Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

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Book Shelf Special Feature Part 1: National Park Science by Jane Carruthers

Jane at opening of A

We were delighted to welcome Jane Carruthers back to the Rachel Carson Center this autumn. Jane has a longstanding relationship with the RCC; she served on its advisory board for six years, the latter three as its chair, and was a great influence on the center in its formative years. She was made an honorary Carson fellow in 2014 in recognition of her enormous contribution to the work of the center. After all the support the RCC has had from Jane, it was a great pleasure for us to host a celebration of the publication of her latest book National Park Science: A Century of Research in South Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2017) here in Munich.

Jane spoke about her book to staff and students as part of our Tuesday Discussion series, and was joined by two other influential environmental historians, Bernhard Gißibl and Libby Robin, who talked us through the contribution that her book makes to the field. We are pleased to present written versions of the three scholars’ remarks on the new book on Seeing the Woods. A full review of National Park Science by Bernhard Gißibl will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Environment and History, an edited draft of which will be featured here on Seeing the Woods next week.

(*These are edited versions of the talks presented at the Tuesday Discussion. All photos are courtesy of Jane Carruthers.)

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Paradigm Shifts in Environmental Thinking: Autonomous Nature by Carolyn Merchant

by Yan Gao

Carolyn Merchant’s book Autonomous Nature traces paradigmatic shifts in environmental thinking from a long-term perspective. Derived from her ever-enduring interest in and perpetual investigations of chaos and complexity theories, Merchant probes into the roots and evolution of the terms natura naturans (“Nature naturing,” or nature creating, evolving, and changing) and natura naturata (“Nature natured,” or nature as experienced in the everyday world) from ancient times through the Scientific Revolution. In so doing, she argues that we should re-conceptualize the human-nature relationship not as one of order and predictability but as one of unruliness and unpredictability. This beautifully written book not only offers a new way to understand the interdependencies between the human and non-human world, but also provides insights into tangible issues such as climate change and environmental justice in the twenty-first century.

The book has two parts. Part I is entitled “Autonomous Nature,” in which Merchant examines natural disasters and the roots of a dualistic Nature—Nature as an unpredictable, disorderly, ever-changing force and Nature as predictable everyday events—in Greco-Roman philosophy, medieval Christian thought, and the Renaissance. Each of the three chapters in Part I starts with a catastrophe, including the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, a major earthquake in northern Italy in 1348, and the bubonic plague outbreaks of the fourteenth century, and then she proceeds to examine how key philosophers, artists, and writers have conceptualized Nature and how the contemporaries of the catastrophes she explores understood the dialectical relationship between natura naturans and natura naturata. Merchant notes that the economic, technological, and intellectual advances in the period from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance gave rise to human confidence in controlling Nature, which sets the stage for Part II.

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011 by John Martin 1789-1854

John Martin; The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Photographic Rights © Tate (1822, restored 2011), available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence

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Toward a Beautiful Rural Life

by Zhen Wang

Jenny Chio’s book A Landscape of Travel: The Work of Tourism in Rural Ethnic China attracted me because of its connection to my current research project at the Rachel Carson Center. One of the reasons for this is that we share the same research area—southwest China. My own research focuses on the changing landscape of ethnic minority villages in Sichuan Province; Chio’s book tells a story of two ethnic minority villages located in Guangxi and Guizhou provinces respectively. Together, these are three important places in southwest China. Another main reason is that we are both interested in how minority peoples’ living environments and everyday lives have changed and been shaped by the influences which have come from China’s rapid urbanization and economic development during the last nearly four decades. Continue reading


Bookshelf: The Troubled History of Environmentalism

By Bob Wilson


The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation

by Adam Rome

The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000

by Michael Bess

Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images

by Finis Dunaway


Why have Americans been unable or unwilling to address climate change? Given the dire genius of earth day romethreat of global warming, why has it taken so long for a political movement to tackle climate change to emerge in the United States? These are some of the questions that have guided my project at the RCC about the development of the American climate movement, in many ways, an offshoot of the environmental movement. Yet there is another related question: What happened to American environmentalism? A robust, popular environmental movement should have been able to respond to climate change and activists should have been able to pressure their government to take measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cope with the consequences of a warming world. But until recently, that has not happened. Why?

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Bookshelf: “What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?” by Vinciane Despret, translated by Brett Buchanan

In this special “Bookshelf” post for Women in Translation month, RCC fellow Amanda Boetzkes reflects on Vinciane Despret’s recently published What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?

I cannot think of a more appropriate author to consider during Women in Translation month, than Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret, whose work speaks to some of the most pressing issues in the environmental humanities with rigor, force, and even humor. What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? is a compelling account of the terms and conditions under which scientists—from sociobiologists and cognitive psychologists to geneticists and ethologists—interpret animal behavior. More pointedly, it locates the serious gaps in scientific method which cause animal behavior, at the individual and collective level, to be profoundly misunderstood. Yet, it also identifies new forms of questioning that yield surprising insights. Continue reading

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Bookshelf: “Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity” by Timothy Mitchell

By Arnab Dey

Tim Mitchell’s Rule of Experts has remained with me a long time, and continues to be an inspiration for my work and thinking. Focused on twentieth-century Egypt, Mitchell raises foundational questions about the purported globality of themes such as capitalism, cover imagetechnology, politics, ecology, and power. In doing so, the book opens up a range of discussions that are both theoretically rich and empirically grounded. As such, I believe Rule of Experts has much to offer to environmental history, as well as other fields.

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Bookshelf: “Empire of Cotton” by Sven Beckert

By Ernst Langthaler

Among the books that have recently widened and deepened my historical knowledge the most is Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. Drawing on a broad base of research in numerous archives and oncover image a wealth of literature, the author follows the traces of cotton through the last millennia and across continents. He shows that by the first millennium AD, the cotton industry had already become important in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, while Europe still relied on flax and wool for textiles. But from the sixteenth century, European expansion into the rest of the world turned this situation on its head. Through brute force, European powers expropriated land and people in Asia, Africa, and the Americas to establish what Beckert calls “war capitalism.” Under this system, slavery and despotism in the overseas peripheries fueled the British-centered empire of cotton production, distribution, and consumption. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the “war capitalism” pioneered by European states went hand in hand with the emerging “industrial capitalism” organized by enterprises which—after the abolition of slavery—turned to wage labor. In the twentieth century, European states lost dominance in the global empire and the cotton industry shifted textile manufacturing from the Global North to the Global South in order to maximize profits. Continue reading