Rethinking the Doomsday Machine

European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) Conference. LAST WEEK!  Deadline 7 November 2020 Sandra Swart on how you can and why you should submit a proposal for next year’s ESEH Conference in Bristol

Our earth is abruptly alien to us: we are locked down, locked up and locked out. Right now, our old ways of living have been interrupted, disrupted and ruptured by the COVID-19 outbreak. (It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it).  

It’s life, Jim…

Of course, we are not the first historians to try to understand a plague happening around us: the soldier-historian Thucydides lived through an outbreak too. He – like us – witnessed accompanying outbreaks of the unexpected: authoritarianism, panic, nihilism and religious mania. Perhaps Thucydides’ central observation was that society is a fragile thing. Many of us will be thinking that is not necessarily a bad thing – that maybe this is our chance to rethink our societies and, just maybe, escape the Doomsday Machine.

On one level, we are all in this together. After all, this devastating global pandemic reminds us of our shared entanglement across continents, species, societies, and bodies. Yet the virus hits us differently. We are all on the same planet but we are experiencing radically and divergently altered worlds. So, in thinking about this conference, we draw inspiration from Arundhati Roy: ‘And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.’ 

When we initiated the call for conference presentations we said we ‘want to host a conference for a post-plague world’. Well, maybe we were too hopeful, as we now see subsequent waves of COVID break on socio-political shores the world over. Here we drew from another, more darkly satirical take on the Doomsday Machine… Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. We too have learned ‘to stop worrying’ and embrace hybridity, experimentation and the contingencies of a rapidly changing academic landscape globally. So we are taking a radical step forward as ESEH: offering a completely hybrid conference – both virtual AND face-to-face. 

For the very first time we will offer a conference that is a fusion of face-to-face for those that can come to Bristol and – at the same time – an online option! Our conference will therefore offer some online possibilities for those delegates who cannot make it in person, including livestreams, poster sessions, and opportunities to connect with each other online. Planning a large international conference in these COVID-19 times is a difficult business. While virtual conferencing cannot replace the relationship-building between historians that takes place in the interstitial spaces (during after-hours dinners and drinks), we can now offer virtual sessions comparable to onsite meetings. And, with travel budgets shrinking while ethical travel concerns intensify, virtual conferencing is becoming an integral part of our new world. The wonderful Local Arrangement Committee in Bristol is busy making preparations for this beautiful monster: a conference chimera, a hybrid of the real-life and the virtual. 

This beautiful monster…

So we hope that conference really is pioneering, that it resists a ‘return to normality’. These are extraordinary times and this will be an extraordinary conference. 

To resist the return to normality and to be as inclusive and diverse as we can, we will consider all historical periods, all geographical areas. We are hoping for panels/interventions where the presenters come from different regions, generations, genders, different institutions or different disciplines. We also encourage demographic balance and the use of emergent scholars as facilitators/session chairs. Of course, we are very open to ANY theme in environmental history but it would be wonderful to encourage some of us to engage deeply on two themes in particular:

  • Pandemics – politics, panics and panaceas
  • Resisting the return to normality: what do we historians do about the Doomsday machine? About living in what some of us call the Anthropocene? 

There are some exciting new options – online or face-to-face. We are looking for session suggestions, individual papers, roundtables, posters and other, more experimental or creative sessions. Quite aside from normal panel sessions and roundtables (which are the mainstay of any conference), we call for, among other things (for other options see the CFP):

Thanks to Nancy Cushing, from Australian and NZ EH Network for this image

Posters and Virtual Posters

Don’t forget the prize by The White Horse Press for the best poster (€100 award) and the 2nd place poster (€50 award). Or maybe make a short video in lieu of posters, to enable digital dissemination of research – for ideas see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RwJbhkCA58

‘Flipping the panels’

We turn presentations on their heads! Draft papers pre-circulated. So presenters come to the panel with questions they need answered to improve their research. Instead of just listening to presentations, audience members come with their own questions/suggestions. The panels become real conversations between presenters and the audience in collaborative research efforts. 

Soundclash debates

Soundclashes normally occur when two different bands play against each other on either side of the stage. The conference encourages intellectual frisson by debating opposing points of view over controversial issues (methodology, theory, historiographical model) in environmental history. 

Book lounge

We encourage authors to offer a reading from their recent book. Or perhaps choose the book that most influences you as an environmental historian – put together a panel.

Graduate students get a special reduced fee. There is only a nominal fee for online registration to present and attend. But we HOPE to see you in Bristol!

Questions: Professor Sandra Swart conference@eseh.org

All proposals will be reviewed by the ESEH Program Committee. All proposals should be submitted through our online submission system:


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