About the Author
Michelle K. Berry is Lecturer in the Departments of History and Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Arizona.
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INTO THEIR LUNCH BAGS TO TEACH RELEVANCE AND GLOBALIZATION WITH FOOD
"BUT I DON'T LIKE NATURE at all. Bugs scare me," proclaimed a student who was deciding whether or not to take my U.S. Environmental History course. Another said, "I'm so not outdoorsy," and a third said, "I am more interested in economics and science." For a student who lives in a city of over a million people in the Sonoran Desert that is hot and prickly much of the year, the first student's sentiment didn't surprise me, nor did the notion that one must be a hiker or a tree hugger in order to dig environmental history. The student who believed that environmental history is separate from the study of economics and science, however, astonished me. That sentiment reminded me of how little our students know about the importance of the earth and its processes in the larger scheme of things. Explaining and drumming up interest in the topic is one of the greatest challenges for teachers of environmental history.
This chapter introduces a variety of ideas for how to make the case to students that studying environmental history is relevant to them. We should think about relevance in another way as well: the relevance the discipline has for revolutionary teaching. Bell hooks has argued that the transformative potential of education is its power to encourage democratic decision making in the future. In order to achieve that noble end, one must teach the skills students need to engage deeply in democratic processes. Perhaps not surprisingly, progressive pedagogy tells us that skills should be at the center of what we teach, even more so than content, if we are to affect a future for our students in which they do not simply receive information and recite it but are empowered to critically think about information, communicate those thoughts, and solve problems on a daily basis. This, then, is the second place where the relevance of environmental history must be understood: by us, the teachers. Environmental history's relevance in students' daily lives gives it the potential to facilitate the essential acquisition of skills such as communication, creative problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. The study of environmental history requires multidisciplinary understandings and perspectives, and therefore it applies to every facet of real life. It is this last truth that must be engagingly communicated to students.
One way to make environmental history readily relevant to our students is through a discussion of food. Our students live in a world that prizes the fast. Google provides answers in a nanosecond. Amazon can complete an order in less than two hours from purchase to delivery. Music and mobile apps download onto devices on demand. In addition our students live in a global world — at least in terms of their technological exposure. They know, even if they don't always take advantage of it, that fast food is there waiting at McDonald's at all hours and that a wide variety of cuisine peppers their culinary landscape. But when our students order the Big Mac, they don't see cows, corn, water, or the long global history of husbandry that is present in the "all-beef" patty. Students, especially urban students (who we can assume are upward of 75 percent of those in our classrooms), often do not understand the slow, painstaking, and often transnational processes that go into growing and harvesting that food. Introducing students, first, to the agro reality of their food is an important step in asking them to trace the history of their lunch so they can more easily grasp that environmental history transcends a seemingly simple study of trees and bugs.
The context of food is, obviously, agriculture, and the study of agriculture can be as riveting as watching corn grow. Assigning common general readings or film viewings or both is an excellent way to begin a foray into food history. The benefit of connecting academic study to the real world is that it opens up significantly more engaging sources for students, especially through journalistic and documentary texts. In the case of food, no author is better for this task than Michael Pollan. The erudition and accessibility of his writing make him a great choice for students at all levels. He talks about agriculture (literally the cultivation of fields) and plant evolution in a way that titillates rather than bores and that immediately connects the eon-long practice of human cultivation of plants to the present day. He also subtly but consistently shows how food has global, environmental consequences.
Consider this, from his introduction to The Botanyof Desire:
The DNA of that tulip there, the ivory one with the petals attenuated like sabers, contains detailed instructions on how best to catch the eye not of a bee but of an Ottoman Turk; it has something to tell us about that age's idea of beauty. Likewise, every Russet Burbank potato holds within it a treatise about our industrial food chain — and our taste for long, perfectly golden french fries. ... We have spent the last few thousand years remaking these species through artificial selection, transforming a tiny, toxic root node into a fat, nourishing potato and a short, unprepossessing wildflower into a tall, ravishing tulip. What is much less obvious, at least to us, is that these plants have, at the same time, been going about the business of remaking us.
Pollan is not just an approachable writer but a prolific one; in addition to his published book-length works, he has an impressive online presence. He has several advocacy columns published online, and PBS has produced an excellent documentary, called The Botanyof Desire, on his work. An instructor could use all of these sources in what I call a "sources in the round" discussion. In this assignment students access different kinds of sources (in small groups) and come to class prepared to highlight the content of the sources (What was learned?) and to discuss the efficacy of the source to communicate the information (How did we learn it?). Is a documentary film more effective than a book chapter? What gets left out of each? Is there enough information in Pollan's columns in the New York Times to fully inform the reader? Thus one can assign a documentary, an excerpt from one of his book chapters, and a sampling of his food advocacy blogs early in the semester and begin a robust conversation about the merits and drawbacks of certain kinds of sources while also introducing students to the importance of their lunch and the relevance of environmental history. Of course assigning a primary source from a planter in the nineteenth-century American South connecting the cotton plant to its slave caretakers is important as well, but not, perhaps, as effective in the early days of the course. In the first days establishing relevance by introducing students to the timeliness (versus the timelessness) of the discipline is crucial.
Once I have introduced students to agriculture and food generally, it is time to ask them to get personal. The personalization of history can be a daunting task in a gender history class or in a study of whiteness. Such personalization can be sensitive material for students who are not used to being asked to think about their own identity in connection with oppression and domination. Thankfully in the early days of an environmental history class, this personalization comes a bit more easily. One approach is to pick an item of food and ask students to think critically about what it takes to grow and harvest it and what it takes for it to be sitting on their lunch table. Take, for example, the ubiquitous banana.
The banana epitomizes the interdisciplinary relevance, current applicability, and global interconnectedness of environmental history largely because people love it. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the banana is America's most popular fruit; in the year 2010 each American on average consumed ten pounds of bananas. Yet it is not cultivated in the United States. Thus, immediately, a study of the banana as a discrete research unit on globalization or as an introductory lesson on relevance fits in all kinds of courses. The banana's cultural, political, and ecological legacies are vast; the challenge lies in making the sweeping content accessible for students and manageable for the instructor. I usually start by playing the catchy tune "Yes! We Have No Bananas," first released in 1922 and likely inspired by a shortage of bananas in grocery stores in New York City. The shortage resulted from the Panama Blight, which caused billions of dollars of damage to the global banana export business in the early twentieth century. By the 1950s the entire transnational business of banana cultivation and consumption was undermined because of the fungus. And there's that ditty, just begging for critical analysis. Playing the song as the introduction to the banana lesson piques the interest of students. Asking them to guess why the Greek grocer would be out of bananas in 1922 can get the discussion going. Hopefully the students will come up with a variety of reasons: the delivery truck didn't come, the bananas didn't grow, someone in the store forgot to order the bananas, the bananas sold out, and so on. With each new idea about why the grocer is out of bananas, the class is building and thinking more deeply about the global story of the fruit.
By 1922 the banana was a global commodity. Helping students to understand that all environmental history (including food history) is global in nature should be an important objective for any environmental history course. The different zones of the earth have been ecologically connected for time immemorial and linked through human culture for half a millennium, but is that the same as the process of globalization? Just what is globalization? This is one topic where posing a question is almost more important and certainly more provocative than providing a definition. Student responses will include ideas about interconnectedness, cultural and economic exchanges, and political and ideological interactions. In other words, globalization is a trendy way of talking about the core of what historians analyze: flows, networks, outlooks, assemblages, and nodes of interaction taking place across ethnic, national, cultural, and social boundaries. One way to historicize current discussions about globalization is to center the processes at work and link them to environmental opportunities and constraints. Food, particularly the banana, is an excellent conduit to do just that.
Global capitalist agriculture as a regime of domination is represented in the environmental history of the popularization and commoditization of the Big Mike and Cavendish varietals of banana. What an opportunity for a world history course on trade or in AP U.S. History to zero in on trade globalization using a specific food commodity like the banana's impressive rise in the Gilded Age. If you are required to teach an economics strand, you can weave in a bit of environmental history with the banana to introduce students to ideas about consumerism and the fundamental linkages between supply and demand. Labor and capital, natural resource exploitation through the use of fossil fuels, and the expansion of global trade all unite there, in the delicious fruits traveling inside waxy boxes to the grocery store bins. (Heck, you can even have students think about the ways the environment exists in the waxy box as well!)
Since all bananas are related in some way (they are, in the loosest sense of the word, cloned), the banana can also help students begin to grapple with the meanings of nature and natural. This is a particularly important definitional process to undertake early in a stand-alone course on environmental history. What does it mean to be natural? If we define nature as untouched by humanity, is there any nature left on earth? Surely not on the banana plantations! The banana rose to popularity and prominence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through intentional marketing of the United Fruit Company (UFC) as well as the serendipitous health craze that swept the United States. This rise demonstrates that environmental history necessarily includes research on agriculture, globalization, and culture, and that so many current economic, political, and social justice issues have relevance to and can be best understood as rooted in an environmental and ecological past.
For example, the Cavendish banana, the most ubiquitous variety and the most heavily traded, is a human construction. After the Gros Michel, also called Big Mike, succumbed to Panama Disease (Fusarium oxysporum), the Cavendish was cultivated through cloning techniques, first in a lab and then in the field. It then came to stand in for the Big Mike. This part of the banana's history helps students to understand that farming is human cultivation but also highly dependent on a nature that is independent from human manipulation. This subtopic opens opportunities for debate on genetic engineering (genetically modified organisms, GMOs) as well as the pros and cons of monoculture versus polyculture and of industrial agriculture versus pre-modern (or even organic) agriculture. The eventual dramatic exploitation of rain forests can be brought to bear on these conversations as well and can be used to introduce students to the ways this one lunch bag commodity may be partially responsible for climate change the world over.
Because students often associate environmental history with those yucky bugs and with trees (how boring, yawn), it is early in the course that we have the chance to show them that environmental history is not just about nature; it is a truly transdisciplinary subject that should inform and complicate our understandings of capitalism, imperialism, and industrialization. One entrée into this point is to ask them to think about their culture of consumption. Keeping with the banana, you might ask students to literally or imaginatively travel to the world of fashion. Begin with a field trip to the multinational clothing store Banana Republic. Utilizing students' social media tools is one way to get them somewhere without having to actually travel. For instance, Banana Republic has a very active Instagram account. Have your students follow the company's posts and think critically about the messages and images they find there. Once students know a little bit about the banana and its political ecology, they should be ready to wonder about the reasons behind naming a company after such an exploitative notion and what environmental costs are associated with the products depicted on Banana Republic's Instagram.
The discussion of the ways in which economic globalization and environmental consumerism and labor exploitation work hand in glove can then begin in earnest. You can spend time on the cultivation of cotton, rayon, polyester, or any other of the myriad raw materials of those cute shirts hanging on the shelves of that oh-so-aptly-named shop. This will offer the students and you the opportunity to think too about the feminization of poverty and the gendering of work. The very symbol of the Chiquita girl opens a perfect opportunity to discuss the conflation of environment, cultivation, and the gendered division of labor. As Carolyn Merchant begs us to remember, "a sensitivity to gender enriches environmental history" because women have related to and been conflated with nonhuman nature differently from men. The association of the Eve-like Chiquita image with nature in order to sell the socially constructed banana can offer a tangible and discrete symbol to students as they begin thinking about the connections among nature, culture, modes of production, and gender relations.
Other social relations and conflicts are embedded into the flesh of the mighty banana. An investigation of big capital and its social dominance through agriculture is low-hanging fruit for a unit or a project focused on the UFC and its connections to racism, migratory labor relations, democratic revolutions, the slow food movement, and more. Our students live in a world where, if they are paying attention, democratic social movements litter the global landscape, debates about immigration and racism are omnipresent, and foodie culture is pervasive. Again social media can serve as an instantly gratifying hook for our students. Ask students to research one of these issues and find one type of social media activists have used to characterize the cause. Why does that cause lend itself to that particular kind of social media? Is slow food more effectively publicized through the imagery that can be created on Instagram? Would a food revolution benefit more from having a twenty-four-hour Twitter feed? Why might this be? Then ask students to learn the history of UFC and apply it to the hot topic they have chosen. The twist enters when you ask students to decide which kind of social media (had it been around in the 1930s, 1970s — just pick a time) would have been the most effective in ending the dominance of UFC in Latin America or in empowering UFC in its quest to maintain power. Have students create a fictional account, complete with posts (images, messages, links, etc.), in the social media platform they think would be most effective for the cause they are representing. (Here you ask students to empathize and role-play.) In a unit or project like this make sure you require students to keep the environment in mind — ask them, How is the banana driving history?
Excerpted from "A Primer for Teaching Environmental History"
Copyright © 2018 Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface: How to Make Use of This Book ix
Part I. Approaches
1. The Fruit: Into Their Lunch Bags to Teach Relevance and Globalization with Food 13
2. The Seed: Using Learning Objectives to Build a Course 27
3. The Hatchet: Wielding Critique to Reconsider Periodization and Place 39
4. The Llama: Recruiting Animals to Blend Nature and Culture 53
Part II. Pathways
5. The Fields: Science and Going Outside 71
6. The Land: Sense of Place, Recognition of Spirit 85
7. The Power: Energy and Water Regimes 99
Part III. Applications
8. The People: Environmental Justice, Slow Violence, and Project-Based Learning 115
9. The Tools: Using Technology to Enhance Environmental History 131
10. The Test: Assessment Methods, Rubrics, and Writing 141
What People are Saying About This
“This friendly book invites teachers to reflect on the wide and diverse natural world, the joys of the classroom, and the fascinations of the past. Imagine Rachel Carson and bell hooks discussing The Historian's Craft by Marc Bloch. Add to that practical tips for designing syllabi and classroom exercises. Teachers of environmental history will be enriched by reading and rereading Emily Wakild and Michelle K. Berry's primer.”
“Emily Wakild and Michelle K. Berry challenge us to transform the environmental history classroom, suggesting we abandon the typical periodization or thematic issues that organize our syllabi. In their stead, they outline a more organic approach that unlocks the tangled pasts and contemporary interconnections of the foods, places, animals, and technologies students encounter daily. This provocative primer compels us to forsake rigid structure in favor of flexibility and innovation grounded in a deep reading of the literature.”