Friday, July 2, 2010

Not Seeing the River for the Trees

Below is the text of my presentation proposal for the American Society of Environmental History's 2011 conference in Phoenix, April 12-17:
    "Not Seeing the River for the Trees: How Place Fostered and Constrained Human Actions Along Oregon’s Willamette River"
    Many historians[1] have clarified how central is a sense of place to environmental advocacy: People identify strongly with their homes, communities, and regions, and when environmental quality declines, residents often push for technological, regulatory, and cultural changes.
    Equally important as a sense of place is the actual place. Matthew Klingle and Coll Thrush, in complementary analyses of Seattle’s history, show that the efforts of Euro-American settlers did not compel the region’s environment nor its original inhabitants to behave strictly in accordance with the newcomer’s schemes. Instead, these schemes significantly degraded the region’s environment.
    Not all environmental history narratives, however, adequately address how the specific attributes of a given local environment inspire, inform, facilitate, and constrain actions. Focusing on water pollution within a particular watershed makes apparent important points relevant to broader environmental topics. Without a doubt, policy, technology, and values are critical to understanding twentieth-century pollution abatement efforts within Oregon’s Willamette River watershed. However, these elements are not to be foregrounded at the expense of the river itself, because it has not been an undifferentiated, passive stage upon which unfolded the human drama.
    The Willamette is not an historical agent on par with engineers, policy makers, advocates, and industrialists. Nevertheless, understanding unique geologic and hydrologic characteristic and climatic conditions shows how a specific river system simultaneously fostered and constrained human activities, and how human-wrought changes modified the system and re-calibrated the range of possible actions. Some of these characteristics are rooted in the region’s deep geologic history; others are found in the ways in which Kalapuyans and Chinooks managed the valley’s environment. The core narrative, however, centers on how Euro-American settlers drastically modified the watershed after the 1850s, and how scientific understanding into the 1960s provided the data necessary to support groups pushing for further exploitation and those advocating abatement.

I'm now waiting to see if it gets accepted; I should hear something back by Sep. 30, 2010.

If it is accepted, it will give me a great opportunity -- and a strict deadline -- in which to dig deeper into the dynamic I illustrate in the text of my proposal, and then to receive feedback on what I present. This will all help me work-through some intellectual issue relevant to my book.

If it is not accepted, I'll still be doing the work, but won't have the benefit of comments from my peers. Plus, I won't have the impetus provided by the conference deadline.

[1] Samuel Hays, for example, finds that regions with iconic topography have tended to be at the forefront of twentieth-century environmental legislation, Adam Rome locates environmental advocacy in the post-war suburbs, and David Stradling brings to our attention women in late-nineteenth-century industrial cities who worked to abate air pollution that despoiled their homes.


1 comment:

  1. On Friday, Sep. 3, I received notification from the ASEH program committee that my proposal was accepted! Now it's time to get to work. I'm going to get in touch with experts in hydrology at Oregon State University to learn more about the nuts-&-bolts of the complexities of the Willamette River system so that I can discuss this science in relation to changes to the river that Euro American settlers wrought, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Fun!!