Category: Interviews

Global Interior: A Conversation with Megan Black About the U.S. Interior Department in the American World Order

During the middle of a troop and advising “surge” to Afghanistan following the election of Barack Obama, U.S. Defense Department officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a blockbuster announcement: Afghanistan, formerly best known for its export of opium, was said to be on the brink of becoming the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a rare mineral essential for the production of modern computers and smartphones. American geologists had stumbled onto dusty old Soviet maps of the country produced during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Their quality was not terrific, but they hinted at enormous mineral deposits hitherto untapped that could turn Afghanistan from a large net recipient of foreign aid to a state flush with extraction-based revenues, like neighboring Turkmenistan, or Caspian Sea oil and gas giant Azerbaijan. American geologists soon conducted aerial surveys of Afghanistan that allowed them to photograph the interior of the Central Asian state. Thanks to American-made “advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment,” the U.S. had produced “a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface” and “the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.”

The announcement, made in 2010, seemed like good news for the Afghans. But beyond obvious ongoing questions about when (if?) security conditions in Afghanistan will ever permit mining corporations the confidence to make major investments in that country, the episode also raises questions about the role of the United States in th world and the nature of sovereignty in which access to mining data may be just as crucial as political sovereignty over the piece of real estate in which this niobium deposit or that lithium bed might be located. What does political sovereignty mean for a post-2001 Afghan state if its main real hope for self-financing comes from the interface of U.S.-produced data with an international bidding process over which an Afghan people may have only limited say? While the contradictions are perhaps particularly vivid in the case of Afghanistan, the drama of how extractive industries are entangled with the sovereignty of less powerful states and nations—not least Indigenous Peoples—is an ongoing story. Recent events such as the Standing Rock protests make this ever more clear.

Megan Black, author of “The Global Interior” and our latest guest to the Global History Forum

The work of our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Megan Black, makes clear the history behind episodes like these. A Lecturer in History at Harvard University and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, Black studies the United States Department of the Interior as an institutional prism through which to see a new history of U.S. global reach since 1890. Often misunderstood as an obscure branch of the U.S. government, the Department of the Interior, in Black’s account, turns out to be a crucial agent of American power toward the outside world in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Rather than seeing Interior as a mere manager of that which was already “inside” the U.S. polity, she sees it as the crucial actor in a process of “interiorization” whereby resources once external to the American homeland (whether in the North American West or anywhere in the world) were made legible and potentially extractable.

While one might expect Interior’s mission to have ended once the frontier was closed and the American West swelled with settlers, Black’s account shows how Interior reinvented itself as a crucial agent for the discovery and management of “strategic minerals” around the world — first in nearby theaters in the Americas, and later globally. Studying the rise and fall of the Department of the Interior and the logics of “interiorization” it relied upon, then, constitutes not just a lens to understand the nature of American hegemony in the 20th century. It’s also a crucial story for understanding how what it meant to be sovereign changed in light of the discovery of new aerospace, computing, and nuclear technologies, and the complex mineral chains required to maintain them. While our conversation with Black therefore provides a lens into one of the most dynamic historiographical literatures today—namely that of U.S. foreign relations—it also provides a terrific example of what it might mean for scholars of global history to take minerals and mining more seriously as subjects for investigation. Outgoing Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Dr. Black to discuss her research as well as her forthcoming book manuscript, The Global Interior.…

A New Deal for the Nuremberg Trial? Discussing the History of Crimes Against Humanity with Elizabeth Borgwardt

More and more social science research suggests that polities recovering from eras of mass atrocity do best with strategies that are both forward-looking and backward-looking. Forward-looking initiatives may include constitutional revisions, support for non-governmental organizations, and amnesties; backward-looking devices may include summary executions, war crimes trials, or truth commissions. While few would argue that we are in the twilight of impunity, scholars who study the generation and diffusion of norms look to recent settlements in Argentina and Columbia that stress increased accountability for past atrocities. The conviction of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré by a Senegelese court for crimes against humanity and war crimes in early 2016 might be a harbinger of future, more regionally-grounded processes of international justice. Even more recently, the conviction of an ISIS militant for the destruction of ancient documents and religious sites in Mali has suggested an expansion zone for war crimes that would take in cultural destruction.

Critics of liberal internationalism, by contrast, are heralding the death of the human rights idea in light of the recent U.S. presidential election, Brexit, and the resurgence of ethnic nationalism in the West and elsewhere. Atrocity crimes seem to be a growth industry and botched humanitarian interventions are also doing a brisk business. These critics also ask how institutions such as the ICC and the UN tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda could have any legitimacy at all, as they are dominated by Western elites, with judges who are vetted and qualified to preside only after receiving indoctrination at Western law schools, while defendants are inevitably drawn from smaller, weaker countries, some of which are now turning their backs on international institutions in general and the ICC in particular. Law, skeptics say, has been unmasked as really “just politics;” that is, only capable of generating scenarios where illegitimate power expresses itself by means of adulterated law.

Convincing one side or the other of the moral legitimacy of today’s international tribunals may indeed be a rather fruitless exercise. In the meantime, however, it may be helpful to ask a more historically-informed set of questions, such as how some of the foundational ideas in international justice from the 19th century and before came to be institutionalized in the 20th century, or how the very format of trials came to be added to the spectrum of responses to various kinds of atrocities against civilians, or indeed how the idea of what might count as a “crime” in international law came to be debated and refined.

These are the questions at the heart of the research agenda of Elizabeth Borgwardt, an associate professor of history and law at Washington University in St. Louis, and a permanent faculty associate of the Center for American Studies at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. Borgwardt also recently served as the Richard and Ann Pozen Visiting Chair in Human Rights at the University of Chicago. Readers will probably best know Borgwardt as the author of the 2005 monograph A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights, published with the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press and co-winner of the Merle Curti award for best book in Intellectual History and of the Stuart Bernath Book award for best first book in U.S. foreign relations.

Now considered to be field-defining research in the then-novel specialization of human rights history, Borgwardt examined how the 1941 Roosevelt-Churchill Atlantic charter served as a kind of ideological blueprint for many of the young lawyers negotiating the draft charters of various wartime international institutions, notably the 1944 Bretton Woods agreements, the 1945 United Nations charter, and the 1945 Nuremberg charter. She explored how these new institutions were meant to generate a world order that would somehow “advance” human rights and, for the US officials involved, one which would entrench and extend U.S. influence. A major theme of New Deal for the World was also the role of unintended consequences, in that a variety of constituencies seized upon the vague and inspirational rhetoric in the Atlantic Charter and sought to use it for their own ends.

Now, however, Borgwardt is interested in a different set of questions related to human rights politics and ideas: how did “human rights” become a concept that even the most heinous regimes feel that they need to buy into, if only to pay it lip service? Why did ideas about sovereignty and individual accountability articulated in a courtroom in provincial Germany go on to affect larger systems of international justice? The answer to these questions — grounded, in Borgwardt’s case, in her background as both a lawyer and a historian — cannot but interest us in a world that continues to be scarred by human rights violations, both domestic and international.

The Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Executive Director, Timothy Nunan, recently had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Borgwardt during a visit to Harvard University to present an excerpt from her new manuscript, with the working title of The Nuremberg Idea: “Thinking Humanity” in History, Law & Politics, under contract with Alfred A. Knopf. We have reproduced below an edited transcript of that conversation.

The Other Intellectuals: A Conversation with Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins About Raymond Aron and International Order

Raymond Aron represents one of the most important intellectuals to take stock of the global situation in the twentieth century. A frequent commentator to French debates through his position at the Sorbonne and Collège de France, and his long-time column at the newspaper Le Figaro (and, later, L’Express), he engaged in debates about the Algerian…

Policing the “Slums of the World”: A Conversation About Exporting American Police Expertise with Stuart Schrader

As Americans debate their choice of President, enthusiasm for long-term ground wars in the Middle East seems at an all-time low. Both candidates debate the merits of drone warfare in distant lands, or even the desirability (and viability) of a ban on Muslims’ entry to the United States, but what does seem unanimous after two…

Anti-Westernism in Question: An Interview with Cemil Aydin on Pan-Asianism, Pan-Islamism, and the Idea of the “Muslim World” in History

The centrality of anti-Westernism as a subject of global debate is underlined with every new terrorist attack on the West today. Both the attack on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, as well as attacks in France and Germany over the summer engendered many civilization-oriented questions in the minds of people, as also happened in the…

Making the Pilgrimage to the “Mecca of Revolution”: A Conversation with Jeffrey James Byrne on Algerian Internationalism and the Third World

Revolution, what revolution? In the spring of 2011, protests and revolutions rocked much of North Africa and the Middle East. Improbably, the immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor triggered the collapse of regimes not only in Tunis but also in Cairo, the heart of the Arab World. Whether the cause was Twitter or deeper-seated socioeconomic dysfunction, protests cascaded throughout the region, leading to regime collapse in Sana’a, a civil war and eventual regime overthrow in Tripoli, and Armageddon in Syria.

Against this gruesome background, Algeria—Africa’s largest country since the partition of Sudan in 2011—remained relatively calm. Anti-regime protests forced an end to a state of emergency that had existed since 1992. But President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not only stayed in power but managed to establish, in 2012, a record as the longest-serving head of state in Algerian history. The stability was all the more surprising given that Algeria had descended into civil war in 1991 once the ruling FLN (from the French Front de Libération Nationale) effectively cancelled elections that would have delivered Islamist parties to power.

Yet Algeria’s position as a stable authoritarian regime in a region rocked by the mutual learning processes of one “Arab Street” from the other is ironic, since, as University of British Columbia historian Jeffrey Byrne shows in his recent book, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization & The Third World Order, the country’s identity was from its founding deeply tied up with its identity as a “pilot state” for anti-colonial revolution. After all, Algeria gained its independence from France in the first place through combination of guerrilla warfare against the French military and the deft diplomacy of twenty- and thirty-something diplomats-cum-revolutionaries operating between Peking, Moscow, and the United Nations. From 1962–1965, when revolutionary Ahmed Ben Bella served as President of the young republic, Algiers was on the itinerary of every self-respecting revolutionary group out there, from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization to European Trotskyists. No less than Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Afro-Caribbean intellectual who was the psychologist of colonization and decolonization par excellence, used Algeria as the basis for his works like The Wretched of the Earth.

Mecca of Revolution cover

What happened? How did an avowedly revolutionary state and champion of Third World solidarity become one of the Arab World’s most entrenched authoritarian regimes post-2011—all the while never officially disavowing its revolutionary credentials? In Mecca of Revolution, Byrne argues that the trajectory of the Algerian cause was symptomatic of bigger shifts within the Third World more broadly. Originally, he explains, anti-colonial movements like the FLN were forced by virtue of their colonial oppressors to operate within an “open” international society of liberation movements liaising with one another, as well as their (often stubborn) patrons in Peking, Cairo, and Moscow.

Paradoxically, however, once these movements gained power through the vehicle of the post-colonial nation-state, they turned toward a “closed” vision of international society centered around states, not transnational movements like the FLN, ANC, or PLO. Even the post-colonial or anti-colonial forms of internationalism that self-proclaimed revolutionary states embraced, moreover, like the Organization for African Unity or the G-77, took the nation-state for granted as the default form of political organization. Byrne’s, in short, is a rich and demanding story constructed on the basis of painstaking work in Algerian, Yugoslav, and European and American archives. The Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Professor Byrne to discuss it, beginning with Byrne’s own personal journey to writing Mecca of Revolution.…

Thicker Than Water: Revisiting Global Connections on the Banks of the Suez Canal with Valeska Huber

Thanks to the haze of time, the first great age of globalization during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century can sometimes seem like a golden age. It’s true that we live in an age of unprecedentedly inexpensive air travel, cell phones and Skype often replacing long travel to business meetings, and financial management tools making it easier to speculate on the ups and downs of the S&P or Nikkei, the ruble or the euro. But perhaps as we find ourselves bogged down by the kinks in this new post-1970s world of re-globalization–the passport checks, the baggage fees, the broken connections–it’s all the easier to reimagine the world of high imperialism, a lost golden age. Chroniclers like Stefan Zweig and John Maynard Keynes chronicled the time as an age in which

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.

There was perhaps no more potent symbol of this world of ultra-connectivity than the Suez Canal, built in what was still Ottoman Egypt in 1869 and connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. The Canal increased world trade. It also  soon became a vital strategic artery for the British Empire, since it made the “passage to India” via intermediary stations like Suez and Aden far shorter than the former trip around the Cape of Good Hope. So powerful was the imaginary of the Canal as one of the crucial changes of the epoch that, when Henry Morton Stanley finally located David Livingstone (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871, the Canal was the first thing that came to Stanley’s mind when Livingstone asked him what had changed in the world during his many years out of contact with the Western world.

Channelling Mobilities (Cambridge UP, 2015), the recent book of Valeska Huber (German Historical Institute London)

Channelling Mobilities (Cambridge UP, 2015), the recent book of Valeska Huber (German Historical Institute London)

Yet as Dr. Valeska Huber, a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in London, shows in her recent book Channelling Mobilities: Migration and Globalization in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, paperback 2015), the Suez Canal did not so much open as channel migration and globalization during this world of increasing trade and economic integration.

Sure, the opening of the Canal made it easier for passengers—that is, especially if they were white, wealthy, British, or best, all three—to travel around the world, often unencumbered by passport checks. But our popular memory of the Canal often forgets the fact that building a giant channel of water in the middle of the Egyptian desert obstructed the migratory routes of Bedouin tribes who formerly moved from east to west. More fundamentally, the very opening of the Canal and the transformation of the region into a giant transportation hub gave rise to new worries about the movement of slaves, prostitutes, Muslim “fanatics,” or disease across the region. Contemporary fears that cholera originated in India led to the imposition of quarantine and disease control regimes along the shores of the Red Sea. At the same time, shipping titans and imperial bureaucrats debated the wisdom of dividing shipping routes’ staffing between Asians (for the hot and sticky days of shipping through the Indian Ocean, supposedly unbearable for the “white race”) and Europeans (so as to avoid the problem of Asian or Arab crews outstaying their welcome in Southampton or the London docklands). The Canal channeled as much as it connected.

Huber’s work is, then, valuable not only as an intervention into the field of Middle Eastern Studies, relying as it does on British, French, and Egyptian archives. It constitutes a welcome foray into the broader conversation about the history of globalization and the history of the late nineteenth century as a time not only of increasing connectivity, but also of increasing channelling—that is, processes and institutions whereby migration of goods and people is cordoned off, classified, or restricted, often relying on distinctions of race, sex, or level of civilization. In order to discuss Channelling Mobilities more with Dr. Huber, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Dr. Timothy Nunan (TN) made use of the twenty-first century’s aforementioned telephonic tools to speak with Dr. Huber (VH) across oceans–fitting, given that telegraphic cables were just one of many pieces of infrastructure to cross the Suez Canal during the period her book studies.…

Who Is Responsible? An Interview with Tracy Neumann on “Remaking the Rustbelt” and the Transnational Fortunes of Post-Industrial America and Canada

Pittsburgh, in case you haven’t heard, is on the rise.

But don’t take it from us. The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States. Zagat calls it the #1 food city in the United States. Money magazine names it one of the best places to live in the Northeast United States. Travel and Leisure magazine calls it one of the places to visit in the United States. The former steel city located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in western Pennsylvania appeals, it seems, to a wide variety of audiences. The Huffington Post calls it one of several cities that aspiring techies should consider moving to. And startup founders who leave Silicon Valley or New York’s “Silicon Alley” for the more affordable setting of Pittsburgh, and its top research universities, might find themselves moving in next to retirees, as well, as Kiplinger magazine has selected it as a top location to retire. (These, and more of the myriad accolades Pittsburgh has garnered, are exhaustively catalogued by VisitPITTSBURGH, the tourism agency of Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located).

Pittsburgh, in short, seems like an island of prosperity and success in North America’s Rust Belt, a region more commonly associated with economic involution, plant shutdowns, and “ruin porn” than food trucks and hipsters. How did it avert the fate of post-industrial economic decline that blighted many a Youngstown, Ohio, Gary, Indiana, or Elkhart, Indiana? Yet perhaps the better question to ask might be why Pittsburgh embraced a post-industrial future as avidly as it did. After all, many other cities in the Rust Belt, particularly those in neighboring Canada, retained their steel factories far longer than did Pittsburgh, all the while managing a transition to white-collar employment far more successfully than did their southern cousins of Youngstown, Gary, or Elkhart. When one casts their field of vision across the horizons of Lake Erie or Lake Huron to the smokestacks and chimneys of Canada, the trajectory and choices involved in the transition of the Rust Belt from the 1940s to today looks quite different. Such a narrative frame casts into question the narrative of inevitable de-industrialization, and makes clear how post-industrialism was as much as policy choice as it was a historical inevitability.

"Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America," the recent book of Professor Tracy Neumann (Wayne State University)

“Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America,” the recent book of Professor Tracy Neumann (Wayne State University)

Such is the intervention of Tracy Neumann, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Wayne State University in Detroit, in her recent book Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). In the book, Neumann compares and contrasts the trajectory of two North American steel towns, Pittsburgh and Hamilton, Ontario, showing how de-industrialization was as much the result of a set of policy choices embraced by civic elites as it was a historical inevitability. Even before the decade of the 1970s most commonly associated with de-industrialization, policy elites in both Pittsburgh and Hamilton drew on a limited set of post-industrial urban visions as they sought to plot out what a city built more on services, rather than manufacturing—on briefcases than lunch pails—would look like.

Drawing on a number of city, provincial and state, and national archives in the United States and Canada, Neumann shows how in spite of a shared vision of post-industrial flourishing, the very different institutional settings in which Hamilton’s and Pittsburgh’s civic elites operated created a very different set of policy outcomes. Unfettered by federal or state restrictions, Pittsburgh’s corporate leaders and Democratic mayors were able to rapidly transform their city into what they envisioned would be a Mecca for white-collar workers—causing, in the process, immense pain and dislocation for the city’s actual, rather than desired, residents. In Canada, meanwhile, civic leaders in Hamilton aspired to a similarly service industry-oriented future for their city, but remained captive to provincial policies that channeled post-industrial growth toward Toronto. In Neumann’s telling, the global structure of economic change matters—but so, too, do institutions and the menu of policy choices with which elected officials and corporate elites imagine themselves presented.

At a moment when many Americans and Canadians, and other denizens of a North Atlantic Rust Belt are posing the question of whether the move from pig iron to management consulting—or, for many, from stable lifetime employment to a McJob—Neumann’s book comes as a welcome entry into the conversation. More broadly, however, Remaking the Rustbelt provides an example of how Americanists are writing urban history in a transnational and global key. Readers interested in what, exactly, the relationship of post-industrialism to “neoliberalism” in the United States will find much of value in Neumann’s work, but so, too, will scholars studying how processes of global change find their way to the ground across regions through the grinders and gears of policymaking. That makes it a valuable contribution whether the pair of cities one is interested is Pittsburgh and Hamilton, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, or Mumbai and Dubai. The Executive Director of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, Timothy Nunan (TPF), recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tracy Neumann (TN) to discuss Remaking the Rust Belt, some of the arguments of the book, and what she has in store following the June release of her first monograph.…

De-Segregating International Relations: A Conversation with Robert Vitalis on “White World Order, Black Power Politics”

If you’ve been following the news about race-related campus protests this academic year, it can sometimes be hard to keep them straight. In the autumn, students at Yale’s Silliman College demanded the removal of a College Master following his wife’s e-mail to students encouraging students to use their own judgment when it came to potentially insensitive Halloween costumes, rather than following guidelines issued by Yale administrators. In the winter, students at Oberlin College, a liberal arts college in Ohio, issued a sweeping manifesto to the President demanding significant investment in African and African-American Studies as well as the appointment of more black faculty members. And this spring, students at Princeton University occupied the President’s office to demand the removal of former U.S. (and Princeton University) President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university’s public policy school. Those demands led to the removal of a “celebratory” mural from the wall of a residential college also named after Wilson, but visitors to the New Jersey campus will still find themselves walking by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

These debates about how American universities today deal with race – whether they should scrub buildings of the names of white supremacists, or invest more in programs in African-American Studies and professionalization programs for faculty of color – are unlikely to end anytime soon. However, as the work of our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Robert Vitalis (University of Pennsylvania), suggests, the very structure of these debates may obscure an important history in the making of universities and the structure of academic knowledge today. While coming to terms with the racist legacy of individual Presidents or college donors may be a necessary task, as Vitalis shows in his new book, White World Order, Black Power Politics. In it, he shows that race was actually quite core to many disciplines, but especially international relations of the kind taught at the Wilson School and sister institutions in the United States long before African-American protest movements challenged existing structures of power.

Robert Vitalis "White World Order, Black Power Politics" (Cornell UP, 2015), the book at the center of our conversation with Professor Robert Vitalis

Robert Vitalis “White World Order, Black Power Politics” (Cornell UP, 2015), the book at the center of our conversation with Professor Robert Vitalis

To put Vitalis’ argument most provocatively, for many decades, the “international” in “international relations” was synonymous with “interracial.” And while many individual scholars of international relations, and other disciplines, held racist views, this obscures the larger point that the discipline of international relations itself was itself centrally concerned with race relations – meaning, how to manage the relationship of the supposedly superior white race around the world with “Negros” everywhere from the tropics of African to the alleys of Harlem. Textbooks on “international relations” discussed colonial policy in the same chapter as debates about mulattos and the anatomy of black prisoners. In other words, debates over whether or not to retain or remove the name of a Woodrow Wilson from a school of public policy barely begin to get at what a critique of academic disciplines informed by race would look like. Even if temples of learning named after Wilson and John Calhoun are eventually renamed, the curricula taught within them remains awaiting serious scrutiny of its racially entangled past.

It might sound like a big case to make–especially for those whose memories of International Relations 101 classes are marked more by moments of dozing off in between the Melian Dialogue of Thucydides and Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War. But by and large, Vitalis succeeds at his task. To find out why, the Executive Director of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, Dr. Timothy Nunan, recently sat down with Vitalis to discuss his road to writing the book, the book itself, and his journey as a political scientist into the worlds of intellectual history and African-American history.…

How Did Water Connect the World? An Interview with David Igler on Pacific and Environmental History

The Pacific is an area largely understudied by historians, yet it is “an ocean covering more than a third of the Earth’s surface” and has “over 25,000 islands”, to borrow the words of the late Australian historian Greg Dening.  In the past thirty years or so, a growing number of historians have shifted their attention to the Pacific.  This includes such well-known scholars as Greg Dening, Anne Salmond, Gregory T. Cushman and Toynbee Prize Foundation Trustee David Armitage.

Our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Professor David Igler, numbers among the dozens of scholars who believe that the importance of Pacific Ocean and significance of environmental history.  David Bruce Igler is a historian of the American West , President of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, and Professor of History and currently Chair of History Department at the University of California, Irvine.

Professor Igler, a graduate of UC Berkeley, began his academic career as a U.S. historian specializing in the American West and environmental history.  After publishing his book Industrial Cowboys: Miller and Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850-1920, he decided to explore the waterscape and regions west of the West, namely, the Pacific Ocean.  This research has consumed him for the past decade.  The product is, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

The prize-winning monograph draws on hundreds of documented voyages, some painstakingly recorded by participants, some only known by their archeological remains or indigenous memory.  This leads to a window into the commercial, cultural, and ecological upheavals following the initial contact period, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   Do industrial development and environmental transformation often happened in the same time?  What makes Professor Igler shift from American history to Pacific history?   Can humans have a dialogue with the Ocean? Professor Igler and Tiger Li, Editor-at-Large for the Toynbee Prize Foundation, discuss these questions in the following interview.

Professor David Igler, professor of history at UC Irvine and author of "The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush."

Professor David Igler, professor of history at UC Irvine and author of “The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush.”