Susan Scott Parrish on the current significance of the Great Mississippi Flood

Parrish“Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment.”

In 1927, the south experienced one of the most extensive environmental disasters in U.S. history: heavy rains led to the flooding of the Mississippi river, spanning nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states. More than a half million people were displaced, and due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, it became the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. Drawing upon newspapers , radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish shows how this disastrous event took on public meaning.

There were other major disasters in the early 20th century U.S. What was unique about the flood you focus on?

SP: Unlike other devastating floods of the era—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), Galveston, Texas (1900), and the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida (1928)—which all occurred in a matter of hours, this Mississippi River flood moved so slowly and lasted so long that national audiences could be pulled in, through newly established media circuits, to the events as they unfolded. One of William Faulkner’s narrators called it “the flood year 1927” because the disaster truly lasted an entire year. Moreover, unlike the Johnstown and Okeechobee floods, both also man-made disasters, in which the powerful industrialists involved in the first case and the Florida boosters in the second sought to avoid publicity, in 1927 white southerners, as well as African American pundits and environmentalists throughout the nation, were determined to bring attention to the flood. I would argue, in fact, that not only was this the “worst” flood of the entire 20th century in terms of displaced persons and property damage, but it was also the most publicly engrossing U.S. environmental disaster. As such, it allows us a signal opportunity to ask the following questions: How do—and how should—humans communicate with themselves about politically charged eco-catastrophes? What are the stages through which mass-mediated societies encounter disaster? Do certain media entail better, or more productive, or more democratic epistemologies of crisis? What can we learn from 1927 about how to make transformative expression, and knowledge, out of disaster today and in the future?

Why was this flood so meaningful to people?

SP: Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie and that Federal institutions like the Red Cross and the National Guard were abetting its reestablishment. Though the death toll from the flood was less extensive than that of other contemporaneous disasters, it was the way that this flood—for northern, southern, white, and black publics—uncannily rematerialized the defining American nightmares of slavery and civil war that made it so culturally engulfing. Moreover, the flood gave the lie to many of the early 20th-century promises of a modernizing, technocratic society: here was, in the words of environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.”

The subtitle of your book is “A Cultural History;” can you explain what you mean by that phrase?

SP: Well, I began the book as a literary history, something along the lines of an environmentally-oriented version of Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, which considered the literary reckoning with World War One. I eventually came to see, though, that this flood became a public event across multiple media platforms. Fiction was important for our long-term memory of the flood, but other media were crucial to how the flood became significant while it occurred. I first discovered that William Faulkner, living a few counties away from the river in 1927, took up the flood beginning with the book he wrote in 1928—The Sound and the Fury (1929)—and kept writing about it through As I Lay Dying (1930) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939). I found a number of stories and pieces of life writing that Richard Wright, living in Memphis in 1927, wrote about the flood in the 1930s. And I came upon many other literary chroniclers as well: Sterling Brown, Will Percy, Lyle Saxon and Ruth Bass, to mention just a few. As I dug deeper into the archive, though, I realized that this flood represented an important moment in the histories of radio and print journalism, theater, and music as well. How northern and western media sought to package the South to raise money for evacuees; how an environmentalist critique went national; and how black journalistic protest remained largely enclaved are all important topics for the history of how media manufacture events which in turn create “publics.” Among the major pundits who weighed in on the flood were W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White, H.L. Mencken, and even, on the radio in Berlin, Walter Benjamin. After I noticed advertisements in newspapers for “monster” flood benefits—the biggest ones produced in the “Vaudeville” variety mode—I gradually realized that the way most citizens around the country came in live contact with the flood was in a theater. In particular, international comedians of color who hailed from the South, Will Rogers and the duo “Miller & Lyles,” offered a trenchant but popular kind of critique of white disaster consumption. Their messages crossed the color line in the way that newspaper editorials did not. Finally, Bessie Smith’s song, “Back-Water Blues,” also popular on both sides of the color line, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, offers a remarkable example of the way that black experience of displacement moved across space through sound. All in all, my book tests some classic ideas—expressed by the likes of Walter Lippmann and Jurgen Habermas—that the optimal form of democratic public reckoning with reality occurs through deliberative print media. “Entertainment,” for these theorists, is anathema to truth seeking. By contrast, the archive convinced me that, during the flood itself, Vaudeville comedy and blues entertainment communicated evacuee experience more wholly and more broadly than any other media.

One of your sections is titled “Modernism within a Second Nature,” can you explain how your book contributes to our understanding of modernism?

SP: And what does “Second Nature” mean? For many, the flood was an example of modernization adrift, of a kind of temporary drowning of that Progressive-era sense amongst Americans that theirs was a time of “the perfection of method and of mechanism” that could “spread well-being among the masses.” We have understood that artistic movement known as modernism as expressing at times enthusiasm, but at other times, profound doubts about various kinds of modernization, on the battlefield, in communications, in politics. We have not tended to think enough though about how modernist artists responded to the eclipsing of “nature” with a “second nature.” Second nature is a phrase Henri Lefebvre used to describe how, increasingly with modernity, “nature’s space has been replaced by a space-qua-product” of human design. I think this sense that industrialism’s second nature was not necessarily a “perfection” that would spread “well-being,” but was rather an imperious blunder that could bring intense misery especially to “the masses”—this sense was felt acutely amongst both whites and blacks in the South in 1927. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were the southern modernist authors who, in their stories about the flood, communicated that a rural environment could be thoroughly fabricated by humans, and fabricated in such a way as to intensify its inherent risks, so that these environments could become—indeed, had become—as political and modern and violent a product as a machine gun or a tank.

Given that the flood inundated the lower Mississippi Valley, do you see the book as primarily about the South?

SP: Yes and no. The environmental history leading up to the flood involved the entire Mississippi watershed, and how it was altered (through logging, wetlands drainage, grasslands removal and a levees-only engineering policy). And the media history, in so far as communication about the event was produced and consumed nationally, and internationally, also involves a much wider geography. It was a disaster most keenly and physically experienced in the Deep South, but the event took on meaning across a much broader mediascape. Though the South is often associated with “disaster” (of slavery, of defeat in war, of underdevelopment), it may surprise readers to find southern editorials in 1927 explaining this flood not in terms of God, but in terms of human miscalculation. Scholars who work on southern cultural topics today tend to be interested in how “the South” was created within global systems like mercantilism, empire and slavery, and also how it was partially invented by chroniclers outside its regional boundaries. My book is likewise concerned with that intersection of regional experience and broader environmental and representational patterns.

Why is yours an important book to read in 2017?

SP: Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment. We live in an age in which human impact on the earth is indelibly intense. We live this material reality—in our bones and cells—but we often come to perceive it in a way that is so technologically mediated as to be vertiginously virtual. For the sake of history, it is important to appreciate that the Flood of 1927 represented perhaps the first major coincidence of the “Anthropocene” and what Guy Debord has termed the “Society of the Spectacle.”

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Her latest book is The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

Oswald Schmitz on “new ecology”: How does humankind fit in with nature?

Schmitz Ecology has traditionally been viewed as a science devoted to studying nature apart from humans. But humankind is singlehandedly transforming the entire planet to suit its own needs, causing ecologists to think differently about the relationship between humans and nature. The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence by Oswald Schmitz provides a concise and accessible introduction to what this “new ecology” is all about. The book offers scientific understanding of the crucial role humans are playing in this global transition, explaining how we can ensure that nature has the enduring capacity to provide the functions and services on which our existence and economic well-being critically depend. Recently, Schmitz took some time to answer a few questions about his new book.

The term Anthropocene is cropping up a lot nowadays in discussions about the environment. What does this term refer to?

OS: The Anthropocene essentially means the Age of Humans. Science has characterized the history of the Earth in terms of major events that have either shaped its geological formations or have given rise to certain dominant life forms that have shaped the world. For example, the Mesozoic is known as the Age of the Dinosaurs, the Cenozoic includes the Age of Flowering Plants, Age of Insects, Age of Mammals and Birds. The Anthropocene characterizes our modern times because humans have become the dominant life form shaping the world.

You’ve written several books about ecology. What’s different about this one?

OS: My goal is to communicate the exciting scientific developments and insights of ecology to a broad readership. I hope to inspire readers to think more deeply about humankind’s role as part of nature, not separate from it, and consider the bigger picture implications of humankind’s values and choices for the sustainability of Earth. As such, the intended audience is altogether different than my previous books. My previous books were technical science books written specifically for ecologists or aspiring ecologists.

What inspired you to write this particular book?

OS: The ecological scientific community has done a great job of conducting its science and reporting on it in the scientific literature. That literature is growing by leaps and bounds, describing all manner of fascinating discoveries. The problem is, all that knowledge is not being widely conveyed to the broader public, whose tax dollars are supporting much of that research and who should be the ultimate beneficiaries of the research. Writing this book is my way of explaining to the broader public the incredible value of its investment in ecological research. I wrote it to explain how the scientific findings can help make a difference to people’s livelihoods, and health and well-being.

What is the main take-home message?

OS: I’d like readers to come away appreciating that ecological science offers considerable means and know-how to help solve many of the major environmental problems facing humankind now and into the future. It aims to dispel the notion, often held in society, that ecology is simply a science in support of environmental activism against human progress, one that simply decries human impacts on the Earth. This book instead offers a positive, hopeful outlook, that with humility and thoughtful stewardship of Earth, humans can productively engage with nature in sustainable ways for the mutual benefit of all species—humans included—on Earth.

Oswald Schmitz is the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His other works include Resolving Ecosystem Complexity (Princeton). His most recent book is The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence.

5 Myths About Sustainability

On Earth Day and everyday we all need to focus on ways to be more environmentally conscious and responsible. In Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson draw on the most up-to-date science to provide a handy guide that links knowledge to action. In the process, they debunk commonly held misconceptions about sustainability. The first step in affecting positive change is awareness:

1. Sustainability challenges are largely a problem of consumption.
In meeting the challenges posed by implementing sustainable practices, production and consumption should be viewed as parts of an integrated system. Demand may drive production, but production can influence consumption by creating a demand where there was none previously. (Pg. 16).

2. As we move toward more sustainable practices, precedence should be given to the environment; humans should be considered as negative pressures that put ecosystems at risk.
To meet the goals of sustainable development, there needs to be an integrated appreciation and understanding of the social-environmental systems that we are operating in or any solutions will be unbalanced and fall apart over the long-term (Pg. 53).

3. Better policies and technologies are all that is needed to meet the environmental challenges ahead.
The complexity of social-environmental systems means that we cannot always predict the consequences of new technologies or policies. The pursuit of sustainability has to be an adaptive process in which we try the best possible solutions, moniter the results, and make adjustments as needed (Pg. 64).

4. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNI (Gross National Income) are useful metrics when considering sustainability.
Both of these measures do not take important elements into account. First, they measure flows (what is happening now) rather than stocks or assets (what’s left to draw on in the future). They also fail to recognize and integrate the social and environmental as well as the economic determinants of well-being. To achieve an accurate sense of how we are doing in regard to sustainability, other measures and indicators that are more inclusive and broad-ranging are needed (Pg. 76).

5. Implementing sustainable practices means sacrificing profits.
Not necessarily. When taking into account social-environmental systems, sustainable solutions can actually save money. For examples of sustainability success stories that aided in, rather than hindering, economic goals, see Chapter 6 of Pursuing Sustainability.

As we work to meet the challenges posed by climate change and environmental vulnerability, it is important to educate ourselves so that we can arrive at solutions that will work over the long term. This Earth Day, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson’s book is necessary reading.

Noah Wilson-Rich on city beekeeping

the bee jacketNoah Wilson-Rich is an unconventional beekeeper who spends most of his time building bee hives on hundreds of buildings, including major stadiums, in nine different cities. These urban settings now support live bee populations and the environmentally friendly trend is only growing. As author of The Bee: A Natural History, Wilson-Rich establishes himself as an authority not only on the species but on conservation as well. An article on his beekeeping and speaking tour appeared recently in The Wall Street Journal.

Wilson-Rich emphasizes the urgency of preserving the bees’ population, pointing out that his urban hives are just one step in the right direction. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Mr. Wilson-Rich is researching ways to improve bee health, so he also carries test tubes to collect samples. He believes urban beekeeping is part of the solution. “Anybody who eats fruits and veggies needs bees. We have to protect our pollinators!” he says.

Wilson-Rich goes on to speak about some little known facts about bees, their habits, and what exactly makes them so uniquely necessary to humans. Read the rest of the article here.

Noah Wilson-Rich is founder and chief scientific officer of The Best Bees Company, a Boston-based beekeeping service and research organization. He is author of the book The Bee: A Natural History.

Conversations on Climate: Paul Wignall says climate crisis is nothing new

NEW climate pic

Climate Change: We’ve Been Here Before
by Paul Wignall

The world’s climate is always changing and always has. Even during the past few centuries we have seen substantial variations, but only recently have we begun to blame ourselves for them. But how much natural variability is there, and just how extreme can climate change be? To gain some longer-term perspective on the climate’s variability we can look back through geological time, particularly at catastrophic events known as mass extinctions. In my recent book, The Worst of Times, I focus on an 80 million year interval when life on Earth suffered one disaster after another. These catastrophes included the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, the worst crisis that life has ever faced. It is not very reassuring to find that these extinctions all coincide with intervals of rapid global warming.

rocks from Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou

Sedimentary rocks from the Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou Province, SW China that record evidence for the greatest of all mass extinctions.

So, are we all going to hell in a hand basket? Well, probably not just yet. The story from the past is much more nuanced than this and I believe there is substantial hope that all is not so bad today. The reason is that the worst 80 million years happened a long time ago and more recently (in the past 100 million years) things have got a lot better. At one time all the world’s continents were joined together into a single supercontinent called Pangea. This seems to have created a global environment that was very fragile. Every time there was a phase of giant volcanic eruptions in Pangea, climates changed rapidly, the oceans stagnated and life began to suffer. The cause seems to be not the actual lava flows themselves, although these were very large, but the gases that bubbled out of them, especially carbon dioxide, everyone’s (not so) favorite greenhouse gas. As I explain in my book the effects of these gases on climate and oceans changed global environments in a disastrous way. Rapid increases in global temperature were part of the story and the results were some of the hottest climates of all time. The results for life were profound; dominant groups went extinct and new groups appeared only to have their brief hegemony terminated by the next disaster. By the time these waves of extinction were over the dinosaurs were the newest kids on the block. They went on to thrive and get very large whilst scurrying around at their feet were a group of small furry creatures. These were the mammals and they would have to wait a long time for their turn.

basalt flows

A landscape entirely made of giant basalt flows from the Permian Period, Yunnan Province, SW China.

Dinosaurs were the dominant animals on Earth for over 140 million years and it is often thought that they were somehow competitively successful but I think they were just very lucky. They appeared at a time when the Earth was rapidly getting better at coping with climatic changes caused by giant volcanism. There were plenty of episodes of large-scale eruptions during the time of the dinosaurs and none caused major extinctions. The key thing was that Pangea was splitting up and separate continents were forming – the familiar continents of today’s world. Such a world seems better able to cope with rapid increases in atmospheric gases because feedback mechanisms are more effective. In particular rainfall is more plentiful when the continents are small and nowhere is too far away from the sea. Rain scrubs the atmosphere and thus alleviates the problems.

However, the $64,000 question is how quickly this feedback can happen. The world seems better at doing this today than it was in deep time but maybe we are adding the carbon dioxide too fast to our atmosphere, maybe we are swamping the system? This is a hard question to answer, we’re not sure how much gas came out during the giant eruptions of the past and so it’s hard to directly compare with the present day pollution rates. What we do know is that past mega-eruptions have been remarkably damage-free. For over 100 million years, our world has been a benign place.

Oh, except for a remarkably large meteorite impact that was bad news for the dinosaurs, but that’s another story.

Wignall jacketPaul B. Wignall is professor of palaeoenvironments at the University of Leeds. He has been investigating mass extinctions for more than twenty-five years, a scientific quest that has taken him to dozens of countries around the world. The coauthor of Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath, he lives in Leeds.

Jessica F. Green – Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance Winner of the 2014-2015 Harold and Margaret Sprout Award, Environmental Studies Section of the International Studies Association

Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance by Jessica F. Green is the winner of the 2014-2015 Harold and Margaret Sprout Award. “The award…is given annually to the best book in the field – one that makes a contribution to theory and interdisciplinary, shows rigor and coherence in research and writing, and offers accessibility and practical relevance. Nominated books should address some aspect of one or more environmental, pollution or resource issues from a broadly international or transnational perspective…”

The committee concluded that this book is an agenda-setting work in the debates around the nature and roles of private authority in international governance. The distinction between entrepreneurial and delegated authority illuminates the case material chosen for analysis here, and should stir more inquiry into these ideas. Two longitudinal chapters involve substantial and novel historical views of the topic, while the two case studies are well chosen and draw on extensive primary research. The book speaks to an important, dynamic phenomenon that we can see (or intuitively sense) operating across the transnational landscape and Green makes sense of it in sometimes counterintuitive ways. More general information on the awards can be found, here.

Congratulations to Jessica F. Green!




Rethinking Private Authority:
Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance

Jessica F. Green

Toby Tyrrell, author of On Gaia, explains how he came to question the Gaia Hypothesis

We interviewed Toby Tyrrell about his new book “On Gaia” last week. This week, we’re proud to link to this article in which he details some of the research that led him to view the Gaia Hypothesis with a critical eye:

Nitrogen is exceptionally abundant in the environment, it makes up 78 per cent of air, as dinitrogen (N2). N2 is also much more plentiful in seawater than other dissolved forms of nitrogen. The problem is that only organisms possessing the enzyme nitrogenase (organisms known as nitrogen-fixers) can actually use N2, and there aren’t very many of them. This is obviously a less than ideal arrangement for most living things. It is also unnecessary. Nitrogen starvation wouldn’t happen if just a small fraction of the nitrogen locked up in N2 was available in other forms that can be used by all organisms; yet biological processes taking place in the sea keep nearly all that nitrogen as N2. If you think about what is best for life on Earth and what that life can theoretically accomplish, nitrogen starvation is wholly preventable.

This realisation led me to wonder what other aspects of the Earth environment might be less than perfect for life. What about temperature? We know that ice forming inside cells causes them to burst and that icy landscapes, although exquisite to the eye, are relatively devoid of life. We can also see that ice ages – the predominant climate state of the last few million years – are rather unfortunate for life as a whole. Much more land was covered by ice sheets, permafrost and tundra, all biologically impoverished habitats, during the ice ages, while the area of productive shelf seas was only about a quarter of what it is today. Global surveys of fossil pollen, leaves and other plant remains clearly show that vegetation and soil carbon more than doubled when the last ice age came to an end, primarily due to a great increase in the area covered by forests.

Although the cycle of ice ages and interglacials is beyond life’s control, the average temperature of our planet – and hence the coldness of the ice ages – is primarily determined by the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. As this is potentially under biological control it looks like another example of a less than perfect outcome of the interactions between life on Earth and its environment.

Look further and you find still more examples. The scarcity of light at ground level in rainforests inhibits growth of all but the most shade-tolerant plants. There’s only really enough light for most plants at canopy height, often 20 to 40 metres up, or below temporary gaps in the canopy. The intensity of direct sunlight does not increase the higher you go, so having the bulk of photosynthesis taking place at such heights brings no great advantage to the forest as a whole. Rather the contrary, trees are forced to invest large amounts of resources in building tall enough trunks to have the chance of a place in the sun. This arrangement is hard to understand if you expect the environment to be arranged for biological convenience, but is easily understood as an outcome of plants competing for resources.

Source: “Not Quite Perfect”, Planet Earth Online:


Read a sample chapter from On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth [PDF].