“Sustainable public history” means action in Monterey

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Public history? A Pennsylvania action by the group Marcellus Protest invokes the state’s constitution. Photo credit: Marcellus Protest

After an incredibly engaging and well-attended American Society for Environmental History conference in San Francisco last week, I arrived in Monterey excited to extend the conversation about the connections among environmental history, sustainability, and public history. I did not expect, however, that the term “sustainability” could rouse the activist roots of our profession.  “What to do?”, as one of the discussants in the ASEH panel I chaired on “Perspectives on Environmental History” asked in ending his presentation, seemed to be the question for Thursday. Continue reading

A good-enough platform for change

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Today’s post is also the introduction to the born-digital publication “Public History in a Changing Climate,” available now to NCPH conference registrants and to other readers by summer 2014.

In a television interview last year, American writer and neo-agrarian icon Wendell Berry spoke about the “dreadful situation” facing young people who are grappling with the cascading environmental, economic, and social challenges linked with runaway capitalism and anthropogenic climate change.  Berry noted that the recognition of our big problems creates an expectation of equally big solutions, but added that our own answers and fixes have too often been part and parcel of those problems, because we’ve tended to impose them in a way that ignores the limitations and needs of the environments we inhabit.  Real change, he said, means learning to listen in new ways to the non-human world and refusing to be rushed or impatient even while acknowledging the urgent need for action.  “I think of them,” Berry said of younger people entering this arena, “and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.  And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.”

The idea of being patient in an emergency strikes me as useful for public historians to think about but from the opposite direction.  Rather than being impatient activists who need to be convinced of the value of patience, we tend to be inherently deliberate practitioners who haven’t collectively acknowledged that we are in fact in the midst of an emergency. Continue reading

What’s your new “Situation Normal”?

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US federal government workers at an August 2013 protest of budget sequestration and employee furloughs. Photo credit: American Federation of Government Employees

As I sit down to write this post (and by the way, this is my first “official” history blog post), I am pondering what my “New Situation Normal” is as a public history practitioner for a federal agency. How has my work reality changed, for good and for ill, over the past 16 years? Certainly, technology and social media provide public historians with avenues to new and varied audiences. And with the Internet’s narrowing of time and space, interesting and exciting possibilities now exist for researchers and public historians.

However, there have been less positive workplace changes, namely budgetary and staffing constraints, which have created stresses and reprioritization at work for many American public historians in the public and private sector—as well as in other countries—regardless of agency or organization. Continue reading

Get your wind farm off my historic site: When visions of sustainability collide (Part 2)

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Large-scale wind-power developments often provoke strong pro and con feelings, as this 2008 band of satirical Cape Wind counter-protesters in Massachusetts shows. Photo credit: Phil LaCombe.

Continued from Part 1.

The case of Southern Öland provides a rather dramatic case where visions of heritage preservation and renewable energy development collided, but it is certainly not unique.  Other communities have faced similar challenges, including the World Heritage sites of Mont-Saint-Michel in France (where an off-shore wind project was blocked by the French courts), and Britain’s Jurassic Coast.  In the United States, the Cape Wind project proposed for Nantucket Bay off of Martha’s Vineyard has generated a fierce legal and political struggle that has spanned more than a dozen years.  Cape Wind’s Construction and Operation plans received approval from the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in 2011 despite a determination by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation that the wind farm would negatively affect thirty-six historic sites and districts, and six resources of cultural and religious significance to the region’s Indian tribes.

The many compelling arguments in favor of renewable energy projects makes opposing them challenging.   Continue reading

Get your wind farm off my historic site: When visions of sustainability collide (Part 1)

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Öland’s landscape reflects 5,000 years of human habitation. Photo credit: Kim Bach

Off the east coast of Southern Sweden, a battle is raging between competing visions of sustainability.  On the most unlikely of battlegrounds, bucolic Öland island, a desire to promote renewable energy has brought local officials committed to promoting a sustainable society into conflict with island residents, preservationists, farmers, environmentalists, and local business owners who believe that protecting the island’s character and cultural resources is incompatible with a proposal to expand industrially generated wind power on the island. Continue reading

Help us build a bibliography on public history and climate change

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In many ways, environmental public history is still a very new field, with just one major title devoted directly to the subject.

Google “public history” and “climate change” and you’ll quickly realize that public historians are only just beginning to talk about how their work relates to the increasingly urgent questions posed by the earth’s rapidly changing climate.  You could make a case that environmental public history is itself still in its infancy, even though it’s been more than two decades since Martin Melosi, in his President’s Annual Address to the National Council on Public History, issued a call for “environmental history [to] be a means to make the value of history better understood to the public.”[1]  As Melosi pointed out, the combination is a natural one in many ways, yet there are also challenges to pursuing it–for example, the highly political nature of many environmental issues and historians’ caution about crossing the line into advocacy.  In the print realm, a single, now-decade-old collection, Public History and the Environment (co-edited by Melosi and Phil Scarpino and published by Krieger in 2004), has been devoted to the subject, and “global warming” makes only two brief appearances in its pages.  As the global atmosphere continues to warm and its effects are felt more and more widely, how should public historians respond? Continue reading