One of the best things about OER texts is they’re easy to update. This week I’m teaching a unit in my American Environmental History course on mining, using an chapter from my text called “Treasures Underground“. It begins in Potosí where the Spanish Empire got much of its silver, talks about the gold and silver rushes in the western US, and then moves on to oil before returning to the effect of minerals on foreign policy in an increasingly globalized economy. The examples I used in the text (which I published last year) were oil in Iran and copper in Chile — and the two US-supported coups that toppled democratically-elected governments in those nations.
Today I added an additional example, as it seems democratic elections in Bolivia have been subverted this week in another coup. So ironically, the chapter now begins and ends in Bolivia. Evo Morales, the country’s immensely-popular indigenous president, has been forced to step down and has sought asylum in Mexico slightly over a week after pushing back on the rapid, foreign-controlled development of Bolivia’s lithium reserves.
Lithium is a key element (along with cobalt) in the rechargeable batteries that run cell phones, computers, and electric cars. The price of lithium has about tripled since 2015, and Bolivia has about 43% of world reserves (Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia between them control about 75%). Although advanced car companies like Tesla are rapidly reducing the quantity of lithium in each battery cell, other car companies that buy off-the-shelf battery solutions are likely to use much more. And everybody is trying to get into the electric car business right now.
One of my goals in this course (which is actually called “People of the Environment” and is a required “sustainability” course at Bemidji State) is to connect environmental history with the world my students face today. What better way to bring the story of mineral resources to the present than with breaking world news? It’s great that the OER tools I’m using enable me to react rapidly and incorporate this into my chapter. This is a strength of OER we should talk more about in our advocacy.
I’ve made video lectures of chapters from my American Environmental History text — now I’m also making audio “podcasts” of the chapters so people can listen tot he chapters on the go. Here are the first three:
As part of preparing content for this Spring’s “People In the Environment” section I’m teaching on American Environmental History, I’m “porting” my textbook over to a full-on OER (open educational resource). This should allow me to make the content available to students in a less expensive and more flexible version, in both print and ebook formats, as well as making the chapters available to other educators as stand-alone modules they can mix and match, remix, rewrite, etc. As I do that, I’ll be able to add CC content from elsewhere and link to outside text, graphics, and video, as well as including narration and possibly even links to my lectures in the electronic version of the text. I believe Pressbooks allows for linking and embedding, and Camtasia allows adding interactive elements like quizzes along the way in the text. I’m going to try to incorporate both.
So the new elements I’ll be adding to my text will include color (!), fonts, revised format, quizzes and discussion prompts (possibly links), audio narration, videos from the web (YouTube, Archive), and links to my Camtasia lectures. I’ll also be updating the content. I think I’ll continue with the 15 chapters = 15 weeks format. But I might throw in some additional chapters that people could swap in or use as extra credit opportunities if they chose. The goals of many of these chapters is not to cover the topics exhaustively, but to make students aware of the issues and introduce basic ideas. The outline will look something like this:
Module/Chapter 1: Prehistory
Goals: Push back the “beginning” of the story, introduce Beringia, climate change, staple crops
Module/Chapter 2: Recontact
Goals: Introduce the Columbian Exchange (Crosby), native population disaster, early commerce (silver, sugar).
Module/Chapter 3: Colonial America
Goals: Compare Euro and native land use traditions (Cronon), Examine role of religion justifying colonialism, impact of slavery on land use.
Module/Chapter 4: Frontier & Grid
Goals: Understand role of western expansion in Revolution and early republic, consider barriers to expansion (Proclamation Line, Free Soil debate, Trail of Tears), describe pioneer life, immigration.
Module/Chapter 5: Industrial Revolution
Goals: Examine changes caused by industrialization on use of commons, incorporation, labor, economic and environmental externalities. (Steinberg)
Module/Chapter 6: Transportation Revolution
Goal: Understand changing technology and public policy around development of canals, steamboats, railroads. Consider tension between public and private sectors in issues like land grants, monopoly. Continue to automobiles and highways (with extra material on ethanol vs. leaded gasoline), air travel and containerized freight.
Module/Chapter 7: Commodities
Goal: Examine shift to a commodity market: population changes, new industries in packing (pork & beef) and their discontents (The Jungle), ice, lumber (and fires), flour (and populism).
Module/Chapter 8: Green Revolution
Goal: Cover beginning of commercial agriculture, ag. Improvement (manure, rotation), green manure (alfalfa), guano (Incas, Liebig, Humboldt, Chinese labor, Chincha Islands War, Guano Islands Act), Nitrate (Caliche, War of the Pacific, Haber-Bosch process), Phosphorus and Potassium, Hazards and pollution (Gulf Dead Zone), the Dust Bowl, Ogallala Aquifer, Export of Green Revolution to Developing World (Borlaug, Indian debt and suicide).
Module/Chapter 9: City Life
Goal: Examine what cities are for. Consider American colonial cities built on native cities (Cuzco, Mexico City, Plymouth), Land Reclamation and filling wetlands (Mexico City, New York, San Francisco), Sanitation and water supply (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles), symbiosis with hinterlands, Horses and mechanized transport, Urban reformers, parks and suburbs, contemporary exurbs and CSA.
Module/Chapter 10: Wilderness and Country Life
Goal: Distinguish between Conservation and Preservation movements (Muir v. Pinchot), examine ideas of wilderness (Cronon) and exclusion (Jacoby).
Module/Chapter 11: Farmers and Agribusiness
Goal: Examine America’s change from a country of farmers to an urban nation, implications for farmers, rural life, consumerism, politics.
Module/Chapter 12: Treasure Underground
Goal: Examine the mining and drilling of underground resources: Cerro Rico silver, ideas of subsoil ownership, copper, iron and steel, gold rushes, petroleum (in the world, the US, and the relationships between corporations, government, foreign policy).
Module/Chapter 13: Population and Limits
Goal: Examine Malthusian ideas, challenges to them such as #stopthemyth and Rosling’s demographics, consider controversies over Population Bomb, Limits to Growth, peak oil.
Module/Chapter 14: Externalities
Goal: Review the ways economics deals with the idea of externalities, with examples. Politics, Globalization, Dependency.
Module/Chapter 15: Environmentalism
Goal: Review American people’s concern over environmental issues. Consider alternatives to contemporary lifestyle. (incorporates “Food and Choice” chapter from book with survey of environmentalists.
As I’m beginning to prepare for my American Environmental History course next semester, I’ve started a Zotero Group containing a bibliography of some of the books that contain chapter readings and some journal articles I’m going to assign, or that are available for students working on term papers. So far, these are just books that are in BSU’s Library (I’ve given them a list of a few more I’d like them to get). This is a public list, so if other people start joining the Group and contributing titles, I’ll probably add tags that will indicate for my students which books are available locally and which they have to order via ILL, or in the case of articles where they can get hold of them. I normally attach pdfs to my own Zotero entries, but I can replace them with stable link URLs in the public lists.
I’m thinking about the additional readings I may assign in this class. Many of them are chapters in monographs, which I believe I can assign and students can go to the Library and read or scan the chapter. We have a really cool, fast scanner, so I may put the texts on course reserve. I’m curious about how other people doing OER deal with content from copyrighted (all rights reserved) sources. I’ll be talking with a Librarian later today about the Minnesota State University system’s fair use guidelines, but if anybody has experience they’re willing to share, I’d love to hear about it. My thought was there ought to be a way to replace the printed course-pack with some type of digital one, but I realize there may be objections to that because it’s easy to limit the printed course-pack to a finite set of students in a particular class during a particular semester…but even so, there’s got to be a way to update this idea for the 21st century. I guess making these types of pointers available in Zotero is a first step, for people who have access to an academic library. It’s not ideal for folks who don’t, however; but maybe that’s a battle for another day.
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!
On December 9, 1915, the Bemidji Pioneer printed a 44-page “Booster Edition” of the paper while the Northern Minnesota Development Association was holding its annual meeting in the city. Below is the front page of the edition.
The Northern Minnesota lumber boom peaked in 1905, and by 1915 annual lumber production had fallen to half of 1905 levels. Roughly a decade later the boom would be over, when the last remaining large mill, the Crookston mill in Bemidji, closed in 1926. So it’s interesting that only the bottom right corner of the image has any logs. The rest — and the basis of the prosperity the boosters were promoting — was devoted to farming. I’ll have a lot more to say about that, as I continue my research.
There’s a crucial difference between an energy utility company being concerned about the costs associated with moving toward new technology like net metering, and the company pretending concern as a tactic to avoid changing the status quo.
According to a Deutsche Bank study, related in a great article by Lucas Mearian for Computerworld, ten US States already “boast solar energy costs that are on par with those of conventional electricity generation.” And by 2016, the study expects price parity in all 50 states. Comparing American solar capability with that of the world leader, Germany, the study says cloudy “Seattle is the worst place in the continental U.S. For solar. Germany’s worse than Seattle.”
Last August, my local electric utility’s quarterly PR magazine included a letter by the utility’s General Manager, saying the company was concerned that in “traditional individual-owner net metering applications, the solar owner’s share of the utility fixed costs is transferred to other members.” I was unsure whether this was a real concern or a smokescreen, so I wrote to the GM and received a response from both her and from one of the technical managers.
The utility’s idea of implementing solar seems to be a scheme that would allow customers to buy a “share” of the output of a solar generating plant operated by another nearby utility. While there may be some economies of scale in a big “on-grid” solar farm, the successful model in places like Germany where solar has really taken off has been rooftop. Solar farms seem like just another way for the utilities to retain control and hang onto a lion’s share of the benefit. To make matters even stranger, my local utility is a cooperative. And its most recent PR magazine featured an article urging customers to fight the proposed new EPA carbon rule under the Clean Air Act.
So what’s the solution for electricity customers interested in trying new technology? As Photovoltaic costs continue to come down, there will certainly be more of us. The government confers monopolies on public utilities, using the logic that a region only needs one, and competition would be bad because the streets would constantly be torn up by new companies laying redundant cable. This makes sense, as long as the company granted the monopoly remains focused on the best interests of the community. I don’t see how advocating for less regulation on coal and dragging your feet on new, sustainable technology benefits the community in the long run.
My utility coop’s approach seems more likely to drive the really interested users off the grid entirely. We’ve all heard stories about the local visionary northwest of Bemidji who installed solar panels on his roof, only to have the utility issue a rate increase to all his neighbors to cover the cost of retrofitting to the smart grid. Talk about driving away precisely the people who could be your best allies! I’ve got to admit that faced with that type of attitude, my response is, “Well, is there a way I can do off-grid power for part of my needs, and just reduce my dependence on the utility?” this may be good news for battery manufacturers, but it’s probably not the most efficient or effective way to move the community toward a sustainable future.