Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Knowing Nature: The Changing Foundations of Environmental Knowledge

Conference Report (Beijing, China, 25–27 May 2017)

By Katrin Kleemann

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Photo: Katrin Kleemann.

Historians like traditions and they like to invent them. Helmuth Trischler, director of the Rachel Carson Center and head of research at the Deutsches Museum, made this remark as he looked back at the conference’s five-year history. In May 2017, international scholars came together in China for the fifth time since 2012 to discuss environmental history. Jointly organized by the Center for Ecological History (CEH), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG), and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC), the conference took place in Beijing at the Renmin University of China from 25 to 27 May. Its 24 participants came from North and South America, Africa, Europe, and of course Asia.

The opening ceremony included welcoming remarks by several prominent faculty members of Renmin University: Vice President Dayong Hong; Xingtao Huang, dean of the School of History; and Mingfang Xia, director of the CEH and a senior professor in the School of History. Shen Hou, deputy director of the CEH and associate professor of history at the university, provided translations both during the opening ceremony and throughout the conference. Continue reading


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Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 4

Last year, students of the RCC Environmental Studies Certificate Program had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop with Jochen Koller, Diploma Permaculture-Designer and Director of the Forschungsinstitut für Permakultur und Transition (FIPT). Students gained an insight into the ethics and design principles of permaculture, the diverse spheres of activity, and the practical possibilities. In this short series of posts, students reflect on their experiences at the workshop and on permaculture as an interdisciplinary approach to thinking, planning, and designing.


“Science and Permaculture”

By Theresa Kuhl

There is only one wrong view: To believe that your view is the only right one.” (Nagarjuna)

Permaculture is a holistic concept of sustainable agriculture developed by Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgreen. It includes the essential principles of caring for the Earth, caring for people, limits to consumption and growth, and redistribution of surpluses.

The study of natural science, especially agricultural science, contrasts with the approach of permaculture. “Science” is often mentioned as the big “evil” compared to permaculture. But it is important to distinguish between different scientific disciplines. On the one hand, there is biotechnology, which tries to alter ecosystems to generate the highest possible yield by using genetic manipulation of plants and strong chemical toxins. For example, glyphosate is a potent herbicide that kills any plant that lacks genetically engineered resistance. On the other hand, the discipline  of environmental science also focuses on productivity of soils, but in a more sustainable way, because environmental scientists also know that permanent exploitation of soils has no future. Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Paula Ungar

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.

“Walking the Line between Worlds”

By Paula Ungar

The first thing I wrote of which I have clear memory is a short verse from when I was nine years old. It was dedicated to a bird that got caught in my grandmother’s tenth-floor apartment in Bogotá, to which we had recently moved from the countryside. After several minutes of distressed wings flapping between armchairs and porcelain figurines, the pigeon managed to escape through a window, leaving a solitary feather behind. I stuck it next to my inspired writing—for some reason, I felt the need to attach proof to the volatile words.

We used to live in the countryside, in a small village near Bogotá. If I close my eyes I can still see the silhouette of El Majuy, the mountain that watched over us from behind our house, and the water falling in silver threads out of the watering can when I tended to the garden, changing the color of the earth around the coriander plants from dry grey to rich black. The smell of that black earth often comes back to me, along with the distant barking of the neighbors’ dogs and the awkward feeling on my hands of the legs of scarabs, which visited our porch on cold, rainy afternoons.

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Páramo de Sumapaz, Colombian Eastern Andes. Photo: Paula Ungar.

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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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Student Research: Gardeners

By Veronika Degmayr (Environmental Studies Certificate Program)

Whether you’re an academic in the environmental field, an environmental activist, or just a person concerned about the state of our environment, you might at times wonder what good all that science, research, and activism is really doing. How far do published papers actually reach? Do we get to talk about our concerns with the right people; the ones who are not already convinced something “should be done about the environment”? Or are we—the concerned members of society—just trading information amongst each other without convincing anyone else, and without creating significant change to the “outside” world?

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“It’s great to go into your garden and eat a carrot. You are proud that something has grown there. Being able to harvest something is most important to me.”– Marianne. Photo: Veronika Degmayr.

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