Professor of Environmental Studies

Macalester College

Christopher W. Wells

Director of Digital Liberal Arts

Associate Director, Jan Serie Center for Scholarship  and Teaching

Twitter @ChrisWells_Mac
Twitter @


Chris Wells is professor of environmental history in the Department of Environmental Studies at Macalester College, where he directs Macalester’s Digital Liberal Arts initiative and is Associate Director of the Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching. His research focuses on the ways that technology—and especially technological systems—have reshaped the American environment, mediating and structuring people’s relationships with the natural world. His first book, Car Country: An Environmental History (2012), focuses on the proliferation of car-dependent landscapes in the U.S. before 1956. His second book, Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader, will be published by the Univ. of Washington Press in 2018. His current project is Nature’s Crossroads: The Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota, co-edited with George Vrtis.

For Students

General Information & Policies


Participation in class discussions is vital to the success of my classes. Our project in class meetings will be to explore connections between events, to answer questions, to clear up any confusion, to discuss the major themes of the course, and above all to engage with assigned readings. Please remember that we are all in this together, and we are all responsible for the success of the course. As eager as I am to share with you what I know, I expect that you will learn at least as much from one another as you will from me. We will discuss in class the mutual rights and responsibilities that you would like to see govern our classroom, but at minimum it is important that we all respect one another’s time, space, values, and ideas by coming to class on time and prepared to engage in respectful, intellectually challenging discussions.


Email & Office hours 

If you are my advisee or are enrolled in one of my courses, you can always reach me by email. I will often get back to you quickly, and always within 24 hours between Monday and Friday. I hold regular office hours during the semester, and you can see my scheduled times and sign up for an appointment at If none of the listed openings work, email me a handful of times that will work for you that I can check against my schedule. Talking to students is one of my favorite things about being a professor. No question is too small, and no pretext to talk is too flimsy: if you want to talk, we can talk.



Course Moodle sites ( are crucial resources. In addition to duplicating the information in each class’s syllabus, course Moodle sites house up-to-date daily reading schedules, with links to PDFs of all readings that are not from required texts. Moodle is also where I post paper prompts and where you turn in formal written assignments.


Other Resources 

Many wonderful resources exist that will help you as a student. The MAX Center, located in Kagin, has peer tutors available to help students in all stages of writing. You may drop in or call x6121 (day) or x6193 (evening) for an appointment. Find them at, and see their writing resources at Please also spend some time perusing Prof. Zachary Schrag’s helpful advice for doing well in history courses at



Academic dishonesty erodes the basic foundations of higher education: exchange, debate, and the thoughtful consideration of what we know, how we know it, and why it matters. It has no place in a college course. For Macalester’s policies on academic integrity, click here. For help on avoiding plagiarism, click here. For the Quick Guide to the Chicago Manual of Style, the citation system used by historians, click here (requires login).


In some circumstances, course design may pose barriers to a student’s ability to access or demonstrate mastery of course content. Reasonable academic accommodations can be implemented in such circumstances. If you think you need an accommodation for a disability, please contact Robin Hart Ruthenbeck at x6220.


Late Work Policy: Unless otherwise noted in a syllabus, late papers will be assessed a late penalty of one-third of a letter grade per day, so please plan ahead! If extenuating circumstances arise, you may discuss with me ahead of time the possibility of an extension with a reduced penalty.

Courses & Syllabi

Spring 2018

ENVI 343

Imperial Nature

Fall 2017


U.S. Environmental History (first-year course)


U.S. Environmental History

Spring 2017

ENVI 488

E.S. Senior Seminar

Fall 2016


Consumer Nation


U.S. Urban Environmental History

Spring 2016

ENVI 488

E.S. Senior Seminar

Fall 2015


U.S. Environmental History


Imperial Nature

Spring 2015


The Politics of Architecture & the Built Environment

ENVI 488

E.S. Senior Seminar

Letters of Recommendation

Please see these guidelines when requesting a letter




Car Country (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012).

For most people in the United States, going almost anywhere begins with reaching for the car keys. Car Country tells the story of how car dependency became woven into the basic fabric of the American landscape. Car Country website.


July 2018

Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader (Seattle: University of Washington Press, forthcoming). This edited collection presents a variety of primary sources from the postwar environmental justice movement, highlighting the sometimes tense relationship between environmentalism and social justice.

In preparation

Nature’s Crossroads: The Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota, eds. George Vrtis and Christopher W. Wells, Epilogue by Kathleen Brosnan. Under contract with the University of Pittsburgh Press, History of the Urban Environment series, edited by Martin V. Melosi and Joel Tarr.

Articles, Chapters, and Review Essays


Reading Signs: The Landscape as Text,” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 1 (Fall 2014).


Green Cities, the Search for Sustainability, and Urban Environmental History,” Journal of Urban History 40 (May 2014): 613-20.


“The Campus as a Teaching Tool: A Case Study of Macalester College’s EcoHouse,” in Sustainable Development at Universities: New Horizons, ed. Walter Leal (Frankfurt: Peter Lang Scientific Publishers, 2012), 479-92. Co-authored with Suzanne Savanick Hansen.


Fueling the Boom: Gasoline Taxes, Invisibility, and the Growth of the American Highway Infrastructure, 1919-1956,” Journal of American History 99 (June 2012): 72-81.


[Designated as “Editor’s Choice” article.]


“La Morte del Modello T: Strade Pavimentate, Auto Coperte e Tecnologica Desueta” [The Death of the Model T: Smooth Roads, Closed Cars, and Technological Maladaptation], I Frutti di Demetra: Bollettino di Storia e Ambiente [The Fruits of Demeter: A Bulletin of History and the Environment] 21 (2009): 63-75. English translation available.


Using a Class to Conduct a Carbon Inventory: A Case Study with Practical Results at Macalester College,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 10 (July 2009): 228-238. Co-authored with Suzanne Savanick and Christie Manning.


The Road to the Model T: Culture, Road Conditions, and Innovation at the Dawn of the American Motor Age,” Technology and Culture 48 (July 2007): 497-523.


[Winner: Levinson Prize, Society for the History of Technology]

Other Essays, Digital Projects, and Resources

(No peer review)


Minnesota Environments. A website fully optimized for use on a mobile device that lets you explore Minnesota’s environmental history from your smartphone, tablet, or computer. Developed with George Vrtis (Carleton College) and in collaboration with many generous and insightful colleagues and students at Carleton, Macalester, the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Minnesota Historical and Cultural Grants Program.


Twin Cities Environmental History: A Bibliography of Published and Unpublished Sources (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2012). Co-edited with George Vrtis.


Author’s Response,” H-Net Roundtable Reviews 5 (July 2015).


Response to Donald E. Worster, ‘On John Muir’s Trail,’” Macalester Civic Forum 2 (Summer 2008): 15-21.


The Early Conservation Movement,”, Beyond the Textbook.


Living in Car Country,” blog post at Streets.MN, April 23, 2013.


Industrializing Women,”, Ask a Historian.


History Topic: Twin Cities Environmental History,” Minnesota Historical Society website. Co-authored with George Vrtis.


Review of Bartow J. Elmore, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2015), Business History Review, Spring 2016.


Review of Matthew T. Huber, Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), Journal of Historical Geography, January 2016.


Review of Christopher Morris, The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), The Historian, Winter 2014.


Review of Bernhard Rieger, The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), Journal of American History, March 2014.


Review of Joseph F. C. DiMento and Cliff Ellis, Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013), Environmental History, January 2014.


Review of Alexis Madrigal, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2011), Environmental History, January 2012.


Web Site Review of American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936, (created and maintained by the Library of Congress), Journal of American History, December 2011.


Review of Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (New York : Metropolitan Books, 2009), Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2011.


Review of Cotten Seiler, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), Technology and Culture, January 2010.


Review of David N. Lucsko, The Business of Speed: The Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915-1990 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), Journal of American History, December 2009.


Review of David Blanke, Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of America’s Car Culture, 1900-1940 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), Journal of American History, March 2008.


Review of Sally H. Clarke, Trust and Power: Consumers, the Modern Corporation, and the Making of the United States Automobile Market (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Technology and Culture, January 2008.


Review of Mark H. Rose, Bruce E. Seely, and Paul F. Barrett, The Best Transportation System in the World: Railroads, Trucks, Airlines, and American Public Policy in the Twentieth Century,” H-Urban, H-Net Reviews, April 2007.


Review of Kathleen Franz, Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), History: Reviews of New Books, Summer 2005.


Review of Peter Derrick, Tunneling to the Future: The Story of the Great Subway Expansion That Saved New York (New York: New York University Press, 2001), Technology and Culture, October 2002.


Review of David Blanke, Sowing the American Dream: How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000), The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Summer 2002 supplement.

Encyclopedia Entries

In Hugh Slotten, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of the History of American Science, Medicine, and Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)

1. “Household Technology”

2. “Motor Vehicles” (co-authored with Clay McShane)

3. “Internal Combustion Engine”

In Melvyn Dubofsky, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

4. “Automotive Industry”

In Gary B. Nash, ed., Encyclopedia of American History, Volume 9, Postwar United States: 1946-1968, Allan Winkler (New York: Facts on File, 2003)

5. “Environmental Movement,” 101-02

6. “Baby Boom,” 29-30

In Stanley Kutler, ed., The Dictionary of American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003)

7. “Automobile” (co-authored with James J. Flink), 366-70

8. “Trucking Industry” (co-authored with Don H. Berkebile), 230-31

In Mary Kupiec Cayton and Peter Williams, eds., Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001), Volume I

9. “Chronology of Cultural and Intellectual Events,” xxix-lxxvi

In Paul Boyer, ed., The Oxford Companion to United States History (New York: Oxford University Press,2001)

10. “Automobile Industry,” 56-57                    12. “John James Audubon,” 55

11. “Household Technology,” 348-49                13. “Courtship and Dating,” 164-65

In Tom and Sara Pendergast, eds., St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture (New York: St. James Press, 2000)

14. “Automobiles,” 137-42

15. “Bicycling,” 245-46

16. “Sunday Driving,” 578-79

In Derek Jones, ed., Censorship: A World Encyclopedia (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000)

17. “Negro World,” 1686-87

18. “The Hypocrisy of the U.S. and Her Allies,” 1132-33


Christopher W. Wells

Department of Environmental Studies

Macalester College

1600 Grand Ave.

St. Paul, MN 55105

Twitter @ChrisWells_Mac