Aaron Sachs

Aaron Sachs is Professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University, where he has taught since 2004. He focuses on environmental history, culture, the history of ideas, and creative writing. His publications include: Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change (2023); Up from the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times (2022), which was a finalist in the Biography category for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition (2013), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction; and The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (2006), which won Honorable Mention for the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, given to the best first book in the field of U.S. history by the OAH. With John Demos, Sachs edited Artful History: A Practical Anthology (2020), as part of their book series called New Directions in Narrative History. Sachs has also published articles in such journals as Environmental History, Rethinking History, American Quarterly, and History and Theory, as well as magazines like Orion and The American Scholar. His current book project is “Environmental Justice: History of a Timely Idea.”

OAH Lectures by Aaron Sachs

About 100 years ago, the United States became a predominantly urban nation, and the percentage of Americans living in cities has steadily increased. But a careful study of the 1920s and 30s, when this trend became clear, reveals a powerful ambivalence in American culture, especially when it came to the environmental implications of urbanization. This talk juxtaposes the cityscapes of the painter Edward Hopper with the writings of urban critic Lewis Mumford (author of Technics and Civilization and The Culture of Cities) to explore that ambivalence. Both Hopper and Mumford had serious concerns about how atomizing and alienating life could be in a metropolis. But their work also suggests the potential for certain kinds of public-oriented urban environments to act as common ground, to help people rediscover their sense of connection.

This multi-media presentation posits that we’ve reached a new point in environmental awareness: it’s no longer a matter of convincing people that climate change is happening; rather, the goal is to help people cope with their overwhelming despair in the face of climate realities. Only a less traumatized citizenry will be able to replace the fossil-fuel economy. Fortunately, dark comedy has a long track record of helping people gain some purchase on impossible situations. This talk uses a combination of history, gallows humor, and silly videos to show how we can shift our attitude about climate change and how that shift might help us get to the next stage of climate activism.

What do we mean when we talk about environmental justice? Usually, we mean the crucial struggle against specific forms of injustice: dirty factories in poor, Black-majority neighborhoods; unequal access to green space; radioactive waste seeping into Native water supplies; the poisoning of Latinx farm workers; the flight of refugees from drought, famine, fires, and storms. But environmental justice can also offer us a radical, positive vision of collective thriving—as a historical perspective reveals. The idea of environmental justice, connecting the common good to the protection of common, shared environments, goes back centuries. This talk will use the lens of history to reconsider the ways in which environmental justice could shape our common future.

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