Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Riches of Nature, Limits of Nature

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“Riches of Nature, Limits of Nature: Donald Worster and Environmental History”

Report on an International Conference (Beijing, China, June 26-28, 2016)

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In June of 2016, the Center for Ecological History (CEH) along with the School of History at Renmin University of China, hosted an academic conference honoring environmental history’s doyen Donald Worster (RCC alumnus). The theme was “Riches of Nature, Limits of Nature: Donald Worster and Environmental History.” Inspired by the publication of his latest book entitled Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance (Oxford UP, 2016), the CEH invited more than two dozen environmental historians (among them were many of Worster’s former graduate students) from all over the world to thank him for his stimulating example and to present him with the long-term effects of his writings and teaching. More than 60 Chinese scholars also participated in the conference. All together, there were 10 Carson alumni (Fei Sheng, Shen Hou, Xueqin Mei, Donald Worster, Mingfang Xia, and Frank Zelko), forthcoming fellows (Mu Cao and Lisa Brady), and staff and graduates (Agnes Kneitz, Xiaohui Liu, and Christof Mauch).

New Picture (2)

The conference started with a slide show presentation prepared by Professor Hou Shen and colleagues of the School of History that recorded some moments and pictures of Don’s life and career, the books and words written by him, the family and friends beloved by him, and the ideas and works inspired by him.  It also traced his ventures into a different civilization, the natural and intellectual landscapes on his own Silk Road.

After the PowerPoint presentation, director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Prof. Christof Mauch delivered the keynote speech, “How Vulnerable Is Our World?: Environmental Sustainability and Slow Hope for the Future.” In this speech, he challenged the audience with growing evidence of global environmental vulnerability and suggested how to frame that depressing news with new narratives of “slow hope” to build a common planetary future.

Over the next two days, various sessions discussed research trends in environmental history, highlighting Don’s inspiration in different directions. Contributions ranged from the current state and future of the field to the relationship between nature and capitalism; from the history of environmentalism to immigration and empire construction; from urban environmental history to such material subjects as sewage, manure, water, and energy; and from the history of ideas to the history of war. All of the papers revealed how the work of Worster has extended the discipline’s influence and creativity within both US and Chinese historical scholarship. Many of the papers will appear in a Festschrift volume being edited by Mark Hersey and Theodore Steinberg.

On the last day’s round table discussion, participants focused on the definition, approaches, and potentials of “planetary history”—a phrase introduced by Worster in his 1988 article “Doing Environmental History.” In it, he had suggested, nearly thirty years ago, a more comprehensive, ecological way of doing world history—including all organic and non-organic entities on the planet—and emphasizing their interaction in shaping history. Concluding papers were delivered by the CEH’s director Xia Mingfang, and the University of Wisconsin’s William Cronon, which brilliantly assessed the new perspective on history and analyzed Worster’s contributions and achievements.

The conference showcased the global spread and impact of environmental history through many individuals and their far flung networks, as well as the partnership between the Rachel Carson Center and the Center for Ecological History. This conference was made possible by the international office and the China Academic Network (ChAN) of LMU.

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