Panel 1: Landscape and Representation
Jeffrey Egan (UConn), “Conserving Land and Memory at Boston’s Quabbin Reservoir, 1927-1985”
Abstract: During the 1930s, Greater Boston transformed the rural Swift River Valley of western Massachusetts into a vast metropolitan reservoir. To build this artificial lake—the largest in the northeastern United States—engineers designed two large earthen dams, planted ten million trees, and chopped and burned their way across the reservoir’s thirty-nine-square mile basin. In the process, they displaced 2,500 residents, removed 7,500 graves, and erased four towns—Enfield, Greenwich, Prescott, and Dana—from the map. Following this transformation, the watershed became a site for conserving both land and memory. The Metropolitan District opened the 120,000-acre region to scenic driving, fishing, and hiking and planted an expansive forest. Meanwhile, former residents of the Swift River Valley founded an historical society to memorialize their defunct towns and held reunions at Quabbin Park Cemetery—a facility built to reinter their ancestors.
One might imagine that former valley residents and their descendants would disdain Quabbin Reservoir, viewing it as the source of their families’ pain and suffering. This was true for some, but many came to admire this new landscape for its beauty and utility. At Quabbin, commemorating the lost towns and protecting this nascent recreational site became increasingly entangled. The story of Quabbin speaks to the unintended consequences of urbanization as well as the resilience of a rural community comprised of men and women who found dignity amid their own dispossession and came to celebrate the very landscape that displaced them.
Mohamed Gamal-Eldin (NJIT/Rutgers-Newark), “Surveying the Land: Towards an Environmental History of the Nile Delta under British Colonial Rule”
Abstract: In 1902 the Survey department in Egypt moved from the Ministry of Public Works to the Ministry of Finance, where the tome, Geographie Economique et Administrative de l’Egypte was compiled by Ahmed Mazloum, the Minister of Finance. Can this work be used to tell an environmental history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Nile Delta? Does a text which located every taxable item in the Nile Delta provide a lens into the complex interplay between animals, agriculture, humans, capitalism and the environment? It was part of a system tasked to collect knowledge of the colonial landscape that included maps, photographs and data to quantify and discipline. Colonialism was a regime centered on extracting as much from the land, agriculturally and from taxation. The text moves from the scale of village to province creating a detailed inventory of the lands in the Nile Delta. Besides the human, every animal, grain, foodstuff, plant is counted. Photographs were a tool in colonial sciences repertoire used to capture, in the colonizers view, timeless and eternal snapshots of life. Livestock, irrigation technology, marshes, lakes, and peoples become part of the surveys purview. These photographs help build a detailed environmental history of the Delta. Overlay a map from the Survey Department with a catalog of all taxable items like Moazalem’s, what narrative appears? These three different archival materials (Map, Survey and Photographs) demonstrate the expansive nature of the British colonial project in Egypt. It highlights the incessant need to collect and catalog, to control the market and squeeze out every morsel. Yet, it also tells us about the environmental history of the region. The variety of canals, their maintenance and the movement of water. In addition, the type of agriculture sown and animals raised paints a vivid picture of towns and provinces.
Emma Young (NYU): “Tebas and the Chafariz da Misericórdia: Water and Urban Life in Nineteenth-Century São Paulo”
Abstract: This paper examines the relationship between slavery and urban water supply in nineteenth-century São Paulo, Brazil. In this city on the cusp of its meteoric industrial development, enslaved Afro-Brazilians laid the foundations of for a water infrastructure system and supplied private residences with this essential resource. By analyzing the city’s first fountain, the Chafariz da Misericórdia, and its creator, enslaved architect Joaquim “Tebas” Pinto de Oliveira, I emphasize the environmental origins of urban public surveillance and systemic racism in São Paulo. I look at water infrastructure development over nearly a century, from the fountain’s creation in 1792 to 1877, the founding year of the city’s first water company, the Companhia Cantareira de Águas e Esgotos. This long-term analysis of São Paulo’s developing water system offers new possibilities for emphasizing the roles and perspectives of enslaved Afro-Brazilian aguadeiros—water-bearers—who both labored and socialized at fountains and urban reservoirs. Municipal authorities came to interpret water sources as sites of danger and deviance because of their importance to the social and economic lives of enslaved Afro-Brazilians. A socio-spatial analysis highlights the undercurrents of pervasive environmental inequality vis-à-vis water supply that would come to define São Paulo in the twentieth century. I argue for the utility of environmental analysis in examining long-term structures of exclusion or inclusion from citizenship, public and private spheres, and archival silences.
Panel 2: Resources and Infrastructure
Keri Lambert (Yale): “’We Must Have Every Ounce’: The Gold Coast Rubber Campaign during the Second World War”
Abstract: When the Second World War broke out in 1939, African colonies produced barely over one percent of the world’s supply of rubber. But in early 1942, Africa’s position in the world market for rubber changed dramatically after the fall of Southeast Asia to Japan, when Allied forces scrambled to identify and exploit alternative sources of the essential commodity. Thereafter, the production of rubber became of first importance to the Gold Coast war effort. This paper considers the Gold Coast rubber campaign not as a fleeting wartime initiative or a purely economic undertaking, but a social, political, intellectual, and environmental operation that had enduring legacies for the Gold Coast and, later, Ghana. The drive to extract as much rubber as possible from the Gold Coast expanded new forms of state and foreign involvement in remote areas, altered Gold Coast environments and knowledge thereof, and generated senses of both possibility and dejection among forward-thinking African farmers, traders, and investors. This paper attempts to invert the gaze of its source material, mostly written from the perspectives of the imperial administration and the colonial government, to tell a more ground-up social and environmental history of the Gold Coast and the Second World War. As Africans in the Gold Coast engaged in the rubber drive, they not only were producing a commodity essential to the Allies’ victory, they were also cultivating for themselves a critical awareness of British subjection and visions for a sovereign, secure future.
Philip Wight (Brandeis): “No Refuge: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and the Industrialization of the Arctic”
Abstract: For decades prior to the 1968 discovery of Prudhoe Bay— North America’s largest oilfield— the U.S. Navy and oil industry sought to extract petroleum from Alaska’s North Slope but ran into a perennial problem: the enormously-expensive and environmentally-daunting challenge of transporting Arctic crude to market. A consortium of the world’s largest oil firms ultimately overcame this problem by constructing the eight-billion dollar Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), the world’s most expensive private-capital infrastructure project. The realization of this Arctic artery forever altered the state of Alaska, the peoples of the North Slope, and the global circumpolar environment.
This paper explores how the pipeline incentivized “upstream” oil production and facilitated the industrialization the American Arctic. With the anticipated construction of the pipeline, areas previously considered protected, too remote, or economically marginal were suddenly viable for hydrocarbon development. This silver snake provided the essential access for sustained and expanded Arctic hydrocarbon extraction. Throughout its forty-year history, the pipeline fueled the creation of an oil province the size of Delaware and the spider-web sprawl of drill pads, gathering lines, and processing facilities. Like all energy infrastructures, TAPS exerted a profound environmental impact beyond its narrow physical footprint.
Zachary Bennett (Rutgers): “’We Desire the Benefit of the Fish’: Colonial Dams and the Dispossession of New England’s Native Peoples”
Abstract: Many Native Americans living in New England after military defeat still owned land and held economic, if not political, autonomy. Their strategies for maintaining that autonomy revolved around securing their traditional rights to natural resources. Native peoples interpreted access to fish runs as intimately tied to their property rights and fought vociferously within the colonial legal system to ensure their continuance. Through willful neglect, the British imperial state failed to protect Native American access to rivers by permitting the construction of large dams or overfishing. I show that sapping rivers of their life-sustaining fish acted as a powerful agent of dispossession on Native peoples, who were already quite poor. Although Native rights to river fish were guaranteed in treaties, they were hard to enforce because those fish were not clearly defined in the British property regime. The slippery legal categories river fish slid through made it quite difficult to enforce the laws designed to protect them and litigate offenders. I will present two episodes from my dissertation to demonstrate this phenomenon. The first recounts a little-known 1738 dispute on the Charles River between Natick Indians and dam owners in Watertown, Massachusetts. The second episode covers attempts by Wabanakis to implement conservation measures on the Saco River in the 1720s.
Panel 3: Power and Expertise
Anna Feuer (Yale): “Battling the Landscape: Counterinsurgent Innovation and Rebel Adaptation in Vietnam and Laos”
Abstract: This paper draws on declassified U.S. Air Force reports documenting the deployment of remote sensor technologies during the Vietnam War to show how modern counterinsurgency forces attempt to circumvent or eliminate environmental challenges. As part of Operation Igloo White, the U.S. military positioned thousands of sensors, designed to resemble weeds and animal droppings, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to detect North Vietnamese truck convoys. Yet the utility of the operation was quickly undermined as insurgents learned to adapt to the new technology, using tape recordings, water buffalo, and other decoys to fool the sensors. Igloo White is illustrative of what, I argue, is a characteristic dynamic of counterinsurgency wars: as counterinsurgents develop ever more sophisticated techniques to reduce or eliminate the “friction of terrain” in foreign theaters, rebels use their intimate knowledge of the landscape to exploit the limits of counterinsurgents’ technologically-mediated vision. Technologies that map the battlespace from a distance render landscapes seemingly legible while protecting soldiers from enemy fire, but the substitution of remote sensors for the eyes and ears of ground forces produces technological dependencies that, in turn, become vulnerable to insurgent ingenuity.
Sarah Carson (Princeton): ““Stubborn, Wayward, and Uncertain”: Rationalizing the South Asian Monsoon, 1886-1930”
Abstract: This paper examines the most controversial of the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD’s) activities: long-term (seasonal) forecasting for the South Asian region. Responding to imperial anxieties and international pressure following deadly famines, in 1886 scientist-bureaucrats commenced annual issue of monsoon predictions months in advance and focusing on merely one variable: rainfall. As IMD reports and records show, this novel endeavor involved coordination of rainfall registration systems at the provincial level, calculation of statistical normals, numerous experiments with forecasting methods, and reluctant public dissemination. But throughout these decades, the major object of this study—the monsoon, itself partly constructed in culture and language—slipped in and out of focus, its scientific and societal boundaries unsettled. Even when precisely defined, the phenomenon eluded official pre-vision. Widely publicized forecasting failures undermined the local authority of the institution and its scientific practices—far from a dominating “tool of empire,” the forecast made British designs to rationalize tropical nature appear vulnerable, even foolish. Additionally, certain South Asian figures criticized general monsoon predictions’ utility for decision-making on regional or local scales. To probe the complex entanglements of geography, institution-building, imperialism, prognostication, and atmospheric phenomena in this case study, I highlight repeated controversies in the production and reception of the printed forecast between 1886 and 1930, as they played out within the imperial administration and in South Asian newspaper headlines. I argue that although the seasonal forecast was the most compelling justification for the IMD’s national and global importance, its limitations weakened popular trust in modern meteorology.
Elizabeth Hameeteman (Boston University): “The Water Rights Revolution: Constitutionalizing Environmental Protection in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts”
Abstract: The first Earth Day inspired the state legislatures of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts to add environmental rights to their respective constitutions. Even though some other state constitutions addressed policies in environmental protection before this pivotal moment in 1970, these two states were the first to explicitly declare a human right to water in the wake of the Clean Water Act. But with so much environmental activity happening on a national level, why did activists care to focus on state constitutions? And what was happening in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts that led to water being such a focus?
The 1960s and 1970s saw an unprecedented outburst in federal environmental regulation. Yet despite this being a period of heightened national attention to environmental issues, activists still lobbied to also include environmental protection rights on a state level. Such provisions not only required the responsible management of particular state-owned lands or resources, but also mandated that state legislatures combat issues revolving water pollution and environmental degradation. The environmental bills of rights were products of their particular political contexts and reflect both the policy concerns and political tactics of those who advocated for them. Activists in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts attempted to establish state constitutional rights in order to enable public interest litigation on behalf of the environment as well as to secure environmental safeguards. Such rights signaled a new era of environmental protection and, at the brink of that era, environmental organizations claimed primacy for their political projects.
John Hayashi (Harvard): “Fluid Borders: Building a Transnational Dam in Japanese Taiwan, 1911-1930”
Abstract: Upon its completion in 1930, the Wushantou Dam in southwestern Taiwan was among the largest in the world. Built by the colonial Japanese government as the centerpiece of a massive irrigation system, it brought water through subterranean tunnels to be retained behind an earthen embankment and await distribution to rice and sugar plantations. In modern-day Taiwan, the dam survives as useful infrastructure, colonial legacy, and evidence of its chief engineer’s vision and resourcefulness. Yet it also represented the confluence of transnational flows of expertise, technology, capital, and raw materials. My paper fleshes out these flows through examining how Japanese imperial bureaucrats traveled to observe hydraulic engineering projects everywhere from the Panama Canal to sewer systems in the Dutch East Indies, and subsequently made these technologies useful for agricultural development in Taiwan. In their travels, they drew lessons both concrete—how to move earth with Bucyrus steam shovels—and abstract—how to link dramatic hydraulic interventions to broader projects of colonial rule. The Wushantou Dam was an opportunity to apply these lessons, and through its halting construction, these bureaucrats and engineers built a high-tech irrigation system to feed input-intensive, homogenized agriculture. Meanwhile, American consulting engineers employed by the colonial government came to Taiwan, and later brought knowledge about its peculiar environment and engineering challenges back with them to the United States. Using archival materials from Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, I examine Wushantou both as a site of knowledge production and as a source of hotly-contested social and ecological consequences. In its material and transnational framing, my paper suggests a history of modern engineering that is grounded in a particular site’s materiality but not constrained by political borders.