Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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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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Marriage Trees

“My Tree in Another’s Backyard”

By Anna Leah Tabios Hillebrecht

The first half of September found me in Santa Fe, Argentina, as part of the academic exchange on Transatlantic Perspectives on the Rights of Nature, cosponsored by BayLat and the Rachel Carson Center. It was my first time in South America and I was determined to leave a positive mark. Apart from presenting my research on deconstructing intergenerational equity and identifying the ties that bind nature and future generations at a two-day seminar in Santa Fe, I was also supposed to speak at an NGO-organized activity on “marriage trees” in the Philippines—brought about by specific city and municipal ordinances that require couples to plant at least one tree as part of their marriage license application. Aside from legal issuances, I didn’t know much about trees. So, Valeria Berros, a former Rachel Carson Center fellow and professor at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral in Santa Fe, invited me for a walk on a Sunday afternoon to the Reserva Ecológica across from the town of Santa Fe.

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View of Santa Fe, Argentina. Photo: Annah Leah Tabios Hillebrecht.

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The Future of Wild Europe

Conference Report (The University of Leeds, UK, 12–14 September 2016)

By Roger Norum

A version of this report was first published  17 October 2016 on ENHANCE ITN.


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This three-day conference was the first of three large events for the ENHANCE ITN (The Environmental Humanities for a Concerned Europe Innovative Training Network), a three-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie doctoral research program convened by the University of Leeds, the Rachel Carson Center at LMU Munich, and KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Because ENHANCE is an inherently interdisciplinary project, we decided to organize the conference around a theme that would not just appeal to both social scientists and humanities scholars, but that would also showcase current research by young and emerging scholars across disparate fields, while also questioning the configurations of the very categories and concepts we use to talk about the environment in the context of a changing Europe—and beyond. Continue reading


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Urban Cultures of Sustainability

Conference Report (Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) at the Albert-Ludwig-University, Germany, 11–14 July 2016)

From 11 to 14 July 2016, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society and the FRIAS (Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies) project group A Green City Mandate? co-hosted a Graduate Student Seminar and International Workshop on Green Cities and Urban Cultures of Sustainability.

The project group invited an interdisciplinary group of young scholars and students from various disciplinary and national backgrounds, as well as several distinguished scholars from the fields of sustainable urban development, urban geography, environmental history, and ecocriticism to work together on issues of “green cities.”

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