It’s easy to suffer from a sense of vertigo on Earth Day. In one sense, Earth Day invites us to understand the extremely large. It calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, the iconic image of Earthrise taken by Apollo 8, the estimated 22 million people who participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, or an attempt to imagine the 7.49 billion people currently on Earth—to name only a few. And yet, because Earth Day is about interconnection, it challenges us to hold these distant images in tension with events and processes that occur on much smaller scales: a teach-in, a garbage avalanche in Ethiopia, or a single plastic bottle floating in the surf. In such images we are asked to look either through one end of a telescope or the other, to see the local or the global, and shift between them is often dizzying ways. Where is the middle-register, and how can we understand not only these vertical connections, but ones that stretch in unexpected ways across regions and pathways we don’t typically see?
From the cosmos to the commons, Earth Day conjures a series of fractal and partial views of humanity, this planet we occupy, and a myriad of hopes and fears for the future. And it may be for this reason, that on Earth Day we who write about environmental history are particularly aware of what sometimes feels like the incommensurability of writing a reading list for a day that seeks to encompass everything from Sagan’s “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” to the silica dust that clogs the miner’s lungs.
Earth Day invites us to see the planet from all angles and at all scales, and to hold these perspectives in relation to each other. But what books, ideas, or geographies can carry us from stardust to coal dust and back? We surveyed a handful of recent works in environmental history that together, compose an Earth history reading list to keep us grounded on Earth Day.
Recommendation: Neil M. Maher’s Apollo in the Age of Aquarius (Harvard University Press, 2017).
Situating the space race within the political movements of the 1960s, Maher argues that sending a man to the moon was inextricably tethered to terrestrial concerns like the civil rights movement, feminism, and environmentalism. Apollo 8 captured the image of Earthrise mentioned earlier in this post, but Maher’s research helps us see the network of everyday human lives and interests contained by that picture, inviting us, in turn, to see the moon shot and space in new ways.
Recommendation: Edward Dallam Melillo’s Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the California-Chile Connection (Yale Agrarian Studies, 2015).
Beginning with the importation of the potato from Chile to California in 1786 , Edward Dallam Melilo links the Pacific coasts of North and South America through the exchange of peoples, technologies, crops, and ideas, disrupting Atlantic-centered narratives of the Americas. For Melilo, the Pacific becomes an aquatic highway upon which ideas and commodities traveled between Chile and California even long after they ceased to be Spanish colonies. Strangers on Familiar Soil draws attention to the ways in which two places with distinct histories developed through mutual exchange, pointing to the ways in which environments are shaped both internally and externally.
Recommendation: Alan Mikhail’s Under Osman’s Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Environmental History (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
In this sweeping study of five hundred years of Middle Eastern environmental history, Mikhail argues that we cannot understand the longevity, politics, or economy of the Ottoman Empire unless we consider them in the context of the Ottoman Empire’s effort to manage natural resources. Crafting a compelling argument for the role of environmental management in the Ottoman Empire, Mikhail’s research necessarily highlights an understudied region in the “middle register” between global, national, or regional histories.
Recommendation: Giacomo Parrinello’s Fault Lines: Earthquakes and Urbanism in Modern Italy (Berghahn Books, 2015).
Examining two Italian earthquakes, Parrinello argues that far from being “natural events,” earthquakes and their effects are shaped by human power relations and vulnerabilities. Parrinello argues that when the earth “speaks,” as it does in an earthquake, it enters a socioecononic landscape already in process and the reverberations of the earthquake itself linger for decades and longer.
Recommendation: Callum Roberts’ The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea (Penguin Books, 2013).
For much of human history the oceans have been spaces of consistency, a constant contrast to the land, which underwent first the pastoral and later the industrial revolution. However, in the past half century, humanity’s ability to alter nature has finally reached the sea, resulting in dramatic changes within the Earth’s waters due to both overfishing and chemical and waste dumping. Robert’s book examines how we have changed the seas, causing the destruction of underwater ecosystems and pushing the oceans’ megafauna ever closer to the brink of extinction, bringing much needed attention to often overlooked ways in which human impacts shape ocean environments.
Recommendation: Jonathan Schlesinger’s A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule (Stanford University Press, 2017).
Jonathan Schlesinger’s A World Trimmed With Fur examines Qing Dynasty China’s environmental past by focusing on the role that natural resource trade between frontier spaces like Mongolia and Manchuria and the imperial city, Beijing, played in shaping the ecology of the capital and its periphery alike. The Qing dynasty did not preserve nature in the borderlands, it created it. Schlesinger argues that the extraction species and resources including pearls, furs, and mushrooms allow us to see not only how trade connected Asia as a region during the 19th century, but also to link environmental change in Asia to global trends like the commodification of nature.
Recommendation: Stuart B. Schwartz’s Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (Princeton University Press, 2015).
Building on recent interest in the history of weather and meteorology, Schwartz’s study brings the role of hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean into the center of historiographical discussions, examining the cultural, economic, and political patterns linked to living on storm-crossed islands. Developing patterns within more than five hundred years of hurricane seasons, Schwartz offers a long duree history full of breaks and ruptures, concluding much like Parrinello, that when the earth speaks, the poor are the most vulnerable to its voice.
Recommendation: Andrew Stuhl’s Unfreezing the Arctic: Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Through an examination the legacy of scientific colonialism since the late 19th century and the history of Inuit societies, Stuhl argues for a more complex understanding of the Arctic in the present allowing us to see the Arctic as place with a dynamic history and uncertain future. By calling attention to the Arctic’s historical past, as opposed to its role a site of geological exploration, Unfreezing the Arctic challenges the notion of an unchanging Arctic wilderness untouched by human influence until recently, reconnecting the region to systems of knowledge production, power, and cultural exchange.
Recommendation: Nancy Jacob’s Birders of Africa: History of a Network (Yale Agrarian Studies, 2016).
Framing birding as “an everyday rural act” (8), Jacobs sets out to situate African birding, natural knowledge, and the social relationships of knowledge production in the context of colonialism and postcolonialism. Using ethnographic, photographic, and archival sources, Jacobs offers several biographies of African birders and ornithologists demonstrating how race, science, and empire infused the boundaries between science and vernacular knowledge.
Featured Image: An artist’s rendering of Earth as seen from the moon in 1874. From The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter, 1874.
Bailey Albrecht is a Ph.D. student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison History Department interested in how people have shaped environments. In her current research, she explores how developed nations like Japan are able to green themselves in part because they rely on the natural resources of less developed nations, such as Indonesia. Contact.
Kate Wersan is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of History. Specializing in the environmental and cultural history of the United States, her research examines the environmental history of American timekeeping practices from 1660 to 1920, exploring the tangled truth that in order to know where you are, you also have to know when you are. Contact.