Report from the Envirotech meeting at SHOT 2010

Envirotech was busy at SHOT 2010.  On Friday afternoon, at the break, we feted Joel Tarr with cake to celebrate naming our article prize “The Joel A. Tarr Envirotech Article Prize.”   Pictures will be going up on the website.  Also, Steve Cutcliffe and Ann Greene circulated through the book exhibits during breaks carrying copies of The Illusory Boundary and giving out order forms to everyone we could.

Joel Tarr cutting the cake

The Joel A. Tarr Envirotech Article Prize Cake

On Saturday morning, the Envirotech breakfast meeting at SHOT was attended by upwards of 40 people.

1) Funds and Grants

Based on the survey conducted by Dolly Jørgensen, the group voted to move ahead with a travel grant.  Because Envirotech is a SIG of SHOT, this grant will need approval by the Executive Council.  Earliest approval would be in the spring, and it might be possible to offer our first travel grant by the next SHOT meeting (Cleveland, November 2011).   Arne Kaijser, SHOT president, was at the meeting and confirmed that this time schedule was possible.

Steve Cutcliffe with The Illusory Boundary

2) Leadership

There are 8 leadership slots in Envirotech – 2 convenors, and 2 3- person committees (Grants and Essay Prize).

Currently, we need 4 people to step up the plate.

3 people for the grants committee.  (Note: Sara Pritchard is stepping down but will provide all the information you need to get the travel grant in process.)

1 person to take over from Ann Greene as co-convenor.

Ann Greene at the Envirotech breakfast

The Essay Committee for the next round (award to be given at SHOT 2011) is Tim LeCain, Eric Rau, and Heike Weber.  Dolly Jørgensen continues as co-convenor.

People interested in one of these slots should contact Ann Greene or Dolly Jørgensen.
Ann: angreene@sas.upenn.edu
Dolly: dolly@jorgensenweb.net

Two Surprises (to me) in “New Directions” Envirotech Session at SHOT 2009

Very briefly (in a tweet or so) the six projects discussed involved the following: the architecture and politics of solar power homes (Daniel Barber); the engineering of a forest to influence climate-scale dynamics (Robert Gardner); designer drugs that are complicating the notion of clinical tests (Shera Moxley); food production and consumption (Nic Mink); sensing and the sense of place (Joy Parr); and opening the black box of the brain to better understand how historical actors experienced major changes in the sensory environment (Ed).

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Envirotech meeting at ASEH, 2/28/09

The Envirotech breakfast was attended by nearly 30 people.  It provided the opportunity hear what people are working on–projects started, books published, organizations and groups founded.

The main topic of discussion was the proposal from SHOT to give all the SIGs a slot on Sunday morning at the conference in Pittsburgh this fall.   There was general agreement that the time should not be used for either a traditional panel or a workshop specifically related to teaching. The suggestion that received the most support was to have an open-ended discussion by all participants about their research and new projects. The purpose would be to encourage “risky ideas” on the part of people considering new perspectives and possibilities. Continue reading

Envirotech Meeting at ESEH a Big Success

We convened a special lunchtime meeting of Envirotech at the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference in Amsterdam, June 5-9, 2007. The meeting was a big success! With 23 attendees, we pulled in almost 10 percent of the registered participants of the meeting, which demonstrates the huge interest in envirotech issues worldwide. The participants came from many countries, including Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, UK, and US. For many of the attendees, it was their first time at an Envirotech meeting, so it was an excellent opportunity for older Envirotech members to make connections with European scholars and for the European researchers to meet each other.

The meeting was chaired by Dolly Jørgensen. We had reports on the current status of the book project (Ed Russell), the 2007 article prize (Frank Uekötter), SHOT sessions and new website (Finn Arne Jørgensen). Richard Wilk (Anthropology Department, Indiana University) announced that he is looking for manuscripts for publication as the editor of a book series “Globalization and the Environment” with Altamira Press (see http://www.altamirapress.com/series/).

The ESEH 2007 conference had the theme “Environmental Connections.” Jane Carruthers, University of South Africa, opened the conference with a paper titled “Environmental history: Revitalising connection, context and coherence in historical studies.” She argued that connections lie at the core of environmental history, giving it both its direction and its strength. Using the example of Dutch colonization of South Africa, she explored some of the ways environmental expectations led to challenges for both the Europeans and Africans in the early modern period. Carruthers emphasized that environmental history has the opportunity to tell histories across national and cultural boundaries. As a discipline, it has the opportunity to connect new sources – oral, visual, spatial, scientific – and connect new ideas and concepts – similarities, patterns, interactions, continuities, evolution, and differences.

A number of papers at the conference picked up on the theme by focusing on scientific, environmental and knowledge exchanges during colonization efforts, such as the transfer of irrigation technology, importation of botanical specimens and development of national park ideas. Other papers focused on later exchanges, such as the influence of European livestock science on Brazilian cattle ranching in the 19th and 20th centuries and connections between German and American wastewater treatment design.

The “connections” theme is particularly fitting for envirotech researchers as we work to show the connections between technology and the environment. Much of what Carruthers said about environmental history applies to the history of technology as well. The intersection of history of environment and technology has the opportunity to tell histories that cut across traditional boundaries of nation states, periodization, and historical disciplines.

ESEH normally meets every other year and we plan to continue meeting as a group there. But in lieu of a separate meeting in 2009, ESEH will meet collectively with a number of other environmental history organizations at the World Environmental History Congress August 4-9, 2009 in Copenhagen. Envirotech plans to meet at the 2009 Congress.

By Dolly Jørgensen

Originally published in the Envirotech Newsletter 2007/1

“Rethinking the Nature-Technology Dichotomy”: A Session Report from Las Vegas

For many envirotech scholars, the modern city of Las Vegas is likely to inspire a certain fascinated horror. In its windowless neon-bathed casinos jammed with insanely beeping slot machines and blathering Elvis impersonators, one feels divorced not only from the natural world but, perhaps even more jarringly, from whatever is authentic and organic in the human-built world as well. Walk along the sterile section of Las Vegas Boulevard called “The Strip” and you can pass from a half-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower to a torchlit Egyptian pyramid in the course of a few hours, never once escaping from a corporately controlled and engineered virtual reality. Likewise, the spectacular fountains and shimmering pools of water adorning the Bellagio and other overgrown hotels obviously belie the desert environment that surrounds the city. Along the Las Vegas Strip the organic, authentic, and locally unique — whether they be the products of human or non-human factors — seem to have been banished.

How appropriate, then, that the city was the setting for a scholarly session dedicated to the theme, “Rethinking the Nature-Technology Dichotomy: The Uses of Life in Late Modernity.” Held as part of the Society for the History of Technology’s annual meeting, October 12-15th, this Saturday morning session was a conference highlight for those envirotechies fortunate enough to attend.

Thomas Wieland from the Munich Center for the History of Science and Technology organized the session and also presented his fascinating paper, “Biological Rationality: Changing Attitudes Towards the Uses of Life in Late Modernity.” Late modernity, Wieland argued, has been characterized by a belief in a sharp dichotomy between the natural and technological. As a result, late modern thinkers emphasized technological rationality as the most powerful and accurate way of understanding and manipulating the environment. In this paradigm engineers, scientists, and other experts strove to replace organisms with technology wherever possible. Thus living organisms were translated, both metaphorically and physiologically, into quasi machines, and the rationality of the technical dominated.

In the late 1950s, however, the concept of “bionics” offered a new way of thinking about both technology and biology. As conceived by innovators such as Jack Steele, bionics attempted to use principles derived from living systems in designing technology. Wieland offered a contemporary example of this with a 2005 advertisement for a Mercedes-Benz bionic car. Pairing a picture of the company’s lightweight and highly streamlined automobile with a fish, the ad clearly suggested that “nature is the best engineer.” Another example of this “biological rationality,” Wieland suggested, can be found in integrated pest management strategies that combine chemical and biological controls.

Beginning in the mid-century, then, advanced technological nations began to embrace what Wieland termed “multiple rationalities” for understanding nature and technology. Challenging the earlier domination of the technical way of thinking and seeing the world, biological rationality suggested that nature was not just a passive source of raw materials but rather an invaluable source of ideas for solving modern design problems. Older ideas that nature was best understood in technological terms gave way to the view that technological systems can also be productively understood in biological terms. Biological rationality thus challenged the nature-technology dichotomy by elevating the importance of natural systems and by blurring the boundaries between the natural and technological.

This blurring of the machines and organisms was also explored by Edmund Russell (University of Virginia) in his stimulating paper, “The Incredible Evolving Dog: Making an Animal Modern.” Russell started his talk with the picture of a somewhat unfamiliar looking little dog, asking the audience members if anyone could identify the dog’s breed and job. With this intriguing introduction, Russell suggested that dogs had been modernized in Great Britain in the 19th century, undergoing a process in which humans remade rather than replaced the natural world. Acting through a process of artificial selection, humans became agents of what Russell has termed “evolutionary history”—that is, the history of the human role in guiding (intentionally or unintentionally) the evolution of other organisms and the consequences of this evolution for human societies.

It is through evolutionary history, Russell continued, that we must understand the mysterious small dog he had begun with. This dog, he now revealed, was an extinct breed known as a “Turnspit.” During the early modern period, these little dogs were bred for the purpose of powering wheels rather like those found made today for pet mice and gerbils. In the Turnspit’s case, however, the running wheel was connected to a meat spit before a fire, thus constantly turning the meat so that it would cook evenly.

Why did the Turnspit breed ultimately go extinct? In an apt illustration of the process of evolutionary history, Russell argued that the Turnspit’s niche was eliminated by the development of mechanical clock technology. Spit turning mechanisms were thereafter powered by clock springs or falling weights.

Such hybrid human-nature niches were created, altered, and in some cases eliminated through a variety of forces, Russell argued, including such well-known historical phenomena as the creation of nation states and evolution of the ideology of romanticism. The example of the English bull dog, he argued, demonstrates the role nation states can play in evolutionary history. Initially bred for the purpose of bull baiting, bulls dogs were compact and agile animals with strong jaws—the traits needed to avoid being gored so the dog could get a fierce biting hold on the bull’s face. By the early 19th century, however, the British state had outlawed the practice of bull baiting, in part for moral and religious reasons, but also because the pastime did not fit well with regimentation of the emerging factory system. Unlike the Turnspit, however, the bull dog was saved from extinction by the opening of a new ecological niche when the dog became valued as a pet. Subsequent breeding efforts thus directed the bull dog’s evolution away from its more functional form to emphasize aesthetic traits pet owners found attractive, like a short snout, large head, and narrow hips. Indeed, the anthropogenic evolution of the modern bull dog is so pronounced that the breed’s narrow hips require that pups be delivered by caesarean section.

At the same time, Russell noted that the nation state’s role in eliminating the bull dog niche opened a different niche for another sporting dog, the Greyhound. Unlike bull baiting, which was often a drawn out and complex activity that could consume an entire afternoon, Greyhound racing was a cheap and quick entertainment for a working class that no longer had the unstructured leisure time of the pre-industrial era. A Greyhound race could be executed in only a few minutes as the animals raced over relatively short straight courses. Accordingly, humans selected the dogs (initially Whippets) best capable of short high-speed sprinting, thus producing the Greyhound’s long lean streamlined form with its echoes of the “naturally” speedy Jaguar.

Finally, Russell discussed the importance of modern ideological forces in driving evolutionary history. With the rise of romanticism in the 18th and 19th centuries, middle class Britons developed a new appreciation for what they considered to be beautiful pastoral landscapes. This middle class definition of natural beauty, however, was defined in large part by the absence of any actual work from the landscape. Accordingly, many middle class visitors to the countryside admired the image of sheep gently grazing in green pastures, but they found the sheep dogs who herded them to be distinctly ugly. Breeders thus catered to the middle class fascination with rural nature by breeding the typical sheep dog—an early form of the Border Collie—with Greyhounds. The outcome was the lean and elegant Collie, an indisputably attractive animal but one which Russell pointed out is totally useless for herding sheep or anything else.

A third paper was presented by Geraldine Abir-Am of Brandeis University, “The Transatlantic Origins of Biogen: A Case Study in the Transition from Molecular Biology in Late Modernity.” Abir-Am traced the historical development of Biogen Corporation, which began in 1978 with the cooperation of seven European scientists and two Americans. The Biogen story offers a fascinating case study of the transition from molecular biology to biotech. Resonating with Wieland’s work, Abir-Am suggested that the “biological rationality” embraced by the founders of Biogen simply side-stepped the traditional boundaries between science and technology. From the very start, this influential biotech firm saw little distinction between the study of nature (science) and the development of useful technological processes, such as interferon and bioengineered enzymes. Biotechnology thus offers yet another compelling example of how the nature-technology dichotomy blurred and collapsed in the process of creating the modern world.

In a useful comment, Gabriella Petrick (New York University) applauded all of the papers for their interesting insights, but she also raised several larger questions applicable to all of the papers. Petrick argued that all the authors might wish to give more attention to the slippery concept of modernity, which far from being a static idea has evolved over time. Further, by using the term without first clearly defining it, scholars run the risk of robbing the concept of any true analytical power. Petrick also questioned one of the basic intellectual foundations of the session, which was the existence of a “Nature-Technology Dichotomy” that the three authors now proposed to problematize. But did this dichotomy ever really exist, Petrick wondered, given that historians have known for some time that science and engineering overlapped and intertwined almost indistinguishably from the beginning. Likewise, in a comment from the floor, Sara Pritchard (Montana State University) encouraged the authors to think about the social construction of the naturetechnology dichotomy, and particularly how the evolving concept might have proved useful for economic, social, or political purposes in the past.

By Tim LeCain

Originally published in the Envirotech Newsletter 2006/2