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Debunking Ten Arguments from the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Author of Staying Healthy Abroad, Dr. Christopher Sanford debunks ten common arguments used by anti-vaccine activists.

The purpose of this article is educational. For medical advice for any health condition, please consult your physician. To learn more about the measles outbreak, read this recent blog post.


In January of this year the WHO (World Health Organization) released a list, “Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019.” One of the ten threats listed was vaccine hesitancy: “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.”

For a variety of reasons, a significant number of people choose to forego vaccines for themselves and/or their children. Anti-vaccine sentiment has swelled in recent years to a vehement political movement, and declining vaccine rates have led to a resurgence of a number of infectious diseases. Measles has seen a 30% increase in global cases in recent years. There are now measles outbreaks in 22 US states.

The evidence for the benefit and safety of vaccines is voluminous and consistent. Dr. William H. Foege, a public health physician who was instrumental in the global eradication of smallpox, wrote, “Vaccines are the tugboats of preventive health.”

There are myriad arguments used by anti-vaccine activists. Below are ten common arguments that arise.

  1. Vaccines don’t work.
  2. Vaccines only give partial protection.
  3. Protection from vaccines is inferior to that from natural infection.
  4. Vaccines contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal, and antifreeze, ether, and other toxic chemicals.
  5. Vaccines cause autism.
  6. Vaccines are no longer necessary.
  7. Vaccines overwhelm the body’s immune system.
  8. Vaccines are a plot by pharma (large pharmaceutical corporations) to generate profit.
  9. Vaccines are a plot by the CDC and/or US federal government, to attain any of a panoply of nefarious goals.
  10. Vaccines contain fetal cells.

Let’s address these one by one.

1. Vaccines don’t work.

This is a bizarre argument. Disease after disease has diminished markedly in prevalence immediately following the introduction of its respective vaccine. Tetanus in the US has been reduced by more than 98%; polio is almost eliminated worldwide; smallpox, which caused an average 48,000 cases per year in the United States during the 20th century, has been eliminated from the planet. The HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine was introduced in the US in 2006; already we are seeing a significantly reduced level of cervical cancer in women. The incidence of multiple other infectious diseases, including mumps, rubella, and pertussis, have been markedly reduced in recent years—all because of vaccination.

2. Vaccines only give partial protection.

This is true but is not a reason to avoid vaccines. And often the protection level is very high. At one extreme, vaccines such as yellow fever and hepatitis A (in those under age 40) offer over 99% protection. At the other extreme, influenza often offers about 50% protection; this can be even lower if the vaccine and circulating strains are a poor match. Many vaccines are about 90% protective. If vaccine levels are sufficiently high as to prevent easy transmission in a population (“herd immunity”), there may be sporadic cases but outbreaks are effectively prevented. The level of immunity necessary to attain herd immunity differs for different infections. For polio, this level is 80% of the population; for measles, which is more infectious, about 95% of a population needs to be protected, either by vaccine or prior infection, to prevent outbreaks.

3. Protection from vaccines is inferior to that from natural infection.

Untrue! Protection from either is equally protective. Vaccines provide protection without causing illness, or exposing people to the risk of death from their respective diseases.

4. Vaccines contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal, and aluminum, antifreeze, ether, and other toxic chemicals.

Thimerosol, a preservative which contains ethyl mercury, has been removed from all vaccines except multi-dose vials of influenza vaccine. There are thimerosol-free preparations of flu vaccine.

And thimerosol is not harmful. Ethyl mercury is quickly excreted from the body; it does not bioaccumulate. The form of mercury that bioaccumulates is methyl mercury; this is the form that is found is some seafood, such as tuna. Thus if you eat vast amounts of tuna, mercury toxicity may be an issue.

No vaccine contains ether or antifreeze. These are bizarre, invented assertions. Vaccines do contain miniscule amounts of aluminum, but this is without any health consequence. Melody Butler, founder of Nurses Who Vaccinate, correctly notes that a baby gets more aluminum from breast milk than from vaccines.

5. Vaccines cause autism.

Dr. William Wakefield, a British physician, published a single report in Lancet in 1996 stating that there is a possible link between the measles vaccine and autism. His report has since been retracted by Lancet; his license to practice medicine in the UK was subsequently revoked by the General Medical Council (GMC).

Every study—and there have been at least twelve—on the measles vaccine and autism show that there is no relationship between the two. The most recent study on this is a large one, on over 650,000 children in Denmark, published this year in Annals of Internal Medicine. It found that “…MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination.”

We do not know what causes autism, but we do know that it is unrelated to vaccines.

6. Vaccines are no longer necessary.

Au contraire. The only disease that has been eradicated from the planet is smallpox. All other infectious disease are still circulating, some common, some rare. All vaccine-preventable illnesses will become more common if vaccination rates drop.

7. Vaccines overwhelm the body’s immune system.

Not true. The human immune system can deal with hundreds of thousands of antigens (foreign substances that stimulate an immune response.) Whether one, or eight, vaccines are given on a single day, the immune response is equally strong to each.

8. Vaccines are a plot by pharma to generate profit.

Pharma—pharmaceutical corporations—making a profit on vaccines does not prove that vaccines are harmful. If all this were driven by pharma, it is unlikely that they would convince physicians, the CDC, public health officials, etc.

9. Vaccines are a plot by the CDC and/or US federal government, to attain any of a panoply of nefarious goals.

It takes a more paranoid mind than mine to think that the 15,000 people who work for the CDC are plotting to do you harm. The idea that that many health professionals would conspire to harm the American public—and that that doctors, nurses, etc., would be complicit—is preposterous.

10. Vaccines contain fetal cells.

A few vaccines (specifically: varicella [chickenpox], rubella [the R in MMR], hepatitis A, the older shingles vaccine [Zostavax, not Shingrix], and one preparation of rabies vaccine [Sanofi-Pasteur’s Imovax]) are made by growing the viruses, which are attenuated (non-disease causing) in fetal embryo fibroblast cells. These fibroblast cells were obtained from two elective terminations of pregnancies in the early 1960s, and continue to grow in laboratories today. No additional sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines.


This is an emotional topic for many. Ethan Linderberger was raised in an Ohio family that did not believe in vaccines. When he recently turned eighteen, he decided to receive all recommended vaccines. His mother, Jill Wheeler, described this decision as “insulting” and a “slap in the face.”

With respect to infectious diseases, there is no zero-risk option. Your choices are the smaller risk from vaccines, or markedly larger risk from infectious diseases.

The bottom line is that the evidence for the benefits of vaccine is massive and consistent.

I concur with Jackson County (OR) Health Officer Jim Shames, who states, “From a medical standpoint, vaccines are probably the most powerful and effective public health intervention of all time.”

Given the vehemence and organization of anti-vaxxers, their battle with traditional medical providers will probably continue for the foreseeable future. It is important that those of us who believe in the benefits of vaccines speak our minds. If the pro-vaccine majority are passive, the anti-vaccine minority will determine the national and international tone and policy.


Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH is associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, and a family medicine physician who specializes in tropical medicine and travelers’ health. His research interests include medical education in low-resource settings and health risks of urban centers in low-income nations.

To hear more from Christopher Sanford, come to his book talk at the University Bookstore on Tuesday, June 11th. To learn more about how to keep yourself healthy while traveling, buy his book.

What You Need to Know About the Measles Outbreak

In light of the current measles outbreak in the United States, we asked Dr. Christopher Sanford, author of Staying Healthy Abroad, to break down the statistics on measles nationally and globally for travelers across the country. He also answers some commonly asked questions about immunity and vaccinations.

The purpose of this article is educational. For medical advice for any health condition, please consult your physician.


Over 700 people in 22 US states have been infected with measles this year—the biggest measles outbreak in the US since 1994. Sixty-six of these people have required hospitalization. Most of those with measles had not been vaccinated for measles.

Per the WHO (World Health Organization), global measles deaths have decreased significantly in recent years, from 550,000 deaths in 2000 to 90,000 deaths in 2016 (an 84% reduction), but measles remains common in many low-income nations, particularly in Africa and Asia. An estimated 7 million people were infected with measles in 2016.

People immunized before 1989 may have only received one dose of measles vaccine. This provides partial protection, but better protection is provided by receiving a booster dose, that is, two doses of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) total.

International travelers should receive a total of two doses of MMR vaccine. If travelers are uncertain as to their vaccine status, they may request serology (a blood test) from their medical provider to look for immunity. Those born before 1957 in the US are assumed to be immune to measles, mumps, and rubella from prior natural infection; vaccination with MMR is not advised.

Almost all US and Canadian universities and colleges began to require evidence of two prior doses of MMR vaccine (or proof of immunity) in about 1994.

Background

Measles is a serious viral infection that is transmitted by coughing and sneezing. The virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace or on a surface. Usual symptoms are fever, cough, rash, runny nose, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Although most people fully recover, complications include encephalitis—swelling of the brain which can result in permanent brain damage or death—and pneumonia.

The usual case-fatality rate in measles is 1-2/1,000 (0.1-0.2%). However, in malnourished populations, the case-fatality rate can approach one in ten.

In order to prevent sustained transmission of measles, 95% of the population needs to be immune, either from vaccination or natural infection (“herd immunity”).

In the US, in the decade 1912-1922, measles caused an average of 6,000 deaths per year. Prior to 1963, when measles vaccination became available, measles caused 4,800 hospitalizations, 1,000 cases of encephalitis, and 400-500 deaths each year in the US.

Washington State

In the current measles outbreak in Washington State, there have been 71 cases in Clark County (in southwest Washington, adjacent to Portland, OR) and one case in King County. The majority of these cases were in unimmunized people.

United States

There are currently measles outbreaks in 22 US states.

There were 372 cases of measles in the US in 2018. Between January 1 and April 26 of this year, 704 cases have occurred.

Most US cases are in children. Per a April 9 article in the Wall Street Journal:

New York City officials declared a public-health emergency as authorities elsewhere in the state announced new measures to halt the spread of measles, stepping up their responses after a recent surge in cases. The city on Tuesday ordered mandatory measles-mumps-rubella vaccination and fines for noncompliance in certain ZIP Codes in Brooklyn.

The current US vaccine schedule for measles: two doses; first at 12-15 months, second at 4-6 years. Boosters after initial series of two are not advised.

Global Picture

The dramatic decline in global measles is primarily due to increased vaccine coverage in low-income nations. However, should vaccine efforts wane, measles cases and deaths would inevitably markedly increase.

Many countries in Europe have seen a large uptick in measles cases in recent years. There are currently outbreaks in Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, and other European countries. Countries outside of Europe with current outbreaks include Israel, Ukraine, and Australia.


What’s the difference between elimination and eradication?

Eradication is the complete and permanent worldwide reduction to zero new cases of a disease through deliberate efforts. Smallpox has been eradicated from the planet. Elimination is the reduction to zero, or a very low defined target rate, new cases of a disease in a specified geographical areas. Measles was declared to be eliminated from the US in 2000.

How effective is measles vaccine?

Very. The two-dose series provides 97% protection.

What is herd immunity?

If a certain threshold level of a community is immune to a disease, either through infection or immunization, that infection cannot be propagated within that community. The threshold for different infections varies. For example, the level of resistance for polio in a community necessary to prevent an epidemic is 80%. Measles is more infectious; about 95% of a community needs to be resistant to measles to prevent epidemics.

What is the current measles vaccine rate in the US?

Fairly high. Currently, per the CDC, 94.3% of kindergartners were current for measles vaccine in the 2017-18 school year. However, this rate is markedly lower in some communities, e.g., the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, and Clark County, WA, in which measles epidemics are currently occurring.

How can I tell if I’m immune to measles?

If you’ve received the two-dose series of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, it is reasonable to assume that you’re immune. If your vaccine history is uncertain, options include a blood test to check immunity, or receiving the two-dose series.


Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH is associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, and a family medicine physician who specializes in tropical medicine and travelers’ health. His research interests include medical education in low-resource settings and health risks of urban centers in low-income nations.

To hear more from Christopher Sanford, come to his book talk at the University Bookstore on Tuesday, June 11th. To learn more about how to keep yourself healthy while traveling, buy his book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Q&A with Poet David Biespiel

For National Poetry Month, we are pleased to share a conversation with poet David Biespiel, author of Republic Cafe.


It’s Monday, 10am. Would you tell us your motto for writing poems?

My motto would be, writing poems is impossible. That’s my motto. It’s impossible for me to do anything else, first of all, but to write poems. But, to write a poem? What is that? What is a poem? Every effort to write a poem is as much a soaring success as it is a terrible flub. It’s impossible to write in the direction I want to write, because as soon as I get close to that point on the horizon I’ve been aiming toward, what I’ve been trying to write appears different to me. Everything I’ve been doing, therefore, is wrong. A failure. In a catalogue essay from the 1960s of a MOMA exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s work, there’s this opening paragraph in Peter Selz’s introduction:

‘To render what the eye sees is impossible,’ Giacometti repeated one evening while we were seated at dinner at the inn at Stampa. He explained that he could really not see me as I sat next to him—I was a conglomeration of vague and disconnected details—but that each member of the family sitting across the room was clearly visible, though diminutive, thin, surrounded by enormous slices of space. Everyone before him in the whole history of art, he continued, had always represented the figure as it is; his task now was to break down tradition and come to grips with the optical phenomenon of reality. What is the relationship of the figure to the enveloping space, of man to the void, even of being to nothingness?

That about covers it—for writing. It’s impossible. And, that’s exactly what makes it so freeing, so enticing.

What led you to become a writer? And, specifically a poet?

I recently published a book on this subject, The Education of a Young Poet. I think I became a writer because I liked messing around with words, with sentences. I liked the feel of moving a verb from the front of a sentence to the end. I liked feeling curious about whether I should end a sentence on a noun, or start with a noun. I liked seeing the figure of ideas and images form, from one word to the next, one phrase and one clause to the next, one sentence and one paragraph to the next. That’s what I liked and what I still like at the most tactile/DNA level of writing. Writing a poem is all of that on steroids. Now, with a poem, too, you have lines to enhance even more new relationships between adjective and noun, for instance. It’s mind-blowing.

As for why I became a poet? Writing poems, for me—because I write poems and nonfiction—I find that poetry offers greater velocity than prose and also poetry dwells more deeply in metaphor. Speed plus associative feeling. That’s two things that draw me to write poems. Underneath all that is an interest in asking questions that, perhaps, poetry can reflect upon. Writing Republic Cafe I was interested in the importance of forgetting, as opposed to the more traditional interest in the importance of remembering. So I was writing the poem—the long poem that’s the centerpiece of the book—to reflect upon that question. And yet, that’s the paradox. The close I got to dramatizing what I was forgotten, I began to see it, or remember  it, differently. So the book is trying to figure out what to make of that enigma.

Did you write the book in Portland?

Mostly, yes. In late 2012, during the production period for Charming Gardeners, which UW Press published in 2014, I began taking notes and studying the patterns of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour in Portland. Then, in the fall of 2014, I went to West Texas and wrote for a month without interruption. That’s where I drafted the book. I worked on it for several years after that, and then, in late 2017, I put the book through a big revision after Linda Bierds read it. I did that revision in my house here in Portland over several weeks.

Many writers begin their career with teachers and models. Republic Cafe is your sixth book of poems since 1996. Did you have a model when you first started to write? Do you now?

When I first started to write, I was mostly alone. Not alone in the world—well, not entirely alone in the world, I mean—but alone with my books, with paper and pen. No teachers. I had no guidance. Later I studied with several wonderful poets. At the University of Maryland I studied with Stanley Plumly, Michael Collier, and Phillis Levin. At Stanford, when I was a Stegner fellow, I studied with W.S. Di Piero and Ken Fields. Because Stan Plumly introduced my first book, I suppose I’m most identified with him, and I’m extremely grateful to have studied with him. Truth be told I still learn things from him. From him personally—we’ve remained close for thirty years. And especially through his poems, which are remarkable for their warmth and tenderness. Before those teachers came along, and ever since, I would say Walt Whitman has been a model for me. I don’t mean the man so much—not to dismiss the man, that is, but I mean the writing. His engagement as a poet with language and life. The nexus of self and society that is the hallmark of his poetry. I’ve learned from Whitman that while images never become out-of-fashion or obsolete, blow-hardedness does. Commentaries do. Explaining or psychoanalyzing kills invention. Kills metaphor. Kills freshness. What’s so great about Whitman is he still feels contemporary. It’s the 200th anniversary of his birth this year, and he still feels in touch with our own time. Whitman doesn’t try to explain his motivations. Instead he conveys a consciousness. That’s the thing I’ve most tried to learn from Whitman. To write a poem is to invent a consciousness. But, of course, it’s impossible.


Biespiel photo 2David Biespiel is a poet, critic, memoirist, and contributing to writer to American Poetry Review, New Republic, the New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate. He is poet-in-residence at Oregon State University, faculty member in the Rainier Writers Workshop, and president of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters. He has received NEA and Lannan fellowships and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award. He has previously published The Education of a Young Poet, Wild Civility, The Book of Men and Women, and Charming Gardeners. You can buy his most recent collection, Republic Cafe by clicking here.

Re-envisioning Shanghai’s Architectural History

The roots of Improvised City trace back to my first visit to Shanghai in August 1997. I was a college undergraduate majoring in architectural studies, and I had arrived in China for the first time six months earlier to study in Xi’an. I spent June and July in Hong Kong as an intern for an international architectural office before taking the train to Beijing and then Shanghai, from where I would eventually fly home. None of my experiences in China up to that point in time prepared me for the place. Shanghai overwhelmed me—its scale, its pace, the collage-like quality of the urban fabric. It made a lasting impression that would stay with me for years, when as a graduate student I began to delve more deeply into the architectural and urban history of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China.

I was traveling with a friend at the time, and we stayed at the Astor House Hotel—now a four-star hotel, but then a shabby youth hostel known for its convenient location at the confluence of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek. We were given an airless dormitory room tucked away down a dimly lit hallway with wide, creaky floorboards. There was a specific, spectral quality to the building’s spaces I’ve never quite forgotten. Although I did not know the extent of its history at the time, it was clear that the many political, economic, social, and cultural shifts in China’s past over the preceding century had become inscribed upon the architecture in consequential and identifiable ways.

In the mornings, my friend and I woke up early and walked over the Waibaidu (Garden) Bridge toward Nanjing Road. It was a hot, humid August in Shanghai; we encountered elderly couples out for some early morning air and exercise in their pajamas. I also recall watching, mesmerized, as a man sat out on the street gutting live eels using a narrow wooden plank through which protruded a strategically placed, upturned nail. From Nanjing Road we’d walk around People’s Square, and out into any number of adjacent streets, finding our way from the former International Settlement down through the French Concession into the former walled Chinese city. We spent entire days walking tirelessly around the city in search of vestiges of its historical architecture and urbanity.

 

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Years later, my memories of that trip helped to inspire my research on Shanghai’s architectural and urban past. I have lived in Shanghai and made many trips to the city since then, but my initial experience there remains formative to my curiosity concerning its architectural past. Throughout my investigation of Shanghai’s architectural history, I have sought to learn how architectural objects and urban spaces in the city served to demarcate control and project authority amid the various power struggles for municipal administration that took place between foreign and Chinese officials over the course of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Shanghai’s uniqueness was shaped, in part, by the legal machinations that took place around its re-definition as an international treaty port and whether foreign residents would be subject to Qing laws—questions that rapidly materialized in the design and construction of architecture and urban space throughout the city. For example, the book’s title, Improvised City, was inspired by a letter written by a group of foreign residents to the British envoy and minister plenipotentiary to the Qing court in 1863. In the letter, the group declared that Shanghai had become “an improvised city” in which routine municipal architectural activity had taken on particular meaning due to the city’s abrupt redefinition as an international treaty port, the odd spatial qualities that emerged as a result, and the unruly cosmopolitanism generated by these changes.

The idea that architecture could be used to transform or somehow “improvise” a city into being was fascinating to me, and it inspired me to rethink Shanghai’s architectural history. We often define and study architecture based on certain aesthetic or stylistic qualities; in Shanghai, for example, the Bund is celebrated for its visual display of different kinds of architectural expression. Yet architecture offers a tool with a range of distinctive material, spatial, and scalar qualities that reveal lessons about how we live and, by extension, who we are. Architectural artifacts prompt us to interpret and confront a city’s physical present and its past through spaces that shape daily practices and beliefs.

One can still find traces of these dynamics and the complex history that resulted in built objects and urban spaces throughout the city despite the significant physical redevelopment that has occurred there in the past 40 years. It’s also a history that is revealed through unbuilt or long-forgotten work captured in drawings, photographs, and documents found in archives all over the world, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Washington, D.C., among other places. Discovering and re-constructing these fragments into a book has been a long journey, but one I am excited to be able to share.


Cole Roskam is associate professor of architectural history at the University of Hong Kong. To learn more about what Shanghai’s architectural history reveals about the relationship between built environments and extraterritoriality, buy his new book Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937!

Inside the Publishing Process: An Interview with Series Editor Paul Sutter

This year marks the 25th anniversary of our series Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books. It also marks Paul S. Sutter’s fifth year as series editor.

Here, Sutter talks with our Senior Acquisitions Editor Andrew Berzanskis about his goals for the series, how he sees environmental history changing, and offers some practical tips for authors.

Sutter is professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. His five books include Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (University of Washington Press) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (University of Georgia Press).

For those interested in the origins of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series, here is an account by founding series editor William Cronon.


In 2002, you published your first book, Driven Wild, in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (WEB) series. William Cronon, the founding editor of the series, was editor then. How did Cronon help shape your book?  

Bill was a huge influence on my decision to choose the series. His famous wilderness essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” had just come out, and it was a piece that refined my argument in important ways. I sent an initial email inquiry to Bill—we had met once or twice, but I’m not sure he knew who I was—and he wrote a lengthy response that quickly convinced me that working with him would be the right thing to do. The series was quite new at that point, and Bill put a lot of energy into reading and commenting on my manuscript. Driven Wild mediated the wilderness debate in a ways that I think Bill appreciated, but he also pushed me in ways that made my argument better.

2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the series. As a discipline, environmental history has blossomed. More scholars, more students, and many more publishers. What keeps Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books—a series launched in 1994—unique in 2019?

During the early years of Bill’s editorship, environmental history was a much smaller field, and one that seemed overwhelmingly U.S.-focused. In that context, the series sat at the center of a series of nature/culture debates that largely defined the second generation of environmental historiography. In the last decade or so, the field has changed in dramatic ways. Environmental history is much more international, the number of programs training graduate students has grown geometrically, and the subfields within and around the edges of environmental history have multiplied. Environmental history is a large and crowded room with many conversations going on. The series has changed with the field.

We still publish books that critically assess the historical and cultural dimensions of our current environmental crises and commitments. But the qualities that keep the series unique have more to do with how we work with authors: our commitment to careful developmental editing, our desire for books that are clearly and accessibly written and intended for a crossover audience, our commitment to producing beautiful and well-illustrated books, the work we do with authors to help them to market their books, and our author community. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes that approach than the time we spend with authors and prospective authors at the annual American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) meeting.

Why is publishing with a series different than publishing as part of a press’s regular publishing program?

In the simplest sense, publishing a book in a series helps to define the book by the company it keeps. It also helps to get the book in front of the eyes of those who pay attention to that particular book series and the field it helps to define. But perhaps the biggest advantage to a book series is the chance to work with an academic series editor who can help to shepherd the book manuscript through the publication process. Not all editors put in the effort that Bill and I have at WEB, and so even among other series I think we are unique in the editorial energy we put into the books in our series. Having an engaged series editor can also be helpful in navigating peer review.

As a series editor, how do you like to work with authors?  

Because of the energy we put into developmental editing, we usually like to work with advance contracts, which confirm our partnership with the author. I then like to work with authors on matters of big argument and framing. It is a truism that most dissertations are written to a narrow audience of specialists, and so I push authors to figure out how their book can speak to thousands of interested readers rather than dozens. That often means working with authors on their introductions first, and then the overall organization and narrative arc of their manuscripts. When the author has a fully revised manuscript ready for peer review, I will read it along with the peer reviewers and provide a thorough report that both synthesizes the external reviews and offers comments of my own. We spend a lot of time with authors, on the phone and in person.

What do you get out of serving as a series editor? What makes it personally and/or professionally rewarding?

Being the series editor at WEB is a lot of work. But I love helping authors do what Bill did for me with my first book—transforming promising manuscripts into the books that their authors want them to be. I have seen quite a few authors transform their manuscripts through careful and thoughtful revision, and I take great pride in the role that I play in those transformations. (Mine is a small role. The authors do most of the work!) I take great pride when a beautiful series book arrives in my mailbox—and even more pride when the authors feel like the results are better as a result of working with us.

You write a foreword for each book. Why is that important?

Bill described the foreword as an extended blurb, and I have tried to follow that model. The foreword is a pitch to readers and reviewers to buy or review or assign the book.

You are entering your fifth year as editor and putting your own distinctive imprint on the series. What series books are you particularly proud of and why?

This feels like asking me which of my children is my favorite. I am proud of all of the books we have published for different reasons. But I will provide an example of why I am proud of one book. A year or so ago I received an email from a legal scholar who had just reviewed Jakobina Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan. This particular scholar is an expert on contemporary legal frameworks for managing international whaling, and he found Arch’s history of whaling in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) as critical to contextualizing Japan’s contemporary claims that its whaling practices are traditional. Bina had worked hard to transform a masterful but somewhat narrow study into one that mattered to today’s whaling policy, and this reviewer made it clear that she succeeded.

What are the most common mistakes you see when people put together a book proposal?

I think there are several. One is the proposal that suggests that the book in question is the most important and innovative thing to come along in ages. A good proposal is humble and realistic about what it will accomplish, and respectful of the field in which it will sit. I also often read proposals that are too topical and not sufficiently thesis-driven. More than that, though, I increasingly urge authors to define not just the argument but the research problem that their book will address. A well-defined and expansive research problem will get my attention. Defining the research problem is a way of explaining why we need your book, which is a different issue than what it is about or what it will argue. Finally, I often find prospective authors to be overly optimistic about the popular appeal of their books. To reach a crossover audience, I think authors need to think deeply about which specific non-academic audiences they might realistically reach.

You see many manuscripts go through peer review. What are the most common problems identified in peer review, and how can authors avoid those same mistakes?

The most common problem, particularly for first-time authors, is that they don’t have a clear enough sense of what their book is about. That might be a strange thing to say, but often authors want their books to be about too many things. What’s the big idea/argument? How do the chapters contribute to and build towards that big idea/argument? The big idea is what disciplines a manuscript and helps to create a hierarchy of arguments, and it is not something that emerges organically. Rather, it is usually a matter of authors making tough choices.

What advice do you have for scholars trying to reach a broader audience?

First, figure out specifically who that broader audience is. Know who else might be interested in the book and speak to them. Second, get comfortable imagining your reader as an intelligent non-expert and explaining why scholars argue over the things that they do. An accessible book elegantly explains significance, constantly circling back to it. Third, develop characters if you can, and tell good stories.

I constantly urge authors to tell me the biography of their project. This forces them to go back to the moment when they decided to pursue the topic, to explain what made them passionate about it, and what it was like to know little about the book they were embarking upon. It requires them to imagine the reader opening their book for the first time and deciding whether to buy or devote their time to reading it. If you can go back to that point of initial ignorance and then explain how you proceeded to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of a topic, you can better convince your reader to want to follow along. A book that can explain the process of coming to understand a topic—rather than merely presenting the results of a deep understanding—is a book that will be more accessible.

Tell me about the first time you went to an American Society for Environmental History conference. How was it different then?

I first attended ASEH in 1993 in Pittsburgh. That was only the sixth ASEH conference ever held, and back then the conferences were biennial and much smaller. I was still a graduate student at the University of Kansas and did not have enough travel funding to afford both the flight and the hotel room. So four of us pooled our funds, rented a white Cadillac Seville, and made the 13-hour drive in style. I think the conference was at a Days Inn, and I’m not even sure if there was a book exhibit. It was tiny. I have been to every ASEH meeting since.

Where do you see the field of environmental history developing in the next 20 years? 

I will answer this in two ways. The first is that our field must directly address the big environmental problems of our moment, and many scholars are busy doing that. Where the second generation of environmental history was largely engaged with a critical assessment of nature as our field’s category of analysis, I think the current generation of scholarship will be defined by its critical engagement with the Anthropocene concept and the material environmental challenges that it encompasses.

The second is that I wouldn’t be surprised if a singular field of environmental history no longer really exists in 2040. Rather, we may see a proliferation of subfields and sub-conversations in fields such as animal history, energy history, climate history, evolutionary history, environmental justice, etc. The field of environmental history that I matured with was fundamentally shaped by the national environmental movement of the 1960s-1980s; the current generation is being shaped by global concerns about climate change and the great acceleration of human impact on the natural world.


Andrew and Paul will both be attending the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting April 10-13 in Columbus, OH. Stop by the University of Washington Press booth (#21) to meet them and to learn more about this series!

Racialized Gender Politics and “Women’s History” Month

Featuring Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics for women’s history month offers us the opportunity to speak on the feminist and racialized gender politics that terms like “women” and “women’s history” often serve to marginalize and erase. In many ways, our collection is about naming, addressing and navigating the many silences and invisibilities that emerge not only between the white/Anglo middle-class heterosexual presumptions of who counts as “women” and who determines mainstream feminist agendas, but also between concepts explicitly named in the title: “Asian American” and “Feminisms; “Asian American Feminisms” and “Women of Color Politics.” At the heart of our book is the question, what is an Asian American feminism and what is its genealogy as a political formation? Situated within, and in relation to a Women of Color politics, what are the complexities and contradictions within the field of Asian American feminisms, and what are the possibilities for cross-racial solidarity through an Asian American feminist praxis?

Noting the difficulty to name and identify an existing collection that grapples with the relationship between Asian American feminisms and Women of Color politics, we set out to create a collection that did not assume to be exhaustive of all Asian American ethnicities, identities, or political struggles. Rather, we wanted our contributors to engage the broader political questions: What theoretical interventions, resistant strategies, and epistemic shifts shape the field of Asian American feminisms? How are these central concepts, theories, and praxical strategies in dialogue with the coalitional politics of Women of Color and US Third World feminisms? What tensions or disconnections push against and redefine or re-imagine the possibilities for an Asian American feminist politics? In so doing, we were able to create a collection that not only speaks to particular sites of Asian American feminist epistemologies, struggles, and theorizations traditionally marginalized in mainstream feminist genealogies, we were able to grapple with existing tensions and contradictions within an Asian American feminist approach.

We were clear that we wanted to name and accentuate the on-going political tension between Pacific Islander Studies and Asian American Studies more broadly. While Asian settler-colonialism is recognized within Asian American studies we wanted to push Asian American feminisms to embrace and recognize the two fields as completely separate operating from different histories and epistemological frameworks. Thus, as our author’s Nohelani Teves and Maile Arvin emphasize, we chose not to title the book Asian Pacific American Feminisms, as this falls into the practice of establishing false equivalencies.

As co-editors we consciously engaged in a feminist praxis editorial model. Early on we established ground-rules for collaborative writing, one of which was that we never simply erase or replace each other’s words without consultation. We clearly documented and reiterated our plans, with our deadlines clearly set. We discussed deliberately every issue we encountered knowing the politics at stake, and never minimalized each other’s concerns. We worked closely with the Editor in Chief over major decisions as a collective, neither one of us ever acted or engaged in conversation over decision-making issues without the other’s presence. We sent out carefully crafted invitations, and all email correspondences were seen and edited by each other before they were sent. We crafted a long-term writing system, where we first requested abstracts, discussed them and made decisions, then we requested each contributors first five pages, read them, provided feedback, discussed them, and returned them with suggestions for revisions and our vision on their developing essays. We repeated this process with the next 10 pages, 15 pages, and then the full rough draft. As co-editors we were very hands-on in the development and edited as each chapter came along. This enabled us to engage with each author as they worked through their original essay specifically keeping in mind the larger questions driving this collection.

Throughout the process of editing this collection, we along with our contributors were fortunate to participate in multiple roundtables and panels at several major conferences. Extending this conversation outward we learned early on that wider audiences are still grappling with identifying an Asian American feminisms. In one instance we experienced divergent desires to see a collection that was less theoretically driven and more definitional in scope. We stood committed to developing a collection that could grapple with the larger conceptual frameworks of state and interpersonal-violence, decolonization, and resistance prominent in Women of Color politics yet sorely missing in Asian American feminisms as a collective body. We see this collection as an entry point in which to further timely discussions of coalitional possibilities as Asian American feminists engaging in Women of Color politics.

In the spirit of “women’s history” month, we offer Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics to those who seek to live a political commitment that not only identifies the intricacy of our interlocking oppressions, but also, and most importantly, our expansive and deeply interdependent modes of resisting, building, flourishing, and rising up despite state-sponsored (neo)colonial racial projects seeking to quell our refusals to be complicit in our own and others’ destruction.


Lynn Fujiwara is associate professor at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Mothers without Citizenship: Asian Immigrant Families and the Consequences of Welfare Reform. Shireen Roshanravan is associate professor of American ethnic studies at Kansas State University. She is the coeditor of Speaking Face to Face / Hablando Cara a Cara: The Visionary Philosophy of María Lugones.

What Tahlequah Said

Even writing that headline, I feel the lilt and wash of the ocean in the language of the Salish, who consider the orca, qal̕qaləx̌ič in Lushootseed, their kin.

We show our own smallness, place a frame around an individual creature, when we name an orca in human terms. But somewhere along the line, people felt that this particular orca needed a name we could relate to. Tahlequah supposedly means “mother of waters.” J 35 suggests a science experiment, not just a study of existing conditions, and we have been conditioned to expect experiments to fail.

Of all the noise we were subjected to in 2018, the most important message we received was from Tahlequah. She brought her baby to full term only to have it die within a few minutes of birth. Those of us who have experienced pregnancy know that your body prepares you during the whole gestation for the miracle of being twinned somehow, divided so that you will have two bodies to care for until the little one is fully grown. I can imagine the surging hormones experienced by this mother orca as her calf was born and failed to thrive. What could she have done? Nothing. But she understands that the conditions humans have created in the Sound make it impossible for the near-shore orcas who depend on Chinook salmon for their food to survive. She carried that dead baby with her for seventeen days, until it fell apart, so that we would see her and it, and get the message.

While it is in many ways a series of humorous books, Douglas Adams got it right when he named one of his books “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” as the farewell message from the dolphins while departing from a future earth, no longer considered tenable by its oceanic inhabitants. As the dolphins desperately try to tell us that we are doomed, that we need to leave, we ooh and ah and applaud their apparent hijinks. We are incapable of understanding that we are not the only creatures on earth with an understanding of time, life, and mortality.

While there is ample evidence around us of global warming and impending disaster, we are aggravating this scenario with our willful inaction. A couple of months ago the governor of the state of Washington, Jay Inslee, rolled out some points to enhance his standing as a protector of the environment. This included some language about saving the orcas, but not an obvious one: take down the dams that are keeping Chinook salmon from reproducing. The Snake River was once their breeding ground, but fewer and fewer salmon make it past all the obstacles we have placed in their way. The Chinook are not reproducing, and the whales are starving to death. It doesn’t take summersaults, it doesn’t take naming orcas, to figure that out.

In spite of our reluctance to face the obvious, nature has been very forgiving. The dams on the Elwha River were removed a couple of years ago, and the natural life of the river is surging back at a miraculous pace. Its native salmon have been waiting almost a hundred years to return to their spawning beds. Just imagine! They had to return from the open ocean to the mouth of the river each year, only to be turned back by dams. Again. And again and again. But now they made it.

Can we save the Chinook? In my opinion, there is only one way to find out. Take down the dams. Ease up on the hatchery fish, which probably just compete with the wild salmon for scarce resources.

Almost unremarked, another orca died on January 28, 2019, after a short illness. Kayla was thirty years old, what should have been the half-way point in her life, when she suddenly sickened and died. She lived at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, which has been the site of many questionable practices concerning orcas.

“We shared our salmon,” wrote Jack Flander of the Yakima Nation in The Seattle Times (1/29/19), speaking for the orcas, “but you took more than your share,” leaving us little to survive on. “Our waters became polluted. Our infant mortality rate increased … Imagine what a brotherhood and sisterhood we could have shared. Now imagine that I am an Indian.”

With the paperback issue of my book, The Deepest Roots, I wish I had a more cheerful introduction to offer. But the same warning bells are going off as when I started this book. What’s more, the current administration has made the work that we do to conserve the environment even more difficult, and even more important.

Every person I interviewed for The Deepest Roots has a different story to tell, a different relationship with the land and the sea. Some of them are gone now, having passed their legacies on to younger farmers and fisher people. They are remembered with fondness, their penchant for barbeque, or having created fertile soil through sheer willpower.

Others have begun to engage with the land and the people in a more entrepreneurial fashion, looking to the eastern horizon and the inevitable population growth that will take place on the island. We wonder if our children will return, and what it will be like for them in ten, twenty, one hundred years from now. Will the salmon continue to wait for us?

This book has raised as many questions as answers, but people continue to approach me thoughtfully, usually with their own stories to share. I hope The Deepest Roots encourages you to see the place where you live with new eyes, and to see yourself as an active partner in its salvation and recovery. As storyteller Vi Hilbert would say, “Haboo!”


Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a collection of essays, The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing; three novels, including Treasures in Heaven; and a collection of short stories. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

To learn more about The Deepest Roots, buy your copy of the book today!