Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Doktorandentag 2016

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By Anja Rieser and Ivan Vilovic

With topics ranging from earthquakes to the League of Nations, greenhouse gases to photography, in fields as diverse as politics, law, geography, and art, the doctoral students at the Rachel Carson Center are a truly interdisciplinary group. On 7 November they convened for a “Doktorandentag,” a day of presentations and discussions in which six of the doctoral students and two visiting doctoral students (from Tel Aviv and Warsaw respectively) presented their current research projects. It was an opportunity to show the research happening at the Rachel Carson Center, where staff, fellows, and doctoral students were all welcome to come and listen, as well to take part in interesting discussions concerning their projects.

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dsc_0302Legal historian Omer Aloni opened the day with his project “Back to the League of Nations.” In it, he examines the environmental legal activities of the League of Nations between the two world wars. Although it was founded with the aim of promoting peace and settling international conflicts, starting in the 1920s the League showed a surprising degree of interest in the environment, creating and managing relations between nature, people, and communities. Although the League’s legal activity was less successful than hoped, it created the basis for international environmental legislation after the Second World War.

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Continuing the political theme, Catholic theologian Chijioke Francis Nwosu presented his work on present-day Nigeria, looking at questions of sustainability, human ecology, and the maximization of capabilities of “Mma-Ndu” (the human person) in a project entitled “Removing the ‘Structures of Sin’ in Nigerian Polity.” Structures of sin refers to the ways problems are embedded in different social hierarchies and institutions. By considering sustainable development in its social, economic and environmental manifestations, his goal is to offer positive solutions that may find application in the future policies of his country.

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The next set of presentations focused on issues connected with communities and land. Vikas Lakhani presented a case study from his project “Memories, Perceptions, and Learning,” which is interested specifically in how memory of disasters, such as the devastating earthquake in Bhuj in 2001, affects people’s perception of risk. He asks how state and media shape the collective memory of disasters, and how this affects communities differently in the aftermath of disasters. He showed us several examples of state-sponsored memorials and community memorials, and explained how disasters often become embedded in people’s narratives.

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Azeb Worku presented the findings of her research project on “Intricacies of Large-Scale Farming in Ethiopia,” focusing specifically on the Gambela region. From 2006 to 2009, 20 million hectares of land have been acquired by foreign investors for cotton and sesame crops. This has resulted in deforestation to clear areas for farming and resettlement, even though only 5–10 percent of the acquired land is actually used for farming. Azeb questioned whether this foreign investment is land development—i.e., something that helps improve the lives of Ethiopians—or whether it is actually land grabbing, with negative impacts on the affected communities. The people and landscapes of her field research were brought to life through a documentary film produced during her travels.

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From the down-to-earth matter of land, the discussions shifted to airier matters—quite literally. Christina Littlejohn’s project on “What Is Equitable vs. What Is Fair” takes on the project of climate change and climate politics more specifically. She analyzes the microeconomic impacts of wide-scale renewable energy technology development and deployment through international economic policy. A key dispute in international climate negotiations is the issue of equality vs. fairness. Is it fair to expect all countries to participate in the same way and to the same degree regardless of their particular circumstances? And how might different models of emissions trading affect the economies of developing countries?

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Saskia Brill also turned her attention to greenhouse gases with a project titled “Negotiating Air: Cultural Perceptions of Greenhouse Gases.” Focusing on the economic aspects of human-environment relationships, she is researching emission trading in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest Carbon Project. Companies outside Canada are investing in a conservation economy through the purchase of carbon offsets. Saskia takes a closer look at all the actors behind this process to discover more about the stakeholder groups and the (real) effects of this type of economy on the environment.

The Doktorandentag closed on a creative note with two presentations on the role of art in our perceptions of the environment. Noemi Quagliati’s project, “Wildness in the Time of Photography,” examines how the use of photography has changed our perception of the environment and our reality. Her research will combine both theoretical and visual investigations of the representation and conception of nature during the last century. A highlight of the presentation was the inclusion of many great photos from the last century, showing the different interpretations of the relationship between nature and society, including photos by Ansel Adams, Martin Parr, Andreas Gursky, Edward Burtynsky, and Ernst Jünger.

Aleksandra Jach, who was at the RCC for a brief visit, gave us a taste of her project on “Performing Environmental Crisis.” She suggested that a “performativity” approach can give us new insights into many global and environmental crises of our time. Her particular interest is the problems of hidden toxicities. She asked how we can curate art to visualize invisible toxicities, and how these creative approaches can create new and critical visual images and narratives that give people agency to act.

The “Doktorandentag” was a great opportunity for students, staff, and fellows to listen and engage. As doctoral candidate Jeroen Oomen remarked, it showcased an amazing collection of the valuable interdisciplinary research taking place here at the RCC.

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