One way things could be different is more people could raise some of the meat they eat. Although I was an Agricultural Economics major as an undergrad, raising animals was as far from my experience as it is from most Americans' until about four years ago. So I thought I'd show what it's like to get a batch of chicks in the mail.
This is the first Environmental History book many students read. For general readers like those who made it the #1 EnvHist book on Goodreads, this may be the only book they’ve ever encountered on the subject. Partly that’s because this is one of the books that helped establish the field. Also, it covers a time period that forms the beginning of many traditional American Histories. My own course includes two units before North American colonization, but lots of traditional histories in the United States still start with the Pilgrims or Jamestown.
William Cronon was a young man when he wrote Changes, and in some ways it’s a young (idealistic) man’s book. Although he breaks the icons of the pristine landscape and the noble savage, Cronon’s Indians are still pretty heroic relative to the English colonists. Cronon begins with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” which in my mind also suggests the youth of the discipline — many early Environmental Historians seem to have come from a Cultural History background, so it’s not surprising that a discussion of Thoreau’s perceptions of Nature precedes Cronon’s narrative of how the environment influenced the Indians and Colonists who lived on it and how those people changed their surroundings to suit their needs. And Cronon takes on not only the Pristine Myth, but also the unsound ecology of the “timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, [the] climax forest in permanent stasis.” (11) Cronon criticizes first-generation ecologists for assuming that all systems tend toward a stable equilibrium, and also for assuming “humanity was somehow outside the ideal climax community.” (10) This may be unfair to ecologists, who had recognized their error and begun developing more complicated systems theories, but it’s a good reminder for historians, who sometimes lag behind the state of the art in scientific disciplines we borrow from.
Cronon’s argument in the body of the book is that the Indians knew what they were doing and the European visitors’ and colonists’ response to New England was colored by their cultural baggage. The land was rich because the Indians worked it, and the high valuations Europeans placed on the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, even in the case of something as simple as firewood. Cronon throws in with the “capitalist” side of the “Market Transition” debate that was raging at the time, arguing that the colonists were firmly embedded in a transatlantic capitalist market and drew the Indians into it as well (in his afterword, written on the twentieth anniversary of publication, Cronon seems to regret the slightly oversimplified depiction of “capitalism”).
The pre-colonial landscape he describes is quite different from the trackless wilderness most popular histories depict, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of the difference are one of the most attractive features of the book. Along the way, the reader picks up a lot of interesting details: for example, the colonists were generally healthier and longer-lived than the people they left behind, since they were no longer exposed to the European disease environment (24). Of course, the diseases the colonists brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages. Many of these plagues raged before the colonists arrived. But even so, Cronon doesn’t hide the uncomplimentary fact that Puritan settlers saw this depopulation as a sign of their God’s providence. (90)
Cronon says “Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance.” (33) He argues this is a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. Cronon says that not only did the Indians have a noncommercial value-system that led them to shun accumulation, but they were actually managing their environment in sophisticated ways that the colonists completely failed to recognize. Burning the forest understory created “edge” environments preferred by game animals. Gardening in “tangles” of maize, beans, and squash maximized crop yields, reduced erosion, and increased soil fertility — especially relative to the colonists’ monoculture. (43, 51) Cronon’s claim is that the Indians had a more stable, sustainable approach to their environment than the colonists. He frequently accuses the colonists of “mining” the soil, but the fact that their society treated land as a commodity doesn’t necessarily mean that individual farmers deliberately set out to put short-term gains before sustainability (I think Brian Donahue made this point brilliantly in The Great Meadow). Cronon may have been leaning too heavily on Frederick Jackson Turner when he assumed the colonists all simply planned on moving west when they’d exhausted their farms.
Indian land management clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural culture. Cronon contrasts the Indians’ seasonal migrations with the colonists’ construction of fences – even their pastoralism was sedentary! Cronon admits that Indian “conservation…was less the result of an enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’” (98) He invokes Leibig’s Law to explain low Indian population densities (“biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year,” 41), but doesn’t elaborate on the mechanism of population control. Was it by restricting fertility, territorial expansion, or by letting the weak starve? Clearly, though, the Indians are the “good guys” in Cronon’s account. (I don’t necessarily disagree, I’m just pointing it out)
The second half of the book continues these arguments but doesn’t extend them much. Cronon throws in several interesting items for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636, was one of a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River. (99) English colonists who had been restricted by the Game Laws in their home country, over-hunted their new home to the point that a century later “Hunting with us,” said Timothy Dwight, “exists chiefly in the tales of other times” (101). A typical New England household consumed thirty to forty cords of firewood a year” (120). “Roads…were typically between 99 and 165 feet wide…since they facilitated moving large herds to market” (140). And Narragansett sachem Miantonomo made a speech in 1642 that complained about ecological degradation and warned “we shall all be starved” (162), so the colonists assassinated him in 1643. Overall, Changes in the Land is still a very good read. Cronon makes a strong case for the importance of developing an environmental understanding of early America, so it’s fair that Changes is the book most people think of when you say Environmental History in the US.
An Environmental History of Latin America
Although I teach "US-American" Environmental History at UMass, my EnvHist interest is global. And anyway, I like to think of America as including both the continents of the western hemisphere. I did a MA in Latin American History and didn’t run across much EnvHist, so I was happy to find Shawn Miller’s book. Although it is primarily a synthesis of information available in other sources, the textbook has a particular point of view. Miller begins by noting that although “Ideas matter,” history shows that “regardless of a culture’s religious or scientific views of nature, we of the human race have joined hands in reshaping and devastating the earth.” (4) I suspect Miller’s intention was to begin the book with a challenge to the “Pristine Myth,” which he takes on directly a few pages later. But I think he gives too much of a pass to Europe’s dominant ideology and its approach to nature. Also Miller, like Steinberg in Down to Earth (which I’ll review soon), uses sustainability as a measure of cultural success although he is aware of its anthropocentricity. But like Steinberg, Miller does not seem to have uncovered a solid alternative that balances human and non-human values.
The Pristine Myth, that “depicts precontact America as an unspoiled, lightly peopled wilderness in environmental harmony and ecological balance, is an image that manages to remain standing,” Miller says, “even though recent scholarship has cut off its legs.” (9) Like Mann in 1491, Miller cites recent estimates of American population in 1492 that range from 40 to 70 million, with a high of 115 million. All but 2 to 3 million of these pre-Columbian people lived in Central and South America. Looking from the South, even a recent EnvHist textbook like Down to Earth proves Miller’s point that “the story has been too often told from a North American perspective,” although to his credit Steinberg tries to correct the typical “late beginning” that has American History commence with British colonization in 1607 or 1620. (10)
Miller stresses the urbanity of pre-Columbian natives. The Aztec capitals of “Tenochtitlán and Texcoco, in the Valley of Mexico, each had more than 200,000 inhabitants, larger than contemporary Paris, London, or Lisbon…In 1492, the Valley of Mexico had 1 million inhabitants, to use the more conservative estimate.” Mexico City was America’s largest city in 1600, 1800, and 2000 (I love that statistic; it always surprises students. 10). Jungle people planted trees they valued, and managed the forest (18). Urban Mexicans used intensive gardening techniques in raised Chinampas to “support 15 people per hectare in the fifteenth century. Chinese agriculture, one of Eurasia’s most successful…supported fewer than three people per hectare in the same century” (Another great factoid that I regularly repeat. 21). And the natives substantially changed the landscapes surrounding their cities. “In Peru alone there are some 6,000 square kilometers of terraces, and in the region of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia there are another 5,000…many of the Andes jungled, eastern slopes, such as those of Machu Picchu, were also terraced but have been covered and torn apart by rainforest trees over the last centuries” (23). I use all of this information in my second lecture, and students’ typical reaction is, “Why have I never heard any of this before?”
The Incas mined guano for fertilizer off the coast of Peru, and “passed harsh laws to protect it,” suggesting they may have been the world's first people to adopt soil amendment techniques beyond the use of animal and human manures (25). Although guano was recognizably manure, which may have provided a conceptual framework for its use, techniques of acquiring, distributing, and using guano would have been completely different from those used with fresh manure. The organizational skills the Incas developed to take advantage of guano also helped them compensate for wide swings in crop yields by “storing large quantities of surplus food, by working collectively in the construction of their fabulous infrastructure and their fields, and by distributing their communities and their kin across an unusually broad range of altitudes and microclimates” (26). This last element is especially interesting, and has been overlooked, I think, in North American rural history as well as South American.
In a controversial turn, Miller suggests there was a fairly high amount of cannibalism, especially among the Tupi in Brazil and the Aztecs. The Tupi, he says, had abundant sources of protein, and ate their enemies for cultural reasons. The Aztecs ate everything, MIller says, “including snakes, lizards, wasps, flying ants, and insect larvae,” as well as dogs, roasted red worms called ezcahuitli, and tecuitatl, the dried algae spirulina, which “looked like bread and tasted like cheese” (38). Since they had none of the European food taboos that inform our thinking, and since they probably killed over 20,000 people a year in religious sacrifices (136,000 skulls were counted at Tenochtitlán’s main temple), Miller suggests eating the victims was the most practical way of disposing with the bodies (39, 40). Native cannibalism continues to be a hotly contested issue, not least because the invading Europeans used it as evidence of the savagery of the inhabitants, whom they concluded clearly needed to be conquered, Christianized, and put to work.
Unfortunately for the conquerors, most of the natives were never available for labor. “In the century after 1492,” Miller says, “some 50 million Indians vanished, more than 90 percent of America’s once vigorous populations…In the Caribbean, a region that held as many as 7 million Indians, mortalities reached 99 percent…fully 100 percent on many smaller islands. On the Mexican mainland, deaths exceeded 99 percent along the main arteries…The city of Zempoala, formerly housing some 100,000 citizens, had only 25 native inhabitants by 1550” (50). But in spite of the human tragedy, Miller suggests that the introduction of European species and the decreased human load on the environment might be seen as a net gain to the Americas, at least in terms of biodiversity (although I think others would argue that the new species crowded out many older American plants and animals, 61).
Miller tells the stories of colonial sugar and silver, mentioning that Potosí, the “world’s highest city,” had a 1660 population of 160,000, larger than Seville, Madrid, or Rome. Nearly all of Potosí’s agricultural, timber, and other needs were provided by imports from other colonies like Chile. Miller describes the patio process of refining silver and gold using mercury, and notes that due to mercury’s deadliness, “indigenous mothers were reported to have crippled their children to disqualify them from work at Huancavelica” (90). As we reach the modern era, Miller describes hookworm, vulcanization of rubber, and the Gran Canal of Mexico City (which it’s very hard to find a photo of on the web!). He tells a really interesting story of children marking their heights on steel well-casings, and returning years later to find “the landscape was sinking faster than Mexico City’s children were growing” (147). Miller also mentions that of the sixty islands claimed under the US Guano Act, “nine of them remain U.S. attachments” (149).
Miller provides several interesting perspectives on northern hemisphere history, as well. “The intensification of world trade contacts with Peru, the home of the potato and all its endemic pathogens,” Miller suggests, “explains the coincidence of the simultaneous opening of the guano trade and the outbreak of the potato famine in guano’s primary destinations” such as Ireland (154). He also points out that the Haber-Bosch process for producing synthetic nitrogen is incredibly dependent on fossil fuels (the hydrogen the reactors bonded with atmospheric nitrogen came from coal), and that Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber also invented chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases for Germany’s war effort, causing his wife Clara to kill herself “within days of his return from directing the world’s first gas attack at the battle of Ypres in April 1915” (155). In the modern era, Miller notes that “Chile relies on falling water for 60 percent of her electricity, Colombia 75 percent, and Brazil 95 percent. By contrast, the United States…gets only 13 percent of its electrical generation from dams” (160). He says most of the projects were built to create rather than satisfy demand, which I think is a weaker criticism than “the disastrous cultural and environmental consequences” of the 1984 Tucuruí dam on the Tocantins River in Brazil. “The dam’s primary beneficiary is Alcoa…which receives two thirds of the plant’s generating capacity and employs very few people [and spends the profits it makes on the aluminum produced there outside of Brazil]. The dam’s reservoir [1100 square miles, bigger than Rhode Island] displaced 35,000 people in 17 towns and villages…all of whom lived by flood agriculture” (162-3). This type of information has a place in any story about US EnvHist, because it illustrates how the US exports its externalities to its “less developed” neighbors.
Modern Latin America matches the urban density of the US and Europe, with 75% of its people living in cities. (168). Interestingly, “already in 1600, 48 percent of those in Spain’s American colonies lived in cities,” before there ever were any British colonists (169). Miller says urban spaces are imagined differently by Latin Americans, and have grown at alarming rates. “In its 50-year growth spurt (1850-1900) London grew from 2.6 to 6.6 million, about 2.5 times. Mexico city, a century later but in the same length of time (1940-1990) grew from 1.5 to 15 million, a factor of ten” (173). Urbanity, Miller says, leads to lower family sizes and reduced national fertility rates. “Brazil’s total fertility rate is 2.3, slightly above the long-term replacement rate of 2.1…Argentina, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, are essentially [at zero population growth]; and a few, such as Cuba, Barbados, and Chile, are already well below it” (190).
But this does not mean these nations are out of trouble, Miller says, because “while the city inhibits family fertility, it breeds household consumption” (191). Consumerism and emulation of North American lifestyles threaten Latin American economies and environments. In a very interesting passage that would make a good short reading assignment in any survey class, Miller describes “Cuba’s Latest Revolution,” the “Special Period” in Cuban history that began in 1989 when Russian subsidy inputs abruptly ceased. With massive Soviet aid in the previous decades, Cuba had “developed one of the most mechanized and chemical-intensive agricultural systems” in Latin America (230). “Before 1989,” Miller says, “Cuba imported nearly 60 percent of its food, and its citizens consumed an average of 2,800 calories per day. By 1993, average caloric intake had fallen to 1,800” (231). Cuban agriculture, institutional gardens, and 100,000 family farmers (many of them urban) went organic, and “by the late 1990s, no longer were Cubans going hungry, they were eating better food and a greater variety of it than they had in 30 years” (233). The big question, Miller suggests, is what will happen when Fidel dies and the blockade comes off? Whatever happens, Cuban history has been cited by a number of “energy descent” authors as a blueprint of our future.
The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492
For environmental historians, Alfred Crosby's The Columbian Exchange is one of those books that must be read. Although the book is now 43 years old and contains some outdated information (for example, Crosby based much of his argument on blood types because DNA analysis wasn’t yet available), the basic idea has stood the test of time. Crosby’s thesis is summed up in the title, which has entered the language as a short-hand descriptor for the idea that “the most important changes brought about by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature.” There’s pretty widespread agreement on the significance of biological change after European contact with the Americas, although not all the people who use Crosby’s term agree with him that the interaction of the old world and the new “has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished genetic pool” (xiv, 219). I've been using a reading from this book in my EnvHist class the past couple of years. I may be changing to a passage from 1491 next time, but I still think The Columbian Exchange is a founding text of Environmental History.
Crosby sets the scene by comparing the old world and the new, to show the biological contrasts between Europe and the Americas. He describes European conquest and the diseases that spread with (and sometimes ahead of) conquistadors and settlers. Crosby then describes the (mostly plant) species that were brought from the Americas to the old world, and the (mostly animal) species the Spanish brought to the new. Interestingly, he says most of the really significant species were introduced by the Spanish by 1500, long before North American settlement was begun (108). After devoting a full chapter to the controversy over the origin of syphilis, Crosby concludes with a look at how American food crops enabled population growth in both Europe and Asia -- and continue to do so, to the present day.
Some of the interesting items along the way include Crosby’s brief discussion of the possible influence of the new world on tradition and religious authority in the old. “Christian and Aristotelian” belief systems, he says, “proved too cramped to accommodate the New World...men of the Columbian generation discovered that ‘Ptolomeus, and others knewe not the halfe.’” (9) Crosby says an argument about “multiple creations” was carried on in Europe until 1859, when Darwin finally laid it to rest “while also knocking loose a large part of the foundation of traditional Judaism and Christianity” (14). Crosby’s discussion of the extinction event that wiped out American megafauna has probably been eclipsed by more recent scientific findings just as his discussion of the worldwide distribution of blood-types has been overtaken by DNA analysis, but in their day they were great examples of interdisciplinary thinking.
Many of the historical details Crosby includes were probably startling to readers in the pre-Zinn 1970s. Cotton Mather’s description of the 1616-17 epidemic that wiped out most of the Massachusetts Indians as a Providential clearing of the woods “of those pernicious creatures, to make room for better growth,” sheds new light on the Puritan leader (41). The idea that “a million Indians lived on Santo Domingo when the Europeans arrived,” and that they were reduced by 1548 to 500, is something you really have to sit with for a while and think about (45). The “population of central Mexican dropped from about 25 million on the eve of conquest to 16.8 million a decade later” (53) That doesn’t seem as bad, until it sinks in that it means one out of every three people was dead in just ten years. Numbers like these fueled the fire for later authors like Howard Zinn. For me they call to mind all the recent movies about plagues, zombies, and human apocalypse; like so many nightmares of a guilty white American conscience.
Before reading Crosby, I didn’t know that when Columbus returned, he brought “seventeen ships, 1,200 men, and seeds and cuttings for the planting of wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, salad greens, grape vines, sugar cane, and fruit stones for the founding of orchards” (67). And it never occurred to me that some new world species, like the white potato, found their way to places like New England after becoming staples in Europe (brought “by the Scotch-Irish...in 1718” 66). Other interesting details: “the banana, brought from the Canaries in 1516” and now the cash crop of Central American banana republics (68). “Cattle...first brought to Mexico for breeding purposes in 1521” (87). But by 1614, after less than a century, “the residents of Santiago [Chile] possessed 39,250 head,” (91) as well as 623,825 sheep (94). I also didn’t know, but should have guessed after reading about De Soto’s expedition through Florida, that when Pizarro crossed the Andes into Peru in 1540, he brought over 2,000 pigs with him (79). Somebody should write a history of the conquest that focuses on what it must have been like, moving conquistadors and their pigs through the wild Americas.
Crosby first addressed the idea that disease was an central force in early American history in a 1967 journal article called “Conquistadors y Pestilencia.” Crosby later said he had “stumbled into environmental history through the backdoor of epidemiology.” Of course, there was no such field as environmental history at the time, and Crosby helped create it. “Conquistadors y Pestilencia” is about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires. “How did Hernán Cortés do it?” Crosby asked. “Well, he didn’t. Old World smallpox did,” he answered.
“When the isolation of the Americas was broken, and Columbus brought the two halves of this planet together, the American Indian met for the first time his most hideous enemy – not the white man or his black servant, but the invisible killers which these men brought in their blood and breath,” wrote Crosby in 1967. Over the next couple of years, Crosby expanded the article into a book and coined the term that has become the accepted name of this phenomenon.
Crosby tried for several years to interest publishers in his radical book, without success. I had an opportunity to talk with Prof. Crosby and his wife recently via email, and they both recalled the most memorable rejection letter he received consisted of the single word “Nonsense.” Crosby finally attracted a publisher in 1971, when the Greenwood Press, an antiquarian bookseller that usually printed out-of-print titles, asked him if he had anything book-length he’d like to see in print. The Columbian Exchange was published in 1972, and slowly began to attract the attention of historians over the next several years.
Early reviews were generally favorable, although some reviewers failed to grasp Crosby’s point. One article in a major academic journal, for example, described disease decimating both old world and new world populations. Crosby’s book didn’t say this had happened, and it had not. The only disease that may possibly have crossed from the new world to the old, Crosby had claimed, was syphilis. Although a feared killer, syphilis did nowhere near the damage to Europe that smallpox, plague, and other Eurasian diseases did to American populations.
Over time, Crosby’s thesis and his approach to history attracted historians with similar interests in biological and ecological issues, and The Columbian Exchange became one of the founding texts of a new field. Unlike mainstream historians, who mostly rejected the pessimistic conclusion of Crosby’s book, environmental historians were willing to consider the possibility that the Columbian Exchange was not over. Crosby continues to argue the events of the sixteenth century were “simply an early phase in a slide toward worldwide biological homogeneity,” and that this process is “continuing, even accelerating.”
The idea that decreasing biological diversity is bad is essentially a scientific judgment rather than a historical one. And as Charles C. Mann has recently observed, it's not a conclusion shared by all scientists. So it’s no surprise that some historians disagree. One of the things that seems to define environmental history as a field is a general belief that these types of scientific judgments are valid and should be taken at least as seriously as cultural, political, or economic data. The general idea that biological processes influence history has gained support over the years, and even entered the mainstream. Jared Diamond’s 1997 bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel followed (and borrowed without attribution from) Crosby’s less well-known 1994 book Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History. Charles C. Mann’s bestseller 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus acknowledges its debt to The Columbian Exchange, uses the term, and even tells the story of the author’s interactions with Alfred Crosby. 1491 is brilliant -- I'll have more to say about it very soon.
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World
Tom Engelhardt wrote a piece for Tom Dispatch that was picked up by Bill Moyers’s page. It’s called “The 95 Percent Doctrine: Climate Change as a Weapon of Mass Destruction.” His point has to do with the way our society responds to risk. But the moment I saw the headline, my mind went elsewhere. Specifically, it went to the fact that climate has been used as a weapon in the past, and could be used that way again. The story of climate weaponization in the 19th century was told by Mike Davis. Late Victorian Holocausts is a scary book. The genocidal imperialists in this story are the British (and briefly, the Americans in the Philippines), but dial the clock ahead a hundred years and it’s all us. Dial it ahead another century and it's a blueprint for dystopian sci-fi of the Paolo Bacigalupi variety.
Davis begins his story with a description of ex-president Ulysses Grant’s “family vacation” around the world. As the hero of the Civil War sailed from feast to banquet, a copy of The Innocents Abroad in his lap (I wonder if this is documented, or if it was just an anecdote that was too ironic to pass up?), the world was in the grip of a climatic event of global proportions. The climate-induced late-1870s famine was the first of a series of three that together killed more than 50 million people. If the famine is mentioned at all by historians, it is usually considered an unavoidable natural catastrophe, like a hurricane. But as we've seen in the last decade, it's not always the hurricane. Sometimes it's what you do in its wake. Davis argues that many of the 50 million deaths were not due to natural disaster, but to political choices made before, during, and after the droughts and crop failures occurred.
One of the main misapprehensions Davis tries to correct in Late Victorian Holocausts is that “We are not dealing…with ‘lands of famine’ becalmed in the stagnant backwaters of world history, but with the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment (1870-1914) when its labor and products were being…forcibly incorporated into [the British Empire’s] economic and political structures” (9). This is an important point, because even today well-meaning writers publish sympathetic articles that perpetuate myths like the idea that “Of course, famine and pestilence are part of India’s ancient story.” Actually, says Davis, “India and China…did not enter modern history as the helpless ‘lands of famine’ so universally enshrined in the Western imagination” (287). An 1878 study in the Journal of the Statistical Society “contrasted thirty-one serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only seventeen recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia.” Similarly, China had a ridiculously long history of successful state and local famine relief. And the two nations were economically competitive with the “developed” West. “The looms of India and China,” Davis says, “were defeated not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium, and a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs.” Although it has been forgotten by history, “The use of force to configure a ‘liberal’ world economy…is what Pax Britannica was really about.” (295) And by extension, contemporary Neo-liberal globalism?
The mythology we've internalized about the underdeveloped East really does seem to be the fault of history. That is, of historians. Most of the facts Davis presents to correct our view were well-known at the time, especially among radical journalists and socialist organizers who opposed the British government’s imperial policies. But like the existence of "Little Englanders" and other opponents of Empire, the facts have since been forgotten. Davis refers several times to British socialist Henry Hyndman’s speeches and articles, and to radical journalist William Digby’s chronicle of the 1876 Madras famine. He reminds us that “If Kipling’s verse exalted colonizing optimism and scientific racism, Conrad’s troubling stories warned that Europe itself was being barbarized by its complicity in secret tropical holocausts” (140). Even “Cosmopolitan pointedly published photographs of famine victims from the Central Provinces next to an illustration of a great monument erected to Queen Victoria” (157). It was clear that at least some contemporaries saw “mass starvation as avoidable political tragedy, not ‘natural’ disaster.” The elimination of these perspectives from mainstream history supports Davis’ claim that “the great famines are the missing pages — the absent defining moments, if you prefer — in virtually every overview of the Victorian era” (8).
Throughout his story of these horrific famines (in which parents became so desperate and demented from starvation that they regularly sold and sometimes even ate their children), Davis calls attention to the fact that food surpluses existed close at hand and that previous systems of social organization had been much more effective at mobilizing these surpluses to avert starvation. The difference under British rule was the “theology” of capitalism, which idealized free markets even while it encouraged speculation and hoarding. “Millions die,” Davis concludes, “was ultimately a policy choice” (11). The other issue, of course, was that colonialism (whether practiced by capitalists or socialists) is all about funneling value to the center at the expense of the periphery. So it’s no surprise social organization breaks down outside the center. It’s actually a goal of the system.
“Although crop failures and water shortages were of epic proportion…there were almost always grain surpluses elsewhere in the nation or empire that could have potentially rescued drought victims.” Sound familiar? But the problem wasn’t just bureaucracy, ignorance or lack of concern for the colonized people, Davis suggests. “Each global drought,” he says, “was the green light for an imperialist landrush” (12). Although Late Victorian Holocausts includes a detailed scientific account of our emerging understanding of ENSO (El Niño) cycles, the real power of the book is in Davis’ identification of the link between “social vulnerability” and “climate variability” (288). “There is compelling evidence,” Davis quotes Prasannan Parthasarathi, that prior to British rule “South Indian labourers had higher earnings than their British counterparts in the eighteenth century and lived lives of greater financial security…enjoyed better diets…possessed superior rights of contract and exercised more economic power” (292). The changes that eliminated these eastern advantages need to be examined more closely. And even in the Victorian era, it wasn't just the British—Americans benefited hugely. “Opium shipments from India [to China] reached a peak of 87,000 chests in 1879, the biggest drug transaction in world history” (300). The deliberate addiction of millions of Chinese by the British not only impoverished the Chinese economy, but “enabled Britain to sustain her deficits with the United States and Europe on which those countries depended for export stimulus and, in the case of the United States, capital inflow” (Quoting A.J.H. Latham 1978, 359).
In addition to the upstate New York forest, Jacoby covers Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Perhaps because I was born on the border of the park, the first section on the Adirondack State Park was most interesting to me. Jacoby highlights what he calls the “hidden history of American Conservation," by which he means the consolidation of state power, the systematic denigration of the ways rural people used the land (Jacoby calls this “degradation discourse”), and the elimination of local customs regarding commons; replacing them with top-down state and national laws designating “wilderness” areas. Jacoby suggests the Progressive idea of wilderness was “not some primeval character of nature but rather an artifact of modernity.” (198) Jacoby echoes William Cronon’s suggestion (in “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 1996) that the idea of wilderness conservation “tends to privilege some parts of nature at the expense of others,” and betrays “the long affiliation between wilderness and wealth.” (Cronon, 20-22) In other words, not only are some parts of nature privileged, but some people’s relationship with that nature is more important than other people’s.
Jacoby introduces his subject with a reference to E.P. Thompson. He says he wants to provide a “moral ecology...a vision of nature ‘from the bottom up.’ ” (3) So, this is what a Social History of the environment looks like. Jacoby agrees rural commoners had a different response to their environments than the “appreciation of wilderness” Roderick Nash found in the “minds of sophisticated Americans living in the more civilized East.” (quoting Nash, “The Value of Wilderness,” 1977, 2) But rural people's response to nature was not primitive or rapacious, as portrayed by George Perkins Marsh at the beginning of the conservation movement and by historians following Marsh ever after. In many cases, Jacoby says, the local resistance faced by conservationists was due to the fact that “for many rural communities, the most notable feature of conservation was the transformation of previously acceptable practices into illegal acts.” (2) Reading this introduction, I was reminded of the “hares and rabbits” controversy in England. Jacoby gets to this comparison later -- I suppose I should put E.P. Thompson's book on the game laws on my reading list.
The Adirondacks are the source of the Hudson River, but the rocky highlands are nearly worthless as farmland. These are both important points, as is the forest’s location close to Albany. Marsh’s Man and Nature attracted attention in New York, and I should take a closer look at this and the other contemporary writing Jacoby mentions. For me, the most interesting feature of the story is the proliferation of “private parks,” which seem very much like the enclosed, aristocratic hunting lands of Britain. “By 1893,” Jacoby says, “there were some sixty parks in the Adirondacks, containing more than 940,000 acres of private lands, including many of the region’s best hunting and fishing grounds, at a time when the state-owned Forest Preserve contained only 730,000 acres.” Jacoby quotes Forest and Stream, which observed in 1894 that “‘Private parks in the Adirondacks today occupy a considerably larger area than the State of Rhode Island.’ ” (39) By 1899, the New York legislature was proposing the monopolization of land and the exclusion of poor local people from hunting in a place they had lived for generations. References were made in the debate to British aristocratic land enclosure, and to the prosecution of “poachers.” In 1903, aggrieved locals took matters into their own hands and murdered Orrando Dexter, a preserve owner who had prosecuted several trespassers.
Jacoby uncovers the dark side of conservation, and tends to portray these conflicts as large-scale, national arguments between conservationists and their opponents. I wonder if the story could also be seen as a conflict between locals and outsiders. The Albany conservationists had more in common with robber-baron (and politician) park owners than they ever did with the locals. It’s no coincidence, I think, that conservationists tended to overlook tree theft by the timber industry and illegal (or obscenely excessive but legal) hunting by the park owners, while at the same time aggressively prosecuting locals for “squatting” on ancestral lands, taking deer or fish out of season to feed their families, and cutting non-commercial hardwood species for firewood. Jacoby tends to report these “crimes” from the authorities’ point of view to tell his story of the exclusivity at the heart of the conservationist impulse. While I agree, I think the locals’ point of view could be covered more completely. I’m really curious, for example, about the locations of those sixty parks. How much of the very best land did the well-heeled conservationists take? How many towns did they hem in, or restrict rights of way to? How much of that land is still privately owned? Because according to Wiki, in 1900 the park’s area was 2.8 million acres, of which 1.2 million was state owned. In 2000, the park had grown to 6 million acres, of which only 2.4 million is state owned. After deducting for the area of towns, lakes, and small lots, that leaves about 3 million acres in private ownership. That's about the size of Connecticut. Hmm... Has anybody ever really looked at the history of land distribution in America? How it was distributed initially? Who owns it now?
I'll start by looking at what others have listed. Goodreads has a list that includes 807 books. These are apparently all the books GR users have ever "shelved" as EH on their own pages. #1 is William Cronon's 1983 classic Changes in the Land, and #807 is Alexandra Witze's 2014 book, Island on Fire, which is the story of the 1783 eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Laki. But, as these books suggest, the list isn't a simple ranking of best to worst. Age and popularity play a big role, too. Cronon's #1 spot is based on only 27 instances of "shelving." And one of my favorites, Shawn Miller's An Environmental History of Latin America, is #801 with only one "shelving." And it wasn't me -- I not only don't shelve my books, I haven't even marked that one as "Read." Sorry, Shawn! His book even had EnvHist in its name, and it has 50 ratings and a respectable average score of 3.76. So EnvHist apparently isn't a category that springs easily to mind when folks read these books. But to the extent we're interested in communicating environmental history to regular readers (I'm hugely interested in this), Goodreads is relevant.
So, what are Goodreads' top 10? They are:
William Cronon, Changes in the Land
William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis
Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl
Richard White, The Organic Machine
Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange
William Cronon, Uncommon Ground
Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies
Donald Worster, Nature's Economy
Not a bad list. All but one are by respected academic EnvHist people. Yeah, I know some people like Diamond. Personally, I don't forgive him for lifting Crosby's ideas from Germs, Seeds and Animals without attribution. There isn't a "Listopia" entry for EnvHist yet -- maybe that's a project for another day. Or this afternoon. I just started a list.
I searched the lists you get if you search on Amazon and Google, but their results aren't as useful because they're based on either having the words "Environmental History" in the title or on what's selling really well right now. LibraryThing, which is supposedly a more serious site and a window into the minds of actual librarians, lists 389 results, of which these are the first ten:
Lynne Cherry, A River Ran Wild
Neil Roberts, The Holocene
J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun
Anthony N. Penna, The Human Footprint
Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants
Donald Worster, The Wealth of Nature
Andrew Hurley, Common Fields
Carolyn Merchant, Major Problems in Environmental History
Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison
Tom Griffiths, Forests of Ash
William Ashworth, The Late, Great Lakes
These are interesting -- not least because I haven't read many of them! They're less seminal, but more recent, and several of them are regional (the elephant one is about China!). It's a reminder to me that there's still a lot to read, and I need to budget time to keep up!
So how do we net this out? It does seem to me that there's still a place for some curation and discussion of important EnvHist texts. I'll start with my picks. Hopefully I won't be the only one who thinks this is worth doing! Of course the big question is, where to put it? To start, I'll put it on Goodreads, my EnvHist website, and reddit.
So, what ten books am I going to start with? What are my picks? I suppose I'll go with the core and then branch out later:
Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange
William Cronon, Changes in the Land
Ted Steinberg, Nature Incorporated
William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis
Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature
Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts
Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert
Shawn Miller, An Environmental History of Latin America
Vaclav Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century
Joachim Radkau, Nature and Power
Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth
Okay, that's eleven. That's where I'll start. But feel free to suggest books, add titles to the listopia list, throw up a title or better yet a review on reddit at /r/environmentalhistory, or whatever.
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.
But the argument about energy independence, renewability, and ethanol isn't new -- it has been going on for nearly a century. As I mentioned in this week's lecture, Samuel Morey's 1826 internal combustion engine burned ethyl alcohol because it was readily available. Henry Ford and Charles Kettering both expected their future cars would burn alcohol fuels. Ford saw it as a way to support American farmers and use grain surpluses that were depressing prices. Kettering's statement that alcohol was the best way to convert solar energy to fuel reflected a belief that it was better to live on annual solar "income" than to become dependent on drawing down fossil fuel "capital." And both men worried that gasoline would involve the United States in the affairs of faraway regions. A speaker at a 1936 conference sponsored by Ford remarked that the biggest known oil reserves were "in Persia…and in Russia. Do you think that is much defense for your children?" (my source for much of this was Bill Kovarik's excellent website)
Since energy is such an important and contentious issue today, why aren't we more aware that these debates are not new? General-purpose American History textbooks have a lot to cover, it's true. They can't go into detail on every issue. Checking the indexes of several popular textbooks reveals that if they address the petroleum industry at all, it's usually just to mention that Standard Oil pioneered horizontal business integration and that John D. Rockefeller eventually controlled 90% of the industry. But even respected histories of technology like Vaclav Smil's 2005 book, Creating the Twentieth Century, tell the story of early internal combustion as if gasoline was the only fuel used until the end of World War I, when diesel trucks began entering the market. In Smil's history, there was no solution to the "violent knocking that came with higher compression. That is why all pre-WWI engines worked with compression ratios no higher than 4.3-1 and why the ratio began to rise to modern levels (between 8 and 10) only after the introduction of leaded gasoline."
But ethyl alcohol fuels were already widely used before the beginning of the petroleum boom dominated by Standard Oil. Engineers at both Ford and General Motors were aware that ethyl alcohol ran at high compression ratios without knocking. So how is it possible that historians --even historians of technology -- seem to be unaware of the battles fought in the early years of the twentieth century over what American drivers would put in their tanks?
Part of the answer, I think, is that the winners of those battles left more records for historians than the losers. History depends on evidence. A history of the petroleum industry can be based on mountains of documents in academic libraries and corporate archives. Books about companies like Standard Oil, written by both supporters and opponents, could fill a library. The makers of ethanol in the early twentieth century, on the other hand, left few documents. And finding the story of alcohol in the archives of Ford or General Motors requires dedication and persistence. A good percentage of the records left by these companies, after all, are not objective accounts at all. They're advertisements, public relations statements, and internal documents arguing not about what could be done, but about what they wanted to do.
As a result, the history we read tells the story of an apparently inevitable, unstoppable journey to the petroleum-powered world we have today. This type of history celebrates the winners while at the same time excusing them, because if it hadn't been Rockefeller, it would just have been somebody else. And that's the biggest problem. When we believe the present was inevitable, we lose the ability to imagine alternatives. In the past, and also in the present and the future.
The Common Law tradition America inherited from England contained a long list of precedents that guided judges in arbitrating between the claims of people whose interests conflicted. Some of these precedents dated back to the Roman Empire, giving judges a clear basis for deciding between the claims of individuals. But society wasn't made up only of individuals. The Americans had left behind the royalty and hereditary nobility of British society, but there were still some tasks that seemed bigger than individuals. Towns raised militia when needed, and the national government directed an army and a navy. The states ran criminal and civil courts. But who was going to build colleges, hospitals, and bridges? Things society needed but no individual had the wealth to take on alone.
Early America's answer was the corporation. Corporations in England had been quasi-public organizations that were given a royal charter to do a particular job. The Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company had been royally chartered corporations. They earned profits for their shareholders, but they also had -- or at least claimed to have -- an important social function that transcended mere business. Without this social dimension, businesses -- even large ones -- were normally organized as partnerships or sole proprietorships. State legislatures in early America carried on this English tradition, and chartered corporations to do particular tasks in the public interest. Colonial governments began this practice very early in our history, when the Massachusetts legislature established Harvard College in 1636 and then chartered the Harvard Corporation, America's first corporation, in 1650. In 1640, the Massachusetts legislature declared its authority to make laws regarding the environment when it gave Harvard a license to run a ferry between Boston and Charlestown across the Charles River, to raise money to operate the college. When the State of Massachusetts granted a corporate charter to the Charles River Bridge Company in 1785, to build the first bridge across the river, the charter specified that the company had to pay Harvard 200 pounds per year to compensate the college for the revenue the old ferry operation would lose.
The Charles River Bridge was a privately operated toll bridge. Originally conceived as a corporation that would provide a social benefit, the bridge company was wildly successful. The corporation, which had originally been capitalized at $50,000, collected $824,798 in tolls between 1786 and 1827. Although the original plan had been to eliminate the tolls once the bridge had paid for itself, the shares had been sold and the new owners decided to continue profiting from their monopoly. So the legislature chartered the Warren Bridge Company to build a second bridge next to the Charles River Bridge. The new charter specified that the Warren Bridge would only be allowed to collect tolls for six years or until it paid for itself, whichever came first. Then ownership would revert to the Commonwealth and the bridge would be toll-free.
Early map of Boston showing the Charles River and Warren Bridges (next to each other at top, Warren Bridge highlighted).
The Charles River Bridge Company sued the Warren Bridge Company, claiming their 1785 charter had granted a perpetual monopoly at that location. Charles River Bridge revenues disappeared, as travelers chose to pay the lower tolls on the new bridge, which became toll-free in 1836. The lawsuit failed in Massachusetts courts, and the plaintiffs took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In spite of hiring famous orator Daniel Webster to argue their case, the Charles River Bridge Company lost. The court's decision reflected the Justices' belief that the profits of the corporation and the interests of its shareholders were less important -- and legally came second -- to the right of the state to charter corporations to meet public needs. Even so, the tremendous profits taken by Charles River Bridge shareholders and their ability to push their lawsuit to the highest court signaled the beginning of a change in the way corporations viewed their role in society and the responsibilities that went with their public charters.
In many older American History textbooks, of course, the pre-Columbian story wasn’t told at all. American history begins in 1492. While some of the archaeological information available today was unknown to these earlier historians, they were often just not particularly interested in Indians or prehistory. It was remote, unknowable, and irrelevant. Lately this has changed a bit, and in the interests of inclusivity—or at least political correctness—contemporary textbooks usually say something about the people who were here before the Europeans. Here's what a sample of recent textbooks had to say about early America:
Proudly announcing added coverage of pre-Columbian America in the 1987 edition of his textbook, American History, Richard N. Current devoted four pages to his description of America before Columbus. Current said Native Americans shared a common Asian ancestry that enabled Europeans to think of them all as a single race, although he acknowledged the fact that “natives had no reason to consider themselves part of one race or culture.” He explained how colonial whites believed Indian men were lazy because the women always seemed to be doing all the work. Current described the introduction of old world crops like sugar and bananas that “Indian tribes in time learned to cultivate,” but he failed to mention that they had independently developed the staple crops they already grew when Europeans arrived, such as maize, potatoes and cassava. Current commented that Indian farming “would often seem crude to Europeans” without explaining that most of the time the Europeans’ disdain for native practices arose from their profound ignorance of the environment and climate of the new world.
In his extremely popular and well-received 2011 textbook Experience History, James West Davidson gives just three paragraphs to the arrival of humans in the Americas. He calls the people who came “nomads,” highlighting the term in a rare use of bold-face type. “Nomads” is a loaded concept that has been used regularly in American history to suggest that Indians never had the same type of relationship with their territories that whites do, and thus no claim of “ownership” of their land.
Describing pre-Columbian culture, Experience History mentions that “pioneers in Mesoamerica began domesticating squash 10,000 years ago.” But in spite of this, the text stresses the idea that most Indians were simple hunter-gatherers who “continued to subsist largely on animals, fish, and nuts, all of which were abundant enough to meet their needs and even to expand their numbers.” Davidson characterizes the Adena and Hopewell cultures as “peoples who did not farm,” and explains that Indians didn’t farm in the Pacific Northwest because “Agriculture was unnecessary in such a bountiful place.”
Clearly Hopewell or Mississippian cities containing tens or hundreds of thousands of people needed more reliable sources of food than what hunters carried back from the woods. So what’s the point of Davidson’s portrayal of Indians as primitive hunter-gatherers? Davidson does mention the fact that the modern world’s most important food crop, maize, was developed by Indians – but this is how he explains it:
Modern-day species of corn, for example, probably derive from a Mesoamerican grass known as teosinte. It seems that ancient peoples gathered teosinte to collect its small grains. By selecting the grains that best suited them and bringing them back to their settlements, and by returning the grains to the soil through spillage or waste disposal, they unintentionally began the process of domestic cultivation.
What’s wrong with this description? First, there’s no doubt that corn comes from teosinte, since they share the same genome. Second, Davidson’s suggestion that the multi-generational process that changed a self-seeding grass into a hybrid (maize) that needs humans to plant it was an accident is not only ridiculous, but it obscures the fact that these ancient people knew what they were doing and had the long-term cultural orientation to do it. Davidson’s portrayal does not reflect the fact that archaeologists and historians agree this process probably took hundreds of human generations from start to finish (thousands of generations for the plants), and incidentally, was probably done by women.
Centeotl, Aztec Maize God
In spite of admitting that “plants domesticated by indigenous Americans account for three-fifths of the world’s crops” today, Davidson manages to make it seem like that’s no big deal, and almost an accident. Davidson’s discussion of ancient American farming ends with a chart of the “Place and Timing of Pioneering Plant and Animal Domestications.” Southwest Asia tops the list, with the development of Wheat, Peas, Olives, Sheep and Goats dated to 8500 BCE. Next comes China, with Rice, Millet, Pigs and Silkworms “By 7500 BCE.” New Guinea and the African Sahel are next, followed finally by Mesoamerica and the Andes & Amazonia, which produced Corn, Beans, Squash, Potatoes, Manioc, Turkey, Llamas, and Guinea Pigs “By 3500 BCE.” This is just flatly wrong. Maize, potatoes, and cassava, three of the top five staple crops in the world today, were all developed in the Americas beginning over 9,000 years ago. Eastern North America brings up the chart’s rear, producing only Sunflowers and Goosefoot by 2500 BCE. Never heard of goosefoot? Maybe you’ve heard it called grain Amaranth, its scientific name and the way it’s known by farmers worldwide who raise it for its high levels of protein and essential vitamins and minerals. So why call it goosefoot, unless your goal is to make it seem trivial and silly?
Davidson concludes his coverage of pre-Columbian Indians by observing that “a few centuries before European contact…the continent’s most impressive civilizations collapsed.” Davidson says the “sudden” and “mysterious” disappearance of cultures like the Mayan, Olmec, Mogollon, Hohokam, Anasazi, and Cahokian was due to “a complex and still poorly understood combination of ecological and social factors.” In other words, through some combination of ecological mismanagement and social failure, Indians “went into eclipse by the twelfth century…[and] had faded by the fourteenth,” making room for whites from Europe. It almost seems like Cotton Mather’s famous explanation of how Providence had cleared the woods “of those pernicious creatures, making room for better growth.”
As I've been preparing to teach US Environmental History again, I've been rethinking how I organize each of the lectures. Students are introduced to climate change from the very first lecture which talks about the last ice age, sea level change, and the Beringian route taken by the people who populated the Americas before the Europeans arrived. In the following lecture, I talk about the Little Ice Age, Viking settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland, and the fisheries of the Grand Bank and Georges Bank. Later in the semester, I talk about the Dust Bowl and the irrigation boom that followed it. And finally, as we near the present I talk about global warming and our response to it.
Last semester I laid out the case for global warming in a pretty straightforward manner, in a lecture that also dealt with other environmental impacts and resource scarcities that might present a challenge to further growth (or even to the status quo). I gave only a few paragraphs to the controversy surrounding climate change, noting that the debate was drawn on predictable political lines. I mentioned that 97% of scientists agree that global warming over the past century is due to human actions, and that NASA, the IPCC, the American Geophysical Union, the American Medical Association, the American Physical Society, and the American Meteorological Society all agree that (in the words of the Physical Society) "We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now." And I mentioned that although 97% of scientists agree, a recent poll found only 45% of Americans are aware of this fact, and that many believe there is still a much greater degree of doubt and disagreement than there actually is.
In the past couple of weeks I've spent some time on some of the prominent global warming denial websites. These folks generally believe that the science supporting global warming is fraudulent, created by researchers seeking big grants from governments interested in increasing regulation. They prefer to be called "skeptics" rather than deniers, but actual skeptics object to sharing the name -- claiming that skepticism is something different from simply looking for data that supports a political agenda. And there is a political agenda. A study published in 2013 found that most of the public statements made against climate change from 2003 to 2010 could be traced to 91 organizations that received their funding from sources such as Exxon/Mobil and Koch Industries, and then later in the period (once the Citizens United decision made super-PACs possible) from ultra-free-market sources like the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, and the John Templeton Foundation. Science historian Naomi Orestes's 2010 book Merchants of Doubt examines the similarities between the tactics used by climate deniers and those used by scientists who, working for the tobacco industry, for decades claimed smoking was not dangerous.
Some of these climate change denial websites are extremely popular, and they seem to be convincing some people I know who seem sincerely concerned about public issues. These folks also tend to be believers in free markets, and part of their objection to global warming is their belief that government-led actions to mitigate climate change will hurt the economy. I think these friends are wrong, but I'd like to expand this discussion because I think we need to find a way to bridge the gaps between populists on the left and right. So I was curious what these influential "skeptic" websites were up to.
The big issues that the global warming critics seem to come back to regularly seem to be grouped around first, challenging the scientific consensus on global warming and its causes; second, challenging the data on global warming and offering conflicting data; and third, challenging the integrity and motives of their opponents. In the first case, the two main approaches I noticed were attacking the actual article that first announced a 97% consensus, and presenting a petition supposedly signed by 37,000 scientists challenging global warming. The first approach, I think, deliberately misses the point that regardless of your quibbles about the ways that particular article analyzed the data or presented its conclusions, the fact is that an overwhelming majority of scientists do agree on the general issue of human-caused global warming. And the second approach, the petition, doesn't really contradict this reality. Even if all 37,000 signatures are authentic (there's evidence that many of the are not) and a group of scientists led by nuclear physicist Edward Teller dispute climate change, they are still a minority. Yes, a minority of one may be right, and there may be a Galileo moment here. But Galileo had his moment because he was right, not because he was in the minority. The debate, I think, has got to be about the science and not the scientists.
Most regular people, of course, don't have the inclination, training, or resources (ability to get behind academic paywalls, access to journals, etc.) to review all the science. The ways academics communicate with regular people is one of my main interests, which is one reason I was drawn to this debate. Unfortunately, the gap between the scientists and the people works to the benefit of those who would prefer to leave behind the complexity and tentativeness of real scientific knowledge, and spread simple, certain propaganda.
The second and third challenges made by the critics take advantage of this gap. If climate is a complex system conforming to the principles of what we often call "chaos theory," then the effects of change will be non-linear, dynamic, and emergent. That means that the data will be "bumpy." There won't be simple correlations -- the temperature won't rise everywhere equally. And causes of similar-seeming events in the past cannot be taken for granted as causes of present effects. For example, one of the free-market folks I'm acquainted with argues that because the Holocene Optimum, the Little Ice Age, and other historical periods show variation greater than the current observations, that we've nothing to worry about. I think his argument is that until the variation is greater than other natural variations we know about, we shouldn't suggest something new is happening. I don't think this is how it works in non-linear systems.
The other argument that I think appeals to free-market proponents is that global warming is some type of government plot to increase the size of the public sector and stifle the economy. People are suspicious of big science and critics claim that global warming has been fatally compromised by events such as "Climate-gate," although third-party reviewers have suggested the facts aren't quite as the critics say. But there's a clear element of conspiracy theory in the bundle of topics that surface on the big denial sites. I was banned for life from one last week after I pointed out that side-discussions had risen in post comments challenging both the danger of second-hand smoke and the existence of HIV/AIDS.
The sheer nastiness of many of the people you come across on the denial websites is probably not an indication one way or the other of the strength of their arguments. But I think it is an indication of who these sites are marketing their arguments to. There's a difference between trying to bring important but complex social issues into a public forum were we can all talk about them, and pandering. After a couple of weeks digging into the anti-global warming websites, I think the big ones have crossed this line. But that doesn't mean there's no point engaging with people who disagree. It just makes it more difficult -- which I suppose is the whole point.