Start › Forums › Courses › Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History › September 22: Sverker Sörlin's History is a Nightmare
|September 22, 2014 at 11:23 #14517|
September 22: Sverker Sörlin’s History is a Nightmare
|September 22, 2014 at 20:49 #14532|
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.
|September 22, 2014 at 20:57 #14533|
Reflection by Yongliang Gao
Today we had a platitude discussion about what is environmental history as a discipline and what the appropriate research methods will be, which we had repeatedly argued ever since the commencement of the program but never reach on a consent. But the questions we framed today are really good.Despite the depth and complexity, I think we all agree to a certain extent that environmental history is a broad concept that entails much research effort from multiple perspectives.
Personally, I view environmental history as an interactive relationship between human and nature. What I addressed at the seminar is that most environmental historians tend to highlight the human impact on nature instead of nature’s power on human activities. Like I said, I found the human dominated environmental history has been exaggerated in a lot of prominent environmental history work. One reason to the phenomenon is probably that we as humans always mistrust humanity and morality, which I believe is culturally rooted in the mass media and public propaganda.
For instance, whenever we watch environment related coverage on TV, newspaper or other social media, the conclusions usually fall upon the censure of human activities. Undoubtedly, people have done a lot to nature; we shape and change the earth we dwell in certain ways. But conversely, why there is no criticism on nature? For example, when natural disasters happen, we all reflexively revere Mother Nature rather than blame it for the catastrophic consequences brought to living creatures. Why? In my opinion, this is partially because we factitiously connect the natural disasters with human activities. However, if we are willing to cast away our prejudice and paranoia and scrutinize the nature from scientific angles, we will at least be able to notice that nature is way powerful than we ever estimated and human impact is indeed limited speaking of the interplay of the two.
Take the perpetual notion climate change as an instance. Many are obsessed with the credo that human production has contributed a large part to climate change. But how large is the part never bothers us. But watch this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52Mx0_8YEtg), you will realize that a lot of renown researchers have claimed that human productions have very little impact on climate change, sea-level rising and other environmental changes. Rather, they are enormously resulted from natural events per se, like solar activities, ocean currents and others that are irresistible to people. The questions I’d like to raise here are (1) why we never impose evil humanity on nature and embark on how to protect ourselves as vulnerable animals from omnipotent nature and reduce the nature’s impact on us? (2) Why we keep scolding ourselves of what we’ve done to nature if we consider humans have dominated the nature, supposing no one is certain about whether the domination is legitimate or not?
Apart from that, I have a concern about globalizing environmental history. I think it’s almost impossible to achieve it because environment is unique and exclusive from one place to another and no historian is capable of doing a global environmental history because we all have different cultural and academic background. In this case, how can a historian tells objective story about environment? Even it’s feasible to bring talented historians together, but how is it possible to montage the debris into a integrated, holistic and coherent environmental history?
|September 22, 2014 at 22:21 #14536|
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.
|September 23, 2014 at 10:36 #14543|
Sorlin Reflection: Sept 22.
The introduction chapter by Sverker Sorlin prompted an interesting discussion among us about the field of global environmental history. We have danced around this topic before with similarly confusing conclusions, but I found it rather interesting to go back to the basics again after a year or so of education in this field. With a bit more information we still circled around the key concepts and struggled to find ways to define this discipline that was inclusive and exclusive enough for everyone. I suppose I like this murky side to global environmental history. From my perspective it allows more interdisciplinary exchanges when the outlines are loose, and the interdisciplinary nature of global environmental history is what gives it such potential.
As I stated in lecture a number of times, the quote which I highlighted “history fundamentally reflected the preoccupations, interests, and anxieties of the society in which it was written” (2) helped me give my understandings of the origins of environmental history a new dimension. I find ideas that I implicitly know to be true but have never concretely reflected on myself can sometimes add a helpful concrete perspective to my understandings. While I have never thought of history in precisely this manner, it really does make sense to think of it as such, and helped give me a better way to understand the development of global environmental history in particular. As we discussed in seminar, issues surrounding and dealing with nature are not new to the past 200 years, but this discipline is a baby compared to others. At least now I have reached a comfortable way to understand its development. We will see how long that lasts until I am confronted with some other new information that sends everything spiraling into chaos again.
I also found Sorlin’s discussion of expertise to be an interesting categorization process. I wonder if it will add anything substantial to how I consider education and authority to think along the lines of ‘contributory v. interactional v. beer mat’ . I am curious to find out in any event.
|September 23, 2014 at 13:19 #14549|
I really enjoyed Sorlin’s chapter in Nature’s End and I also very much enjoyed the discussion we had in the morning about the history of environmental history, so thanks to all who participated!
|September 23, 2014 at 15:16 #14554|
Reflection by Yaqi Fu, Sep 22
There are many things we discussed during our seminar about environmental history. The importance and the complexity of environmental history as Sörlin elaborated are of grandeurs. The mission of environmental history, the position of it among other discipline, and the narrative of it are also well explained by him. And we are now living in the building of environmental history.
I find Sörlin’s idea about the relation between nature and environment is interesting. First, He claimed that nature and environment is not the same. Environment can be sustainable or not, while nature is always sustainable. But if his judgment is true, which I hope so, the task of environmental work would be very easy: just follow the hint from nature, and nature will guide human the way of sustainability. Human should follow the example of nature because it’s always a good example. But in that sense, if one thing is always right, before we should admit sustainability is right, always right, and then there is no necessity to do research on the eternal right thing, what we need to do is just follow the example of such rightness. If so, what’s the meaning of environmental history, to show the people’s evilness or to follow the rightness, for environment can be both sustainable or unsustainable, in this case sustainable belonging to nature and the opposite human.
Another thing which confused me about environmental history is his slogan “history is nightmare”, what a nightmare! If an insect’s lifespan is only in the summer, when you speak of ice to it, what you get is only suspicion and scare. So do not speak to a summer’s insect ice. Similarly, when a person did not see any goodness of history, it would be better not talk history with that person, even environmental history. Of course there are wars, empires, powers, monarchies and what more in traditional history, up and down. But one thing that in history, of importance, is that from history we get the respect of our ancestors and get the goodness that we should follow. For example, when I read Virgil’s Aeneid, from the first sentence, I get more sympathy and respect to trek of Latin’s ancestors from Trojan to Roman than the angers of gods’ anger, about war. One may argue: but even if history is nightmare, no problems, because environmental history has a bright future! Alas! One thing, good or not is not depended on the contemporary judgment, but lies in the hands of heirs. What the offspring sees us is like what we see history, the pace of ancestors. Do we want to be a nightmare in the eyes of the age after? Shall we? I may think the nightmare of history is an improper proposition…
In sum, I do not think following the nature’s pace but in sacrifice of our ancestries is some thing good to environmental history, in stead, it should be: following the nature, and following the hints of history.
|September 23, 2014 at 15:17 #14555|
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.
|September 23, 2014 at 19:20 #14558|
Reply to Morag Ramsey by Kristina Berglund
|September 23, 2014 at 20:47 #14559|
Reply to Nisa by Yongliang Gao
First of all, apology accepted, haha. But don’t get me wrong; your reflection is not bad since you are the only writer and reader (nobody takes it seriously including me, haha), so take it like chitchat, no big deal, as long as you have points and ideas to reflect, no matter how clumsy they might look like.
There is no need to feel jumbled because what we discussed at the seminar was basically the political momentum just like you mentioned; but what Sorlin talked in his lecture was mainly the movement and methodology of environmental history as a discipline. Despite there exists some sort of connection between our discussion and Sorlin’s lecture, you are not alone who get confused if you feel hard to ravel it out, because I bet Sorlin himself would also fail in coming up with a proper answer, since this is not a yes-or-no question.
Your thesis topic “the possibilities of classless cities and the viability of socialist urban planning policies” is super chanting to me as it is literally so utopian and I’m wondering how you are gonna proceed it. I hope we can save it to our fika talk.
Besides, I like the saying “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.)” It is absolutely an unspoken truth, but I wonder if historiography envisages those scientific methods, will it still be the same situation or even worse? You know what, last Friday when I chatted with my friend in the city center; an old Swedish man came to us and asked me what do I study at Uppsala University? I said global environmental history. Then he said “you should change to a subject that the society really needs”. I was awkward and tried to convince him that judgment is unnecessarily true, but I didn’t because even if I can list hundreds of reasons to debunk his biased judgment, I can never change the whole society. So just let it be. I would say history or any other disciplines under the Arts faculty would never dominate any Sciences disciplines because that’s just the way it is and that’s how academia is allocated in terms of equipment, funding, and popularity.
This is my reply, see, it’s worse than your reply, and I’m not gonna apologize to you Philosopher Nisa, haha.
|September 23, 2014 at 21:19 #14560|
Reply to Gao’s reflection and Gao’s comment to my reflection 🙂
Ok, you are wrong when you say that no one reads the reflections nor cares about them. I read or at least skim through most of them and am making a portfolio of people’s ideas. I like to steal ideas ha!
|September 23, 2014 at 22:04 #14562|
Reply to Michael-Deflorian
First, nice reflection!
Secondly, you have finally provided me with an example of non-human agency! While I have been basically avoiding the whole concept altogether as I could barely wrap my head around the agency of a rock, you managed to somehow give me an example of non-human agency that finally makes sense. How you described the constructed agency of the edelweiss is something I will try and keep in mind going forward.
Thirdly, I have been humming the song ‘Edelweiss’ to myself since reading your response.
Fourthly, (I am abandoning lists now) I have come to similar conclusions about the interdisciplinary nature of our field. While it is definitely more challenging than staying where we are all comfortable it is bound to push the envelope in ways that are really needed. In fact, I wish that it was feasible to insert interdisciplinary methodology into academia at large. What Sorlin was saying about scientists coming up with fascinating histories struck a chord with me, as there still must be many hidden ways to read and write history and I love the idea of it being unlimited. I think, perhaps, that is the only way to achieve a holistic and consequently honest collection of histories. The reinvention of history is rather exciting to me, especially in unforeseen directions. (Unless those directions are terrible. That will be bad.)
|September 24, 2014 at 10:19 #14566|
Seminar 12: Mon 8 Sep: The role of Environmental History
As a co-editor and also by providing an introductory note to Nature’s end: history and the environment, Sörlin’s arguments indicate his strong passion to ‘revolutionalise’ the old history subject into a sub-discipline that not only integrates humanities with other disciplines especially natural science history but also putting an emphasis on how human actions have affected nature and vice versa in time and space. Sörlin sets his argument that history is a ‘nightmare’ an indication that is not worthwhile to record narratives of humans that are only limited to wars, struggles, welfare states, reforms and revolutions thus ‘constraining human ingenuity and human deeds’ through ‘obsession and nostalgia of the past.’
My conclusion is that while environmental history is still a developing multidisciplinary study, the objective of scholars should be to analyse all factors driving human actions ever since the beginning of evolution. Both recorded and unrecorded evidence for compiling information on environmental history is embedded in the old historical libraries and oral traditional ecological knowledge which has been handed down from generations in some societies. It is thus upon the modern scholar to look at the discipline as a global issue with the goal of finding out means to sustainable living.
|September 24, 2014 at 10:31 #14567|
Rely to Anna from Yaqi Fu
Good reflection and good organization of our seminar! Thank you!
Our seminar is wonderful, letting our reason, understanding, invention, passion and what more make a chorus. The chorus is of environmental history. In this chorus, I see in your reflection, your comment on each work and your show of own vibe. I hope I could get it, or part of it, your vibe that “a broader practice of environmental history” is necessary. The broadness of broadness is actual our environmental history, but to achieve such broadness it’s hard, and even harder to get something beyond broadness. Besides the broadness, there are other dimensionalities which I hope our environmental history can also have the possibilities to reach, for example, simplicity, deepness and delicacy.
As you mentioned, “This introductory chapter was too concerned with Euro-centric examples”, but besides Europe what he can talk about, and talk with responsibilities? Maybe no, maybe it’s hard to know. The Euro-centric view, is grand, vivid, consistent, and of no harm as it be, because it’s the span of knowledge for most European scholars, and maybe North Americans as well. The wisdom of an expert is, knowing what one know, and saying nothing about unknown.
|September 24, 2014 at 11:04 #14568|
Reply to Morag Ramsey’s reflection and comment
Thank you Morag for your honest reflection – I think the more we discuss and get known to each other’s academic selfs through Current Debates, the more this way of reflection can benefit us all.
I agree with you that the open character of environmental history regarding disciplines, themes and discussion is one of its outmost strengths compared to so many other fields of research. And I think we can tie this to the quote you highlighted: “history fundamentally reflected the preoccupations, interests, and anxieties of the society in which it was written” but also Sverker Sörlin’s presentation about new histories of the Anthropocene. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there is an increasing number of scientists who realize that we humans are changing the planet in unprecedented ways AND that environmental history has such an interdisciplinary character (which is sometimes fragmented, sometimes very fruitful) and that. It seems to me that environmental history is the most progressive (sub)discipline of these new histories of the Anthropocene as it is much more careful about ethical assumptions about humans, nature and their relationship. That is why I am always pointing to a changing image of the human which is needed to comprehend the vast development of the last 200 years. You are right in calling environmental history a “baby” compared to the output and societal relevance of other disciplines right now. But at least environmental history can already “say” something (to stay in the picture) about the predicaments we find ourselves – compared to most other disciplines who are suddenly can only mumble about “human nature … technology … we didn’t know better … stupid”. As measured by their explanatory power, I would thus call environmental history a toddler and all other disciplines babies 🙂
And about your comment: I am glad to hear that the edelweiss taught you agency 😉 I must say that I also had troubles with imagining any natural entities with something like agency before I came up with social constructions. In a way it always depends on the meaning that certain “things” have in societies during a certain point of time. If you had asked a peasant in the middle ages if god has agency he would have answered “Of course He does, what do you think?!” and I think the same can be applied to aborigines and the earth or to the Chinese poet about the wind (ask Yaqui). It always strikes me how certain we are about our world view and then still include quite unlogical exceptions. The example with the edelweiss just illustrates that: “it’s only a flower, quite beautiful but it is us humans who are the rational drivers of our destiny and who are mastering all animals and plants.” And then people start patrolling high up in the mountains only to defend one single type of flower against the cravings of others. Ironic, isnt’ it? 🙂
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