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aseh president's comments from second world congress of environmental history, portugal

Delivered by Gregg Mitman at plenary session in Portugal, July 2014

First, on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History I would like to express our sincere appreciation to ICEHO president, Jane Carruthers, program chair Graeme Wynne, the University of Minho, and the city of Guimaraes, along with the many other people working behind the scenes over the past few years to make this wonderful international gathering possible. With this second meeting of the World Congress for Environmental History, ICEHO has without question established itself as a critically important institutional catalyst in the internationalization of environmental history and a crossroads for the cross-fusion of diverse perspectives, methods, and subject matter that is making environmental history, in my view, one of the most dynamic and exciting fields today.

The American Society for Environmental History may be the oldest of the professional societies making up the federation of groups comprising ICEHO, but the intellectual origins of the field have diverse international roots. We are witness here in Guimaraes to a recognition of the importance of those diverse intellectual traditions and perspectives in enlivening and enriching scholarship. Awareness of these diverse international roots has been fostered by the increasing growth and collaboration among research centers in environmental history across the globe, thanks, in no small part to the establishment and efforts of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, among others. It has also been nurtured by the increasing and welcome presence of scholars beyond North America attending the annual meetings of the ASEH.  Each of the last three meetings of the ASEH have broken attendance records.  Confluences and crossings, the themes of our last two meetings held respectively in Toronto and San Francisco, were specifically chosen to highlight the vibrancy of environmental history as an interdisciplinary field undergoing rapid global expansion. We thank many of you in this room who have been participants, making our San Francisco meeting the largest ever, with more than 700 attendees.

And yet, each of the regions of the globe represented at this WCEH meeting in Guimaraes shares in both a common goal in understanding the changing relationships between people and environments over time, while facing unique challenges and opportunities.  In North America, the field of environmental history, once a curious outsider seeking the recognition of its more established peers, has firmly made it within the historical profession. Such an impression was confirmed just two years ago, when the American Historical Association for the first time since its founding in 1884 chose at its president an environmental historian, namely Bill Cronon, and made the focus of its 2013 annual meeting “Lives, Places, Stories.”  It was a long time coming, given over a decade of rapid expansion and growth in the number of positions and hires in environmental history taking place in North American universities and colleges, with many, if not most of those appointments, occurring within history departments.

Success, however, is not without challenges. It is, I suggest, important for the interdisciplinary vitality of the field that environmental historians are as much a part of departments and programs in geography, environmental studies, and the history of science and medicine, as they are a part of history departments. The rich intersection of history, ethnography, and geography, and increasingly science studies is to me very much alive at this meeting, and a tradition that I hope continues to be encouraged and embraced in the field.  And where people’s institutional appointments are matters in the kind of interdisciplinary work that gets done and matters.

From the perspective of the academia within the US, where an assault on the humanities has been staple fodder for legislators eager to expose the wastefulness of taxpayer’s money on higher education, and of the university as a bastion of liberal thinking, a circling of the wagons it taking place, coalescing around the environmental humanities in defense.  Its flavor is, I believe, quite different in different parts of the globe.  In the US, the move toward environmental humanities has been driven particularly by scholars in ecocriticism and literary studies. At the UW-Madison, where I direct the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and where contributions from history, anthropology, geography, and the history of science to environmental history is quite strong, our center has been enlivened and greatly enriched by an infusion of faculty and graduate students from literary studies.  We have yet to be as successful in bringing philosophy into the fold.  And, yet, I remain concerned whether the environmental humanities is an inclusive enough term to embrace and welcome, not only our colleagues from the natural sciences, but also the arts, in this new intellectual commons.  As initiatives in environmental humanities spring up across the globe, it will be extremely helpful to learn from each other in how environmental history has successfully positioned itself or not, and how the natural sciences and arts have fared, in this emerging interdisciplinary conversation.

We also see, given the challenges of the academic job market in the US, increasing interest and demand for alternate career paths for graduate students pursuing degrees in environmental history.  The investment of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, among others, in programs in the public humanities, placing graduate students in positions in museums, public radio, film and television, and other public outlets has been an area where environmental history, a field that has long overlapped with public history in North America, can benefit and contribute.  More and more, students are increasingly eager to learn how their research skills can be applied to the craft of storytelling across different media platforms—from the web, to film, to curation—in reaching different publics.  How we expand beyond the walls of the academy, inviting and learning from artists and activists, filmmakers and creative writers, even game designers and graphic novelists, in telling stories that matter in the world and have the power to shape environmental and social change strikes me as one of the challenges and exciting opportunities of our field.

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