John M. Staudenmaier: What does envirotech mean?

March 4, 2005

Marty Reuss asked what does “envirotech” mean to you? Great question. I can’t make it to Houston for the conversation, so here are a few thoughts on the topic. No surprise that I would approach the question from a history of technology perspective: how enviro + tech affects what historians of technology have been doing over the years. It would be good to read similar thoughts from someone asking what joining the two terms does for environmental historians.

On the lighter side, “Envirotech” has a good cadence, rolls off the tongue gracefully. That’s a plus. More substantively, again from a history of technology perspective, the connection changes how one thinks about technology and its many historical contexts.

A) For most of SHOT’s history context has meant “context of origin.” Contextual historians of tech tended to interrogate some part of the array of people, physical resources, societal institutions etc. as it influenced investment, regulation, market preferences and so forth. Although some people asked context of origin questions in terms of non-economic influences (aesthetic, ideological, religious all have on occasion received attention), a great deal of context of origin attention was given to economic and knowledge resources when asking the question “why did this technology turn out in the way it did?” Good history, often enough; sometimes very good.

B) But the term “envirotech” puts environment on the same footing as technology; both have equal weight so the one does not serve only as context for the other. Historians of technology have to get used to thinking of a given technology both as a primary object of research and as a factor in the study of a different object of research. Since Marty Reuss has volunteered to chair the Houston discussion, I’ll use a river for an example. For stand-alone history of technology a river could be a challenge and/or a resource. It’s the thing you channel with dams and mill races, over which you build bridges, into the sides of which you build harbors. From an envirotech perspective all those human-built projects stand in tension with the river behaving as a river, occupying a critically important role on and in the land.. What happens to a river’s behavior when it has been dammed or channeled or used to dispose of pesticide run-off or to support waterfront development projects?
Envirotech, by requiring that technologies share the privileged space at the center of the historical narrative frame with environment challenges what maybe could be called historical solipsism in which human projects are the primary subject of interest.

C) It’s not an accident, probably, that envirotech became prominent about the same time that historians of technology began to see the center of the narrative frame as only sometimes focussed on the moment of creative origins. More and more scholars choose the moment of use as the center of their research interest; technologies are historically interesting not only when they are newly emergent on the historical landscape but when they stick around as features of that landscape, when users adapt to them in various ways and change what they mean. I wonder whether one of the values for environmental historians of this shift in interpretative focus by SHOT types might be that technologies, when they stick around and influence their contexts and provide opportunities for users to redefine the meaning of a technology in ways that investors and designers had not intended, also provide such opportunities for non-human actors. Instead of bridges and dams changing the meaning of the river, maybe as time passes the river changes the meaning of the bridges and dams.

D) Both words, “technology” and “environment,” carry a lot of cultural baggage. The contested meanings of both words give envirotech historians opportunities to engage our host society by working to give both words some linguistic clarity that ought to encourage using them in various public debates with a better sense of where the words come from and what they mean.

This is fun. Thanks for the question Marty.


John M. Staudenmaier, sj

Editor: Technology and Culture