Panel 1: Political Conflict and Technical Expertise in Resource Development
Peter Lavelle, Cornell: “In Sericulture, Learn from Huzhou: Mulberries, Silkworms, and Political Ecology in the Late Qing Empire”
After years of social upheaval in the mid- nineteenth century, Qing officials faced the daunting task of reconstruction. In destroyed and deserted towns and countrysides, they promoted sericulture as one of the most promising political-economic mechanisms for reconstruction and made claims for sericulture’s almost universal applicability despite the diversity of ecological conditions across the empire. But these officials were not merely responding to local conditions, as they often purported. Starting in the 1870s with Shen Bingcheng, they employed a specific model of sericulture taken from Huzhou Prefecture, Zhejiang Province. Attempting to copy the best aspects of Huzhou sericulture, these officials typically dispatched subordinates to Huzhou to purchase hundreds of thousands of mulberry trees, obtain thousands of sheets of silkworm eggs, and hire scores of local experts. Shipped hundreds or thousands of kilometers to diverse locations, these people, plants, and insects were to constitute the primary inputs for new or revived sericulture industries. The Huzhou model thus comprised a distinct—albeit increasingly circulated—set of practices contained within sericulture manuals, purveyed by expert craftsmen, and embodied in specific varieties of mulberry trees and silkworms that had been modified over centuries by selection and manipulation. This paper uses published materials and unpublished archival sources to trace the development and deployment of the Huzhou model and its consequences for political ecology in various parts of the empire, especially in Chinese Turkestan in the 1880s.
Abigail Schade, Columbia: “Bringing Expertise for Water, Power, and Agribusiness to Khuzestan: The Development & Resources Corporation in Southwestern Iran, 1953-1974”
This paper traces the ideals of international technical expertise for water management projects in the mid-twentieth century through the example of the Development & Resources Corporation. DRC was a private consulting business headquartered in New York City and staffed by former managers of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a national agency of the United States initiated to develop and provide a power grid for the poorest sectors of the rural U.S. in the Great Depression. The DRC was invited by the government of the Shah of Iran in 1956 to initiate a similar dam-building and regional development project for the river systems of Khuzestan, which empty into the northern Persian Gulf.
By examining mid-century American notions of modernization, scientific leadership, and international technical assistance programs for development, I relate these notions of technical expertise to the DRC’s cross-continental encounter of expertise in Khuzestan. I also explore how mid-century social-scientific beliefs about technical expertise could have created a narrative of “technological diffusion” for historical knowledge about local water systems.
Benjamin Wang, Cornell: “Contaminated Landscapes: Contending with Explosive Remnants of War in Sudan”
This paper is part of an early stage doctoral dissertation that examines how local populations, nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations and other development groups, and policymakers physically construct and conceptually understand environments contaminated by explosive remnants of war (ERW) – including landmines, unexploded rockets, and mortars – in Sudan. The presence of latent explosives in civilian areas long after a conflict ends significantly alters the local environment and the interactions communities have with that environment, as well as how the explosive technologies and landscapes are understood.
The recently completed UN Landmine Impact Survey revealed the extent of ERW contamination in Sudan, yet how land clearance priorities are established has been less examined. While there are general principles in global landmine clearance for which areas to clear first, contingencies particular to Sudan such as oil-rich areas, marginalized or favored local communities, and infrastructure development efforts all affect the dynamics of clearance and remediation. Thus, this paper seeks to illustrate the processes by which global understandings interact with increasingly local layers in Sudan across different environments. In doing so, this paper suggests ways in which science and technology studies can engage with environmental and social history.
Panel 2: Border Landscapes and Social Conflict
Matthew Axtell, Princeton: “American Steamboat Gothic: Policing the Ohio River Zone, 1830-1861”
By studying the legal doctrine, facts, and social context of several court decisions involving contentious river crossings from the mid-1800s, this paper shows how the Ohio River, as both a legal construct and biophysical region, built up jurisdictional differences between groups of people while at the same time helping to break these distinctions down. Running for nearly one thousand miles, the nineteenth-century Ohio River served as an unreliable boundary line dividing five distinct units of state government and countless parcels of private property. During an era of cholera outbreaks and runaway slaves, the physical act of crossing this river could become a symbolic event upsetting to local balances of power along the shore. At the same time, with the arrival of steamboat and regular ferry service linking Ohio River Valley cities and towns, mass river traffic became routine. With little central government in evidence, it fell upon port wardens, justices of the peace, and local governments to police the river’s edge, deciding which crossings would be allowed. The result was a jumble of conflicting practices and rules, with the Ohio coming to resemble the multistate, international waters of the Rhine or Congo rather than a river contained within a single national jurisdiction. While the river itself entered this period conceptualized by commercial lawyers as an “inland sea” or free trade zone, judges gradually worked in a series of river crossing cases to bring the Ohio under a uniform system of law. By 1860, some legal theorists argued for the river to be seen as an extension of land, subject to the same rules as if it were no different than the shore. But the continued passage of people, microbes, and hazardous vessels across this space, enabled by parallel legal initiatives to keep the river “forever free” to navigation, challenged the legitimacy of efforts to territorialize the waters of the Ohio once and for all. With lawyers, legislators, and the river itself working at cross purposes on the eve of the Civil War, it was unclear which way the waters of the Ohio, and the societies it bounded, would eventually flow.
Sara Fingal, Brown: “A Beach for the Ghetto?:” Cabrillo Beach and Conflicts Over Coastal Landscapes”
This paper seeks a better understanding of the complex issues surrounding public ownership of limited resources, social justice, and environmental conservation by examining the battle for control of Cabrillo Beach. The beach is located on the cusp of the Port of Los Angeles, in San Pedro, California. During the late 1960s, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission revealed their plan to develop the area into a yacht marina. Local activists viewed the beach as a critical public space for low-income and minority groups in Los Angeles. The Harbor Commission and others perceived the coastal zone as prime property for economic development. The social conflict between community activists, local citizens, city officials, and the Harbor Commission was shaped by the values that they placed on the coastal landscape as either a public or private natural resource. In this paper, I consider how the history of Cabrillo Beach reflected concerns about the lack of public recreational spaces in Los Angeles and dwindling public access to the coastline. This paper also compares Cabrillo Beach to the histories of other communities where public and private interests competed for control of the coastal landscapes, specifically to the battle over the coastal zone in Baja California, Mexico. During the late 1970s, an influx of Americans leased new homes along the coast of Baja California. The Mexican government endorsed the increase in tourism to the area for the economic benefits while also trying to prevent Americans from permanently living within fifty kilometers of the beach in “Zona Prohibida.” By comparing the battle over Cabrillo Beach to the disputes over the Mexican coastal zone, this paper examines relationships of race, class, and space as citizens, institutions, and capital competed to answer the question: “who owns the coast?”
Maya Peterson, Harvard: “Negotiating Empire in the Land of Seven Rivers: Environmental Change and Social Conflict in Russia’s Central Asian Borderland, 1905-1917”
This paper addresses environmental change and social conflict in the Russian province of Semirech’e – present-day Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan – in the early 20th century. It looks in particular at the Chu River Valley, examining the valley as both a physical place – a fertile region where nomads and agriculturalists shared abundant land and water resources – and an imperial space, a borderland where political boundaries were being contested and official categories challenged as various groups in the region negotiated the changes to the landscape and the map that came with Russian rule. Using Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Russian archival sources, particularly petitions, the paper highlights the complexities of human interactions in Semirech’e, relationships which cannot be characterized by binary oppositions such as “colonizer” versus “colonized” or “state” versus “subjects.” By focusing on the tensions over land and water resources in the region, the paper explores the ways in which a study of early 20th century Russian efforts to change the physical environment in Semirech’e can shed new light on the Central Asian uprising of 1916, yet it also emphasizes that non-Russian resistance to Russian rule is not the most appropriate way to approach state-societal relations in the Central Asian borderlands. Lastly, the paper examines Russian imperial rule of Semirech’e within the context of empire studies and seeks to determine the ways in which studies of the Russian frontier can speak to studies of other multiethnic frontier zones and the ways in which Russia can be incorporated into comparative environmental histories.
Panel 3: Extraction and Exploitation of Biological Resources
Radhika Govindrajan, Yale: “Bodies out of Place: State, Society and Animals in Modern India”
In this paper, I will examine early-twentieth century debates around game protection and wildlife conservation laws in British India to suggest that control over animal bodies was crucial to the making and exercise of state power in the region; From the turn of the century onwards, colonial officials charged with the task of amending game laws were centrally concerned with the question of ‘establishing property in game’; the body of the animal was to be claimed as the property of either the state or the landed gentry, and thus placed beyond ‘native access’. This project was fraught with complications right from the start, not least of which was the question of how exactly control over these bodies was to be established. Of the proffered solutions, the one that gained acceptance was the idea that the state would enjoy ownership of wildlife as long as it was confined/placed within a particular material environment, that of the forest. The ambiguity of this definition of property created numerous loopholes that the ‘natives’, much to the chagrin of colonial officials, were quick to exploit. However, I will argue that the animals in question also played an important part in subverting this project. As highly mobile individuals, these animals constantly slipped out of and transgressed human placements of them. As such, this particular project of statemaking provides a useful point of entry into a broader exploration of how animals destabilize, transgress and resist human attempts to order and control them.
Catherine McNeur, Yale: “The Business of Manure in Antebellum New York City”
New York City struggled endlessly with the cleanliness of its streets in the nineteenth century. The streets were so filthy that tourists questioned whether they were even paved. Street sweeping and garbage collecting was uneven at best and the city fathers constantly argued about the most efficient and cost-effective way of handling their odoriferous problem.
Amidst the cost and inconvenience of dealing with the growing city’s uncontrollable garbage problems, stood an amazing source of profit. The city was run, after all, by horses who left behind somewhere between 35 and 40 pounds of manure each day, a good amount of which was found on the public streets. The city jumped at the chance to turn a profit from all of this waste. Street sweepers swept manure into one pile and the rest of the city’s trash (ashes, kitchen scraps, leather, carcasses, etc.) into another. They then sold the valuable piles to manure dealers or directly to farmers in the surrounding region. The market gardeners who purchased the manure produced the vegetables and hay necessary to keep the city running. The city and its surrounding countryside developed, in essence, a mutually beneficial recycling system.
Horse manure was not the only urban fertilizer. A handful of companies emerged to turn human waste into poudrette—a dried, concentrated fertilizer that they hoped could compete with the more fashionable guano. Though some held prejudices against using human fertilizer on their crops, many farmers were eager to try something new and poudrette subsequently got much press in agricultural journals. The city was also eager to use this new industry to curb its problems with over-flowing privies.
This paper will examine the manure industry in the New York City region and look specifically at the ways the municipal government tried to manage its public health and sanitation issues while also turning a profit. It will also examine the ways that the city’s narrow focus on profitable garbage stymied grander attempts at sanitizing the city.
Gregory Rosenthal, Stonybrook: “Becoming Hawai’i, Becoming 檀香山 (The Sandalwood Mountains), 1790-1830”
Hawaiʻi’s first ecological crisis of the modern era, with the notable exception of the imported diseases that inflicted the native population, was the near depletion of sandalwood from the islands during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. A particular material culture, that of the Chinese and their desire for fragrant sandalwood for use as incense and as carved decorative objects, encouraged European and American trading companies already engaged in trade with China to see the Hawaiian Islands – originally merely a rest stop on transpacific voyages – as a potential supply of goods for China. In this way the sandalwood trade transformed the Hawaiian Islands, in a sense, into an ecological outpost of China; they became 檀香山, the Sandalwood Mountains. More than just an economic colony, however, the Hawaiian Islands also underwent their own redefinition during the sandalwood era as merchants and government leaders banded together to create new political, social, and environmental orders for the new kingdom. It was through alliances with foreign trading companies that King Kamehameha of the Big Island toppled the other islands’ governments and created a unified state at the dawn of the sandalwood era. King Kamehameha selected Honolulu as the seat of his new government in order to be in direct contact with the trade that in time would became a state monopoly. Hawaiian natives, referred to as kua leho, were conscripted as laborers to work on the sandalwood harvest. In short, during the period 1790-1830 Hawaiʻi experienced social and political conflict that arose in part from environmental change. This was a moment characterized by both an interisland process of becoming Hawaiʻi as well as a transoceanic process of becoming the Sandalwood Mountains.
Kallie Szczepanski, Boston University: “Land for the Lions, Land for the Cattle: The Cultural and Political Struggle for Amboseli, Kenya, 1948-1960”
Scarcity leads to conflict. Land shortages produce simmering tension; a water shortage, however, leads to immediate crisis. This process is playing out today in places as varied as Oregon’s Klamath Valley and the Darfur region of Sudan.
In colonial Kenya, the British created an artificial land shortage by moving local peoples off of the best land and awarding it to white farmers. In 1948, the colonial government carved Amboseli Park out of the Maasai people’s reserve lands, set aside under the earlier Anglo-Masai Treaties. The treaty terms reserved mineral and water rights to the crown. Thus, the Maasai owned the grass at Amboseli, but the government owned the water. When a multi-year drought during the 1950s added water shortage to the lack of land, tempers frayed on both sides.
The Maasai depended upon their cattle; likewise, the British earned income from wildlife safaris. In both cases, though, their concern for the animals went beyond pecuniary interest. British officials at Amboseli regarded some wild animals as if they were pets, naming individual lions or rhinos, and even posting birth notices for them in local newspapers. The Maasai people, while they respected wildlife, did not cherish it; both love and names were reserved for cattle.
During times of plenty, there was forage and water enough for both cattle and wildlife. When drought struck, however, conflict erupted between the human keepers. A geological miracle in 1957 brought vast amounts of water and good will to Amboseli, but it came too late for cooperation.