Reply To: September 22: Sverker Sörlin's History is a Nightmare

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History September 22: Sverker Sörlin's History is a Nightmare Reply To: September 22: Sverker Sörlin's History is a Nightmare

Author Replies # Posted on September 24, 2014 at 17:54

Reply to all by (with an overweight to Gao. No hard feelings I hope)

Ellen Lindblom on the Sveker Sörlins lecture and seminar 2014-09-21

Hi all! It seems you had a fruitful discussion at yesterday’s seminar. I am sad to have missed out but uplifted by your reflections! It is interesting to read and also daunting, everybody seems so clever!

What is environmental history? When people are asking me what I study I am always a bit bewilder about what to answer. I usually say something like; Environmental history is taking nature and the environment in account as a factor for social change and change society. It is how nature makes impact on human and how human make impact on the nature, an interactional relationship so to speak. Sörlin mention the sentence an “environmental informed histography”. He also talked about a new kind of knowledge circulating between science, humanities and social science. One example for explaining environmental history or the issues it addresses can be the climate, the topic you Gao choose to address. (This totally ignores methodology and otology, which you acknowledge as important Nisa). Climatic events have always affected humankind and it´s societies, just think of big volcanic eruption in history. Sometimes the eruption changed the weather for several years in a row on a whole continent and made impact on peoples life’s with crop failure, diseases spreading etc. Today we see climate change on a large scale implicated by human action, putting ecosystems in roll. We as humans are nowadays in possession of techniques that enhances our own force as species, hence the Anthropocene. For instance pumping up oil and digging up coal in a blink of an eye regarding to earth’s history, oil and coal that has been stored (by natural forces) in the earth for billion years. We are now enhancing certain natural events and make them appear more often or rapid, for instance the melting of the Siberian taiga which starts a process of leaking methane that in its turn is a severe greenhouse gas. There is also phenomenon as El Nino and La Nina that store or releases carbon dioxide in the seas, making the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere more or less high. Forests also store carbon dioxide and depending on season in the northern hemisphere there are more or less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thus implying the human factor in deforestation as something important for climate change. There are several more examples of human-nature interaction in relation to climate change and with human acting as catalyst for certain natural events. I regard humans as self-conscious agents. We can reflect on our behavior even in in larger groups and that differ us from ecosystems – which are not self-conscious agents. Therefore it is naturally we focus on human action, be it individually, in countries or companies, when we acknowledge from scientific knowledge humankind has a part in the rapid climate change. I also think the issue is well debated from all angles. So Gao, to sum it up. I don´t agree with you criticizing the focus on human impact regarding climate change. I agree as scholars we always should and need to reflect on our assumptions and where they are coming from and why they are made. But we are in the humanities and not in science so naturally it will be an overweight or call it focus on human action. Climate change for me is not a just human force, neither a natural one, it is the interaction between these elements which make climate change. There also exist adaptation movements and theories out there for them who don´t think we can solve the climate issue and that it will be a matter of survival in a change world. Maybe you should look in to adaptation theories? (Unfortunately I am not familiar with them so I can´t give any tips.) I think the climate exmple goes hand in hand with the thought Sörlins text draws upon from Hastrup and the study of Iceland, on how to learn to act within and adjust the society to the environment – the “Life world”.

Yaqi you focus amongst other things on the assumption Sörlin does about nature as sustainable and environment not. Two things come to mind; the theory of a natural balance in nature if not intervened with humans, routed in ecology, a heavily criticized theory and the human as a moral agent. Sustainability is a concept coined by a moral agent and as you say we have to approve on that notion. I don´t think we can talk about good or bad regarding nature, as long as we don´t regard nature as a moral and conscious agent. Though we might ask ourselves, what is human if not a part of nature?

Talking about consciousness and self-reflecting agents with changing power (something I hope we have right now as we speak at the UN high quarters in New York, where the world leaders are having a climate meeting). Anna you wrote “… all self-conscious reflections on the so-called environment that have taken place in the past can be studied as environmental history”. The discipline (if we can call it a discipline as interdisciplinary it is) environmental history seems too inherent allot of meta-perspectives and self-reflection, a really healthy sign but also difficult and terrifying at the same time as a scholar. This also connects to Libby Robins ideas of knowing the history of the knowledge. I was quite daunted by Sörlins lecture. How can I ever write a good “environmental history” with all its scales, layers, spatial considerations, methods and theories? At the same time almost everything is permitted as you Morag is touching up on in your reflection. You have a positive way of approaching it and find helpful guiding in some definitions. Me as a sociologist is familiar with all this self-reflection and philosophy, and that everything in a sense is shaped as you view it and sometimes I just feel for action and direct answers because there is a risk you get stuck in navel-gazing and non-fruitful meta-perspectives. I guess a healthy discipline does a little bit of everything, like Sörlin himself said; both are expertise in communicating and in contributional knowledge. Michael you are clearly the interactional type, drawing on others with your pedagogical edelweiss example and Sörlins theories to explain for the greater population. Precisely as Sörlin said that you have to do to say anything at all.

Sörlins thoughts about nature vs. environment I regard as a metaphorical guide to think around and quite a helpful one. Kristina I enjoyed reading your trace of thoughts; if we ever can talk about nature as something existing in reality- isn´t it all environment touched by humans? What would happen if we could decide that nature does not exist anymore, which real practical consequences would it have on how we act and interact? It would be interesting to know!

Nisa I actually thought Sörlins differentiation between the global and the planetary are useful if you instead of talking about economy think of social relations such as trade or cultures interacting over the globe in an intensified way. The planetary is the connected ecosystems on earth as I understand it.

I guess we all agree on that environmental history as a concept is not a concept for narrowing down in one sentence. It is only meaningful to some extent to do that to guide ourselves in the task or explain to others. After that we can leave it, lift the eye and pursue with practical implementations of this scattered discipline as scattered as world history it selves, with no straight line of progress, just everything in different phases back and forth, in constant transition.

Sorry for the climate politics in the middle of it all. Hope I didn´t forget anyone. All the best, Ellen