How climate will reshape American history: Interview with Mark Fiege





Standing amid the Permian Basin oil fields in New Mexico last week, Mitt Romney announced an energy plan that takes “Drill, Baby, Drill” to a whole new level. Handing states control over oil, gas, and coal extraction on historically protected federal lands, he chucked a century of bipartisan policy going back to Teddy Roosevelt. For Mitt, it’s “speak politely and carry a big drill.”...

But even more, moments like this offer a window onto what historian Mark Fiege calls “an environmental history of modern conservatism.” In his magisterial new book, Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, Fiege suggests that the conservative movement itself “gathered political power from the transformation of the American landscape and in reaction to the environmental, economic, social, and political crises generated by that transformation.” In fact, he goes on, “the modern conservative movement might be understood fundamentally as an argument about nature.”...

Q. I wonder how today’s children, years from now, from the vantage point of a continent and a planet — and, in all likelihood, a country — vastly altered by human-driven global warming, will view this nation’s history. I can’t help wondering how U.S. history as a whole, not just “environmental history,” may be rewritten as a result of climate. It seems it could very well change everything about how we view our past.

A. Except for the chapter [on the early-'70s oil crisis], the book doesn’t say much about the global climate crisis. But I tried to make the story of the 1973-74 oil shock an account of the nation’s apotheosis — the petroleum-saturated “American century,” as Timepublisher Henry Luce called the 20th century, an era that helped to put into place an energy system that is now contributing to climate change....

Maybe the surest sign that an awareness of climate is shaping historical consciousness will be when the popular historians turn their attention on it. When historians of the stature of Gordon Wood or Eric Foner — or, for that matter, David McCullough or Hampton Sides — focus on climate and other big-block environmental issues, then we can say that we truly are rewriting American history around the topic. As Frederick Jackson Turner once wrote, every generation rewrites the past according to the concerns uppermost in its own time. I think we are seeing signs that the rewrite is underway.



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