Report on the First Conference of the ESEH, St. Andrews, Scotland, 4-8 September

Petra J.E.M. van Dam, Free University, Amsterdam
email: pjem.van.dam [at]

From 4-8 september 2001 the first, founding conference of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) took place in St. Andrews, Scotland. I assisted in preparing this conference as member of the Scientific Committee. Since the Regional Representative for the Benelux, Myriam Daru, was unable to attend, I replaced her. As such I wrote a report for publication in our national newsletter, Net Werk and on request of several colleaugues I translated it for publication on the website of ESEH. I am happy to have the opportunity to share my main impressions of this great happening.

Obviously, such a first conference in a new field, where people meet foreign colleagues for the first time, after having worked in relative isolation for many years, is most inspiring. It is exactly for this reason that I contributed to make the conference happen. I attended a conference of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) some years ago in Tucson, Arizona and then I decided that we needed a similar forum in Europe. At that ASEH meeting I came into contact with a few European environmental historians, among them Verena Winiwarter from Vienna. As it turned out, she became the great motor for the ESEH to be, in close cooperation with Christian Pfister and Sverker Sörlin. The society and conference of the ASEH were important models for us, but we were equally inspired by the recent foundations of the European Society for Ecological Economics and the International Water History Association. For some ideas about the conference, a large conference two years ago, in Vienna (Nature, Society and History. Long Term Dynamics of Social Metabolism, served as a first testing ground. That was a great event too where some 100 environmental historians and scientists met.

The host of the First ESEH conference was the Centre for Environmental History and Policy, a new institute founded in 2000 as a cooperation between the Universities of Stirlings and St. Andrews. Fiona Watson, managing director of the Centre, chaired the Local Committee that carried out he actual preparations for the conference. One of the environmental historians attached to the Centre well-known abroad is T.C. (Chris) Smout, editor of Scotland since Prehistory: Natural Change and Human Impact (Aberdeen 1993) and author of Nature contested. Environmental history in Scotland and northern England since 1600 (Edinburgh 2000). It was a most sympathetic and very brave gesture of the new Centre to organise such a large conference in the first year of its existence.

St. Andrews is the oldest university of Scotland. Regarding outer appearance and prestige it reminds of Oxford and Cambridge, a large complex of (neo)gothic and ultra modern buildings amidst extensive well-trimmed grounds. For environmental historians the town presents a pleasant and suitable atmosphere. St. Andrews is situated on a scenic bay. From the college we had a splendid view of the sea and the imposing dark skies. The inviting beaches were within walking distance, allthough the sea water was too cold for swimming. (That is to continental standards; some Scottish colleagues proved the contrary).

The sessions were organised along strands. Thus several sessions dealt with climate, landscape, pollution, environmental awareness, environment and sciences, and aquatic systems, to sum up the major strands. Due to the fortunate high number of 105 accepted papers and posters, the conference had to be set up in three to four parallel sessions. The LC had chosen for 1,5 hour sessions, implicating presentations of 15-20 minutes each, followed by half an hour discussion time. Several reasons existed which prevented us to stick to this outlay consequently. Shortly before the conference some presenters withdrew, so some sessions contained only two papers. Also, some participants had submitted sessions of four papers. After discussing the consequences with the organisers, some sessions of four papers, with very little discussion time, remained intact. For the anonymous selection of the papers, the Scientific and Local Committees had a meeting in Stirling in December 2000. Choosing papers on the basis of an abstract is a difficult task, and the same applies to putting together meaningful thematic sessions. Quality is a subjective criterion. However, one rule we established is important for all future participants, in particular session organisers. It is the explicit aim of ESEH conferences to promote international comparisons. Therefore, packages of papers from one country only were not accepted. If the individual papers qualified, we divided them over several sessions.

We initiated several features with specific goals and I hope that they will develop further in the future. The conference opened with a plenary lecture by someone who contributed very much to the development of the environmental history of Europe, Donald J. Hughes, University of Denver, Colorado. He started to write about the classical period, one of his famous studies is Pans’s Travail. Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (Baltimore 1994). However, by now he sets few limitations of place or time as he showed in his wide-ranging and elegant lecture and in his latest book: The Environmental History of the World. Humankind’s Changing Role in the Community of Life. Routledge studies in Physical Geography and Environment, 2. (Londen 2001). The significance of Donald Hughes for this first and founding conference is the more symbolic since he was one of the founders of ASEH over twenty years ago.

One afternoon was devoted to the presentation of the environmental history output of the host country, Great-Brittain. The Local Committee chose for one plenary session with famous authors (Peter Brimblecombe, Chris Smout, en John Sheail), who each presented a major theme, respectively Air Pollution, Landscape (Use), and Legislation, Protection, Management and Regularisation. Three parallel sessions followed along the well-known format.

At this point, it is appropriate to discuss the gender issue, raised by Richard Grove in the discussion after the plenary British papers. He remarked that all British presentations cited male authors only, and he added some female ones. This led to call attention to the fact that all plenary lectures were given by men, allthough women were well presented among paper presenters and session chairs. While preparing the conference, Sverker Soerlin (SC, board) had made us aware of this phenomenon already. A major explanation is that it was considered advisable that members of the preliminary Executive Board and of the SC should not give lectures or papers, since they had a vote in selections. The few exceptions made happened to reinforce the male dominance: Christian Pfister (SC, Board) opened the conference since he served as president to the Board in the current year, and Peter Brimblecombe (SC) gave a plenary lecture as prominent representative of Britisch research.

Another feature introduced was the poster session. Among humanists the phenomenon poster is not so common yet, it originates with the sciences. It implies that one presents a mini-exhibition about one’s project during several days of the conference. One attaches a poster to a wall, showing lots of visual materials (graphics, photographs, drawings, maps) and short texts. The idea is to stay with the poster as much as possible to discuss with visitors, in particular during coffee breaks. Some poster presenters distributed small format copies of their poster, others took the opportunity to hand out off-prints of publications. A short plenary session opened the poster session. All poster presenters advertised their poster with the aid of one or two overhead transparancies. A fifth of the total participants attended the opening session. That may seem little, but since the posters (displayed in the coffee room) were very visible and attracted a lot of people, I find the poster initiative a succes. I joined the session myself, since we did not place restrictions on participation and I really enjoyed the discussions with my visitors. I hope that the poster session will stay on the program, in particuar in order to accommodate numerous (young) scolars who might otherwise not be able to participate.

Every self-respecting conference provides a bookmarket and excursions. On this conference the bookmarket was rather modest featuring Edinburgh University Press and the White Horse Press, Cambridge. The latter had succeeded to publish three new books for the occasion: Rolf Peter Sieferle, The subterranean forest. Energy systems and the Industrial Revolution, translation of idem, Der unterirdische Wald (1982); Stephen Mosley, The chimney of the world. A history of smoke pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester en Robert A. Lambert, Contested mountains. Nature, development and environment in the Cairngorms Region of Scotland, 1880-1980. I hope the number of publishing houses will grow in the future. The excursions took place on Saturday afternoon, the last day of the conference. The Local Committee had done a great job in offering tours showing most fascinating aspects of Scottish environmental history, with visits to the East Neuk fishing villages, the gardens of Kellie Castle, the Eden Estuary Local Nature Reserve and the area of the Lomond Hills. Here again a feature to be continued.

Regarding the birth of the ESEH the following is worthwhile putting into our archives. On Thursday a meeting of the preliminary Board took place, consisting of the Executive Board and the sixteen Regional Representatives, in order to prepare the General Assembly. The proceedings concerning elections and statutes were well prepared which made this a relatively easy task. An important contribution came from Sverker Soerlin, who after hard work had succeeded to procure Swedish funding for a permanent secretariate for one year on a 50% basis, with good hopes for prolongation. The secretary-to-be, Sofia Akerberg, was present to adstruct the good tidings and she made us feel confident that the work carried out over the last years, would be continued in a professional way. Of the official birth of ESEH at the General Assembly, some 90 members bore wittness. It was a joyful meeting. The election race for presidency between Verena Winiwarter and Christian Pfister gave rise to unrevealing speeches and questions by the members. Winiwarter won with some 25 votes difference, earning what she has been working for so hard. This is my personal opinion, but I share that with many others as I found out.

About the new board members the following may be of interest. Winiwarter is affiliated with the University of Vienna, department for Antropology. She was trained as a chemist and wrote her dissertation on the environmental history of the late classic period. Currently she writes her habilitation (second dissertation in the German scolar tradition) on theories of environmental history. Christian Pfister and Sverker Soerling became vice-presidents. Pfister has a chair of environmental history at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and is considered as one of the main pioneers of the history of climate, based on written sources. Soerlin is affiliated with the University of Umea and he is director of the Swedish Institute for studies in Education and Research in Stockholm. He publishes in the field of environmental history and the history of science. Jan-Willem Oosthoek became secretary. Recently he finished his dissertation on forest history at the Scottish Centre and he is editor of the H -Environment List. Ulrich Koppitz took on the care for the treasury. He is still working on his dissertation on the history of hygiene at the University of Düsseldorf. Leos Jelecek, University of Prague, Department of Historical-Geography, became member of the new board ex officio, since he volunteered to organise the next conference in July 2003.

I have not said anything about remarkable papers or new trends. This is very subjective and anyhow I could only attend a third of the papers so I do not wish to claim to have an overview of the whole conference. I just hope that the ESEH conference becomes a permanent bi-annual meeting place for anyone interested in European Environmental History. See you in Prague 2003!