Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series entitled “Unearthed,” edited by Heather Green and co-sponsored by Unwritten Histories, in which emerging environmental historians in Canada discuss what brought them to the field, why they value environmental history, and how it connects with life outside of academia. Find all the interviews from this series here.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc.)?
I’m a settler of Ukrainian and British descent and I grew up and have spent most of my life living in Saskatoon, which is situated on Treaty 6 territory. Growing up, I didn’t think about any of that very much, but it’s become increasingly important to me over the years as I try to grapple with my own family history and our relationship to this place.
I completed my undergrad at the University of Saskatchewan, and after that I took the chance to live outside the province for the first time, in a couple of different spots. The first and longest stop was in the UK for graduate studies at King’s College London (Science, Technology, and Medicine in History). These experiences living away really taught me the value of community, and most of my work has been community-focused ever since, wherever I have found myself. I completed the Next Up Leadership Program after my MA, spent a number of years working on a homeless connect-inspired event called YXE Connects, and have focused much of my energy organizing with a collective called Climate Justice Saskatoon, along with related groups and initiatives.
A sample of things that I love and draw energy from: my adopted cat Otis; camping and hiking; lentils; and ultimate frisbee.
What brought you to the field of environmental history?
I took a bit of a circuitous route. I was first introduced to the field during my MA studies, but more than anything this launched me towards involvement in community organizing and activism. Exposure to environmental history showed me that the skills I’d developed in studying in the humanities could be useful in organizing around environmental issues, and climate change in particular. Now, years later, my community involvement has effectively brought me back around to the discipline; working on a community-based research project about phasing out coal in Saskatchewan has piqued my interest in the history of energy transitions and of fossil fuels in my home province and across the Prairies.
In three sentences or fewer, tell us the focus of your current research.
I’m currently working my way through my comprehensive fields, which often feels like an all-consuming endeavour. However, as noted, my involvement in research about the social dimensions of phasing out coal in Saskatchewan is pushing me towards examining the history of fossil fuel development in the province and the ways in which it has shaped local culture and governance.
Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental history that interests you?
There are so many! But to pick one, I’m interested in how local knowledge is produced, maintained, and how it copes with changes to the landscape and other environmental changes. Relatedly, I’m interested in embodied knowledge, experience, and histories.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Does that overlap with your decision to study environmental history?
My main aspirations were to play hockey and, as that dream faded, to be a high school teacher, evidently neither of which overlapped with my current trajectory. I was fortunate to have a relatively positive high school experience, including an inspiring history teacher. My own dream of teaching faded within a few years of leaving high school as I discovered how much I enjoyed the actual practice of history, and how little I missed being in high school.
What is your favourite part of doing environment-focused historical research?
Most historians – myself included – seem to enjoy being in the archives, but environmental research invites, encourages, and sometimes even necessitates getting outside and investigating the landscape, which is a really rewarding experience. In addition, it encourages interdisciplinary study in a meaningful way; for example, I really enjoyed studying sciences in my earlier years, and now I often have good reason to tap into that again.
What part of studying environmental history most excites you? What is most daunting?
I think the answer to both of these questions is that it feels urgently relevant. We’re facing some serious issues on relatively tight timelines, and it’s both exciting and daunting to feel a part of that process. I think that many are drawn to environmental studies of one kind or another due to environmental issues, and there is certainly a lot of room for environmental historians to be contributing to public discourse on contemporary questions. While I’m daunted by the scale of the climate crisis in particular, environmental history is a useful outlet, helping to keep me grounded and offering pathways to action.
Where is your favourite place to be?
Hiking or sleeping in a tent somewhere. As to precisely where, it varies. After an inaugural trip to Grasslands National Park last summer, it’s a serious contender. (The photo above captures a break while hiking the Juan de Fuca trail). I also love running and biking on the banks of the South Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
Do you have a favourite book, podcast, film, work of art related to the non-human world that you would recommend others check out?
I’m going to pull out the comps excuse for being behind on podcasts and recent developments in other areas. But, a book that’s had a lasting impact on me, and which I think environmental historians would have a fun time engaging with and critiquing, is George Monbiot’s Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. Also, if anyone is planning a future trip to Saskatoon, I recommend aiming for the end of May and checking out the annual Nature City Festival, which celebrates and promotes biodiversity within the city with dozens of events and activities.
Why do you think environmental history is an important field of study?
For a few reasons. First, I find it humbling – studying environmental history is an effective way of understanding the contingencies that got us here and the precariousness of where we’re at. Second, I think that if we don’t understand the decisions that have got us here, and the values that have driven those decisions, we’ll find it especially difficult to make better decisions. Finally, as noted above I think environmental history is particularly effective at encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, which will be key to solving some of the serious problems we’re facing.
Where can folks follow your work or connect with you?
You can find me on Twitter at @_JustinFisher_ or send me an email at email@example.com.