On February 1st the Environments and Societies Colloquium began another exciting series of workshops that tackle the biggest issues of our time – climate change, environmental justice, resources stewardship – using a cross-disciplinary approach. The group’s commitment to collaborative, interdisciplinary scholarship is evident in the variety of visiting scholars presenting at the colloquium series.
The first presenter of the winter series was Andrew Isenberg. Isenberg, a Professor at Temple University, is an historian of the American west. Dr. Isenberg presented a new paper titled “Empire of Remedy: Vaccination, Natives, and Narratives in the North American West.”
The paper examines attempts to vaccinate Native Americans following the passage of the Indian Vaccination Act of 1832. Isenberg took an interest in this topic because it seems paradoxical that the United States would make a concerted effort to vaccinate natives in the West, given the violent history of American expansion.
The discussion addressed questions of state and imperial power, and uses this history of the American borderlands to rethink the relationship between imperial powers and native communities. Rather than assuming the United States confidently carrying out its “Manifest Destiny,” Isenberg wants to highlight the importance of fear and contingency in the history of the American West.
“Some of the most productive interdisciplinary conversations on campus take place in the Environments and Societies workshop,” said Mike Mortimer, the Graduate Student Researcher who has helped to organize this year’s E&S series. Commenting on the group’s collegial and collaborative approach, Mortimer continued, “senior scholars appreciate the incisive feedback on works-in-progress, while graduate students gain experience engaging colleagues outside their area of expertise.”
On February 9th E&S hosted Benjamin Morgan from the University of Chicago, whose article titled “Fin-du-Globe: On Decadent Planets” addresses a pressing question in our current debates on climate change: how to think on a global scale. Since James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the “Gaia Theory” in the 1970s, thinking in terms of global scales and in time-frames well beyond a human lifetime has been supposedly central to understanding the scope of the climate threat.
Morgan questions the usefulness of thinking in such large scales, whether on a planetary scale or across the thousands or years in which climate change is being measured. Morgan’s paper analyzes literature of the Decadent movement from the turn of the twentieth century, which emphasizes excess and artificiality, in order to show how these early global thinkers were already noting the apparent fragility of the globe by depicting the various ways that it might all come to an end.
In a twist from our current climate debates, Decadent writers more often imagined the end of the world through global cooling, but the fears of a planet that has grown old and run down echo fears of current climate scientists.
Environments and Societies is a UC Davis research initiative led by Louis Warren, the W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History, with affiliated faculty and graduates students from across the social sciences and humanities here at Davis. The goal of E&S is to “build cross-disciplinary collaboration in the environmental humanities and humanistic social sciences to undertake the broad rethinking of human nature interactions that are critical to meeting the environmental challenges of our era.”
The Environments and Societies winter series continues every Wednesday, from 4:00-6:00pm, through March 8th.
–Kaleb Knoblauch, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History