Envirotech is pleased to announce the winner of the 2016-2017 Joel A. Tarr Prize. As envirotech grows as a field, so does the breadth and depth of its scholarship. This year’s Tarr Prize submissions included a wealth of articles that offered new directions in field–defining topics like risk, infrastructure, and pollution. The submissions also touched on newer areas of historical research and showed the range of topics withinenvirotech, as well as how an envirotechnical focus can enrich other areas of historical inquiry and shed light on contemporary problems. The submissions spanned the globe—indeed, even extending beyond the earth—across a wide historical time period and represented scholars from a wide range of institutions and career stages.
Amidst this exceptionally strong field, the committee, Etienne Benson, Aleksandra Kobiljski, and Kellen Backer, selected Camille Cole’s “Precarious Empires: A Social and Environmental History of Steam Navigation on the Tigris,” as the prize winner. Cole’s work links the history of technology, environmental history, and the history of empire through a case study of the steamship in Southern Iraq. Based on a rich array of archival sources in multiple languages,it is also historiographically engaged and brings an envirotechnical focus to a region that has received too little attention.The article follows steamships entering the Tigris, showing how they were transformative, even if not in the ways intended. The idea of precariousness stands at the core of Cole’s study, showing howenvironmental and social conditions helped to create an empire that was difficult to control—both for the British and for the Ottoman empires. Alluvial and marsh environments undermined steamships at the same time that steamships created new avenues for empires to expand, while also providing new opportunities for tribal polities and the local shipping industry. Cole’s work complicates the story of imperial technologies by showing how, in this instance, steamships were “not conquering, but not quite conquered by the river or the marsh-based tribal polities.” It is an impressive study that opens up new pathways for envirotech historians to pursue.