Liveblog: Environment, HASTS 25th Anniversary Event

Events,Liveblog November 11, 2013 12:18 pm

Screen shot 2013-11-15 at 6.35.19 PMCo-written with Shreeharsh Kelkar, with additional help from Amy Johnson and photos by Ashawari Chaudhuri, Amy Johnson, and Lan Li.

In her Welcome speech for the HASTS 25th Anniversary celebration, Deborah Fitzgerald started with a plea.  Working in the “belly of positivism,” it’s not easy being a science studies scholar at MIT.  But fortunately, we’ve been able to become the best–and only–program of our kind.  History, Anthropology, and STS. “The program was never quite tidy or quite tame,” and sometimes it still feels a bit unruly, always full of surprises.


The first panel, Environment, is chaired by Nicole Labruto and moderated by Nate Deshmukh Towery.

Etienne Benson (‘08): A History of “The Environment”

Meg Hiesinger (‘07): Taking My Degree Outdoors: How HASTS Is Influencing Hands-On Sustainability in Southern California

Anya Zilberstein (‘08): “A Temperate Empire: making Climate Change in Early America”


Etienne Benson (‘08)  A History of ‘The Environment’

AC_Etienne Benson

This talk is an introduction of a work in progress centered around the question, “What is the environment?”

Identifying himself as a historian of the environment and of the environmental sciences, Etienne explains that his field has been focused on words like “wilderness,” but oddly enough, not “the environment.”   “The environment” as environmentalists had used it (e.g Rachel Carson in Silent Spring) was an anthropocentric one.  Words like “the environmental” became more popular in the late 1960s, about the same time as the organization of the first Earth Day.

But Etienne suggests that perhaps this environment should instead involve multiple organisms and non-organisms.  Somehow “our environment” escapes questions like “Who’s environment?”

So, he turns his attention to the picture of an Eco-friendly toilet inscription. The Sloan Waterfree reads, “This facility is committed to protecting and preserving our environment…” But again, what is the environment?  Who does it belong to?   “You are helping the environment to conserve…” becomes reified expression detached from the community, an expression that isn’t necessarily something that surrounds humans, but is a particular subset of things.

When Etienne was teaching a class, one of his students told him that she wanted to study “the impact of climate change on the environment.”  But since when was the climate separate from the environment?  Contemplating this reification, Etienne is most interested in how this rhetoric, which still preserves the 1960s Silent Spring anthropocentrism, has been used by companies and other industries.  There is a kind of “human exceptionalism” that’s still alive and well among environmentalists, which is part of a failure to reflect deeply on the idea of the “environment.”


Meg Hiesinger (‘07) Taking My Degree Outdoors: How HASTS Is Influencing Hands-On Sustainability in Southern California

ACJ_Meg Hiesinger

Meg says that she is one of the few people who works outside of academia and her background has proved very valuable to her work.  Her interest from the beginning has been people’s relationship to place. At HASTS, her first project was on the Navajo nation and its relationship to uranium mining.  She then studied genetic engineering and the politics of food and did her dissertation on market change in Hanoi.  Her big questions are: “How can we live well in landscapes and parts of ecological systems that are not healthy?”  “How can we heal those places?”

She wasn’t sure what to do after her dissertation and moved to California where she found the same problems as anywhere else.  She started teaching at a nature school called Earthroots and ran a class called “Nature Connection” where she would use methods like mentoring and storytelling.  The school was founded by Tom Brown Jr. and Jon Young, both of whom were interested in “survival knowledge” and how knowledge about living well is passed down from parents to children.

Later, she came to a place called the Ecology Center where she is now the director of education programs of Eco Labs School.  There, she designs ways of communicating about ecological problems and solutions to kids that inspires them to change small but meaningful daily behaviors.  The purpose is to get people to implement change in their daily life and get feedback about it. She notes that her STS training helped her convey complex ecological narratives simply and clearly, which she thinks should be an important part of academic work.

At the Ecology Center, Meg’s daily work consists of training teachers, designing curriculum, organizing field trips, among other pedagogical tasks.  For instance, she organized a camp for pre-teen girls, a teacher training session on how to use a range of sensory modes to communicate with students, a surf contest, an interactive water foot printing exhibition that showed people how they used water, and a program called “Grow Your Own” which helps schools sustain their gardening programs.  She is currently working on a manual for teachers to help them develop their communication skills and use other methods of knowledge transmission.  Meg is happy to report that this is beginning to reach public schools, which suggests that this kind of work perhaps is not considered “too hippy” or “too alternative” anymore.


Anya Zilberstein (‘08) A Temperate Empire: making Climate Change in Early America

ACJ_Anya Zilberstein 2Anya, who lived in a shack in western Massachusetts before coming to MIT, introduces a new work in progress, starting with a map of the American colonial era.

In approaching this map, Anya returns to questions that had been a driving force in her dissertation: How did regional environments in the early modern New World shape colonial practices and the ways that natural histories (of birds, bees, air, land) were written?  How did regional environments shape agricultural practices?  How did “enlightened” practices of land management come to New England and Nova Scotia, which were fairly cold places?  While the popular materialist approach to environmental history tends to recreate past climates, Anya as a cultural historian is more interested in how climate factored into larger debates during the colonial period.

In the early modern period, Europeans were surprised to discover how environments on the same latitude were totally different. Settler has been searching for perfectly temperate environments that had four even seasons, tracing these locations on latitudes on the map. Even though people now explain describe the difference of various temperate zones, for some reason, the focus on latitude still survives.

In her book, Anya then looks at debates on climate, climate history, and climate change.  Settler colonies tended to use a kind of rhetoric that contributes to the main points of her book, which are:

  1. acclimatization schemes
  2. extreme (cold) climate denial
  3. material climate change (Samuel Williams, Thomas Jefferson)

To provide an example of the third case, or the way climate change was thought of materially, she uses this quote from Samuel Williams:

“The whole earth is less subject to extreme cold than it was formerly. Every climate has become more temperate, and uniform, and equal and this will continue to be the case so long as diligence, industry, and agriculture shall mark the conduct of mankind.”

– Samuel Williams, “Change of Climate in North America and Europe” (manuscript ca 1760)

After presenting the broad frame of the book, Anya traces the enduring continuities in rhetoric used to describe climate change from the colonial period to the late 20th century.  Since the colonial era, a series of “interesting ironic reversals” about what climate change meant were connected to shifting meanings of colonization and agricultural development during a period of “industrious” economic development before the Industrial Revolution.


Q & A

Anne Pollock (‘07) asks how the human organism figures in the environment in each of the three talks.  She asks if any of the panelists have thoughts on the popular (mis)conception today that the environment is “just the body that the genes operate in”.

Etienne: He’s been thinking seriously about the environment in biology during the 40s and 50s before the environmental movement.  In the 40s, the environment was seen as a crucible for genes, but then new ways of thinking emerged with Rachel Carson and the environment belonging to the community, which was followed by other shifts.

Anya: In the 19th century there was an intimate connection between places and bodies, or between air and bodies.  She is more interested in how ideas about the relationship between the body and climate (or the environment) were used by colonial regimes, such as the deportation of black labor to Nova Scotia.  The abolitionists hated this and used the material climate argument to insist that black people wouldn’t survive in such cold environments.

Meg: The body comes up in her work because she’s trying to show people that they’re not separate from the environment (which Etienne alluded to as a product of the environmental movement’s influence on culture).  They try to show people that choices they make have consequences, choices that are about their own bodies and behaviors.

Shane Hamilton (‘05) asks Etienne a very specific question. During the panels, he pulled out a Google n-gram of “environment” and “ecology.”  In looking at the relationship between the two, ecology and environment was used with the same frequency in the 1960s and 70s, after which “environment” takes off. What does he make of this relationship?

Etienne mentions that terms like “survival” had also been very popular during the establishment of Earth Day, which was around the same time when other environmental organizations were being established and using these words.  But “ecology” doesn’t center humans the way the “environment” centers the community, which might explain the use of “environment” over “ecology.” He then compares this to the European use of ecology.

Leon Trilling is particularly interested in Meg’s presentation because he is running a workshop with Native American children about certain methods that are “western” rather than methods that Meg uses which are derived from other kinds of ways of thinking.  He asks what this means in general.

Meg: The most interesting thing for her is to look at nature or organisms as models through a western scientific perspective to understand how they deal with issues like waste and efficiency (which could then be adapted to human activities).  She thinks that if one adopts this way of thinking, then this could be a way of thinking about “ancient” ways of knowing as well as more recent western technological practices in a more harmonious way.  The two ways of knowing need not be opposing.

The next question addressed to Etienne. Is a change in perspective where a sign at a urinal says “you are changing the environment” is trying to shift the definition of the environment to make us all conservationists whether we like it or not?

Etienne: There is a certain kind of technical environmentalism embedded in context of the urinal text.  No one has a choice but to use the environment-friendly toilet, which gives the facilities agency.  Still, this is only specific to this kind of corporate-industrial context.

Jessica Wang (‘95) mentions Timothy Mitchell on the invention of “the economy” and about how certain concepts get naturalized and assume power.  Can we understand the “environment” as a term in the way “economy” is a term?  What are the implications of this?

Etienne:  The “environment” is an unavoidable term. The question of whose environment has always been contested, but people who’ve used it have sometimes avoided answering exactly who it belongs to and who is part of it.  For instance, the phrase “our environment” was used a lot during the 1970s, but later significantly decreased.

Peter Shulman (‘07) asks Etienne if he’s thought about whether “environment” is used everywhere in the world in the same way as it is used in the United States.  He suggests that “ecology” has a boundedness that environment does not.  Is the later term’s use — in the all-encompassing sense — something of a more recent origin?

Etienne responds that he is only familiar with its usage in Euro-American context.

Lindy Biggs (‘87) suggests a different interpretation of Silent Spring.  She says Carson’s anthropomorphizing was very deliberate.  She asks if the panelists think whether this is right or not.  Her friends who are ecologists have told her that until a few years ago, ecologists used to not acknowledge the existence of humans in ecosystems; that is, until 2-3 years ago, there was a revolutionary presidential address that urged them to reverse this.  She asks: When did ecologists start to exclude humans as part of their studies?

Etienne: Ecologists typically study “pristine” environments; this was the gold standard for them.  But in the past few years, they’ve also started looking at urban and agricultural environments.  Regarding Carson, he agrees that her move was intentional and he doesn’t want to say that it was a mistake.  Carson does talk about the mutual “shaping” of the environment, but he says it may make us more human-centric and make humans more unique, which is his main problem with that conception.

Candis Callison (‘10) asks the panelists about the threads she sees among the talks, more focusing on what Meg is doing and the discourse of healing and survival.  How do these new discursive frames act as reflections of things we are noticing now of what has gone wrong?  What kinds of skills do we need to apply in order to heal?

Meg agrees that she’s been hearing a lot of words like “healing” and “repair,” and architects and chemists have been doing a lot of work on “sustainability” with the connotation of “keeping things as they are” instead of “repairing” or “healing,” or “regeneration.” In terms of this as a diagnostic, these words function in Meg’s work as a way of understanding relationships that allow us to live in a good way.

Wade Roush (‘94) asks what versions of environmentalism did the panelists bring to MIT and if by being here, in the belly of the beast, their conceptions of the environment transformed (because MIT is all about transforming the environment not conserving it).

Anya: She came in with a more “hippie” idea of nature, but after taking classes with Deborah and Roe, came to hold a more nuanced idea of the environment, that it is one being mutually shaped by humans and technology.  Her original idea was to do her dissertation on Eastern Europe because it was untouched, but Harriet dissuaded her from it, so she shifted to the 19th century which was better suited to her interests.

Meg: She too came in with a kind of “hippie” perception of things and though “western science” was the enemy.  At MIT, her thoughts took a 180-turn and she came to appreciate science more (somewhat similar to Anya’s transformation).  She also came to appreciate engineers and designers, for whom sustainability is a “hot topic” and does a lot of work on sustainability and the environment.

Etienne says he already came in with a sense of “ambivalence” towards environmentalism.  He was deeply skeptical of the means that were used, say, to track animals.  MIT “deepened his skepticism” especially towards technocentric environmentalism.  He thinks MIT still needs more voices to challenge this technocentrism.



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