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ASEH 2015, Day 3: Questions of Activism and Engagement

All are getting into the groove of the American Society of Environmental History 2015 conference.

Today contained a half day of sessions and followed by an afternoon of field trips. Unfortunately, I did not attend an excursion, but can speak to the morning panels. From the talk in the lobby (an exciting gathering that lit up the lounge like a house party on a dreary Friday afternoon) it sounds like the trips were a success, even in the rain and cold.

The downside to a conference like the national ASEH is that one cannot hear each and every paper presented. There must be a way to access the content in our twenty-first century digital world. I implore the organizers of ASEH to consider posting abstracts on their website for the benefit of attendees. Alas, this synopsis will contain only the sessions I attended, but again – I was not disappointed.

“Art into Activism, Activism into Art,” Chris Wilhelm (moderator, College of Coastal Georgia), Elizabeth (Scout) Blum (Troy University), Michael Commito (McMaster University), and Britanny Luby (Laurentian University, unable to attend)

Promptly at 8:30 A.M. we academics (who are not used to such early hours) convened on the third floor of the Georgetown Marriott to engage in a conversation about art and activism. Interestingly, the three scholars also focused on children’s culture. Dr. Blum was most immersed in children/youth culture, focusing on the ways in which children engage with environmental issues though the outlets most within reach. I was delighted at the fact that her thesis relied on Highlights Magazine, a text familiar to all of us born in the 1970s or 1980s. She proposed that children have not disengaged with the natural world, as is proposed by current authors, but rather, adults have lost touch with children and do not recognize their ability to engage with activism on unique levels. Her evidence was clear. Children absorb the world around them and produce cultural texts that express their values. Dr. Wilhelm presented work on prominent preservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but focused on her lesser known work, Alligator Crossing of the late 1950s. There are a great deal of challenges in this text that undermine our standard assumptions of fiction writing for children. Tensions between characters reveal an ambiguity between ideas of preservation and conservation, those who “know” the land and those who “use” the land, while highlighting a history of the Florida Everglades. Finally, Dr. Commito discussed the ways in which grassroots protest altered public policy in Canada, specifically in relation to spring bear hunting. Of note, the protests were not always accurate, stressing incorrect information that bordered on racism toward indigenous peoples, and emphasized a gendered message of protecting bears from harm because they are “part of a family.” Unfortunately, Ms. Luby could not attend this conference, but provided information for viewing her presentation online: “The Sugar Monster Feeds on the Navajo Nation: An Analysis of the Bodily and External Environment in Artistic and Medical Accounts of the Navajo (Diné) Diabetes Crisis.” (

“Histories for the Future: What Happens When Historians Try to Make History?” Sarah Mittlefehldt (moderator, Green Mountain College), Joshua Howe (Reed College), Peter Alagona (University of California, Santa Barbara), Adam Rome (University of Delaware), Ellen Griffith Spears (University of Alabama), and Nancy Langston (Michigan Technological University)

The second session of the morning was a packed house. To reiterate yesterday’s common statement, this was the place to be. Every seat was filled and about ten participants stood in the back of the room. I was concerned that with five speakers and a moderator the overarching message would get muddled. The challenge was real. While not totally successful in answering the primary question, important points emerged in the discussion. First, the question posed to the panelists, generally stated: “How can historians engage scientists, policymakers, and activists, while also remaining relevant in their field? How can historians write socially engaged history while not losing credibility?” Honestly, this question has come up in other sessions over the last two days, and it is clear that current historians are grappling with the long-established “rules” against presentism (as Dr. Howe noted) because it is too “uncritical.” Another way to put this is: how can environmental historians, who (may) have answers for contemporary issues, engage with the general public and/or policy makers? Does this discredit the card-carrying historian? Are these two competing goals that cannot be fused for one mission? The panelists had answers (and a good bit of humor), but the discussion session with the audience did not result in definite solutions. Dr. Howe’s response emerged out of his recent experience with publishing his most recent book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming (University of Washington Press, 2014). The interviews and lectures that followed the publication were simultaneously frustrating and eye-opening for him. Folks thought of him as a scientist, rather than a historian, “wished” he had written a different text, or thought he wrote a different text, but all of this resulted in an evolving conversation that is necessary to have surrounding the subject of climate change. Dr. Alagona warned that scholars should not fear “presentism,” but engage it and incorporate their work into the larger discussion. In fact, this is what makes history “meaningful.” It is also incredibly important to join a community or movement for change. Dr. Rhone recapped his work on the history of Earth Day and notably stated that most readers/interviewers ask him to speak to present issues, rather than the past, as a result of his research. Dr. Spears expounded upon her work Baptised in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town (University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Importantly, she explained that her personal politics and ideas about society cannot be separated from her work as a historian. Specifically, she stated that the “essential insight of environmental history… leads to new knowledge” that should be available to present-day society. Finally, Dr. Langston asked “When do we bring up our own personal engagement? When do we acknowledge that we are political beings?” We should sever our ideas that advocacy is a “bad term” to stay away from and work with policy makers for the greater good.

As mentioned, the following conversation with the audience was all over the place, primarily due to the fact that the room was so full and there were many questions. Clearly, this is an issue at the top of the docket for environmental historians this year. How can we be relevant? I think this illustrates the uncertainty we work among as historians whose historical issues are still entirely in the public discourse. We do not (necessarily) study in seventeenth-century fashion or music, or research the Tudor family, or find ourselves immersed in ancient Chinese art (though all legitimate fields of study.) We work with ideas of the landscape, issues of climate change, how and where people live. We must engage with the public.

Tomorrow brings a full day of sessions and more opportunities for scholarly discourse. I look forward to it.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: ASEH 2015: A Grad Student Walks into a Room… | The Americanist Diversion

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