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 20:49

Reflection Sverker Sörlin 22/9 Kristina Berglund

I found today’s session rewarding and helpful, especially our morning discussion, when we talked about environmental history – different perspectives and how to describe and use it. Even though all previous current debates sessions have been on environmental history I think it was useful to spend this seminar to reflect on what environmental history is/what we want it to be, and also to be reminded of the origins of the discipline. I saw Sörlin’s introductory chapter as a broad but well written overview of what environmental history is, and how we can think about historicizing nature.

One quote I took with me from his chapter was around environmental history and its significance: “Environmental history is meaningful because it seeks to provide the history that can tell us how we arrived here and what we need to know to handle our global environmental predicament” (2). This is close to my own definition of the discipline, even though it of course can be described with many additional aspects as well, such as the interpretation of landscapes and their dynamics and the analyzing of human-nature interactions. However, at the same time Sörlin argues that “history is not what the past forces us to do in the future” (18) and that sustainability thus is a decision, not a destiny (18). I think his distinction between nature and environment comes in to place here, where environment is described as a human product whereas nature is not. The environment therefore has the opportunity to be sustainable or unsustainable depending on our choices as humans. As Sörlin wrote, nature in itself cannot be unsustainable (4). Nature becomes environment when it is being recognized as historical. I understood this though as a conceptual and philosophical distinction and less as a physical one. I think this is an reasonable distinction, but the question then is whether nature exists at all, since extremely few areas in the world are ‘untouched’ by humans, and that what may seem to be a wild nature in reality is transformed and utilized by humans during the course of history.

I also find it interesting to learn more about the origins of environmental history, another theme I thought was central in Sörlin’s work. Sörlin’s argument seems to be that a modern history of the environment can be traced back to the mid 19th century when ‘environment’ as a concept first began to appear with scholars such as Herbert Spencer. There are many pioneering work in environmental history done under other disciplines, such as Fernand Braudel’s ‘Mediterranean’ in the late 1940’s and Clerence Glacken’s ‘Trances on the Rhodian Shore’ in the 1960’s. These and many other works seem to be of great importance for global environmental history but it is first during recent years that they actually have been categorized under a separate discipline called global environmental history. Sörlin argued that ‘environment’ as a concept more distinctly appeared first after WW2 and that environmental history emerged as an institutionalized university discipline around the 1970’s.

Nevertheless, I think Sörlin raised an important point when saying that the origins of environmental history cannot be seen as a linear chronology, “but rather a constant growing set of historicizing projects, emerging from different fields of social and political discourse” (7). Thus, global environmental history is, and should be, interdisciplinary and integrate ideas and perspectives from a wide range of fields. Environmental history has long before us been practiced by scholars of various disciplines and environmental thought has even longer been part of human lives, just not under the same concept as today. I think and hope global environmental history will continue to expand and gain even more recognition in academia as well as outside.