comments on 2016 award recipients

The following awards were presented at ASEH’s annual conference in Seattle, April 2016:

Distinguished Scholar Award

Few environmental historians have published as extensively, written with as much authority, helped to launch three or four genres of environmental history, and spread the message of environmental history around the world as Martin Melosi has.

Marty is perhaps best known as one of the founders of urban environmental history. Urban studies are such a vital component of our discipline now that we forget how revolutionary their introduction was or the battles that Marty led for their inclusion in the 1980s. His work also has examined the intersections of the environment with the history of technology and public works. Marty also helped found energy history with Coping with Abundance and other subsequent works; this subfield of environmental history is thriving. Finally, Marty took his scholarship and the field of environmental history beyond the academy. In addition to his directorship of the University of Houston Center for Public History, he has consulted on projects for various museums, the National Park Services, private businesses, and films.

Marty’s scholarly leadership is reflected in his past presidencies of ASEH, the National Council for Public History, the Urban History Association, and the Public Works History Association. The global reach of his work is captured by invited lectures and visiting professorships in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Israel, China, and other nations.

Marty has written or edited nineteen books and written some 100 proceedings, articles, and book chapters. Given the originality and theoretical sophistication of Marty’s scholarship and his ability to speak meaningfully to diverse audiences, it is not surprising that Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure from Colonial Times to the Present received four major book awards: the ASEH’s George Perkins Marsh Prize; the Abel Wolman Prize, Public Works Historical Society for the best book in public works history (2001); the Urban History Association Prize for the best book in North American Urban History (2001); and the Sidney Edelstein Prize, Society for the History of Technology, for an outstanding scholarly book in the history of technology (1999-2001).

Distinguished Service Award

This year’s Distinguished Service award goes to Melissa Wiedenfeld, who has served ASEH in so many ways during the last two decades. Melissa has contributed an enormous amount of vital, behind-the-scenes, often unrecognized work that is essential to keep ASEH’s programs functioning. She began as one of the first H-Environment editors in the late 1990s, at a time when web-based networking was new and underdeveloped. Her editing helped make H-Environment a vibrant, useful, and engaging forum at a time when ASEH was smaller and meetings less frequent, and when so many of our members worked in relative isolation.

In 2005 Melissa was elected to the Nominating Committee and served as its co-chair. From 2006-2010, she served as the book review editor for our journal. Her dedication was exemplary, and many of us remember Melissa carrying stacks of review books around our conferences. Recently, she served on the new Public Outreach Awards Committee, contributing her many years of experience as a public historian in evaluating and selecting project and career awards that honor public outreach in environmental history. Last year, she served as the local arrangements committee chair for ASEH’s conference in Washington, DC.

Moreover, Melissa has worked hard to create bridges between the fields of American environmental history and Latin American environmental history, and between the ASEH and SOLCHA (our Latin American and Caribbean EH sister organization). Melissa is an asset to ASEH and has proven to be a reliable, helpful, insightful, and cheerful colleague. (Besides, she’s an excellent birder who shares her expertise every year on ASEH’s birding trips!) It is an honor to present her with this award for her service to ASEH…

Public Outreach Project Award

This year’s award goes to the Schuylkill River Sojourn – a seven-day, 114-mile guided kayak trip down southeastern Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River. This waterway is recovering as a fishery and serves as a crucial source of drinking water for 1.5 million people.  Each day of the sojourn, paddlers are treated to lunchtime and dinnertime presentations from local historians, conservationists, and National Park Service interpreters, who provide an environmental history context for that day’s paddle. Sojourners come to recognize how the course of the river has been altered by past industries – and they adjust their paddling accordingly to navigate the remains of dams, dredged channels, and lengthy slack-water stretches. In 2015, the week’s theme revolved around the history of the Schuylkill Canal, which—during its peak year in 1859—carried 1.7 million tons of anthracite coal and other cargo between northern coal fields and markets in Philadelphia and New York City. More than a dozen speakers covered various environmental history topics—from the construction of the canal, dams, and locks to the initiation of the Schuylkill River Desilting Project in 1948. The Schuylkill River Sojourn is planned and managed by the non-profit Schuylkill River Heritage Area, with support from the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, private foundations, and corporate partners. At face value, the sojourn is simply a lot of fun. But this project also exposes new audiences to environmental history. By moving beyond classrooms, exhibits, and publications, the project helps build a constituency for the restoration and protection of the river and for the preservation of the history that happened along its banks.

George Perkins Marsh Prize for Best Book

The George Perkins Marsh Prize Committee received over 70 books, and as you can well imagine, there were some spectacular books among them, making it very difficult for us to make a decision. Ultimately, we all concurred that Andrew Needham’s Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest best combined all of the virtues we were looking for in a prize that is given in honor of this award: high quality research, contribution to the field, gracefulness of prose.

The book drew lightly but effectively on Thomas Hughes’s Networks of Power and William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. It is a particularly innovative example of urban history, in that it reversed the normal focus. Rather than examining the city in isolation or in a simple city-suburban complex, Needham places it at a regional scale, which allows him to, at once, connect and de-center, cores and peripheries. Thus, Phoenix becomes the “periphery” and the power plants and mines of the Navajo Nation are at the “center,” showing the true networks of power and pollution that extend through and across a vast region. The book works on many scales, from the local, to the regional and national, unveiling much of what had been made invisible over time-- -namely that the tentacles of power might have extended from the city but that the heart of the power network (and the people involved) operated far from Phoenix itself. And the environmental consequences spread along these long-range networks.

The research brought together political tracts, booster literature, native newspapers, conservationist/environmentalist books, notes, proceedings, electrical pamphlets, advertisements, etc. And most of all, the author never lost sight of the many people of all ethnicities who were drawn, willingly or otherwise, into the Phoenix power grid. Like the best environmental history Power Lines draws our attention to the ways in which the natural world and its social consequences are interwoven and inextricable.

George Perkins Marsh Prize Committee: Marc Cioc (chair), Catherine McNeur, and Adam Sowards

Alice Hamilton Prize for Best Article outside Environmental History

In the groundbreaking article, "Ottoman Infrastructures of the Saudi Hydro-State: The Technopolitics of Pilgrimage and Potable Water in the Hijaz," in Comparative Studies in Society and History (2015), Michael Christopher Low meticulously assembles the story of the hydraulic management of the Hijaz, the western region of present-day Saudi Arabia that contains the cities of Medina and Mecca. Low uses an impressive array of sources from Turkish, British, and U.S. archives, along with numerous printed materials in Arabic, to show how the Ottoman state began developing water-purifying technologies in the 1890s, long before wider regional applications of such methods took hold in the 1970s. The nineteenth-century quest for clean water was a prerequisite for the later discovery of Saudi Arabia’s extensive petroleum deposits. Oil and water may not mix, but they are deeply entwined in this arid region of the world. As Low points out, nearly fifteen percent of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production goes directly to the nation’s desalination facilities. "Ottoman Infrastructures of the Saudi Hydro-State" is a "must-read article" for anyone interested in the related histories of statecraft, water management, and modernization campaigns.

Alice Hamilton Prize Committee: Edward Melillo (chair), Benny Andres, and Sandra Swart

Leopold-Hidy Prize for Best Article in Environmental History

Each year, members of the Editorial Board read and select among the articles published in Environmental History the one that best exemplifies the research and writing in our field. Every year, I hear how difficult it is to choose. Nevertheless, one always rises to the top and this year it is Alan Mikhail’s “Ottoman Iceland: A Climate History.”

As editor, I ask the board members to provide their assessments of the top article. One responded, “Mikhail's essay convincingly links a volcanic eruption in the North Atlantic to the riverine flows of the Nile; the immediate effects of volcanic ash and cloud in Iceland on animals and people and the more distant consequences in Egypt…. More broadly, the essay suggests the promise of a global imagination in the writing of environmental history and the utility of linking different scales of environmental process and social experience.” According to another, “In raising questions about how to approach climate history in places like the Middle East and across the globe, Mikhail’s piece goes a long way toward encouraging future scholarship.” A third praised Mikhail for offering “a perspective that is strikingly original and visionary.” Finally, one remarked, “Alan Mikhail's essay connecting a volcano in Iceland with Ottoman tribulations demonstrates a first-class historical imagination, clarity of thought, and self-reflective practice.” This particular board member was “enchanted by the deft use of illustration and the ability to orchestrate multiple factors at multiple scales without losing the thread of the argument. In combining both physical and political sources across a large region, it is evidence of how environmental history, well done, reshapes our categories.”

-Lisa Brady, editor, and editorial board, Environmental History

Rachel Carson Prize for Best Dissertation

This year's Rachel Carson Prize is awarded to Gregory Rosenthal for his project, "Hawaiians who Left Hawai'i: Work, Body, and Environment in the Pacific World, 1786-1876." A transnational study of labor and environmental history within the Pacific Ocean, Rosenthal’s dissertation excels across the categories we used in our evaluation: writing, research and documentation, analysis, and contribution to the field. Rosenthal argues that historians of Hawaii and the environment have overlooked a central constitutive force in the Pacific World: the labor of indigenous Hawaiians. Drawing on archival research, which featured little-used indigenous newspapers, Rosenthal reconstructs the movements of Hawaiian workers across the transoceanic networks of the nineteenth century. It argues that the movement and mobility of Hawaiians across the ocean was a key component of transoceanic integration in the nineteenth century and that work and workers' experiences are key to understanding how the Pacific Ocean functioned as part of a “Pacific world.”  His narrative, as fluid as it is compelling, shines new light on the meanings of circulation and the making of economies and environments. But, perhaps most importantly, Rosenthal re-centers scholarship on circulation on the construction and exploitation of human bodies. In doing so, Rosenthal also charts an exciting path of future research that integrates environmental, labor, transnational, and indigenous histories.

Rachel Carson Prize Committee: Lise Sedrez (chair), Andrew Stuhl, and Brian Frehner