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 23, 2014 at 15:17

Reflection on Sörlin, September 29th by Nisa:

First, an apology to whoever will read this, I feel sorry for you since this reflection has to be the worst one I’ve managed to produced so far. I expected my thought process to be clearer for this seminar’s reflection but after today’s lecture by Sörlin I feel like my thoughts are completely jumbled. During the morning session we were completely preoccupied with the political momentum of historicizing nature that we didn’t even touch upon the methodology of environmental history as Sörlin proposes it. But the two processes are of course connected in the practice of any kind and I will try to connect the two.
Since the leitmotif of our discussion today was the quote that “history fundamentally reflected the preoccupations, interests, and anxieties of the society in which it was written” (Sörlin 2009, p.2); in this context he is referring to Joyce’s quote about history as a nightmare, but he asserts that he agrees with this. It seems clear that the emergence of environmental history as a discipline coincides with the emergence of preoccupation with environmental issues in the 1960s. Sörlin answered that the increasing interest in social issues (probably due to the economic crisis) has as a consequence that social and urban historians are very much interested in combining social and environmental history. His answer basically described both my thesis topic and the anxiety that drives it: the possibilities of classless cities and the viability of socialist urban planning policies.
The topic of environmental history precedes the discipline itself; Sörlin explains that of course there were bodies of thought that already reflect nature in a conscious way, not just as an externality, but as an irreducible reality that is the ultimate “frontier” so to speak but he also warns the reader against environmental determinism. Here I got really interested when he mentioned a few French anti-determinists, since I am quite confused when it comes to understanding human agency in the face of natural possibilites or constraints, since I was trained to think about agency in the binary agency/structure, meaning mostly to think about institutional restraints.
I will not go into the nature to environment transition in the history of ideas, since it’s a topic too broad for this reflection but also because I believe that taking this path is an easy way out. But I am aware that this preoccupation with the environment (and the consequent “abandonment” of nature) is only a transitional phase, a historicizing project among many others. What irks me here is that Sörlin calls for a crossdisciplinary methodology and I agree with him, but what he actually proposes is the opening up of the stale old historians to the methods of hard sciences. Maybe it is the fault of historiography itself that neglected for too long some crucial drivers of change and consequently physical geographers, ecologists and economists filled heir shoes so to speak, that contemporary environmental humanities are dominated by scientist discourses (scientist histories, Anthropocene etc.). I will not pretend to have completely understood Sörlin’s lecture about the “scaling the environment” but if I understood the gist of it, it is that the geo sciences are the disciplines doing the historicizing projects, or in his classification, they are the contributory sciences and I guess historians are left to do the intraactional expertise, basically synthesizing the data into a meaningful narrative. I do not know what to make of this, I was completely overwhelmed yesterday and am still confused today.
The last thing I want to touch upon is Sörlin’s differentiating between the concepts planetary and global; if global is actually a product of globalization as an economic creation of a common reality through the creation of a global market, what does that imply for us being educated in global environmental history? Is the term planetary environmental history perhaps more appropriate? Here I congratulate you dear reader, since you’ve managed to survive through my rambling. Nisa appreciates it.