Dr Robert Suits
Fennell Early Career Fellow in US History; U.S. Environmental History
I am originally from the United States, and earned my PhD in environmental history from the University of Chicago in 2021. I was a postdoctoral associate at the University of Calgary from 2021-2022, and joined the University of Edinburgh as Fennell Early Career Fellow in fall of 2022.
- North America
- Economic History
- Medicine, Science & Technology
- Nineteenth Century
- Twentieth Century & After
My work is highly collaborative and multidisciplinary. I explore the environmental history of the United States, focusing on the intersection of energy, climate, and capitalism. I blend a variety of sources and methods, including oral histories, government documents, statistics, and digital history, and emphasize the voices of people typically hard to find in environmental histories. I am committed to producing and supporting public-facing, accessible, and usable history.
Current research activities
My first book project, tentatively titled The Hobo: An Environmental History, is a history of the origins of American migrant labor. Manual labourers were central to the operations of steam age industry. But industries operating in the American West experienced dramatic climatic fluctuations at a scale almost unique in the era before anthropogenic climate change. It proved ruinous: droughts devastated harvests, floods delayed them by weeks, and ice and snow covered and shut mines and lumber mills. To meet these unpredictable events, employers turned to ad hoc migrant laborers: “hobos,” an impoverished, itinerant underclass who sought work by traveling great distances. As harvest hands, lumberjacks, and miners, hobos could be well-paid, but their work was so inconsistent that they were nevertheless trapped in precarious poverty. In effect, I argue, migrant work provided a way for employers to shunt the costs of climatic events onto their workforce. The second half of the book explores how these same patterns subsequently trapped a new, transnational Latinx workforce. Environmental instability, in short, underlies American migrant work.
I am also the lead researcher on an interdisciplinary digital history project to visualize energy use in American history. This produced a public-facing Sankey diagram for classroom and energy policy use (http://us.sankey.rdcep.org). This project serves as a pedagogical resource, a new inventory of energy use, and a research effort with impacts that range well beyond academia. I am building on this research through the international project “Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time” (https://deindustrialization.org/), exploring how recent energy transitions have reshaped postindustrial society. Future work will explore comparative energy histories, featuring animated Sankeys for other nations.
A second digital project, in its early stages, aims to produce historical maps of American energy infrastructure.
“Hoboes, Wheat, and Climate Precarity, 1870-1922.” Agricultural History, March 2023 (97.1), 1-47, doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00021482-10154297.
“Beyond Rainmaking: Climate Engineering on the Nineteenth Century Great Plains,” Western Historical Quarterly, March 2023; whad041, https://doi.org/10.1093/whq/whad041.
Robert Suits, Nathan Matteson, and Elizabeth Moyer. “Energy Transitions in U.S. History, 1800-2019.” RDCEP Working Paper Series, 2020. http://www.rdcep.org/s/ Suits_Matteson_Moyer_2020_Energy_Transitions.pdf. (Published as a white paper; invited to revise at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)