MBL Falmouth Forum Presentation: Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History



March 21, 2014, at 7:30 PM in Lillie Auditorium


Gregory Cushman, Associate Professor of International Environmental History, The University of Kansas


Gregory Cushman’s first book Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012) is one of the first studies to examine the environmental and cultural history of the modern world from the perspective of the whole Pacific Basin. It demonstrates how bird excrement and the birds that produce it opened the way to large-scale exploitation of phosphates, nitrates, coconuts, fishmeal, and other regional commodities. These activities profoundly influenced the course of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of experts to positions of authority, the origins and outcomes of the First and Second World Wars, and the unfolding of the conservation, cleanliness, and environmental movements on a global scale. These currents fundamentally altered the participation of Peru, New Zealand, Easter Island, and a host of other Pacific territories in world events. He is currently finishing a study of humanity’s long relationship with the cormorant and its relatives to appear in Reaktion Books’ Animal Series.

Gregory Cushman began teaching at The Unversity of Kansas in Fall 2003. He teaches courses on Latin America, science studies, and the global environment. Many of his courses involve interdisciplinary collaboration with natural and social scientists. He and his students are core participants in KU’s NSF-funded IGERT C-Change program on the human dimensions of climate change.

Cushman’s main on-going research project focuses on the history of environmental engagement among indigenous peoples in the Andean and Pacific Worlds. It develops the concept of “First Science” to understand how environmental phenomena influenced the cosmological systems of First Peoples and how these systems provided guidance to social activities and proved capable of predicting dangerous environmental extremes. It implements a range of ethnohistorical methodologies, from 10,000-year reconstructions of ecological change, to the interpretation of ancient iconography, to the decipherment of sixteenth-century manuscripts, to collaborative engagement with native knowledge keepers and the living landscapes they inhabit.

Both of these studies are part of a long-term research program to trace the deep history of humanity’s understanding of El Niño and La Niña and their modern reinvention as global disasters. Cushman has an ongoing fascination with “all things foul and ugly, all creatures short and squat” and has published an award-winning essay on the place of the humble culvert, drainage ditch, and native plants in modern landscape engineering. Other published works deal with history’s “last first contact” in New Guinea, the discovery of human-caused climate change by Humboldtian scientists, the international geopolitics of weather prediction and remote-sensing instrument networks, and other episodes in the history of climate and environmental sciences. In 2009, he took part in filming episode 18 of a TV documentary on the round-the-world voyage of the New Beagle, it visits the Serengeti of the Sea and explores how the melting of Peru’s highland glaciers is destined to make the country far more vulnerable to El Niño and La Niña events(video requires Microsoft Silverlight).