“Beautiful, Beautiful Copenhagen”: My Adventures at the First WCEH

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This is the second post in a series about global environmental history and the World Congress of Environmental History published in collaboration with the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO). The fourth World Congress will be held this August in Oulu, Finland.

No, this is not a musical. Definitely not a musical. It is an airing of some dusty memories. The fourth WCEH conjures memories of the first, in Copenhagen in August 2009. I was a minor player (so minor that my paper on tourism and environment was actually presented in Malmö, Sweden – a very nice place, by the way), but I was there. What’s left in my memory bank fifteen years later? And what interest has it earned? Let’s see.

Stroget ice cream, copenhagen
Stroget ice cream.

Memory is strangely tactile. I shall always associate the first WCEH with ice cream. That is part of the origin story of my participation in WCEH. At the time I didn’t even really regard myself as an environmental historian. But then a colleague desperate to get back to Copenhagen emailed, wondering if I wanted to join a panel proposal she was developing for the inaugural World Congress of Environmental History. “Well,” I said to myself in a small, interior voice, “I’d like to go to Copenhagen!” It conveniently occurred to me that my work on tourism and landscape on Prince Edward Island, Canada, was a species of environmental history. And it was. 

Rosenborg Palace, Copenhagen
Rosenborg Palace, Copenhagen.

Years before, on a honeymoon bus tour of Europe, our tour guide made setting out for Copenhagen a running joke (it was not on the itinerary). Now, here I was, in Copenhagen, at last, absorbing the city through my pores. What’s left now, mostly, is a collage of memories. Dragging my luggage around the old city, bumping over the cobblestones, forlornly looking for my hotel and wondering why the Number 6 bus hadn’t brought me there (because I had taken it in the wrong direction). After the Congress, taking the train to visit the Viking museum in Roskilde. Getting lost. Again. Loving it. (Well, not the getting lost part.) Admiring the expansive sidewalks only to gradually realize that I was actually blocking the bike lane (while appreciating the Danes’ admirable commitment to a carbon-neutral form of transportation). Meeting the Little Mermaid–and being underwhelmed. Wandering the streets every afternoon with my fellow panelist and pun-tolerant personal guide, as we ground truthed the city together: bricks and mortar and history and art (and the Danish Crown jewels) and people going about their lives, not knowing they were objects of my tourist gaze. And ending every afternoon walk with an ice cream cone, the perfect culinary compromise between a non-judgemental vegetarian (my colleague) and an apologetic but committed carnivore (me). 

But this blog isn’t meant to be an exercise in mere nostalgia. There are supposed to be takeaways. And here I am digressing. Well, not quite. 

I now regard our ice cream congruence as symbolic of what was best about the World Congress. My close encounter with global environmental history was a lesson in interdisciplinarity. Despite professional historians’ devotion to the discipline, “history” continues to be an encouragingly elastic word. Never more so than the sub-genre of “environmental history,” which encompasses anyone, really, who systematically traces change over time and tries to account for it. 

The Congress was a graphic reminder of that environmental history is – must be – a collaborative undertaking (the same as saving the planet from accelerating climate change). 

“Environmental history” thus attracts professional historians of a certain predilection along with geographers, social scientists, environmental scientists, “hard” scientists, political scientists, literary scholars, economists–the list is almost endlessly expansive. The Congress was a graphic reminder of that environmental history is – must be – a collaborative undertaking (the same as saving the planet from accelerating climate change). 

Copenhagen street with bike.
Copenhagen street with bike.

The Congress was one huge tent that brought together scholars of every stripe. The sessions themselves were a curious mixture of hard science and explorations of anthropocentric interactions with “nature.” They didn’t always mesh, but being in the same room together was critically important. So was the global reach of the assembled scholars and their papers. Where else would I have learned Soviet perceptions of Arctic warming in the 1930s? We already knew that natural environments don’t respect borders (even if we often study them as if they did). What better illustration of that realization than the Congress’ dizzying diversity. The whole experience made me a convert to environmental history, not because it narrowed my vision, but because it enlarged it.

The whole experience made me a convert to environmental history, not because it narrowed my vision, but because it enlarged it.

Was the Congress truly a congress, a meeting place where strangers were (as a local night club used to advertise) merely “friends you haven’t met yet”? Not quite, I suppose. The tendency to silo is not the exclusive preserve of global meetings. There is nothing like meeting your existing friends far from home, and there were many happy reunions at the Congress. Yet, introduction by introduction, session by session, the circle of acquaintance, the sphere of collegiality and future collaboration, slowly expands. That is the way forward, I think, and a vivid memory of Copenhagen in 2009.

All that and ice cream, too. What’s not to like?

Feature Image: Copenhagen from Vor Frelsers Kirke.
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Edward MacDonald teaches and studies “Island” history at the University of Prince Edward Island on . . . Prince Edward Island. He is a late career convert to environmental history, partly because of the excellent company it allows him to keep. Actually, he was doing environmental history before that; he just didn’t know it.

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