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 22, 2014 at 22:21

Reflection on Sverker Sörlin (2009): Nature’s End

In the following I would like to draw on our discussion on a proper definition of environmental history, a case about the edelweiss in 20th century I cam across and the question of disciplinary limitations in our discipline.

I think today we have had one of the most interesting Current Debates so far – maybe due to the fact that we discussed the meaning of environmental history and the reasons for which it should exist as a discipline. Although we might not agree on one definition I believe that everyone can feel to be part of it and contribute with her or his thesis project. For me Sörlin and Wade hit the nail on the head quite well by describing processes of environing as the objects of analysis for environmental historians. “Environing” implies defining the place of other human or non-human entities in the realm outside the mind and how this shapes human thinking and acting. In other words: it is about the change of meaning that a certain species, climate or landscape has for an individual, group or society (whoever the “environer” is). In this way writing environmental histories can actually be a way of closing the gap between humanities and the social and natural sciences: by elucidating how people have been situating other things around them in the physical world and how this affects their idea of the ideal self, society and world.

This can be exemplified by a short but very fascinating newspaper article I have read only recently, dealing with the protection of the edelweiss in 20th century Switzerland. The edelweiss is a flower which grows in the higher altitudes of the Alps under quite rough conditions. During the early years of alpine tourism, the picking and presenting of an edelweiss became a symbol for the boldness of alpinists who usually had a European higher class background. This meaning of the edelweiss even inspired the Austrian and German Alpine Club to integrate it into their logos (until today). The opening of tourism to other social classes who tried to copy the gestures of the alpinists led to a rising concern about the extinction of the flower. Interestingly it was not the local population who feared its loss but the higher-class alpinists who saw a symbol of their self-image in it (this can be compared the concerns of affluent hunters who fostered the creation of the first natural reserves in former colonies). The following decades mirrored several measures to protect the edelweiss, including even “security patrols” to spots where the flower could be found, educational means and laws that strictly prohibited any removing of the plant.

The newspaper article was not meant to be a short environmental history but in a way it illustrates well a process of environing: a flower obtains a certain meaning for a certain group of people who try to “defend” this meaning in different ways. Moreover, this process is preceded and followed by “typical” social processes: the rise of a higher class in European cities and its need to show its avantgarde position but also the upcoming middle classes who were striving towards the behavior of the higher one. And the edelweiss might even have “agency” in this case, maybe not in a traditional sense but rather through being powerful as a social construction: it makes people behave in different ways depending on the meaning the edelweiss has for them. Following Sverker Sörlin one can also easily describe the point when the flower stopped to be a part of nature and started to become a one of the environment: it was during the very first time when humans assigned a particular meaning to it and thus redefined the place of it in the world around them.

After the discussion and Sverker Sörlin’s lecture I also started to think if my major discipline (political science) determines a stance towards environmental history. For me the most obvious drivers for changes in societies and between societies and the environment are power, discourse and identities, one of the most important concepts in post-structuralist theory. This perspective provides me with certain insights that make the world comprehensible. Thus I will always be in favor of understandings which draw from this world view, and be critical of any other interpretations which are based on other ontological assumptions. If students of very different disciplines continue to be drawn to environmental history, this could mean main that it will always face an interdisciplinary challenge and never be a comprehensive block of knowledge. But it might also be one of the most honest and courageous disciplines if it accepts this multitude of perspective and never grows tired of reflecting and taking this into account.