Another Step Toward an Environmental Public History

Click here for the "Public History in a Changing Climate," special publication, Summer 2014

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by Cathy Stanton.

The Public Historian
Cover of The Public Historian issue on “Public History and Environmental Sustainability” (August 2014)

This week sees the arrival of a new issue of The Public Historian journal, edited by Leah Glaser and focused on “Public History and Environmental Sustainability.”  In conjunction with the journal issue, the National Council on Public History is making available a special digital publication, “Public History in a Changing Climate,” initially released for conference-goers at the time of the NCPH Annual Meeting in March.  The print and digital collections were developed to complement each other and to reflect the kinds of projects and discussions taking place around the field as public historians begin to grapple more seriously with what their work might mean in an era of global environmental crisis.

Click here for the "Public History in a Changing Climate," special publication, Summer 2014
Click here for the “Public History in a Changing Climate,” special publication, Summer 2014

As the editor of the digital piece of this collaboration, I share Leah Glaser’s sense that it’s past time for people in our field to be connecting with these questions.  As Sam White noted a couple of years ago, “When it comes to public discussion of climate change, historians are nearly invisible,” and this seems doubly troubling in the case of public historians, who are trained not only to think carefully and rigorously about the past but to communicate ideas and build relationships with others in the public realm.  Leah has been a vocal advocate for this perspective within NCPH for several years, and it is largely due to her efforts that the organization has drafted a white paper on its own potential role within the historical profession on defining more clearly what historians might do within efforts to understand and address the effects of anthropogenic climate change.  Along with Briann Greenfield, Leah was also co-chair of the program committee for the 2014 conference, whose theme was “Sustainable Public History.”

I’ll admit I was concerned when I saw that the actual call for proposals broadened the definition of “sustainability” to include institutional, economic, and methodological considerations as well as environmental ones.  I understand that an annual meeting needs to be inclusive as well as focused around its stated theme (that’s why so many conference themes are pretty vague to begin with).  But this particular theme struck me as so vast—as well as so urgent yet under-considered within the field —that it seemed a shame to dilute it by soliciting proposals that were likely to default to the more immediate and day-to-day concerns faced by public historians—funding, tools, partnerships, audiences—rather than pushing practitioners to see their work in relation to larger environmental crises and challenges.

As it turned out, though, the multiple understandings of that slippery term “sustainability” left room at the conference to begin tracing out the links among those institutional, economic, social, and climatological layers of what public historians do.  Yes, climate change is arguably the “issue of issues,” one whose effects are becoming more and more difficult to ignore.  But its very scope means that it does in fact connect with public history work on many levels, in ways that we’re still just beginning to see.

For example, the hollowing-out of the public sector that’s happening in so many places around the globe is reshaping the funding and political landscapes for a great deal of public historical work, and it’s also tightly connected to the kinds of policies and economies that continue to drive anthropogenic climate change.  The extent to which public historians can and do make their work relevant and accessible to urgent present-day questions and debates can’t help but be shaped by the larger, environmentally-connected contexts for those debates:  political, military, and economic policies driven by the ongoing thirst for oil; the effects of living with globally-extended supply chains and the difficulties of rebuilding shorter ones;  the utility of collective memory and knowledge—and the places associated with them—within rapidly changing environments.

Richard Heinburg in discussion with 2014 NCPH co-chairs Briann Greenfield and Leah Glaser in Monterey, California, after the plenary.
Richard Heinburg in discussion with 2014 NCPH co-chairs Briann Greenfield and Leah Glaser in Monterey, California, after the plenary.

Those broader connections came into clearest focus for me in the discussion following the plenary session at the NCPH conference.  Writer and “peak oil” educator Richard Heinburg gave what anyone familiar with his work recognized as his standard stump speech, connecting the dots between the history of the modern world’s petroleum dependency and the kinds of breakdowns and conflicts that he and others see resulting from the end of an era of cheap, plentiful oil. Heinburg isn’t a historian, and he paints this picture in very broad brush-strokes.  But it’s a compelling and disturbing narrative, and after he spoke, conference co-chair Briann Greenfield noted that he had helped her to connect the two sides of the conference—the logistical/pragmatic kinds of sessions and the new attempt to define what an environmental public history might look like.  At bottom, we’re all talking about the wise use of resources—natural, financial, historical.  And the ongoing economic and political jolts caused by an oil-dependent global capitalism have everything to do with the social and organizational climates within which public historians operate.

I came away from the conference hoping we could keep deepening both that discussion and the interconnections among networks and programs—like NiCHE—where good and important work is being done on these questions.  The new issue of The Public Historian and its companion digital publication represent one attempt to look at what’s already happening around the field.  We hope NCPH can continue to expand its role as a node within an increasingly sophisticated consideration of where public historians might take these questions next.

Cathy Stanton is Digital Media Editor for the National Council on Public History and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Tufts University.

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