Q&A faculty spotlight: Bart Elmore

June 9, 2023

Q&A faculty spotlight: Bart Elmore

Bart Elmore headshot

Bart Elmore is a professor in the Department of History at Ohio State. His research focuses on global environmental history and the history of capitalism, often with a focus on the environment, technology and science. In addition to serving in the history department, Bart is a core faculty member of Ohio State's Sustainability Institute. In 2022, he was awarded the Dan David Award, the largest history prize in the world described by the Washington Post as a new "MacArthur-style 'genius grant.'"

Please list your educational history including degrees earned and universities attended. 

  • Dartmouth College, BA in history, 2004
  • University of Virginia, MA in history, 2007
  • University of Virginia, PhD in history, 2012
  • University of California, Berkeley, Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in Natural Resource Economics, 2013

Please describe your current research/creative activity or area(s) of interest. Please describe for someone who is not familiar with your field. 

I write about the history of large multinational firms and the ways in which these businesses remake and are made by the natural ecosystems in which they operate. The goal is to use the past to figure out how we can create a more eco-conscious economy in the years ahead.  I’m trained in the craft of environmental history, a subfield of the historical profession launched in the 1970s (in the wake of the modern environmental movement) that seeks to understand how nature has acted as an agent in human history and how humans have reshaped natural environments over time. I have written books that explore the environmental history of Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Bayer, Delta Airlines, Walmart, FedEx and Bank of America.

What/who influenced you to select your area(s) of study and how has that impacted your career? Please feel free to share any changes in your career direction as this can be a challenge for many students to consider. 

I did not take a straightforward path to this profession. When I went off to undergrad, I was particularly interested in biochemistry and medicine and thought I might become a medical doctor. That first summer after my freshman year I even worked at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, trying to develop solutions to problematic diseases like tuberculosis. When I graduated, I still was not certain what I wanted to do. I explored the possibility of becoming a lawyer, something my father had done and had really enjoyed, but ultimately, I needed a moment to regroup. I got in a whitewater kayak just south of where I grew up in Atlanta and tried to paddle down the Flint River all the way to the Gulf Coast. I didn’t make it (😊), but the time spent on the river helped me focus my sights on the next steps I wanted to take, which was to become a public-school teacher at an under-resourced school in Garden City, Ga., a town just outside Savannah. There I became hooked on teaching and realized that I wanted to be an educator for life. I had grown up with a severe learning disability and so many teachers had helped me overcome major roadblocks, and I wanted to do the same for other students. So I went off to graduate school at the University of Virginia with the intention of studying the history of public schools in the American South and how racial segregation, among other factors, contributed to the problems southern states faced when it came to educational performance. At Virginia, my mentor, Ed Ayers, was truly inspirational. He showed me how history had the power to make a better world, and I was sold. In my second year of graduate school, I met Ed Russell, who introduced me to the field of environmental history. Now I was really humming. Environmental history combined my interests in the environmental sciences with my interest in history and I knew I had found a professional home. The rest is history, as they say.

What undergraduate classes do you teach? 

I teach a suite of classes related to the history of the United States, the history of business, and environmental history. Popular classes include Coca-Cola Globalization: American Business and Global Ecological Change and the History of American Capitalism. Both classes take deep dives in the ecological history of human economic interaction and considers how the past can inform best business practices in the years ahead.

Why do you think a student should take these classes and, if appropriate, why would they be of interest to students majoring in other disciplines?

Why should I become a history major or why should I study history? How would this discipline help me as I think about my career path? These are common questions raised by students and parents, and I get them. When I decided to major in biochemistry and medical studies when I was at Dartmouth College, I did so because I could see how that curriculum could prepare me for a career where I could have a real impact on people’s lives. But over time, I came to see that history was just as fascinating and just as relevant to the big pressing issues of our time. I even came to see how the discipline of history could help save lives. As it turns out, almost everyone uses history everyday to try and accomplish their goals. A doctor trying to figure out what medicine to dispense to save a patient must understand the studies and experiments conducted in the past that led to the development of a particular treatment. Without knowing that, how can they determine if their intervention will be successful or not? The same is true of politicians who argue on Capitol Hill about what the original intent of a particular piece of legislation or Constitutional amendment was to get a new bill or measure passed. A lawyer writing a brief to protect his client must have sound understanding of legal precedent. In short, the question posed at the top of this paragraph should be the reverse: How can you become a sound professional in any field without studying history? Which is why I invite all students, especially non-majors and people who might be a skeptic about the power of history, to come take my classes. I think they’ll be surprised how well lessons learned in our class will help them become better professionals no matter what career path they are on.

What aspects of your teaching give you the most satisfaction?

Learning. What students in my class come to find very quickly is that I’m learning things alongside them, and their input helps me take my classes to new heights. When I first started teaching, I thought I had to hide the fact that I didn’t know everything about a given topic. But when I made myself more vulnerable, admitted the gaps in knowledge, I came to fill those holes and in time offer a better course for the next round of students. And in the end, the reason I love learning is because I think by having a firmer understanding of the past, we can fix pressing societal problems we face today. The former CEO of Procter & Gamble, a sustainability officer from Kroger, a founding executive at Patagonia, the senior vice president of Bayer have all been guests in my classes and workshops. My students have been able to engage with people in positions of power and push them to understand how history can help them make better decisions in the future. These are magical moments and it’s what makes teaching at a first-rate public university so grand.

If there are opportunities for undergraduates to connect with you for research or creative activity, please share what this would be and how students should reach out to you.

I’m always looking for students to help me with research. If you look at my acknowledgements in my books on Monsanto, Coca-Cola and other big businesses, you’ll see the names of past students who dug into archives to find key documents, traveled to a court case to hear breaking news about a dangerous chemical or found critical texts in the library that proved instrumental to a story I was writing. Don’t be shy. Reach out to me!

If you lead an education abroad program, please share information about that program.

In December 2023, I, alongside my good friends and colleagues Nick Breyfogle and Jennifer Eaglin, will be launching a study abroad program that will take a group of students to the United Nations Climate Summit each year. The Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be meeting in Dubai this coming year and we are so excited to be the first delegation from Ohio State University to be a part of that momentous occasion.

What book/movie would you recommend or what music do you enjoy? 

I’m a big Outkast fan, having grown up in Atlanta where that hip-hop group is from. I’m also a lover of all things Georgia, including the Allman Brothers. And when it comes to movies, I’m a fan of sci-fi/horror, especially Alien and Aliens. But if I want to binge watch, I prefer non-fiction documentaries. On that note, I’d highly recommend the film "Damnation," which is all about dam removal projects across the country that hold out the promise of restoring fish populations and much more!

What is the most interesting place you have visited? 

I’ve been all over the world for my books, including Vietnam, Brazil, India and Peru, but I have to say Bentonville, Ark., the home of Walmart, was one my most interesting stops. The town offers such a fascinating blend of corporate history and epic mountain biking I never expected. Happy to chat with students about this a bit more if they come to office hours.

What is the best advice you have received? 

Try to figure out what you can give back to society. This is the question we should all be asking ourselves instead of just considering what we are “passionate about.” I’m passionate about a lot of things, but I’ve found over time that a happy profession is one in which you believe you are marshalling a suite of skills you’ve developed to give back to others.

What advice would you give to undergraduate students? 

Figure out what skills you have that can be useful in helping others. That will be the key to a happy life.

Feel free to stop by my office hours.

I love to talk about anything. I’ve been a DJ, a whitewater kayak instructor, a rock-climbing employee, a laboratory researcher, an assistant to a governor, a scuba diver, basketball player, sailor, skiing enthusiast, a legal researcher for a public defender, a mountain biker, backpacker and a bunch of other things. I was fortunate to have a mom and dad that were restless and taught me so much and I love sharing that knowledge with the next generation of folks.

Would you like to share a fun/interesting fact about yourself?

I pronounce “naked” “necked” and have a whole host of other southernisms that I have yet to correct despite my many years living outside the American South.

Learn more about Professor Elmore's work, email and office location on his department page.

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