America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

April 23, 2019: Earth Day Studying: Climate Change Voices


[The 49th annual Earth Day is April 22nd, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of environmental stories and histories. Share yours in comments to help us celebrate this wonderful and all too often underappreciated home of ours!]
On how a few important and inspiring historical AmericanStudiers would suggest we respond to the most long-term yet most pressing world crisis.
“Simplify, simplify.” Those words and that message are at the heart of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854)—of Chapter 2, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”; and of the purpose and message of Thoreau’s time at the pond and book about the experience. It’s true that Thoreau wasn’t nearly as alone in his cabin as his book sometimes suggests—that he went to town and received visitors from there, that he depended on some help from his parents, that he was social as well as solitary during his Transcendental sojourn. But far from making Thoreau or the book hypocritical, as has sometimes been suggested, those facts make him and it more human and genuine and inspiring—represent his lived experience and demonstrate his attempt to wed that experience to ideals of simplicity and reconnection with the natural world. If we’re going to change the way we live in this 21st century moment, Thoreau would argue, it’s going to have to start with simplifying and reconnecting for sure.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” So pioneering naturalist, conservationist, and author John Muir once noted in his journals (collected in this wonderful 1938 book, John of the Mountains). Muir is often described as a founding father of the National Park movement—or at least as sharing that honor with Teddy Roosevelt, since Muir died before the National Park Service was created—and there’s a good deal of truth to that designation. But even truer would be the recognition that for Muir, there’s no meaningful individual life, no communal American identity, and perhaps no world period that doesn’t include engagement with, respect for, and preservation of our natural spaces. Preserving, appreciating, and venturing into the wilderness isn’t, by itself, nearly enough to reverse or even impact climate change, of course. But the more we move into the wilderness in our individual lives—and the more we allow it to move into all of our perspectives—the more, Muir would argue, we can connect to the most universal and crucial human questions.
“The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.” So wrote environmental activist, scientist, and author Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962), one of the 20th century’s and America’s most prescient and salient works. Carson’s specific attention to the dangers of pesticides, and similar environmental hazards, had in her era and have continued to have significant, lasting, and very beneficial effects. But when it comes to her most overarching message, her concerns over the path of progress and where it is taking us, we have been far less able to hear and respond. Doing so won’t be easy, not only because of inertia and momentum, but also because progress and development most certainly have their own positive and beneficial impacts on the world and those who live in it. But at the very least, Carson would insist, we must examine every aspect of our world, and recognize that in a significant number of cases we will have to move away from easy or attractive ideas (see: fracking) in order to travel on the harder but more sustainable road.
Next Earth Day post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Earth Day stories or histories you’d highlight?

Monday, April 22, 2019

April 22, 2019: Earth Day Studying: Animated Activisms


[The 49th annual Earth Day is April 22nd, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of environmental stories and histories. Share yours in comments to help us celebrate this wonderful and all too often underappreciated home of ours!]
In honor of Earth Day, three examples of the link between animation and the environment:
1)      Captain Planet and the Planeteers/The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1990-96): As a viewer and fan of the show since its first episodes, I might be biased, but it seems to me that Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle’s environmental edutainment program (or programs, since the show changed its name when Hanna-Barbera took over principal production in 1993) Captain Planet was one of the most radical and influential children’s shows of all time. The show’s consistent environmental activist themes and stories should be evidence enough for that claim; but if not, I would point to the 1992 episode “A Formula for Hate,” in which the villain sought to spread lies and paranoia about AIDS and thus to turn a town against an HIV-infected young man (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris). The pre-Boston March for Science talk I recorded through my role as the Scholar Strategy Network’s Boston Chapter Co-Leader focused on science and public activism, and I can’t imagine a clearer embodiment of that link than this Captain Planet episode.
2)      FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992): 1992 was a banner year for environmental animation, as it also saw the release of FernGully, a joint Australian and American animated film (based on Diana Young’s children’s novel of the same name) about the growing threats to the world’s rainforests. Among its many achievements, FernGully succeeded in bringing Cheech and Chong back together for the first time in six years; it also perhaps influenced the casting of John Woo’s Broken Arrow (1996), which likewise featured a pairing of Samantha Mathis and Christian Slater. They, like all of the film’s voice actors (including Robin Williams in his first animated film as Batty) worked for scale, as all were committed to the film’s environmental and conservationist messages. Indeed, I’d argue that Captain Planet and FernGully together reflect the leading role pop culture played in advancing those issues in the early 1990s—a trend worth remembering whenever we’re tempted to dismiss pop culture’s social or communal roles.
3)      Princess Mononoke (1997): Legendary animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 historical fantasy anime film illustrates that those cultural contributions to environmental activism were taking place around the globe. Like FernGully, Mononoke uses the genre of fantasy to tell its story of supernatural and human heroes working together to fight for an embattled natural world against encroaching forces. Often the genre of anime has been associated with futuristic and urban settings; but Miyazaki’s film, among others in the era, redirected the genre’s tropes and themes to the historical and natural worlds. Like Captain Planet and FernGully before it, Mononoke was an international hit (as well as a box office smash in Japan), with its English-language version becoming one of the most popular Hollywood adaptations of an anime or Japanese film of all time. In my experience, Earth Day really took off as a collective phenomenon in the 1990s—and if so, we might well have these pioneering 1990s animations to thank.
Next Earth Day post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Earth Day stories or histories you’d highlight?

Saturday, April 20, 2019

April 20-21, 2019: Patriots’ Day Texts: We the People


[Only a couple New England states celebrate Patriots’ Day, which officially pays tribute to the colonial Minutemen who helped begin the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. But the holiday offers a chance to think about patriotism in America more broadly, which I’ve done this week, starting with my annual Patriots’ Day post, continuing through a series on critically patriotic texts, and leading up to this update on my new AmericanStudying book!]
First (and not foremost, but I’m really in love with it so I’m starting with it nonetheless), We the People: The 500 Year Battle over Who is American has a cover image! Ain’t that pretty?
Second, I just wanted to reiterate my desire to talk about this book anywhere and everywhere—before its August 15 release date, after that date, you name it. I’ve already gotten to give a number of great talks and have more lined up, at bookstores and libraries, at universities and historic sites, even in a prison classroom! But I’ll always be very happy to add more to the list, and to travel near and far for the chance to do so. So please feel free to pass along thoughts or suggestions or invitations, whether in comments here or by email or on Twitter or whatever works!
Third, thanks!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?