

Recent historical work has also contributed to our understanding of the intersection of environment and health. Within North America, Traci Brynne Voyles’ Wastelanding is a compelling study of uranium mining, sickness, and environmental racism among the Navajo. Robynne Mellor has picked up these threads in her comparative study of uranium mining, colonialism, and health in the US and Canada. The Toxic Legacies project and Northern Exposures project, developed by historians across Canada, have also demonstrated direct causation between industrial development and health. These are all essential new studies which make direct connections between human health and environment. Not all histories of environment and health have such clear and direct correlations, though, and it is this historical literature which inspired an international and interdisciplinary workshop at McMaster University in September 2019.

The Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University held a workshop on the historical intersection of health and environment within a global context. Perennial Problems: Histories of Health and Environment Across Borders was organized by Samantha Clarke, Adebisi Alade, Mica Jorgenson, and myself. Our goal for the workshop was to bring together international scholars researching issues of environment and health, to engage in substantial critical conversations about the broad and varied understandings of both “health” and “environment” across disciplines, and to assess the state of the historical field of health and environment.

We were thrilled with the overwhelming interest to participate and the high quality of applicants. The workshop had seventeen presenters from around the world with a wide range of topics, some of which included research on malarial landscapes, respiratory illnesses, the life-giving qualities of city parks, effluent in/on beaches, kudzu vines and perceptions of health, and cold climate adaptation. Throughout the workshop, we discussed how power structures such as gender, class, race and ethnicity, geography, and colonialism influence(d) human experiences with health and environment. With its international scope, we were able to look beyond regional or national boundaries and examine the similarities and differences in environmental health regulation, perceptions, and experiences around the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, each paper spoke to the inequalities and inequities of environmental change and how such change manifests in impacts on human health. Participants examined the adverse health effects resulting from things like development, industrialization, closure, and climate change and, collectively, this workshop argued that such events historically and currently falls most heavily on the shoulders of marginalized groups.

Many of the papers presented at the workshop will appear in a forthcoming edited collection – in the meantime we’ve decided to share a sneak peak of some of the fantastic papers presented at the workshop through a new series here! Over the next two months, this series will feature posts from several workshop participants whose research includes an examination of environment and health in Canada. The topics of these posts range from zombie mines to nuclear weapons and “war junk” to the adverse affects of gentrification. Each of these offer a fascinating and unique case of the ways that environment and health intersect as well as the ways that structures – like class, race, and colonialism – shape the foundations of health. Stay tuned next week for our first featured post in this series!

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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. Her research interests include Indigenous histories, mining history, and histories of environmental tourism. Her current research projects focus on the development of trophy hunting and wildlife regulation in the Yukon and a history of coal mining and power generation in Northeastern Arizona. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.

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