Nina Lerman, People, Nature, Technology

A dozen students flip through a Time magazine cover story from 1950. The subject: a tract housing development on Long Island called Levittown—a suburban sprawl of artificially curved roads and oriented houses, preplanned groceries stores and churches.

This is "People, Nature, Technology: Built and Natural Environments in U.S. History," a class taught by Nina Lerman, associate professor of history. The course covers roughly two centuries, examining how people have interacted with and sought to control their environments from the colonial era through the 20th century.

When Lerman started teaching environmental history "students had a narrow expectation of what environmental might mean." But with the expansion of environmental humanities and sciences at Whitman, she was able to push boundaries a little and reframe the class as "People, Nature, Technology."

"Then we start out right from the beginning troubling whether those three categories are discrete, and how they might or might not help us think historically," she said. "Once I framed it with those words, it allowed the possibility of continually asking where the boundaries blur. People and nature obviously blur boundaries because people are nature. And technology is very broadly conceived, taking in what people make and do, how they influence the world around them in material ways."

Environmental humanities major North Bennett '18 chose the class because he was interested in the overlap between history, culture and environment.

"It has helped me better understand how people, industry and the government have related to the land in the area now claimed by the United States," he said. "I am particularly interested how science shapes our relationship with nature."

This kind of suburban sprawl has been seen as a contributing factor to the rise of environmentalism, Lerman tells the class.

"On 1,200 flat acres of potato farmland near Hicksville, Long Island, an army of trucks sped over new-laid roads," Time reports. "Every 100 feet, the trucks stopped and dumped identical bundles of lumber, pipes, bricks, shingles and copper tubing... Under the skilled combination of men & machines, new houses rose faster than Jack ever built them; a new one was finished every 15 minutes."

Another student, Elizabeth Phillips '18, created her own major in anthropology-environmental studies. After discussing marketing and propaganda in the class, she has seen "how humans' understanding of nature is often manipulated through industries and other powerful actors asserting their visions or agendas on the public for personal gain."

A few pages into the Time story, an ad for Pennsalt Chemicals—the manufacturers of DDT—pushes their new pesticide with the words: "‘Liquidating' a $350,000,000 menace-High time for an all-out war!"

The class concludes with a discussion of the commodification of natural resources, from passive solar energy to electric heating to nuclear power.

While some people might look at a tree and see only a tree, Lerman said, what people see beyond the tree is maybe more important—"is that something that heats my house? Is that something that builds my house? Is it part of a quiet forest I can walk in? We ask how people of the past understood the possibilities of that tree."

For Bennett, those questions have underscored one of his takeaways from the class: the balance between technological progress and ecological understanding is precarious.

"It seems that we are often more powerful than we take ourselves to be, but also more ignorant. With respect to the environment, that can be a dangerous combination."