The Environmental History of the Pacific World

Conference report (24–26 May 2018, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China)

by Shen HOU

(all photos courtesy of the author)

The Pacific Ocean is the outcome of plate tectonic movement and one of the largest eco-regions on earth. It was explored by ancient navigators, and people dispersed to all of the ocean’s shores during early waves of migration, penetrating as far into the center as Hawaii. Since it was discovered as a whole and mapped at a global scale in the sixteenth century, it has become a place of increasing human-nature interaction—through international trade, warfare, cultural exchange, and resource extraction. The conference “The Environmental History of the Pacific World” (24–26 May 2018, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China) brought together more than 30 scholars from 10 different countries to Guangzhou, a city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The conference aimed to integrate the Pacific Ocean more fully into the discourse of environmental historians and to stimulate further research on the environmental history of the Pacific World. It was organized and sponsored by Sun Yat-sen University, the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich, Germany, and the Center for Ecological History, Renmin University, Beijing, China. It was convened by FEI Sheng (Sun Yat-sen University), Shen HOU (Renmin University), Christof MAUCH (director of the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich), Donald Worster (University of Kansas, USA, and Renmin University), XIA Mingfang (director of the Center for Ecological History, Renmin University), and XIE Shi (Sun Yat-sen University).


Proceedings began on the afternoon of 24 May, with welcoming remarks by SONG Shanping (vice-president of Sun Yat-sen University), Christof MAUCH, and XIA Mingfang. Participants then gathered for a group photo, before John MCNEILL’s keynote speech, “Pacific Environmental History: Pasts and Prospects.” McNeill gave an overview of the historical development of the Pacific region, focusing on how environmental factors had impacted human activities and vice versa. He also addressed early settlements and migration, which created indigenous ecologies that were then disrupted by European colonization and the creation of modern global markets, as well as species invasion in the Pan-Pacific region, particularly through the eggs and larvae of marine organisms that cross the ocean in the water in ships’ ballast tanks. He looked forward to the further discussions of Pacific environmental history that would follow in the rest of the conference, as the region offered strong prospects for research, particularly interdisciplinary research.

Convener FEI Sheng (deputy head of the department of history and deputy director of the Center for Oceanian Studies at Sun Yat-sen University) also addressed the attendees. After enjoying the excellent hospitality provided by Sun Yat-sen University, guests were invited to a roundtable discussion in the university library. During the discussion, Poul HOLM, Shen HOU, Christof MAUCH, John MCNEILL, and Donald WORSTER spoke about the origin of their respective interest in environmental history, as well as the impact of environmental history on people’s daily lives. The discussion also identified some of the key challenges for environmental history research, and some directions and methods that environmental historians could explore in future—for example, the potential of using data from the natural sciences, which can provide more information about historical environmental changes than literary or archival sources, or the turn towards studying the relationship between marine resources and human society.


Both 25 May and the morning of 26 May were dedicated to group discussions. The organizers had grouped the conference papers by field and by theme. In the first session, “Mapping the Great Ocean,” Dmitri and Irina GOUZÉVITCH, Ryan JONES, Lisa YOSHIKAWA, Christine LUK, and Ashanti SHIH analyzed the process by which environmental element exchange networks were formed in different regions of the Pacific, and the characteristics of these networks. The papers drew on the perspectives of animal migration, colonial exploration, and the dissemination of knowledge about environmental science. In the second session, “Ways of Knowing the Land and Sea,” LO Ka Fei, QIAO Yu, LIU Xiaohui, and Kate STEVENS discussed the Western Pacific region from the perspective of fishery production and trans-ocean farming experiences, as well as ecological changes in the South Pacific. The final session on 25 May was “Fishing in a World of Limits,” in which Ingo HEIDBRINK, LIU Hongtao, Miles POWELL, and Robert WINSTANLEY-CHESTERS analyzed the history of offshore fishing and its environmental consequences, as well as exploring international measures taken in response to these environmental problems. The next day, WANG Hua, Gary KROLL, and Lawrence KESSLER explored the possible threats to the fragile natural environment of the Pacific Ocean from the perspective of trade and maritime military competition, in the final panel “Competing for Resources in War and Peace.” In addition to the consistently interesting contributions from the speakers, the panel chairs and paper discussants did an excellent job of stimulating and moderating the conversation across the two days.

Finally, Poul HOLM wrapped up the formal part of the conference with his concluding remarks, “Reflections on Asia-Pacific Fisheries and Aquaculture: Conference Insights and Some Pointers for the Future.” He welcomed the achievements of this conference and urged that the study of marine environmental history, including polar history, be strengthened further, suggesting that oceans will become a new focus of environmental history research. The conference concluded with a visit to a regional history museum.


Overall, the conference demonstrated the dynamic frontiers of international environmental history research, and provided new perspectives on the environmental issues facing global society. It is hoped that international collaboration, such as that demonstrated at the conference, can help build the intellectual tools needed to address humanity’s common environmental challenges.

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