Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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The Uses of Environmental History: John R. McNeill

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the uses of environmental history. 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 the Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History.


 “As Useful as We Want to Be”

By John R. McNeill

Environmental or ecological historians do not “need to become more useful and practical” in anything. They should feel free to be useless as regards global problems if they wish. If their motives for engaging in environmental history are nothing loftier than curiosity, that is no sin.  The great majority of historical work, like the great majority of work in general, makes little to no contribution to addressing global problems. Just because environmental historians work with the environment, and the environment is the locus of some global problems, does not create any special obligation for environmental historians. Historians of slavery do not need to become more useful and practical in addressing human trafficking, just as labor historians do not need to become more useful and practical in addressing mass unemployment.

Indeed, for some environmental or ecological historians, it would require considerable retooling to be able to become more useful in addressing current global problems. Those whose expertise  focuses on the depiction of nature in late medieval Spanish texts or water management in the Chola kingdom[1] probably have no better basis for addressing such global problems as climate change or biodiversity loss as the average citizen. But that should not mean that their topics are illegitimate because they are not deemed “useful.” Usefulness in the context of today’s problems should not be a requirement for historians. If it were, very little history, even environmental history, would be justifiable. Continue reading


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Snapshot: Do You Speak Envhist?

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Should professional historians maintain their independence and objectivity as researchers, or should they address the social use of their field? Are there fundamental conflicts between the two? Do environmental or ecological historians need to become more useful and practical in addressing such global problems as climate change, intensified food production, and biodiversity loss? If so, how and to what extent? What significant insights can our study of the past offer?

These questions formed the foundation of a roundtable forum published in the first issue of the new Journal for Ecological History, edited by Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History. Our new blog series on “The Uses of Environmental History,” which launches later this week, has been adapted from the pieces presented there. Together, these contributions demarcate the evolution of environmental history over the last four decades and project a broader outlook for its future.

Stay tuned!

 


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Making Tracks: Paul Sutter

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 Paul Sutter

There was nothing about my childhood that inclined me towards the environmental humanities—except, perhaps, the entire context in which I grew up. As a product of the Long Island suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, I came of age in the sweet spot of an American environmentalist upswing, among people who had escaped the city for the environmental amenities of the suburbs—or at least among those whose wealth and skin color had afforded them that ability. I did not experience the violent cutting edge of suburbanization, the large-scale mass grading that erased the rural past of so much of the nation’s urban fringe. My hometown—Garden City, New York—was one of the oldest suburban developments built in the United States, the post-Civil War vision of a wealthy New York dry goods merchant named Alexander Turney Stewart, whose choice of name for his new town anticipated Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement by several decades. Levittown, a bit further out on the island and the epitome of a mass-produced postwar suburb, was the product of a later age.

country-life-press

Photograph of and plans for the Country Life Press facility, which became the Doubleday Publishing Company’s home in 1910. (From The Country Life Press: Garden City, NY, 1919).

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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) licencehttp://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-destruction-of-pompei-and-herculaneum-n00793.

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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


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Environmental Knowledge and Environmental Politics in the “Post-Truth” Era

by Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper

Nearly one year has passed since we wrote the introduction to the recently released RCC Perspectives volume titled “Environmental Knowledge, Environmental Politics: Case Studies from Canada and Western Europe.” At the time, we wrote in an atmosphere of environmental and progressive social activist optimism: the Paris Agreement had just been signed, US President Barack Obama had recently put a halt to the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and, for those of us living in Canada, newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had broken a decade of Conservative party rule, promising during the election campaign that the Liberal Party would be good environmental stewards, implement a “renewed relationship” with First Nations, and revive the value of academic research in making knowledge-based decisions. Oh, how times have changed. Continue reading


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Doktorandentag 2016

By Anja Rieser and Ivan Vilovic

With topics ranging from earthquakes to the League of Nations, greenhouse gases to photography, in fields as diverse as politics, law, geography, and art, the doctoral students at the Rachel Carson Center are a truly interdisciplinary group. On 7 November they convened for a “Doktorandentag,” a day of presentations and discussions in which six of the doctoral students and two visiting doctoral students (from Tel Aviv and Warsaw respectively) presented their current research projects. It was an opportunity to show the research happening at the Rachel Carson Center, where staff, fellows, and doctoral students were all welcome to come and listen, as well to take part in interesting discussions concerning their projects.

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