The blog of the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice University has published an interview with Georgetown Professor J.R. McNeill, on his participation in the Anthropocene Working Group, which recently recommended the recognition of the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch to the International Geological Congress. The conversation also addressed the question of the Anthropocene as a concept for historians and humanities scholars more broadly. Dr. McNeill is the author of several publications on the subject of the Anthropocene, most recently The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945, co-authored with Peter Engelke.
The start of the interview is featured below. For the complete conversation, please visit the CENHS blog.
Kevin MacDonnell: The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) is made up of a couple of dozen scholars from across the natural and human sciences, ranging from atmospheric chemists to geologists to historians like yourself. What do you think led the AWG to seek out an interdisciplinary collective? The work of identifying a so-called ‘golden spike’ could presumably be carried out by a team of geologists or paleobiologists, yet the AWG is nonetheless a mixed bag of scholars from numerous fields. Why do you think that is?
J. R. McNeill: I have never been consulted about who should be invited to take part and it has never been clear to me how it is one is chosen. In my own case, the chair of the AWG (Jan Zalaciewicz) asked me personally to join, but I did not ask him why he did so. It happened after we met at a conference some years ago. And he was aware I had co-authored some pieces with Crutzen. Whether he consulted anyone before asking me to join, I do not know. I am aware only of the following: the core of the group are stratigraphers and geologists, mainly from Britain. By the time I joined, it already included a handful of archeologists, soil scientists, and even one lawyer. No other social scientists so far as I know, but I could easily be wrong (I haven’t bothered charting the evolution of the membership). Not too long after I joined, another historian (Naomi Oreskes) also joined. At some point the AWG leadership decided to seek out members from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and to seek out women who might join. That expanded the membership a fair bit, although I couldn’t tell you by how much. And then, it could be said, there are members and there are members. Some of them never take part in the email discussions; some are commenting on every issue that comes up. The center of gravity of the group, however, is firmly in Britain and in stratigraphy/geology.
Stanford University Press has published Dr. Thomas Apel's first book, Feverish Bodies, Enlightened Minds: Science and the Yellow Fever Controversy in the Early American Republic. Dr. Apel is a professor of history at Menlo College and received his PhD in history from Georgetown University in 2012. Sara Gronim, professor of American history at Long Island University writes of Feverish Bodies, Enlightened Minds: "While competing explanations for the yellow fever epidemics that swept the northeast are the primary subject, Apel persuasively shows how these understandings of disease were infused with theological and political assumptions. Lively and jargon-free, his book should find a wide readership among historians of medicine and of the Early Republic."
This month, University Professor John McNeill reflected on the pre-Zika history of mosquito-borne diseases in the Americas in TIME, and on the American peregrinations of the Aedes aegypti mosquito species in AHA Today.
The Ottoman History Podcast has published several excellent episodes relevant to environmental history scholars: interviews with Edna Bonhomme on bubonic plague in 18th-century Egypt, Yaron Ayalon on natural disasters in the Ottoman Empire, Alan Mikhail on the Laki eruptions' effects on Ottoman Egypt, and Valentina Pugliano on Venetian physicians who travelled through the early modern Middle East.
The early modern cooling period known as the Maunder Minimum appears to have been linked to a significant reduction in Caribbean hurricanes, according to dendrochronological research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month. Overlapping known shipwreck records with tree-ring data series from the Florida Keys, the authors have identified a 75 percent decrease on a decadal scale in Caribbean tropical cyclone activity during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
In "The Unnatural Kingdom," Daniel Duane considers the technology behind the return of bighorn sheep, the Sierra Nevada red fox, and the grey wolf to California. "Undeniably in the service of good, this technological revolution in the human relationship to wildlife is also accelerating the ancient human project of bringing the physical world under our control."
The World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus a global public health emergency on February 1. Spreading in the Americas, the mosquito-borne disease has been associated with microcephaly in newborns. Read Georgetown professor John McNeill's thoughts on the ecology of mosquitoes and disease in the Americas in this CNN article.
Lake Poopó, Bolivia's second-largest lake, has dried up for the second time since 1990. Now over one month into the rainy season, water has yet to return. The lake is particularly exposed to climatic fluctuations due to its very shallow depth (9 feet).
“I don’t think we’ll be seeing the azure mirror of Poopó again. I think we’ve lost it,” one Bolivian scholar told the Associated Press.
Genetic mapping confirms that the parasite causing schistosomiasis was first carried from Africa to the Americas in the bodies of African slaves, further evidence of an environmental history of slavery. "Comparing the S. mansoni genomes suggests that flukes in West Africa split from their Caribbean counterparts at some point between 1117AD and 1742AD, which overlaps with the time of the 16th-19th Century Atlantic Slave Trade," Professor Joanne Webster of Imperial College London and the Royal Veterinary College said. "During this period more than 22,000 African people were transported from West Africa to Guadeloupe by French slave ships, and the fluke was carried with them."
On Suffolk's North Sea coast, Researchers are using ultrasound to map the submerged town of Dunwich. Once one of eastern England's largest ports, Dunwich was claimed by the sea during a succession of major storms in the 13th and 14th centuries. Weaving together the history of the town, "you get this 900-year story of a coastal settlement being affected by climate change," the lead researcher told the Washington Post. (BBC Documentary, UK only)
From tiny St. Helena to continental Australia, islands have long offered valuable case studies of invasion ecologies to environmental historians. In the Channel Islands off California, this history heads for an unpredictable conclusion: environmentalists there have nearly completed, after many years of hunting, a wild sheep chase and a wild turkey shoot.
Speaking of islands, new archaeological research in Malagasy caves suggests that anthropogenic forces and ungulate irruption drove deforestation in Madagascar 1000 years ago. According to Professor David McGee, "We went in expecting to just tell a climate change story, and were surprised to see a huge carbon isotope change... Both the speed at which this shift occurred and the fact that there's no real climate signal suggest human involvement." The full study, which examined stalagmites, was published this month in Quarternary Science Reviews (Paywall).
Elephant unemployment is on the rise in Myanmar.
Image: NASA Earth Observatory via The Independent
Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times continues his coverage of the severe drought in Iran, which has lasted seven years. Very low rainfall and rapidly dwindling groundwater, 70 percent of which has been consumed in the last half-century, threatens agriculture and has transformed the country's urban life.
Williams College environmental studies fellow Elizabeth Kolbert reports on the steady flooding of south Florida, where climate change is seeping up through gutters and front lawns, in the latest of her ongoing 'Field Notes from a Catastrophe' for the New Yorker.
Cultural anthropologist Sidney Mintz died on December 27th at the age of 93. Read Sarah Hill, Marion Nestle, and an OUP editor on the passing of a giant in the history and anthropology of commodities.
The foods eaten have histories associated with the past of those who eat them; the techniques employed to find, process, prepare, serve, and consume the foods are all culturally variable, with histories of their own. Nor is the food ever simply eaten; its consumption is always conditioned by meaning. These meanings are symbolic, and communicated symbolically; they also have histories. (Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Beacon Press, 1996), 7)
195 countries agreed to the most significant international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions in history at a UN climate summit in Paris this week. The voluntary emissions cuts entailed in the accord will not prevent a 2°C increase in global temperatures, but represent a major step toward mitigating some effects of climate change. (Agreement text)
A new study in PLOS Pathogens warns of the dire consequences that loom for the worldwide banana economy due to the likely spread of the TR4 strain of Panama disease from plantations in Southeast Asia.
Environmental scientists from Columbia University and the University of Buffalo question the global extent of the Medieval Warm Period in a new study in Science Advances. Dating boulders left behind by retreating glaciers in Greenland, the researchers conclude that the glaciers reached their Little Ice Age maxima during the MWP. The lead author said, "If the Vikings traveled to Greenland when it was cool, it’s a stretch to say deteriorating climate drove them out."
The Indian Ocean's annual northeast monsoon brought devastating floods to southern India. The state of Tamil Nadu experienced its highest rainfall total in over a century for the month of November. Meteorologists have linked the emerging El Niño in the South Pacific to the strength of the autumn monsoon in South Asia. (Quartz photo gallery)
AHA reports on transformations in field specializations among US history faculty over the last 4 decades. While the largest absolute differences reflect the cultural turn, environmental history faculty experienced the highest rate of growth: "The field with the largest proportional expansion was environmental history—from 0.2 percent of the listed faculty in 1975 to 2.7 percent today. That may still seem like a small number, but the share of departments employing an environmental historian grew from 4.3 percent in 1975 to 43 percent in 2015."
Articles written by students and faculty in environmental history at Georgetown University.