The Colonial History of Geology in the United States, Part Two

We left off in Part One in the midst of a discussion about the connections between the history of geology and the histories of settler colonialism, the imperial state, and extractive industry in the U.S. We continue that conversation here, with our two participants, Tamara Pico and Gustave Lester. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Gustave Lester is a PhD candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University and a current dissertation fellow at the Science History Institute.

Tamara Pico is an assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and affiliated with the Science & Justice Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


Gustave Lester: In terms of what these connections look like, for me, I think of U.S. politicians advocating for funding for expeditions outside of U.S. territory into the territories of Indigenous nations—for example, the Anishinaabe nations of the western Great Lakes region, which were rich with iron and copper and wood. These lands became some of the most significant copper and iron mining regions in the United States, but they were firmly in the control of the Anishinaabe nations well into the nineteenth century. So, the question of what do these connections look like—it might look like repeated funding of expeditions, including geologists, into regions to provide information, including, getting back to something Tamara brought up, not only information about the environments and the resources that may or may not be embedded within them, but also about the people. Providing what we might call ethnographic information or anthropological information was often quite valuable to U.S. politicians interested in finding ways to coerce territorial acquisition. That’s one example of what integrated settler colonial and geological history might look like. But, of course, that’s just one example, and there’s so much more that could, and I hope will, be done.

Tamara Pico: And I want to emphasize that point that for these geologists on these government sponsored expeditions—this connects back to that question of knowledge creation—the knowledge they were creating was making the resources on these lands visible to the government and visible to be exploited. That connection between the work of these geologists and settler colonialism is that they were mapping out the territories, describing the resources, and making them visible. That was the mission. That’s why the U.S. government sponsored it.

GL: I think it’s worth emphasizing, too, because I feel like there’s sometimes a tendency to assume that once the U.S. government knows about these resources, then one thing sort of leads to another and suddenly the U.S. is now industrialized. But, even after that knowledge is provided from, usually, white, male, Euro-American or European state-sponsored geologists, there’s still the matter of actually taking control of the territory. It’s not enough just for information to be acquired, although that is an important dimension of it. But the state still has to somehow take control of it, to wrest control of the territory. I think that’s why it’s so important to make these connections between the history of geology and related sciences to the imperial state and extraction.

TP:  One other related thing is that it’s not that the information doesn’t exist before and that people don’t know about it. It’s geologists making a map. That’s formalizing the knowledge as scientific knowledge. I agree with you—it has a legitimating function.

GL: I often refer to the creation of geological maps as a form of commodification.

TP: I would agree. This makes me think of the wall of silence around colonial endeavors and the ways that scientists, including these geologists, have played such an important role in them. For example, John Wesley Powell was writing about how rivers erode, but in the same exact report he was also saying that the only way that we can deal with these Native Americans is to move them all to a town, teach them Christianity, and teach them to speak English and forget their language. These reports are together and legitimize the actions that the government eventually takes in the United States for Native American removal and for these assimilation practices. There’s a direct connection. But in the discipline of geology, people will say, “Oh, well, you know, they were kind of related, but not directly.” And when you look at it, we can trace back what geologists were saying and see this direct connection—the recommendations that they were making to the government—that actually did end up happening, and that did cause that harm.

Similarly, for example, with oceanography: some nineteenth century scientists and oceanographers that were writing about trade winds were both materially and, sometimes, personally invested in the slave trade. There is one person in particular, Matthew Fontaine Maury. Maury was a scientist in Virginia and served in the Confederate navy and was writing about how we can better understand trade winds so we can more easily bring commercial ships, particularly those with enslaved people, to the United States. Maury was also advocating for having U.S. slaveholders take enslaved people to Brazil and made this argument using surface currents in the Atlantic. Maury argued that the North Atlantic gyre destined U.S. enslavers to own plantations in Brazil, since the currents connect Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Whenever I tell oceanographers, they’re like, “This is fascinating.” Following the currents and studying the oceans was also motivated by an investment in keeping the slave trade alive. Again, these scientists were writing what we now call science, and then they were writing about other things that today we don’t call science, but at the time all the things they were writing about were seen as a science and seen as creating scientific knowledge. Maury was writing about surface winds at the same time that he was writing about how Brazil’s climate was perfectly suited for slavery, and about how that was why enslaved Africans were supposedly destined to be in Brazil. There’s no way to separate out that geology played a really important role in justifying racial categories and justifying the continuation of slavery.

GL: Great point. It often strikes me as odd when an individual has been so thoroughly studied and yet certain parts of their work are still separated from the rest like that. I think this gets at something that anyone who’s doing historical work in this area has to grapple with when we’re projecting these categories backwards: What is science? What is geology? Why are we looking at this aspect of their work and not these other things? I totally agree that if we want to bring it together with the issues of the impacts of extractive industries or colonialism, it doesn’t make sense not to look at the whole picture in the way that you just described.

I’ll give another brief example. Bringing us into the 20th century, there’s a book that was published a couple years ago that I recommend to anyone who’s interested in these issues. It’s by Megan Black, called The Global Interior. It’s a global history of the U.S. Interior Department and is focused primarily on geologists working for the Interior Department around the world. Something I really appreciated is her emphasis on how a lot of the procedures developed over the course of the nineteenth century by geologists working for the Interior Department (or what became the Interior Department) were doing what she calls the “spadework” to ready resource frontiers for the expansion of capitalism and extraction around the world. It’s a history of geology connecting U.S. Empire in and outside of North America. They are indeed connected.

Insurrect!: We’d like to conclude by asking what would you like to see for the future of your fields.

GL: When I first took up my dissertation I had a lot of complaints about the state of the history of geology, about what I felt we didn’t yet know about the relationship between the history of earth knowledge, the history of earth sciences, and the history of settler colonialism and extractive industries. I think one of the reasons why I feel like it’s especially important is because of this moment we’re in, where we have these global mineral resource commodity chains which have been so crucial for multiple centuries now—I’m thinking fossil fuels primarily, but not exclusively.  There have been some interesting changes, but there’s also a lot of continuity with the way that these resources are being found and mapped, and how that information is being circulated and deployed and extracted. There are a lot of familiar problems, and I think that we can draw upon the longer history of these connections, and that that might be useful for thinking about a more ethical future for geology.

I’m also thinking about a more inclusive engagement with some of the actors that are maybe not the obvious candidates in a history of geological knowledge production. There are all sorts of ways of thinking about the earth and producing knowledge of the earth that extend beyond the institution of geology as it was, especially in the nineteenth century. But even in that context, there’s all sorts of people who are part of that story that often don’t get much attention. I’m thinking, for example, of the work of Allison Bigelow, or the work of Adrienne Mayor, who wrote a lot about Indigenous North American fossil knowledge, and how that was relevant to the development of now famous ideas in the history of geology, like deep time or the idea of mass extinctions. I would just love to see a more inclusive history of geology.

TP: That’s great. I love those futures for the history of geology. Within geology, some of the things I’ll say will be similar. A major issue in geology today is how white it is. Geology is the whitest science in in the STEM disciplines in the United States. It has the least representation of people of color, even though at the undergrad and graduate level is close to 50/50 in terms of gender. I think the community has grappled with, you know, how do we recruit a more diverse undergrad body?

From my perspective, the “pipeline” is not the issue. If we bring some of these ideas about the history of geology that we’ve been talking about today and think about the way that the discipline formed and the way that the discipline today holds some of those same foundational values and cultures and practices, it becomes obvious why the discipline is so white. Our foundation was created by people that wanted to prove white supremacy, and we haven’t really grappled with that history. That history persists through the way we continue to practice geology, especially field geology. We talked about mapping and sampling and how many of these techniques are reminiscent of nineteenth century geology. We’re practicing in the same away and expecting a different result. When we practice in the same way as before, we bring some of these values forward with us. And I think that students can feel that from the discipline. They can tell that geology isn’t inclusive of everyone—because it’s not.

For students, understanding this history is critical to seeing where they might fit into the future of geology. As a discipline we can be a little more critical about what our origins are and what values we have today and where they come from. I’ve worked on an initiative, called GeoContext, which focuses on creating teaching material on these exact types of stories—stories about how the origins of geology are wrapped up in colonialism, imperialism, and racial science. Including these stories with a socio-political context for geology could help to train new students to say, “Okay, this is why I’m sensing exclusivity. This comes from somewhere, and now that I can see where it comes from, I can understand why I don’t feel included, and I can see where I can create a space for myself and how I can start to get the support I need to be in this kind of environment.” Without that knowledge of history, it’s hard for students to recognize why they feel the way they do. We have to tell these parts of the story. I think that’s transformative. For me that’s made an enormous difference—it’s really helped me to articulate what I have felt as I’ve gone through my academic journey in geoscience. Understanding where these cultures come from has helped me see why this is a pattern and see how I can be here and how I can survive.

The other thing I want to say mirrors something else that Gustave mentioned about sensing the earth in different ways and what knowledge we accept as geology. That goes back to that first question about how we recognize knowledge from “legitimate” geology versus other knowledge. The discipline makes rules about what counts as knowledge, and in terms of the future of geology, I think cracking that open is the future—to start to recognize that we can sense the earth in different ways and we can recognize different ways of coming to understand the earth. Here I’m thinking about Indigenous knowledge systems, not necessarily whether we can integrate Western knowledge systems with Indigenous knowledge systems, but starting to see that when we study the earth in different ways, we learn different things about the earth and ourselves. It’s opening up the definition of science to be more inclusive—this is all science.

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