Making Environmental History as Global as Possible

2020 Visions for Environmental History

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This is the fourth post in a series on “2020 Visions for Environmental History” being published jointly by NiCHE’s blog The Otter ~ La loutre and Rachel Carson Center’s blog Seeing the Woods, with posts by Lisa MighettoAlan MacEachernArielle Helmick, and Claudia Leal. The series developed alongside a session of the same name at the World Congress for Environmental History in late July.

The roundtable proposal for the Third World Congress of Environmental History, which took place in Florianópolis, Brazil, pointed out the significant growth of our field in the last 20 years and mentioned the various organizations and institutions that make evident its international maturation. A significant one is the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations, ICEHO, which organized the above-mentioned congress (as well as two previous ones) as the main way to fulfill its mandate: promoting dialogue between the organizations in the field.

The wide variations between these organizations and my own role as ICEHO’s Vice-President leading up to the congress helped to shape my vision for the field in the near future. Environmental history organizations are particularly vigorous in North America, which hosts the strongest and oldest ones—ASEH and the Forest History Society—plus NiCHE and the prestigious journal Environmental History. These are national organizations from wealthy countries with large university systems and ample funding opportunities. Europe and Latin America have relatively solid societies—ESEH and SOLCHA—which have been holding biannual meetings for close to two decades and publish their own journals (Environment and History being better ranked than HALAC). But representation in these organizations varies enormously, with some subregions and countries predominanting, as is the case of Brazil for Latin America, while others are virtually absent. Australia and New Zealand have a network (ANZEHN) that functions well, while Africa and South Asia have incipient and limited ones (EAEH and ASAEH). A few other non-geographically-based groups exist, such as the Water History Society.

This uneven state of affairs makes evident that by building bridges among existing organizations, ICEHO mostly facilitates exchanges between those groups that already have ties. While such a goal is very desirable, we must keep in mind that in many places environmental history is still marginal and even unknown. A hopeful vision for the 2020s would include the development of this field in places where it is absent and see it flourish in others, like Latin America, where it has already made some inroads, but where there is much potential for growth. Such a future is more likely to occur if we contribute to making it happen.

Fortunately ICEHO already understands its mandate as fostering an international dialogue that is as inclusive as possible, which implies encouraging the creation of networks (and courses) where they do not exist, and strengthening them where they are weak. For this purpose, ICEHO is funding a round of three workshops. The first one, which took place in June in Zimbabwe, mobilized a large part of the University of Zimbabwe (where electricity was out for 18 hours a day, to mention just the most obvious hardship to daily life, and also global networking) and will produce a reader on environmental history of Southern Africa and a masters program on this field. ICEHO can continue to strengthen this process, especially as two members of its board—Musa Musemwa and Sandra Schwartz—are from this region. The next workshop will soon be held in El Salvador, Central America, where an undergraduate course will be developed and a subchapter of SOLCHA will be created; the last one, to be held in Australia, will discuss teaching. The first two workshops have and will make major regional contributions in a context that barely overlaps with the world congresses, for the majority of students and professors in attendance will never make it to these meetings.

Participants at ICEHO-supported University of Zimbabwe workshop, June 2019.

Despite being relatively inexpensive, these workshops involve a considerable financial effort on the part of ICEHO, which itself is dependent on funding from member organisations. The Consortium also has pursued the goal of achieving more global interactions by encouraging its member organizations to have fundraisers to enable scholars from less represented regions to attend the world congress. ASEH, ESEH, and SOLCHA each contributed generous amounts that allowed five scholars from Latin America, four from Africa, five from Asia, and three from Europe to come to Florianópolis.

Virtual alternatives have the potential to expand and strengthen our international community. Although some people have doubts, remote panels at conferences can work well, as shown in the last ASEH meeting (see panel “Building Environmental Histories around the World”). However, they might not solve the two main problems pointed out by Lisa Mighetto and Alan MacEachern in this series of blog posts. While they would allow people to present and many others to watch without increasing carbon emissions, holding several virtual panels at a given conference will not necessarily reduce the number of air travellers, and thus the carbon footprint. Likewise, enabling less visible scholars to participate through these type of panels has limitations. Global networking is built on a shared language, by which I mean both English and a shared understanding on how to present and conduct oneself; not mastering that mode of expression reinforces the obstacles imposed by high travel costs and the difficulties of obtaining visas. Such limitations can be exacerbated rather than reduced when participating via skype.

While these digital initiatives are worth pursuing, being aware of their shortcomings will allow us to try to make them work better and have more realistic expectations. Furthermore, as Alan pointed out, virtual options are not meant exclusively to replace conference attendance. Digital platforms serve many other purposes and have the potential to increase daily interactions (as well as further ICEHO’s impact beyond the conferences, which are only held every five years).  

Yet, when asked about the future of environmental history, I did not think about the digital world or about reducing our carbon footprint. Looking at the world from Bogotá, I envisioned, above all, changing our shared view of Latin America’s past. Environmental history is still unknown to many historians in the region and absent in survey courses; job offers that mention the field are beyond rare; and monographs—specially those that can change the way we understand history—are scarce (see my article in Spanish on this matter). North Americans do not share such vision of the future, because for them it is mission accomplished. The literature on US environmental history is vast and its broad impact undeniable. But we Latin Americans do share with them, as well as with historians devoted to other fields, another big concern: having a broader public influence (as shown by Andrea Gaynor’s post on the boundaries of environmental history).

To sum up, in the years to come,
I would like the field to become even more international,
I would like us to have a broader impact beyond academia,
I would like to see Latin Americans fully engaging with their environmental past,
and I would like to see more communication happening between those who have a harder time meeting and talking (say Africans and Latin Americans).
I am sure digital options will help, but not suffice, for us to develop such a future.

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Claudia Leal

Claudia Leal was born and lives at 2,600 meters above sea level in Bogotá (the capital of Colombia), where she is associate professor at the Department of History at Universidad de los Andes. She holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of California at Berkeley, but passes for a historian who likes to think about the environment. Although she identifies with mountains, she has done most of her research on rainforest regions and on the role of “race” in the process of nation building in Latin America. Her book Landscapes of Freedom, Building a Postemancipation Society in the Rainforests of Western Colombia (The University of Arizona Press) came out in 2018, as well as A Living Past, Environmental Histories of Modern Latin America (Berghahn Books), which she edited with John Soluri and José Augusto Pádua. She is writing a history of Colombian national parks that tries to understand how the state functions and is built in space. She is also interested in the relationship between armed conflict and environments, and in the history of animals.

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