Reply To: Final assignment

Author Replies
Markus # Posted on January 22, 2015 at 17:27

Final Exam
Current Debates and Themes in Environmental History, VT/HT 2014
Markus Nyström

Seminars attended or complemented (11):
Gunnel Cederlöf, February 3
Jason Moore, February 17
Alf Hornborg, March 3
Oliver Rackham, March 17
Caroline Merchant, March 31
Tim Ingold, April 14
Kristina Persson, June 9
Libby Robin, September 8
Sverker Sörlin, September 22
Mary Midgley, October 6
Joseph Tainter, November 3

Seminars organized:
Joseph Tainter, November 3 (and guest lecture in January 2014)


People in general, myself included, seek information that confirm rather than challenge their perspectives. In a large, diverse and long course like Current Debates and Themes in Environmental History, some subjects, more in line with ones presumptions and ideas, tend to stick more than others. In the surprisingly large variety of subjects in this course, I see some issues as sticking out, issues many or at least some of the lecturers had in common, and issues I myself am acquainted with or interested in. This essay will follow some of these common threads of interest. Furthermore, the essay is sometimes, and on some levels, critical as to how these issues were dealt with. With the help of the seminars, the literature and the reflections, I try to pinpoint some things I saw as missing with the course. In that sense, this essay is as much a final exam as a form of evaluation of the course. However, the criticism is entirely constructive and I see it more as pointers to new and expanded discussions on the issues that permeated the course.

The atom and the globe

Spatially, we have had lecturers and literature who has taken us from the level of the global down to the atom. I see this – space – as one of the major issues discussed in the course. On the one hand, Mary Midgley spoke of, and sharply criticized, the tendency of the modern mind to “atomize” everything, reducing everything to its smallest, indestructable parts (Midgley, 2001). In science it boils down to quarks and electrons or, in biological sciences, DNA, and in social terms it boils down to the individual. (Interestingly, “atom” comes from the greek word for “undividable” which is also the mening of “individ” – impossible to divide). Midgley criticizes this because the emergent properties from the interplay of these “undividables” is often what is more important and “real” to us – matter, animals and plants, societies.

On the other hand we have thinkers like Carolyn Merchant, Alf Hornborg and Jason Moore who all bring us narratives and tools to decipher the vast systems of global structures. Moore, emphasizing the importance of understanding capitalism as the “world ecology” of the present (Moore, 2011), is complemented by Hornborg’s call to environmental historians to investigate the connections in time and space in the world system rather than making comparisons (Hornborg, lecture). Merchant then, on a philosophical and discoursive level, speaks of the importance of metaphoric understanding of the world, how the metaphors of the world has changed over time, and how the domination of nature is linked with men’s domination of women (Merchant, 1990).

My own reflections regarding the change in focus being tossed back and forth between the very small and the very large is that environmental history as a subject is incredibly flexible in spatial focus. Like physics which investigates the smallest and the biggest, environmental history seems to be able to house a comparible diversity of spatial foci (though based and limited in the social and human sciences, of course).

I find this both liberating and slightly terrifying at the same time (which is a rather precise description of my thoughts and feelings towards this course in general, by the way). What is liberating is that borders are removed, or we are encouraged to remove them ourselves. We are encouraged to seek spatial foci in our theses that are where our hearts and minds are, not spatial foci that follow some preconcieved idea of what environmental history ought to be about.

The terrifying part is that without borders, without limitations, there also comes a rising degree of uncertainty. With nation state borders regarded as mere political constructions, ecosystem borders as more or less open and global, with chaos theory and relativity, with discourse analysis and postmodernity at large – with all this comes the terrifying prospect of our terminologies, our understandings and chategories, being arbitrary and inherently fallible. To do science and research in such an intellectual environment of arbitrariness and inescapable fallibility is demanding – and ultimately, in my opinion, it begs the question of why we should do it at all. If all is “narrative”, “metaphor” and “borderless” anyway, why bother with all the work and academic stringency and terminology? This probably more than anything reveal my own, personal pet peeve, my own indecisiveness toward academia, where I, on the one hand, is and have for a long time been intrigued at the same time as I question its very function.

A lack of explicitness about ethics

I think, however, that there is a middle ground to be found between the very small and the very large, and it has to do with the ethics of the researcher. Just like Midgley wrote about how atomizing the world leads to a distorted understanding of reality (Midgley, 2001), so can a constant global vantage point too distort reality. Hornborg’s machine fetischism (Hornborg, 2012), for instance, is crucial for understanding global flows of material and energy, I am sure, but it does not tie into the individual experience of machine use. As an example one can say that even dispossessed and oppressed people, who feed a fervent dislike or even hatred towards the thieves and colonialists, also use machines – are they too appropreating time and space from other people in the other end of the world system? Probably, in a Hornborgian analysis, but that does not explain the reality of that person. The same can be said about nation state borders, which in environmental terms most often are arbitrary – but they still hold extreme importance in the lives and minds of people everywhere. In this summerizing reflection, I would like to say that what I find missing from the discussions and seminars of the course is this “middle ground” – we trained and thought like (post)modern academics throughout the course but did not really ask or think about what the world is like for people who live in it. Did we ever even speak of contemporary political events and news? Even environmental news? No, not really, because we kept ourself aloft, floating above and beyond the discourse of the mere joneses. No harm in that – indeed, removing oneself from the immediate, from the obvious, and trying to see underlying patterns, is the hallmark of eye-opening research. But I think it is bad research if the researcher acts and writes as if the reality that people live through every day does not exist. Ingold is a good example of this when he writes about definitions of indigenous peoples (Ingold, 2000, ch. 8). He criticizes the use of a genealogical model, without clearly pointing out an alternative, and downplays the importance of the genealogical model for many of these peoples (since it is the only thing they have got). Academically, I can’t blame Ingold, and his discussion is interesting, convincing and eloquent, but it holds potentially leathal ramifications for the peoples he is writing about.

The middle ground, therefore, is in my mind closely tied to research ethics. Indeed, if research categories and terminology is tainted by arbitrariness, then ethics could be a good guide for what research to do. Research, even very stringent and well executed research, can be politically and humanly important (and thereby “ethical”). It can make the world better for the people and other beings in it. In a programme and a course so focused on the state of the world, the suffering of people and other living beings, why have we never asked, in class, what theses subjects will make the world a better place? Is that too “political” to ask? Is it “unscientific”? Is it “naive”? No, I do not think so, and I believe I would get many of the lecturers in the course to support me on this. Researchers like Midgley, Hornborg, Tainter and Merchant are clearly driven by what in their perspectives will make the world a better place. I let my political interests and empathy guide my choosing of thesis subject, and maybe many of my colleagues did too, but we never discussed it and talked about it. We never had a seminar where we tried to help and give feedback on each other’s research proposals from the perspective of what would make the world a better place. I think we should have. In other words, good environmental history can be both at the level of the “globe” or at the level of the “atom”, but the important thing is that it is done without loosing the connection with, and relevance for, percieved realities of the people and other living beings who are supposed to benefit from that research. Otherwise you run the risk of doing what I think Ingold did, which is potentially harming the ones he wanted to help.

Power, privilege and history

Power, according to Michel Foucault, is productive. It gets things done. And indeed, in my own thinking about what power really is, this is an important part of my own definition.

Many discussions and seminars in the course has had questions of power as its center. Not that we have discussed in-depth what power, in different situations, really is – how it is manifested – but it has always been there, as a kind of black hole around which our discussions orbit. Hornborg sees power as manifested through inequality in the world system, which enables continued accumulation, which in turn lead to greater power. Jason Moore sees the power of capital as being tied to “the four cheaps” (food, energy, natural resources, labor), and that this power is soon about to come to an end (Moore, 2012). Libby Robin, Gunnel Cederlöf, Mary Midgley and Caroline Merchant focus more on the ideas that lie behind the power of colonialism and oppression rather than the systems of oppression those ideas result in. They also, in different ways, exemplify how many different forms power can take, that is not easy to decipher power structures, especially because “common knowledge” tells a different story (Cederlöf in particular; Cederlöf, 2013). Joseph Tainter points toward how powerless human civilizations are in face of the basic laws (and power) of diminishing return on complexity (Tainter, 1987). And then, finally, there are those lecturers who more focus on the power of the researcher and his/her work, like Sverker Sörlin and Oliver Rackham. Only one lecturer (of the ones I attended or complemented) speaks of current power structures in a positive way, Kristina Persson. I do not believe it a coincident that she is also the only one from outside academia. Persson and her organization is ecomodernist, which really boils down to the belief of the constructive power of human technology, inventiveness, politics and economics as enough to solve the sustainability crises (Global Utmaning, website).

But then, what is power? I believe that those who – by whichever means – can get things done according to their will, who benefit from developments and changes, are in power. Capital is obviously power in a capitalist system, men are obviously powerful in a patriachal culture, and the researcher is clearly powerful in a society that looks to research for the unbiased “truth”. It is the capitalist who with the help of his/her capital get things done (get workers to work, products to be produced, etcetera), it is the man in a patriachal culture who structure the culture in a certain way to suit his wishes, and it is the researcher who has the power to decide what is “truth” and a society which glorify his/her position as truth teller.

Power is productive. And power is thus closely connected with privilege. As some are powerful and privileged, so are others powerless and unpriveleged – those who only or mainly have the possibility to react to patterns of power rather than influence them or benefit from them. But I believe it is important to understand, if one wants to understand power, that the discourses that shape the matrix of power structures in the world are not only fueled by those who are powerful and privileged, but are internalized and reproduced by those who are powerless and unprivileged as well. The classic example is colonial discourses which work not only by the colonialists assuming power, but also by the colonized accepting the discourse of the colonizers as true. Another example is money: money is not actually worth anything, but works because we all agree to “pretend” that they are worth something. The power of money, of capital, is therefore based on all of us buying into the idea of money. The day we don’t, money cease to function as a currency of value. For these reasons it is vital in emancipation movements – seeking to debunk power and free people from opression – to shed away the discourses of the opressors, to remove the opressor’s narratives and replace it with new narratives. It is here that history, as unifying narratives, is vital for emancipation.

History, therefore, belongs to the privileged and powerful. Environmental history could be seen as a respons to the oppression of nature, as a sort of emancipation of the environment from the ignorance and destructiveness of modern humanity (or “man”, in an ecofeminist tint). Sverker Sörlin wrote that nature becomes environment when it is recognized as historical (Sörlin & Warde, 2009). Even though we in the course discussed various power structures at many occations, we rarely discussed our own priviliged position or the power that comes with our discipline. What is “done” with this power, what narratives do we tell and what ramifications do they have? This comes down to an ethical question (again) where our priviliged positions give us the power to shape understandings and narratives, include and exclude, and we ought to think about what we do with this power. I am not suggesting that one, as a master student at Uppsala University, has some sort of godlike powers, but we do live in a society and a time which values academic work as as close as it is possible to get to unbiased truth. Even though there are many academic arguments against regarding research as “truth”, that is still how research is largely viewed among the public. “Biodiversity is a white man’s word” Libby Robin said at her seminar (quoted from Nik Petek’s reflection). What other words that we, as environmental historians, use without much consideration are “white man’s words”? Maybe history in itself, as we think of it, as an academic, formalistic discipline, is a white man’s occupation?


Cederlöf, Gunnel (2013), Founding an Empire on India’s North. Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerse, Polity
Hornborg, Alf (2012), Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World
Glogal utmaning, website:
Ingold, Tim (2000), The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, dwelling and Skill
Midgley, Mary (2001), Science and Poetry
Moore, Jason (2011), “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times: Accumulation & Crisis in the Capitalist World-Ecology”
Moore, Jason (2012), “Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism”
Merchant, Carolyn (1990), The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution
Tainter, Joseph (1987), The Collapse of Complex Societies
Sörlin & Warde (2009), Nature’s End: History and the Environment