Environmental Futures

The Nelson Institute’s Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) and the Center for German and European Studies (CGES) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are pleased to be partnering with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC) in Munich and the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory (EHL) in Stockholm to host an international workshop that invites artists and writers, scientists and humanists, scholars and activists, to participate in “The Anthropocene, Cabinet of Curiosities Slam.” The workshop will take place in Madison, Wisconsin from Nov. 8-10, 2014. In the spirit of poetry/spoken word slams, contributors will be asked to pitch in a public fishbowl setting an object for the Anthropocene that asks us to rethink humanity’s relationship to time, place, and the agency of things that shape planetary change. How is the appearance and impact of Homo sapiens as a geomorphic force registered in the sediments of history, the objects around us, and the things yet to be? What emotionally layered Anthropocene objects can surprise, disturb, startle, or delight us into new ways of thinking and feeling? What objects speak to resilience or adaptation, to vanishing biota or emerging morphologies? Based on the audience response at the slam, contributors will be invited to participate in the design of an Anthropocene cabinet of curiosities as part of a larger exhibit on the Anthropocene being planned by the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Presentations will also form the basis of a collected series of short essays to be published as part of the CHE, RCC, EHL collaborative project on Environmental Futures. More details here.

Centre in focus

CEAH was recently the subject of a focus piece on the University’s website that highlighted our interest in collaborating and networking with a range of enterprises, organisations and creative practitioners with businesses in Cornwall. Alex Huke (Knowledge Exchange Manager with the University) was quoted as saying, “Researchers can help organisations and businesses explore the way our cultural and artistic relationships with the environment impact, influence and inform our behaviours as individuals and communities. Our collective and individual interactions with the environment are influenced by scientific, legal, social and cultural norms. Better understanding these interactions, and the role cultural and artistic values play in this mix, is important in overcoming barriers to the adoption of pro-environmental behaviours and finding new, creative, solutions to the future environmental challenges we face.” Thanks, Alex!

A New UK Academic Writing Initiative ‘The Conversation’

In defence of litter

By Timothy Cooper, University of Exeter

What propels us to notice when a place is badly littered or surprisingly clean? When abroad, why do we often make comparisons between well-swept cities and badly kept ones?

Of course, there is the banal response that cleaning our city streets is necessary to keep people and traffic moving, so obviously we notice when this has not taken place. But it’s interesting that the positive condition of urban “sustainability”, which includes the vast and expensive complex of refuse collection and disposal, only becomes apparent when it fails. The experience of litter, then, is the experience of negativity – when the positive order on which contemporary life is dependant displays its hidden existence to us.

Perhaps a more important question, then, is why we notice litter when we refuse to see its necessary obverse: the heroic labours of urban cleansing that grease the wheels of life in cities. There are no workers more essential to our world than the refuse collector and the street-sweeper.

Litter and littering are historical phenomena. They were invented in the early twentieth century, and are distinct from previous urban concerns with street-sweeping that can be traced back to every form of urban existence. Medieval parishes in England paid for the removal of dead dogs from the streets, for instance. “Littering”, by contrast, emerged in the years after the Great War. Urban officials had certainly noticed this “other great nuisance of the roads” in the period before 1914, but it was only after 1918 that littering became a subject of popular concern and effective political campaigning.

The emergence of littering was partly a consequence of the changing patterns of an intensified consumerism in the early twentieth century. But this is not really enough to fully grasp its rise. For littering was, at the outset, a class phenomenon. It was presumed that the “Litter Habit” was learnt by working people experiencing the new freedoms of public holidays and the pleasures of consumption, and who were unused to the ways of the countryside or careless to the civic well-being of towns. In a world with an emerging Communist superpower, littering was also a sign of the decay of the rights of property. The “litter bug” did not simply defile landscapes; they also symbolically affronted the basis of capitalism itself by claiming, through careless disposal, the very property on which they stood.

“There is apparently a feeling”, a Times correspondent wrote in 1925, “that a place dedicated to the people (parks) has not really passed into the possession and usufruct [right to enjoy other people’s property] of the people unless they are allowed to do exactly as they please in it… to leave behind them any rubbish which they are too lazy to conceal or take home with them.” One landed MP complained of finding a family out picnicking on his drive about to “leave behind them a mountain of mess”. When asked to take their refuse with them the father of the group replied, “if you can afford a place like this, you can afford to have somebody pick up the mess”. This was not mindless vandalism, this was a very deliberate act of resistance to private property.

Little wonder then, that after the Second World War the Litter Act 1958 sought to abate the “litter nuisance” by applying a £10 fine to offenders. The act brought tangible benefits to the Keep Britain Tidy Group, formed in 1954 by members of the Women’s Institute. It received a £1,500 per annum grant to publicise the new act. By the 1980s it had a £500,000 income from both public and private sources to contribute to this disciplining and control of public behaviour.

And yet as we all know, littering did not go away. While the heroic figure of the father littering in pursuit of the class struggle may be a rarity, there are probably few people who have not carelessly (or perhaps joyously) infringed the law by tossing away an odd cigarette butt or paper cup.

This is the dark, but necessary, underside of noticing litter. Littering is a means to resist the tired domination of petty officialdom over everyday life. We can all experience the momentary freedom of rule-breaking by littering. The irony then is precisely this double-sided character – in litter we recognise and abhor rule-breaking, yet at the same time we also see our own fantasies of liberty. Perhaps this is why littering has never really died out, and why there will always remain a need for those heroes of the cities, the street sweepers.

Timothy Cooper does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

‘Green Humanities’ Journal

Here’s the mission statement for a new journal: We at Green Humanities believe in the power of the humanities–a book, a poem or a work of art for example—to influence public opinion and inspire engagement with ecological issues and causes. Green Humanities aims to place the humanities on the frontlines not only of cutting edge eco-criticism, but also of the environmental debates that will shape and determine our very world. We envision varied collaborations and juxtapositions of scholarship within the humanities as well as environmental sciences and related fields–all with the overarching goal of coaxing our global society toward a more sustainable future.

And the CFP for the first issue: http://greenhumanities.org/inaugural-call-for-papers-poems

Landscape history from below

This short piece, soon to be published on the History from Below online symposium but written with CEAH in mind, offers an overview of my thoughts on landscape and position in the field. Admittedly it is a bit longer than originally intended! For those who can be bothered to wade through it, I would be extremely interested to hear your thoughts/comments.


The field of landscape history and archaeology in Britain is a divided one. Fault lines separate proponents of the traditional, ‘empirical school’ from those who advocate more theoretically informed landscape research. I want to argue that this division is unhelpful for not only does it reduce interpretation to a set of binaries (objective/subjective, physical/cognitive, economic/symbolic), it also detracts from the importance of landscape research in addressing current concerns about environmental change and sustainability, and how research can engage people outside the university. In this brief piece I want to advocate an interdisciplinary approach to ‘history from below’ from a landscape perspective, which takes on board recent theoretical scholarship but retains empirical research at its core.

Following the influential work of W.G. Hoskins, traditional approaches to landscape promote the practice of reading the landscape, achieved through spatial analysis, deciphering chronological sequences and tracking the long-term impact of human activity on the landscape, activities that were in turn shaped by particular environmental conditions.  In highlighting ongoing processes of adaptation and change such studies have been recognised for their valuable contribution to current debates on environmental issues. It is widely accepted that we need to take stock of past actions in order to make informed decisions and choices about future landscape preservation and resource management. But much of this work, particularly on the early modern and post medieval landscape, has prioritised economic explanations for change while neglecting to consider how decisions were made for a number of complex and contingent reasons and purposes. Embedded in social, cultural and political relations, decisions often had unintended consequences in altering the environment. Too often it seems the people are left out unless they were the elite individuals responsible for the wholesale transformation of the landscape.

The term ‘landscape’ itself originated in the seventeenth century as a particular way of seeing the world among elites. Wealthy landowners imagined and transformed their landscapes, designing them to be viewed as a work of art, to be looked upon like one would a painting. Research in the late 1980s and 90s emphasised interpretation and introduced the notion that the wealthy were themselves engaged in ‘reading the landscape’.1 This work was important for making explicit the connections between landscape, ideology and power.  Yet, in terms of understanding the relationship between people in the past and the material worlds they inhabited, this approach is too narrowly conceived. It prioritizes the perspectives of the elite and perpetuates the notion that the landscape was viewed as a surface upon which a particular set of cultural and political values were drawn to the exclusion of all other viewpoints.  This is in more ways than one a top-down approach. Barbara Bender compares traditional writing of landscape history to a process of colonisation; both rely upon technologies of appropriation and control, such as map-making, and have the ability to distance and objectify. She offers a critique of Western elitist notions of landscape as a static scene onto which an ‘imposing/imposed viewpoint’ is drawn.2

In recent years, landscape historians and archaeologists have developed more theoretically informed approaches that place emphasis on interpretation, subjectivity and multivocality. Phenomenological scholarship, and theories of inhabitation and dwelling, have proven to be fruitful for scholars working on prehistoric and contemporary modern periods, not only in investigating the ways people perceived the landscape in the past, but also in recognising at a personal level their subjective positioning as researchers and writers.3 Much exciting and innovative research has sought to recover everyday lived experiences and the complex, contradictory, messy processes that have shaped landscapes in the past. These approaches while varied cohere around the central premise that landscapes are created through human engagement, through movement embodied practices and day-to-day experiences; they are not created from some external vantage point.  Importantly they create space for alternative experiences among the marginalised and dispossessed, the rootless and unsettled, those whose histories, memories and perceptions of landscape fit uncomfortably within the grand narrative of progress, improvement and technological change.  Surprisingly this work has been slow to gain ground in studies of landscape in the early modern period. Yet, it offers a useful point of departure for thinking through the experiences and meanings of landscape ‘from below’.

In my work on early modern court deposition evidence, I have found the experiential and subjective ‘turn’ in landscape studies particularly rewarding for offering new insights and ways of interpreting the oral testimonies given by men and women of non-elite status. While they are not to be taken at face value, and of course we cannot enter into the minds of people living in the past, these contemporary accounts of land and resources nonetheless offer valuable insights into the ways people interwove their own life-histories into a social narrative of landscape and place. They reveal for example relational networks of landmarks, names and places, as well as the material and cognitive boundaries that demarcated the ways people moved across the land. An important contextual framework is provided by understanding custom, knowledge practices, the rhythms of everyday life, movement, boundedness, spaces and places. Deposition evidence can reveal alternative, perhaps counter narratives of landscape and often oppositional viewpoints to that of the landed elites. But crucially they also reveal that alterations, interventions in the landscape were made not for purely economic reasons but rather a range of decisions stemming from socio-political and cultural relations from within the neighbourhood.

Dialogue and debate about different methodological and theoretical approaches needs to take  place if we are to realise the full potential and possibilities of interdisciplinary studies that speak to pressing modern concerns about environmental change. This requires the cross-fertilization of historical, literary and social science research with arts practice. But even within our own disciplines, greater attention needs to be paid to talking across conventional boundaries of research practice. In history, for example, studies of environment and landscape are often considered separate from social history. As I have mentioned environmental and landscape history often omit people. By contrast social historians have been concerned with class, race and gender, elucidating the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people, everyday experience and practices that are by their very nature multivocal, complex, contradictory and unequal.  Indeed, landscapes are not only differently experienced, their value is measured differently. Today value accords to a set of criteria implemented by institutional and funding bodies, the heritage sector and conservation groups, whose various preservation initiatives often serve only to reinforce the culture/nature dichotomy. Landscapes are appropriated for different ends; they are inherently political. There is an important intervention to be made in current historical research, in terms of both academic debate and public engagement, through the history of everyday life and reclaiming landscape history as peoples’ history.

Finally, to highlight just a few inspiring cross-disciplinary studies. Anne Whiston Sprin (landscape architect) talks vividly and eloquently about the need for all of us to learn the language of landscape if we are to act responsibly to safeguard the future environment.  She argues that disciplinary fragmentation has led to a lack of understanding of landscape as a continuous whole. In her words: ‘Absent, false, or partial readings lead to inarticulate expression’.4 Phenomenology has influenced other studies. Alex Loftus, (geographer) has recently argued that everyday subjectivity needs to be placed at the heart of debate, for it opens up potential for a revolutionary environmental politics.5 This, he argues, can be achieved by developing the Marxist theory of praxis – the critique of everyday practices – an understanding of ‘sensory engagement’ and, drawing on Gramsci and Levebvre, a realisation of the potential invested in the moment, leading to change in the world. In these works the everyday experiential, cultural and social landscape (Loftus doesn’t use this term preferring instead ‘socio-natural’, which I interpret as landscape) is foregrounded alongside an understanding of the politics of moving through and negotiating everyday landscapes. While Dolores Hayden (architecture and urbanism) seeks to connect marginalised individuals and ethnic groups through engagement with the history of their everyday landscapes. Her work further raises questions of rootedness and rootlessness, memory and identity given expression in marginal spaces and places. Integrated studies of landscape and social history, reveal plurality of meaning and experience, as well as highlighting political tensions and conflict across the long duree. Such cross-disciplinary, deeply contextualised studies, can foreground the constraints and inefficiencies of institutional governance and policy, ‘top-down’ interventions in managing resources and heritage sites.6




Having introduced this admittedly eclectic range of works, I hope to show that there remains a strong need for historical investigations into the meanings and experiences of landscape from below. In writing landscape and environmental history, linear narratives of progress and improvement, transformation and revolution have tended to take precedence over micro-historical analyses of the everyday, quotidian, and small-scale political transformations of spaces and places within everyday landscapes. As such these narratives of change disconnect and alienate people from the past. A great number of writers from the broad field of landscape studies have impressed upon their readership the interconnections between landscape, place, memory, identity, and notion that landscapes are not neutral but are contested and unequal. There is great potential for thinking about the dynamic, unstable, evolving relations between people and everyday landscapes across time and space, through which we may engage the public with the everyday historic landscape in more creative ways.




1 D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels (eds.) The Iconography of Landscape (1988)

2 B. Bender and M. Winer, (eds.) Contested Landscapes, Movement, Exile and Place (2001)

3 See for example, C. Tilley A Phenomenology of Landscape: Paths, Places and Monuments (1994)

4 A. Spirn, The Language of Landscape (1998), p. 22

5 A. Loftus, Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology (2012)

6 C. Rogers, E Straughton, A. Winchester, M. Pieraccini, Contested Commonland (2011); B. Bender, Stonehenge: Making Space (1999)

War and the Environment: Some initial thoughts…

I am, first and foremost, a social and cultural historian of war and was lucky enough to complete my PhD amongst a collective associated with the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne. This museum, and its network of historians, approaches the study of the First World War from a largely ‘revisionist’ perspective and has thus encouraged me to think in new ways about how to approach the study of conflict across time and space. In turn, while I do not claim to be a historian of the environment, I value the exploratory space the CEAH has offered to reflect and reconsider approaches to conflict studies and war-related topics.

The most obvious connection between war and the environment is the environmental impact of conflict. During the First World War alone, endless quantities of shells, bullets, and shrapnel were hammered into the land. Gas and other chemicals were released into the atmosphere. Millions of men, horses and vehicles traipsed across the globe. Bodies rotted into the ground, along with human and animal waste that resulted from the economy of sustaining massive land armies over four and a half years of fighting. In short, as post-armistice aerial photographs of the Western Front indicate, the landscape was forever changed by the conflict. There are still daily reports of ammunition and explosives being found in the fields of France and Belgium. Along with the cemeteries and memorials that carpet the former battlefields of Europe, it is unclear whether the First World War has ever really relinquished its grip on the landscape.

These are just some simple observations of a non-expert. Much more comprehensive work and analysis is being undertaken within an ever-growing subfield of environmental history that is focussing on the relationship between militaries, war and the environment. Chris Pearson’s new book, Mobilizing Nature: The Environmental History of War and Militarization in Modern France (MUP, 2012) is one such example, stemming from an AHRC-funded large grant project that ran at Bristol University from 2007 – 2010 exploring ‘Militarized Landscapes in the Twentieth Century: Britain, France and the US’. In his book, the concept of mobilization strikes an important chord with the work of John Horne – one of the founding historians of the Historial – whose edited volume, State, Society and Mobilization in Europe During the First World War (CUP, 1997), focuses on one central feature: the political and cultural “mobilization” of the populations of the main belligerent countries in Europe involved in the war. Pearson has added a significant dimension to the question of mobilization by considering the use of nature and environment by militaries and civilians to prepare for, wage, and survive war. The environment is not just a passive setting for warfare (as many military historians would have us think) but is also an active agent that has been used by humans materially and symbolically. If pressed for time, I recommend Marianna Dudley’s excellent review via the IHR’s ‘Reviews in History’ (16th May 2013).

It always strikes me how surprised my students are when I get them to think about how the First World War was not really ‘seen’ by the soldiers who fought in it. Smoke and gas would have restricted their vision, as would the tactic of fighting under the cover of darkness. In many ways it was a visceral rather than visual war. Those in the trenches would have had their vision restricted to ground level, not least owing to the danger of lifting one’s head too high above the sand bag wall. As conflict archaeologist Matt Leonard (also of Bristol University) outlines in his fascinating work on subterranean warfare, ‘the lethal nature of No Man’s Land required men to live below the surface, not on it’. While numerous memorials and cemeteries dominate the landscape where the First World War raged, these represent the dead and not the lived experience of the war. For more on this, see his blog posts via the WW1 Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings website.

In a recent discussion on the International Society for First World War Studies forum, a researcher enquired about the use of trenches prior to the First World War. This sparked an energetic discussion that encouraged me to write this blog post. Christopher Schultz, a PhD candidate in History at Western University, Canada, working on ‘the Social Construction of Space and Place on the Western Front, 1914-1918’ raised the interesting point that trench systems appear around the same time as colonial powers are engaging in rationalizing or creating uniform concepts of space and time according to standardized measures. He sees links, far from coincidental, between these rigid geometric patterns in warfare and developments in irrigation projects amongst Canadian farmers, as well as other 19th century colonial case studies.  In these ‘non-wartime’ (I’m not convinced they were entirely pacifist) cases, the land was being carved up into territorial boundaries, sometimes with ditches; often with barbed wire, and had direct connections with the techniques that evolved in the trenches of the First World War. Schultz recommends Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Space and Time, 1880-1918 (Harvard University Press, 1983; 2003), Michael Shapiro’s Violent Cartographies: Mapping Cultures of War (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), and Reviel Netz’s Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity (Wesleyan University Press, 2004). In summary, if we are going to think about war and the environment it has to be within a framework of reciprocity and exchange. The landscape not only provided the ‘stage’ for war’s violent performance; it also did much to shape the very nature and experience of individual conflicts.

Is there something a bit perverse about embracing the environmental humanities? What value is there in this trans-paradigm scholarship? What are the perils?

In the lead up to the launch of Environmental Humanities in November 2012, the Editors invited members of the Editorial Board to respond to a short provocation. Timothy Morton and Cary Wolfe (both of Rice University) contributed this video response, well worth watching if you have 15 minutes to spare.


History Working Papers Project

I have posted a paper currently in progress on history teaching and ‘education for sustainable development at the History Working Papers Project website. This is a fantastic initiative that has created a version of the open peer review sites being experimented with in the sciences. You can read the paper and provide comment paragraph by paragraph, and I cam respond to comments. Please feel free to leave your thoughts on this.