The Environmental History of the Pacific World

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).

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Where Have All the Insects Gone?

For many of us, engaging with insects doesn’t extend much beyond swatting away flies and mosquitoes, or calling on bigger and braver friends to deposit unwanted “visitors” outside. And yet, as E.O. Wilson observed, it is we who are the visitors in “a primarily invertebrate world.” In fact, humankind “depends so completely on these little creatures that run the earth.” But recent evidence shows a startling decline in insect numbers, with some insects facing the threat of extinction. This paints a worrying picture given insects’ vital role in ecosystem services, such as decomposing matter, maintaining insect populations, or as a food source for other species.

Our new blog series, “Silent Spring Continued: A World without Insects?,” reflects on the importance of our winged and multi-legged companions, and the bleak prospect of an existence without them. Scholars and practitioners from diverse fields, as well as engaged members of the public, share stories about their connections with insects from a global perspective, rooted in local experiences. Read More

Making Tracks: Lynda Walsh

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.


By Lynda Walsh

I’m not 100 percent positive, but I believe I may be the first rhetorician who has been a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center. This impression was corroborated by the confused squints that frequently greeted me when I introduced myself in the corridors or at a Works-in-Progress meeting: “Rhetoric?” my new colleagues would echo, and their undulating eyebrows added: “What’s that? And what’s it got to do with the environment?”

Good questions. I myself didn’t have the answers to them for a long time, but now I do—in part thanks to my experience at the RCC.

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Bust of Aristotle. Source: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rhetoric—as taught and studied in the US and most of the British Commonwealth—is the art of forming communities with words, images, and other meaningful gestures. I didn’t know it existed as an academic discipline until I was most of the way through my MA in Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. I had some questions related to my thesis—questions about the logical patterns of National Geographic texts—and my advisor said to me, “You should go talk to the rhetoricians next door.” When I did, I discovered that many of my questions about how scientific texts cohered and persuaded their readers had been answered nearly 2,500 years ago by Aristotle, Hermogenes, and other rhetoricians. And so I embarked on the study of the topoi or strategic “places” from which scientific writers discover what they want to say and signal to their audiences to follow them. Read More

Gaza’s Happy Hour? When Late Ottoman Palestine Met the Victorian Drinking Culture

The Taproom is a monthly series that explores the rich history of all things beer. It is curated by Pavla Šimková.


By Dotan Halevy

If we could travel back in time to the town of Gaza in March 1886, we would probably be joining a large crowd gathered on the beach to catch a glimpse of the Troqueer, a grain-carrying steamship—a behemoth of thirteen hundred tons—lying on its side about a mile offshore. After the vessel accidentally entered shallow waters and hit the seabed, the gigantic wreck could be seen slowly sinking for several weeks in the open sea facing Gaza’s shore.

This unexpected event drew my attention to an overlooked aspect of Gaza’s history: beer. Nineteenth-century Gaza did not have a real port or even a natural harbor. As the Troqueer and other visiting steamers may have testified, Gaza was indeed a “port-less” port town. Nevertheless, throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century, this provincial Ottoman town served as one of several suppliers of foreign barley to the beer brewing industry in Britain. The history of the integration of the Middle East into the global economy in the nineteenth century often overlooks such meager towns, where local peasants and merchants grew, produced, and exchanged raw materials. Unlike the cosmopolitan experience of great Mediterranean hubs like Istanbul, Alexandria or Beirut, in small places like Gaza, the outcome of modernity in the age of steam was often economic collapse in the face of the insatiable global demand. Almost overnight, these places were sucked into the global economy and, once they had played their role, were ousted just as quickly. In Gaza’s case, globalization came knocking in the guise of beer and barley. Read More

Retreat to The Greenhouse

Last week, four doctoral students from the ENHANCE Innovative Training Network (Anna Antonova, Vikas Lakhani, Jeroen Oomen, and Eveline de Smalen), made their way to beautiful Stavanger for a writing retreat, where they met up with the ITN coordinator, Roger Norum, and the RCC’s doctoral program coordinator, Katie Ritson. Read More

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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Call for Submissions: Silent Spring Continued  

By Birgit Müller, Sainath Suryanarayanan, Katarzyna Beilin, Susanne Schmitt, Tony Weis, and Serenella Iovino

The recent article by Hallmann and others about a more than 75 percent decline in the biomass of flying insects in Germany over the past 27 years has received considerable media attention and sparked discussion among a number of fellows at the Rachel Carson Center. If such a huge share of the insects in Germany has disappeared, then this is certainly not an isolated phenomenon that is unique to Germany.

This poses many urgent questions: What is the situation like in other countries and regions of the world? What is the impact of this violent narrowing of life, of disappearing insects, on flowers and fruits, on insect-eating birds, and on insects that become “pests” resistant to human-made chemicals? Read More

How New Are the Renewables? Historicizing Energy Transitions

Workshop Report (21–23 February 2018, Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany)

By Odinn Melsted

*All images courtesy of the author

In February of 2018, the Deutsches Museum in Munich, in cooperation with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, hosted the academic workshop “How New Are the Renewables? Historicizing Energy Transitions.” The event was linked to the museum’s special exhibition energie.wenden and convened by Helmuth Trischler, the museum’s director of research, the exhibitions curator Sarah Kellberg, and Patrick Kupper from the University of Innsbruck, who served on the academic advisory board. The exhibition is devoted to current debates and plans for energy transition, focusing mainly (but not exclusively) on the German Energiewende. Set up in an interactive format, it informs the guest about different energy paths that might be taken in the near future and presents an overview of contemporary and historic modes of renewable and nonrenewable energy use. Given that research and scholarly discussion on the history of renewables is quite limited, the workshop’s organizers invited 22 international scholars to discuss how renewables have been used in the past and how contemporary debates on energy transition and renewables can be historicized. Read More

Making Tracks: Charlie Trautmann

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.


“Home at Last”

By Charlie Trautmann

Have you ever received a paperback for Christmas from your mother-in-law that landed you a fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich?

I have.

My journey to the Carson Center was more like an odyssey—long and circuitous. Spending my first three years of life on a farm my grandfather owned in southeastern Massachusetts, with ponds, meadows, rocks, horses, poison ivy, four houses, two sisters, and many cousins, I was steeped in the outdoors from birth. When my parents moved to the north shore of Long Island, New York, the woods behind our house and the waters of Long Island Sound became my new outdoor playgrounds.

When I was eight, my parents purchased an old farm and 75 acres as a summer getaway on the island of Islesboro, five kilometers off the coast of Camden, Maine (featured image, above). With a mile of shoreline, a small collection of boats, and many trees, I fished, rowed, sailed, and built trails. I spent much of my time alone and got to know my natural spaces and the creatures who inhabited them.

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My sisters and I on a lake in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, with peaks known as “Maroon Bells” in the background.

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The Rights of Nature: A Global Movement

Last night, the Carson Center co-sponsored a discussion screening of the documentary The Rights of Nature: A Global Movement at DOK.fest Munich. The screening was followed by a discussion with directors Val Berros, Hal Crimmel, and Isaac Goeckeritz, moderated by Christof Mauch. The documentary is one of the products of a fellowship collaboration and workshop hosted by the Rachel Carson Center. If you missed yesterday’s screening, you have another chance to catch the movie this Friday, 11 May!


For more on the Rights of Nature, check out our RCC Perspectives volume, “Can Nature Have Rights? Legal and Political Insights,” which was co-edited by Berros and Anna Leah Tabios Hillebrecht.

German Beer and the Making of a New China

The Taproom is a monthly series that explores the rich history of all things beer. It is curated by Pavla Šimková.


By Shen Hou

The first commercial filmed in China was a 1947 effort to sell Tsingtao Beer, one of the world’s most famous brands. “Tsingtao” is an older spelling of the name “Qingdao,” the city that is still home to the beer company. Today, Qingdao is a large metropolis of over nine million located on Shandong’s Jiaozhou Bay, facing the Yellow Sea and Pacific Ocean. The film begins with pure water flowing down from the Laoshan mountains and into beer bottles and human bellies. It ends with cheerful and relaxing urban landscapes boasting sea and sunshine. Yet behind this “tonic of nature,” then and now, lies a complicated history of water, plants, soils, fertilizers, pesticides, factories, urban growth, pollution, and waste. Beer is almost too beloved and popular a drink to be subjected to critical scrutiny, but its history can reveal the powerful effects it has wrought on cultures, peoples, and natural environments around the world.

What the film did not remind viewers of was the fact that foreign imperialists from Germany were the ones who created not only a beer but also a city where none had existed before. The film omits that history, but since Qingdao’s founding more than a century ago, it has become proud both of its beer and its German legacy.

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Map of Qingdao ca. 1906. Source: [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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Making Tracks: Chris Cokinos

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.


“Finding How to Say It”

by Chris Cokinos

Intention is a funny thing, especially when it comes to creative work. Intention can become something forced; it can become an attachment to outcome at the expense of actually giving into the work itself. There’s a phrase from Taoist philosophy—wu wei. Wu wei means working without effort. Flow. Read More