Problems of Place: An Unlikely Journey to Environmental History (and a Good Night’s Sleep)

If asked why I am an environmental historian, the simplest answer would be that I love sleeping. Prior to starting my PhD, I was a graphic and web designer, primarily for sites with nationwide child audiences and for state and public education organizations. I worked on several projects over the years that troubled my conscience and disrupted my sleep. I began researching ethics in marketing in an attempt to understand the laws that shaped my field. I was disturbed by what I found.

But designing for the American Birding Association, as I did for a number of years, I felt peace. I worked on their magazines—Birding and North American Birds—as well as their main website, and the one for Birders’ Exchange, their much-loved conservation program. My designs seemed to create peace not just for myself, but for others also. I had heard the debate among birders about the merits of “listing” versus “backyard birding” and other styles of birding. I saw a way to playfully resolve this debate through a tag line that would reveal these differences among birders as a strength for the birding community. So while designing the ABA’s blog page in 2010, I incorporated the phrase, “A million ways to bird…” into my design mock-ups. I figured at some point it would be replaced. Instead, many people said they loved it. The phrase stuck, and it remained on their blog for ten years as the tag line until recently, when the blog was formally archived. These projects let me sleep peacefully at night.

That year, 2010, was also the year of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The ABA sent one of my co-worker’s former colleagues from Evergreen State College, Drew Whelan, down to the coast to provide first-hand reports on the effects of the oil spill on birds, habitat, and coastal fishing operations. Being this close to the source of information, and designing the platform that made it public, gave me a literal and heartbreaking bird’s eye view of these events as they unfolded. For a time I still slept well at night, in the belief that my work was accomplishing something good. But then, this project began to interfere with my sleep in a different way. It was no longer enough for me to just create designs for this information. I needed to write about it.

I started a blog called “The Oiled Feather,” with the tag line: “Can a single feather become the last straw?” In my posts, I investigated environmental issues. I wrote about oceans, and plastic, and of course petroleum products. The more I learned, the less I slept and the more concerned I felt. Within a few months, I knew that I needed to write more than a blog. I needed to learn more about these issues, and write books. And a dissertation.

A Northern Gannet found dead along the Louisiana Coast. Photo by Drew Wheelan (2010).
[Image description: a dead bird photographed from above against the wet sand, and fully covered in oil.]

As Drew sent us reports and photographs day after day of dying birds covered in oil, debates roiled in the national media about what had caused the spill. As I watched Drew’s video showing the oil on a single feather, his statement, “There’s no surviving that,” sent me over the edge somewhere inside. There were many perspectives, of course, but I was disturbed by the idea coming out in the media at the time that if we, as a public, wanted to eliminate oil spills and the costs and risks involved, then we, as consumers, should simply stop buying oil. Aside from the practical issues this proposal would raise for millions of Americans—it is not that easy to move an entire society from one type of fuel to another—this idea raised an ethical concern for me as well. I had learned through my research in ethics in marketing that businesses expect consumers to research products before purchasing them, so that they will know the consequences of using a product and be able to make an informed decision about whether to buy it. As the theory goes, consumers are ethically responsible for the consequences of their buying choices. If consumers conclude that a product is not safe, then they will not buy it and then producers will stop producing it. If this theory works—and many argue that it doesn’t—it often does so very slowly and at the expense of many lives and of the environment, and transition costs often fall disproportionately on those with fewer resources.

But what bothered me most about this theory was that children are consumers, too. I know because I was being paid to market to them. So then, if consumers were responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, were children responsible for it as well? These questions haunted my mind. If we, as marketers, groom children to become future customers of particular goods and services, then when do they become responsible for the consequences of the purchases we have taught them to make? 

It might be easy to assume that someone on the political left would ask these questions, but I was raised in the Midwest by staunch conservatives. Based on much of the rhetoric and policy we see on the right today regarding oil drilling and natural resource use, it might be easy to assume that I would be the last person who would ask questions about environmental issues. And in fact, because of my line of work, I was essentially getting paid not to ask them, and instead to produce work that sometimes compromised my sense of ethical responsibility. But the pieces of my life had collided to create a moral dilemma that disturbed my sleep, and that I could not resolve without developing a more informed and complex view of our world and our place in it. At the time of the spill, my daughter was a year old. I wanted to know how we had become the kind of society that could tacitly hold its children responsible for the world we were leaving for them. My right-wing upbringing, which touts personal responsibility as the best and first solution to societal ills, told me that I could not expect my child to take responsibility for my choices. This was our problem—my problem—to face and fix, not hers. Not our children’s.

And so, though very few people go to grad school in order to get more sleep, that is exactly what I did. When I encountered the field of environmental history while reading Killing for Coal and Uncommon Ground during my Master’s coursework at CU Denver, I knew I was home. These scholars wrote about the way humans have interacted with and shaped the earth, how the earth has responded, and how humans have understood and experienced nature across the globe throughout time. This field was the perfect place for me to explore the questions that had disrupted my sleep—and my life. It is no small irony that I turned to environmental history to question the effects of an oil spill while burning copious amounts of gasoline driving three hours round trip to grad school twice a week. Fueled not just by oil, but by these moral dilemmas and my fierce and unflappable grit, I moved to California to start my PhD in Environmental History at UC Davis. As the mother of a young child, working multiple jobs in teaching, research, and design for the state of California and others, while also working on my research, I have often lost sleep. But the sleep I do get is profoundly peaceful.

I am now writing my dissertation on patience and the art of “buying time” in negotiations over taxes, crime, and property in San Francisco in the nineteenth century. This topic may not sound like one that an environmental historian would pursue, but it is profoundly environmental in every respect. In fact, my research gets to the heart of the matter. Not only do I focus on the way rain and cold and changes of season affected decisions people made, but the whole purpose of my work is to evaluate the way these individuals understood the land they were settling. If we want to know how a group of people shaped land or utilized resources, we need to understand how they saw that land, the debates they had about it, and the legal and extra-legal structures they created to own, manage, and manipulate it. I marvel at the hubris of those who attempted to reshape the San Francisco waterfront even as sections of new, filled-in “property” floated away overnight. Eventually they succeeded but, as an environmental historian, I have learned that these so-called successes are often fleeting and precarious, hard to maintain, and come at great and invisible costs. These efforts to reshape the land certainly involved immense material effort, but California was settled as much through words, law, and governance as it was through physical conflict between individuals, or between humans and land, air, water, and other species. Those who came to California in the mid-nineteenth century debated the ownership and uses of the land and resources they were settling, just as our society debated these things during the Gulf oil spill. The impact of these debates has had profound and permanent effects.

Just as there are “a million ways to bird,” there may also be a million ways to live in a landscape, but unlike birding, not all of these ways have positive long-term effects. It is important that we develop discretion in negotiating which ways will support our needs and responsibilities as residents of our breathtaking planet. We may not achieve consensus on these points, but it should be our aim to try. Environmental history helps us understand more about how we live in our environments and build dialogue and constructive criticism—not just of others, but also of ourselves—about how we will share land and resources, and how we will shape the environments we live in and leave to future generations. These are the underlying questions that drive global policies on immigration, trade, war, poverty, and almost every issue that faces us today.

Even through I realize that my work cannot possibly solve these problems, I feel that I am at least living more in line with the values that I hold. Participating in this work somehow allows me to sleep at night. I hope I will be able to tell my daughter, someday, that I have done all that I can to address the challenges that our society currently faces. I hope others will find in environmental history the tools they need to do the same.

*Cover image: Blue heron uses oil boom as a hunting platform in Mobile Bay on the Alabama Gulf Coast. This boom was deployed to prevent the oil spill from entering a wildlife refuge. Photo from iStock.

[Cover image description: a large wading bird standing on a boom that lays in open water.]

Edited by Alyssa Kreikemeier, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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