Making Boring Things Unboring: ASEH 2017


Erstwhile guest contributor Kerri Clement (PhD student, CU Boulder) gives us her report on the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History that took place last week in Chicago.

After attending last week’s American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference, I struggled with how to recap my experience at the 2017 meeting. This writer’s block was due in part to the fact I don’t know how to distill the experience of what was a diverse and wide-ranging program into something that would not just be a chaotic celebration of scholarship. From topics on space junk, winds, capitalism, dogs, horses, mining, and education, to presidential roundtables on diversity and poetry slams, the list went on for pages. Looking at the program, I could not decide and was frequently torn with making the excruciating decision about which panel to attend. Over the course of the conference and from the panels and roundtables I attended, I noted several recurring themes that I’ll focus on here: the “animal turn,” excrement, education, and diversity issues.

As a self-styled animal historian, the numerous animal history papers gave me great joy. There were papers concerning sled dogs in the Arctic, horses in early modern England, cattle in Montana and Texas, and locusts in Oklahoma, to name a few. These papers ranged in species and time, but the overall sense is that the growing passion and range of animal topics are pushing the boundaries of the field of environmental history. The papers challenged ideas of geography and calories, the agency of the social structure of animals, and animal-human interactions. For example, Tim LeCain of Montana State University gave an excellent paper on how the social and biological makeup of cattle both enabled their slaughter and forced concessions from their handlers, or cowpunchers, who in some cases literally lived up to their name. Bathsheba Demuth of Brown expertly outlined how sled dogs’ caloric geography and social structure created hybrid borderlands by affecting sled construction, training, and canine interactions. The primary takeaway from many of these papers for animal historians is that when animals are the central topic, rather than in the periphery, they reveal their distinct agency to historians. The many animal panels were phenomenally innovative and I am quite excited for the future of the field.

Now on to the excrement. There were several excellent papers on water management, smells, and bodily functions that invited environmental historians to reconsider physical experiences as well as the history of atmosphere, winds, and water. Nonetheless, perhaps the “shittiest” part of the conference was during the Presidential Slam. This panel was composed of past ASEH presidents talking for 3 minutes or less about their experience and reflections as president. Many of the past presidents spoke and even did poetry (or puns), including Kathy Brosnan, Graeme Wynn, Marty Melosi, Stephen Pyne, Bill Cronon, and Carolyn Merchant. Several distinguished scholars reflected about their time as leader of the society and the future of the field. However, a distinctly memorable portion of the slam was Donald Worster’s challenge to environmental historians to consider the study of human excrement as a worthwhile topic. As one would imagine, this charge solicited uneasy giggles throughout the room, but as Worster then listed all of the intricate themes associated with studying poop — including human metabolism, waste management, and diet, to name a few — the topic took an analytical shape and the audience began to laugh in a more relaxed fashion. For Worster, studying human excrement presents an analytical opportunity to knit together a wide variety of topics and themes like economics, human social structure, biology, and anthropogenic impact on ecosystems through waste. Perhaps next year we will see more panels devoted to the metabolism and management of human waste, a previously neglected — albeit smelly — topic.


There were also several panels on education, at the level of both secondary schools and academia. These panels dealt with the question of how to utilize environmental history in both interdisciplinary teaching and standard history courses. The panelists sparked significant and productive conversations about lesson plans and activities, teacher training and undergraduate education, place-conscious education, and improving high schools and higher education. The panels explored options such as expanding outreach to secondary teachers through conferences, providing access to environmental history lesson plans, and maximizing opportunities for inter-disciplinary education. As a participant on a roundtable titled “Teaching EH in High Schools: Future Possibilities,” it was quite striking to see the expertise and opportunities of roundtable attendees come to life in our discussion. A theme that arose continually involved weighing environmental history (EH) in a high school classroom against other historical themes – race, class, gender, etc. That is, does EH distract from other categories? After several hours of this theme arising continually, the conclusion seemed to arrive at the answer that rather than distracting, EH enables and enhances the teaching of these other categories. This conclusion thus necessitates the environmental historian’s involvement in secondary education, whether by providing workshops for secondary teachers, visiting classrooms, conducting place-conscious educational field trips, or writing lesson plans. That being said, perhaps the greatest gift environmental historians have to offer secondary teachers is this simple question: how can we help?

Finally, perhaps the most invigorating charge to environmental historians woven through the conference concerned issues around diversity – both within the field as a whole and at the conference. From engaging Twitter conversations surrounding numbers of women presenting at conferences to the ethnic and gender makeup of ASEH, the most urgent conversations held in hallways, hotel rooms, and in post-panel huddles all concerned issues of diversity, particularly race and gender. These conversations were sparked in large part due to a presidential panel held on the second day of the conference that took diversity as its focus. The panel, made up of a wide range of scholars, raised points about inclusivity in environmental historical topics, behavior at conferences, and within the field as a whole. The topic of racial and gender diversity then continued to echo throughout the rest of the conference, in the hallways, restaurants, and book fairs. The panel identified not one solution, but rather the participants outlined several initial steps and the issues raised within this conference will hopefully plant the seeds to a more diverse and inclusive field in the future. The primary steps forward included encouraging gender diversity within the field and within ASEH as a whole, which out-going President Kathleen Brosnan identified as being crucial to the health of ASEH, encouraging and listening to minority voices and topics within the field, and simply “showing up” – a profound act and show of support.

As I am writing this, exhausted and horrifically behind in my work, I am already looking forward to next year. As a fledging graduate student, I felt equal parts energized and drained attending and presenting. Yet, personally, the takeaway from the conference is that the field of environmental history – whether the topics be animals, winds, mining, or excrement – is a thriving one, full of wonderful and passionate scholars, whose zest for the field (in some cases a literal field) will only serve to help environmental history grow as a discipline. If my experience at ASEH 2017 is any indication as to what it means to be an environmental historian, I am eternally grateful I chose this profession and field that is full of superb people and scholarship, and I hope I will have the opportunity to continue to attend every year for quite some time. As Bill Cronon concluded during his reflection on 25 years of “Nature’s Metropolis”:  “I want to take boring things and make them unboring.”

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