US Population Density, 1900 to Today


Here's an interesting map drawn by Business Insider, showing the 146 counties (out of 3,144) where half the US population lives today. For comparison, below is a map of US population density in 1900.


US Population Change w/ Narration

This is an updated video of US population from 1790 to 1860. This time it includes a little narration pointing out some of the features of the changes in each decade. These include the development of rivers like the Hudson and Ohio, growth of New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, expansion up the Mississippi and its tributaries, the effects of Indian Removal in the 1830s, and the impact of steam-powered transportation. I'm putting this together for my Environmental History students, but I thought people might be interested in the patterns of settlement and western migration the maps show. I'll do another one later for the period from the end of the Civil War to the present.

US Population Growth, 1790-1860 from Dan Allosso on Vimeo.

Question: Chronology or Themes? Answer: Yes!

One of the most constructive critiques I got when I submitted my textbook proposal to Oxford USA was that I really hadn't made a firm commitment to writing either a chronological history or a thematic textbook. The editor who told me that was spot on. I hadn't. Still haven't, as a matter of fact. Which is one of the reasons I didn't send him a new proposal. The other is, I want it to be available this fall, not next fall.

My class begins with a very chronological presentation of prehistory, pre-Columbian America, the Columbian exchange, Colonial North America, the early industrial revolution, etc. Toward the middle I start talking about things that overlap in time, such as improvements in transportation technology and the development of first natural and then artificial fertilizers like green manure, guano, nitrate, and ammonia, which happened pretty much simultaneously over the nineteenth century. By the end I'm talking about specific themes like mines, water, energy, limits to growth, and finally individual action. It doesn't seem to bother my students, but I can see how it might be confusing for some readers. So how would I solve this problem of drifting from chronology to themes in a textbook?

This is another image I'm giving almost its own full page.

I don't want to abandon the chronology. One of my objections to the books that pass for textbooks in this field is that most of them aren't really about American Environmental History, despite their titles. They're more often about the history of environmentalism, the historiography of Environmental History, or special topics in Environmental History. But you don't necessarily come away from reading them with a comprehensive view of the broad sweep of American History from a perspective that includes the environment. You don't finish the book and understand what happened in American History in a new way.

I think as academics we often forget that for most people, one of the biggest questions answered by learning a little history is "What happened?" We know that stuff back, front, and sideways. We want to complicate rather than simplify the chain of causes and effects. We introduce contingency, and then, still not satisfied, we talk about subjectivity and culture. And yeah, of course those are all valid and important issues. The past is complex beyond human understanding.

And yet. For most people, the questions are, "What happened?" and "So what?"

My undergraduate class is a Junior/Senior level elective, but I teach it online through my university's Division of Continuing Education. That means most of my students are older than average. They're also rarely History majors, and very often they're in the final phase of completing their degree, taking the General Education credits they missed along the way. So maybe this influences my course design. I'd certainly spend more time on the historiography if I was lecturing to a room full of History majors or beginning grad students.

But I think the audience I'm writing lectures for affords me a special opportunity. Because, aside from needing the Gen Ed credits to finish their degrees, these are regular people from all walks of life. My classes are filled with regular people, with regular people's concerns and interests. So I tell them what happened. I don't assume they know too much history, beyond what we all got in civics and social studies classes. I tell them things they didn't know, and I try to make the class relevant not only to the course objectives but to their lives. My favorite types of evaluation responses are the ones that say things like;

"One of the few classes I'm really sad is ending, the subject matter is fascinating and Dan is a great guide to it. His approach should be required of all students attending UMass as it teaches an appreciation for a newer and better way of living." (2014)
"It is just a perfect course that I think should be mandatory if we want to save our planet and live responsibly." (2015)

I guess that makes me at best an activist and at worst a presentist. So be it. I don't make stuff up. I actually try to present the complexity of the history I'm telling, along with the idea that people often had limited power to choose and limited information on which to base their choices. But that doesn't mean we don't get to evaluate their choices and use them to inform ours.

So, to make a long story shorter, back to the original question. Chronology or themes? My answer is, both. So I've divided the textbook into two parts. The first part covers the chronology, from prehistory to the early twentieth century (specifically, the Dust Bowl). Part two covers farms and agribusiness, mines, energy, water, city life, country life, environmentalism, the question of limits to growth, and then concludes with an epilogue about individual action. People will be able to choose between them -- although my students will still have to do both. Hopefully everybody will want to read both (yeah, there will be a combined version at a bargain price), and the division will just make the books easier to lug around and easier for readers to get their heads around.

A different view of the world

I was playing with the public-domain Gall-Peters projection in Photoshop, and came up with this. I haven't decided if I'm going to use it in textbook, but it'll be a good conversation-starter in class.


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.

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…