OER EnvHist!


In addition to the Creative Commons course I’m taking this semester, I’m also involved in a project to turn my American Environmental History textbook into an OER (Open Educational Resource) prior to using it to teach a course called “People In the Environment: Environmental History” in the Spring semester. “People In the Environment” is a required course for all Bemidji State University undergrads, and it is usually taught in interdisciplinary teams. It has been ages (literally between 5 and 10 years!) since a historian has been on one of these teams, so I’m going to rectify that in the Spring. I’m going to trach a survey of American Environmental History this Spring, and then I’m putting in a request to teach a more in-depth version of it, with readings from some of the major works in the field, this summer.

As part of that process, I’m going to turn my American Environmental History textbook, which is already a very cheap alternative to the other textbooks available from academic presses, into a fully OER production. I may continue to sell copies of it on Amazon, since that seems like one of the lowest-cost ways to get a decently-printed paperback into peoples’ hands. Currently the book is $25 and the Kindle is either ten bucks or free (if you have Kindle Unlimited or if you buy the paperback you get a free Kindle copy). It will probably come down a bit from there. I’ll also probably be making audio and my course videos available online in a more permanent form. Maybe discussion prompts and quizzes and exam questions, as I put together the course material.

Hopefully turning this authoring project into an OER authoring project may give other Environmental History teachers an incentive to not only use the material but contribute to it and add their own content and perspectives. I don’t claim to have any type of unique insight into Environmental History — except maybe my feeling that it should be much more available to students and that opening this project up a bit might help make that happen!

What is Copyright?

Another installment of History in 5-or-so Minutes, this one also for my Creative Commons class, about copyrights. what they are, when they were first used, how theyre used today:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

And here’s the text, in case you want to follow along:

Copyright was first enacted in 1710 by the British Parliament in an act called the Statute of Anne, which begins:

Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families: For Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books; May it please Your Majesty, that it may be Enacted …

Queen Anne was the sister of Queen Mary, the daughter of James II who was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Mary and her husband William of Orange took the throne, and after they were both dead in 1702 she took the throne. She ruled for twelve years, and then the throne passed to her second cousin George I, the 54-year old German ruler of the duchy of Hanover. Anne had 50 closer relatives, but they were all Catholics.

The Statute of Anne specified a copyright period of 14 years and allowed copyrights to be renewed for a similar term. The statute also for the first time vested the copyright in authors rather than publishers, which was an important change.

Any creative works or performances can be covered by copyright, as soon as they are performed or recorded. The ideas in a work are not protected; there are other forms such as trademarks for commercial expression and patents for inventions that cover ideas their creators wish to protect as intellectual property. In the US and under the Berne Convention, copyright begins as soon as a person creates the work and does not need to be applied for. However, registered copyrights can be easier to protect, since the registration established a paper trail or what might be called a chain of custody.

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works is an international agreement established in 1886 and originally signed by 10 nations. Currently, 176 states are parties to the convention. Some of its minimum standards are that the term of copyright must be at least the author’s life plus 50 years, and that copyright must be automatic and formal registration is not required. The US did not sign on until 1989, partly because the convention nullified America’s requirements of copyright registration and mandatory copyright notice.

Under the Berne Convention, a person receives copyright as soon as she creates a work in a recorded form or a performance. This is unlike other forms of intellectual property like inventions, which must be protected by filing for a patent. At the end of the copyright period, the work enters the public domain and becomes available for free use, copying, and modification. Works that are made using the public domain material are then covered by copyright, but the copyright does not extend to the public domain elements incorporated in the work.

Copyright exceptions and limitations are designed to safeguard the public by allowing people to use excerpts of works for the purposes of scholarship, review, and commentary. Works that couldn’t be quoted couldn’t be reviewed or discussed in public fora. Similarly, educators are allowed to use works in classroom settings under “fair use” provisions, without permission or payment. Also, once a single copy of a work (say, a book) has been sold, it can be resold, donated, loaned, or otherwise passed on to anyone without additional permission or payment to the copyright holder. This is what allows libraries to loan out books. The advent of ebooks has muddied these waters somewhat, since technology has to be developed to prevent the loaned copies from being kept, which would be copying rather than lending and would violate copyright. Many of the digital rights management systems people have implemented to deal with these issues are controversial and have been criticized by advocates of information sharing.

What’s the Problem with Proudhon?

The latest installment of History in 5-or-so Minutes, which actually comes in at about 4 minutes! Enjoy!

And here’s the text:

In discussion this week with my two Modern World History sections, I ran into some interesting responses to the passage from Proudhon I had some of them read. This week we were talking about issues in the nineteenth century including the European colonialist scramble for Africa, Commodore Perry’s forceful opening of Japan to western trade, pseudo-scientific racism and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and the response by Latin Americans to “The American Peril.” The Proudhon reading was paired with a passage from Ernest Edward Williams’s “Made in Germany”, in which Williams complains of the negative effects of German industrialization to British market dominance. Students in the group reading Williams and Proudhon seemed to understand the “Germany” passage much more easily than the Proudhon, despite the fact that the “Germany passage was longer and came from what I think of as a slightly more difficult sourcebook.

So I’m starting to think about the issue. What’s the problem with Proudhon? Probably the main issue is in the introduction to the passage from What Is Property?, where the editors announce that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was an early socialist and is associated also with anarchism. Boom! That was it, I think, for many of my students.

When they were describing the reading in discussion to classmates who had read other materials, several of the students said things like, “Well, he was a socialist” or “that type of thing sounds good in theory, but doesn’t work in practice.” These comments were not really germane to the brief passage, where Proudhon doesn’t actually make any concrete proposals. Well, okay, the editors did include the part where he says “Property is robbery!” So maybe the sensationalism of that line drowned out the rest of the argument, which was a bit less flashy. But that leaves me with the same questions.

Should I avoid using this particular passage, because of the introduction as socialism and the line equating property with theft? I’d like to direct the discussion more toward Proudhon’s critique of absolute ownership (the freedom to destroy) as being both unsustainable and not in society’s interest. And I’d like to make the more general point that not having a viable alternative doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a valid criticism of the status quo. Maybe I’ll try to sneak up on this next time I teach this module: introduce the criticisms of absolute property rights, unregulated markets, etc. before identifying these critiques as coming from socialists. And there are other folks (pre-Marx, too!) like Robert Owen who I might introduce as people who offered some creative solutions to the problems they perceived.

The question seems contemporary, with people on the left beginning to identify themselves as socialists (Bernie) or Democratic Socialists (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). Maybe I’ll start some type of a forum or blog space, where people could present their arguments and understandings of these issues. Just a thought, but wouldn’t it be fun to teach an interdisciplinary course with an economist and a political scientist, called something like “Free Markets vs. Socialism.”

Decolonization and Economics

This is a reaction I had to a chapter on economics in a book called Decolonization: A Short History by Jansen and Osterhammel. I was surprised how much I didn’t like this chapter, and it convinced me not to use any more of the text in my Decolonization class. I also ranted about it into a microphone in case you want to listen to it. It’s a 9-minute segment of my new podcast History in 5-or-so Minutes:


Change in the colonial status in both directions (colonization and then decolonization, whether contested or not) brought about significant changes in not only the social situations and cultures of colonized regions, but their economies. The authors list issues like new infrastructure, new spaces for trade and migration, new jobs and commercial opportunities (the less positive way of describing this might be new opportunities for forced labor or slavery), renegotiation of gender roles (were any of these improvements for women? Okay, partial elimination of sati, but an attempt to completely remove of women from their central position in Southeast Asian trade networks), changing work practices, exposure to modern currency and investment regimes, environmental changes, and “redistribution” of wealth and poverty (which seems like a euphemism for the enrichment of the metropolitan center or its colonial agents at the expense of the colonized masses).

I think it’s fair to ask why the heavy positive spin on this chapter? Colonization was no more an economic triumph for the people of the world than it was a way of bringing them to “civilization”. Is this just a latter-day expression of the White Man’s Burden?

The authors DO note that “modern” infrastructure was often neglected during the decolonization process and “specialized export production shrank in favor of subsistence economy.” But they assume this was an unanticipated negative consequence of the struggle. It’s only in the last paragraph of the chapter they mention Gandhi’s efforts to remove the market focus and consumerism from the independent Indian culture he was trying to create. Throughout most o the chapter they assume “The independent governments wanted to follow up on the colonial era’s modernization gains” but they unfortunately sometimes failed. (120)

Even if the elites of these new nation-states were hell-bent on continuing the commercial relationships that had helped MAKE them elites, that does not suggest most of the people who supported (and often fought for) independence felt the same way. The authors mention an exception, where these elites pursued socialist programs of (usually) agrarian reform or (occasionally) state-run industrialism. This seems to be acceptable, because the impetus comes from an elite intellectual source: socialist or communist theory. Any other motivation or rationale for community control or ownership seems to be lumped into what they call “retrograde dreams of bucolic innocence.” (120)

Nor do the authors spend a lot of time considering resource extraction or the development of consumer markets as “colonial” motivators. “Only rarely,” they say, “in the nineteenth and twentieth century, did colonies arise primarily out of economic motives, such as ‘mercantilist’ considerations to obtain direct access to raw materials, or to acquire protected and favored outlets for the products of the home economy.” (121) REALLY? British colonialism in India was operated by the British East India Company for over a century until they bungled things so badly that the Indians rebelled in 1857. What was that if not an economic motivation? Eliminating the Indian textile industry, making India a market for British textiles, and securing a supply of not only raw cotton, but tea and opium, was the whole point. The authors seem to believe that “geostrategic considerations” and “prestige” were the only reasons Western nations tried to build empires. This seems naïve and overly dependent on explanations derived solely from political historians.

They also say they “do not find many examples of governments acting under direct pressure from colonial private interests.” I’m not 100% sure what they mean by this, and I think it has to be very narrowly defined in order to be valid. What about private interests operating in the colonies but owned and controlled in the centers? The British railroad builders in India (who also built extensively in Latin America, which was nominally free but I would argue effectively still colonial in many ways) seem to have had some influence on government policies.

And getting back to natural resources, they aren’t all that modern when you really start looking into it. Silver in colonial Latin America. Quinine, rubber, sugar. And then in the 19th and 20th centuries (which this book is supposed to be about, isn’t it?) there’s guano, nitrate, and copper – and that’s just in Chile! Yes, nominally independent; but very much economically and culturally dependent on Britain.

The authors later suggest that economic considerations couldn’t have been paramount because many colonies “were of little relevance at the macroeconomic level—some were not much more than a piece of desert or jungle.” (123) Although this may seem intuitively true to white Europeans, I don’t think it’s accurate. If we make a list of colonized regions, I think it’s fair to say that the number of economically “worthless” colonies is rare almost to the point of nonexistence. Even someplace like Australia, which wasn’t necessarily valued at first for an abundant resource like silver, was economically valuable as a “dump” for England’s surplus and criminal population. It might be possible to subdivide colonized regions to the point that some of them are unproductive, but no one went out looking for those regions. They came along with other valuable places as part of the land grab.

The authors DO mention that many later colonies were “nearly settler-free.” (123) This strikes me as the best evidence for a shift from social colonialism to economic imperialism. It is interesting that often the most obviously vocal and violent opponents of decolonization are the settlers such as the pieds noirs in Algeria. But being obvious does not equal being the only opponents of regional independence movements. It may be true that “settlers saw themselves as victims of decolonization”, but if we’re going to say that we also need to acknowledge that those “victims” pretty much failed to see the people who wanted their land as the previous owners, if they saw them as human at all. (124)

The authors briefly mention that some newly independent colonized people reacquire their patrimonial resources. They show their bias when they say “expropriate’, and then they give examples of Burma “expropriat[ing] foreign interests in teak forests” and the Mossadegh government nationalizing oil production in 1951. (126) They conveniently fail to mention that MI-6 and the CIA acted in the interest of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) to overthrow the Iranian government and install the Shah in August 1953.

The authors conclude by mentioning that newly independent nations try very hard to honor their debts to international creditors and to avoid an “unthinkable…renunciation of debt like that following the 1917 Russian and 1949 Chinese revolutions.” (128) Is this really evidence of a desire to jump into economic modernization? Or of a deathly fear of being cut off by the international financial community? Seems like a little historical review of international banking might be valuable here.

Starting a Podcast

So I’m beginning a podcast called History in 5-or-so Minutes. It will be about short bits of history, or about teaching history, or about learning new stuff to teach history better. That’s what this first episode is about: Creative Commons. I’m taking a certificate course in CC, and this is some of what I learned in the first week.

Oh, and by the way, it’s licensed CC-BY:

Creative Commons License
What is CC? by Dan Allosso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.