Before Origin of Species, Vestiges


Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared anonymously in 1844.  Its author was Robert Chambers, a publisher and philanthropist of Edinburgh.  Vestiges, “alarmingly popular despite a merciless critical pounding, was regarded by the orthodox as pernicious in the very highest degree.”

This quote comes from the Introduction of Milton Millhauser’s Just Before Darwin (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).  The other book I’ve found (which I ran across accidentally, because it mentions Charles Bradlaugh) is James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).  I read these because I was developing an impression, after discovering the Erasmus Darwins of Massachusetts, that ideas of biological evolution were popular among regular people for several decades before Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species.  It almost seems that Charles Darwin was merely the figure who forced the scientific establishment (represented by the Royal Society) to consider a topic they’d been studiously avoiding or even repressing ever since Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus published his Zoonomia in 1796!

Millhauser says part of the problem with
Vestiges is that it was in plain English and it was inexpensive.  This made it available and affordable for the masses.  “Once again,” Millhauser says (when he says again is he referring to Erasmus Darwin?), “the public was informed, by a glib pseudo scientist without even Lamarck’s pretensions to authority, that the true Adam of the human race was a baboon” (5).  This sums up the issue nicely: it has to do with public, rather than scientific, understanding of humanity’s origins.  It has to do with the control of scientific information by an elite cadre of authorities, naturally drawn from the upper classes and educated at the best “public” schools.  And it has to do with the inevitable demise of a biblical creation story that few educated Englishmen actually took seriously, but that nearly all believed should be upheld (like Plato’s Noble Lie) for the common people, especially in lieu of an alternative story that maintained the authority of a state-sponsored institution like the established church.

Millhauser dismisses Erasmus Darwin and Charles Lyell in an endnote, saying “they each devote to evolution only a small portion of a work dealing with some other major theme” (191 n. 4).  This is true, and
Vestiges deserves recognition as the first complete book on the subject to achieve wide readership.  But it ignores the relationships between the ideas of Darwin and Lyell and those of Chambers.  Making his case for a serious study of Chambers, Millhauser identifies the issue of synthesis, and especially of synthesis by amateurs.  He says “An early Victorian layman might still feel…that he had perceived a truth that the professionals had somehow managed to ignore or even to hush up, and that this might provide the principle of unification, the frank definition of the central tendency of science, for which the world was waiting” (8).  This is an idea that has particular resonance for me at this point, not least in the political implications such a changed understanding of the world might have on regular people in the early 19th century.

The Declension Story

As I prepare my lectures for US EnvHist, I'm reading Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth very closely. Maybe a little too closely, and certainly more critically than most students read the text. But I'm using it as a template to some degree, since it's the de facto undergrad textbook; trying to decide what I like about the way these ideas are presented to students, and what I'd do differently.

I just finished reading the conclusion to Part One, "Chaos to Simplicity." It more or less covers the chronological beginning of the story, although the book is organized thematically and not chronologically (I'm not sure I agree with this choice, but I distinctly recall having a conversation about thematic organization with an Oxford acquisition editor, so I imagine there's a story behind this choice. I'll probably return to that theme some other time). The thing that really struck me about this section, though, was that it was really a downer. Or, to put it academically, a story of declension.

"Wilderness Under Fire," the first of the three chapters in this section, begins by challenging 1492 as the beginning of US History and the pristine myth as an inaccurate image of precolonial America. Steinberg uses the debate over the Holocene Extinction of American megafauna to talk briefly about the conflict between romance and reality. And, as I've already
mentioned elsewhere, he draws a distinction between subsistence and commercial lifestyles. Indian use of fire to alter the landscape (and what happened when the Indians stopped) is an important element of this early part of the story. But I do think it would be helpful to mention that the Indians had more tricks up their sleeves than just shifting agriculture. Extensive farming was appropriate for the landscape, climate, and population density of the Atlantic coast. But Indians in Mesoamerica and the Andes were masters of much more intensive techniques. And those regions were the sources of many of the crops (including maize) raised in New England. So it's likely the Indians practicing shifting agriculture were doing it by choice, and not just because they couldn't think of an alternative.

The second chapter, "A Truly New World," describes the catastrophic results faced by English colonists when they tried to apply European styles of farming and land use in places like Jamestown. This section follows the thread of histories like
Changes in the Land, and like them offers an antidote to the idea that Indians were ignorant and Europeans sophisticated. I agree that "Focusing only on the successful efforts of the colonists has…obscured the very real struggle they faced in coming to terms with the environment." But at certain points, the story gets away from me. Steinberg describes "pools of stagnant water" around Jamestown, "contaminated with human waste" and breeding pathogens like typhoid fever and dysentery. Well, yeah -- but that's nothing new. The colonists could have learned that lesson in England. The problem was, the people who came were not the type of people who paid attention to that kind of thing. Or who could be bothered with actually farming, which is another reason so many died.

Similarly, in the third chapter, "Reflections from a Woodlot," there's a long discussion of sustainable farming and of the Little Ice Age. But the story seems to shift. In one passage, climate change seems to be causing colonists all kinds of trouble, and even driving them to embrace the market as a kind of insurance against starving. But a few pages later, we're told that agricultural yields were increasing during the same period: that in fact, "By the late eighteenth century, New England's food supply became less dependent on seasonal changes." Steinberg describes wasteful extensive farming, but then says there wasn't enough land to go around -- which you'd think would make farmers more careful not to exhaust their soil. And the experience of Concord, which the text draws from Brian Donahue's study,
The Great Meadow, seems to contradict the narrative arc. As does the advice of early agricultural reformers to use manure and practice crop rotation. I think the problem here is there's just too much jammed into a very few pages, which leaves the reader confused about the overall theme.

Finally, "Reflections" begins and ends with Thoreau's ambivalence toward first farmers, and later industrialists. And it takes Thoreau pretty much at face value, which I think is problematic (this is also a theme for another day, but I think Thoreau has to be read as a complex and somewhat ironic character. A guy who made some really important observations but was completely blind to his own privilege). In a passage on the "Malthusian Crunch," Steinberg says that even if nature could be dealt with, "there was still a threat posed by too many people pressing against a limited resource base." Overcrowding in New England, he says, "forced up the price of land…America, the land of opportunity, was in trouble." He goes on to say that inefficient farmers "remained wedded to an extensive mentality," and agriculture "foundered on the limits of meadow grass." But it didn't. Half a dozen pages later we learn that "Between 1801 and 1840, Concord farmers doubled their English hay output," and stopped relying on marsh-hay. And there's plenty of Early American History supporting the idea that New Englanders didn't agonize that much over the scarcity of land or the inflated prices. Many sold their old farms at huge profits and moved west to Upstate New York and the Ohio Valley. They didn't see this as a disaster, but as an opportunity.

And maybe that's my real issue here. It's one thing for environmentalists today to look back on the past and identify problems we now face such as sustainability, soil mining, and an excessively commercial agriculture. But I think we also have to convey to our students and readers that that's not how people saw things at the time. They were happy about some of the things we're calling out as errors, and they weren't necessarily wrong. The real story, I think, is more complex. It's not that self-sufficiency is good and commercialism bad, for example. It's about how the two things interacted with each other and changed over time -- when we got too much of a good thing.

Pollution Permits and Monopolies

So I'm reading this op-ed piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot. He's talking about keeping the coal and oil in the ground. Because if it comes out, it will be used. And I'm thinking yeah, that sounds logical, but impossible, given human nature. How are you ever going to get people to leave it in the ground? He talks about a global auction in pollution permits. I'm not sure if the real point of that is making the added expense to corporations a disincentive to using fossil fuels (and an incentive to explore cheaper alternatives), or to build up a slush fund (pun intended) to mitigate the effects when they go ahead and use the fossil fuels anyway.

But as I'm wondering this, an image comes to me. I was cleaning the garage yesterday and on a shelf I found a bag from the local fleet store containing a couple of packages of yellow rope. It's your basic braided synthetic, I remember buying it. And what I particularly remember is that it's made by Koch Industries.

I needed some rope for a job. I went to the store to get some. I noticed that the type I wanted had a little Koch Industries logo sort-of hidden on the back. I'm a little bit politically aware, and I thought, I'd really rather not give my money to the Koch brothers. What other type of rope will work for my job?

It didn't matter. Every variety of rope and twine on the shelves was from Koch Industries. Didn't matter if it was synthetic or natural fiber. Whatever I bought, the Koch brothers were going to get my money.

My point is, so what if big corporations have to buy pollution permits. It's just another tax that they'll either avoid, or offset with tax savings wrung from the nations, states, or cities where they operate. Or, failing that, they'll pass to cost on to their consumers.

As long as we don't do anything to address the overwhelming (and still growing) power of monopolistic multinationals, we're basically just taxing the little people.

1491 and the Historians

In the process of reading 1491, writing a bit about it, and deciding how I'm going to use it in my next EnvHist class, I've run across some environmental historians and some others who -- how to put it -- seem less enthusiastic about Mann's book than I am. This led me to wonder how academics responded to it when it came out. It was a big hit with readers and popular reviewers, as I already mentioned. But how did experts and scholars respond?

I've read several reviews, and most of them are pretty positive. However, this may be due to the steamroller effect of
1491's popular and commercial success. So what did academics say amongst themselves? Luckily, the prominence of the book created an opportunity for several panels and fora in the years after its publication. The transcripts of these events provide an interesting look at the relationship between academic research and popular writing.

Autumn 2004 issue of the Journal of the Southwest featured an article composed of the reactions of several of the researchers Mann relied on, including Henry F. Dobyns, William M. Denevan, and William I. Woods, and also a response by Mann. These scholars were mostly pleased with the popularity of 1491 and its success getting their ideas in front of general readers. And according to their responses in the article, they seemed pretty satisfied with the accuracy of Mann's portrayal of their ideas.

Another forum, sponsored by the American Geographical Society and published in the
Geographical Review in July 2006, discussed 1491 in even greater detail. ( and the eight articles that follow)

In his review, geographer Jerome Dobson quoted his colleague Dan Gade at a recent CLAG (Conference of Latin American Geographers) conference forum on
1491, asking simply "What's wrong with us? Why can't we [geographers] write our own story?" Dobson rephrased the question: "How odd is it that geographers can't excite the public about geography, yet others do so routinely?" That's an interesting question, but I was even more interested in what Dobson said next.

1491," Dobson continued, "and you'll find the 'stealth discipline,' geography, operating beneath the public radar. From Carl Sauer on, geographers led the way toward new understandings of the ancient Americas...Profound ideas reported in geographical literature and widely accepted by geographers did not reach broad public awareness for half a century or more, and then not directly from geographers themselves but from the able pen of science journalist Mann."

This is an interesting dilemma for geographers. Even more interesting to me is the idea that geographers like Carl Sauer and William Denevan were leading the revision of American history more than fifty years ago: Sauer in the 1930s and Denevan in the early 1960s. Historians only caught up when Alfred Crosby started writing about these issues in the 1970s, and Crosby couldn't find an academic publisher willing to touch
The Columbian Exchange. So as a historian, I think I've got even more claim to Gade's question. What's wrong with us?

Most of the geographers' criticism in the forum consisted of complaints that Mann hadn't spent enough time and effort covering the particular specialties of the reviewers. There's not a lot of "you got this wrong." More "why didn't you say more about this?" or "maybe by simplifying and dramatizing this point, you didn't do justice to the complexity of the issue." Those are fair criticisms, and Mann responds to them gracefully. It's great that geographers spent a lot of time thinking and talking amongst themselves about Mann's work and the relationship between scholarship and public understanding of their field. It’s a bit disconcerting that historians didn't.

I trolled JSTOR pretty extensively, hoping to find reviews of 1491 in history journals or the transcripts of similar panel discussions. Without much luck. I did find a review article by Colin Calloway in the January 2007 issue of
Ethnohistory, covering both 1491 and Julian Granberry's 2005 academic monograph, The Americas That Might Have Been. Calloway, who has written extensively on Native American History, had good things to say about 1491. The most interesting to me, though, was this: "Specialists will learn nothing new about their own areas of expertise…and ethnohistorians who have spent their lives dealing with the issues it covers may wonder what all the fuss is about." To be fair, Calloway explains what all the fuss is about and concludes by saying "The fact such a book is getting a lot of attention is surely a good sign." But still, I think he makes an important point.

The basic question in
1491, that Mann keeps returning to, is why do high school textbooks still mislead students about early American History? After all that geographers have uncovered and written about the pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere, why have historians not revised their stories? How have we managed to drop the ball so completely?

The Water Knife

Just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's 2015 novel, The Water Knife. It's a futuristic thriller, set in a dystopian Nevada and Arizona. How distant the future setting might be is not specified, and I suppose depends on your opinion of how quickly the water is going to run out in the Southwest. However, it's not the remote future. Texas refugees are the "Okies" of this story, called "Merry Perrys" due to their irrational belief that if they just pray hard enough, the rain will come.


Bacigalupi is the former Web Editor for High Country News and lives in Colorado, upstream from the action of the novel. Unlike some of the other sci-fi books I've been reading this summer (Seveneves, The Three Body Problem, Howey's Silo Series, and even Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl), there's not a lot of really out-there speculative science to grab onto here. There are Arcologies, but that's not so undoable in today's world. The only tech we don't have might be the growth-hormone drip the protagonist uses to recover from being shot full of holes.

So this is a story about the present, disguised as a story about the future. An interesting solution to the problem another of the main characters has in the book, when a scary "executive" from a California water company suggests she "could write about anything I wanted, but maybe I should stop worrying about what California was doing here or there and spend more time worrying about other things." (p. 164) Later in the story, the reporter agonizes over the stories that don't get written. Made me wonder whether Bacigalupi or any of his journalist friends had ever had a conversation like that. Also reminded me of why my revenge novel about the 2000 Cochabamba Water War is still in a drawer. Needs to become a little more fictional.

The most interesting but also LOL aspect of the book, for me, was the constant reference to Marc Reisner's Environmental History classic,
Cadillac Desert. The evil water-queen of Vegas has a signed first edition. A mid-level Cali water exec also has a copy, in which he hides the document everybody is looking for. And close to the end, the protagonist says to the reporter:

Every water manager, every bureaucrat--even you got that damn book. All of you with your nice hard-copy first editions, all of you pretending like you know shit…Acting like you saw this shit coming…That guy Reisner now, That man saw things. He looked. All these people now, though? The ones who put that book up like a trophy? They're the ones who stood by and let it happen. They call him one of their prophets now. But they weren't listening back then.

So. We can consider ourselves warned.

National Geographic Redraws Arctic

This image of changes in Arctic Ice depicted in National Geographic maps between 1999 and 2014 suggests that acceptance of Global Warming is becoming mainstream. Unfortunately, the article that surrounds the image suggests the opposite. Even Nat Geo couldn't avoid framing their discussion of sea ice changes with a reference to President Obama's recent climate speech. I didn't watch his speech, even though there was a handy link to it in the article. Because I believe Climate Change is one of the biggest problems of our time. But I don't believe Obama has anything useful to say about it.

The comments section of the Nat Geo article will probably be overrun by climate change denier trolls. But in a way, it serves them right. They made the arctic ice story subservient to politics by framing it with the Obama story. Maybe more harm than good.

Market Failure in Minnesota

During a recent "special" session of the Minnesota legislature, a bill was snuck through the House and Senate eliminating the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizen's Board. Established in the 1960s, the Citizens' Board had consisted of eight members and the Commissioner of the MPCA. Their bylaws called for one member to be "knowledgeable in the field of agriculture." According to former Board member Jim Riddle, "The Citizens’ Board came under fire from corporate agribusiness interests last fall, after we required an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a proposed confined animal feeding operation (CAFO)."

The owners of the CAFO didn't have enough land to spread even half the manure they would generate. They had no idea (or interest) how much their water use would impact existing farms in the area. Their water plan consisted of building a twelve mile pipeline from a well that had been permitted seven years earlier for an ethanol plant that had never been built.

The Board's request for an environmental impact statement angered the
Agri-Growth Council, whose Directors include executives from Cargill, CHS, and General Mills. Although Riddle says the Board didn't prohibit the CAFO, apparently agribusiness is unhappy with the idea that anyone has the authority to insure that "more information be provided on the environmental and economic impacts of the proposed facility, in order to demonstrate that Minnesota’s laws would be followed and the health and safety of area residents and the environment would be protected."

Advocates for a lot of schemes like CAFOs, sulfide mining on the Iron Range and pipelines through the Headwaters like to portray the opponents of these schemes as head-in-the-sand Luddites. Elimination of the Board, says Riddle, will make it "easier for industrial agriculture, mines, pipelines and other extractive and polluting activities to be approved with little or no citizen participation."

The reality, it seems to me, is that the advocates of these schemes fear their plans won't stand up to close scrutiny. The point is not that CAFOs should never be built, that copper should never be mined, or that oil should never be transported. People could argue those points, but that's not the point here. The point is that politically powerful owners and corporations want to do these things in the cheapest, sloppiest way possible, with no oversight. This makes good economic sense, if your economic perspective extends only to the next quarterly or year-end report. The corporations are acting rationally, from their economic point of view, when they behave this way. CAFOs and companies like Enbridge and Polymet have a long history of cutting corners to save money, and then trying to evade the penalties and costs of cleanup when things go wrong.

But clearly this kind of sensible economic behavior is not in the public interest, or even in the long-term interest of the companies involved. The decision to do it anyway and try to silence the opposition is what economists call "market failure." It is precisely why we can't have a completely free market (despite the fantasies of Ayn Rand-readers), and why regulatory agencies and citizen boards need to exist.

What's the Point of Climate Skepticism?

The AGW (anthropogenic global warming) opponents at WUWT posted a review of an article on RealClimate this morning. The gist of the post is that the author (who by the tone of comments is well-known and well-hated) was admitting that "modeled absolute global surface temperatures" are bogus. A closer reading of the article, I think, suggests that the modelers are aware of the shortcomings of models but still believe them to be relevant and useful in some situations. And that they're trying to refine the models and trying not to use them inappropriately.

I commented on a quoted passage where the RealClimate author says “no particular absolute global temperature provides a risk to society, it is the change in temperature compared to what we’ve been used to that matters.” This seems like common sense, if a global surface temperature number is an average. It is easy to imagine that plus 5C, for example, might not be as devastating to human society in the Sahara as it would be on the Himalayan glaciers.

Responding to my comment, a "Jeff Alberts" said "Anyone who expects 'the temperature we’ve been used to' to never change, has no common sense. The question is, are changes we’re seeing due primarily, or even measurably, to human industrial activity. We simply don’t know. CO2 went up, but temps went up and down, and even remained static in many places. Therefore we have no evidence of any even minor impact due to CO2. We have no evidence as to whether today’s temps are unprecedented in any way, none."

But I wonder if that
really is the question? If mountain glacier systems at the headwaters of many of the world's most important watersheds are melting at an alarming rate, does it matter whether the cause is AGW or some natural process? Won't the billions of people depending on that water be equally effected either way? And if the natural processes of climate are as variable as AGW skeptics claim (to be the cause of all the observed changes), is there any reason to believe they'll bounce back right away and remain in a range that's comfortable for us?

If you were a nation depending on glacier-fed rivers, wouldn't it be incredibly irresponsible not to consider the possible continuing reduction of glaciers and the concurrent possible challenge to your national water supply? Would you care whether the cause was AGW or nature? Yes, you would, because if it's AGW, there may be ways to mitigate or reverse the effects - not to mention the potential liability involved. But would you wait until the jury was "in" and nobody was arguing on the cause before starting to think about what to do? I hope not!

Does all this suggest that that one of the goals of AGW skeptics is muddying the water in order to prevent action? I don't know. My free-market friend Bob recently said the skeptics are frustrated because so much money as been poured into this -- in his opinion, down a drain. He mentioned "
$165 billion so far (CBO report)." The number I was able to find for 2014 was $21.4 billion, which is definitely a lot of money. But in perspective, the total federal budget is about $3.9 trillion, so we're talking about a half a percent. And that spending is spread across dozens of government agencies including Defense (the DOD believes climate change is a strategic concern). The DOD budget is about $457 million, out of a total package of over $600 billion. So I don't think studying the climate is bankrupting America.

Why Scientists and Regular People Disagree

I ran into this interesting chart today, describing a Pew poll comparing the opinions of scientists with those of the general public on "science issues." Here's the graphic (click image or find bigger original here) and AP/Huffpost's summary:


Seth Borenstein: "The American public and U.S. scientists are light-years apart on science issues. And 98 percent of surveyed scientists say it's a problem that we don't know what they're talking about. Scientists are far less worried about genetically modified food, pesticide use and nuclear power than is the general public, according to matching polls of both the general public and the country's largest general science organization. Scientists were more certain that global warming is caused by man, evolution is real, overpopulation is a danger and mandatory vaccination against childhood diseases is needed. In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20-percentage-point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to survey work by the Pew Research Center. The gaps didn't correlate to any liberal-conservative split; the scientists at times take more traditionally conservative views and at times more liberal." [AP/HuffPost]

So what should we make of this data? There are certainly some like evolution and climate where I read the scientists' position and think, "yes! thank you!" Other opinions like offshore drilling I'm less excited about. But am I cherry-picking? Is there some type of implied obligation in the way the information is presented, to either take it or reject it in total?

I'm not sure if it's intentional, but I think the presentation does nudge the reader in that direction. But looking more closely at the different statements (and trying to imagine the questions that led to these answers), it seems to me there are two basic types of issues jumbled together here. First, there are statements of fact. "Humans have evolved over time." "Climate change is mostly due to human activity." Then there are statements that advocate taking (or not taking) a particular action. "Favor use of animals in research." "Favor more offshore drilling."

And not for nothing, the factual statements tend to be the ones I agree with the scientists on, and the action statements tend to be the ones I disagree with (although there are some I agree with). I think that's because it makes sense to me that when you ask a scientific question of fact (did we evolve), science -- and scientists -- are the source of the best answers. But on the other hand, when you're asking a social question like should we build more nuclear power plants, the answer doesn't rely solely on science. The costs and benefits, even the safety of a nuclear program depend not only on scientific data, but on economic and social factors that may be outside the competence of the scientists polled. For example, it may be possible to make a nuclear plant 100% safe, and we might still fail to do so through cost-cutting, shoddy oversight, terrorism, or any number of other factors not present in the scientist's assumptions about the future when she gave her opinion.

So the "what should we do" questions not only involve assumptions about the future, but these assumptions are much more ambiguous and political than simple scientific facts. Also, I chose nuclear power because the answer
I'd give might vary with the wording of the question. Generating electricity by burning coal kills many more people annually than nuclear. The potential for nuclear disaster may be higher, but the actual disaster that is coal is a fact we've chosen to sweep under the rug. So I'm not sure how my opinion on that issue would be recorded -- it would depend on the way the question was asked.

Postscript: There are also several statements I just set aside. "Safe to eat genetically modified food" is one of these. I think the question fails to encompass the whole issue. I suspect most GMOs are more or less safe to eat (relative to Big Macs at least, if not raw kale). But I object to GMOs for a host of other reasons including promotion of single-source monoculture, patenting of genomes, etc. So the question as it was apparently asked really doesn't do justice to the issue.

Ideas v. Chronology Again

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (Connecticut River near Northampton), 1836

I'm rereading Leo Marx's 2008 essay, "The Idea of Nature in America," to decide whether I want to use it again as an introductory reading in my EnvHist class. I was thinking I might assign it, but urge the students to try to read it critically. The article brings up some important ideas, but in a way I think is too long, intellectualized, and roundabout.

The essay is a little like a journey. In the first paragraph, Marx states his thesis that the "idea of nature" has been one of the core ideas, along with freedom, democracy, and progress, that have defined what it means to be American. Up until the closing of the frontier in 1890, Marx says, "wilderness -- unaltered nature -- was
the defining American experience" (the article appears in Daedalus, Spring 2008, p.8-18).  As I'm reading this section, I'm thinking I will assign the piece, but with a series of "discussion questions" to point out a few things to the students along the way. For example: How is the idea of nature like and unlike the ideas of freedom, democracy, or progress? (I think we'll find over the course of the semester that it is both vaguer and more subject to change over time than these other ideas) Or: "wilderness -- unaltered nature"? Is this what most Americans have experienced? Even white settlers on the frontier?

But Marx does have a point that by the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, more than half of Americans lived in cities. Of course, that means that up until a hundred years ago, most Americans lived "on the land." why does this lifestyle not count in Marx's mind as a connection with nature?

Marx remarks that in the seventies (when Environmental History became a field of study) the word nature was partly replaced by the "refurbished, matter-of-fact word
environment" -- the implication being that there's something wrong with trying to be a little more specific. Marx then turns to the many meanings of the word Nature, which he observes can also be used to describe the "nature" of something. This usage, he says, is "idealist or essentialist -- hence ahistorical." As if people are unable to distinguish between "human nature" and trees, grass, mountains, and animals; and might be misled into believing the "nature" out their windows is some type of unchanging ideal.

The only people likely to fall into this trap, I think, are people who never go outside. Marx is impressed by Raymond Williams's assertion that "
nature is probably the most complex word in the English language," and he wants to explore the "historical trajectory traced by the idea of nature in American thought." But what is "American thought"? How many Americans have ever really been so completely in their heads that this type of discussion even makes any sense? Is this "historical trajectory" about the way most Americans experienced the natural world? Or about how writers and painters used it in their art? Or about how preachers and politicians used it in their polemics?

The essay moves on to the idea of mankind's loss of a connection with nature. Emerson worried about it in 1836, Marx says. And Darwin defined nature as "all that is
separate from us." Again interesting -- but this is material for either intellectual history or high-cultural history. Is this environmental history? Carolyn Merchant seems to think so, as Marx notes. Her Death of Nature is the story of patriarchy and in-the-head "male-oriented Newtonian-Cartesian philosophy" conquering a more grounded and obviously matriarchal reverence for Earth. But once again, what does this imagined war between Bacon and the Mother Goddess have to do with the environmental history of America?

The point of Marx's essay, I think, is to take the reader on a journey of sorts. We tend to go along with the argument in this type of piece, and Marx uses this tendency to try to give the reader an aha moment of discovery. You get all comfortable in the ideas I challenged at the start, and then at the end he flips them over. The "mythic image of a 'virgin, uninhabited land,'" he says, "was an ideological weapon in the service of the white European conquest of the Americas." But he notes that even William Cronon (whose
Changes in the Land debunked that myth of virgin land) "cannot bring himself to repudiate the idea of wilderness." In the end, Marx proposes a perspective that embraces a "first nature" (the physical world as it existed before humans) and a "second nature" ("the artificial -- material and cultural -- environment that humanity has superimposed upon first nature").

But how much help is this, really? Is second nature the Merrimack River in the 1850s, dammed for the hydropower needs of the Boston Associates' textile mills? Or is it Turner's idea of the closing frontier? In other words, how does it distinguish between the altered physical environment that we actually live in (and that
everyone, including the Indians, has always lived in) and our ideas and cultural constructions? Sure, there's an interaction between the two, and that interaction is central to Environmental History. But I don't think we're any closer to it a the end of this essay.

So I guess that's it. I won't assign this essay. My goal in this class is to tell the story of American Environmental History to regular people. The students in an online class are almost never History majors. Most often they're adults finishing a degree program in another field, filling the Gen Ed requirement they had left to the last minute. But that's great for me, because it's an opportunity to get outside the academic box and try to figure out how and why environmental history is important to regular people (it is, and it should be!) -- and then how to communicate this importance. I'm going to have to keep looking for a way to introduce the dialog between chronology and ideas in Environmental History. Maybe I'll just write it myself.

The Map is Not the Territory

"The map is not the territory." Although this idea has been picked up by everybody from post-modernists to new-agers, the guy who said it was Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-Russian aristocrat who established the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago in 1938. But what's even more interesting about Korzybski is that most people who recognize the name or the quote learned of it not in school or by reading philosophy, but in the Null-A book series by science fiction author A.E. Van Vogt.

did not bring golden age sci-fi or Korzybski's name into my Environmental History class this week. Our topic was the Columbian Exchange, the transfer of biological material between Europe and the Americas that resulted in the deaths of 90% of the natives living here. So there was quite enough drama and suspense already, which I really didn't want to distract people from. But I did talk about maps and how they alter our perception of the environment and our ideas about it.

The world map we're most accustomed to is the Mercator projection, which was developed by a Flemish merchant in 1569. Its purpose was to help travelers get from one place to another, so its point to point accuracy is really good. But there are always trade-offs when you project a sphere onto a flat surface. Mercator got distances from point A to point B right. He got sizes and areas of the continents very wrong.

For example, on the standard Mercator map, Africa and Greenland look about the same size. But you could fit 14 Greenlands in Africa. What does it do to our perception of the relative importance of Africa, when it looks so small? The image below shows the two maps in overlay.


I've been using diagrams last week and this week drawn on a Peters Projection map. The Peters map gets relative size and area right; it's not so good if you want to measure distances. But given what we normally use maps for, it's probably a less culturally biased point of view. And unlike many (but not all) Mercator maps, Peters gives equal space to the northern and southern hemispheres.

Now if they would just make one that didn't follow the convention of always putting the Atlantic in the middle and marginalizing the Pacific…

Columbian Exchange or 1491?

It's interesting that "Columbian Exchange" is now shorthand for the series of unintended consequences of the early European voyages of discovery -- especially the diseases that killed something like 90% of the American natives. I had a chance to converse with Alfred Crosby by email a couple years ago, and his most vivid recollections of his career were the difficulty he had finding a published for this book. His manuscript was rejected by a dozen reputable publishers, and finally printed by a small house specializing in short-run antiquarian monographs. Were lucky Crosby was as tenacious as he was -- maybe there's a lesson in this for authors and also for readers.


Last time I taught, rather than assigning a chapter from
The Columbian Exchange, I used the journal article that led up to it. Crosby wrote "Conquistadores y Pestilencia" in 1969, and it covers the gist of his argument in the book, but slightly more economically. Even this, however, is an academic article, and part of my focus this semester is on the interface between Environmental and popular history. So I'm thinking this time I'll find an excerpt in Charles Mann's 1491. This will give me an opportunity to write a short piece about the way Mann has popularized Crosby's ideas, and how he has added to them.
I think when I rework the EnvHist textbook project, the chapters are going to include short essays about the big books of the field. This will fill the hole left open by not being able to include long passages of these texts -- as you can when you're assigning readings in a University class. The "how have our ideas about the environment changed over time" element of the course can be partly illustrated by this, what would you call it? Popular historiography?

My full review of Crosby's book is up at
Goodreads and LibraryThing. Also on my own EnvHist Library, until I decide what I'm doing about that website.

Chronological or Thematic?

Last spring I was approached by an editor at a major academic publisher and invited to propose a new American Environmental History textbook. I had been shooting my mouth off a bit about how I didn't think there was a really good undergraduate generalist textbook. There are plenty of books for history majors, and there's a wide "historiography" for grad students. And there are also a number of good popular histories that deal with an particular period or issue. But there really isn't a comprehensive synthesis of American History from an environmental perspective.

The editor apparently got wind of this (I mentioned it to a sales rep at his press who passed it along), and invited me to put my money where my mouth was. Interestingly, he was the editor who had managed (and some say who had commissioned) the book that's most often used in undergraduate courses, which I had criticized. So I worked up a proposal and he critiqued it. Then I revised it a bit and he sent it out to five reviewers.

The reviews came back mixed. A few people said they would definitely use my book, a couple said they wouldn't. All gave detailed criticism which is extremely valuable as I redesign the course for this coming semester and rethink the textbook. And, most interesting, all agreed that a general textbook was badly needed in American Environmental History.

One of the issues the editor and one or two readers challenged me on was whether I was going to go with a chronological or a thematic approach. When I taught the course, it was a little of both. There's definitely a chronological element -- the material begins in prehistory and ends in the present day. But there are also several themes we keep coming back to. So as I redevelop the course material for this semester, I'm going to try to be more explicit about this. Or at least to think about it and try to reconcile it for myself, even if it ends up in the background and isn't in sharp focus for the reader.

My gut feeling is that I should stick with the chronological approach. What do other readers think?

GMO Debate: "Pro Side Wins"?

This is a VERY long debate. The Popular science headline announces that the "Pro" side wins. I'm not so sure. But it is a good venue to hear both sides of the argument. The science argument, at least. The debate seems to have been framed to exclude economic, political, and intellectual property -- for example, the moderator passes on a question about copyright in the Q&A, about 1:08.

There's a very interesting moment at 1:10, when the Monsanto executive says that GMO regulation is based on generations of experience creating and regulating hybrid plants through selective breeding. In my opinion, this is the big issue. Genetically modified crops are not the same as hybrids. And modifying a crop so that it requires a second product to grow, which you also happen to own, is not the same as breeding a hybrid strain. Suing farmers who did not use your product, because windblown pollen inserts your patented genes into their plants, is not the same as breeding a hybrid. I think if some of these issues had been within the scope of this debate, it would have been a much more interesting conversation.

Tesla Batteries

Bloomberg posted an article today called "Why Elon Musk's Batteries Scare the Hell Out of the Electric Company." The article mentions that Morgan Stanley analysts came to the same conclusion that I did when I was trading emails with the executives at my local electrical coop. "In a July report, Morgan Stanley said Tesla’s home and business energy-storage product could be 'disruptive' in the U.S. and in Europe as customers seek to avoid utility fees by going 'off-grid,'" they said. Why would American households want to go off-grid? It's not so much that we want to, as that our utility providers are doing everything possible to drag their feet on implementing net-metering so that we can deploy solar and wind systems to bring down our dependence on fossil fuels. Some utilities have even gone so far as to jack up the rates of all the neighbors of a solar user, and then tell them it's the solar user's fault. True story.

The article also says “'The mortal threat that ever cheaper on-site renewables pose' comes from systems that include storage, said Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Snowmass, Colorado-based energy consultant. 'That is an unregulated product you can buy at Home Depot that leaves the old business model with no place to hide.'” Really, it would be better for customers if they were able to partner with their local utilities. It would be better for the utilities too, in the long run. The question is, can we get them to think about the long run?

Real Zombie Apocalypse

According to a report published by the Public Religion Research Institute, reported today in The Atlantic, half of Americans think that Climate Change is a sign of the End Times, the Biblical Apocalypse.

There's a moment in the Doctor Who season finale this year, where the Earth is (predictably) teetering on the edge, and the Doctor says "Don't call the Americans! They'll only pray." THAT is how the rest of the world sees us, and it's because of this type of nonsense.
A 2014 Pew Research poll found "61 percent of Americans agreed that the earth's temperature is rising, and of that group, 40 percent attributed the warming to human activity."

And according to a recent
Harris Interactive poll, 68% of Americans believe in Heaven and 72% believe in miracles. So why clean up your mess here, if a.) it can be fixed by the wave of God's hand or b.) you're going to a better place anyway. In the same poll, of course, fewer than 50% of the respondents believe in Darwinian Evolution.

What are the implications of this stunning display of American opinion, on any efforts we might want to make to dig ourselves out of the ecological, political, and social hole we're in by any sort of
grass roots, bottom up action?

Enbridge 67


Latest Science on Human Origins

An article posted this afternoon to Popular Science said that the latest genetic research backs up the story about the human populations of Europe and the Americas I tell in the introductory lecture to my Environmental History class (you can see the video here). Specifically, the article said:

Modern Europeans shared at least some DNA with this group of Northern Eurasians, themselves closely related to ancestral Native Americans, who migrated across the frozen land bridge to the Americas about 15,000 years ago. The ancient North Eurasians were not only ancestors of modern Native Americans but provided up to 20 percent of the DNA in modern Europeans as well.