Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Uses of Environmental History: Sandra Swart

This is the final post in the uses of environmental history series. The series has been adapted from contributions to a roundtable forum published in the first issue of the new Journal for Ecological History, edited by Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History.


“Feral Historians?”

By Sandra Swart

The greatest strength we have as historians—our secret superpower—is the ability to take an apparently immutable existing status quo and show that “it was not always so.” We can look at the present and expose the seemingly “natural order” for just how “unnatural” (how anthropogenically constructed) it really is. For example, gender historians have exploded the static, apparently unchanging, and ostensibly biological dualism between men and women—thereby opening up new ways of understanding the social order. After all, a key value of learning about the past is to defamiliarize the present. To simply know that “it was not always so” is amazingly potent. It can empower humans to challenge the existing order that we are otherwise taught to believe is “natural,” “biological,” “incontrovertible.” If it has changed before, it can be changed further.

Yet if this ability to complicate the seemingly natural is our superpower, it is also our kryptonite. Many historians have been effectively self-silenced in today’s debate over critical environmental issues simply because we do not think or communicate in soundbites. We’re trained to understand nuance, uncover complexity, and eschew partisanship. These are some of our fundamental values as a discipline and I am not suggesting we jettison them—but I do think we leave too much of our research to be interpreted by interlocutors and politicians. Instead, we need to insert ourselves into those public debates. The role of professional historians in the making of public policy is a contested terrain. We need to extend our home ranges and escape the safely domesticated university, where we feel at home and where there’s always a warm fire and a bowl of milk. We must run feral in the wilder public spaces. Continue reading

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Worldview: Taking the Venice Architecture Biennale as an Example

by Jeroen Oomen

This post was first published on 21 November 2016 on the ENHANCE ITN website.

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Drone Impact: Forensic model of a drone explosion, showing that drone rockets are specifically designed to penetrate buildings before explosion and maximize human casualties (main pavilion). Photographs: Jeroen Oomen.

“What is the environmental humanities?” is a question that typically pops up whenever I care to explain that ENHANCE, the doctoral training network I am part of, stands for Environmental Humanities for a Concerned Europe. And in all honesty: I don’t quite know. Nor do my colleagues, nor do our professors. What the environmental humanities is, is much debated and undecided. To some, it is a new discipline of scholarship, it is “seeking to un-discipline and de-institutionalise modes and means of research,” to “sensitively respond to the need for new forms of engagement and expression called forth by the often destructive, at times regenerative, complexities of human-non human entanglements within the anthro/capitalocene.” Others, me among them, would argue that environmental humanities are just humanities disciplines with an environmental focus. And, I might add, they run the risk of finding themselves caught in a web of politically correct and jargonistic terminology. As one of the guests of the Stories of the Anthropocene festival related to me, “we academics often find immensely difficult ways of expressing what (local) people already know.” I suspect that the debate over what environmental humanities is, and what it should do, will continue indefinitely, and will eventually be decided institutionally rather than by consensus. Even among the 12 ENHANCE PhD students there are vast differences of opinion—as it should be, I would be inclined to say. Continue reading


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CfA: Doctoral Program Environment and Society

Call for Candidates: Doctoral Program in Environment and Society at LMU Munich, Germany

The Doctoral Program in Environment and Society invites applications from graduates in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences who wish to research the complex relationships between environment and society within an interdisciplinary setting. Our program is based at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, a joint initiative of LMU Munich and the Deutsches Museum. The Rachel Carson Center is an
international center for research and education in the environmental humanities and social sciences: its mission is to advance research and discussion concerning the interrelationship between humans and nature.

The Rachel Carson Center and its partner institutions ensure that all doctoral students have access to a lively research community of international and interdisciplinary scholars. All doctoral students have a permanent workspace at the RCC or the Deutsches Museum, a program of regular colloquia, workshops, and talks by visiting academics; excellent supervision by members of the academic board; and a sociable and diverse peer group.  Continue reading


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CfA: RCC Researcher in Residence

The Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC) is pleased to announce the creation of one or more Researcher in Residence positions starting at the earliest in January 2017. These positions are designed for postdocs or inter-disciplinary scholars who have a project that falls within the RCC’s research field of Environment and Society.

The Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC) is an international, interdisciplinary center for research and education in the environmental humanities and social sciences. The RCC was founded in 2009 as a joint initiative of Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and the Deutsches Museum, and it is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Researcher in Residence positions will be remunerated for up to nine months; the salary is designed to finance the applicant’s residence at the RCC during this period to work exclusively on the development of the research project and grant application. The position is designed with the procurement of one of the following (or similar) grants in mind:

  • ERC Starting Grants
  • DFG Emmy Noether Independent Junior Research Groups
  • BMBF Junior Research Groups
  • Sofja Kovalevskaja Awards of the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation
  • Volkswagen “Freigeist” Fellowships
  • Major Grants of the Leverhulme Trust
  • DFG Eigene Stelle Grants

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Snapshot: “energie.wenden (energy.transitions)”

Mögliche Illustration energie.wenden_klein

Members of the Deutsches Museum exhibition team test the new energy transition game. Photograph: Deutsches Museum

We need to transition towards more sustainable energy systems! But what is keeping us from making the necessary changes? Technology? Politics? Psychology?

Following the successful exhibition on the Anthropocene, the Deutsches Museum and the RCC are once again teaming up for another large exhibition. This time, the title is “energie.wenden” (energy transitions) and it focuses on the challenges of establishing a sustainable energy supply system. Ranging from industry, mobility, and production to trade and private consumption, the exhibition combines original artefacts with models, demonstrations, and media stations to illuminate the challenges, issues, and controversies surrounding energy systems.

At the heart of the exhibition is a simulation game that allows visitors to create their own personal energy transition. It even comments on their political style! Creating the game has been an exciting endeavor—both for the curators as well as the designers and technicians who need to make sure that it will run smoothly for many months! If the visitors have only half as much fun with the simulator as the exhibition team had during the test run, the game will be a great success!


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Bookshelf: Jens Kersten on Inwastement—Abfall in Umwelt und Gesellschaft

The Inwastement volume arose from the research cluster “Waste and Society” of the RCC together with LMU’s Center for Advanced Studies. Published in German by Transcript, the issue includes contributions from: Soraya Heuss-Aßbichler, Claudia R. Binder, Eveline Dürr, Gisela Grupe, Rüdiger Haum, Michael Jedelhauser, Jens Kersten, Roman Köster, Reinhold Leinfelder, Christof Mauch, Wolfram Mauser, Karen Pittel, Gerhard Rettenberger, Helmuth Trischler, Markus Vogt, and David Wagner. A number of the contributors are also members of the Academic Board of the RCC doctoral program in Environment and Society.

This is a translation of an interview about the book with Jens Kersten.

Can You Explain the Title of the Book? What is Meant by the Term “Inwastement”?

The term inwastement draws our attention to parallels as well as contrasts between waste and money. It emphasizes the social, economic, and ecological agency that waste has in our society. Our inwastement—the waste that we produce individually and as a society—is in many respects the exact opposite of an investment. We invest in businesses and infrastructure as a way of securing our future. Inwastement, by contrast, isn’t something we do deliberately, with the hope for a specific outcome; it is instead an incidental product of our activities. Unlike investments, we don’t want to see what happens to our waste and what effects it has. In fact, we don’t want any return in the case of inwastement—we’d prefer never to see it again, and certainly not with any accrued interest! And yet (unlike an investment) it is almost certain that our inwastement will return again in some form: dumped chemicals, plastic particles, and heavy metals return to the environment and the food chain, eventually building up in our own bodies.

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Making Tracks: Andrea Gaynor

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.

“The Long Path to the Ever-present”

by Andrea Gaynor

In a more romantic life, my love of nature would have begun in early childhood, fostered by hours spent in bushland on the family farm finding delicate flowers, collecting outlandish seed pods, and watching the intricate manoeuvrings of drab caterpillars seeking places to pupate. In fact I grew up in a middle-ring suburb, in a modest, modern house near the edge of a swamp—not so close that we ever saw a tiger snake on the back lawn, but near enough that an old paperbark tree flourished down the bottom of the yard. I would peel its bark into delicate sheets and write secret messages on them. We had ducks with names derived from suburban industrial food culture (Coco and Kellog), and a vegetable patch where I attempted to grow oddities like loofah gourds and okra. Some of my earliest memories of the bush are from a summer walk in the hills east of Perth. It was hot, and it seemed as if everything was trying to prickle or bite me—spiny wattles and hakeas, ants, sticks. I much preferred the familiar and comfortable domestic nature of my back yard.

Later, we moved to a new house built on recently-cleared bushland. Remnants of the previous ecosystem were all around us, from the scorpions in the basement and frogs in the swimming pool, to the bobtail lizards that turned up on our front lawn and the big old jarrah tree framed by my bedroom window. We fed the bobtails snails with strawberry jam, and made cubby houses with grasstree leaf flooring in the bush on the vacant block next door. Here was the bush as domestic nature and I was captivated, even as I was implicated in its suburban destruction.

AG with bobtail

As a child, holding a bobtail. Photograph: Andrea Gaynor.

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