Science, Storytelling, and Environmental History

from B.E. Fernow's Age of Trees and Time of Blazing Determined by Annual Rings, 1897

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This is the 6th in a series of posts written by recipients of NiCHE New Scholar Travel Grants to attend the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal.


The diversity of research on display at the World Congress of Environmental History this year was, in a word, remarkable. A quick list of paper topics reveals a little of this diversity: in one session we learned about long-term climate change in South Africa; in another about urban environmental issues in China; and in yet another about cultural perceptions of locust plagues in early modern Germany. And this was just the tip of the iceberg (and, yes, there were papers on icebergs, too). As one conference attendee put it, the question these days is not what is environmental history, but what isn’t.

It may have been a jab at the field….

When it comes to scholarship, I’m not at all about weeding. Let a billion flowers bloom, and see what happens. But, admittedly, the conference did at times raise questions about theory and method, in particular when it came to the role of past and present science in our research. What I noticed was a tendency on the part of environmental historians to divide into two camps, even “two cultures”. There were those who turned to science to understand history (especially climate history) and those who turned to history to understand science (typically, drawing from the science studies literature). Far less common were papers that sought to combine these perspectives. What might be accomplished if we integrated the two?

The sciences that seem most useful to the kind of environmental history I have in mind are not physics and chemistry, the sciences usually associated with “objectivity” and “truth”claims in the science studies literature. Instead I’m thinking of the historically-oriented, and therefore usually much more open and contingent branches of environmental sciences: ecology, biogeography, paleontology, and so on. Like a lot of geographers, I took courses in these areas as an undergraduate – one of my favorite books is still Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. And in graduate school I shared an office with a biogeographer who used tree rings to reconstruct forest history. Our work differed in many ways, but I was often surprised by how much we had in common. We studied much the same landscape (BC’s dry interior), we both wanted to understand ecological change in the past, and we both consulted an “archive” to do so. She had tree rings, I had old maps and microfilms. In a real sense, we also faced similar problems of interpretation. Working from traces and fragments, we both wanted to understand changes in the land that we agreed were in some ways as much social as ecological. Fire was a case in point: indigenous people had used it to enhance the productivity of certain landscapes, in the process creating an almost indecipherable mix of natural and cultural burning in the tree ring record. We also acknowledged the huge uncertainties that historical interpretation always seemed to entail, and even more importantly we also recognized the central role of narrative in writing up our interpretations. From very different vantage points, and with very different styles and standards of writing – and no doubt very different standards of evidence and “objectivity” as well – we both wanted to tell stories about ecological change and its consequences. No doubt the issues around science and environmental history are more complicated than this. After all, none of this was the same as saying that science “induces regular effects of power,” as Foucault puts it.

Yet there was common ground here. So what if instead of writing histories that either used science to understand the past or that used history to understand science, we tried to do both? What sort of environmental histories would those be? And what might they tell us about people, knowledge, and nature, now and in the past?

PS: I’d like to thank NiCHE for sponsoring the New Scholar Travel Grants that enabled myself and other Canadian environmental historians to attend the WCEH this past July. In a world of webcasts and quick connections, there’s still no substitute for face-to-face interaction, or for the kinds of serendipitous opportunities that conferences always seem to offer.

John Thistle is a Research Associate with the Labrador Institute of Memorial University. His teaching and research interests span environmental history, economic geography, and science and technology studies. He is author of Resettling the Range: Animals, Ecologies and Human Communities in British Columbia (forthcoming, fall 2014, UBC Press), and coauthor with Richard Unger of Energy Consumption in Canada in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A Statistical Outline (Naples, Italy: CNR Edizioni, 2013). His current work explores the socioeconomic and environmental legacies of large-scale resource development projects in twentieth century Labrador, in particular mining and hydroelectric power.

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John Thistle

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