There is a line of blue Democratic Party voting counties stretching across the otherwise red Republican Party voting American South. It's known as the Black Belt, and it owes its existence entirely to geology. It's a fascinating story that I'll discuss here in a second, and it serves as a great introduction for my new series, which looks at the ways in which geology has affected the way we construct and manage our civilizations. This series is NOT about 'lessons geologists have to teach civilization'- instead, it's a breakdown of how various civilizations in our past have interacted with our world and how it's worked or failed for them, and how we're doing in turn.
The 2008 election map by county. Note the curving line of blue counties in the southeast. [Image source]
So how did geology send the votes of those counties to Obama in the 2008 election? To answer that question, we've got to travel back to the Cretaceous, the last age of the dinosaurs that ended 65 million years ago. The Cretaceous was characterized by a few traits other than dinosaurs- it was extremely warm after its early colder history, with little in the way of icecaps, leading to much higher seas than today. In addition, the Cretaceous seas were further affected by the much higher levels of vulcanism present then. It tended to push the seabed upwards- warmer, younger seabed (which is all produced by volcanic processes) floats higher atop the mantle than older, colder seabed.
So due to the much higher seas, coastlines were much farther inland. In fact, due to the Laramide Orogeny, the mountain-building event that forged the Rocky Mountains, there was actually a shallow sea stretching from the gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. This seaway, the Western Interior Seaway, and the shallow coastal seas covering what is now much of the American South were biologically extremely productive. Among other things, it resulted in the huge numbers of fossils found in many of these regions today. Most importantly for our purposes, these waters were incredibly rich in carbonate skeleton bearing marine plankton, largely of the variety known as coccoliths.
The coastline of Cretaceous America. Note the correspondence between the coastline and that line of blue counties.[Image source]
When carbonate rich marine plankton dies, their skeletons settle to the seafloor. Over millions of years, the Cretaceous plankton became chalk. In fact, the Cretaceous is named after the huge beds of chalk deposited during it- creta is Latin for chalk. Chalk is porous and alkaline, and led to fertile, well-drained dark soils across the region. These soils were the reason for the name of the belt.
One crop grew especially well in the soils of the Black Belt- cotton. With the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, chattel slavery in America went from a slowly shrinking sector of the American population to an abrupt boom industry. By 1860, black slave labor in the American South provided two thirds of the world's total cotton. Cotton became an economic juggernaut in America, and most of the slaves that fueled it lived in the Black Belt.
The White Cliffs of Dover, in England, are formed of chalk deposited at the same time as the chalk in the Black Belt.
Despite the popular image of plantations that lasted through multiple generations in a single family in the South, most were relatively short-lived. The most profitable cotton-farming methods were hell on the land, and wrecked fields in a few short years. This meant that cotton farmers were always having to buy new land, always to the west. These expansion pressures were a major cause of the American Civil War, as the wealthy slave owners were trying to expand into territory also desired by the free laborers leaving the East for more economic opportunity.
After the Civil War and the freeing of American slaves, due to an extreme lack of economic opportunity most of them remained in the same areas they had been slaves- often even being employed by their old masters. Today, these areas have populations ranging from 50-85% African American. African Americans tend to vote Democratic overwhelmingly, and their show of support for Barack Obama in his presidential bid was immense. The Black Belt states still ended up voting for the Republican Party, which is a whole other sort of political tale, but it's still an interesting little electoral narrative.
Machu Picchu, capital city of the Incas. The Incans will come up a lot later in this series. [Image source]
This story lies at a crossroads of several sciences that examine the interactions of nature and civilization. These include the history of technology, historical ecology, historical geography, and, most importantly for our purposes, environmental history. Environmental history is, fundamentally, the study of the interaction of civilization and nature, and the feedback that results. Environmental history has been forcing a sea change in the ways we interpret much of history. Up until recently we put relatively little account into how the interactions of civilization and nature affected history- something that's changing rapidly.
Environmental history is a surprisingly young science- it can really only be traced back to the environmental movement of the 1970s, and didn't really pick up serious steam until the 1990s. There's good reason for this, of course- the Cold War was, for instance responsible for a climate fairly unfriendly to the study of environmental history. To quote the British environmental historian Bruce M.S. Campbell, “...the long dominance of anthropocentric analyses grounded in either Marxist theory or neoclassical economics means that scant attention has as yet been paid to the historical roles of environmental processes and forces.” Both major ideologies of the Cold War demanded that the universe revolve around us- anything that lowered the stakes of the struggle could not be tolerated. We'll go more into the history of environmental history and environmental thinking in a later post, though.
Over the course of this series, we'll be using the lenses of Environmental History and its sister sciences to examine exactly how humanity has and is interacting with nature on a civilizational basis. If there's one thing that environmental history teaches us it's how many pitfalls there are that can end a civilization- we need to be careful, because we're standing on the edges of several of them.
- The Great Transition, by Bruce M.S. Campbell