Five Minutes with a Fellow: Grace Karskens

Five Minutes with a Fellow offers a brief glimpse into what inspires researchers in the environmental humanities. The interviews feature current and former fellows from the Rachel Carson Center.


Grace Karskens is an associate professor of history in the School of Humanities at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Her research interests include urban/environmental humanities, Australian colonial history, and cross-cultural history. Her present project is an environmental history of the Penrith Lakes Scheme and the lost colonial landscape of Castlereagh in Western Sydney.

How does your research contribute to discussions around solving environmental challenges?

I’m interested in the environmental history of cities – they are both the villains and victims of climate change and the fates of billions of people worldwide are bound up with them. So understanding how they interact with the environment and earth systems is vital. But I also think it’s important to look beyond pollution, materials exchange, and so on to what kinds of natures exist in cities, how urban, suburban and peri-urban people relate to nature, and what people’s intimate connections are with places in cities. And if cities are the ultimate hybrid landscapes, where culture really is inseparable from nature, then historians really need to reconnect deep cultural/human history with environmental history and earth systems. This is the approach I’ve taken in my research, writing, and thinking.

But I am also committed to an ethnographic approach to the past – in the sense of ethnography as a methodology for recovering past societies and environments, and how they interacted. This means that I seek first to portray past societies on their own terms, according to the rules of their world, rather than through the lens of current environmental challenges.

What is one change you would like to see happen to achieve a sustainable future?

Developing – or perhaps recovering – a working definition of sustainability would be a good start.   The word has become a bit of a mantra, used in all kinds of different ways to signify different things. It has also been fused with the business-speak of the “triple bottom line” – economic, social, and environmental sustainability. All of these are desirable goals, but this kind of broadening and redefinition leads to confusion about what sustainability actually is, and how we know we are acting sustainably.

Having accessible, well-rounded histories of urban environmental challenges and problems would help link scientific and public discourses. They might in turn overcome the disconnect between people and their environmental impacts, which tends to happen in cities.

But I also think it’s important to recover the history of urban environmental defenders – people who fought for nature and public access, conservation and preservation. In my home city of Sydney we have a long history of this, going back to 1788 – Sydney had some of the world’s first environmental protection regulation. Often the later defenders were ordinary suburban people. Yet most of the literature assumes that urban people have always only been the “spoilers,” and that suburbs in particular breed apathy and selfish individualism. We need to tell the true stories, because in them lies hope.

What is your favorite piece of environmental literature?

I really loved Jenny Price’s “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.” – so sassy and in-your-face, but wise and erudite with it. Price imaginatively explores the different perspectives you can take on urban environments and how nature works in cities.

More generally, the work of Richard White and Bill Cronon on hybrid landscapes was really the key for me to thinking about urban infrastructure, and features like mines, artificial lakes, rivers, farmlands, suburbs, and regenerated bushland.

I’m also interested in lost places and memory. I have never forgotten Don Worster’s words on his vanished Cow Creek in Kansas. He wrote that once the everyday, lived material signs and elements are gone, “so much else tend[s] to vanish…from local memory.”

 Where is your favorite place to spend time with nature?

On my back deck, amidst the tree-tops and the birds, overlooking Brisbane Water. Preferably with a glass of good shiraz.


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