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 →
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 →
Monterey’s Cannery Row, shown here in 1973 before it was redeveloped as a retail district, will be the focus of one of the NCPH conference tours. Photo credit: Herbert Maruska
Sustainability is an increasingly attractive concept that resonates across disciplines and many facets of public life. A quick Google search turns up over 69 million results, including “sustainable development,” “sustainable seafood,” “sustainable performance,” “sustainable capitalism,” “sustainable travel,” and my favorite, “sustainable dance club.” Yet as William Cronon reminded us in his keynote address at the 2011 American Society for Environmental History conference titled “The riddle of sustainability: a surprisingly short history of the future,” the term “sustainability” is a relatively new invention, and its definition is evolving and contested. It simultaneously holds the potential to address the world’s most pressing issues while at the same time being so widely-applied and vaguely-defined as to be meaningless. Public historians, in a unique position to create and communicate knowledge about the past to the broader public, have now embraced the term, as evidenced by the theme for this year’s NCPH annual meeting, Sustainable Public History. But what does “sustainable public history” really mean? Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
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 →
Recently, I went with a group of friends to see Yoga: The Art of Transformation at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition includes representations of yoga practice in sculpture, painting, icons, and illuminated manuscripts across 2,000 years. Yoga originated as a radical religious practice, one originally designed to help practitioners transcend their bodies rather than strengthen them. Some yogis and yoginis lived lives of deprivation; others were spies, powerful leaders, or even fierce warriors. As we wandered through the galleries, one of my companions, a yoga instructor, said, “This is not the yoga I practice.”
I understood precisely what she meant.
As a public historian, I often feel a similar sense of disconnect and dislocation when I try to situate myself in many of the possible pasts that my discipline presents me with. Am I the intellectual descendant of 19th-century women’s organizations which sought to protect relics of a particular past in order to stave off unbearable social and cultural change? Do I owe my habits of work to Progressive Era professionals who applied the techniques of scientific management to solve pressing social problems, far too often without listening to the people directly impacted by dangerous working conditions or barely habitable tenements? Am I a professional in a still-emerging intellectual field, one gaining in legitimacy because it has become tied to a larger effort to preserve the academic discipline of history?
More often than I probably should admit, I find myself thinking, “This is not the history I practice.” Continue reading →
I am generally not a fan of sound-bite history. In this age of information overload and attention deficits, however, I suppose we must consider ways of packaging history in short, audio-visual formats in order to reach a larger public audience. Richard Heinberg’s Post Carbon Institute video, “The Ultimate Roller Coast Ride,” is a worthy effort in this regard. A creatively animated survey of “300 Years of Fossil-Fueled Growth in Five Minutes,” the video opens and closes with the distinctive bass line from the late Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” The disturbing environmental message of another Reed song, “The Last Great American Whale,” might have better served the purposes of this production, which is to frighten us about the grim future we face barring radical changes to our energy lifestyle. Continue reading →
Ironbound residents march up Ferry St. June 1, 1984, in opposition to the construction of a huge garbage incinerator in the neighborhood which would have emitted dioxin and other toxic chemicals. Photo credit: Ironbound Community Corporation
Ironbound Community Corporation, a non-profit community organization in Newark, New Jersey, which celebrates its 45th anniversary in 2014, began working on an archive in 2011, partnering with the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. ICC’s unique environmental justice history, which gained it an early national reputation, is important to its city, state, and the country at large. Over the years, ICC has been the subject of inquiry from residents, organizers, and students of all ages throughout the US and even beyond.
From the beginning, those of us working at ICC knew that when we said ”archive,” we wanted something accessible, which would not just gather dust. A key partner has been the local branch of the Newark Public Library, which agreed to house the archive, help with the public access, and host special kick-off events for each part of the project. Each year ICC has added something new to the archive, and it now has three parts: Continue reading →
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.” 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 →