Challenging Assumptions: A Conversation with Steven Stoll

Profesor Steven Stoll

Profesor Steven Stoll

Steven Stoll became a member of the Fordham History Department in 2008.  His classes and research focus on the history of capitalism and environmental history and more specifically how these two topics intersect. Stoll’s work is extremely relevant today as politicians and scientists debate climate change; activists and industry clash over fracking; California struggles through drought; and farmers raise ethical concerns about GMOs. But what is environmental history? For Stoll, environmental history is the story of how humans have changed the planet, how societies have lived well (or not so well) with the environment, and how different societies at different points in time have thought about ‘nature’.  He explained that people’s ideas about the Earth and the environment have changed drastically over the last 400 years. Stoll said, “Students, and a lot of other people, look at New York City and how we live today—the kinds of houses we live in, the kinds of energies and conveniences we have—and though they know it hasn’t always been this way, they assume that all of this is normal, that things are supposed to be this way.. I try to show them that our way of life has existed for an astonishingly short period of time. To me, the most exciting use of history is to take ideas that people think are universal or derived from ‘nature’ and reveal their recent origins.”  


Steven Stoll giving a lecture at Yale University entitled "The Captured Garden: Substance Under Capitalism" in 2013. The lecture is available as a video on the Yale University Website.

Steven Stoll giving a lecture at Yale University entitled “The Captured Garden: Substance Under Capitalism” in 2013. The lecture is available as a video on the Yale University Website.

                   Professor Stoll questions the notion of progress, his views are in direct opposition to what most of his students and readers learned growing-up in Western society. Walt Disney World’s Carousel of Progress celebrates progress without any critical examination and perpetuates the idea that each new technological advancement is an inevitable improvement to society.  However, Stoll argues that there is no “spirit of progress embedded in human history” driving technological change. He explains that technological progress “occurs for very specific reasons, but always because someone invents something that fulfills a social goal.” What constitutes progress depends on who benefits from technological change, he says. Stoll encourages his students and readers to step outside of their lives and experiences to critically examine the world.  


                   He laughed good naturedly while saying, “My courses are about how everything we know comes out of the past, just like any other historian.” His course on North American environmental history is not just abstract topics (like the nature of progress) but covers people, inventions, and events like the Erie Canal, the construction of American railroads, the fate of the passenger pigeon, the Ice-Age migration of American-Indians, and the history of industrialization. He explores the interaction between capitalism and the environment in his two books The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California and Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth- Century America.

Larding the Lean Earth by Steven Stoll published in 2002

Larding the Lean Earth by Steven Stoll published in 2002

 Stoll is currently working on his fifth book, which focuses geographically on the Appalachian Mountains. “At first, I didn’t really know what I wanted to say about it, honestly. It’s a big and complicated place. But I knew I wanted write about how the people who lived in the mountains lost their land, how mountain people who lived in log cabins became coal miners, not necessarily by choice, but how the industry and the state transformed their environment and forced them into wage work as the only way to make a living.” In his book on Appalachia, Stoll examines how ‘mountain people’ lived independently with their own system and means of survival and the factors led to the destruction of this way of life. He also explores aspects of mountain society itself, like population growth and environmental erosion, and also how society changed when “capital came into the mountains.” The book covers Appalachia between the Whiskey Rebellion and the Great Depression.

            Long after speaking with Dr. Stoll my brain was stuck on the slice of avocado I had with my lunch. Who grew this avocado? Who owned the land it was grown on? Who, if anyone, owned the genetic code in the seeds? Who picked and packaged this fruit? What are the conditions under which they work? If it was a California avocado, how much water did it take to grow this fruit? Who has the ‘right’ to water during a shortage,? It was just an avocado, which I had eaten so many                                                                            times before but now it was so much more than that.


If you’re interested in Steven Stoll’s work you can read his article “No Man’s Land” published online in the Orion Magazine, as well as his two books The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Country Side in California and Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America. And, of course, be on the look-out for his upcoming monograph on Appalachia.

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Reminder: O’Connell Events on Land, Property and Capital (May 5-6)


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Historians in Action: Reports From The History Graduate Colloquium Conference 2016

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We used Storify to create an account of yesterday’s Graduate History Colloquium Conference. As you can see, it was a great success! Thanks to Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for helping to support this event.  Continue reading

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2016 Fordham History Graduate Colloquium Conference- Thursday April 28


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The Fordham History Department is proud to announce the History Colloquium Conference for 2016. The conference takes place this Thursday morning in Flom Auditorium on the lower floor  of the Walsh Library. Once again, our students will present on a diverse range of topics using a variety of approaches and sources material. Click on paper titles to find abstracts of these presentations.

Session I: Recovering Lost Lives from the Archives (10:00-10:40)

Amanda Haney, “Thomas Boleyn, A Man of Power in his Own Right”(Abstract)

Damien Strecker, “Edler Hawkins and the Formation of St. Augustine (Abstract)

Session II: Conflict, Identity, and Society (10:40-12:00)

Sajia Hanif, “The Marketplace of Death: the Crusade of Varna 1444” (Abstract)

Robert Effinger, “’Pursue One Great Decisive Aim with Force and Determination’: Prussian and Russian State, Economic and Military Reform, 1806-1815″ (Abstract )

Jason McDonald, “Japanese Teeth and Skulls in American Newspapers, 1884-2012” (Abstract)

Giulia Crisanti, “‘Balkanism’ and ‘Balkanization’ in Western Media During the Yugoslav War of the 1990s” (Abstract)

Coffee: 12:00-12:15

Session III:  Culture and Politics in the 20th Century US (12:15-1:15)

Nicole Siegel, “Cantors On Trial: The Jazz Singer, Its Responses, and the American Jewish Experience 1927-1937″ (Abstract)

Grace Healy, “Swamp or Climax Region? Congressional Perceptions of the Everglades, 1947-1989” (Abstract)

Michael McKenna, “Heads We Win, Tails You Lose: Television and the Rise of the New Right, 1964-1976” (Abstract)

Lunch will be served for all participants and their guests at 1:15 in the History Department


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Unique Museums in New York City

Who doesn’t love the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters, or the Morgan Library and Museum? However sometimes it’s exciting to visit new places, see new exhibits and access different scholarship. With that in mind we offer up some of the best lesser known museums in New York City, that academic and hobbyist historians alike will enjoy!

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“Multiple Enclosures” Two Day O’Connell Event on Land and Capital, May 5-6

Save the Date (Two Day Final)

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Tea with Cédric Giraud 4/19 1:30PM at Medieval Studies

This Tuesday Fordham hosts visiting scholar Cédric Giraud for tea and a workshop about twelfth-century charters. Dr. Giraud is a graduate of the École nationale des chartes in Paris and a leading expert on Anselm of Laon, twelfth-century intellectual life and spirituality, and the history of Notre Dame. He is the author of numerous books, articles, and scholarly editions, and is currently collaborating with the history department’s own Alex Novikoff on a project related to the Twelfth Century Renaissance. You can watch a recent presentation (in French) by Dr. Giraud’s at the prestigious College de France here.

The workshop will take place from 1:30-2:15pm in the Medieval Studies seminar room and will be followed by coffee/tea and cookies. For further information, please contact Dr. Alex Novikoff.

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Postcard from the Archives: Sal Cipriano on the Libraries of Scotland and Ireland


The “Long Room” at Trinity College Dublin. Researcher perk: going behind the ropes.

In addition to holding prestigious external awards, such as the Fulbright fellowship, the Schallek Fellowship of the Medieval Academy of America, or awards associated with particular regions and countries, and in addition to Fordham’s own Distinguished Fellowships, the History Department offers funding for a semester’s work in the archives that we call the Archival Research Assistantship. This year’s inaugural holder of the Archival Research Assistantship is Sal Cipriano. A historian of universities and the state in the Early Modern period, Sal wrote to us from Dublin, where he is on the second leg of his overseas journey, to tell us about his work in the archives and libraries of Scotland and Ireland.

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4/12/16 “The Legacy of Jane Jacobs” with distinguished visitors Greg Lindsay and William Easterly

Jane Jacobs event

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Lecture: The Memory of Saladin in the Modern Middle East- April 20, 1PM


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