The recent annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History in Toronto was chock full of papers with legal themes, covering a wide range of time periods, geographic areas, and environmental issues.
A panel on Lawscapes: Environmental Histories of Law was full of such papers. Matthew Axtell (upcoming Golieb Fellow at NYU) presented Customs of the River: Legal Change and Shifting Hydrology in the 19th-‐Century Steamboat Economy, in which he explored the ways in which the Ohio River environment influenced the course of tort law. Adam Wolkoff spoke on Waste, Conservation, and the Question of Improvements in Nineteenth-‐Century American Tenancy Law, a country-wide study of court decisions on the property-law doctrine of waste and how they related to land use questions. Jamie Benidickson's paper, One Watershed Under Law: An Enviro-Legal History of the Lake of the Woods, examined legal responses to environmental changes in a trans-boundary water system. Peter Alagona, who has a forthcoming book on the history of the Endangered Species Act, presented Species Complex: Science, Law, and the Indeterminacy of Nature—Or, What Exactly is a Steelhead Trout?, in which he demonstrated a reversal of the oft-observed phenomenon of scientific experts shaping the course of the law; regarding the steelhead trout, he convincingly argued, the law has actually shaped the course of science, by pushing scientists to distinguish between species in ways that conform with the requirements of environmental law. Comments by Douglas Harris emphasized, among other things, the utility of the commons concept for understanding the various issues explored in the session's papers.
Another panel dedicated to the confluence of environmental and law in history was Nineteenth-century Industrial Pollution and Regulation. David Zylberberg's 'Abating the Smoke Nuisance': Responses to Air Pollution in the West Riding of Yorkshire, 1800-1830 explored the history of legislative and judicial responses to pollution in one industrializing area, and the factors which led to the success of regulation in some localities but not others. Donna Rilling talked about the possible identities and motives of zoning advocates in her Judicious Regulation: Philadelphia’s Board of Health, 1855‐1860s. Joel Tarr's The Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas development: A Western Pennsylvania Case Study used the history of environmental regulation of gas drilling going back to the nineteenth century to demonstrate the considerable environmental impacts of gas drilling long before the age of fracking, and arguing as well that the rule of capture led to a premium on quick extraction of the resource.
A panel entitled The confluence of public good and private profit in twentieth‐century hydroelectric power also contained a number of papers with legal themes, exploring debates over regulation and deregulation in both U.S. and Canadian contexts.
Other papers of note for our purposes include Tamar Novick's Getting their Goat: Disturbing Creatures and Attempts to Change the East, in which she uncovered the ideological and cultural roots of the antagonism of Israeli law to black goats alongside its encouragement of white goats, and Rachelle Adam's The colonial roots of the World Heritage Convention, in which she argued that the World Heritage Convention was a consequence of European conservationists' fears of the impact of decolonization on the biota of former colonial possessions.
Abstracts of the sessions are available here. If you'd like to report on other papers presented at ASEH, or on other recent or upcoming conferences, please let us know.