#EnvHist Worth Reading: February 2021

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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 February 2021:

1. Texas seceded from the nation’s power grid. Now it’s paying the price

The uncharacteristic winter storm in Texas and the resulting blackouts were a major event in February. In this Washington Post article, Julie A. Cohn, energy historian and Texas resident, reflects on these events and the history that led to Texas’ energy grid isolation. Cohn opens by explaining that the ‘grid’ is actually a network of numerous technologies operated by thousands of different entities. In the US there are three main power grids, the Eastern Interconnection, the Western interconnection, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which serves 90% of the populace and is intentionally isolated from the other two national grids. Cohn traces the foundations of ERCOT from World War II to today and notes that this separate grid has actually served Texas well, even enabling the rise of alternative energy sources. “Ultimately, this outage, like many of the biggest blackouts before it, reflects the challenges of unanticipated events and consequences,” Cohn concludes.

2. Rat Tech: Transforming Rodents into Technology in Tanzania

In this Arcadia article, Jia Hui Lee aims to get historians to rethink and expand their understanding of envirotech. “Envirotechnical analyses have seldom… considered those systems, tools, and techniques for transforming nature into environment that are also living organisms,” Lee writes. In this article, Lee looks specifically at the use of African giant pouched rats in the detection of landmines in Tanzania. Lee describes the training of these rats as a transformation of these animals into ‘sensing technologies’ that required a deep knowledge of the animal’s nature and calculated interventions into its development. Lee also looks at the way in which attitudes changed towards these rats – such as their evolution from something disgusting to something considered ‘cute’ – as they became important pieces of technology in the region.

3. Foot and mouth disease 20 years on: ‘We watched as sheep were taken off the hills to be killed’

In this article, Sarah Freeman talks to British farmers who were affected by the foot and mouth disease outbreak twenty years ago. Foot and mouth disease is highly contagious and causes fever and painful blisters inside the mouth and under the hooves of livestock. More than six million animals were slaughtered during the 2001 outbreak. Freeman highlights the lasting trauma that this outbreak and experience had on the rural population. One of the outcomes of the outbreak was a greater acknowledgement and treatment of mental illness. The massive cull also drove rural small farms to diversify their income streams. The article ends by discussing the parallels this experience and outbreak has to our current pandemic.

4. Thin Green Line

This episode of Outside/In uses the show North Woods Law as a jumping off place to “examine the role of conservation law enforcement” in the United States. Drawing on the work of Karl Jacoby and others, Taylor Quimby examines the origins of conservation law and law enforcement and traces their work to the present day.

5. Vanilla: A History

“‘Vanilla’ has come to mean ‘standard’, ‘ordinary’ or even ‘boring,” The History Guy states at the beginning of this episode, but, as he shows, the history of this plant and foodstuff is actually quite fascinating. Beginning with the botanical characteristics of the vanilla plant, he traces the history of vanilla cultivation and vanilla use from Central America to its arrival in Europe as part of the Columbian Exchange to the development of artificial vanilla in the 20th century.


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


Feature Image: “vanilla” by Ted Major, Flickr Commons.
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is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States, editor, and digital communications strategist. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019. She is an executive member, editor, and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). She is also a working board member of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society and Girls Rock Saskatoon. A passionate social justice advocate, she focuses on developing digital techniques and communications that bridge the divide between academia and the general public in order to democratize knowledge access. You can find out more about her and her freelance services at jessicamdewitt.com.

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