Science, Sneezing, and Environmental Justice: Part 3 with Author Gregg Mitman

Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3

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Part 3 with Gregg Mitman, discussing his book Breathing Space, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: Following that--or perhaps too similarly--I see that the book has been reviewed widely, suggesting a diverse range of readers. But who did you want to write it for?

GM: The book is meant to be a crossover book. By that, I mean it was written to appeal to scholars and students in environmental history, medical history, history of science, and historical and cultural geography, and also to a more general readership that includes allergy sufferers, physicians, and public health professionals. I've received wonderful emails from allergy sufferers sharing their own stories and experiences and telling me how appreciative they have been to learn more about the historical context of their illness. And that has been very gratifying.

WF: The JAMA review ended by saying that your book will be "of interest to general physicians." You touched on this intent above, but, to respond to the JAMA reviewer, how would it be of interest to physicians? What would they do after reading it?

GM: Well, hopefully, they'll begin to think a bit more critically about how beholden they are to the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which drug developments and marketing have helped to drive disease classification and treatments. And I also hope that it will sensitize them to past efforts at treatment that saw allergy as a disease more ecologically--that is, as an outcome of changing physical, economic, and social relationships. I gave a copy to my own allergist. I'm still waiting to hear what he thinks of it!

WF: I caught an interesting and likely unintended synthesis of history of science with history of technology in the parts about the rise of medical research into allergies--science, isolating chemical and biological pathogens, developing new medicines; technology, developing new distribution devices, sprayers, aerosol. What do you make of those combined histories? The two seem to be in tension with one another, new ways to distribute airborne toxins competing with new ways to understand and prevent them.

GM: Interesting. I hadn't really thought of that before. I tend to just follow where my research leads, and don't worry so much about disciplinary boundaries. So, the home environment and air conditioning took me into the history of technology, an area I hadn't delved too much in before. In the postwar period, in particular, the political economy of science and technology gets caught in this vicious feedback loop of creating new technologies--"better living through chemistry"--that lead to unintended environmental consequences, and then a search for new scientific and technological fixes. And we need to step out of that narrow, reductionist view to solving environmental and social problems. It is a critique that Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, and others made forty years ago of the place of science and technology in American society, but it isn't a lesson that has really been taken to heart. How can science and technology serve the interests of environmental and social justice, rather than continuing to fuel war and environmental and social inequality? I was initially trained in ecology, and it informs all my historical work.

WF: Does that theme--of how science and technology could serve the interests of environmental and social justice--follow from the Osiris volume you edited with Michelle Murphy and Chris Sellers, Landscapes of Exposure: Knowledge and Illness in Modern Environments? Or did that volume follow from the research you were doing for this book? What I'm wondering is whether or how the two books tackle the EJ issues from a common basis.

GM: It was a real pleasure working with Michelle and Chris on that volume. We started that Osiris project as I was just beginning to really think seriously about bringing together environmental and medical history through the history of allergy. In many ways, Breathing Space is an outcome of the kinds of historiographic issues we wrestled with in putting together that volume. The emphasis on material and cultural history, as well as EJ, is certainly related to the kinds of discussions that emerged out of the conference and continued dialogue that resulted in Landscapes of Exposure.

WF: And is your next book, your current research-in-progress, working towards similar ends?

GM: Yes. In many ways, my next book is a synthesis of all my past projects: film history, history of science, environmental history, and medical history. Its working title is "Latex and Blood: Science, Commerce, and America's Rubber Empire." The book is a historical account of the 1926 Harvard Medical Expedition to Liberia and the environmental and social consequences that followed in its wake. It is a story of ecology and disease, of commerce and science, of racial politics and political maneuvering. It is also a reminder of how deeply intertwined natural resource needs and national security have been in the history of U.S. twentieth and twenty-first century economic and foreign relations.

WF: Do you take hay fever vacations, or their modern equivalent? I spent some time on the Georgia coast this summer and was glad to have had a week without sneezing and rubbing my eyes. Sudafed's the extent of my dealings, though, so I'm minor league.

GM: No, but it is interesting how the body can be a sensitive instrument of one's environmental surroundings. When I was doing research for the book, I spent some time in Mackinac Island, a popular nineteenth-century hay fever destination, and my allergies were absolutely terrible. I couldn't figure out it out. And then it dawned on me. There are no cars on the island, only horse-drawn carriages. And I am extremely allergic to horses!

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