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Panel 1: Transnational Commodities
William San Martín, “Writing a Transnational History of the Global Nitrogen Challenge” (MIT and UC Davis)
Abstract: The widespread use of nitrogen fertilizers during the second half of the 20th century revolutionized agricultural production and ecosystems in unprecedented ways. Accordingly, a major challenge for scientists and policymakers today is how to balance increasing nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) to meet food production demands while also protecting the environment. Using Chile as a case study—one of the highest consumers of N fertilizer per hectare in the Americas—this paper argues that Cold War politics were critical in shaping nitrogen consumption, science, and policy on a local scale. Within the Cold War context, a transnational network of scientists, agencies, and authorities created an institutional framework for the transference of knowledge and technology in Chile during the 1950s and 1960s. While decisive in expanding nitrogen science, fertilizer consumption, and the language and technologies of the Green Revolution during the 1960s, this framework was also crucial in the subsequent development of the science of nitrogen loss and its environmental impacts. However, radical anti-communist politics and market-based agricultural policies developed after Chile’s 1973 military coup dismantled formal communication channels between research institutions and policy-making agencies that would have been central in connecting the science of nitrogen loss with agricultural policies. Exploring the history of science, policy, and environmental change, this paper argues that a better understanding of the historical role of politics in shaping N science and policy is critical to increasing NUE and enhancing models of sustainable agriculture at local and regional scales.
Shaine Scarminach (University of Connecticut): “Of Borders and Boundaries: The United States, Ecuador, and the Ocean Environment”
Abstract: In January 1971, the capture of tuna by American fishermen near the Gulf of Guayaquil reignited a long-running dispute between the United States and Ecuador over tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean. This so-called “tuna war” partly reflected a growing tension between the United States and Latin American in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But it also formed one part of a larger struggle that emerged in the decades after World War II between developed and developing nations over territorial sovereignty, resource management, and economic development. Beginning with the Truman Proclamations in 1945 and ending with the signing of the 1982 U. N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, this paper argues that the failure of the United States and Ecuador to reach a bilateral agreement over access to fisheries had less to do with conventional issues of economics or security and more with the physical processes and cultural conceptions that informed official thinking on the Pacific Ocean. Using sources from both the United States and Ecuador, this paper surveys some of the key moments and contentious issues in a little-known episode of environmental diplomacy to demonstrate the difficulty of using the nation-state and national interests as a basis for solving global environmental problems.
Zachary Cuyler (New York University): “Assembling the Lebanese Oil Complex”
Abstract: This paper traces the assembly of the Lebanese oil complex’s physical and institutional infrastructure, in support of Lebanon’s role as a commercial intermediary between the Middle East and Western Europe, from World War One through the 1960s. Opening with Beirut’s growing importance as an increasingly fossil-fueled entrepôt city into the early 20th century, it shows how WWI both disrupted energy imports and encouraged the Ottoman military to construct automobile-friendly roads. It then examines how the French Mandate invested in infrastructure that supported Lebanon’s increasingly petroleum-dependent intermediary role, by extending road networks, expanding the port and building an airport at Beirut, assembling an oil-dependent electrical grid, and constructing a refinery at Tripoli. Proceeding to the construction of the Iraq Petroleum Company and Trans-Arabian oil pipelines, which made Lebanon into an oil transit state, the paper concludes with Lebanon’s postwar emergence as the primary hub for flows of oil, capital, goods, and people between the West and the Persian Gulf. Though it differs substantially from the Nigerian context in which Michael Watts coined the term, the Lebanese oil complex dramatically shaped Lebanon as an entrepôt state, and deserves scholarly attention. This project seeks to challenge Lebanese nationalist historiography by denaturalizing the country’s entrepôt role, and will open up a novel investigation into the political economy of oil transportation and consumption in the Middle East.
Panel 2: Living Empires
Christopher Blakley, “Exchanges in Flesh and Bone: Nonhuman Animals in the Atlantic African Slave Trade”
Abstract: This paper questions how factors for the Royal African Company (RAC) used animals - cowries, livestock, and megafauna - as gifts and currency to purchase enslaved people at forts across West Africa from 1681 to 1738. Asking how exchanges of animals between Atlantic African and English traders facilitated slave sales reveals how a European discursive equivalence of slaves and animals in the Atlantic world derived from everyday material interactions. Moreover, focusing on transfers of captives and animals, and the equation of humans and nonhumans throughout the Atlantic slave trade, expands the frame of ecological imperialism, which until recently has situated animals primarily as portmanteau biota. Using natural histories, correspondence, and journals from James Island (Gambia River), Bunce and York Island (Sierra Leone), and the Gold Coast (Dixcove, Sekondi, and Cape Coast), I demonstrate how the RAC used animals to build and sustain more-than-human networks of slave trading. Trade in war horses, for example, whose fearsome size and speed enabled the expansion of inland slave raiding networks, intensified trade in captives on the coast. Other kinds of human-animal exchanges abounded: the ceremonial presentation of animals as gifts, the establishment of animal currencies, and the circulation of descriptions of West Africans as being animal-like. Uncovering how slave traders used animals to open networks of exchange in Atlantic Africa enriches our understanding of the human-animal engagements that drove the expansion of the British Empire in the early modern world by demonstrating the diverse contexts and modes by which animals could become “creatures of empire.”
Owain Lawson (Columbia): “The Observers: Science and Labor on Experimental Farms in Egypt, 1904-1914.”
Abstract: This paper examines the history of two experimental farms outside Cairo operated by the Khedivial Agricultural Society (KAS) between 1904 and 1914. It explores the interrelated local practices, intracolonial exchanges, and global networks through which the farms produced credible science and new lifeforms: uniform and proprietary cotton seeds. In 1904, KAS botanist Lawrence Balls pioneered research into Mendelian heredity in cotton plants. This cutting-edge research linked the KAS farms to experimenters, businesses, and colonial agencies globally. On the scale of the colony, the British colonial Agriculture Department attempted to use these farms’ uniform seeds to standardize and monopolize the Egyptian cottonseed trade. These global and regional exchanges relied on fastidious local control over the farm’s borders and a racialized division of scientific labor. Balls predicated his methodology on the availability of cheap Egyptian scientific labor, drawn from local fellahin [peasants]. In their publications, the KAS portrayed these laborers as neutral components in an epistemological apparatus: a means to know nature, incapable of scientific knowledge themselves. Simultaneously, Balls promoted the farms as model pedagogic spaces to develop the fellahin’s “natural gifts” as cotton-cultivating colonized subjects. I argue that examining these process across multiple scales underscores the imprecision of the concept “colonial science,” but that this critique must not obscure how they generated or reproduced colonial power relations.
Hannah Anderson (UPenn): “Lived Botany: Household Labor, Healing and Ecological Adaptation in Early Philadelphia”
Abstract: My paper examines how settlers in colonial Philadelphia developed new practices and beliefs concerning nature as they accumulated in-depth knowledge of the plant life, terrain and climate of their local environments. Early Philadelphians’ relationships with nature were shaped by folklore and religion, but the household, I contend, was a key site where the meaning of plants was concocted. The labor performed within the household using plants, including the preparation of sustenance and the creation and application of medicinal substances, influenced the ways in which settlers identified, named, and assessed the flora around them. Plants also attained symbolic significance as they changed the local landscape. Although historians have argued that colonists had adjusted to their adopted places by the eighteenth century, I demonstrate that they continued to struggle with a terrain that remained mysterious and challenging. I draw upon recipe books, maps, diaries, and memoirs to trace the evolution of Philadelphians’ understandings of nature as they watched the city both expand westward and increase in density and as they confronted the spectacle of invasive plants escaping from gardens to perform their own colonization of the settler landscape. My paper thus reveals that colonists came to comprehend and use unfamiliar plants and places in ways often incongruous with the metropolitan scientific categories that many historians have overwhelmingly focused on thus far.
Panel 3: Nature by Design
Ian Stevenson (Boston University): “This Is Not a Wilderness Area”: Cape Cod National Seashore, the National Park Service, and Hybridity”
Abstract: In 1961 President Kennedy signed legislation authorizing Cape Cod National Seashore (CCNS). Congress for the first time appropriated funds to the National Park Service (NPS) to appropriate private land. The moment culminated decades of dispute between those who heralded the preservation of a rare, “unspoiled” Atlantic coastline expanse and those who reviled the incursion of federal authority into locally held lands. As the NPS expanded its network in the eastern United States, it attempted to demonstrate that “natural” landscapes existed there and that public benefit outweighed private ownership. Cape Cod’s outer shore offered an ostensibly salvageable environment, but local landowners countered the NPS’s nationalistic and naturalistic rhetoric with depictions of an already settled environment. At the conflict’s heart, concerned citizens, congressional leadership, and NPS officials confronted a hybrid landscape—partially natural, partially cultural—that did not fit neatly into the established NPS paradigm.
Hybridity as an approach to environmental history has gained traction, obviating declentionist approaches to landscape and human interaction. This paper applies hybridity both as methodology and subject matter in its argument that the CCNS debate fundamentally altered the NPS’s mission into preservation of overtly blended cultural and natural landscapes. Based on documentary evidence and the physical landscape itself, this paper exposes how the NPS accepted hybrid landscapes into its purview through congressional support. It also establishes how citizens came to understand hybridity not as anathema to the national park pantheon but worthy of inclusion.
Mateusz Falkowski (Princeton), “Adopting trees. Landscape and landscape transformations in sixteenth-century Ottoman Aintab”
Abstract: My paper addresses the local impact of climate change in early modern Ottoman Empire. I focus on the land use around Ottoman Aintab in the sixteenth century. Southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria experienced a prominent shift in land use in the period, as the decades following the Ottoman conquest saw gradual integration of the new lands into the imperial legal and economic frameworks, which shaped the rural landscape. Predominant grain production gave way to a combination of cereals, vineyards, vegetable gardens and orchards. Scholars have linked this transformation to new economic roles assigned by the central authorities to the region, (re)emergence of long-distance trade routes, and alternate legal arrangements governing access to land.
I consider a hitherto underestimated climatic factor, tentatively presenting the change in the region’s landscape patterns as induced by a combination of legal (human) and climatic (extra-societal) factors. Increasing instability of weather in the second half of the sixteenth century prompted people to reconsider their agricultural strategies and promoted investment in ‘weather-resistant’ arboriculture. I argue that periods of increased precipitation in an otherwise arid location allowed for the expansion of water-hungry agricultural activities. What for most during the onset of the Little Ice Age was a challenge, for people around Aintab proved to be an opportunity. My paper draws on Ottoman fiscal and court records and combines them with recent dendrochronological and palynological studies.
Yuan Chen (Yale ): “Frontier, Fortification, and Forestation: Defensive Woodland on the Sino-Nomadic border, 916-1123”
This paper examines the making and destruction of the 150-kilometer-long defensive forest in Hebei, the then borderland between China Proper and the nomadic Liao Empire (916-1125) founded by the Kitans in present-day north and northeast China. In 938, China Proper’s then Turkish emperor ceded the Great Wall fortification to the Liao, imposing dire menace on China’s northern frontier. Since its founding, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) planted hundreds of millions of trees in Hebei, creating a “green Great Wall” along the contested Sino-nomadic borderland. Praised as an achievement that would “benefit China for ten thousand generations,” this frontier woodland not only fended off nomadic invasions, but also supplied forest products for borderland residents. However, despite the Song government’s continuous effort to afforest its northern frontier, this green bulwark did not always retain its luxuriance. In the north, the Kitan troops attempted to denude the forest to encroach on the Song territory. In the south, Hebei commoners often overharvested the woodland beyond its carrying capacity. Moreover, some Song officials suggested removing this forest to make arable lands for local peasants, to eliminate hiding places of outlaws, or to clear paths for military moves. I will investigate how the Song’s domestic factional struggles and its diplomatic tensions with Liao inspired a continuous cycle of forestation and deforestation of the borderland forest, and use this case study to illuminate that China’s forest history is more complicated than a unidirectional, homogeneous process of declension.
Alison Laurence (MIT): Designing the Pleistocene: Past and Present at the La Brea Tar Pits”
Abstract: The La Brea Tar Pits, located in a bustling commercial district of Los Angeles, ostensibly offer an escape from modern, urban life. Since 1916, when the site was donated as a public park, the county’s natural history museum has overseen excavations, installed in situ exhibitions, and altered the park’s landscape in an effort to create, as officials described it in the 1920s, a “Pleistocene Park.” Their objective was not to reconstitute a Pleistocene ecosystem but a Pleistocene aesthetic.
In this paper I examine strategies deployed by the museum to create a Pleisto-scenic experience, examining how its designs evolved over the decades. Scale models of extinct megafauna, lush vegetation, and bubbling asphalt seeps have been constant components of this aesthetic. But how did the excavators and park visitors fit into the design? This version of the Pleistocene inherently admitted anachronism; still, park planners spilled ink debating just how Pleisto-scenic this public place could or should be. Therefore, I consider the museum’s designs alongside the ways in which the park’s public and urban natures disrupted the exhibited atmosphere. How has the museum dealt with modern interlopers? How has the public pushed back against the Pleistocene aesthetic? What persons and activities have been deemed appropriate or inappropriate, and by whom? Such a study participates in the timely conversation about who—and what—has access to the planet, Pleistocene or present.
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