Environmental history not only for historians

Impressions from ESEH 2019 conference in Tallinn

by Sabina Kubekė

This August Tallinn University hosted the 10th biennial conference of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH). ESEH is the most important organization in Europe gathering academics working on environmental history. And don’t let the title of ESEH deceive you – the society unites not only historians, but also ecologists, climatologists, geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, law historians, political scientists and many more. This variety of academic fields was evident at the conference in Tallinn where more than 500 researchers were presenting their work. Needless to say, choosing only one panel to go to out of 10 or 11 in the sessions was often a true headache – the conference could have easily expanded into two weeks instead of four days of a very intensive schedule. But well, this is a typical reality of a good international academic convention.

Tallinn panorama
Tallinn panorama

There were two representatives of the Herder Institute in Tallinn. Christian Lotz was presenting in the panel “State forestry and sustainability from a transnational comparative perspective” with the talk on “Managing the timber frontier: International forestry congresses and the rescaling of sustainability in the Baltic and North Sea regions, 1870–1914”. Whereas I organized the panel on “Environmental policies during the Cold War: Transcending boundaries in national, transnational, and global perspectives” and made a presentation on “Poland and the international environmental cooperation during 1970–1980s.” This panel actually formed already back in the summer of 2018 on the banks of Mississippi in Minneapolis during a trans-Atlantic summer school on environmental humanities. Our session in Tallinn focused on different levels of environmental policies during the Cold War: global, transnational and national. The aim of all three presentations was to show that in a lot of cases boundaries between West and East, science and politics, the international and the national sphere were bridged in the context of environmental protection efforts. Specific case studies on the development of Yugoslavian tourism sector, involvement of the Polish environmental scientists into international programs during the socialist times, and the international climate change negotiations were presented and received many questions and attention from the audience. One thing we learned for sure was that we are still getting to know many new things about the recent past – starting from the origins of the concept of the climate change to how Adriatic coast became a paradise for tourism.

At the conference itself, one of the most interesting panels I went to was a roundtable on the environmental history and historical ecology which made the audience reflect upon boundaries and connections between the humanities and the natural sciences. Although environmental history always has had strong connections with various branches of the natural sciences, especially with ecology, it was very clear from the discussion that actually historical ecology and environmental history are two related, but different fields. Apart from the different methods and sources, the main distinction between the two lies in the basic interest of the field: as Péter Szabó put it in the roundtable, environmental historians are firstly interested in the human society, whereas historical ecology – in animals. Moreover, discussion also provoked to think whether often encouraged interdisciplinarity in environmental humanities is always the best choice. Maybe instead we could more often try various cooperation frameworks uniting researches working both in humanities and natural sciences.

Wooden architecture in Kalamaja district
Wooden architecture in Kalamaja district

Another big highlight of the conference was a keynote by historian Kate Brown from MIT on “The Great Chernobyl Acceleration.” The lecture attracted around three hundred attendees and those who thought already knowing quite a lot about this tragic event of 1986, still left the crowded room with a lot of new thoughts. In her talk, Brown convincingly argued that instead of thinking and writing of the Chernobyl catastrophe as of a one-off accident, we should understand Chernobyl as a point of acceleration on a timeline of radioactive contamination that continues to this day. With plenty of examples from radioactive blueberries from Pripyat marshes to radioactivity still being released by the trees during fires in the Chernobyl Zone, Brown showed that Chernobyl is not yet a closed chapter.

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