Friday, June 24, 2011

The End of the Holocene

Last month the Economist ran a cover story, "Welcome to the Anthropocene," discussing the startling idea that humans had so altered the Earth's surface, oceans, and atmosphere that they had actually inaugurated a new geological epoch. We are all familiar with the anthropogenic increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, but humans have introduced less well-known but no less profound changes to their physical environment: a 20% decrease in the amount of sediment discharged by the world's rivers, for example (thanks to 50,000 or so hydroelectric and flood-control dams), and a 150% increase in the amount of nitrogen transferred from the atmosphere to the soil (thanks to synthetic nitrates). Most of these changes are problematic, but they are all the consequence of creating a world economy and technosphere capable of supporting seven billion human beings. Turning back the clock to a "lower-impact" state - one should perhaps say "to the Holocene" - would require massive depopulation, which only a few idealists publicly favor.

As a historian, I have two questions about the "Anthropocene." First, when did this new geological epoch, if we may call it that, begin? One of the commentators on the Economist's website, "Callisthenes," argues that it may be difficult to identify a starting-point using geological rules, but the list of technologies the article provides allows us to identify some significant dates. The Haber-Bosch process of nitrate synthesis was demonstrated in 1909, the construction of large concrete dams began about 1880, and the takeoff in human CO2 production occurred in the latter half of the 19th century. 1900 would seem to be a good ballpark estimate, but it's fair to say that no-one living at the turn of the twentieth century realized they were bringing the Holocene to a close, just as a fair percentage of humans today would prefer to believe that nothing has changed since the world's creation (in 4004 BC, of course).

My second question is the standard historical significance question: so what? On the time scales most historians work with (a few decades, usually), the inception of a new geological epoch wouldn't seem to leave much of an impact. Taking the past ten thousand years of human history and prehistory as a whole, however, the Economist article suggests an answer to the question "Which was more significant, the Neolithic Revolution [the introduction of human agriculture] or the Industrial Revolution?" Insofar as the Industrial Revolution has reshaped the surface and atmospheric chemistry of the Earth and stamped its geological record, an Earth scientist who accepts the concept of an Anthropocene would argue it was more significant, and that the Neolithic Revolution was primarily important as the precondition for industrialization. Whether historians will be inclined to discuss the matter with their colleagues in the Geology department remains to be seen.

(Above image via

Sunday, June 19, 2011

An Empire, If You Can Define It

My friend Sydney Freedberg and I recently had an exchange on his website about the definition of the word "empire," and whether it properly applied to the United States. (This was apropos of an interview Sydney did with a Romanian news site on the NATO campaign in Libya.) One can follow the exchange here. Sydney defines an empire as a state with a "politically dominant, culturally distinct group" living in a core territory, and at least one ethnically distinct peripheral group with limited political rights. By this definition, the U.S. was an actual empire from 1898 to 1946, during its period of formal rule over the Philippines and establishment of protectorates over several Caribbean and Central American republics.

I think it's useful to have a limited definition of empire, if only because the term has become so widely and pejoratively used in the early 21st century as to lose its meaning. I would only add two caveats here. The first is that "empire" wasn't always pejorative; during the 18th century, for instance, it could merely mean "a large territorial state." As Peter Onuf points out in Jefferson's Empire (U. of Virginia Press, 2001, pp. 53-79) the first leaders of the American national republic frequently referred to the United States as an "empire." Indeed, Federalists discovered it was more politically useful to call the U.S. an "empire" than a "nation," since the latter implied that they wanted to create a consolidated national government (as their Anti-Federalist critics claimed).

The second caveat is that under Sydney's definition, the interstellar Empire in the original STAR WARS movies wasn't an empire, unless you count the Stormtroopers as the "core" ethnic group. Pretty much everyone else was an oppressed peripheral group. (In the prequel films, there was only one consistently oppressed subject race: the audience.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Best-Kept Secret in Chadron, Nebraska

During the past ten years I've visited three first-rate museums: the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, and the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska. The latter is a compact but richly-endowed and ably-interpreted archive of materials from the North American Indian trade: animal pelts, Indian handicrafts, European trade goods, models of pirogues and trade canoes, and restored 19th-century trading post. I had thought myself an expert, of sorts, on this subject, but I quickly learned that the museum's designers curators had much to teach me. Here are some of my more intriguing findings:

1) Deerskins, which I thought Europeans used primarily for breeches and gloves, could also be used as water-resistant coverings for bags and trunks.

2) When Indians bought tobacco from traders, they purchased it in highly-processed units: large spun ropes of "twist" tobacco and pressed bricks of "plug" tobacco, both commonly flavored with spices and molasses.

3) Point blankets, the large, water-resistant woolen blankets sold by the Hudson's Bay Company, whose vertical stripes (or "points") indicated their cost in beaver skins, were commonly sold in pairs. I had no idea why this was so until I actually saw a display of point blankets: each "pair" was actually a single double-sized blanket that storekeepers subsequently cut in half. British weavers supposedly made the blankets this way to minimize export duties on individual items.

4) Indians sometimes wore padlocks as pieces of jewelry, rather than using them as actual locks - a point one might remember when trying to view padlocks as evidence that Indians had abandoned the concept of communal property.

5) By the 19th century, the American fur trade had become not only an extension of the Atlantic economy, but the global economy. Plains Indians bought cowrie shells from the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, to decorate their clothing, and Northwest Indians sometimes bought Chinese camphor-wood boxes or coins ("cash") from European traders. This is a subject that I suspect (or at least hope) will generate a growing amount of research over the next couple of decades.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Jamestown Conundrum

Daniel Richter's new book, Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts (Harvard UP, 2011), is in some ways a sequel to his last monograph, Facing East from Indian Country. In that 2001 volume, Richter shifted the spatial alignment of American historiography, replacing westward-facing accounts of European territorial expansion with an eastward-facing narrative of Native American contact and survival. In his new work, the author tries to change the temporal orientation of American history, arguing that since most of that history occurred before 1776, we can quite usefully view the American Revolution as a culminating, rather than inaugural, episode. American history, as Richter presents it, grew like a series of geological or archaeological strata, each laid down by a particular group of Indians or colonists, each providing at least a partial foundation for its successors.

I've not had the chance to read and digest Professor Richter's book in its entirety, but I can attest to the success of its methodology regarding at least one perplexing colonial episode: the unlikely survival of the English colony of Jamestown. The behavior of Jamestown's early settlers was a puzzle to historians when I was in college: instead of planting corn and tending to their own livelihoods, the English colonists spent their time refusing to work and playing bowls on the village green. Following the lead of Edmund Morgan and Francis Jennings, Richter explains this lassitude was a consequence of the settlers' historically-determined expectations: they had come to Virginia not to work but to enrich themselves by exploiting indigenous labor, and justified this exploitation by spreading (in a nominal way) their brand of Christianity, like medieval Crusaders or Spanish conquistadors.

Richter goes on to attribute the colonists' actual survival to the "medieval," or more precisely Mississippian, mindset of the region's paramount Indian chief, Powhatan. Like other great chiefs, Powhatan derived much of his power from his control of trade routes and access to exotic goods, which the English clearly possessed in quantity. Thus, in return for gifts of copper kettles, swords, and other prestige-conveying merchandise, Powhatan proclaimed the English not "strangers...but Powhatans" (p. 125) - simultaneously extending his authority over them - and allowed them to reside on his confederacy's land and trade for food. The seemingly-useless metal smiths who accompanied the early Jamestown voyages became the colony's most important workers, making copper and iron tools to trade to the Powhatans for food. Periodically, during the Anglo-Powhatan wars of 1609-1614 and 1622-32, the English would conduct "harvesting raids" (as Frederick Fausz has termed them) against Powhatan villages for supplies, but otherwise the colony, like its contemporaries at Plymouth and Quebec, survived chiefly through Indian trade until the 1620s. This was not, Richter concludes, the consequence of design so much as an unconscious compromise between English desires to exploit Indian labor and Powhatan desires to acquire rare English goods at the lowest cost.

Whether the English ever invited the Powhatan Indians to play bowls with them, I know not. Perhaps.