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Conversation with Tracy, part 1

Here’s the first installment of a conversation I had yesterday with

. We had sent each other a half dozen questions prior to getting on Zoom. In this first episode, I answer a question of Tracy’s about my background and then she describes the multi-level approach she takes to the Anthropocene.

I end at a point where we’re setting up the next couple of topics, sort-of as a teaser of what will be in the next installment.

I edited this using Descript, and I’m just beginning to learn how the app works and what’s available in it. I think I’ll get better at this as I learn, but it seems pretty good, so far.


D: So we have a half a dozen questions for each other. Shall we just go ping pong back and forth? Because I think that would be probably more useful than trying to go through one list or the other. I suspect responses are going to generate more questions and more of a conversation if we do them one at a time.

T: Okay. Sounds good.

Yeah I'm really new to the whole video recording, video casting, the multimedia thing is really challenging for me at this point. It's hard enough for me to have my words out there in public, much less my face, my voice, my mannerisms.

D: Yeah, it does actually bring everybody down to, their basic humanity. And here am I, trying to start growing a beard or so the worst time for me to probably be appearing on video. But it is what it is.

T: Oh you always carry your presence through and that's, that , that gift of engagement is really great. And it's good, the ideas need to get out there and having real people behind them is, it's a unique opportunity, which, you know okay, so I'm, I should ask you first. Is that what you're saying?

D: Yeah, I think that would make sense.

T: Okay, so here's my first question. If I remember correctly, you have a background in economics, specifically agricultural economics, is that correct? And then how do you see the relationship between economics and then your present occupation, which is history, specifically American history?

D: Yeah, I got into agricultural economics accidentally. When I was coming out of high school, I had a lot of interests, a lot of potential, but not a lot of focus or direction. And so I went to the University of Massachusetts. There were different people wanting me to go different places. My parents were both high school teachers at the time. And they were both college educated. So there was an expectation certainly that I would go through that At least undergraduate process at that both at that time, both of them just had bachelor's degrees. And there was some talk about me going to an Ivy League school or even to a big name school, although my dad wanted me to go to a kind of a Bates or a Bowdoin, a small liberal arts college liberal arts college.

But I went to UMass for a variety of reasons. And it was, even at the time, there was 25, 000 people on the campus, in the community and it had all of these programs, and it was an R1 university, and so I got to just try everything, I just looked at the catalog, and I thought what interests me? And so first I tried to be a landscape architect in the environmental design program because they didn't have an architecture program. But I bombed out of drawing because I couldn't get my this was in the age of pencils And I could not get my line weights right. And so I got, for the first time ever, I got like a C or D or something and I got a bad grade. I think it may have only been a C, but I was shocked and appalled.

T: And we won't talk about calculus. It was my first C.

D: Calculus crushed me, but that was later in my career. I was, I hadn't really done that much math or science in high school, but so then I tried English and I took a Yeats and Joyce course, which I loved. And I took a Frost course with a guy who had taught with Robert Frost at Amherst college. And was still around, and had stories to tell, and that was fabulous, I loved that, and a modern novel course, and all these, and kind of honors courses and stuff, and then they told me I had to take, four semesters of, 18th century British romantics or something, and I said, nope, I'm out and I moved on to something else, And and then I got interested in farming and, agriculture and, because we had a little backyard garden where we had grown, our vegetables and stuff in the summertime, but I grew up in the burbs and I had no connection really with actual agriculture.

So I got involved in that and that was in a college at the time, UMass had a college of food and natural resources. And so I took some animal science, I took some plant science and then I gravitated towards this agricultural economics which actually also was a chance for me to do micro instead of just doing a very theoretical esoteric macroeconomics and also interesting. I was also becoming interested in free markets and libertarianism and all that. And I had just, I had just read, the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and I was very, so that was my flirtation.

T: That's the male Sophomore college thing to do, especially back in the day.

D: Yeah. And all of the people in economics and the formal economics department at UMass were Marxists and they were all of the Marxists that had been thrown out of Harvard and MIT and, all of the big East Coast. colleges or, if not thrown out, encouraged to move on in the 60s. And so they had all migrated to Western Massachusetts and were holing up at UMass. So that the really conservatives were like Keynesians in that department. And so straight economics wasn't going to be a good fit.

And I was also actually starting to read the Austrians who really, firmly held that macro wasn't a thing, that if, in Mises’ idea, if all value is subjective, then how do you aggregate it? It's a dog that won't hunt kind of thing. So I did micro, I did econometrics and I actually did some like graduate level ag economics stuff. And then I went off and decided get into business and specifically get into the securities industry and I just went to work for a Wall Street based company and

T: Oh, wow. I didn't know that. I didn't know you were on Wall Street. You really have done everything from the farm to Wall Street in a couple of years. That's pretty good. A Marxist to the ultra capitalists. Nice.

D: It was brutal though, because it was really the Glen Gary, Glen Ross office I worked except with one addition that you don't see in the show, which is the cigarette smoke. Because every Monday, as people were sitting, cold calling to get their, their appointments for the week, it was just, long tables with phones and a lot of times just white pages of the phone book and cigarettes everywhere and butts in half drunk styrofoam cups of coffee.

It was just crazy. Terrible. As bad as you can imagine it. And so I did that for a few years. And that and then I got involved in high tech. And then it wasn't until after 20 years down the line, I retired from high tech and once I had moved out to Minnesota, I started taking some extra courses.

I just started taking courses at the university at night and things again, interested me. And it, I found that it was going towards history and there were some history courses that I was enjoying and partially it may have just been the coincidence that there were history courses available at night that I could take but I went and then once I retired, then I was additionally taking some during the day I took a course that was really a big influence on me about the enlightenment that was taught by a guy who I'm still friends with who, on the first day welcomed us into, participate in the enlightenment project.

T: Wow, that this is a community and it's a dialogue. A living community. It's not just some academic esoteric historical thing. Yeah. It's living. It's alive now. We're enlightened.

D: And, that the discourse had continued. And so he was inviting us to participate in that. So I ate that up. And there was something that we talked about; I had the idea when we were talking last time about environmental humanities, which is a different thing from environmental history. But not that different. And so when I formally went back to grad school for history first at a state university in southern Minnesota in 2006, 2007, I did Latin America. And then once again at UMass in 2009 to 2012 I was on campus there. And environmental history was one of my major fields, and then U. S. social and cultural history, and especially the 19th century, which, for me, the 19th century is, 1787 to 1914, or something like that, so it's

T: The long 19th century.

D: …the longest possible conception of the long century.

T: Yeah, which makes sense. Ending in 00 are pretty arbitrary.

D: Yeah. And that whole periodization argument isn't really worth having. So that went in a bunch of different directions, so the relationship between economics and adding in the environment and history, I think all have been longstanding interests for me. And then again, also, obviously, the people who are who are involved in that, right? Actual farmers. Because one of the beautiful things for me about UMass, especially in the early 80s was that there were old farmers running programs like agricultural economics. As well as animal science. The guy who ran our animal science labs was a cattle farmer on a small scale because it was Western Massachusetts, but he actually had cattle. My advisor was an old farmer who was reclaiming his family's farm, which had been lost. It had been parceled out and so there was a 400 acre or so farm up in the foothills. Above the Western edge of the Pioneer Valley and he was building it back up and, rebuying the land back and putting it back together.

And he was raising milking short horns, which at the time were a rare breed. He was reconstituting a herd that had been built from the last herd available. So he was a real guy. He was a farmer and he was my advisor and I worked on his farm, picking rocks out of his hillside fields and, and clearing brush in these overgrown fields and stuff.

T: Yeah, was that your summer job or were you undergraduate slave labor?

D: No, that was my summer job. And then he invited me actually to live in his attic. I didn't take him up on it.

T: So that the people again, it's lived. It's a lived thing. Not just the classroom theory. You're out there moving rocks for the cattle.


So fences, lots of fence posts.

D: I did. That was the first time I saw a fencing tool; which he made out like they were really rare and nobody knew about this anymore. But now, of course, I come out to rural Minnesota and they're everywhere. Which is good, I'm glad that it wasn't as bad as he suggested it was, but I got the worst case of poison ivy ever, clearing. Because it was an old enough farm, there were stone walls everywhere. And he strung some barbed wire above the walls and I think he actually had some smooth wire too; he had an electrical in that particular field.

And so he didn't want there to be anything touching the smooth wire. And so I went around, with a sickle and just cut everything down barehanded. And throwing small bales of hay. 40 pound bales, but hundreds and hundreds of them into this nice old wooden barn that he had rebuilt and renovated and stuff.

Yeah. So it was it was an interesting exposure to all of that and to the personal sort of reality of all of that. Later, years later, when I was a grad student at UMass, we went out to the Genesee Country Museum in Western New York and there was an 1800 house that was just a one room cabin that we lived in. And we lived as the 1800 family over a long weekend, the 4th of July weekend. And cooked on the stone hearth and wore hot, sweaty clothes and I learned a little bit of blacksmithing and then that sort of got me interested. And then I actually got some training in blacksmithing. So yeah, all of that kind of,

T: So you really have lived experience for the kind of 19th century American farmer. You're not just writing about it from the dusty tomes in the library. You're out there. At least, an approximate version of it.

D: As much as I could. Yeah. I wanted to experience that sort of life. Also, as not entirely a prepper, but I did want to experience where my food came from, and I had a little bit of experience with tomatoes and peppers and eggplant and vegetables and stuff like that as a kid. But when we moved up here, we moved on to a 20 acre kind of hobby farm in northern Minnesota and we've never had cattle but we've had a pony and we've had sheep and goats and turkeys and chickens for layers as well as meat birds. So that was also something that was important because as an Environmental historian becoming aware of the changes in agriculture and business and all of that and industrial farming over the years and the environmental and the health effects of that.

And I'll have a question for you later about putting all of those things together, because one of the things that I've been struggling with is, whether all of this all really fits together organically in a single Substack or maybe it's just a longer play or a longer game for that. But I have taken up a lot of time here, so why don't I,

T: That's okay. I'm actually relating. Cause I grew up on basically a hobby farm in Michigan. So my dad worked but we had what, 40 acres. Also horses, hay bales, having to feed the horses in the snow in the winter. And we had a big garden and planted trees and fence posts and did all the whole thing. And he didn't, we didn't have boys. So I have just one sister. But my dad decided that we girls could do anything the boys would have done, so he had us out there working as a farm hand.

D: I was very lucky with the post hole digger that we're on sand. So once you get past the about eight inches of topsoil, it's sand all the way down so that was super lucky for me. So let me go to the second question that I had for you, because I think that probably fits in this moment. And that was About the Anthropocene and what are the most important elements that you see that you want to talk about of this idea of the Anthropocene? And then I had listed the obvious ones, environmental degradation and climate change and mass extinction, but then going back to that idea of environmental humanities, are there cultural things that you think that we should be paying more attention to? Or is the fire burning too hotly right now to address the crises before we get to the culture?

T: Yeah that's interesting, you have the environmental history, agricultural economics, but I can see you, especially for your upcoming kind of working more on literature, moving into environmental humanities and our great American environmentalists were all poets. They were all literary types too. Aldo Leopold and, it's interesting.

I'm coming out of my graduate degree is a PhD in ecology. I did more kind of theory. But definitely I was interested in the application to conservation issues, environmental policy. And I took some social science and philosophy. Which then, kinda was a natural segue into doing more of an ethical approach along with the science. And so my coursework was mostly science. My dissertation was more of a combination. So I was looking at environmental ethics and more philosophical issues for my dissertation, but there was a lot of water under the bridge since then.

And so at this point what I see in this kind of focus on the Anthropocene is not only the science issues and even in the scientific side; it's not just climate change. That's taken over the whole attention of everybody today.

D: To the detriment of some other important things.

T: Yeah. To the detriment of other things which I actually think are just as or more important. I actually think it's more important that we're losing biodiversity as people would put it, which actually is a short form term for loss of natural habitats, loss of functioning ecosystems. Loss of the whole web of life, both on land and in aquatic ecosystems. And the thing is that humans are very adaptable. We're going to be able to adapt to climate change. I don't see our human species going extinct. Now there's going to be a lot of injustice because the people least able to adapt are going to be the poor and the vulnerable. And so that's a real problem.

But in terms of losing whole other ecosystems and species and biodiversity, you can't replace that. And they're not going to adapt. At least, they need millions of years. That's a whole different dimension of the problem that I actually think we need to pay far more attention to than we do. And that's not to say that climate change doesn't impact natural ecosystems. Of course it does. But it's an enormously complex problem because not only are there these kinds of scientific environmental issues, but there is, I really think a whole human side.

So what I've done for myself is because there's so many issues and so complicated, I had to impose some order on it. And I came up with this sort of classification system, which I call A1, A2, A3 and A4; just Anthropocene one, two, three, and four, where there's just a different lenses, different things you're focusing in on. And A1 is basically just the major mega trends happening over time. People argue about when to define the beginning of the Anthropocene, was it 10,000 years ago with the rise of agriculture? Was it the Industrial Revolution? Was it 1950 with the rise of nuclear power, nuclear weapons, where we can actually see in the geological strata that there's radiation or whatever.

I don't really care. It's all of them. And in a geological timescale, that's all trivial. The difference between 10,000 years ago and 50 years ago is a blip. Not from the standpoint of human history, but from the standpoint of geological time. But these big mega trends, you have what they call the great acceleration starting in the mid-20th century, where you have these kind of hockey shaped curves, on a graph over time, showing rise in human population, rise in use of fossil fuels and energy, rise in human lifespan, rise in economic growth or Global GDP or something. Or you have hockey shapes curves going the other way. They're declining. So it's the decline in infant mortality and also the decline in biodiversity or the area of land that's still wild land or natural preserves or something like that. So that's A1 is just these big trends over time.

A2 is just land use, water use. In terms of surface area, how much surface area of the planet do humans control? And what are we doing with it? So it's putting land under cultivation, it's desertification, it's changing water, deforestation, all of these kind of just major or minor. It can be large or small scale, but it's how humans are impacting the actual surface of the earth. And of course, oceans and waterways too. So time is A1 and space is A2. A3 and A4 really focus in on the the human activity part of it, not just our effects on the planet.

So A3 is the material side of things. This is really our economic processes, our linear economy where we're taking resources and manufacturing and consuming and then basically generating pollution, waste which is going back into the environment. So it's really how we're organizing our human productive activities and how we can adapt that and change that, using technology and so on. And then A4 is the kind of flip side of A3. So being not so much materially oriented but this is where the kind of environmental humanities come in. So it's questions of philosophy and ethics and culture and politics and even things like art and religion, which of course have a material side to them, but are primarily driven by human thought and imagination and literature and culture and math and all those kinds of things.

And I found that it's a pretty useful division to just help me think how to make sense of the great complexity of what we're calling the Anthropocene today. So that kind of has become a focus for me fairly recently, actually. And then in particular, the A4 issues. So I can draw on some scientific background or knew the data science stuff for the graphs and charts and I am interested in the economic side of things which I'm really learning much more about. I did some economics in college, it was standard micro macro. But the history of economic thought or the history of economics and how that intertwines with industrialization, globalization, all of these kinds of issues is big and complicated and impacts human welfare and economic development with all the fallout to the environmental fallout. So there's these trade offs between things.

And convergences and it's very interesting to me that people usually don't care about the environment until they're not starving, right? So you need a certain level of economic development to be in a position where you can even worry about these other values that, that we have today. This idea that, the only way to save the environment is to like de-growth, de-economic-growth is really frightening because you're just going to put people back to subsistence levels or the population of the planet is going to be nine tenths or something.

D: Which is bizarre that you actually hear people nowadays begin to say things like that out loud, that there's always been in my mind, a thought in the back of people's minds that the way some of these people are talking on the fringes of environmentalism and green movements, is almost wouldn't we really be better off if there was a billion humans rather than 10 billion? And people used to just laugh and say that's not a mainstream idea and nobody's really planning for that or anything like that. But it does seem like there's been a little bit, not to get paranoid and conspiracy minded. But it does seem like there is more of a thought about it and maybe that's part of that shift from this growth mindset that we've been addicted to over the generations. All the way from manifest destiny to Marion King Hubbert saying we're addicted to growth. And he was a petroleum engineer. But even he saw that there's something going on. But yeah so maybe it has something to do with us wondering, how are we going to talk about this?

And then it's weird because then I'll see people pointing fingers at each other and some people calling other people Malthusians. As if we understand what it means, first of all, and we know what bundle of commitments goes with that epithet; which I think is very tricky and oftentimes misunderstood. It's weird. As you were talking, I was thinking about the macro and micro levels of some of these things, because, when you were talking about A2 and you're talking about land and water use and what happens to like waterways. One of the things that I found and it actually is echoed in that really fabulous a little documentary about the wolves in Yellowstone that you that you posted, that these animals without setting out to do it changed the course of waterways. And what I found in researching the lumber industry was, similarly, clear cutting over the generations, the centuries that it happened between the east coast, on the Atlantic seaboard in Canada and in New England, and then they basically followed the pine forest all the way to where I am now and cut it all. And as they did that, there were things that they didn't notice at the time, but understand now about what happened to water levels in little streams and what happened to changes over seasonality with snow melts. And there used to be a term freshet in the American vocabulary, that talked about these snow melts that would that would cause this massive water coming down the streams into the bigger streams, into the rivers and people used to move mill dams so that they wouldn't be swept away by this rush.

T: Oh, wow. Interesting.

Here in the Southwest, we have the Arroyos where when there is snow melt there's warnings that go out and say, make sure you're not in the Arroyo because flash floods can happen all the time. And yeah, dealing with water levels and what's happening, it occurs to me too, that with the loss of the forests on the Eastern seaboard, you're also losing species like beavers, who are also like the wolves and Yellowstone. They're, constructing whole ecosystems through their engineering and stuff.

Have you, have you heard of this? Have you heard of this idea that the the cutting down of all the forests on the Eastern seaboard might actually have partially caused the little ice age? George Washington's at the, and all of his troops are freezing and it was really cold then. The idea that this was actually climate change caused by destruction of forest way before industrialization and that humans have had climactic impacts long before the modern era.

D: Yeah, I think Charles Mann mentions that, in I think it's 1493.

T: Yeah, it talks about that.

D: I read some of his sources for that because what he was talking about was that the die off of the Woodland tribes who were managing the forest in a way that the English speaking people didn't understand at all. When they died out — and it's amazing how they died out, right? Because there's a famous discussion of what was his name Coronado, right? Coming to Florida and then meandering around for 18 months or so, and then dying of fever. Bringing his diseases with him and then dying of them. As he's paddling along these rivers, there are natives coming out in canoes to challenge him and say, “we know about you, we've heard about you, move along”, kind of thing every every couple of miles along all these tributaries and then along the Mississippi River and ultimately he dies and they actually dump him in the river and continue on their way. Yeah, at first they try to hide his body because they have some idea that the natives that are around them at the moment think that he might be semi-divine. And so if he's dead, that's going to be a problem. But that may have all been in their heads, but in any case they ditch him and and that's about 1539 to 1542. And then nobody goes there for a century. But then in 1670 LaSalle floats down from the Ohio River down into the Mississippi and there is nobody there and they float along for hundreds of miles and see no one, where all of the writing that we get from the Coronado expedition there are natives everywhere. They can't go a couple of miles without running into, and they all disappear,

T: And this is a complete depopulation of what was. I remember Mann talking about it because it's very controversial. The extent to what the population level was and what the impact of contact with Europeans was, and in the rainforest as well makes similar arguments about how in the Amazon, it's a much more managed ecosystem. There were many more great civilizations there. It's not like this primitive rainforest. It's fascinating because the pre-Columbian history, our projections back as to what that was, now are being challenged by all the archaeological finds and it has huge ethical implications for the kind of impact of the European contact.

Yeah. It's funny because I think he still lives in Amherst. And I heard stories about how he didn't have his own office. So he worked in the Amherst public library a lot of the time. And I never met him. My mentor, my advisor, Ted Melillo, who works at Amherst College — that was the beauty of going to UMass was I could have advisors and faculty at all five of them.

T: New England's great that way.

D: And even actually also from from the University of Connecticut, which wasn't part of the system, [Christopher] Clark was down there and he was super generous too, but Ted was friends with Charles Mann. And I never had a chance or took the time to ask him to introduce me.

And I wanted to talk, later, more about historians versus non-historians writing history. But for a non-historian, he wrote great historiography too, right? That whole story of what's her name, Anna Roosevelt and Betty Meggers and the disagreement about, whether the rainforest could sustain large populations,

T: He's a science journalist, didn't he start out as a science journalist? So he's a journalist, but trained in dealing with complicated theoretical and evidentiary issues but then he just turns that to historical topics. And it's interesting because he's often motivated by the kind of all too pat American history stories told to him in his schooling. Like he said, he realizes this is just not true.

D: But he does a really good job of humanizing those stories, right? So it's more than just the type of lit review that you would see in a science article. But it made a human of Betty Meggers and he could have turned her into a villain. But she's desperately afraid that the idea that there were lots of people in the Amazon is going to bring lots of people to the Amazon now; and we're not going to do it intelligently the way the people in the past did, with this long term, tree crop world that they had created.

T: Have you read his what is it, the prophet and the, is it the wizard, the wizard and the prophet? That is a little bit different, but there he really is intentionally getting into this kind of ethical, philosophical mindset about how do humans confront environmental issues. Where he's featuring Borlaug and the Green Revolution and, literally, saving a billion people but it's all through basically agricultural engineering or genetic engineering of crops and stuff. Versus William Voigt who's more what we would recognize as the kind of de-growth, very romanticized environmentalist.

And he comes up with a tie, like he doesn't ultimately come down on one side or the other because he doesn't feel he can.

D: Which is, it's a complex thing, right? When I was doing my field reading for environmental history, I ran across Vaclav Smil, who is the historian of technology. I guess you would, if you're being generous, you would call him that. But really the making of the 20th century book. And then he's gone on to really double down on all of those things. That Fritz Haber is the most important scientist of the era and that the nitrogen fixation process is responsible for the lives of 4 billion people or something. And you've got Vandana Shiva saying no, it really was all just mining the water table.

T: That's all of these things, right? They all are impacting in complicated ways. And the question is, is it bad history? It's definitely motivated history. And we're trying to draw lessons from it. I'm actually okay with that. I don't want history to be some dry academic thing that, it was all just in the past and doesn't really matter.

On the other hand, if it is relevant and it is affecting our decision making and our ethics and how we're looking at things today, then that's really motivated and there's political agendas at stake, in which case you're reading it in these potentially very biased ways because you want to find certain things or you don't want to find certain things. And that makes it very tricky.

D: It's interesting. It's weird. I just listened to Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying's book The Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century. And it's a small book. I thought it made a couple of really interesting points — actually I thought the most interesting point was about, they call it the Omega Principle, which I think they just made up in their classrooms. But the principle is that culture is adaptive. And that it's not helpful to separate between biological processes and cultural processes in talking about change and adaptation. But I think, to your point about fighting over the history, it matters a lot whether Borlaug actually created, and how the studies were done and what numbers were counted and what numbers were ignored.

I think there's a lot at stake with the ways that people understand History and maybe to that point another one of your questions for me had to do with that and not only lineages of history, but also what I took from that and what I wanted to talk about was, you brought up Hofstadter and Parrington, who are I think are history-adjacent. But I think it's important to contextualize the storyteller as well. And I think especially people like Hofstadter, he wrote about the progressive historians but then there were other books that I thought were not necessarily more correct but maybe more nuanced and added more complexity. The Age of Fracture, for example, which is a Daniel T. Rodgers thing from 2012-ish out of the Harvard Press. And I disagreed with him about a bunch of things and it really culminates in the changes that happened in the eighties. So those ones that I lived through in my,

T: we both did

D: college, when I read Ayn Rand and all that happened. And a lot of people did and Ronnie Reagan came along and

T: Yes, yes that's, yeah, I, that was my era too.

D: So can we talk about that? I'll just reiterate, what you asked me maybe about that, or do you want to? Actually put your own spin on the question.

The next installment will begin with this topic. See you then!

MakingHistory and Lifelong Learning
Great Conversations
The editors of the Great Books of the Western World series in 1952 believed they were facilitating what they called "The Great Conversation" of modern civilization. They believed it was the key to creating educated citizens who could effectively participate in democracy and keep the ideals of the US alive. This section is about that idea. And also about continuing to have great conversations today.