Perspective

In my view, studying history, environment, and culture can remedy one of the greatest weaknesses in American thought: the abstraction of the economy into a set of mathematical relationships.  The brief intellectual biography below tells how I came to this position and how it drives my work.

As an undergraduate economics major, I was deeply interested in the “allocation  of scarce resources,” to borrow the field’s language.  Economics seemed to draw back a curtain, unveiling the hidden relationships that kept the world in motion.  At the same time, I was becoming increasingly aware of how unfair the rules of those relationships could be.  Yet many outside the field, including American culture generally, wanted to invest a moral fairness into the laws of economics.  Given the social and environmental problems created by “the market,” I think our culture would do well to reconsider.

It was during my last semester at Miami University, where I pursued my undergraduate career, when two courses changed my own mind.  One was environmental economics, which showed how environmental degradation could only be accounted for as an “externality,” that is, outside the system of traditional economic thought.  The other was environmental history.  In that course, Jack Kirby introduced me to the field’s foundational ideas, in particular that people and the rest of nature have a long history of interaction.  It was, I thought, a more encompassing view than economics, even more honest. At its heart, it upheld the irreducibility of the human place in the world.

I continued on to the graduate program in history at Miami, choosing to study environmental history under the guidance of Peggy Shaffer.  Learning the methods of cultural history, and how crucial they were to environmental study, I researched a thesis that demonstrated how meanings of nature can structure environmental crisis as much as nearly any other factor.  Placing the creation of those meanings within an imperial capitalist structure helped me connect culture, economy, and nature.

At the University of Arizona, where I am completing my doctorate in history, I have been able to pursue a fuller cultural and environmental consideration of the economy.  Courses in environmental history from Douglas Weiner and political ecology from Paul Robbins, and most of all the guidance of Katherine Morrissey, have given me the conceptual models to understand how study of culture, nature, and history can detail the ways people make a living and build community.  Simply observing these basic, everyday processes critiques the abstractions of free market rhetoric, even without the use of traditional economic language.

My current project, an environmental history of American holidays, presents an opportunity to follow this line of thinking.  Holidays are especially worthwhile in this endeavor because they have long been sites of identity expression (as Ben Irvin has shown me), the production of space, and, an element rarely considered, the transformation of nature.  The character of holidays as reflective moments also attracted me to their history.  With such a structure of feeling, and such rich activity, they are an opportunity to observe and rethink the cultural and environmental dimensions of how Americans live.

The holiday project is just one branch of my work in this direction.  I also volunteer at a community nonprofit that helps young people create and publish stories about their place in Tucson. In my teaching on campus, I guide students toward considering the social and environmental values that escape us when we speak of human experience as reactions to supply and demand. In the future, I aim to continue and develop this line of thinking through a food study project that merges service learning, undergraduate research, and both academic and public writing.

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