Environmental Diplomacy, Envirotech, and Canadian History

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Editor’s note: This is the second post in an occasional series called Eddies, in which Tina Adcock chats with fellow NiCHE editors on a topic (or topics) of their choosing that’s been on their mind lately. In this post, Dan Macfarlane reflects on the subfields of environmental diplomacy and envirotech and their intersections with Canadian environmental history. You can find all the series’ posts here.


Tina Adcock: So, Dan, you’ve thought about and worked at the intersection of environmental history and diplomatic/international history for most of your scholarly career. How has the relationship between these two subfields changed over that time? What emerging trends or developments at this crossroads have caught your attention recently?

Dan Macfarlane: Natural resources have always loomed large in diplomatic history. But North American diplomatic or international historians have generally treated natural resources as passive, one-dimensional objects bereft of any materiality or agency. Environmental history has also seemed foreign to foreign affairs historians because of their traditional fixation on archival documents and, well, humans (especially political elites). When it comes to Canadian-American relations, an environmental history perspective “would insist that the nature of these natural resources—whether it be smelter smoke or zebra mussels, red fife wheat or bauxite—makes an enormous difference.” [1]

The spread of zebra and quagga mussels in Canada and the US.

International environmental protection efforts, often through the United Nations, were the impetus for many scholars to begin looking at “environmental diplomacy” with a focus on contemporary (i.e., post-1970) environmental protection. These scholars were much more often from the fields of political science, IR, law, etc. than history. But a focus on solely post-1970 agreements about environmental protection is problematic because of its exclusion of diplomacy that is not aimed at protecting the environment as well as, from a historian’s perspective, its temporal rigidity.

While there certainly has been a proliferation of multilateral environmental protection treaties since 1970, Canadian-American treaties to conserve wildlife and water resources stretch back to the early twentieth century, or even the nineteenth. Granted, these were about a type of conservation with an eye to exploitation and maximum sustainable yield. But that speaks to my point: studies of environmental diplomacy should encompass all international relations that deal with significant environmental impacts, positive or not.

Beginning in the 1990s, a few North American scholars sought to define and promote “environmental diplomacy” as a field of historical inquiry. [2] American historians have since authored a number of works on that nation’s history of environmental diplomacy. In the Canadian context, there are a handful of works that utilize a history of environmental diplomacy approach to varying extents, as well as a number of studies that touch on Canada-US relations regarding natural resources to some degree. [3] Despite these various contributions, in the words of Graeme Wynn, environmental diplomacy history as a subfield has remained “relatively untilled.” [4]

While diplomatic and international historians are increasingly seeing the intersections between their work and that of environmental historians, military historians have long been aware of these connections. So have many historians of science and technology. Moreover, scholars whose work moves across international boundaries, but who might more readily identify as borderlands and transnational scholars, have been incorporating environmental history for quite a while. Historians of commodity exchanges are yet another example. In recent decades, interest in northern and Arctic history has resulted in a proliferation of both diplomatic and environmental history about that area. Considering that climate change is obviously an international issue in a globalized world, I would imagine that work on environmental diplomacy is only going to continue to grow.

TA: That was a really interesting answer. I’m intrigued by your comment about the tendency among early scholars of environmental diplomacy to choose case studies that focused on efforts to protect the environment. It seems to me that environmental historians have often tended (at least in the past) toward the opposite pole, as reflected in the field’s longstanding predilection for declensionist narratives. Even when our colleagues tell stories about the conservationist or environmentalist movements, they tend to be critical rather than celebratory. Has this been a point of tension between diplomatic and environmental historians in the past? And, if so, has it been a productive tension? Have scholars been able to find some middle ground on which to meet? Or is this part of why the fields have remained estranged until recently?

DM: Yes, that is a good point about the tendency to focus on environmental protection. I think that this was in large part the result of other social science disciplines leading the way: e.g., political scientists and legal scholars looking for positive steps in environmental governance to build upon. If historians are trying to explain how we got to where we are today (assuming it is a generally not a good place ecologically), and social scientists are looking for positive examples of where to go in the future, that can help explain the different outlooks to an extent.

But some of the tension could stem from the differences between environmental and diplomatic historians. International environmental diplomacy and organizations—particularly through groups like the United Nations, and in areas like nuclear weapons and test bans or foreign aid and international development—have been an important part of diplomatic history for a long time. But most, or much, of this research didn’t employ the “environment as an actor” approach of environmental history.

I would say that environmental history has done a better job of incorporating international history than diplomatic history has done of incorporating methods from environmental history. The field of environmental history has long been international in important ways—think Columbian Exchange—and there has been a decided emphasis in the last few decades on globalized and international history (e.g., the Atlantic World). But environmental historians, for good reasons, have focused on transnational aspects and nonstate international actors that might not always fall under the traditional aegis of external affairs historians. Environmental historians often look at things that disregard borders—fish, pollution, water, etc.—and since salmon don’t carry passports they aren’t regarded as part of high diplomacy in the same way as issues relating to international security. That said, diplomatic history as a field has certainly widened its purview to include all sorts of non-traditional actors and viewpoints. Even the label of “diplomatic” history has fallen out of favour, but I’m using it here because people recognize what it means.

Environmental historians who engage with settler colonialism in eras when this colonialism was “external” rather than internal to a nation are working in the realm of international relations, too, even if those being colonized usually weren’t viewed as equal nations with which the colonizers would have proper diplomatic channels. But it isn’t hard to see how the quest for resources in the Americas (and elsewhere) by different European colonizing powers—gold, fish, furs, land, etc.—can be written as environmental diplomacy history.

Given how much of twentieth-century US foreign relations was about securing fossil fuels, energy history is an area that saw some early intertwining of environmental and diplomatic history, since energy historians often self-identify as environmental historians. In the Canada-US context, fossil fuel investment and trade obviously became an important part of bilateral relations. Even before that, in the first half of the twentieth century, the cross-border electricity trade—primarily from hydropower developments on border waters in the Great Lakes—was an earlier form of North American energy diplomacy, preceded by coal and wood (and I suppose caloric energy such as fish could count here, too). Environmental historians who look at the role of “the state” are likely comfortable working in the area of foreign affairs history because of their familiarity with the relevant literature and the world of governmental memorandums, bureaucracies, and diplomatic cables.

Anecdotally speaking, a lot of people who explicitly work on “environmental diplomacy” come from an international/political history background. Along the way they discovered that environmental history provides all types of avenues and answers, not to mention that many of today’s important, maybe the most important, national security and economic questions are inherently ecological (e.g., climate change). Even in modern periods before diplomats and bureaucrats had much cognizance of environmental impacts, we can still go back and look at Canadian-American relations with an environmental lens in order to ascertain the ecological attitudes and consequences of that diplomacy. One of the great contributions of environmental history is showing the ways in which borders don’t matter. At the same time, we shouldn’t lose sight of the myriad ways that borders and nation-states powerfully shape our environmental past.

Richard Nixon and Pierre Trudeau signing the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

TA: You also work at the intersection of environmental history and the history of technology, a crossroads so robust that it has its own name, “envirotech.” My impression is that these fields have historically had more common ground, at least empirically, than environmental history and diplomatic history. Is this a fair characterization, or does their current proximity mask wider gulfs between them—perhaps to do with methodology—that were once more apparent?

DM: Absolutely. The history of technology and environmental history have long occupied common ground. Arguably the seeds of the approaches that would come to characterize envirotech were planted in the field of environmental history by the early 1990s, if not before. Classic concepts like “second nature” and “organic machine” are fundamentally about the new combinations that come from blending the natural and the artificial, from combining the human and the nonhuman. This “hybridity” is what envirotech is especially well poised to explore, albeit with a better-defined incorporation of some specific approaches and concepts from the history of technology.

The label “envirotech” gained traction starting in the early 2000s. It became a recognized “special interest group” at SHOT (Society for the History of Technology) and at ASEH. (Among many other aspects of the recently cancelled ASEH conference in Ottawa, such as the Canadians at ASEH pub get-together, I was especially disappointed to miss the annual Envirotech Breakfast). Although there were a number of other terms and concepts put forward that were fairly similar to envirotech, it emerged as the most commonly used term. [5]

Canadian environmental historians have been blending history of technology with environmental history, and incorporating the major concepts emanating from US environmental history for a long time. But they have been slower to explicitly adopt the term “envirotech” even if a lot of their work could be considered as falling under its aegis. Joy Parr springs to mind as a prominent example. Her Sensing Changes might be the work of Canadian history that has had the biggest impact outside of Canada since that of Harold Innis. Indeed, other Canadian historians may not realize how big of a deal she is in the history of technology field; e.g., SHOT’s annual envirotech travel prize is named after her.

Off the top of my head, work by Stephen Bocking and Edward Jones-Imhotep provides some good Canadian examples of envirotech. [6] I see more and more grad students and recent grads, such as Blair Stein, working on Canadian topics adopting the term. I used envirotech in my 2014 book on the St. Lawrence and my Niagara Falls book forthcoming later this year. In the January 2020 issue of Technology and Culture, I also published an article on Niagara Falls that explicitly employed envirotechnical approaches. A 2018 special issue of Scientia Canadensis, conceptualized by Will Knight, showcased work at the intersection of environmental and technological history. And the recent collection Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History (co-edited by my current interlocutor!) has contributions that fit the bill. Anecdotally, it seems that most Canadians who use the term have had significant US exposure (e.g., doing degrees or postdocs in the US, working in the US, or engaging topics that geographically extend beyond just Canada).

Niagara’s American Falls—as much a part of the built environment as the natural?

TA: I think your analysis is right on the button. And so I wonder: what’s in a name? Would envirotech by any other name smell as sweet? In other words, would it be useful for Canadian scholars working in the field of envirotech to explicitly use the term in their publications? Or do you think there might be good reasons—historical or historiographical—why Canadians might continue to prefer other terms or frameworks instead? I guess I’m wondering whether it makes sense to preserve a distinction between the history of technology and the environment, broadly construed, and envirotech as a more specific approach.

DM: Scholars don’t need to adopt the label “envirotech” in order to do valuable work at the crossroads of environmental and technological history. But I do think it would be advantageous for Canadian historians who are working at this crossroads to explicitly use the term and engage with its literature and ideas. I find that the terminology of envirotech provides a lingua franca of sorts that has allowed me to dialogue more effectively with American historians as well as scholars working on water and hydropower topics in non-North American contexts.

Canadian historians already use some homegrown frameworks that deal with both environmental and technological history: e.g., the staples, metropolitan, and Laurentian theses. And the first two have previously been incorporated by non-Canadian historians in works such as William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. Since hydropower remains much more important in Canada than the US, relatively speaking, and since western and northern Canada are home to the tar sands and other substantial fossil fuel deposits, I think Canadian scholars can offer some unique approaches to those energy forms (e.g., hydro and petro nationalisms) through the lens of envirotech. Indeed, Canada’s nation-building history has some unique envirotechnical combinations. In addition to energy, these include technological forms of nationalism that address how Canada was historically perceived as big and cold (that is, spatially large and climatically hostile), something which required technological, transportation, and communication advancements such as railways, canals, satellites, etc. to overcome.

The cover of Harold Innis’ classic The Fur Trade in Canada.

I’m personally not worried about preserving a distinction between the histories of technology and environment because I think that will naturally happen and I don’t think there is any danger of envirotech subsuming these other, larger fields. Many historians who engage with envirotech approaches are also likely to identify with Science and Technology Studies (STS), a large and independent field that has spawned its own interdisciplinary literature, conferences, and university departments. If STS hasn’t served to collapse the distinctions between fields, then I don’t think there is a danger of envirotech doing so.

TA: What emerging trends or developments in envirotech have caught your attention recently? Do they overlap at all with the emerging themes in the history of environmental diplomacy you mention above?

DM: Research on “nature as infrastructure” really fascinates me. I’m intrigued by studies that look at the ways that nature itself becomes conceived of or used as a technology or as part of a technological network, from canals to microbes to outer space, and which push the concept of hybridity in new directions. In addition to water and energy topics, I’ve also noticed a lot of really interesting envirotech work that looks at food and agriculture, emotional and sensory history, and animals as technologies.

I suppose I only see limited overlap between the emerging trends within envirotech and environmental diplomacy. The history of energy is important for both diplomatic and technological history. Diplomatic and technology history are both long-established fields with a past predilection towards “great man of history” approaches (e.g., presidents and inventors). So, even though both of those fields are obviously now much more methodologically and historiographically sophisticated, maybe there is a challenge when synthesizing either field with environmental history, which relies less on conventional or Rankean methodologies. The history of technology has been stressing transnational forces for quite some time, and those border-spanning factors and actors share some similarities to international history.

TA: Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share about histories of environment, diplomacy, and technology—either singly or in combination—and/or their historians?

DM: I’d like to add that I’m not suggesting that Canadian historians need to blindly copy or emulate envirotech and environmental diplomacy concepts from American scholars or from other geographic areas. I think that Canadian historians are well positioned to be major contributors and leaders in those fields. I’ve already addressed that point a bit in regard to envirotech. When it comes to the history of international relations, Canada might only be a “middle power,” but when it comes to energy and environmental resources, Canada is much closer to a superpower. Canadian historians complain, with some justification, that Canadian history often gets ignored by American historians (and others). Engaging with and contributing to envirotech and environmental diplomacy could be potential vehicles for exposing the work of Canadian historians to those working in other geographic contexts.

TA: I completely agree. This has been such a fascinating conversation. Thanks, Dan!


[1] The quotes come from a 2017 NiCHE blog post: https://niche-canada.org/2017/09/06/natural-security-conceptualizing-u-s-canada-environmental-diplomacy/. For an elaboration of this, see Daniel Macfarlane, “Natural Security: Canada-US Environmental Diplomacy,” in Undiplomatic History: Rethinking Canada in the World, ed. Asa McKercher and Philip Van Huizen (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), 107–36.
[2] Mark H. Lytle, “Research Note: An Environmental Approach to American Diplomacy History,” Diplomatic History 20, no. 2 (1996): 279–300; Kurk Dorsey, “Dealing with the Dinosaur (and Its Swamp): Putting the Environment in Diplomatic History), Diplomatic History 29, no. 4 (2005): 573–87; Kurk Dorsey and Mark Lytle, “Forum: New Directions in Diplomatic and Environmental History,” Diplomatic History 32, no. 4 (2008): 517–646; Kurk Dorsey, “Crossing Boundaries: The Environment in International Relations,” in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History, ed. Andrew C. Isenberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 708.
[3] For a listing of works that could be fully or partially described as Canadian-American historical environmental diplomacy, see Macfarlane, “Natural Security: Canada-US Environmental Diplomacy.”
[4] Graeme Wynn, “National Dreams,” in Daniel Macfarlane, Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014), xxi.
[5] Works from the 1990s by the likes of Richard White, William Cronon, Joel Tarr, Martin Melosi, Mark Fiege, and Jeffrey Stine can be considered the vanguard of scholarly work on hybrid natures (e.g., organic machine, second nature), as well as Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). The surge of scholarship combining environmental and technological history is well represented in two edited collections: Martin Reuss and Stephen H. Cutcliffe, eds., The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2010), and Dolly Jørgensen, Finn Arne Jørgensen, and Sara B. Pritchard, eds., New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). An excellent overview of the envirotech concept can be found in the “Introduction” to Sara B. Pritchard’s Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
[6] See, for example, Stephen Bocking, “Situated yet Mobile: Examining the Environmental History of Arctic Ecological Science,” in New Natures, 164–78, and Edward Jones-Imhotep, The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).
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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is co-editor of The Otter-La loutre and is a member of the NiCHE executive board. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author of "Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway" and co-editor of "Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian-American Water Relationship" and "The First Century of the International Joint Commission." His book "Fixing Niagara Falls: Environment, Energy, and Engineers at the World's Most Famous Waterfall" will be published in September 2020, and his in-progress research projects include Canada-US environmental diplomacy and a co-authored book on the environmental history of Lake Ontario. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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