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Current Themes and Debates in Global Environmental History
1. Mon 3 Feb: Introduction to the course & India and the Environmental History
3. Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange (Hornborg, 2012.)
4. Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History (Rackham, 1996.)
6. Mon 14 April: Landscape, history and ethnicity (Ingold, 2000)
7. Mon 28 April: Revisionist Environmental History in West Africa and the link with Environmental Policy (Fairhead, 2003)
8. Mon 19 May: Nationalism, Conservation and Globalisation: the History of National Parks (Carruthers, 2012)
11. Mon 8 Sep: History, Conservation and politics, the example of Australia (Robin, 1997)
12. Mon 22 Sep: The role of Environmental History (Sörlin, 2008)
13. Mon 6 Oct: Science and Poetry (Midgley, 2001)
16. Mon 17 Nov: The history of Ecology (Radkau, 2013.)
Chaired the eleventh seminar on Libby Robin.
Current Debates helped simultaneously expand and question my understanding of Global Environmental History, but ultimately it made me feel more comfortable with my place in this discipline. In this past year we have met and interacted with notable academics who have all contributed in different ways to Global Environmental History, some with scientific backgrounds, others with political science, history, or philosophy as their main interest. While they did not all directly support each other’s work, what struck me as their shared common ground was their critical analysis of human and nature interactions, and their attempts to build new paradigms. This assignment focuses on the way Current Debates helped me this year, first with my understanding of the field in general and then with my looming thesis writing.
I felt Current Debates mainly served as a way to develop different strategies for approaching research, discussions, and interactions in Global Environmental History. As the seminars all had different focuses and depths, the actual accumulation of ‘facts’ and ‘information’ was inconsistent and not what I considered the main priority. While I learnt interesting things throughout the year, it was mostly broader ideas that I came away with.
While questioning assumptions can be rather basic advice given early on in academia, I found it was not wasted on me to have it explained in different ways, by different academics. Having just ventured into this new world of Global Environmental History, going over some basics from another angle helped develop my foundation. Right off the mark, Gunnel Cederlöf and the seminar on India and imperialism challenged me to look at actors differently. Cederlöf problematized the ‘State’ as an actor in imperial India, deconstructing the existing coherent narrative in colonial history that treats the state as one coherent actor with one set of interests. (Cederlöf, 2013) Following this, Oliver Rackham gave a seminar on his work on Greece, reminding us that even published academics have fallen victim to pseudoscience and to question basic cultural understandings of events, ecology, and history. In Rackham’s case, he felt misinterpretation of data, partly caused by lack of socio-cultural understandings of language and words, confused earlier scholar’s work on the ecology of ancient Greece. (Rackham, 1996) A final example of maneuvering around assumptions can be found with James Fairhead, and the book he coauthored with Melissa Leach, Science, Society and Power. While working in West Africa Fairhead and Leach established that the decolonization of nature had never occurred, thus decades of ‘scientific’ conclusions had been made on a colonial ideological foundation. Just as Rackham described the effects of pseudo-ecology, Fairhead spoke to us about the similar impact of colonial discourses shaping science. While perhaps not extremely radical to consider science subjective, when assumptions are made unaware that they are layered on colonial subjectivity, they lead academics to different discoveries altogether. Fairhead, Rackham, and Cederlöf deconstruct assumptions and in doing so illustrated clearly to me the many assumptions we must be wary of.
While many of the seminars sifted through assumptions and encouraged independent thinking, I was also struck by the interdisciplinary nature of Global Environmental History. While it has been described as interdisciplinary, bearing witness to different scholars, books, articles, and discussions that embodied the interdisciplinary nature of this program helped make it a tangible reality to me. None of the guest lecturers presented any of their research as straight forward, simple, or requiring one set of skills. For the most part we dealt with complexity; from global to local scale, no issue or topic worth discussing existed in one dimension. Incorporating other disciplines, whether through written sources or collaboration with different scholars, helps to justify studying environmental problems at all. I initially thought this collaboration would be difficult if we are required to question all of our assumptions. Not having a background in biology, it would require tremendous effort to sift through possible ‘facts’ and ‘factoids’ that I am relying on in my research. However, being skeptical about this will accomplish nothing, so being able to balance questioning assumptions with trust in other disciplines is essential.
An example of a scholar tackling different levels of complexity can be found with Alf Hornborg. Hornborg discussed complexity by looking at the modern conceptions of technology. While technology can be considered as a flat term or idea, Hornborg deconstructs components behind technological advances, and illustrates that technology is not politically innocent. (Hornborg, 2012) As he stated in his first chapter, “’technology’, ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ are cultural categories that train us to think about socio-ecological realities in particular ways.” (Hornborg, 2012, p.8) This separation of these cultural categories is problematic to Hornborg as it divides entities that he views as being completely intertwined, and allows people to disconnect actions and results occurring in one cultural category from the other. In this case, ecology, economics, and politics, (to name only a few categories) are all required to assess problems of inequality. Being an expert in all these fields simultaneously is not very likely, and cooperation with academics from other fields is most likely needed.
Joakim Radkau also illustrated a manner in which cross-disciplinary efforts could be explored. Radkau brought up time in reference to climate change. He was commenting on the future, and how we are negotiating that outcome. He wrote in his conclusion about Hegel, how “man is essentially here and now.” (Radkau, 2013 p. 429) Nora Bateson brought up a similar line of thought when she problematized the way we look at environmental issues on a linear time scale. (Bateson, lecture dec.8) During her guest lecture, Bateson discussed new ways to consider time. In this case, reinventing time paradigms may involve incorporating new ideas which root themselves in philosophy or physics, for example. Being open to other disciplines’ methods, theories, and outlooks may provide global environmental historians keys to examining events with different lenses, and help push aside deep-rooted assumptions.
Questioning assumptions and the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation are the two main pillars I took away from Current Debates. Interacting with all these scholars who encouraged independent thinking, building new paradigms, and challenging academic expectations helped shape what I now consider to be the field of Global Environmental History. While before the course I had a difficult time grasping the limitations of this field, now I see with imagination there are not many limitations at all, but I understand that as a positive component of Global Environmental History and not as my own inability to grasp a solid definition of it.
In addition to giving me a better footing in Global Environmental History in general, Current Debates helped shape the direction my thesis has gone in thus far. In particular, Libby Robin and her work on biodiversity really influenced how I wanted to tackle the issue of Swedish nature conservation. After reading from Ecology and Empire, I was struck by how the history of power and history of ideas must have interacted in regards to nature conservation in Sweden and what that will reveal. Robin made me want to search for the “biodiversity” in my own area of interest. I am also interested in the idea that “a crisis itself frames its own solutions” and I will now try and apply this lens to my work. (Robin, 1998, p.25) I began to try and reimagine what the issue of the Swedish wolf in Sweden was really about, and I hope this will help defend against assumptions I could make that would weaken my study.
Current Debates also revealed insight into some of the scholars’ academic processes. Cederlöf explained the way her book took shape during the research process, her own expectations, and how matters actually turned out. (Cederlöf, mind and nature lecture) Jane Carruther’s touched on the networking she did in Southern African national parks, which included her journey from an academic anomaly to an expert in the field. (Carruther, mind and nature lecture) Robin told us about the process of creating and editing a volume on environmental humanities, the academics she got in touch with, the collaborations involved, and the satisfaction of finally compiling such a work as Ecology and Empire. (Robin, GEH seminar) Finally, academics such as Mary Midgley, and Nora Bateson illustrated the way knowledge can be produced outside of a university’s realm. Midgley took philosophy beyond the university campus, while Bateson advocated the importance of having avenues beyond the university as research facilities. (Midgely, GEH seminar) Being privileged with a small insight into the academic process and journey of some notable contributors to the environmental humanities helped unveil a somewhat clouded process. While it is impossible to compare one’s self with such veterans in the field, it is comforting to see that they all had different strategies and different routes into this discipline. It does not concretely help me with my thesis writing, yet, it again illuminates the possibilities, and I think that is encouraging.
Bateson, Nora. Mind and Nature guest seminar, Uppsala University, December 8th, 2014.
Carruthers, J, 2012, National Parks, civilisation and globalisation. In: Bernhard Gissibl, Sabine Hohler, Patrick Kupper (Eds) Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective, 256-263. Berghahn Books Ltd. (E book)
Cederlöf, G. 2013. Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity.Oxford University Press Griffiths, T. 1998.
Ecology and Empire: Towards an Australian History of the World in Griffiths, 1998, T & Robin, L (eds) Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, University of Washington Press
Fairhead, J. & Leach, M., 2003. Science, Society and Power: Environmental Knowledge and Policy in West Africa and the Carribean, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hornborg, A. 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World. Routledge.
Midgley, Mary, GEH seminar, Uppsala University, October 6th, 2014.
Rackham, O., 1996. Ecology and pseudo-ecology: the example of ancient Greece. In G. Shipley & J. Salmon, eds. Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity: Environment and Culture. London: Routledge, pp. 16–43.
Radkau, J. 2013. The Age of Ecology. Polity Press
Robin, L., 2011. The rise of the idea of biodiversity: crises , responses and expertise. Quaderni, 76, pp.25–38.
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