Five Minutes with a Fellow offers a brief glimpse into what inspires researchers in the environmental humanities. The interviews feature current and former fellows from the Rachel Carson Center.
Amy Hay is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas-Pan American. Her research examines the intersections of health, the environment, and public policy; and her current project focuses on the development and use of, as well as protests against Agent Orange, the herbicide compound used to defoliate jungle growth in the Vietnam War.
How does your research contribute to discussions around solving environmental challenges?
I would say one of the things that I think is interesting about my research into the history of toxic chemicals is that, in one sense, it’s very positive. I look at people who are challenging things, who are committed to speaking up and changing things. What is fascinating is that these people don’t always win; these are not always happy stories. When looking at the use of toxic chemicals, there is real harm being done. These issues not only prompt these activists to speak out, but also make their failures more real.
I’m constantly intrigued by how this issue can unite people from different social strata. Right now, I’m working on the stories of three women: one was a libertarian, one marched with her mom in the Depression-era bread riots, and the third lost her children in a house fire and has truly paid a high price for her activism. My research is often about ordinary people—even scientists think of themselves as ordinary citizens—who are engaged and trying to help. I see my own writing as a kind of activism in and of itself. It’s good to remind people to challenge the system. It’s important to remind them that we have lost battles, but also that it’s important to keep fighting.
What is one change you would like to see happen to achieve a sustainable future?
I think if we can make the transition from a coal-based, petroleum-energy economy to an energy system that really starts to thoughtfully change things (keeping in mind that wind and solar power can also be abused), this would cause tremendous change. It would make regions of the world more stable and would cause us to rethink everyday lifestyle, as well. For example, if we move to electric cars in the US, then there would more public and government investments in rail systems. As an American, one thing that has struck me in Munich, and in Europe in general, is the comprehensive rail and public transport infrastructure. I am still cautious about this idea—I have visions of an Iowa filled with wind turbines and nothing else—but it but has tremendous ripple effects.
What is your favorite piece of environmental literature?
There are two readings that really converted me to environmental history. The first is Bill Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness”; it’s all about breaking down the artificial boundaries that historians created between pristine environment and lived environment. It definitely reinvigorated urban history and it’s also a key text for students—it really shows them that we’re not separate from nature.
The second, Richard White’s study on the Columbia River, is really important—it offers a different lens for looking at human-nature relationships. A lot of environmental scholarship focuses on the evils of capitalism, but this has been done. White offers a different window or lens through which to see and think about environmental scholarship. Why don’t we write about farmers and foresters—people who work in the environment and who are often left out of the standard environmental history narrative? I see White as an amazing thinker; like Rachel Carson, he’s incredibly accessible.
Who has been a big influence on your work and life, and why?
I have come to realize that my mother has influenced me. Her stubbornness and orneriness are traits that I find in the activists I’m most drawn to. A lot are homemakers with ambivalent relationships to feminism, but, through their roles as homemakers, transition to activism. It took me a while to make this connection between my mother and the women that I study.
During my studies, I had two professors that really inspired my work. I was lucky enough to find a medical historian during my graduate degree. She was a very supportive faculty member and taught me how to write. (I had basically come to the MA as a pharmacy student.) Also, my dissertation advisor—she gave me the idea for the topic, but also made me own my dissertation. There can be a real barrier if your advisor gives you everything; she really made sure that the final product was mine.
And finally, in my career, I have had a great national and international network of friends and colleagues. It’s a rare opportunity that we academics take for granted, but amazing that we can connect with people all over the world. It reminds of Ken Woodward, who loves footnotes, as they contain a community of ideas and scholars; this metaphor really applies to the luxury of our lifestyle—the international connections and exchanges are one of the best things about my life (not just my job).
Where is your favorite place to spend time with nature?
The beach—this was a surprise, something that I first discovered as an adult. Having always lived in land-locked states, I learned to know and love the beach when friends rented a beach house on the North Carolina coast. The house was on a lonely beach, and I was amazed by the opportunity to watch pelicans (I had no idea how big they really are), to see dolphins, shrimp boats, etc. I could see why Rachel Carson had a love affair with the sea—it’s really liminal space. My own love of the beach was unexpected, because I don’t like sand, but has been a really nice discovery to make.