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.
Ryan was a Carson fellow in the summer of 2017.
Ryan graduated with a BA in German history from Walla Walla College (Washington State, USA) in 1998, before sojourning in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kamchatka to learn Russian and witness the chaos of the Yeltsin years. He returned to the US and completed his PhD in global history at Columbia University in 2008. His research inspierd an interest in the Pacific and took him to the University of Auckland, where he taught Pacific and environmental history. Ryan began research on the Pacific and history of whaling, working with marine biologists and policymakers. He also began research for his current book project: a global environmental history of Russian and Soviet whaling. He now teaches at the University of Oregon.
How does your research contribute to discussions around solving environmental challenges?
My research tries to give historical depth to understandings of the ocean. A perspective from the humanities allows us to understand just what happened to the oceans; why humans made the choices that they made; how they interact or fail to interact with the oceans in certain ways. What the barriers are to sustainability, what the (international) challenges are.
So there are two things. First, to try to get a deeper sense of oceanic ecosystems, which is particularly difficult and requires interdisciplinary work. But my research also contributes to these discussions more in the realm of the humanities in order to understand emotional, legal, and societal relationships to the oceans.
What are the environmental humanities to you?
The environmental humanities are a way for us, meaning scholars in the humanities, to think holistically and to try to form conversations with people working with entirely different methodologies. I think the environmental humanities is perhaps the most important discipline today, since the most crucial challenges facing humans seems to be in the realm of our relationship with the natural world. This partnership between scientists and humanities scholars seems to me to be where the key work will be done in the next several decades. Trying to figure out how to structure those relationships through the realities of science—the limits to which ecosystems are subject to—but also through the limits and possibilities of human societies. The relationship between the two is crucial.
What change would you like to see in order to achieve a sustainable future?
Concretely, I would like to see the banning of plastic bags. Everywhere I research, coastlines are just clogged with plastic bags. There’s been progress made in some places—surprisingly, the US seems to be ahead of the curve. I lived in New Zealand for a couple of years and there is absolutely no effort to control plastic bags. As a small island nation in the middle of the ocean, it would seem like a particularly crucial problem down there. In Germany, I see the plastic usage is very widespread as well, since we have very little time to control its manufacturing and use. I would like to see a total ban. Of course, there is the same problem associated with single-use paper bags. The ideal would be some kind of long term bags. In the US, you have to pay for your plastic bags during checkout, but within the store you can bag all your vegetables in plastic bags.
What is your favorite piece of environmental literature?
My favorite piece is Warriors of the Rainbow (1979), by Bob Hunter. His account of the founding of Greenpeace where he and his fellow conspirators challenge the Soviet whaling fleet and American nuclear testing. It’s a great look into the way the environmentalist movement came together in the 1970s, with all its incredible optimism—and all of its future problems. You can see the values that they embodied within this countercultural movement. An exceptionally brave and beautifully written book. I recommend it to everyone.
Who (or what) has been a big influence on your work and life, and why?
I will reference another RCC fellow, John McNeill. I took my first environmental history class with him. John taught me, first of all, the kind of unexpected and exciting questions and answers that one can form through environmental history, but also the power of a clearly written sentence stripped of nonsense. That’s something that perhaps John does better than any writer that I know. So I’ve strived—and not always succeeded—in shamelessly copying his writing style in my own.
Where is your favorite place to spend time with nature?
On an Alaskan beach when it’s not raining. Seaweed covers the rocks; sea otters on the shore; birds everywhere, and a huge forest just behind you. It’s an amazing place.