Natures In Between – First Virtual Edition of Environment and History

It is only 4 weeks until the 2017 ESEH conference in Zagreb begins. We have just launched a free-to-download special virtual edition of Environment and History to reflect the conference’s theme of ‘Natures In Between’. Here, in a piece that also appears in the virtual edition, Marco Armiero, chair of the conference’s Programme Committee, reflects on process of putting together the programme and how the theme relates to the evolving discipline of environmental history. See you in Zagreb!

 

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It is a privilege to serve as the chair of the programme committee for a major international conference. This is a job which can give a proper sense of the directions the discipline is embracing. With some conceit, one might even think that it can offer the opportunity not just to understand but to contribute to shaping the field.

With more than 400 submissions, the 2017 European Society for Environmental History Conference in Zagreb is already a success. The number of submissions illuminates the good health of our field in Europe and worldwide. Hence, where is environmental history going? An obvious answer is that we are going to Zagreb and, I would argue, this is not only a geographical destination. For a long time environmental history has been an Anglo-Saxon business. Indeed, despite the precocious intuitions of the French historiography, as a self-conscious field environmental history found its home especially in the Anglo-Saxon world both at global level – its considerable success in the United States – and at continental level. However, the diffusion of a discipline does not occur only as a spontaneous spread of seeds or spores; the European Society for Environmental History has deliberately fostered an inclusive policy aiming to see all continental regions involved in its activities. The Zagreb conference goes precisely in that direction. What does it imply to expand the environmental history field beyond the Anglo-Saxon world, or, we could also say, beyond the centre-north European barycentre? The first and perhaps most obvious consideration is that Eastern Europe brings a different story of post-war continental development. An environmental history of Europe has to deal with a continent split in two by the Iron Curtain, with two different economic and political systems but also with two divergent narratives embedded in landscapes and bodies. Too often Europe has been reduced to a narrow portion of itself, erasing the multiple socioecologies which make the variegated puzzle of our common history. Indeed, this diversity will traverse the ESEH conference in Zagreb, with a significant presence of papers on Eastern Europe. Since its inception, the community of European environmental historians has had to deal with the twofold challenge of a plurality of languages – something which did not affect our North American counterpart even in its transnational effort between the US and Canada – and of national contexts, with their legacies of laws, institutions and cultures. I believe this is still a relevant issue; obviously it forces most of us to express ourselves in a foreign, imperial language which sometimes seems to be dictating not only rhetorical constructs and mysterious sounds but also conceptual tools and scholarly hierarchies. The inclusion of a more complex geography is a remarkable result, but it can still led to a compartmentalised pluralism; staying in the metaphor of the puzzle, the pieces do show a unified image but each of them might still be almost independent. Including panels on regions that have been long neglected is a remarkable achievement; overcoming geographical compartmentalisation is – I believe – the next step. Just as one example, rather than hosting a panel on urban environmental history in a specific region, I would like to see panels in which histories from different contexts can meet, looking for connections as well as divergences. Although with no intention to diminish the relevance of presenting a paper and discussing with peers, I would also argue that a conference does not exhaust its functions in the few days of the event. Building a panel, connecting with scholars working on similar themes, and hopefully thinking on how to collectively develop the results of that interaction are all parts of what I would call the conference infrastructure, which – I believe – expands far beyond the venue, rooms and the PowerPoint projectors. ‘Natures in Between’ means also this: exploring relationships, connections and disjunctions which can transform a potentially infinite collection of case studies into a meaningful puzzle.

In terms of themes, it is a gigantic task doomed to almost certain failure to attempt an exhaustive summary of the topics of the 2017 ESEH conference. Most likely I will simplify, omitting something and misreading some proposals – after all, I am making my assumptions on the basis of short abstracts and titles. Thereby, better to dismiss immediately any claim of exhaustiveness and declare openly that what follows are only the very personal impressions and some unsolved dreams of the chair of a programme committee.

Building upon a quick reading of our programme, I would argue that there are a few themes which more clearly stick in our minds. It is interesting to notice that in several instances those themes are actually the same as those addressed in this special issue. This is the case with the ‘war and the environment’ theme, which is at the core of Peter Coates’ article as well as being one of the main threads of the 2017 conference, with at least six panels explicitly dedicated to this topic. I would not say that this is a new path for our field; from mid-1990s that Ed Russell started pointing in that direction,[1] while Richard Tucker’s untiring organisational effort has been instrumental in bridging between military and environmental history.[2] I wish to believe that the relevance of war in our scholarship is also the result of an engaged attitude that pushes all of us to address the challenges of these worrying times. Environmental history was born with the ambition to be part of a broader societal mobilisation; since its very beginning it was haunted by the classic critique which opposes advocacy and scientific work, and, I would dare to say, political engagement and rigorous scholarship.[3] Personally, I have always believed that a good scholar is not a neutral one, but someone who interrogates – though not manipulates – the sources with a point of view, a thesis to test, a research question coming from her standpoint. Its finally attained academic recognition –although not everywhere, I must add – should not drive environmental history in a quiet and irrelevant academic corner.[4] In that same direction goes our decision as programme committee to reserve a special place in the conference for a discussion on the environment and migration nexus, dedicating the plenary roundtable to that theme. Although definitely connected with the invasive species topic as well as with the histories of colonial settlements, both present in this virtual special issue, I do believe that the environmental history of migrations is still quite absent in our field. In this respect, the 2017 conference is accomplishing a twofold aim: on one hand, we are suggesting an expansion of our research agenda towards a neglected theme; on the other, we are fostering the public – can I say political? – commitment of our discipline with the big challenges of the present. In a time when fences are erected again and the freedom of movement is insured only for goods and capitals, but not for women and men, we could not hold our conference in the Balkans without pointing at the so-called migration crisis (actually, I would argue that there is a poverty and war crisis, maybe a xenophobic and racist crisis, but no migration crisis). The plenary roundtable is dedicated to Trespassing. Environmental History and the Challenges of Migrations. Trespassing is proposed here as a metaphor for the liberating practices of going beyond the usual borders – disciplinary, national and even species-like – and challenging any authority. After all, every revolution, every radical change, must pass across the borders of what was not allowed to happen, or even to exist. Apart from the plenary roundtable, organised by the programme committee, migration is still a marginal topic in our conference – and the present virtual issue mirrors this situation. A simple search in the programme can confirm that impression: one can test how many times the words ‘forest’ or ‘city’ appear in comparison with ‘migration’. One might wish that things will change in the near future, not in the sense of inverting the proportions – what is wrong in having engaging panels on forests and cities? – but actually adding more and new research themes, including migrations and many other relevant topics which still deserve more attention.

Together with wars, forests and cities, animals are another recurring theme in the Zagreb conference. Looking at the programmes of the previous ESEH conferences, it is clear that animals have not always been so present in our research. I would argue that the relevance of animals in the Zagreb conference might be related to the growing debate on agency in environmental history and in what I would define as a post-human turn in the humanities. However, while our discussion on agency has been more developed, it seems to me that the post-human/more than human turn is still rather under-addressed in environmental history – we have only one experimental panel contemplating multispecies ethnography. This might be somehow related to a surprisingly weak connection between environmental history and environmental humanities; of course, one can claim that there is no connection because there is identity, but I would not be convinced by such an argument. Environmental history is a founding pillar of the environmental humanities but the two do not coincide. In order to be relevant in shaping this growing field, environmental historians should engage with the challenges of an interdisciplinary arena, navigating the same kind of problems raised in this special issue by Pawson and Dovers. By only analysing the programme, it is difficult to rate the level of interdisciplinarity that will materialise in Zagreb. It is a fact that the conference has been organised by our colleagues in a geography department, signalling clearly that environmental history is not the private property of historians. I would have wished to have more contributions explicitly from non-historians, or, even better, panels, roundtables and papers reflecting on the possibilities to work across disciplinary fields. I realise there is a tension between different visions for the discipline. For someone, flexibility and inclusiveness have transformed environmental history in a nomadic tent, so large and permeable that everything and everybody can claim to be part of it. As Mark Hersey has suggested, this can weaken the heuristic power of the discipline, leaving us without any specific methodological and theoretical tool which can constitute our contribution to history in general.[5] Although I do find this argument valuable and agree that it is extremely important to reflect on the methodological contributions of our field, I still believe that the tent metaphor is actually wonderful. It gives the impression of a mobile community, it evokes the tradition of hospitality – something so much needed in the desert of current academic specialization; it is, obviously, weaker than a mansion or a fortress, but it is more adaptable and manageable. Perhaps, my point is that we no longer need the kind of disciplines we have been trained into and using for so long. Facing the current multifaceted crises, or we might say the Capitalocene,[6] which are the knowledges we need? Is the inter/multi/transdisciplinary approach still a doable option? It is not by a chance that since 2015 a collective of political ecologists, of which I am part, has started proposing the idea of undisciplining disciplines.[7] The bottom line is the rather modest result of multi/trans/inter disciplinarity – something that everybody who has been on the job market should know very well – and consequently the need to address the inherent limitations of our disciplinary way of organising not only university life, but our understanding of the world. Undisciplining means breaking free from the usual frames, experimenting while openly challenging the ‘rules’ of what has been formalized as the disciplined canon. Our political ecology collective held an international conference in Stockholm in 2015 entitled Undisciplined Environments, which gathered five hundred participants from all over the world and from any kind of background.[8] We had an artistic stream in the conference, with people performing, reading poems or exhibiting their visual works; an activist forum; and we invited an indigenous leader as one of our keynote speakers.

As chair of the ESEH conference I have tried to bring in some of these undisciplining options. I am happy to see that we will have a few experimental sessions in Zagreb and I truly hope we will develop more of this in the future. We will also host a two-day movie session, which might stimulate a debate not only on the themes of the films but also on the challenges and opportunities to think of engaging with peers and public beyond the text.

The truth is that I love trespassing, challenging the ordering of borders and people, exploring new paths and pushing the rules. I would not be content with a well-established discipline, safe behind impenetrable fortifications. Just to stay in the military metaphor, I prefer a guerrilla approach; I would like to see environmental historians not entrenched in a fortress but so blended into the landscape that it would be difficult to distinguish us from the rest. To paraphrase a famous image, we can strive to become a bigger and more fearsome fish in the ocean, or, instead, towards becoming the ocean, entering everywhere and continuously changing to the shapes of land and the light of the sun.

[1] Edmund P. Russell, ‘“Speaking of Annihilation”: Mobilizing for War Against Human and Insect Enemies, 1914-1945’. The Journal of American History 82 (4) (1996): 1505-1529. A few years later Russell published his volume War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[2] Richard Tucker has been instrumental in building the Environment and War Network (http://environmentandwar.com/), as well as in organising events and collective publications on this theme.

[3] This issue is present in almost all the interviews with the founding figures of the field published by Environmental History. See http://environmentalhistory.net/interviews/.

[4] I have already elaborated on this matter in ‘Environmental History between Institutionalization and Revolution: A Short Commentary with Two Sites and One Experiment’, in Environmental Humanities. Voices from the Anthropocene eds Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).

[5] I thank Mark Hersey for having shared with me his concerns. I also refer here to his intervention at the panel ‘State of the Field: Environmental History’ organised by Lisa Brady for the 2015 Organization of the American Historians in St. Louis. See Lisa Brady, ‘Has Environmental history lost its way’, published online at http://www.processhistory.org/has-environmental-history-lost-its-way/

[6] I am employing here Jason Moore’s counter-definition of the Anthropocene.

[7] I am referring here to the European network of political ecology – Entitle (http://www.politicalecology.eu/).

[8] The website of the conference is http://www.ces.uc.pt/undisciplined-environments/


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