Sites of Remembering: Landscapes – Lessons – Policies

By Eveline de Smalen

On 27 and 28 April, the Rachel Carson Center hosted Sites of Remembering: Landscapes – Lessons – Policies. This workshop was born of a desire to enable research in the humanities and social sciences to speak to policy and to enhance the position of environmental humanities in contemporary debate outside of academia. In particular, it explored the role of memory studies in formulating public policy in the context of environmental change and natural disasters. RCC doctoral researchers Vikas Lakhani and Eveline de Smalen led the workshop, which brought together 11 scholars and professionals from seven countries. Seven experts from academic and nonacademic backgrounds were invited to share their thoughts, opinions, and ideas. In addition, four early-stage researchers were selected from over 50 applicants to attend and contribute. The workshop organizers intended to produce an EU policy advisory report and an issue of RCC Perspectives (consisting of several papers, combined with a list of lessons for policymakers), with the aim of stimulating a wide debate on the environmental humanities in policy, and the role of memory studies in particular

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The RCC was delighted to welcome landscape specialist Chris Bolton, policy advisor Hans Farjon, political scientist Annette LaRocco, anthropologists Susann Baez Ullberg and Cynthia Browne, geographers Craig Colten and Colin Sutherland, engineer Caroline Fredriksson, historian Giacomo Parrinello, and literary scholar Axel Goodbody. Thanks to twenty-first century technology, anthropologist Edward Simpson was also able to join on Skype. This diverse group was joined by RCC Perspectives managing editor Katie Ritson, the RCC’s Gordon Winder, as well as Anna Antonova and Grit Martinez who chaired two sessions and helped focus the discussion. Also in attendance were several current Carson Fellows and a former RCC visiting scholar, who gave birth to her first child right after the first day of the workshop: one tiny human was clearly very inspired!

Over the course of two sunny days, the participants presented and discussed papers on a range of topics. The papers, which had been circulated in advance, all addressed the question of how we think about landscapes in a changing world, and how these imaginings and remembrances do, do not, should, or should not, lead us to act. Topics ranged from the imagination of the industrial revolution in Great Britain to wildfire management in Canada, and from nature management and landscape planning in Europe to conservation practices in Botswana. The papers were organized into four panels—one focusing on conservation practices, one on narratives, and two on disaster studies—through which participants discussed ways that the social sciences and humanities can use memory studies to engage with contemporary environmental problems, and to bridge the divide between academic disciplines, and between academia and policy.

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The first session started with presentations on the importance of engaging citizens in planning and managing the natural environment in the future, and explored different ways of putting this conviction into practice. This session concluded with a paper that added a layer of complexity to this discussion; it showed how citizen involvement with the environment can be a fraught and complicated process for marginalized groups, but also how it can work to legitimize these groups. The second and third sessions focused on case studies that all involved disasters, and these papers all reflected on the reverse side of the memory coin: that of forgetting. Just as we had come to understand memory as a complex system in the first session, forgetting also turned out to be a highly debatable topic. Forgetting occurs in many different ways: it can be led by the community, by commercial entities, or by government, and may serve many different purposes, from personal healing to financial gain. It can be the result of an active or passive process. When it comes to governing landscapes and environments, it is thus vital to pay attention to the different ways events are remembered and forgotten, and to understand the implications this has for the future of local communities. The workshop concluded with the fourth session, on narratives, which comprised two papers that explored the ability of the arts to convey the multiplicity and contradictions of memory, as well as the often surprising perspectives it can deliver.

Together, the workshop participants assessed the question of what is at stake when memory finds its way into policy. Thanks to their wide range of backgrounds, they were able to question memory practices, as well as discuss novel approaches to understand them and translate them into practical applications. The organizers hope that the discussions initiated in the workshop will carry on in the time to come, especially after the publication of the Perspectives issue which will bring the findings of the workshop together. Their aim is for their efforts to contribute to an understanding of the entanglements of the human imagination and the environment, and ultimately help to indicate how this understanding can improve policy. The participants are currently working on their essays for the upcoming issue of RCC Perspectives. Keep an eye on the Environment and Society Portal and ENHANCE ITN website to read all about the results in a few months’ time.

This project was organized thanks to generous funding by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie ENHANCE ITN (Grant Agreement number: 642935 — ENHANCE — H2020-MSCA-ITN-2014)

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