Delivered on Sept 5, 2001 to the Opening session participants by the acting chair of ESEH Prof. Christian Pfister
Published in: Klaudyan, No.6, 2001
Dear friends and colleagues:
This first International Conference of the European Society for Environmental History is an important event considering both the number of people who decided to come to this nice Scottish University town and the broad diversity of topics that will be discussed over the next four days. They include literally all branches of environmental history. It is true that a first European Association for Environmental History had already been founded in the late 1980’s. Its activity was restricted to the publication of a newsletter and to the organization of a symposium in Bad Homburg (Germany) in 1988 which just brought together two dozen scientists. The first European Association never had a constitution and a sponsor. During the 1990’s environmental issues became less and less important in the media, and therefore it became increasingly difficult to get even small amounts of funding. The activities of the first European Association for Environmental History ceased in the mid 1990’s when the institutional support for the publication of the newsletter was no longer available. It simply became extinct the same way as most species, it disappeared without any public notice.
ESEH has done much better, so far. This must be credited to its single long term sponsor which is the Breuninger Foundation. Its founder, Heinz Breuninger, was a successful businessman in Stuttgart (Germany) with a keen interest in universal history. The Breuninger Foundation promotes interdisciplinary projects in the humanities with an emphasis on history. Indeed it is one of the very few foundations that supports research in history. The scientific manager of the foundation is Professor Rolf Peter Sieferle, whom many of you may know from his important contributions to environmental history. Helga Breuninger, the daughter of the deceased founder Heinz Breuninger has promoted the building-up of ESEH from the very beginning. She may be certainly the midwife of the society. Thanks to her and thanks to the Universities of St. Andrews and Stirling and to the efforts of Fiona Watson and of her staff, we are here.
In most other branches of Academia the challenge of environmental problems lead to the creation of new hyphenated sub-disciplines such as environmental psychology, environmental sociology, environmental law, environmental economy that became recognized after some time, in most cases during the 1990’s. Compared to these disciplines the advancement of Environmental History in Europe was strikingly slow and cumbersome despite the considerable number of publications in this field. This slow advancement also relates to other more successful historical sub- disciplines that emerged during the 1980’s such as Gender History. What are the reasons for this?
In contrast to other sub-disciplines of history, environmental history faces a particular difficulty. Let’s illustrate it from an example. A social historian wishing to turn to Gender History can still apply the methodological tools with which he or she is familiar. The topic is different, but the basic ways of understanding the world and solving problems are still those of the humanities and the social sciences. In this way the researcher remains on a familiar ground.
The environmental historian on the other hand needs to become familiar with disciplines of natural sciences just to be able to understand the relevant literature. Moreover he or she should have some understanding for the way in which scientific communities work, he or she should know about their scientific standards and their scientific philosophy. As you know, the natural sciences are fundamentally different from the humanities, it is very time consuming and demanding to bridge the gap between these two branches of Academia. Moreover the engagement in scientific thinking and argumentation often alienates environmental historians from the community of historians without being accepted by a scientific community. They simply fall between two stools.
Environmental history is critiqued from the point of view of both the historians and the sciences for being superficial or it is altogether blinded out. This disregard is related to two issues. On one hand the theoretical and methodological assumptions and approaches of environmental histories are often not adequately discussed. On the other hand there is a tendency to include results from scientific papers or books without being sufficiently familiar with the background of such studies. Both tendencies lead to a situation of extreme fragmentation and permanent obscurity.
This shortcoming may be connected to some good reasons or perhaps extenuating circumstances.
At first Environmental Historians have no classics, no giants to whom we can appeal. Classics are of paramount importance for the institutionalization of academic branches and for their recognition. They create approaches which eventually become typical for the new sub-discipline, they create a set of specific terms which are universally understood and accepted. The Classics in the Social Sciences such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx or Max Weber did not put a particular focus on the environment, because this was a secondary issue in their generation. The classics in physics or in biology on the other hand negated any human interference in their experiments. Therefore there is no accepted theory of man’s relation with his environment over time.
A second issue is the weak institutional foundation of environmental history. Despite George W. Bush, there is a broad consensus that the environment matters for the present and the future of mankind. But in dealing with the past the environment is blinded out by most historians. In Europe there are almost no permanent professorships for environmental historians, and the existing ones don’t have the critical mass for a continued research and teaching. Last but not least this is related to lack of international institutions, to the non visibility of environmental history in the public and the lack of a powerful lobby.
So far I have outlined some of the challenges which ESEH faces in the future. We will need both, a better agreement on approaches and methodologies as well as sound institutions and a lobby to put environmental history on a solid ground in the future. I am sure, that this conference will be tremendously helpful in this respect.
As you know ESEH is still in its pre-constitutional phase. The self appointed preparatory board of the Society of which I am the acting chair, has drafted a Constitution that you will need to discuss and eventually approve during this conference. Based upon this Constitution elections will be held, and I am glad to announce that we finally got a considerable number of valuable candidates so that you will have true democratic elections. All candidates with their personal profile and with their aims with respect to ESEH are on the ESEH home page.