Editors’ Impressions of ASEH 2016

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Last week, I did not attend the 2016 annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History. I had to attend from afar by reading the various Tweets emitted by participants at #ASEH2016. While I was unable to attend this year, some of our other editors did. I reached out to those editors to get their thoughts on this year’s conference. What were their highlights? What were the most provocative comments/papers/panels? What trends stood out?

Here are their responses:

Alan MacEachern, Western University

MacEachern photo, 2014For me, the single-most observable trend is the continuing internationalization of the conference, and the field. In hopes of quantifying this, I looked at the ASEH program of 10 years ago. There were 51 presenters or chairs from beyond the US (of whom 25 were Canadian). Even this number seems somewhat inflated, since many were “segregated” into all-international sessions. By comparison, this year there were 95 presenters or chairs from beyond the US (of whom 43 were Canadian – and this doesn’t include the Canadian expats now teaching in the US). And there was much more blending of international participants throughout the program. It occurs to me now that I had discussions with folks from Australia, Finland, China, Sweden, and Germany about their research. This internationalization is a really positive development for the field.

Daniel Macfarlane, Western Michigan University

MacfarlaneI enjoyed the Envirotech breakfast, which is always a highlight though it seems to be something that other Canadians don’t attend very much (with the exception of Joy Parr who has always been heavily involved in Envirotech, though she couldn’t make it this year, and Jess Van Horssen and Josh MacFadyen were in attendance). A trend that seemed especially pronounced this year, both within Envirotech and ASEH in general, is the prevalence of “critical discard studies” as an interdisciplinary subfield that encompasses waste, recycling, and pollution. There have of course been many studies by environmental historians in past decades about waste and trash (Marty Melosi and Joel Tarr are obvious examples), but this subfield seems lately to be accelerating as well as integrating with scholars from fields outside history.

Jim Clifford, University of Saskatchewan

clifford_internet_imageRyan Tucker Jones from the University of Auckland organized a roundtable on “Integrating Whaling Studies through Environmental History.” He opened by explaining there is a new cluster of books and articles on the environmental history of whaling that builds on, but moves beyond, the established scholarship that focused on labour and economic histories of the industry. The four presenters demonstrated the exciting range of existing and forthcoming literature on whaling and related hunts for other marine mammals. Josh Reid provided a brief overview of the cultural importance of whaling for the Makahs and ended with a discussion of the racist response to their resumption of whaling in 1999. Nancy Shoemaker pivoted from her earlier work on indigenous labour on American whaling vessels to discuss a new project on linking whaling with the expansion of the wider global fat supply for soap making in the nineteenth century. These and two more great presentations convinced me that whaling was a fantastic topic for environmental history at the moment. It has a lot of potential for animal histories and also connects commodity histories with the globalizing trend in environmental history. Combine that with marine history and Pacific history, and there is little doubt why historians are working this rich vein for research.

The roundtable, along with a number of other papers on whales and walruses, however, focused extensively on the United States and the Soviet Union with occasional mentions of Japan, Denmark and Norway. I don’t remember anyone discussing Canada, British North America and Newfoundland.

trainoilThis seemed strange as my commodities database records that British North America was the largest supplier of whale blubber to Britain in 1861, 1871 and 1881. Yesterday, I took to Twitter to see if the leading environmental historians of whaling in Canada and Newfoundland simply skipped the conference. The responses pointed to a lot of great literature, but most of it, particularly the examples focused on the nineteenth century Atlantic whale hunt, appears to come out of the earlier political economy and labour history approach. I hope a NiCHE reader jumps at the chance to join this exciting field of research and to expand our understanding of this important commodity network centered, at least for a time, out of British North America.

Tina Adcock, Simon Fraser University

AdcockAt this year’s meeting, I particularly enjoyed panels and papers that mixed a little (or a lot of) history of science, technology, and/or medicine into their environmental historical analyses. As Ty Priest noted while moderating a panel on oil, gas, and seismicity, you can’t understand oil without understanding geology. The stand-out papers of the conference for me also rested at the intersection of environmental history and science — in this case, field science. Nancy Jacobs gave a phenomenal presentation on her efforts to recover African ways of knowing Congolese birds from the archives of the Western ornithologist James Chapin. Given the inherent difficulties that historians face in treating symmetrically these incommensurate systems of knowledge in the field, she concluded that our best hope of recovering Africans’ own environmental knowledge was learning to read its traces in the carefully preserved bodies of birds resting in Western museums. I was so enthralled that I went out and bought her brand-new book on this topicMichael Lewis’ paper in the same panel also helped to complicate understandings of “local” science by carefully distinguishing between different Indian actors involved in recent studies of snow leopards in the Himalayas. Urban Indian field scientists sometimes possessed no more “local” environmental knowledge than did their Western counterparts, as Lewis demonstrated through some revealing (and occasionally very funny) ethnographic interviews.

Some trends that I noticed:

Josh MacFadyen, Arizona State University

MacFadyenProfile-150x150I was intrigued by the roundtable on Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Environmental Histories, Concepts, and Current Confrontations, mainly because I have worked with some First Nations groups in Atlantic Canada and I wanted to better understand the issues at stake in indigenous research projects. Roundtables are always unpredictable. Sometimes they are loosely connected or poorly organized, and sometimes they present surprisingly original content and rich linkages. This roundtable seemed on paper quite diffuse, with specialties ranging from medieval European fisheries to contact in the Pacific Northwest, but these very diverse contributions expanded my definition of TEK and sparked a lively discussion between panel and audience.

Each panelist addressed a different aspect of TEK. Melanie Andrej’s paper argued that TEK is a way of marketing scientific knowledge as locally relevant and socially good – even offering Canada as an example of progressive TEK policy. Verena Winiwarter broadened the definition to include many forms of socially tacit ecological knowledge, from Eastern European plant species to Mediterranean watersheds, and an especially memorable reading from Columella’s On Agriculture on breeding mules and hinnies. These examples, along with other Medieval TEK presented by Richard Hoffmann force open the black box of knowledge, and I think they help us see modern science in a new light. William Wicken and Michael Kucher offered much more recent examples of TEK in Atlantic Canadian, and then Pacific Northwest, indigenous communities. Wicken’s work with Mi’Kmaq suggests that historians need to understand what TEK is and what it means to First Nations policymakers today. The audience asked hard questions about whether TEK should actually be Traditional Indigenous Knowledge, or whether there were cases where TEK is, or should be, kept secret.

Personally, this panel shaped how I viewed the rest of the conference. TEK became a recurring theme in papers from Finn Arne Jørgensen’s discussion of knowledge in deep maps and travel narratives to the final plenary discussion on drought, where all panelists focused on the local understanding of and responses to drought. I look forward to taking in more TEK panels at future conferences – maybe they’ll host a competing EnviroTEK breakfast?

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Sean Kheraj

Associate Professor and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University
Sean Kheraj is a member of the executive committee of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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