Monday, 21 July 2014

Conference Report: World Congress of Environmental History

Earlier this month (from 7th to 14th July) a diverse range of researchers from all over the globe met in the "birthplace of Portugal," the city of Guimarães, for the Second World Congress of Environmental History. Five years on from the first congress held in Copenhagen, the scale and scope of the programme promised a lively mixture of learning, debate, discussion and reflection upon a staggering array of environmental history related subjects.

Looking down from Mount Penha to the south of Guimarães
Arriving a day early gave me time to not only explore the wonderful old town of Guimarães (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) and to take a cable car up to the overlooking Mount Penha, but also to get to grips with the sprawling and diverse conference programme. With over 40 nationalities represented at the conference and with up to ten parallel sessions running at any one time there was far too much going on for me to give a detailed write-up here. Instead, I'd like to reflect a little on some of the trends and themes evident during the week.

The theme of the conference was, "Environmental History in the Making" and for once a conference's submissions seemed to actually reflect the theme, with lots of great sessions addressing methodological and theoretical aspects of the discipline. From a round table session on experimenting with new sources and methods in environmental history, through to a myriad of papers that introduced novel source material or methodological approaches, it was great to discuss such issues. With a focus on a large range of time periods and global coverage, Environmental History as a field can often feel disparate; yet whilst the various discussions on methodology I had across coffee breaks and sun-laden lunches only served to highlight this diversity, they also cemented how much this range of both coverage and approaches is increasingly a key asset of the field. Not only the ability, but also the willingness of researchers within a discipline to incorporate new emergent approaches, especially those coming from the digital humanities such as data mining, is allowing historians in the field to creatively interrogate historical questions of great pertinence to present societal issues.

Historians enjoying the conference banquet, held
at the suitably historical Paço Dos Duques De Bragança,
a former ducal palace originally constructed
in the fifteenth-century
The diversity of methodological approaches prevalent in Environmental History was highlighted in microcosm by the panel I had organised, which introduced four connected projects that used novel participatory methods to engagement with communities in exploring their memories of weather in the UK. From mobile phone apps to performance theatre, the papers showed how a focus on a two-way dialogue with communities could generate not only genuine public engagement outcomes, but also actual primary materials from which we can construct a more nuanced and stronger understanding of changing environmental relationships.

All of the papers on the panel were presenting experimental projects that were each in their own way stepping into uncharted methodological waters. Despite this, the question and discussion session at the end was hugely constructive and insightful. I am always happy to be amongst colleagues that, while being critical where necessary, are encouraging and supportive to young scholars like myself. After the diversity of sources and methodological approaches, this for me is perhaps the second greatest asset of the field; its collegiate, pluralistic and supportive atmosphere! (For more on this panel, keep any eye on this site or my Twitter account, as an audio recording of my paper, will follow on these pages in the next few days.)

By way of giving you an overview of the breadth of the papers given at WCEH, I'd like to finish this post by giving you some interesting nuggets of knowledge that I learnt from papers during the week:
  • During a fascinating panel on Fluvial Histories of British Rivers, whilst discussing the fate of salmon on two British rivers, Peter Coates informed a packed room that one of the most prosperous salmon trapping spots on the River Severn, was owned for nearly 500 years by England's elite Eton College. The fishery, which relied on "putcher" baskets to catch thousands of fish, not only ensured scholars at the establishment could have fresh salmon for breakfast, but was lucrative enough to provide an endowment to the church at the college! 
  • Whilst enjoying a whole panel dedicated to the history of locusts (!), Jana Sprenger gave us some jaw-dropping figures on historical culls of locusts in Prussia. For example, in June 1753 in just the region of Brandenburg, the equivalent of 591,000 litres of locusts were destroyed by locals using traditional methods! 
  • In a panel on commemorating urban floods, during an excellently rich and entertaining paper Lise Sedrez informed us that the Maracana Stadium, where Germany would take on Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final in just a few days time, was in 1966 turned into a makeshift refugee centre, after substantial parts of Rio were devastated by flash-floods and landslides. The number of refugees housed there and the lack of another location for them to return to, meant that the football season was suspended whilst the sports stadium adopted this humanitarian purpose. 
  • And finally, on a panel which brought the physical environment centre stage in histories of Cold War science and geopolitics, Peder Roberts reminded me of the fact that from 1962 the US military operated (or attempted to operate) a nuclear power station on Antarctica. Known as Nukey Poo, Peder highlighted how the endeavour today seems to be in stark contrast to the then recently signed Antarctic Treaty (enacted 1961), which prohibited nuclear explosions or dumping of radioactive waste on the isolated continent.
All in all, WCEH 2014 for me was a huge success. I learnt an awful lot about many aspects of current environmental history research from those I already knew well, (such as climate history, especially of note was Nicholas Cuningan's paper on linking climatic changes to indigenous resistance on Dutch Curacao), to those I hope to learn more about in my forthcoming research project on science and religion (I especially enjoyed Louis Warren's fabulously evocative paper on the emergence of the Ghost Dance amongst indigenous populations in the US during the 1890s).

If you want to learn more about the papers presented at the WCEH check out the Twitter hashtag #WCEH2014, a full Storify archive of which can be found here. Or if you're "old-school like Happy Shopper," then the full programme, including individual abstracts, can be found here. And finally, some much more eloquent musings on the conference can be found here (on climate histories), here (on methods) and here (on animal/human relationships).

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