Driven to the Past: History in a Changing Climate
Keynote address at "With Power for All: Energy and Social Change in Massachusetts"
Mass. History Conference
June 8, 2009
College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA
PART I: BEEPING
PART II: DRIVING IN TWO DIRECTIONS AT ONCE
PART III: IMPLICATIONS
On my calendar, I marked out the month of May to think about this talk, and to get back to thinking about a project I started working on last year, exploring how cars and history intersect in the production of a sense of the American past. May was going to be my month to decompress after a semester of what felt like near-constant driving to teach at three different schools, and to sit at home at my desk meditating on big questions about energy and social change, fieldwork design and social theory, heritage and automobility. Let me just define that term right up front, since it's central to what I want to talk to you about. Automobility, in the sense that I'm using the word, is about more than just automobiles. It's an idea, or a cluster of ideas, about progress, autonomy, choice, individuality, and movement, especially forward movement --a lot of the ideas that have driven the development of the modern world. But the car has a special place in that cluster of ideas, particularly in the U.S. It's probably the one technology we've developed that most closely matches up with our modern fantasies about mobility and freedom. As John Jakle has put it in his study of how the American landscape has been largely redesigned for the automobile, the car "has enabled Americans to act out long-established dreams."
So these were the big ideas I was planning to sit and think about, and I was looking forward to it. But this happy plan was interrupted one morning in late April by the sound of beeping--the kind that signals a large vehicle backing up. When I looked out my office window, I saw a small army of construction vehicles gathering at the end of a street that intersects the one I live on. In fairly short order, we had excavators, trenchers, dump trucks, and earth-movers parked in an ominously settled looking way on the side of the street. Equally ominous was the big sign that appeared along with all the equipment. When I went across the street to read the fine print, I learned that we were not, as I first supposed, the shovel-ready beneficiaries of money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, so I couldn't even feel happy that the economy was being stimulated. They were simply replacing the plumbing and paving on a two-block-long piece of my town, and doing a great deal of beeping and banging in the process.
My ideal sound environment when I'm working is one that doesn't actually have any sound in it. I'm easily distracted by leaf-blowers, car stereos, and fuel delivery trucks. I donit even like it when the computer fan stays on for very long. So I really wasn't pleased to have my neighborhood turn into something resembling the Second Battle of the Marne. Like most construction projects, this one has been deeply mysterious to the uninitiated observer. Trucks have been coming and going constantly, some of them bringing dirt and about an equal number, as far as I can tell, taking dirt away again. I don't know if it's the same dirt, or whether there's some kind of exchange of dirt going on, or whether there's been a net increase or decrease in the overall amount of dirt since the project started. I've also frequently found myself wondering how it's possible that all of these vehicles seem to spend the great majority of their time backing up. Something always seems to be beeping. At times, I've felt shovel-ready myself, except that I try to avoid resorting to violence (and also they have much bigger shovels than I do). So I've mostly stayed put, wearing earplugs a lot of the time. On bad days, I put on my ear-muffs; on really bad days, I go to the library.
For the first half of May, I kept trying to work in spite of the noise. But then, around the middle of the month, an interesting thing started to happpen. Instead of just being something that I was trying to think in spite of, the construction site started to seem like something that I might think about, or even with, like a Zen koan. The street had started communicating something about itself, and it occurred to me that what it was saying was actually very much like what I've been starting to try to say with this new study of history and automobility.
What the street was saying, if I've been translating all the beeping and banging correctly, was something about the buried layers of effort, noise, disruption, and even violence that exist within even the smallest road (and, by extension, much of the framework of our modern world). Like the petroleum-driven vehicles traveling on it and the pipes and wires it contains, a road is a seemingly smooth, simple, unexceptional space in our lives, but one that embodies a whole hidden history of science, policy, and political relationships and decisions. A construction project--or a bad frost heave, or a good piece of research--can expose all of that and remind us of the enormous natural and human-made power embodied in these ordinary spaces, and the enormous artificiality and fragility of so much of the structure of our confortable modern lives, particularly the aspects of it that depend on petroleum. As Linda Hogan puts it in her marvellous poem called "Potholes,"
these holes are not just holes
but a million years of history
opening up, all our beautiful failures
and gains. The earth is breathing
through the streets.
Riding over smooth pavement, it's easy to forget this, and to take the earth's underlying presence and beneficience for granted in ways that are short-sighted and ultimately--as more and more people are now starting to recognize--potentially disastrous.
Most of the messages currently coming through the cracks in our roads are deeply troubling ones. We have a planet that is warming for natural or human-made causes (or both), a skyrocketing human population, predictions of a decline in the petroleum supply that fuels the modern world at a time when demand is continuing to escalate, and vicious "resource wars" either looming or already taking place. And different people are interpreting these messages in such different ways that it's often hard to know even how to frame the problems, let alone reach for solutions. On the one hand, we get apocalyptic predictions of total social and environmental collapse, ending in massive die-offs, extinctions, a war of all against all, and possibly even the end of human life on the planet. In this version of the future, we're likely to be driven forcibly back to a kind of dim pre-history in a struggle for mere survival. On the other hand, there are utopian dreams of a much better post-petroleum world. For some people, this is a shiny, high-tech utopia filled with smart machines and green technologies. For others, it's a kind of pre-modern, pre-industrial social order where life is intensely local and we all know our neighbors and grow our own organic vegetables.
Among these competing visions, it's often hard to decide which technologies to embrace and which to resist, when to take a stand on principle and when to compromise, and whether we're already at a point of no return after which we no longer have the luxury of debating these issues at all. There are no easy answers for any of us, and there are particular dilemmas for historians, whose trade relies on materials from the past and whose creed states that what has already happened i s never a direct predictor of the future. What's a historian to do with such a contentious and rapidly changing body of ideas and questions? How can we resist the pressure to pull over-simple answers out of the historical record? How can we be good citizens in an uncertain present while remaining good stewards of the complex past?
That's what we're here to talk about today, and we're going to learn about some of the many things that historians are already doing and have done in relation to the energy challenges now facing us. There are natural synergies between historical knowledge and the search for cleaner technologies and more sustainable ways of living. Historians are well equipped to show us what's been hidden, lost, and paved over in the building of our modern infrastructure, and to tell us about some of the green, sustainable, and organic ways that people did things long before anyone thought to label them that way. In my experience, those who work in the historical realm also tend to be highly skilled at doing more with less themselves--probably a fringe benefit of surviving for any length of time in the non-profit sector! So as more and more people are driven to the past in search of ideas and models, historians clearly have a great deal to offer.
But I'd like to push the conversation a bit deeper, and to look beyond some of these perhaps more straightforward connections between the practice of history and questions about energy use. And I want to use the car and the idea of automobility as a way to do that. I've begun thinking about historic sites and practices in relation to American car culture, which has given me a new way to look at how what historians do relates to the society at large--in this case, how it relates to our general use of energy, which of course connects with almost everything else. When I started out, I thought it made sense to study sites that related directly to cars and perhaps to petroleum--places like the Henry Ford Museum or the Oil Heritage regions of Pennsylvania and Ontario (did you know that southwestern Ontario was the site of the first commercial oil discovery in North America?).
But the more I've thought about it, the more it seems to me that all sites are about cars and oil to some extent, simply because automobility and car culture are so deeply interwoven in nearly all aspects of our lives. And in some ways, the less obvious connections are more useful in helping us think about how historic sites relate to the oil-powered culture around them, and to get from there to thinking about what we might do to support changes on a very fundamental level. It's in the taken-for-granted, perfectly ordinary patterns of our lives that we have to start making real social change, and our relationship to cars is among the very toughest nuts to crack in terms of undoing or rethinking how we use energy, because it emerges so directly from the foundational assumptions and values--mobility, individuality, and all the rest--that have created our modern world, perhaps most particularly in the U.S. These things are both wonderful and terrible--"all our beautiful failures and gains"--and there's a long history of modern people feeling ambivalent about them. So I want to look briefly at a site that both is and isn't about cars, and to use that as a starting-place for talking about some of the complex intersections among modernity, history, and automobility.
PART II: DRIVING IN TWO DIRECTIONS AT ONCE
PART III: IMPLICATIONS
 Jakle, John A., "Landscapes Redesigned for the Automobile," in
The Making of the American Landscape, Michael P. Conzen, ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 293.
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 Linda Hogan, "Potholes," from Savings: Poems (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1988), p. 19. (Return to text)