Eco epic for scep­tics

Pulitzer win­ner’s ode to the ‘Amer­i­can Sea’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE -

The aca­demic Jack Davis won a Pulitzer for a work on the Gulf of Mex­ico that out­lines not just a nat­u­ral his­tory of the ‘Amer­i­can Sea’ but also chron­i­cles its role as an agent in hu­man af­fairs. He tells John Mor­gan of his shock at win­ning, and his hope that his book will get even cli­mate change scep­tics to re­flect on threats to the en­vi­ron­ment

One day in April, Jack Davis was in his of­fice at the Univer­sity of Florida in Gainesville, “read­ing the riot act to a grad­u­ate stu­dent about his sloppy writ­ing”. But his ex­hor­ta­tions – the stu­dent was “a good stu­dent but he just wasn’t fol­low­ing in­struc­tion” – were in­ter­rupted as Davis’ of­fice and mo­bile phones be­gan ring­ing and beep­ing in­ces­santly.

“Wor­ried that there might be some emer­gency”, he picked up his cell phone and opened a text mes­sage from his editor. And that is how he learned that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for His­tory.

“I mut­tered: ‘Holy shit!’” Davis tells Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion. “Then I fell silent. I was stunned. I had to slide the phone across the desk to show the grad­u­ate stu­dent be­cause I didn’t know how to say it. I think he was pleased be­cause he knew that that was the end of the meet­ing.”

Davis (pic­tured right) is a pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory, a field he de­fines as be­ing “in­ter­ested not sim­ply in hu­man im­pact on the nat­u­ral world but also in how na­ture is a his­tor­i­cal agent, how it shapes the course of hu­man his­tory”. Ac­cord­ingly, he and his stu­dents “ex­plore that dia­lec­tic” in classes such as the his­tory of sus­tain­abil­ity and the his­tory of wa­ter.

His prizewin­ning book, The Gulf: The Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Sea, pub­lished in 2017, takes that ap­proach to the Gulf of Mex­ico’s his­tory. Its main nar­ra­tive be­gins with the shift­ing and con­vuls­ing of tec­tonic plates that cre­ated the Gulf 150 mil­lion years ago, with sub­se­quent chap­ters struc­tured around dif­fer­ent el­e­ments of the nat­u­ral world – fish, birds, wa­ter, oil, beaches – that have drawn and en­riched the Gulf’s hu­man in­hab­i­tants.

The sto­ries of some of those in­hab­i­tants are in­ter­wo­ven with this nat­u­ral his­tory. Th­ese in­clude the three gen­er­a­tions of the Grif­fith fam­ily who sat on the roof of their Louisiana house as the whole build­ing was swept away by a storm surge dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Au­drey in 1957; the con­quis­ta­dor Juan Ponce de León, killed by a na­tive Calusa war­rior’s dart laced with poi­son from the fruit of the manchi­neel tree, named “man­zanilla de la muerte” (“lit­tle ap­ple of death”) by the Span­ish; and the painter Wal­ter An­der­son, who would sail or swim out to an is­land off the coast of Mis­sis­sippi to live wild for weeks on end, while sketch­ing birds, be­ing bit­ten by snakes and, on one oc­ca­sion, ig­nor­ing a coast­guard boat that came to res­cue him dur­ing a hur­ri­cane. The beau­ti­ful, lyri­cal de­scrip­tions of An­der­son’s life on Horn Is­land are a prime ex­am­ple of how the book achieves an ac­ces­si­ble blend of “tra­di­tional his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive com­bined with na­ture writ­ing”, as Davis puts it.

Then there is the de­struc­tion wrought by the oil

At a time when en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions and cli­mate change sci­ence are un­der at­tack by the US’ right-wing me­dia and po­lit­i­cal class, Davis hopes that his book can help ‘stim­u­late a back­lash’

in­dus­try. That be­gan on 10 Jan­uary 1901 at Spindle­top, near Beau­mont, Texas, when a drilling rig be­gan to shake and a gusher the likes of which had never been seen be­fore spewed forth, “a roar­ing stream of crude that seemed en­raged by the dis­tur­bance from its mil­lion-year slum­ber”, shoot­ing 150 feet into the sky, “be­fore dou­bling into a shower over danc­ing rough­necks”. And it cul­mi­nated in the 2010 Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter, when an oil drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana ex­ploded, cre­at­ing a cat­a­strophic oil spill.

One feature of the Columbia Univer­sity-ad­min­is­tered Pulitzer Prizes – which de­scribe them­selves as “the coun­try’s most pres­ti­gious awards… in jour­nal­ism, letters, and mu­sic” – is that no shortlist is pub­lished ahead of the re­sults an­nounce­ment. So while jour­nal­ists awaited the re­sults “like the count­down to [a] space shut­tle launch or some­thing”, Davis had no idea that his editor had even en­tered him, never mind that the re­sults were be­ing an­nounced that day.

“Peo­ple ask me: ‘How does it feel [to have won]?’ And I say: ‘Well, it feels like some­body else’s life.’ Be­cause I just never imag­ined my name or some­thing I had writ­ten be­ing as­so­ci­ated with the Pulitzer.” He adds that the ac­claim for it is “about the sea, and I’m re­ally happy about that”.

Davis’ in­no­va­tive, ac­ces­si­ble way of writ­ing about en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism has risen to promi­nence at a time when en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions and cli­mate change sci­ence are un­der at­tack from pow­er­ful sec­tions of the US’ right-wing me­dia and po­lit­i­cal class. And Davis hopes that his book can, in some way, help “stim­u­late a back­lash”.

He is also pleased to have been able to present a truly three-di­men­sional per­spec­tive on the Gulf re­gion, given his­tory books’ tra­di­tional fo­cus on the north-east’s role in early US his­tory – partly stem­ming, he says, from the fact that first Euro­pean settlement of the Gulf was “by the Span­ish, and the Span­ish aren’t con­sid­ered real Amer­i­cans”.

“[In writ­ing the book] I wanted my read­ers to know that the Gulf is more than this va­ca­tion spot, more than an oil field; that it has this rich and won­der­ful his­tory that’s re­ally not been in­te­grated into the larger his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive [of the US] by his­to­ri­ans,” Davis says.

Writ­ing The Gulf – which also earned Davis the Kirkus Prize for non-fic­tion and made him a fi­nal­ist in the National Book Crit­ics Cir­cle non-fic­tion award – was par­tic­u­larly mean­ing­ful to him given that he spent much of his child­hood on Florida’s Gulf coast.

Dur­ing that pe­riod, the sea was “a real out­let” for him. “I grew up with two sis­ters, so I was some­times on my own,” Davis says. “Some­times we lived in places where I didn’t have a lot of kids in the neighbourhood. I had to find ways to keep my­self en­ter­tained and oc­cu­pied.” So he “sailed, wa­ter­skied, scuba-dived, fished, wind­surfed” on the Gulf. As he puts it in the book’s ac­knowl­edge­ments, for him “the docks were [my] side­walks… a lit­tle mo­tor­boat my bi­cy­cle, and a rod and reel my bat and ball”.

That back­ground also helps to ex­plain why Davis adopted en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory as his aca­demic field. “In Florida, you’re ex­posed to the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, but you’re also ex­posed to the de­struc­tion of that nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. You witness it ev­ery day,” he ex­plains. How­ever, he did not start post­grad­u­ate study un­til he was 31. Af­ter his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree at the Univer­sity of South Florida, he spent the next decade “try­ing to find my way in life”. His first job was as a sales­man for a man­u­fac­turer. This was “in the 1980s, dur­ing the yup­pie years, and I thought I wanted to be a yup­pie”. But it was a job he “hated the day I started”, and, af­ter turn­ing 30, he vowed to “find some­thing that gives me ful­fil­ment”.

The ques­tion was what. “My child­hood was not steeped in in­tel­lec­tual pur­suits,” Davis ex­plains. His fa­ther was a “spo­rad­i­cally em­ployed sales­man-en­tre­pre­neur: a failed en­tre­pre­neur”; his mother was a house­wife. But his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, who died be­fore Davis was born, had been a his­tory pro­fes­sor, and Davis learned more about him af­ter read­ing some of his pa­pers. “I found a [role] model, which I did not have among any other fam­ily mem­ber. That was im­por­tant in­spi­ra­tion,” he says.

Af­ter his PhD, he worked at the Univer­sity of Alabama at Birm­ing­ham, the Univer­sity of Jor­dan and Florida’s Eck­erd Col­lege. The Gulf is the 62-year-old’s third solo-au­thored book.

But be­fore that stun­ning mo­ment in his of­fice in April, Davis would never have been “naive” enough to be­lieve that he could win a Pulitzer. When he was in high school, “I didn’t think about be­ing a writer; I thought about skip­ping school.” He skipped “a lot” in his se­nior year and “went on ed­i­fy­ing ad­ven­tures. I went to mu­se­ums, I went to nat­u­ral places. Which ul­ti­mately, I think, were prob­a­bly more im­por­tant to me than to sit in [class] in my last se­mes­ter in my se­nior year be­ing bored out of my mind.”

The Gulf ex­plains how the re­gion is uniquely ex­posed to the im­pact of the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try on cli­mate change and sea lev­els. The coast is low-ly­ing, with­out cliffs, and the warm wa­ters fuel hur­ri­canes that, in turn, drive huge storm surges. This en­dan­gers an ever-in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple. Florida’s su­perb beaches, along­side the ad­vent of air con­di­tion­ing and mosquito con­trol, drove a post-war prop­erty boom that has seen the Sun­shine State’s pop­u­la­tion mush­room, mak­ing it the US’ third most pop­u­lous state, af­ter Cal­i­for­nia and fel­low Gulf state Texas.

But the sci­ence of cli­mate change is by no means ac­cepted by ev­ery­one. All five of the states that have a Gulf coast­line – the other three be­ing Louisiana, Mis­sis­sippi and Alabama – voted for Don­ald Trump in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Trump quickly ful­filled an elec­tion pledge to pull the US out of the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, and he has pre­vi­ously de­scribed cli­mate change as a Chi­nese plot to make the US less com­pet­i­tive and as a “money-mak­ing” hoax. Mean­while, Andrew Wheeler, a for­mer lob­by­ist for the coal in­dus­try, leads the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, hav­ing re­cently suc­ceeded Trump’s first pick, Scott Pruitt, the scan­dal-bound cli­mate change scep­tic who, in a pre­vi­ous job as Ok­la­homa at­tor­ney gen­eral, spent most of his time fight­ing EPA reg­u­la­tions.

So is it hard for Davis to get his pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism mes­sage through in such an era?

“It is and it isn’t,” he answers. “Be­cause there are so many peo­ple [who] re­alise how lame Scott Pruitt is – not to men­tion the pres­i­dent. So they are ea­ger for peo­ple like me to get the word out and to be an ad­vo­cate for, at the very least a con­ver­sa­tion, a se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion, on cli­mate change.” Davis has given more than 30 pub­lic talks around the US since The Gulf was pub­lished last year; at the end of them, he says, au­di­ence mem­bers “come up to me, and they are so grate­ful [and say:] ‘This is what we need.’”

Ron­ald Rea­gan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion “was a dis­as­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment, too”, given the 1980s pres­i­dent’s “very probusi­ness, anti-en­vi­ron­ment agenda”, Davis says. But, dur­ing the same era, mem­ber­ship of lo­cal and national en­vi­ron­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions “ex­ploded”. So “in some mi­nor way, per­haps, this book is a ve­hi­cle help­ing to drive the same sort of back­lash”.

More­over, The Gulf’s ac­ces­si­ble style – con­sciously

When Davis was in high school, he says: ‘I didn’t think about be­ing a writer; I thought about skip­ping school’

aimed not at aca­demics but at “in­tel­lec­tu­ally cu­ri­ous peo­ple” – and its self-pre­sen­ta­tion as a his­tory, rather than “a book about the Gulf en­vi­ron­ment”, have al­lowed Davis to preach to “more than just the choir”, pre­sent­ing as its “he­roes” the “ac­tivists and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials” who have bat­tled big in­dus­try to clean up the Gulf.

“And the Pulitzer ob­vi­ously helps,” Davis adds.

His bold am­bi­tion for his next book is to appeal di­rectly to Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal right, with a pro-con­ser­va­tion mes­sage shaped around a nat­u­ral and cul­tural his­tory of the bald ea­gle. “My strat­egy with the Gulf book was to present this as an Amer­i­can sea: to reach an Amer­i­can au­di­ence, not just a re­gional au­di­ence. With [the bald ea­gle book] I’m try­ing to take things a step fur­ther and reach the red, white and blue Amer­i­cans,” he says.

In writ­ing the book, Davis’ thoughts, there­fore, are “con­stantly” with view­ers of Fox News: the ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive broad­caster fa­mously favoured by Trump, from whom Davis hopes to get an in­vi­ta­tion to dis­cuss his new book when it is pub­lished. His ap­proach is al­ways to ask him­self: “How do I phrase this in a way that [Fox News view­ers] can digest, that they will ac­cept, that won’t be a turn-off for them? I re­ally do be­lieve

‘Whether you’re a tree-hug­ger or a flag-wa­ver, you ap­pre­ci­ate the bald ea­gle.’ More­over, the em­blem­atic Amer­i­can bird is also ‘a great con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story’

that we need to have th­ese con­ver­sa­tions across th­ese [po­lit­i­cal] di­vides.”

His point is that “whether you’re a tree-hug­ger or a flag-wa­ver, you ap­pre­ci­ate the bald ea­gle”. More­over, the em­blem­atic Amer­i­can bird is also “a great con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story”. Its “phe­nom­e­nal” re­cov­ery since the 1990s shows that “you don’t have to change your val­ues, you don’t have to al­ter your stan­dard of liv­ing or way of life to live at peace with the nat­u­ral world… You go to a place like Alaska – and you don’t get any more con­ser­va­tive than Alaska – and they are ra­bid about pro­tect­ing the bald ea­gle up there, be­cause this is a national sym­bol.”

The over­ar­ch­ing mes­sage of the book will, ac­cord­ingly, be that “Amer­ica’s national iden­tity has this his­toric and direct con­nec­tion with its nat­u­ral her­itage. In the early re­pub­lic, that’s how Amer­ica dis­tin­guished it­self from the Euro­pean na­tions. This was one thing that was unique about Amer­ica – the nat­u­ral en­dow­ments… And lord­ing over all that is the bald ea­gle, which was se­lected as the national bird in 1782. So I want to re­mind Amer­i­cans of this con­nec­tion be­tween our national iden­tity and our nat­u­ral en­dow­ments.”

Af­ter THE spoke to Davis, The New York Times re­ported that the In­te­rior De­part­ment, in an ap­par­ent bid to as­sist oil and gas drilling, had “pro­posed the most sweep­ing set of changes in decades to the En­dan­gered Species Act, the law that brought the bald ea­gle and the Yel­low­stone griz­zly bear back from the edge of ex­tinc­tion but which Re­pub­li­cans say… re­stricts eco­nomic devel­op­ment”. Davis’ next book looks highly rel­e­vant.

But Davis in­sists that he is “not nec­es­sar­ily try­ing to pros­e­ly­tise peo­ple”. His in­ten­tion is sim­ply to com­mu­ni­cate the facts and to in­vite read­ers to draw their own con­clu­sions.

“I just want to get in­for­ma­tion in front of them, as

I do with my stu­dents,” he says. “[I want to] let them have that in­for­ma­tion and then sort things out for them­selves. And per­haps they’ll make some ad­just­ments in their think­ing.”

Chang­ing tides op­po­site, cat­tle in Cameron, Louisiana were vic­tims of Hur­ri­cane Au­drey; Florida Keys is il­lus­tra­tive of the ex­tent of coastal devel­op­ment in the state; right, Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina had a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact

Deep im­pact the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter re­sulted in a cat­a­strophic oil spill off the coast of Louisiana; be­low, US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump stands along­side for­mer En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt, who an­nounces the with­drawal of the US from the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord

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