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[Editor's Note: Bob Reinhardt, a PhD candidate in our department, submitted this TDIH before the late unpleasantness on our campus. He then asked if I would hold off on posting for a bit. Well, a bit has passed, and it's time to talk about smallpox. Really, though, when isn't it the right time to talk about smallpox? Thanksgiving dinner, I suppose. Anyway, thanks, Bob, for doing this.]

23 November

On this day in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared all-out war on a universally despised enemy. The announcement didn’t concern Vietnam — Johnson had escalated that police action months before — nor poverty, against which the US had allegedly been fighting an “unconditional war.” This particular declaration targeted a different enemy, older and perhaps more loathsome than any ideological or socioeconomic affliction: smallpox. As the White House Press Release explained, the US Agency for International Development and the US Public Health Service (specifically, the Communicable Disease Center, now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) had launched an ambitious campaign to eradicate smallpox (and control measles) in 18 West African countries.* That program would eventually lead to the first and only human-sponsored eradication of a disease, and would also demonstrate the possibilities — and limits — of liberal technocratic expertise.

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Well, on its way out.

The well that tormented the nation has flatlined. Federal officials green-lighted the cementing of the well, already jammed with mud, late Wednesday. Federal waters are reopening gradually to fishing. The oil slick, the once-horrific expanse of red-orange mousse and silver sheen, has largely disappeared, federal scientists said Wednesday, even though the amount of oil left is more than four times that dumped by the Exxon Valdez.

The Obama administration breathed a sigh of relief, holding a midday news conference featuring top officials who claimed credit for guiding BP in getting the well under control. Officials hastened to remind the public that Macondo won’t be incontrovertibly dead until a relief well drills into it near its base and plugs it with cement. But even the cautious retired Adm. Thad Allen, national incident coordinator, called the static kill a “fairly consequential” event and a “very significant step.”

About three-quarters of the nearly 5 million barrels of oil that escaped Macondo has evaporated, dissolved or been dispersed by chemicals, skimmed by boats, burned, weathered and, most important, devoured by the Gulf of Mexico’s permanent oil-eating microbial workforce, according to a study released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Interior Department.

“Mother Nature is assisting here considerably,” said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco.

This should terminate, once and for all, the more apocalyptic scenarios for the demise of the gulf and the spread of oil to Atlantic shores. There is no sign that the oil is going to ride the Loop Current onto the beaches of South Florida, the Outer Banks, Bermuda, Ireland and so on.

Please resume your normally scheduled shrimping and drilling.

It’s long since become conventional wisdom that it took the Democratic Clinton administration to bring elements of the Reagan revolution to fruition, just as it would take the New Labour Blair government to bring elements of the Thatcher revolution to fruition. Will we someday be saying that it took the Democratic Obama administration to bring elements of the G. W. Bush revolution to fruition?

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I suspect it would be easier for Floridians and other Gulf Coasters to accept the permanent change in their lives if there were more widespread and public acknowledgment that it is indeed a permanent change in their lives.
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There oughta be an axiom of regulation, that if you’re changing the rules in such a way that will make you sound grossly culpable when something goes wrong, you shouldn’t do it.
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In response to the Mississippi River flood of 1927, the administration of Calvin Coolidge dispatched Herbert Hoover to serve as what we would nowadays call the “czar” of the flood relief effort. Among other tasks, Hoover set about raising money for a cleanup and reconstruction fund. From John M. Barry, Rising Tide:

On May 24, he [Hoover] called a meeting of thirty Memphis bankers and businessmen at the Peabody and told them their quota was $200,000…. Those assembled shifted uncomfortably. One man protested. Suddenly, Hoover began to curse, his words as rough as those he had used decades before to miners a thousand miles from civilization. Then he made a simple promise. About 25,000 black refugees were in camps in Memphis. It was 2 P.M. He gave them to 5 P.M. that day to deliver pledges for the money. “If not,” he warned, “I’ll start sending your niggers north, starting tonight.”… By five o’clock he had his $200,000. (367-368)

Now, that’s a real shakedown (unlike those described here): Hoover threatened to accelerate the great migration of African Americans out of the South, depriving local business of needed labor, if he didn’t get subscriptions to his relief funds. And he got those subscriptions from Memphis businessmen who bore no direct responsibility for the catastrophe.

But here’s the other thing: the funds were designated for lending based on standard criteria for lending, i.e., available collateral. “[H]is massive financing effort accomplished next to nothing,” Barry writes (377), because little—maybe 5%—of the money ever got disbursed.

So there’s getting the money and there’s getting it out to where it can do some good. Hoover was aggressive about the former and lackluster at the latter. Let’s see what happens with the current efforts.

An excellent chronicle by Sean Flynn in the July GQ of the events on and around the Deepwater Horizon just before and just after the explosion. I’ve put some excerpts below the fold but the whole thing is worth reading.

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Via Steve Benen, an awesome or rather horrific photo-set of the oil’s arrival on the Louisiana coast.

We hear about fears of its effects on the American Gulf coast, and of what might happen as it moves out into the Atlantic — but has there been much discussion of its effects on other Caribbean countries? This map, for instance, shows that it’s expected to move past Havana and the north coast of Cuba.

Update 5/27: optimistic reports.

Rand Paul keeps on giving.

“What I don’t like from the president’s administration is this sort of, ‘I’ll put my boot heel on the throat of BP,'” Paul said in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business.”

This is yet another thrilling episode pitting the modern Republican Party against the scientific community.

Tensions between the Obama administration and the scientific community over the gulf oil spill are escalating, with prominent oceanographers accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill’s true scope.

We can also file this under “I Miss Republicans,” and the enduring mystery of why academics don’t vote Republican more than they do.

Public reports are starting to say what a bunch of fairly knowledgeable people have been quietly saying: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a Very Bad Thing because nobody knows how bad it is: nobody knows how much oil is down there or how fast it’s flowing, and therefore nobody knows how long this will go on. What we do seem to know is we don’t know how to stop it:

“We don’t have any idea how to stop this,” Simmons said of the Gulf leak. Some of the proposed strategies—such as temporarily plugging the leaking pipe with a jet of golf balls and other material—are a “joke,” he added.

“We really are in unprecedented waters.”…

If the oil can’t be stopped, the underground reservoir may continue bleeding until it’s dry, Simmons suggested.

The most recent estimates are that the leaking wellhead has been spewing 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons, or 795,000 liters) of oil a day.

And the oil is still flowing robustly, which suggests that the reserve “would take years to deplete,” said David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

“You’re talking about a reservoir that could have tens of millions of barrels in it.”

Wait, did they say 5,000 barrels? Maybe more:

Ian MacDonald, the FSU oceanographer whose own calculations, based on aerial imagery of the spill, show a spill more like 25,000 barrels of oil a day rather than 5,000 barrels that the Coast Guard came up with, told me, “That looks like a pretty substantial flow rate. I don’t know how they get only 5,000 barrels a day out of that. That’s really quite a gusher.”… I talked to two more experts, Greg McCormack of U-Texas and Bruce Bullock of SMU, and both said there’s no earthly way to estimate the flow based on these videos.

“Anybody who can tell you how much oil is coming out of that thing is likely lying to you,” Bullock told me.

And the administration appears unfortunately to be doing very little and saying less. As our colleague Kathy would point out, this is the kind of thing that ensures someone someday will be saying, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” After all the president has an unfortunate and, well, disappointing record on this subject:

The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.

UPDATED to add, which is to say, It would be better if the administration were quicker to say what it knows about how badly things are going, rather than leaving it up to BP.

The early photographs of our planet as seen from space are supposed to have fueled the ecological awareness of the early 1970s, as suddenly everyone could see how small, fragile, and together were all were on the lonely, gemlike earth set in the hostile vacuum. Now NASA has put together a high resolution animation of the earth rotating in space from satellite images.


Have you ever noticed that bits of the West are like, really amazingly beautiful?1

This is from the base of lower Yosemite Falls—close enough to get wet, anyway.

And this is the view from the balcony of Lookout Studio. I couldn’t manage to take a picture of the Grand Canyon that didn’t look like a “picture of the Grand Canyon.”

Stuff like this goes under the awesomeness of TR category, which we really ought to actually have.2

Previously, on the grandeur of the Grand Canyon.

1Yes, I know I could have borrowed from the Eagles here, but we’re all above that, aren’t we?
2Look, I know this is a bit cliché, but it makes me happy, ok?3
3Yes, I know there are a bunch of defensively phrased rhetorical questions down here. Give me a break, will you?

Speaking of period dramas on television, John Rogers recently told me to watch Life on Mars. So I am. And so far it’s really quite good: early Hill Street Blues meets A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (or something).

Anyway, the thing I’m enjoying most is the show’s relentless critique of nostalgia. The main character, a contemporary British detective who finds himself transported back in time to Manchester in 1973, can’t seem to decide if he misses his friends or his cell phone more. When he’s at his most despairing, in the early episodes at least, he focuses on the dearth of creature comforts available to him. Even if you weren’t trained as an environmental historian, the emphasis on material conditions — a lack of central heat, spotty electricity, a studio apartment appointed with a twin bed — is pretty obvious. It’s a healthy reminder that the past, even the recent past — forget the damp and drafty castles of the Middle Ages — was pretty grim.

The point may be that our current age is wondrous, filled with innovations straight out of science fiction, especially in the realm of policing and medicine. Regardless, though I suspect historians are especially cranky about the emptiness of nostalgia, I think the show gets its view of the historical city just right: unlike Mad Men, which makes the early 60s built environment seem awfully appealing — that furniture! that color palette! — Life on Mars suggests that urban life used to suck.

When US sailors first set foot on Midway (then called Brooks) in 1867, the birds were so numerous on the ground that the men could not walk without stepping on the chicks in their nests. Now we can accomplish the same results without traveling to a remote atoll to do it in person.

Logging Haida Gwaii

I’ve been reading John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce, about the strange eco-vandalism incident in 1997 on Haida Gwaii (aka the Queen Charlotte Islands), northern British Columbia. (If you’re interested, the New Yorker article he distilled from it is a better read.) Mostly I’m indulging a mild obsession with a remote corner of the map — now even more tantalizingly quasi-accessible, of course, via Google Earth and such. But in browsing around, I encountered what might be the most beautiful map I’ve ever seen on the Internet, and certainly one of the most effective in conveying its message.

The map shows the extent of logging, both historical and geographical, on the islands since 1900.  It was produced by the Gowgaia Institute, of Queen Charlotte on the islands. Definitely click through for larger versions (without the superposed town names).

Updated to restrain some overheated language.

From the street display in Århus of “100 places to remember before they disappear”, on the web in English here.

Next in our spring speakers’ series, Margaret O’Mara on “Landscapes of Wealth: Globalization and the Private City.”

O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, will talk about how and why the American suburb has gone global.

Like all CHSC talks, this one is free and open to the public.

On or around this day in history, Mount Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, having the terminally bad manners to interrupt the progress of World War II, destroy several Italian villages, and inspire a wedding proposal.


The volcano is, of course, most famous for its eruption in AD 79, which destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii, an event recorded by Pliny the Younger. But it has erupted periodically since then, with the eruptions coming more frequently in the modern era. The 65 years since the 1944 eruption is the longest time in three hundred years that Mount Vesuvius has gone without an eruption.

The 1944 eruption ranked a 3 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, one below the AD 79 eruption. It came as Allied forces were fighting their way up the Italian boot, having landed at Salerno, just to the south, in late 1943. Read the rest of this entry »

We’ve had several requests for some California drought blogging. But Eric is too busy installing leaks in his manse’s plumbing (Just because, that’s why.) to think about the issue. And every time I start writing something, it turns into warmed-over Marc Reisner. So we’ve asked a friend, who works on state water issues and writes about water and climate change at On the Public Record, to post something for us. She actually seems somewhat more optimistic than I would have guessed. Unless you’re a salmon. In which case, the news isn’t good. But assuming you’re not — a safe assumption, as our outreach to the anadromous fish demographic isn’t going well — you should pour yourself a tall glass of water and read what follows.

Are we still in a drought even though it rained?

Yes. We went into the winter with reservoirs empty from two dry years. We would have to have gotten 130% of an average year to bring us out of drought this year. Instead we got about 90% of an average year. The February rain took us from ‘starkly desperate’ to ‘gravely concerned’, but we are still in a drought. Besides, the governor declared a drought emergency. Might as well go with the legal proclamation.

What does that mean to me?

If you live in a city in California, you will probably pay more for your water (10-25% more). Last year, most urban districts asked their customers to conserve voluntarily. Most districts were disappointed with the response they got (5-10% reductions). This year they’ll ration water; the common ration seems to be twenty percent less than historic use. But California urban per capita water use is still three to five times higher than the health and safety standard of 40 gallons per person per day. For urban users, it means starting to pay attention to a resource they’ve previously taken for granted. This is still ‘switching appliances’ and ‘smarter watering’ and ‘fixing leaks’ territory, not genuine hardship.

If you’re a farmer in California, or dependent on farming, the story is very different. The combination of drought and enforcement of the Endangered Species Act means that farmers are getting almost no water from the water projects this year (that may be revised to getting 5% of their usual water, because of the February rains). For many of them, this drought means putting in wells and fallowing everything but their orchards. Cattle and dairies are thinning their herds, because dry pastures are too sparse to feed their cows. Farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley are taking the hardest hit, with unemployment over thirty percent in some towns.

If you’re a salmon in California, this drought could well be the end of you. This year’s salmon returns were historic lows, and tepid reduced rivers may finish them off. However, if you’re a wildfire in California, dying forests in the Sierras are waiting for you!

Is this because of climate change? Is this the new normal?

We can’t say for sure that climate change is causing this drought. California’s hydrology has always been extremely variable. This drought is still within the variability recorded in the past hundred years. If you take a longer view than that, tree rings and pollen samples in soil cores can reconstruct paleo droughts that lasted for decades and centuries. We can’t know that this drought wouldn’t have happened in an unaltered climate.

We do know that this drought is roughly what the climate change models predict for California. The usual synthesis from the models is about a ten percent decline in precipitation, and more importantly, loss of the Sierra snowpack. The snowpack captured water for us, releasing it slowly over four months, giving us time to move it to reservoirs, cities and farms. Rainstorms in the mountains mean hard-to-capture floods instead. Whether or not climate change caused this drought, it does give us a taste of the future.

Is this the new normal? I don’t think we’ll return to a time when there was so much water that it didn’t have to be managed carefully. Even if rain and snows return to normal, we’re expecting another twenty million people here in the next few decades. It isn’t hard to imagine that in retrospect, this drought will feel like a discontinuity, the last time when having a lawn was the default, the last time when meat grown on pasture and alfalfa was cheap, or the last time when California salmon were commercially fished.

But how people experience having less water in the future depends heavily on expectations and institutional decisions. Drought, to Californians, is never going to mean a four mile hike to fill a jug from a water truck. Compared to much of the world, what we experience as drought is luxurious. But people expect what they have now, and distributing less water to half again as many people is going to mean that we can’t use water the way we have. This drought has made it clear that with somewhat less water we can’t grow as much food as we have, have robust fish populations and be casual about urban use.

Right now, our collective expectations for water are competing and failing in a jangled mess. Courts, agencies, the governor and the legislature are deciding things left and right, with no overarching vision, authority or principles. There’s no guarantee that we’ll save our salmon runs or Delta smelt, and our efforts depend largely on the will of a single judge in Fresno. Farms are going under willy-nilly, with little or no aid to the growers or farm workers, and equally little consideration for what that means to the nation’s food supply. City water districts are working furiously to get people to believe that they must use less water somehow. Everyone from every angle is making any kind of argument to protect whatever privilege they’re used to.

It is kind of an exciting time, if you like water politicking and turbulence. For all the upheaval, though, even with this drought, the issue isn’t whether people will die of thirst. We are wealthy enough and will have enough water that the issues are whose lives will change most, who will pay for what, and what we prioritize and protect.

[Editor's note: Paul Sutter joins us today to talk about his research on the Panama Canal. Paul is one of my favorite colleagues in the profession and an outstanding environmental historian. His first book, Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement, is smart, readable, and a great stocking-stuffer. The holidays are just around the corner, people; it's never too early to plan ahead. Thanks, Paul, for doing this.]

On October 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, safely ensconced in the Executive Office Building, pressed a button that remotely trigged a dynamite blast on the Isthmus of Panama, a blast that destroyed the Gamboa Dike and, for the first time, created a continuous liquid passage across Central America. It was a moment that the New York Times called, in language typical of the triumphalism that attended the Panama Canal’s construction, “the greatest spectacle in the history of the world’s greatest engineering work.” The Gamboa Dike had kept water out of the famed Culebra Cut, a monumental excavation through the highest point along the canal route, and as the dike collapsed and water rushed into the cut from Gatún Lake, workers joyously rode the rapids in small-draught boats. But the destruction of the Gamboa Dike did not mean that the Panama Canal was ready for business — as the Times put it, “Besides the wreckage of the Gamboa dike there are two earth slides to be cleared away before large vessels can pass from ocean to ocean.”(1) The first complete passage by a boat of any size took place on January 7, 1914. U.S. officials then made plans for an opulent opening celebration, to occur in early 1915, but the exigencies of the First World War scuttled those grand plans. The Panama Canal opened to the world’s oceangoing traffic in August 1914, to minor fanfare.

Nonetheless, the Gamboa Dike’s destruction symbolically fulfilled a centuries-old dream — if only for daredevil canoeists on that October 10th — of a direct water passage from west to east. Or was it east to west? Actually, to be precise, it was, going from the Caribbean to the Pacific, a passage that took ships in a southeasterly direction, the counterintuitive result of a wicked bend in the Isthmus that makes Panama look like an S that fell on its face. But, at the moment, precision mattered much less than superlatives and grand geographical theorizing. The gap had been breached, continental geography defied, and the dream of a passage to India realized. Americans were certifiably full of themselves.

There are so many ways in which the construction of the Panama Canal was earth-shattering in its historical import, and it is easy to fall for the hyperbolic rhetorical celebrations that attended its completion. Finished six months ahead of schedule and under budget, the Canal struck many as an unvarnished triumph of American administrative and engineering know-how. Indeed, during the 1910s, literally dozens of books appeared to crow about how the Americans had succeeded where the French — whose canal-building effort in the 1880s was plagued by financial scandal and catastrophic disease mortality — had failed. If one were to search for a single symbolic moment to mark America’s self-conscious arrival as a global industrial and economic power, the successful completion of the Panama Canal would be as good a candidate as any.

But American triumphalism hid — and in many ways has continued to hide — what was a more complicated achievement. Behind the claims of American achievement, for instance, lay the work of hundreds of thousands of non-American laborers, most of them black West Indians, though there were large numbers of Spaniards, Italians, and even African-American workers whose efforts built the canal. These workers lived in a Canal Zone that, like much of America at the time, was deeply segregated and deeply unfair in terms of return on labor. White American workers were paid in gold and enjoyed excellent housing and clubhouse amenities. Meanwhile the largely non-white work force (and for some, like the Spanish, whether they were white or not was a source of some contention) worked on the silver roll and endured substandard company housing (or none at all), poor food, and no amenities to speak of. American officials justified such disparities by claiming that the operative distinction was one of national origin — successfully recruiting American citizens to work on the canal required the ICC to offer them more than did recruiting non-U.S. workers desperate for a wage of any sort. But as the experiences of African Americans, who found themselves largely confined to the silver roll, attested, national origin mattered little when you were black. The construction of the Panama Canal, then, might rightly be seen as an integral chapter in the rise of Jim Crow.(2)

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