Eira Tansey

Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

The Necessary Knowledge

This is an annotated version of the lectern copy of my opening keynote at NDSA’s Digital Preservation 2017: Preservation is Political in Pittsburgh on October 25. You can watch the recording here.

There is something I didn’t tell people in my formal talk, but I want to share here. Prior to my keynote, the last time I was in Pittsburgh was when I drove up the day after last year’s presidential election (after having worked the entire day as a poll worker in a Cincinnati suburb), because I was on an environmental panel for the Association of Moving Image Archivists annual meeting that was being held in downtown Pittsburgh. During our AMIA panel, everyone said, “Well I did all my preparation a few days ago, who knows what will happen to the EPA or Paris agreement now?” So it felt like things really came full circle for me to be asked back to Pittsburgh, a city that I love and a city that has such strong environmental and cultural ties to my beloved hometown of Cincinnati, but the site where, among archivists, I processed much of my immediate post-election grief and shock. And so it was a profound and moving experience to return to the same location, a year later, to speak in such a public way about one of the topics nearest to my heart. I am so grateful to the NDSA/DLF organizers for that opportunity.

When I wrote this keynote, there was a lot I left on the cutting room floor. Since I am only planning on revising a small part of my keynote for subsequent publication, this is my main opportunity to throw back in those bits as footnotes, and additional thoughts about the weird times we are all living through. The main text is the lectern copy I used during the keynote itself. The images are the slides I presented in Pittsburgh. Following the lectern copy text are a list of sources, and my extra bonus content annotations.



In 1889, an item appeared at the bottom of the Pittsburg Dispatch. Just a few lines long, and sandwiched between reports of train accidents, it read:

Health officer Bradley, of Allegheny, has started a crusade against the doctors who have not reported their cases of typhoid fever, and threatens to fine them $50 for their neglect. There is both an act of the Assembly and a city ordinance requiring these reports, and blanks have been to sent to all the city physicians.

The Act of the Assembly had been in place for years, and it would be expanded as the death tolls rose. Pittsburgh had a disproportionately high number of typhoid cases, and this modest notice foreshadowed the struggles that link environmental protection, public health, and recordkeeping in a way that American society struggles with to this day.

River Pollution

The lack of consistent morbidity reporting by physicians, despite their legal requirement to do so, reflected part of the long transition to government vital record keeping. Record keeping had expanded as government responsibility grew for public health matters. Public health matters were becoming urgent as industrialization and city crowding endangered the health of Pittsburgh’s air and water. As typhoid fever cases accumulated, the requirements regulating reporting and other measures went from half a page of legal guidance, to nine pages of guidance 2 decades later.

25 years after enough death records were issued, researchers established horrifying links between the health of Pittsburgh’s rivers and the health of those who drank from it. Pittsburgh is bounded by the Allegheny to the north, the Monongahela to the south, and both converge to form the headwaters of the Ohio River. Recordkeeping alone had not reduced the prevalence of typhoid, but it provided clear and convincing evidence that river pollution was to blame for the disease. No one could simply write it off as the fault of squalid tenement living or of tainted milk. The primary culprits were political and corporate leaders who had allowed the rivers to be used as a dumping ground, and neglected to create large-scale water treatment facilities. No one could say exactly how much was dumped in the rivers, but everyone knew that industrial waste of iron and steel mills, tanneries, and slaughterhouses, and the human waste of communities upstream from Pittsburgh, had seriously compromised local water.

With sufficient death records to establish links between the water supply and typhoid fever, the picture was stark. Pittsburgh had one of the highest typhoid fever death rates in the United States, far higher than any other major city. Reformers pointed to other cities with successful water management systems, where typhoid fever deaths were a fraction of Pittsburgh’s. During a nine-year period following the health commissioner’s threat to fine doctors, the death toll was between 104 and 130 per 100,000 people, while cities like Washington and Philadelphia had close to half this rate (Wing, p. 66). After four years of political delays, during which an additional 1,500 deaths stacked up, Pittsburgh’s water filtration plant finally went into operation.

This assessment was part of a several thousand page study on Pittsburgh at the turn of the century. Carried out by dozens Progressive Era social researchers, the work of the Pittsburgh survey was published in six volumes between 1910 and 1914, and it covered dozens of topics, including women’s working conditions in sweatshops, the status of orphans and foster children, and steel worker unionization after the deadly Homestead Strike.

Pittsburgh, the home of US Steel and the cradle of Andrew Carnegie’s wealth, was a showcase for the fallout of America’s Gilded Age. One of the frequently occurring motifs of the Pittsburgh survey is a city coated in soot, dust, and grime.1. This grime was inescapable, from factories where workers were directly exposed, to homes where the dust settled inside the walls. The grime was the inevitable outcome of a city that was the steel capital of the world.

Progressive Era reformers drew explicit connections between the wastes of industrialization and public health in ways that ranged from the graphic exposure of books like The Jungle, to the less-visible work of improving the kind of medical and municipal recordkeeping that we now take for granted. Bureaucratized recordkeeping, such as death certificates, were increasingly widespread by the Progressive Era thanks to advances in increased literacy, the emergence of professions, and the role of the state in controlling public health. However, early recordkeeping was inconsistent, presenting issues for researchers. The Pittsburgh surveyors reported challenges accessing and making sense of municipal and corporate records. Surveyors researching workplace injuries relied on coroner’s and hospital records, as only some employers were willing to share their records. Even then, available records omitted pertinent information, or were illegible. Others investigating public sanitation records noted that while violations were often recorded, prosecutions were rarely initiated.

The typhoid surveyors didn’t just draw on death records to establish links between the city’s water supply and typhoid fever, they also created their own records as part of a case study assessing the disease’s economic impact to over 300 families. This work was carried out under the charge of a local settlement house nurse named Anna Heldman, whose existing relationships with local families was viewed as a critical asset for data collection (Wing, pp. 72-74). The surveyors found that there were significant income losses due to sickness from the contaminated rivers. This echoed a problem we continue to struggle with, which is that environmental pollution disproportionately impacts poor communities.

But perhaps what the typhoid fever investigators did best was making records visible in ways that humanized the blandness of statistics. An exhibit of some of the survey’s findings were exhibited at the Carnegie Institute, and the walls featured a frieze depicting over 600 silhouettes of men, women, and children. These represented the area’s typhoid fever death toll from the previous year, and the borders of the published report were similarly decorated. To illustrate the entire 25-year long death toll, the surveyors superimposed a line starting at the courthouse and ending near a filtration plant on the Allegheny River. The line represented an end to end body count of more than 7,422 citizens who had lost their life to typhoid fever, or according to their measurements, a death toll equivalent to almost 6 miles long.


As the field work of the survey started in 1907 (Butler, p. 4), a child was born 14 miles northeast of Pittsburgh (Souder, p.24). She grew up seeing the smokestacks along the Allegheny River, where a century later, a bridge was renamed in her honor on Earth Day. She transformed the US environmental movement through the publication of a book that shook the country and exposed the hubris of unquestioned technology.

Rachel Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women, located in Pittsburgh’s East End, and today known as Chatham University (Souder p.26).2 She studied biology, and went on to become an information specialist for what eventually became the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Souder, p. 5). There she summarized scientific research into information for the public. Before writing her most famous book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson publish highly-regarded and wildly popular books about the ocean, making her a household name well before she turned her attention to pesticides.

Published in 1962, Silent Spring has been called “a beautiful book about a dreadful topic” (Oreskes & Conway, p. 216). Carson shined a spotlight on the indiscriminate applications of popular post-war insecticides like DDT, which was starting to show up in the food chains of insects, fish, birds, mammals, and eventually within the bodies of humans. A counterweight to corporate boosterism of better living through chemistry, Silent Spring painted a horrifying portrait of lifeless rivers that previously teemed with fish, silenced backyards that used to host busy bird feeders, and agricultural workers who fell in fields. Carson showed that indiscriminate use of pesticides could not be isolated to a single area or species. Chemical toxins accumulated in the bodies of non-target species with profound consequences. A bird might die from DDT or its chemical cousins by eating contaminated worms, by ingesting DDT itself, or by starving to death as the insects it ate were wiped out during a spraying campaign.

Rachel Carson knew about the dangers of widespread pesticide applications for years. As a Fish and Wildlife employee in the late 1940s, she edited reports on the division’s tests of DDT (Souder, pp. 7-8). The main regulatory law affecting pesticide use at the time was the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), but it was primarily a registry and labelling law overseen by the US Department of Agriculture. FIFRA was not expanded to examine toxicity on wildlife and public health until 1972 – the same year that the US banned use of DDT (EPA, “FIFRA” & “DDT”).

To write Silent Spring, Carson relied on her well-honed approaches of pursuing correspondence with field experts, reading staggering amounts of scientific literature, and working closely with librarians. In a nod to the enduring importance of librarians’ labor to her writing, she acknowledged that “every writer of a book based on many diverse facts owes much to the skill and helpfulness of librarians” and specifically thanked Department of Interior librarian Ida Johnston, and National Institute of Health librarian Thelma Robinson for their help. Carson drew on everything from Audubon Club bird watcher reports to Congressional hearings to federal agency reviews to research studies in international journals of medicine.

Carson was not the first person to raise the alarm about the danger of pesticides (Carson, p. 31, 170). But what set Carson apart was her ability to synthesize many bureaucratic reports and scholarly scientific findings into a form that resonated with the public – and compelled regulatory action. She knew that the accusations she lodged against pesticide practices were incendiary, and she took enormous care in documenting all of her claims, insisting that the publisher include a fifty-page guide to her sources. This wasn’t just to ensure scholarly rigor – after all, Silent Spring was a book for a general audience – it was to proactively address the very real concern that Carson and her publisher might be the target of a libel suit.

What happened to Rachel Carson next was a blueprint of attacks that have been replicated against researchers whose findings turn out to be very inconvenient to industries and their government enablers. When Silent Spring was published, corporate interests came for Carson with a viciousness that feels both dated and alarmingly contemporary at the same time. She was castigated for her lack of an advanced degree, her suspicious love of animals, and for being just another hysterical spinster. Carson took care in her measured prose to note that she was not opposed to all pesticide use, but that her opposition was to the unrestrained way in which they were used with scant attention paid to existing safety studies.

Eight years after Silent Spring was published, Richard Nixon signed a reorganization plan that created the Environmental Protection Agency, consolidating responsibility for dozens of existing environmental laws – including FIFRA – into one agency. Many of these laws were expanded to require significant new record keeping responsibilities to document pollution emissions, and assure citizen’s right to know about potential toxic exposures. The EPA’s original charge included the mandate that it “[gather] information on pollution” to “strengthen environmental protection programs and recommend policy changes.” (Nixon, p. 5). One of the greatest underrated legacies of the EPA’s creation is that it has enormously expanded the amount of environmental information available to the public through monitoring, reporting, and permitting record systems3. We do not often think of the creation of records as a victory, but effectively addressing pollution without those records is incredibly difficult, as we can see in today’s Pennsylvania landscape.


Shortly after President Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, he stated “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” (Woodall, 2017).4 While the city of Pittsburgh has made notable progress towards a fossil free future, it is also in the center of the Marcellus Shale region, the largest U.S. natural gas field and which covers three-fifths of Pennsylvania, as well as parts of Ohio, West Virginia, New York and Maryland (EIA, 2017a). For the last four years, Pennsylvania has been the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer (EIA, 2017b).

Much of this growth has been due to the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Fracking has been around for decades, but it was not widely deployed until the early 2000s (EPA, 2016; Congressional Research Service, 2015a). Fracking is a process where large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals are injected into deep wells to fracture, or crack open, rock formations to release oil and gas deposits. Fracking’s immediate environmental risks come from potential links to earthquakes, methane leakage, and water contamination. Many of the rural residents in the Marcellus Shale region have complained that fracking operations have contaminated their water supplies.

Fracking poses documented danger to water supplies. But establishing a conclusive link to hold energy companies accountable is difficult because of an absence of industry and governmental records 5. The oil and gas industry claims there is minimal risk, because fracking happens in rock formations below any groundwater supplies. However, there are many other routes to water contamination, including onsite chemical spills, failures in the underground pipes, and improper waste disposal. Contamination of well water, a common water supply in rural regions, is especially difficult to prove because there are often no baseline water purity records prior to fracking. Furthermore, many industries avoid full disclosure of their fracking chemicals by claiming confidential business information (Congressional Research Service, 2015b; EPA, 2016).

Regulation depends on reliable record keeping. Regulations mandate what records will be created in order to ensure health and safety. Industries with potentially serious environmental impact are often not regulated until there is significant public outcry. There is often spotty documentation, at best, on early environmental impacts of new technologies, leaving citizens without the information they need to to prove pollution claims. The problem is worsened by regulatory agencies that struggle with underfunding and an inability or unwillingness to exercise their enforcement powers. It is further compounded by politicians hostile to environmental regulation. These issues can be seen in recent failures of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to regulate fracking.

In 2014, the Pennsylvania Auditor General audited the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), reviewing their performance in monitoring and investigating fracking’s effects on water supplies. This is a huge issue because if you think fracking has contaminated your water supply, you have to start by making a complaint to the DEP, which then triggers an investigation. The audit found failure after failure in both DEP’s regulatory responsibilities and its record keeping practices (Pennsylvania Auditor General, 2014). When citizens filed complaints, they did not consistently receive a final letter stating the conclusion of an investigation, inspection records were kept inconsistently, there wasn’t independent verification of industry’s self-reported waste, records were not organized in a way to answer simple big-picture questions such as “How many complaints were related to impacts on water supplies?” and DEP routinely cited confidentiality concerns as an excuse to block access to public records. The Auditor stated he could not conclude whether “public health is being threatened by the gas industry” because “their record keeping is so poor” (Hurdle, 2014). The findings of the state auditor are similar to what much of the scholarly literature on fracking says – that the dangers to water are known, but no one knows quite how widespread it is because state and industry record keeping is so inconsistent. Although the DEP has recently improved some of its online public records access – including crucial citizen complaint records – finding and making sense of the records is notoriously difficult.

Dissatisfied with the status quo, activists have filed numerous public records requests in order to assemble information in a manner far more accessible and comprehensible to the public. The Pittsburgh-based Public Herald literally went to DEP regional offices to scan thousands of citizen complaints which they’ve mapped and made available on their website, publicfiles.org.6


In each of these regional stories, reliable record keeping has been essential to documenting the links between pollution and polluters. When industry and government roll back regulations that require reliable record keeping, we’re quickly on the road to pollution without polluters, in which we know that  water and air is being contaminated, but we lack the reliable evidence to document exactly who that polluter is.

Last year’s keynote by Bergis Jules, was titled “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives.” Bergis called for us to “[acknowledge] our willful ignorance around the histories of marginalized people of color and to allow new knowledge to affect how we do our work.” The failure of care is a theme that comes up time and again when one considers how injustices perpetrated against the land, air and water are inseparable from the injustices perpetrated against marginalized peoples. Pollution of air and water disproportionately affects poor communities and communities of color, and yet with all our knowledge about this reality, we have failed to embed the concept of care into the way we approach environmental information and record keeping.

What does care look like in an environmental record keeping context? It looks like record keeping that recognizes that impacts to the environment are inseparable to the impacts on our bodies and communities.

While I was preparing for this keynote, I ran across an intriguing example of what this looks like in a story from the Allegheny Front, a website dedicated to regional environmental journalism. The story profiled a local summer youth employment program in which teenagers are working in the predominantly black neighborhood of Lincoln-Lemington on lead poisoning (Holsopple, 2017)7. The neighborhood has older housing stock which means a higher likelihood of lead paint, and like many cities with aging infrastructure, Pittsburgh is grappling with serious lead concerns in its water lines. There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, but the CDC has established what is known as a “reference level at which the agency recommends public health actions be initiated” (CDC, 2017). The reference level is anything above a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). In 2013, 7.5% of tested children here in Allegheny county had blood lead levels above the reference level, and several thousand more children have some level of exposure above zero (Allegheny County Health Department, 2015). The Allegheny County Council recently passed mandatory lead testing for one and two-year old children, and the law will go into effect on January 1 (Deto, 2017). A councilman supporting the legislation stated, “Lead testing gives us information, and without information we can’t assess the problem that we are facing” (Boren, 2017).

Over the summer, the students in the youth employment program mapped buildings in the neighborhood, talked with residents about  their lead exposure mitigation strategies, and conducted surveys in cooperation with the Allegheny County Health Department. The students spent 3 days in Flint Michigan talking to activists and community stakeholders there.

I recently spoke to Denise Jones, who served as the project’s director 8. She noted that while there was much quantitative data, there was little qualitative detail. The Health Department might be able to say how many houses were built with lead paint or had lead service lines, but it didn’t have information on how caregivers employed various strategies to keep their children safe. Knocking on doors, clipboards in hand, these students filled in the care-based details that are all too often missing from records that rarely account for how our environments impact our lives.

Preserving and making environmental information accessible is essential if we hope to bring any eventual accountability to power, because the legal and cultural context we live in requires documentary evidence in the form of trustworthy data and reliable records. Polluters know this, and it’s why rolling back regulations that document who is polluting and how is often the first line of attack in what they call bureaucratic red tape – but the documentation that that red tape creates is essential to building legal cases and moral claims against polluters. A disturbing number of today’s attacks on federal environmental protection involve attacks on information.9 Some of these have rolled back proposals for industry to increase its monitoring and reporting of methane. Methane has even more heat-trapping potential than carbon, and methane leaks are highly associated with fracking. Industry claims natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, but methane leaks undermine that claim. If we don’t require record keeping for methane emissions, it’s hard to determine the extent of our current contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.10

I often think about how many libraries have an uncomfortable inheritance of what the Gilded Age steel industry wrought on air and water, and on the bodies of its workers. Andrew Carnegie made his fortune from steel and he made it here in Pittsburgh, and it was his philanthropy to over a thousand communities that nearly doubled the amount of public libraries in the United States.11 Many of our libraries and archives we work in are deeply tangled in fossil fuels – from institutional endowments invested in BP or Exxon, foundation-funded projects seeded from the money of oil and gas barons, preservation of our digital content on coal-powered servers, and reliance on fossil-fueled transportation to come together to dream of a better future.  Environmental information is critical to our ability to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and I believe as information professionals we have an ethical obligation to incorporate environmental care in our professional practices.

I’ve been working around these issues of archives and the environment for a few years. The  profession knows we need to do something, but we’re not really sure what it is. Should we rewrite our disaster plans to incorporate climate change? Should we put rooftop gardens and solar panels on top of our buildings? Should we incorporate the environmental footprint of cloud storage into our contracts with digital preservation services? Ideally we would all answer Yes to them – and yet they avoid the critical question of environmental information.12

Before we can ask “What should we do about environmental information?” we must answer, “How do we as a profession develop an ethic of environmental justice?” Because we can’t sustain the issue of preserving environmental information for the long haul until we make caring about the environment a very normal and routine aspect of our personal and professional lives. People arrive at an ethic of environmental justice through different routes, but at its core, it depends on cultivating a sense of care and duty for the places in which we live and work, and understanding how environmental degradation compounds existing injustices.

In the archives profession, the “archivist as keeper and caretaker” trope has been thrashed for its implications that archivists are passive agents worshipping at the altar of neutrality. But as multiple archivists have recently asserted the importance of ethics of care in our profession, I would like to think we’re on the way to reclaiming archivists as caretakers in the best and most feminist sense of the word – that to care for something is a profound act of great importance, it’s essential to our ongoing existence, and it is the bedrock for preservation 13. To ensure that information is preserved so that it can be used by citizens for a safe and healthy environment is the opposite of passively keeping information – it is to assert that preservation of information, preservation of the earth, and preservation of public health, are very closely linked.

As we saw after the election, many decentralized efforts took place to address concerns over access and preservation of federal environmental data on websites like the EPA/DOI/NOAA/NASA. In some of those efforts, librarians and archivists played an active leadership role, while other efforts barely had any librarians or archivists present. Why was this? I suspect it is because for many of us, we do not have environmental justice incorporated in our sense of what it means to be an information professional. This information may be invisible to many of us most of the time, but if you like to breathe clean air and drink clean water, you should care very deeply about this.

As I’ve laid out, effective environmental protection depends on environmental information. That space is where we as information professionals most strongly bring our talents. So to return to the question, “What should we do about environmental information?” we need to identify the unfolding threats to its preservation and accessibility, from local to international stages. It’s not just at the federal level, and it was a problem long before the current administration, and will be longer after it. If we’re not given a seat at those tables, to paraphrase Shirley Chisholm, then we need to bring a folding chair.14 We need to assert that we, as information professionals, deeply care about environmental information, especially if we also claim that we care about the communities we serve.

Just as there is not a single solution for climate change, but multiple paths to transitioning to a fossil-free future, there are multiple ways we can work towards ensuring environmental information is preserved and used:

  • We can get involved in groups working on federal environmental data issues, many of which are represented within the DLF community
  • We can become friends with scientists and journalists to organize around our common interests
  • We can help citizen science projects with data management and preservation plans
  • We can teach local environmental activists how to find and use environmental information
  • We can surface new sources of environmental information in our collections, such as weather and ecological data from diaries
  • We can prioritize local environmental topics for our collection development policies
  • We can demand that industries voluntarily disclose more information about their environmental impact
  • We can interrogate the appraisal and retention decisions of regulatory records to ensure records are retained long enough to support the public interest
  • We can fight back against deregulation that rolls back reporting and monitoring recordkeeping requirements

The balance of power concerning the creation and access of environmental information has favored polluting industries for far too long. I’m gravely concerned this imbalance is becoming more severe, at the exact moment when crises of climate change, ecological collapse, and environmental injustice are becoming too urgent to ignore any longer. Whether we identify as librarians, archivists, curators, records managers, or some other branch of the information profession family tree, all of us can – and need to – contribute to preserving environmental information and ensuring its usability.

Rachel Carson lamented in Silent Spring that the evidence against pesticides was stacking up, but far too many people chose to ignore it.

She wrote, “Much of the necessary knowledge is now available, but we do not use it. We train ecologists in our universities and even employ them in our governmental agencies but we seldom take their advice. We allow the chemical death rain to fall as though there were no alternative, whereas in fact there are many, and our ingenuity could soon discover many more if given opportunity.”

Rachel Carson wrote those words more than 50 years ago, and yet it feels as if it could describe our world today. We need to build an alternative world, rooted in advice and ingenuity. We have the necessary knowledge. Now let’s use it.


Allegheny County Health Department. (2015). Community Health Assessment. http://www.achd.net/cha/CHA_Report-Final_42815.pdf

Boren, J. (2017). Allegheny County Council approves lead testing requirement for children. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. http://triblive.com/local/allegheny/12478182-74/allegheny-county-council-approves-lead-testing-requirement-for-children

Butler, E., & Russell Sage Foundation. (1909). Women and the trades, Pittsburgh, 1907-1908. New York: Survey Associates. https://archive.org/details/pittsburghsurvey01kelluoft

Carson, R., Lear, L. J., & Wilson, E. O. (2012). Silent spring. Boston: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). (2017). Lead. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/

Congressional Research Service. (2015a). An Overview of Unconventional Oil and Natural Gas: Resources and Federal Actions. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43148.pdf

Congressional Research Service. (2015b). Hydraulic Fracturing and Safe Drinking Water Act Regulatory Issues. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41760.pdf

Deto, R. (2017). Allegheny County Council candidate Anita Prizio thinks county’s new lead-testing rule should go farther. Pittsburgh City Paper. https://www.pghcitypaper.com/PolitiCrap/archives/2017/07/24/allegheny-county-council-candidate-anita-prizio-thinks-countys-new-lead-testing-rule-should-go-farther

EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration). (2017a). Pennsylvania Profile Analysis. https://www.eia.gov/state/analysis.php?sid=PA#2

EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration). (2017b). Pennsylvania Profile Overview. https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=PA

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). (2016). Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States  (Executive Summary). https://ofmpub.epa.gov/eims/eimscomm.getfile?p_download_id=530285

EPA. (2017). DDT – A Brief History and Status. https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/ddt-brief-history-and-status

EPA. (2017). Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and Federal Facilities. https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/federal-insecticide-fungicide-and-rodenticide-act-fifra-and-federal-facilities

Holsopple, K. (2017). “Teens earn and learn while educating their neighbors about lead exposure.” Allegheny Front. https://www.alleghenyfront.org/teens-earn-and-learn-while-educating-their-neighbors-about-lead-exposure/

Hurdle, J. (2014). “Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Faults Oversight of Natural Gas Industry.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/24/us/pennsylvanias-auditor-general-faults-oversight-of-natural-gas-industry.html?_r=1

Nixon, R. Reorganization plans nos. 3 and 4 of 1970, message from the president. Congressional document, House Committee on Government Operations. July 9, 1970. H.Doc. 91-366. https://congressional.proquest.com/legisinsight?id=12896-2%20H.doc.366&type=DOCUMENT

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2012). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. London: Bloomsbury.

Pennsylvania Auditor General. (2014). A Special Performance Audit of Department of Environmental Protection. http://www.paauditor.gov/Media/Default/Reports/speDEP072114.pdf

Souder, W. (2013). On a farther shore: The life and legacy of Rachel Carson.

Wing, F. (1914). “Thirty-Five Years of Typohid.” Kellogg, P. U., & Russell Sage Foundation. The Pittsburgh district civic frontage. New York: Survey Associates. https://archive.org/details/pittsburghsurvey05kelluoft

Woodall, C. (2017). “Trump: ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’”. Penn Live. http://www.pennlive.com/news/2017/06/trump_i_was_elected_to_represe.html


The long game of slow violence

The other night I did the one thing before bed you are DEFINITELY NOT SUPPOSED TO DO which was to watch a terrifying news clip:

I had been off the grid a couple weeks ago when the original editorial ran in the Washington Post. The News Hour guest and editorial writer is a Department of Interior employee named Joel Clement, who was working at a high level with Alaskan Native villages on adaptation issues, and was reassigned by his supervisors to an office that collected oil and gas royalties. He believes this was retaliation against his climate adaptation work, and filed whistleblower complaints. The PBS News Hour reporter asked Clement what we were all thinking: “Don’t you think it’s a little ironic you’re now in an office receiving fossil fuel payments when your previous work was exacerbated by the use of fossil fuels in the first place?”

One of the major things that has always horrified me in addition to the unfettered racism, misogyny, bigotry, and incompetence of Donald Trump, was that I do not trust this man to protect the safety of the people who live here on the most minimal public safety measures. One of the examples I pointed to was Trump’s castigation of fire department officials for enforcing fire safety limits at his rallies. A man that would disregard the safety of his own supporters by trying to bully his way out of fire safety codes was the clearest sign to me that this guy transgressed all normal definitions of sinister, that he was a fucking madman, that the potential body count of Americans on his watch – even those on his side – did not factor in to his outlook.

From disregarding fire safety codes – one of the most important public health measures that keep people alive – it’s not a far leap to shrugging off loss of health care for millions of Americans – another public health measure that keeps people alive. Millions losing their health care would result in many preventable deaths. We know this. Everyone knows this. Stop pretending anyone doesn’t understand this. Anyone who claims cuts to healthcare won’t result in thousands of preventable deaths is getting a paycheck that would frame a GoFundMe for chemo as the ultimate expression of liberty. Today we’re at the point where knowingly putting one’s supporters into a position where they may die is the standard operating principle not just of Donald Trump, but the entire Republican Party.

Republican leadership and Trump can claim until they’re blue in the face that of course they don’t want people to die, and basically folks, you know the drill from here: what terribly offensive liberal paranoia! How dare you claim that the Republican Party is seemingly okay with letting folks die in the streets, this is just more evidence that leftists are the real fascists! This is where looking at the concept of slow violence is critical. Slow violence means reconceiving of the speed at which violence is inflicted, particularly violence that may not register right away or is less visible than, say, a terrorist attack. In the words of author Rob Nixon:

We are accustomed to conceiving violence as immediate and explosive, erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But we need to revisit our assumptions and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. I want, then, to complicate conventional perceptions of violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is focused around an event, bounded by time, and aimed at a specific body or bodies. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges of environmental calamities.

So sure, if the GOP ultimately succeeds in repealing the ACA, bodies won’t be dropping in the streets overnight. But by associating violence with the short-term and the visible, we let those who would let people die in the long-term disassociate themselves from any form of violence and long-term accountability. And here is the problem: these assholes are really fucking good at playing the long game.

Where playing the long game with slow violence gets really scary, like, planetary-millenia level scary, is climate change. To state the facts in case anyone has missed Al Gore 1.0 or 2.0, climate change is real, climate change is primarily caused by consumption of fossil fuels, climate change is already wreaking havoc on plant and animal systems and the people who depend on these resources, and the folks who have contributed the least emissions historically speaking are the ones poised to suffer the most. Slow violence is sort of the defining experience of climate change – if you’re honest with yourself, the warning signs are everywhere around you, particularly if you live near a pole or near a coast. But because there isn’t a stark “before” and “after” timeline, climate change manifests itself as a slow violence, aided and abetted by those who benefit from fossil fuel extraction.

Upton Sinclair once said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” And of course, this is the only logical explanation for why the right-wing is committed to not just inaction on climate change, but doubling down on fossil fuel extraction and shifting from denial of climate change’s human basis to handwaving away the effects under the guise of “well, if it’s really happening, we’ll figure it out! Or build a colony on another planet!”

For those of you who aren’t up on your climate change policy definitions, what you’ll often hear are two words – mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is about reducing the use of fossil fuels, adaptation is about building infrastructure and creating policy to help people deal with the inevitable effects of climate change – a certain level of environmental disruption which is already assured, even if we dramatically reduced our fossil fuel consumption immediately. For many people – myself included – these aren’t two opposing paths but joint paths we need to quickly make progress on.

When Trump took office, I was prepared for and expecting that he would go after mitigation efforts – especially the Obama administration Clean Power Plan and Waters rule, and the Paris Agreement. Capitalists gonna capitalist, and these fuckers worship money more than they value the survival of their children. However, I must admit I was not really prepared for the idea that adaptation efforts are now a target. Adaptation efforts don’t really register in the national conversations the brainwashed GOP has on climate change – because how can you adapt to something if you deny the problem’s existence in the first place?

Recall that one of the major objections of the Republican Party to the Paris Agreement was their opposition to contributing money to international adaptation efforts – money that would assist Pacific Island nations who are quite literally threatened by drowning. They are open and upfront about this, as you can see from this Heritage Foundation quote:

One step that Congress should take is to refuse to authorize or appropriate any funds to implement the Agreement, including the tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars in adaptation funding to which the U.S. will commit itself annually.

On the domestic front, a major thing adaptation efforts have going for them is the requirement of serious infrastructure upgrades. Ah, infrastructure! One of those things that always sounds good on paper, but no Republican can seem to find the moral courage to actually fund. Infrastructure is like cute babies, extremely useful during campaign season, but coming in with a lifetime budget for care that no one really wants to fund 100%. Add to the fact that many of the US communities on the frontlines of climate change are Native communities, and this becomes not just a matter of budgetary kicking the can down the road, but yet another example of blatant environmental racism.

Right now, domestic climate change adaptation efforts across the federal government are fragmented, and unlike many European countries, the US does not have a national adaptation strategy (and even before Trump was elected, the federal government admitted it was unable to support total relocation of endangered communities). Much of this is because so much responsibility for planning and infrastructure decisions are at the state and local levels. But a lot of it is because no one really forced the federal government to think about what adaptation efforts should look like until the Obama administration required every federal agency to incorporate adaptation efforts into their climate change response plans – requirements which Trump’s administration has begun to rollback (Text of Trump’s EO here).

When I watched that clip above, I realized that this administration’s indifference to climate change isn’t just surface-level, it isn’t just photo ops exploiting coal miners as we pull out of the Paris agreement, it isn’t just denial that allows the Republican Party leadership to keep chowing down at the fossil fuel capitalism trough, and it isn’t just attacks on Pacific Island nations’ adaptation efforts. It goes very, very, disturbingly and systematically deep to parts of our government the vast majority of us – even people tuned in to climate change policy – can’t comprehend.

To attack domestic adaptation efforts transcends even the normal expectations one would have of American capitalist climate change denialism. One can see how adaptation can actually be embraced fairly cynically to serve fossil fuel interests – “well, maybe the sea will rise, but we don’t have to reduce our extraction as long as we build a giant sea wall one day!”

Instead, attacking adaptation efforts is from the same slow violence playbook as attacking people’s healthcare: we know that this will result in deaths. And the Republican Party is going down this path anyway, fully aware of the consequences, not giving a damn. The long game of slow violence may teach discipline and persistence, but it is based in the purest forms of evil ever wrought upon the world.

Fierce Urgencies 2017 event (Yale): When the Unbearable Becomes Inevitable

(I was honored to join Jarrett Drake and Bethany Wiggin at an event titled “Fierce Urgencies: The Social Responsibility of Collecting and Protecting Data,” hosted by the Beinecke Speakers Series at Yale University on May 4. Here is the copy of my talk + slides. Thanks to Hillel Arnold and Ben Goldman for helping me navigate my way to coherence as I wrote and rewrote my talk, and the Yale organizers who put together an important and compelling day.)

On April 2, curators of an archive in Canada walked into their repository to find a massive disaster unfolding. Water was pooling at the bottom of the storage area floors, and the curators realized with horror that some of the records in their care were lost beyond all hope. How could this be?

Predictably, it was an HVAC issue. The repository in question was the ice core archives at University of Alberta in Edmonton.[i] Scientists drill ice cores from glaciers in order to obtain historical climate records, and then the cores are split up into segments and stored in repositories that are so cold they require some serious protective clothing to enter. Ice cores are important, because they contain vital information about our planet over hundreds of thousands of years, including how levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have changed over time. This enables climate scientists to establish that not only are we experiencing increasing presence of greenhouse gas emissions compared to what we would expect based on past records, but that it has anthropogenic causes, that is, caused by human activity.

There is scarcely any place in the world that will not be affected by climate change. Whether our archives and libraries collect information about the environment scarcely matters, climate change will affect you as a practicing archivist, librarian, or curator, because it will also affect you as a citizen of the world. In many places, climate change has already started to impact archival work, even if we don’t realize it. And frequently we don’t realize it because archivists haven’t fully grappled with our professional relationship with the environment.

I find the story of the melting ice cores poignant and sad because not only did some of these ice cores come from glaciers which are rapidly melting and may not be around long enough to obtain replacement samples from, but because it also illustrates the astonishing gap between the way different fields conceive of the very concept of the record. Because of the information embedded in natural objects like ice cores and tree rings, scientists refer to them as proxy data or proxy records,[ii] and they are a vital part of climate science, since reliable written records on the weather and climate only go back a few hundred years.

However, if we look at how the American archival profession defines data, records, and archives, it becomes clear that we archivists think of records as something created by, for, and about humans. For example, the SAA glossary of archival terminology barely creates intellectual space for the idea that a record could be created by any process except human activity, or that archives would exist for any capacity beyond how they reflect our relationships with human institutions.[iii] Anything from the natural world may be considered data, and historically we have tended to leave data to other professions.



It has added to my growing conviction that the construction of archives as the product of human activity stymies our understanding of our work and its meaning in the larger environment around us.

Environmental metaphors permeate an incredible amount of archival literature, but the reality is that archivists have constructed “archives” as an almost entirely human enterprise.[iv][v][vi] And you will notice that when we do use environmental metaphors in our literature, it is frequently in a negative light. For example, in the 1987 English translation of German archivist Hans Booms’ work, one finds phrases common to the archival literature, like

●     “archivists have made unsuccessful attempts to staunch this flood of information” or,

●     “The mountain of data competing for storage also begins to grow at a more rapid pace”

When we use environmental metaphors in this way, it is almost as if we are replaying frontier narratives that imagine that environments are inherently wild and out of control, and that humans must subjugate them to serve our needs.

The unfortunate reality is that whether we want to think about our relationship with the environment or not, eventually climate change will force us to confront that relationship.

Even seemingly benign events may be a canary in the coal mine for the future. While coastal sea level rise and dramatic hurricanes capture our most apocalyptic fears, less obvious effects of climate change – like the intensification of Midwest thunderstorms over the coming decades – can lead to highly localized but incredibly devastating outcomes. In my city of Cincinnati, we experienced a taste of this over the past August when a spectacularly intense thunderstorm parked itself over our city, and overwhelmed the local storm water system. This led to flooding in neighborhoods that no one ever recalled flooding before, because of their distance from our local rivers. And yet this is the exact same thing climatologists are warning us will happen hundreds of miles inland. That August storm particularly affected a local institution, and their archivist told me recently it was only by luck that some their collections weren’t damaged in a room that flooded, thanks to being on tables that day.

I believe that there will be a point in our near future in which archivists will have no choice but to adapt to climate change in the way we perform our work. The challenge is whether we do it in a way that reinforces the very problems at our door, or in a way that puts us on the right side of accountability, justice, and community responsibility. In order to begin preparing for long-term adaptation, we need to ask a lot of questions we would probably prefer to put off.

What are some of the risks in a changing climate we might face? It depends on where you are:

●     Some may face immediate collection evacuation risks, prompted by wildfires, floods, and hurricanes

●     Some may face long-term relocation decisions due to sea-level rise and coastal erosion, or if a weather event is so devastating, rebuilding is inadvisable or impossible

●     Some may face increasing infrastructure and preservation costs when current HVAC systems can’t keep up with future increases in temperature and humidity

I suspect some archivists will find themselves being asked difficult questions one day from institutional risk managers who know nothing about archives or libraries. The insurance industry is already taking a cold hard actuarial look at the reality of underwriting certain areas. When our institutions and repositories can no longer have insurance, or afford insurance premiums for areas increasingly vulnerable, what difficult decisions will we have to make about how, when, and where to steward our collections?

What about problems that are likely to be so big that they cannot be resolved at the local institutional level? Will we be ready to meet these challenges profession-wide? These questions are becoming painfully relevant for many. Australian archivist Matthew Gordon-Clark has written about the legal and cultural struggles that will almost certainly arise with determining how the larger archival community should aid in the question of national archives from Pacific Island nations.



Many of you may know that here at Yale, there is a fantastic group of researchers who study the communication and rhetoric around climate change. The researchers periodically study how Americans think about climate change, and I think these stats are fascinating – 70% of us think CC will affect future generations, a slim majority think it’s already affecting the US, but only 40% think it will affect us personally. How do we make sense of this? It’s not as if we’ll have a clear red line from which we can say “Now climate change is affecting us.” We need to assume it already is, and act accordingly.

The Society of American Archivists Core Values states, “Underlying all the professional activities of archivists is their responsibility to a variety of groups in society and to the public good.” It is my strong conviction that professionally and morally, archivists have to step up and connect the dots between the public good, and climate justice. And we have to do it in a way that recognizes climate justice is fundamentally intertwined with struggles for economic, racial, and gender justice.

Across the globe, frontline communities – poor folks, people of color, and indigenous people –  will face the most severe effects of climate change, despite generally contributing the least emissions. You will note that historically, these are also communities that are underrepresented among archivists, and with whom we do not have a historically good relationship with across the board, and in many circumstances, have even aided in their oppression through description, acquisition, or access practices.

Many of these communities either face barriers in accessing the types of records needed to substantiate their claims of environmental injustices, or have difficulty getting those in power to take seriously the evidence and documentation their communities have gathered together in the absence of official records.

There are currently no comprehensive governmental programs in place in the US to aid coastal frontline communities who must move in order to sustain their cultures and community. This is already a reality for several indigenous communities, particularly along the Gulf Coast[vii] and Alaska.[viii] Our society’s failure to help these communities move is not just an abdication of responsibility for physical safety and wellbeing, but also yet another way in which the cultural heritage of vulnerable communities is marginalized and threatened.

I want to raise a cautionary note. I fear our profession sometimes suffers from a “Document, Collect and Preserve it, and they will come” mindset – either that if we gather material, we will ensure new groups of users will come to find our archives relevant, or that if we help preserve documentation documenting injustice, it will help people come to their senses. To return to my earlier conviction that archivists need to grapple with our relationship with the environment, I don’t think simply collecting about the environment is the answer. We need to completely rethink how to integrate climate change adaptation into our existing work, from appraisal to processing to preservation, because collection and documentation alone does not produce justice.



If we look at the history of the science of climate change, we can see that collection and knowledge-creation and preservation are not enough. Climate change is arguably one of the MOST documented phenomenons of the post-industrial world, and the general public has been exposed to it for over a century now, with mentions in newspapers going back to at least the second-half of the 19th century, and President LBJ mentioning the dangers of burning fossil fuels in a 1965 address to Congress.

So how is it that we have all this knowledge, but emission levels keep moving up?

Knowledge, on its own, is not enough to move policy. The reason that emissions are increasing is because we have a worldwide system in which vast and moneyed fossil fuel interests have historically been motivated to attack knowledge and expertise on the one hand, while behind the scenes influencing policy through buying their way out of any moral obligation to do anything about it. It is the reason ExxonMobil has joined the ranks of tobacco and the NFL in trying to cover up its own internal research showing how bad their product is (#ExxonKnew), but unlike cigarettes and traumatic brain injuries, their own coverup of documentation in the quest for unfettered profits could hurt everyone and everything alive on the planet now and in the future.

So as one of my friends recently said to me, so what do archivists do? Besides dismantling fossil-fuel dominated crony capitalism, I have three suggestions, starting at home. And I emphasize the phrase “at home,” because while climate change is a global phenomenon, it will have highly localized problems and therefore calls for localized responses:

1.    Start talking about it to anyone who will listen, and when you’re not talking, listen to the perspectives of front line communities in your area. Is there something as an archivist you can lend your voice and skills towards?

2.    Ask what your institution is doing for adaptation to climate change. You may find out that it’s “in the future.” Figure out how to be at that table once the future arrives, and start taking steps internally within your repository towards adaptation, so when the unthinkable becomes inevitable you’re ready

3.    Building professional solidarity with other professions, like journalists and scientists, who are committed to truth-telling.

Science historian Naomi Oreskes has talked about this gap between knowledge and policy: “It’s a cliché to say that knowledge is power. It’s not true actually. Knowledge is knowledge. In our society, knowledge resides in one place, and for the most part, power resides somewhere else. And that disconnect is really the crux of the challenge we face right now.”

Friends and colleagues, let us hope we can rise to the challenge ahead.


[i]  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/11/climate/ice-cores-melted-freezer-alberta-canada.html

[ii] https://www.climate.gov/maps-data/primer/past-climate and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxy_(climate)

[iii] Data: Facts, ideas, or discrete pieces of information, especially when in the form originally collected and unanalyzed.(http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/d/data)

Record: 1. A written or printed work of a legal or official nature that may be used as evidence or proof; a document. – 2. Data or information that has been fixed on some medium; that has content, context, and structure; and that is used as an extension of human memory or to demonstrate accountability. – 3. Data or information in a fixed form that is created or received in the course of individual or institutional activity and set aside (preserved) as evidence of that activity for future reference. – 4. An instrument filed for public notice (constructive notice); see recordation. (http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/r/record)

Archives: Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. (http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/a/archives)

[iv] There have been a handful of notable archivists who have drawn out some of the conflicts between archival theory and an environmental perspective. Candace Loewen: “…[W]e need to move beyond the search for the obvious “human” element in records to a search for records of value to humans and to the planet as a whole. Perhaps we have been too “human-centered” in our approach to appraisal; in documenting human activities and institutions, the earth itself has been relegated to second place. We have neglected the earth, what Hugh Taylor calls “planetary evidence,” and by doing so we have done a disservice to humanity, to ourselves.” Loewen, C. (1991). From Human Neglect to Planetary Survival: New Approaches to the Appraisal of Environmental Records. Archivaria, 33.

[v] Erik Moore: “In order to gain a sense of the whole system and the trophic dynamic running through the archival ecosystem, archivists should refine archival theory by incorporating ecological models. Since the 1980s, a handful of archivists have done just that. Their work has been for the most part cumulative, but to date has not substantially moved archival theory and practice in North America beyond the focus of intrinsic and instrumental values to a more integrated systemic value.” Moore, E. A. (2007). Birds of a Feather: Some Fundamentals on the Archives–Ecology Paradigm.

[vi] Hugh Taylor (2000 Reflection to “Recycling the Past”, originally published in 1993): “…I believe it is necessary to develop an attitude and a mindset which sharpens our awareness of what we have gotten ourselves into and hence to value those sources which are seeking either to record past disasters as a cause of future comparisons, or, through scientific research, to help us towards the way out through a greater understanding of the breadth of natural complexity. I have been musing in a philosophical way about this subject for some time, and I am anxious that more archivists join in the debate now that I am laying down my pen.”

[vii] https://toolkit.climate.gov/topics/tribal-nations/relocation

[viii] http://www.npr.org/2017/01/10/509176361/alaskan-village-citing-climate-change-seeks-disaster-relief-in-order-to-relocate