I went to hear anthropologist Laura Nader give the annual Distinguished Lecture sponsored by the Greater Boston Anthropology Consortium last week at Clark University in Worcester. Her talk was called “Energy, Environment, and the Commons: The Specialist and the Generalist,” and while she wasn’t speaking about cars or history per se, some of what she said resonated in interesting ways with the reasons why I started this car/heritage research project.
Nader’s talk was a somewhat loosely-strung-together set of points, drawing on her teaching, research, and engagement in energy studies over the past several decades. She argued that in order to “think new” about energy, we need to decouple a number of taken-for-granted equations: that “progress” is achieved through technology, that greater access to energy always equals an improved quality of life, and that the ticket price of energy reflects its actual costs. She also focused sort of obliquely on history, noting that most Americans know little or nothing about the histories of our own energy use and policy, and arguing that in order to wise up about this, we need to look far beyond the industrial and fossil fuel era and think about energy use within the long span of human life on the planet (what some people are now calling “Big History”). Even among people who agree that we need to change our energy habits, she said, we seem stuck in the same unproductive debates about which “alternative” fuel source will let us perpetuate a way of life that is a miniscule blip in the history of human existence, and which is predicated on quickly using up one type of fuel that took millions of years to create. And these unproductive debates give us a society in which, as she put it, “everything changes but nothing moves.”
The role of “the commons” was the least developed idea in her talk, but by implication, she made something of a case for the importance of a discursive or intellectual commons in which we can figure out the fraught questions around energy use in a civil, collective way. She noted that for most of human history—presumably meaning the long phase where humans were all hunters and gatherers—everyone had equal access to sources of energy. It’s only with the relatively recent advent of other modes of subsistence (like agriculture and, of course, industry) that access to energy has correlated to social difference and wealth. I couldn’t tell if she was advocating some kind of utopian return to commonly-held energy sources; her examples of the hopeful signs she sees in the emerging “green” energy sector actually seemed focused on small-scale entrepreneurial projects very much in the capitalist mode. But she did direct a lot of her remarks to the difficulty of having a shared, creative, open civic conversation about energy. She argued for the importance of generalists who can help all of us to “connect the dots” and to overcome the narrowness of either specialization or vestedness in the fossil-fueled status quo.
Her points echoed those made by Bill McKibben—an articulate generalist and a writer I admire greatly—in a recent Tom Dispatch piece. McKibben notes how depressingly easy it is to skew public debate when there isn’t agreement about the basic nature of the evidence we’re looking at (in this case, the always contestable evidence created by scientific inquiry). One side is saying, “Look, we don’t know everything, but on balance, we know enough to be concerned and to take action,” while the other side seizes gleefully on the admission of indeterminacy and uses that to call the whole body of knowledge into question. (McKibben compares this tactic with the way the O.J. Simpson defense team threw enough sand into the works of the prosecution’s case to secure a “not guilty” verdict for their demonstrably-guilty client.)
Like Nader, McKibben sees a need for tolerant, broad-minded thinkers who can weigh different kinds of evidence and not be bamboozled by narrow interests, special pleading, or their own anxieties (which people often displace onto the nearest handy target—say, Al Gore). The goal of producing tolerant, broad-minded, generally-educated thinkers is, of course, the ideal of many people involved in liberal arts education, and it’s also the implied goal of much public history practice, which is where I see a connection between Nader’s and McKibben’s thoughts and my own car/heritage research.
Like science, history is open-ended, always in process, always contestable. And like scientists, historians have a tricky kind of authority, based on careful specialized study but always subject to challenge and possible revision. Scholars are used to challenges from within their disciplines, but when they enter the public arena, they become subject to challenges from those who aren’t playing by the same rules—a situation familiar to public historians who find their work running afoul of community or political opinions. Given how hard-fought the energy and climate debates currently are, perhaps it’s not surprising that historic and heritage sites (with a few exceptions, like this one) have not become deeply involved in those arenas so far. Listening to Laura Nader, though, it seemed clear to me that until we have a more productive space of discourse and debate, we’re unlikely to be able to reinvent our energy use in the ways that we need to do. Looking at the way the climate-change nay-sayers are misreading the recent Washington, DC blizzard, it feels as though we’re a long way away from that kind of commons at the moment, but I want to hope that public historical display might have some role in eventually helping to create it.
(Laura Nader's new edited anthology The Energy Reader, which I'm looking forward to, is due out in a couple of months.)