James Rodger Fleming and Ann Johnson, Toxic Airs: Body, Planet, Place in Historical PerspectiveSocial History of Medicine


Timothy Cooper
Medicine (miscellaneous) / History


Book Review

JamesRodger FlemingandAnn Johnson,ToxicAirs: Body, Planet, Place inHistorical

Perspective, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014. Pp. xiv+ 284. £23.95. ISBN 978 0 8229 6290 8.

WithToxicAirs JamesRodger FlemingandAnnJohnsonhavebrought together awide range of scholars from different fields to provide insights into the scientific, epidemiological and cultural history of the basic medium of human existence, the air we breathe. The authors have produced a marvellously wide-ranging book that opens up a series of questions for scholars of medico-environmental history. Not the least of these is what the relationship between the history of medicine and environmental history should be. At one level the editors themselves do not seem wholly convinced by environmental history, which, rightly or wrongly, they criticise for possessing a ‘strong declensionist narrative… too simplistic for thecomplexitiesof toxicair,which isoften surprisingly remediable’ (p. ix). This judgement might comeas somethingofa surprise toenvironmentalhistorians,manyofwhomhaveprecisely rejected theadequacyof straightforward storiesofecologicaldeclineandcatastrophe.

By combining narratives of the body in place on a planetary scale the authors seek to transcend this perceived limit of environmental history, but arguably encounter new limits in the process.

The range of issues studied here is impressive; covering everything from classical and medieval ideas of witches’ toxic pneumas to the controversy over nuclear weapons testing, the worries of veterans around Gulf War Syndrome and the history of concerns over acid rain and ozone. Understandably, some of the connections between ideas spread sowidely through timeandspacebecomea little strained inplaces.Yet thebookconvincingly argues the case for the way in which air has consistently played a role in human concerns about the environment. As Christopher Hamlin astutely observes, in a chapter on the multi-faceted sources of early nineteenth-century atmospheric pathology, ‘air is the master commons’ (p. 25) in which tracing sources of pollution has presented an almost insuperably complex challenge for medics and toxicologists. The concept of air as commons might well stand as the organising idea for this volume as a whole, not least as the chapters return again and again to the implicit question of the commonality of the air around us, and the political, social, medical and technological struggles that are fought over and within this medium. Toxic airs, it turns out, are also deeply political airs.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Roger Eardley-Pryor’s chapter on the strange fate of tear gas in the United States, where this ‘non-lethal’ technological fix is simultaneously banned as a weapon of war yet widely used in civilian policing, this paradoxical outcome the consequence of social and political struggles contesting both the Vietnam War and racial divisions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet, the political significance of this ‘master commons’ is occasionallymost evident in this volume through the effects of its absence. Three central chapters on smog in Los Angeles, automotive emissions control and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Community

Health and Environmental Surveillance System provide excellent, detailed and systematic studies of developing understandings of the varied sources of atmospheric pollution. The story of scientific discovery, atmospheric complexity and relations between the state and © The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine.

Social History of Medicine page 1 of 2

Social History of Medicine Advance Access published July 16, 2015 at Central M ichigan U niversity on O ctober 13, 2015 http://shm .oxfordjournals.org/

D ow nloaded from science are deftly interwoven; however, it is noticeable that an issue that profoundly affected the quality and sustainability of cities in the twentieth century is told almost without reference to its effects on everyday life. The sources used reflect almost exclusively narratives of scientific dispute and discovery, or, alternatively, the struggles between industrial and scientific interests. What is missing is a sense of the social context, political contingency, or political economy surrounding struggles over themaster commons.Arguably, this analytic bias is characteristic of the volume as a whole with the singular exception of Susie

Kilshaw’s deft use of oral interview material to convey a sense of contested cultural understandings of atmospheric risk. It is perhaps notable that the value of this methodology is made apparent by an anthropologist, reflecting the great value of insights from disciplines outside of history for this volume as a whole.

Indeed, in so far as the contributions here privilege the expert gaze through reliance on scientific and governmental texts as sources, the volume perhaps does not go as far towards transcending some of the limits of environmental history as the editors suggest.

Nor, indeed,does thevolumemakeasmuchadvance towardsaplanetaryhistorical perspective as is perhaps intended.Geographically themajority of the chapters here dealwithNorth

American and European case studies. Consequently the atmosphere itself comes to stand in for a global perspective that, in terms of non-European, non-North American narratives, is really notable by its absence. Perhaps this is something for future scholarship to address.

Despite a thoroughly critical historical perspective throughout, there remains both an underlying teleology and a regional specificity to this book. This is not least apparent in the concluding chapter of the volumeby James Rodger Fleming,which focuses on the emergence of carbon dioxide as a pollutant; a gas that, as earlier chapters show, had previously largely been seen as ‘natural’ and therefore unproblematic. There is certainly something important in this story of how a normal component of the atmosphere has come to be seen as potentially lethal as it portends a global remaking of ourmaster commons by and for certain geographically specific interests. Yet is there not also the risk of a certain ‘declensionism’ in the claim that the ‘Earth [is] both metaphorically and literally run[ning] out of breath’ (p. 265)? In the final analysis, perhaps this is the really significant problem that Toxic Airs points us towards, thereby underlining the great value of this book. How, in the so-called anthropocene,arehistorians tocombineanawarenessof thepoliticisedandcontestedcharacter of our atmospheric commonswith the continuinghope that, rather than signalling the end of history, someday those commons might really be governed for the global good? doi:10.1093/shm/hkv075 Timothy Cooper