Think Like a Watershed: An Interview with Environmental Analyst and Historian Char Miller
At the start of a new year, BOOM California editors sat to talk with Char Miller, environmental historian and director of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, California. A senior fellow of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, and a fellow of the Texas State Historical Association and of the Forest History Society, Miller is the author of numerous important books including West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement (2021), Hetch Hetchy: A History in Documents (2020), Theodore Roosevelt: Naturalist in the Arena(2020); and Elers Koch’s memoir, Forty Years a Forester; The Nature of Hope: Environmental Justice, Grassroots Organizing and Political Change (2019).
We talked with Char Miller about his new book, Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Peril to gain insight into the evolution of environmental history and the importance of centering place and story. The conversation takes on the advances in environmental justice, the inclusion of indigenous knowledge into Western science and environmentalism, and the art and purpose of storytelling.
Our conversation concludes with his analysis and critique of California’s historical abuse of the natural environment, continuing the practice of extraction of the natural environment in favor of developmentalism, and what COVID taught us about the inequities of illness.
Ultimately, Miller guides us to find hope in justice work done in localized, situated communities by students, civilians, activists, and other stewards of culture and nature.
Where or when did you develop an interest in environmental history?
I think partly my interest in environmental history is biographical, as it is for anybody when they think about their career and why they make certain choices. I grew up in New England where it was, in retrospect, obvious that the places I loved had some deep kind of history—a history that I only could scratch the surface of as a kid. But I was aware of it, right? This history was in the names of buildings, streets, and landscapes that we would distinguish now as either settler or indigenous names. Obviously, in time, I went, “Oh, yeah! That’s important.”
But it’s also probably even more important that in 1981 I moved to San Antonio—a city that I had only previously traveled through—and put down roots there for twenty-six years. And time matters a lot. You sit in a place for a period of time and that place becomes important if you’re trying to figure out your relationship to it.
I was very fortunate that I came with a particular eye to a city that I really did not understand. I grew up around New York City, so I understood how those kinds of cities worked and San Antonio didn’t work that way at all. It was every bit segregated. It was every bit as complex. It just didn’t look like it. So during this time I was becoming and being observant about the place I lived in.
What started to come together in San Antonio was that I began to think like a watershed. See, I lived close to one of the city’s watersheds and I passed it all the time—driving through it at some inopportune times when it was not smart to do (Miller laughs). I suddenly realized, “Wait for a second, these things are actually kind of dangerous.” If you live in flood zones, you need to be thinking about this. Literally, I started looking around and realized that that particular city, which flooded all the time, had been making efforts to try to not flood all the time. The analogy for those of us in California is we’re watching fires burn everywhere. We’re trying to figure out why we live in fire zones in the ways that people in San Antonio tried to figure out why they lived in a house that could flood. That didn’t make a lot of sense. So, it was the watershed concept that made me realize that once you start to think like a watershed or like a fire, you begin to reorient how you understand the landscape and your relationship to it. That’s a policy question. It’s a personal question. It’s a political question.
The longer I lived in San Antonio, it became clear that it was highly segregated around watersheds. Some watersheds had flood control. Some watersheds didn’t. Why was that? I started digging in archives and walking the streets trying to figure it out. It wasn’t that hard. It was very clear that from the nineteenth century onward the whiter you were the more likely it was you lived on higher ground. The darker your skin the more likely it was you were living closer to creeks and or rivers. One group was in the position to save themselves because they were able, and the other couldn’t and didn’t.
You know, that’s sort of a brief description of environmental injustice, but for me, it was really living in San Antonio where I learned the concept of waterways and applied it in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different places.
California Water Map
I like this watershed concept as a departure, as a way of introducing ecological thinking, interpretation, or understanding. To me, this concept ties us to your working position in environmental analysis and history at Pomona University. It reflects the recognition of interdisciplinarity in environmental discourse. Subfields, like environmental history, have emerged as subject-focused disciplines in recent years, but this hasn’t always been the case in academia—especially, for older disciplines like history. I’m wondering if you could discuss or elaborate on environmental history’s evolution into an interdisciplinary field and practice.
That’s a great question. I actually learned this process in San Antonio when I was teaching at Trinity University. I began to teach environmental history in addition to history in the urban studies program. There, it was highly interdisciplinary: politics, policy, history, anthropology, and archeology. Then, there was this whole cluster of folks doing economics. I went, “Oh, this is how you do it! Right?”
And a light bulb went off. I applied what we did there to what we have now done here within the 5C (Five Claremont Colleges) Environmental Analysis program. We draw from faculty in all disciplines. And I am a sponge and absorb stuff from all sides and am willing to ask the dumbest questions in order to learn different perspectives, intellectual histories, and theoretical tools. I would say I am surely not the smartest person in the room when I get together with my colleagues but I will do the work it takes to reorient, recenter myself, and be guided by what is provided in the room.
It has been an extraordinary experience that is largely counter to the way environmental history as a subfield appeared in the late sixties, and early seventies when as a subfield it emerged from essentially two streams. One was that almost everybody was an activist. They were academics, but also activists in their orientation. The orientation tended to be framed as the activism was back then. The second was… let’s call it preservationist. It was a kind of John Muir-like approach to landscapes where what one was trying to do was to protect the wild, however, you defined it. And it almost always was out there, somewhere—whether it be in the San Gabriel Mountains or the Rockies or the Sierra, wherever. But it was someplace removed from where we all lived. The notion that wilderness was a place where people weren’t, utterly erased indigenous knowledge and present-day indigenous presence. In that regard, it was quite a settler-colonial way of thinking about landscapes that we now have the language to describe. But one could have argued that it was imperialistic, right? That we as settlers just declared this place to be empty. And, to do that you’ve got to really do the hard heavy lifting of colonialism and imperialism—the material/physical attempt at eradicating whole populations of people. Just to assume that the Miwok are not in Yosemite and that the Paiute are not in the Eastern Sierra, basin and range region, means someone really got out their erasers and started doing exactly that.
The erasures in the last fifteen, maybe even twenty years, have really changed markedly as people began to recognize that the very institutions like the Forest Service, Park Service, and then their state analogs that were there to protect and preserve, were handmaidens to the hard and heavy colonial erasure as part of the process. It wasn’t just: you’re protecting the wild. It was you’re protecting it for certain kinds of people to recreate their own space through creating laws not to hunt, not to fish, and not to recover ritual objects in the light.
And god forbid you should have a fire! Got to put that out real fast! Suppressing fire is also part of a racist structure that was designed by the Spanish, for goodness sakes, in the eighteenth century. It’s a way in which you destroy indigenous life practices.
So, we’ve gotten a lot savvier, a lot more aware. Environmental historians and other academics are largely driven by young people, not unlike yourself, who have come into the world seeing things in different ways and articulating them through different lenses and frameworks. When I go to environmental history sessions now or go to the Western Historical Association Conference, it is a completely different ballgame. I was at the WHA in San Antonio this fall, and the number of borderland sessions and the sessions about environmental injustices astounded me. I was chatting with younger students there and they take this now as the norm. I said, “No, no, no… Let me tell you… I could have walked these halls fifteen years ago and there wouldn’t have been one of these conversations going on; let alone any students of color here.” It’s a totally different game. This is great because it means that the field and the practices within it, and the perspectives that drive the work that people are doing, have done this incredible, revolutionary transformation. It’s extremely exciting! Plus, I get to bring this into a classroom, with undergraduate and graduate students who are every bit as diverse as the state.
It went from being one kind of thing to another. In part because we’re looking at urban environments and in part because we’re looking at environmental injustices, which are often urban in their orientation. We’re thinking about indigenous sovereignty at so many different levels. But the land is centered in that question, which suddenly decenters the role of Euro/white/western interpretation and management of nature and the environment–the world that I was trained to gather knowledge and interpret reality as a graduate student. Things are blossoming in ways that I could never have imagined forty plus years ago. I think it’s made me a much better historian.
So, you know, as it’s a California-based journal, perhaps we can touch on some California-specific subjects. With your research and insight on fire, water, and public lands, what do you think are some of the more urgent environmental issues in California today?
Well, let’s start with the key issues. Let’s use Los Angeles and the Bay Area as examples. Here are these behemoth metropolitan areas that are confronted with different kinds of issues—although, in many cases, fire and the smoke that those fires produce are similar for both, despite the differences between north and south. But among the challenges they face, they are working to make the metropolitan as resilient as possible given the climatological changes that we’re seeing already. Fire is an example of that. These intense storms that blew in this month (January 2023) are directly related at some level to the increased moisture in the air, as a consequence of higher sea levels for example. The coastal damage is just mind-boggling because of the power of these tremendous atmospheric rivers and the damage that they can do.
So, we need to make these places more resilient. How do we do it? Traditionally, what we have done in a very settler approach is to build more walls, reroute rivers, armor beaches—and just concretize. Just like how the LA River has been concretized, and every other river virtually in the state that has been dammed and channeled to be diverted in one way or another. That’s one way of approaching it, but it’s also a highly brittle solution to what is a very fluid problem in every respect. Some of this is recognizing that if we’re really going talk about resilience one of the things we need to do is to ask whether we need to be building in high fire severity zones, even though we’ve got a housing problem. I would argue no. What kind of policy is it that says, “We need housing, so let’s put housing in a floodplain?” So, then you flood. Or, let’s put housing in a fire zone because we need housing and if it burns, it becomes not a wildfire, but a structure fire.
Okay? So that’s one problem. If that’s the problem, the solution is to step away from those places. That’s what we should be thinking in terms of policy. That’s as true in San Diego on those houses that overlook the eroding cliffs, as it is in Santa Barbara, where those cliffs are also tumbling into the ocean, as it is in Cambria and places like Half Moon Bay. Pull back for goodness’ sake! It’s a hard thing for us to do because our settler instinct is, “Screw nature, we’re going master this thing.” Well, we know we don’t master it. Let’s get over that
I think for California, it isn’t just recognizing that there are a lot of conversions that are taking place: land conversion, oceanic conversion, and other things. All of that is going on, but our policy needs to be flexible, and as thoughtful as it has been inflexible and unthoughtful before. That requires a recognition that the tools that we have can be better managed and better used to produce better results than the normal course of events would suggest. And we’re talking since the Gold Rush. If we look at the intense settlement of this state, the goal has always been build a levy, create a channel, put a house wherever you want to put a house, lay it right on top of the fault lines. Who cares? That’s just such bad thinking and we know better. That’s the piece that really bothers me. We know better, and yet we still make the same decisions and choices.
Natural Consequences was designed, at least in part, to raise the question about the choices that we make so that we can make different choices that will allow us to live here in ways that we would like to do by the end of the century. This is where I think history can speak to the present. I mean, it hasn’t gone away. The past is sticky. It’s right next to us. It’s in us. But if we start to rethink how we write history, then one of the things that the rewriting of history can help us do is to change our present practices and the future choices that the present might develop.
Speaking of history, what do you think were some of the more critical or impactful moments in California’s environmental history?
Wow. Okay. Let’s use Los Angeles because it’s here and has been studied a lot. I think the way to center this is on a set of decisions that are built in various ways that changed life in Los Angeles and changed life elsewhere because of these decisions. So, the obvious place to go is water, and the way the power brokers of this city in the early part of the twentieth century decided that if Metropolitan LA was actually to become one of the great cities of the planet, then it needed a much better water system than it currently had. They had a problem, which is the LA River, unchanneled, went wherever the LA River wanted to go, from Santa Monica down to Long Beach.
We looked at that and thought, “Huh, that’s pretty good.” It was a cool river when it flowed but, you know, floods are damaging. And so, you are going do one thing to local water supplies—you’re going channel it to flush it out to the ocean. But in doing so you’ve just disrupted the geological process whereby that water percolated into your aquifer, so you don’t have enough water for 500,000 people. The current population of LA County is 10 million. So, you go get other people’s water. First, you tap Owens River Valley and sluice that water through the LA Aqueduct. Then, you move up to Mono Lake and get that water as well. So that’s one set of exploitations that has a far-reaching effect on the life that could have been lived by the Paiute and white settlers up in the Eastern Sierra.
But we’ve just circumscribed that, which is problem number two. Now you go get the Colorado River and make your pitch for that water. We’re still fighting over that water with all the other states that have rights to its flow.
Problem number three is, well then let’s go get Northern California snow melt that will drop behind the Oroville Dam and Shasta Dam and others, and then sluice through the valley for agriculture and then get down to Los Angeles. Brilliant engineering, I don’t disagree with that. The technology that they produced is kind of amazing. It generated electricity that furthered this city’s power and its population growth, but it comes with problems not only for places whose water was siphoned off in various directions but also in systems, that depending on what the climate gives us, may not work the way that we thought might be possible. The Colorado River’s deep loss of water over this past drought and these major rains aren’t going to do much, at least in the long term, to solve that problem. It is a smoke signal.
This is a dilemma that we must face because 40 million people use that water. So, we’ve got to reorient that process. For Los Angeles, it’s also this extraordinary outward thrust of its population that is now filling in the Mojave—let alone what had already filled in all the way up to Santa Clarita, and the big housing developments at Taho Ranch Centennial and other things that are being planned in San Diego. All of these are consistent with the suburbanization of this region that began in the twenties, framed around the first street cars and railroads and now automobiles. This is utterly unsustainable—completely unsustainable.
The impulse to pull people towards the center as opposed to moving people to the periphery is a dilemma of huge proportions, but it’s the thing that’s going to make these places more resilient. They will use less water because urbanites use less water than those who water their lawns. Again, no one’s really surprised by that. It means that the desert might stay a desert, which would be a healthy thing for those habitats. Yet because we have the water, we can move it around the way we want to, but I don’t think that’s going to be a sustainable solution by the end of this century. I don’t think it’s sustainable at this moment.
The third piece is about transportation and movement and how we get around this terrain. It was the rail lines and streetcar lines, which really created the thrust of suburbanization in the twenties, thirties, and forties. Then the car expanded this exponentially. We’re suddenly realizing rail lines make sense, but that historic pattern of car transportation systems is the one we’re trying to recreate now at billions of dollars to retrofit this system. Because in fact, the very use of fossil fuels for driving is one major source of the very climate change that’s driving the fires, driving the storms, and making this place drier and hotter. Meaning it’s a lot more difficult to live with it.
I can see the ways in which these systems were emerging over time that I think are central to the way in which we need to rebuild these communities, so that in fact, future cohorts, future generations can still live in this place. I don’t think it’s going to happen fast enough. So, what’s interesting for me in thinking about the larger Southwest, which I’ve lived in for more than forty years, from San Antonio to California, is that those populations exploded after World War II and became exponentially larger. I mean, Phoenix was like 60,000 people and it’s now three-to-four million in the Valley of the Sun. El Paso, Tucson, Albuquerque, you name the place, it’s gotten huge because they had access to water and cheap energy. Well, water is now expensive. Energy is expensive. One of the things that’s starting to happen is that after the grandparents who left Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and maybe even Duluth to find places that were warmer, wetter, and also cheaper–now their grandchildren or great-grandchildren are already going back to the Great Lakes where twenty-percent of the world’s freshwater supplies are located. So, I think movement is actually going to be in the demographics at the end of this century because I don’t think we can move quickly enough to protect LA or San Francisco or Portland or Seattle.
The final piece I would point to is the ecological challenges that we face. We have wiped out so many habitats and species that it’s beyond counting at this point. We have charismatic species like salmon as an example. The steelhead trout that used to run in the LA River and every river in this region now haven’t in maybe eight years. But if we could recover them, it would mean we’d have to change the way in which these rivers function, in order to make them function in a way more closely aligned to the world that they existed in before the concrete got thrown around. I think that’s a worthy goal to think about: These species are always indicators of the biological health of a region. That includes birds, bees, butterflies, and everything else, but it also includes aquatic species. The irony is we’ve done a pretty good job with the seals, elephant seals, and sea lions and they have started to recover. But it’s the species on which they feed that have tended to be overlooked and have not so much recovered. They have to make those transitions. We’ve got to be highly sentient, which we claim we are, but we don’t act that way very much.
So again, Natural Consequences is partly designed to reflect on my own complicity in the systems that I decry. It is to call the question on myself because it’s easier to do than to say to somebody else, “Oh man, you know, you don’t see yourself. You’re implicated in all of this.” But the goal is really to both acknowledge my implications and to acknowledge that even if we are implicated, we can argue for a different kind of system, and in fact, we must.
How has the inclusion of indigenous knowledge shaped, corrected, or unlearned perhaps some of the less positive approaches of environmental history?
Wow. Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question and it’s huge. So let me try to give you a set of responses. The first is that indigenous scholars, and those sensitive to the work that they are doing, are completely rewriting the textbook version that we all have gone through at one point or another—whether it was in high school or in college. The textbook begins on the east coast and moves West. It’s a rare textbook and a very sophisticated one that says, “Wait, wait, wait… the Spanish move north, the Comanche (or Nʉmʉnʉʉ) are moving south. These other people that are coming east, west… they’re like a sideshow, for a very long time.” And so, literally, the construct of what US History looked like has changed because Andrés Reséndez and other people he studied with really went, “Wait, no, no… that’s not how this works.”
The geography of knowledge has shifted and the orientation that one might have had has shifted. Partly for me, that was moving to San Antonio and realizing that its history, particularly its colonial history, was nothing like Massachusetts. It is this clash of Indigenous and invader that I needed to recognize, and it totally changed how I taught US History. I mean, I literally took the book and threw it out. I no longer used the various textbooks I had back in the day because they just didn’t work. And for me, that was remarkable because I had grown up in New England and all that history was from that vantage point. Now the narrative of history has altered. And I think the centering and decentering of various voices and perspectives, and landscapes in the case of environmental history, have also changed.
Also, I think pragmatically about it, being a writer. In recognizing these transformations, we put different voices in the text, partly because you can and partly because you must. Natural Consequences, like Westside Rising, its predecessor, are not linked in any way except in this one. I couldn’t write about a devastating flood in San Antonio and simply use the normal sources—which were white newspapers. I had to find other sources and I was lucky that some of them had been digitized. The Spanish-language newspapers were great resources I could pull into the text. And given who I am, I had to do that work, right? I could not just replicate the old story framed around the same resources because one, people have told the story well and two, it has always been from one vantage point.
I’ve got an obligation to be something different than that. So, Natural Consequences also plays this out in the introduction which refers to Charles Sepulveda’s essay, “Sacred Waters about the Santa Ana River.” I have taught this essay now for maybe five years and I just taught it yesterday with my students because it’s a key text inside the environmental analysis curriculum. I really loved the way in which he talked about a river, which is right outside our doorway here. We don’t tend to think about it (speaking of watersheds) but a lot of our water in Claremont flows into Santa Ana. But it’s not recentering Charles because Charles doesn’t need me to do that. It’s getting my students and myself to recognize that, as he says, “There’s a host and we’re guests.”
That’s the responsibility—what kind of guest am I going to be? We already know what bad guests do. They extract. They erase. They exploit. And it’s like, “Okay, we can’t do that. Fine.” So, what’s a good guest? Or simply, what does just a better guest do? And part of that questioning has forced me, and many in the profession, to think about different resources or sources and voices. Because different voices in the text decenters you as an author to narrate in a way that is designed, not only to do the academic rigor piece that we all appreciate and admire but also to speak to audiences that are not us. We’ve learned to write in a voice that is much more accessible, which is what I think Sepulveda has also done. It is to reach out to people who look like me and say, “Look, here’s a different way to think about the world you and I occupy, that you and I have privilege in, that you and I have not thought through as carefully as we might, and to use his framing as a way to get at that and also to use ecological notions of place.” Because place really, really matters and places are different.
We need to be thinking about those differences, not just as we so often do in history. You know, you write a book about say, San Antonio or Claremont for that matter, and somebody goes, “Well what’s it related to? What’s it like? Is it like New York? Is it like Chicago? Is it like Boston?” That’s that same mentality: That the only things that are important are those big behemoths back east. But we live in a different kind of landscape. You’ve got to claim an ecological notion that site matters, whether a habitat or a community and do that work because that is what we’re obliged to do.
The final piece of this is to recognize that in adding ecological and indigenous sources of knowledge, which are much more complementary than they were ever perceived to be back in the day, is to acknowledge that Western science does not know all. It was the belief that Western science could answer all our questions. As it turns out it didn’t, and it doesn’t. Fire has been really important in this regard because the Indigenous people in this state have long known that they used fire and still use fire to manage the landscapes, to produce the goods and services, the cultural objects that they need.
I think it is the better guest model that uses that knowledge from the beginning, which helps shape the way I might write about a subject like fire, water, or watersheds. The model’s various reorientations I think have made me a much stronger historian. I think I’m almost there—at decentering myself from the narrative, not entirely because it is my fingers on the keyboard—but nonetheless that’s the goal.
California fire zones map
While decentering perhaps your narrative becomes necessary in your writing and thinking, one thing I’ve found compelling in Natural Consequences was your personal account. You already were talking about public engagement and understanding, but can you speak more about the role of storytelling?
Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think I’ve been very lucky, in part, because editors have kicked my ass for years to sort of open the language. And beginning in the mid-1980s when I started to write for the two major dailies in San Antonio, I would write these essays, these commentaries, and they would come back shredded. And you know, some of that’s just the ease of the newspaper, right? You do the inverted paragraph idea of a pyramid: where you give everything at the front and then get down into the nitty gritty. This was good to learn but and made it clear that it was about the story.
I did not know I did this in high school, but when I went back for a high school reunion they had all the newspapers out and I started reading some of the sports articles I wrote. And I saw that I was telling stories. I was talking about a moment in a game where somebody did something, or my good friends who didn’t do something that I thought they should have done because I’m sitting up in the stands and just sort of kibitzing. So it was the story that I started with and then went from there. I did not know I had that interest when I was a junior in high school, but I know now.
I think some of it is that we are storytellers. That is, I think, an important part of the work that we do. I had some genius storytellers in graduate school, like Willie Lee Rose, a Southern historian. She wrote a book called Rehearsal for Reconstruction, the opening of which put you on a boat for the first union coming up into the Sea Islands in Georgia in early 62′. I mean, you were on the boat. You were listening. You were smelling. You were getting this whole sensibility. I had never read anything like that. And I went, “Oh, I need to study with this person because it just blew my mind.”
The way we can tell stories and history, that’s part of it. It’s an old tradition to be in. It’s an oral culture made written. That’s one of the things I work with my students on: tell me the story. Narrate it in a way that’s a story. I say, “You all tell stories all the time, so give it to me that way and then we can start to work on an essay based off of a personal experience that goes in one direction or another.”
But I do like that process of being in a place, seeing what I think to be are some key issues. I like the process of trying to find a story that helps open that up, whether I’m talking or somebody else is talking about something. Flesh that out so that the story has a human being and a voice the reader can connect with. Then you can do, you know, what we might think of as the heavier work—like theorizing without theorizing. It’s there. It’s just not being said as such. Which I think is important because you’re trying to help people also understand how you are thinking without necessarily putting in footnotes. I love the fact that Natural Consequences doesn’t have a single footnote. I’ve done that a couple of times and any time it’s going get reviewed in a history journal, it’s going get the crap knocked out of it because there are no footnotes. But if you read the text, you know what I’m reading, okay? I’ll slip in various authors of one form or another just to say, “I know what you’re thinking and here it is.”
To go back to your point, this oral tradition of sharing knowledge, we’ve just made it into a written form. I think the works that I really admire the most are those that recognize that duality and play with it in a way that is exciting to read. Part of the excitement is, “Oh, look at how they wrote that sentence. Look at how that sort of carries into the next concept.”
You know, I’ve been very fortunate because I get to work with really sharp kids here and in San Antonio. I would break down some of our readings and say, look at what they’re doing here. Go write that piece. And that’s been fun.
You know, when we talk about environmental crisis or climate crisis, there’s generally a fatalism around it. What are things we can do as professionals or regular people to remain positive, and active and find joy in this line of environmental work and in an environmentally conscious lifestyle as well?
I think some of it is woven into the DNA of environmental history. Because that’s partly how it grew, from activist moments and then people going, “Oh wait, what’s the history here?” From there they started doing that kind of work. For me, if you think about ecological and environmental focus on specific places and sites that are different from other places, you’ve just gotten an answer for what in fact we can do as activists. We can and should focus on the places we know and live within because that’s where social change happens. It happens at the grassroots level. So, you don’t need to look very far in greater Los Angeles or across the state to find activist groups that are woven into watersheds, that are part of an effort to create resilient and regenerative ecological niches of one form or another.
And you look at them, you go, “Oh, they’ve taken that creek. They’re thinking about that space because that’s where you can make some of these changes pretty effectively.” And then you can collaborate with the state because it’s got money to do that kind of work. If you think about the city of Pomona as a place that has had enormous environmental injustices, then activists there have already shown us what it’s possible to do. In East LA there are all sorts of groups that are functioning in and around that area for open space and for air pollution controls because they affect that community. The activists are there.
For those whom doomsday is such an easy sell in the classroom, it’s too simple. We’re working with young people. I can’t walk into a classroom and go, “Kids, it’s all over.” It’s easy to do that, but really what you want to do is to say, “Look, here’s where I would locate hope.” Hope lies in the ability to think through the changes that are necessary and then enact them or try to enact them. We’re never going to get there always. Maybe not even often. But it’s not the victory so much that’s crucial, although that would be nice. It’s the effort that’s required.
Here again, environmental justice as a conception and as a practice is critical to this process. At least in the communities that I’ve lived in. That’s a language that appeals to both the academic and the activist on the one hand, but also you can do a lot with a city council or a planning commission and say, “Wait, wait, wait… look at the privileging that this does and the discrimination that it produces. Don’t go there!” Right?
You can intervene in those conversations in part because now we have the language of dispossession and exploitation, or exclusion. We live in a state where those words are not loaded. They are powerful. I mean, they are loaded, but they’re also powerful tools politically. And I think that’s been true across time.
I’m deeply impressed with former students who have gone on in the world and have gone way beyond anything I ever thought of. They are having that kind of impact because they’ve got the theory. It’s wedded in their brains and they’re now applying it in a way that sort of tests that theory against the political realities. It shows that reality a little bit and maybe just enough to start changing the way we live and imagine what’s possible.
As an environmental historian and analyst, I’m curious about your interpretation, or experience of COVID.
So, here’s a perfect example of two things. One of which is we did not know what we were doing. The politics of COVID just drove me crazy because we did not know what we were doing. One group was absolutely convinced they knew those who were sort of thinking scientifically said, “Uh, we don’t have the data yet. We got to get the data. Let’s get the data first before we start having these brawls over whether a mask is useful or not.”
At the very moment of this process, we were reminded that illness is not simply illness. It’s different in terms of whose lungs and whose lives it impacts. We saw that in Los Angeles. We’ve seen that everywhere across the globe. If you could insulate and isolate yourself, you would be in a better position. That often broke down along class lines. This economic segregation showed through the resources that one had at one’s disposal. We saw all the inequities that we knew were already there, but now the illness highlighted them in a different way. It was highlighted in a more vivid way.
In many respects, we could say that we’re all suffering COVID. But were we really? From a historian’s point of view, that’s the marker. It isn’t that COVID was universal. It was that COVID was not universally applied. Certain lives were more disrupted, by age, race, by class. These are the kind of distinctions that a historian needs to be sensitive to because that’s when you get the complexity. Complexity is our best friend. So is context and so is contingency. Everything is in some contingent relationship with something else. And as you know, that’s one of the ways in which we sort through a historical moment. It is where we can start to see how people organized their lives. Because in the process of organizing their lives, they may have disorganized someone else’s. I think it is in that interplay that COVID has been, again, for all of us, an extraordinarily important teacher.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I really appreciate you giving me a chance to talk about these things. I would say that that one point I try to convey in talks about this book is that there’s nothing magical about what I’m doing. It is in some cases walking, looking, thinking about what I’m seeing, then going back and scribbling notes to myself, or leaving myself voicemails because I don’t trust my brain to hold anything longer than two minutes if I’m lucky. So, for me as a teacher, but also as a scholar, it’s the kind of work that I had no idea was going to become part of my historian’s practice. I love going into archives. I totally adore them. But then my eyes start straying. It’s like, “Well, what’s out there? There might be something out there I could look at.” I think learning how to look is a real key to learning how to write in a different way. Being able to therefore speak in, I hope, more compelling ways—again, because I’m a storyteller. I love that role. I won’t claim I’m a great one, but I love the role of thinking about looking, seeing, observing, and writing and then writing in a way that’s a form of speech. Because if we can speak in a language that others hear, we’re going to be much more effective at our work and probably much happier in it.
Char Miller is the Director of Environmental Analysis and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College.