Environmental History and the Boundaries of Academia

College Graduation, Eugene, OR (EUO), United States. Source: Cole Keister, Unsplash.

Scroll this

Andrea Gaynor (University of Western Australia), Margaret Cook (University of Queensland), Cordula Scherer (Trinity College Dublin), Sverker Sörlin (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) … and the audience!


How can – and should – academic environmental historians engage with the world beyond academia? This was the focus of a non-conventional session on “Boundaries in/of Environmental History” held at the 2019 annual meeting of the European Society for Environmental History in Tallinn, Estonia. The ninety minute forum provided an opportunity for sharing experiences of practising environmental history beyond the boundaries of academia, and reflecting on the nature and utility of those boundaries for environmental historians.

Academic historians are good at producing new stories and understandings in conversation with each other, but increasingly environmental history-making is more deliberately public-facing and engaged. Sometimes we also bring our expertise or insights as environmental historians to societal cooperation, policy, or activism. There is widespread agreement that increasing environmental injustice and ecological devastation lend urgency to our work as environmental historians.

These questions guided us through the session:

  1. What are the risks and opportunities of environmental history beyond the boundaries of academia?
  2. Who are our key audiences beyond each other?
  3. Are there particular scales, audiences, or forms of engagement that are more receptive to environmental historical  thinking – or that need it more?
  4. Are there trade-offs between activism and academic standing or credibility?
  5. If we look at environmental history from beyond its academic boundaries, what are its most urgent tasks in an age of ecocide?

The framework and the physical settings provided by ESEH 2019 enabled international and intergenerational conversations among environmental historians about our role in and beyond academia. The session started off with a series of short commentaries from four scholars who discussed how they have taken environmental history beyond the boundaries of academia, followed by an ‘open microphone’ enabling others to share their experiences, perspectives and ideas.

Andrea Gaynor (left) speaking at the Sustain: the Australian Food Network in Melbourne, 2017 along with Nick Rose (middle), executive director of Sustain and Australian TV gardening personality Costa Georgiadis (right)

Andrea Gaynor, also organiser and chair, began by providing a perspective on diverse roles for ‘public environmental history’. These included sorting the enduring from the ephemeral; mitigating loss of institutional and community memory; providing hope and inspiration; and holding wrong-doers to account, because there is no justice without history. Andrea gave three examples of her role as an advisor to policymakers and engaging with local communities on issues such as urban agriculture and dryland salinity.

Margaret Cook talking to a library crowd (photo credit: Margaret Cook)

Margaret Cook shared her experience on her work on floods in Australia and highlighted the importance of creating a non-threatening environment in which to be heard. She further pointed out that there is a risk of the humanities being marginalised and that we must continue to seek better means of measuring our impact, building on significant work in this direction over the last decade. Margaret’s conclusion was that we have to keep trying to inspire and empower communities working for positive change and that is better done from within the circle of groups, boards and communities rather than from outside.

Mussels and cockles (Credit: Cooking etc.)

Cordula Scherer introduced her recent project in which humanities and natural sciences are joining forces to bring back the intangible cultural heritage of Irish people of eating local, coastal seafood from lower down the food chain. The academic team works closely with the local seafood industry and Ireland’s environmental education and youth organisation, an NGO who empowers our next generations and conserves the environment.

Sverker Sörlin (Credit: Wikipedia)

Sverker Sörlin proposed that we need a convincing narrative of the role of history (and the wider humanities) in society at large in order for humanity to endure and be healthy in the long term. Sverker pointed out that the interaction between humanists and the world outside academia is greater than between sciences or even medicine and that world. However, this interaction is mostly invisible since it often happens at micro interaction levels. Historians’ particular strengths, Sverker continued, lie in the imagination, historical empathy and the ability to make complex judgments, but these skills need to be articulated more clearly and forcefully.

What followed was a lively discussion in the packed room. It was noted early on that some of the most important engagement takes place at the grass roots, and the GLAM sector (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) can provide ideal platforms to connect at this level. The physical spaces and material culture found in these institutions are vitally important.

The question on academia and activism triggered an active exchange of experiences and discussion around whether or not there should be a dividing line between activism and professional activities. “Do I take off my academic hat when I’m on the barricades or is my academic work informing my participation in protest?” “Should I worry about sacrificing my credibility as an academic when I’m also an activist, because we’re supposed to be seen as being objective?” One answer is that as historians we always choose the questions we want to pursue and give prominence to facts that we think are important. And this will always come from where we are, both as scholars and as citizens.

Early career researchers raised the point that it is increasingly challenging to find jobs within and outside academia. They asked: “How can I secure a job outside academia that I enjoy and that I’m qualified for while giving me the necessary financial stability?” and “How can we break through the boundaries around academia, that still seem to be very static?” This led to the suggestion that established academics, who are not operating under the constraints of short to medium-term contracts, are best placed to establish long-term relationships with stakeholders and should be inviting early career academics to join those relationships.

Another solution lies in the kind of training provided to students in environmental history/environmental humanities, and better recognising the skills it imparts. Academia still often doesn’t recognise the skills gained from a multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary approach and could more clearly articulate them to students. We could make more of our capacity to both embrace complexity and ask big questions!

The world needs both the big-picture thinking and small, local-scale, textured stories that environmental history and the wider environmental humanities can provide. A key challenge is to establish enduring relationships with institutions and media at a time when, in many contexts, academia itself is under pressure.

The following two tabs change content below.

Andrea Gaynor

Latest posts by Andrea Gaynor (see all)

2 Comments

Leave a Reply