How do historians teach Environmental History in an age where climate catastrophe fills the headlines? Megan Raby and Erika Bsumek, both History Professors and Environmental Historians discuss what drew them to the field, how they talk about environmental history with their students, and the 2021 Institute for Historical Studies Conference, “Climate in Context: Historical Precedents and the Unprecedented” (April 22-23). “Among many other questions, the conference will ask: Can history offer an alternative to visions of the future that appear to be determined by prevailing climate models, and help provide us with new ways of understanding human agency?”
Mentioned in today’s episode:
“Annual Conference examines climate crisis through lens of historical scholarship, culminates year-long discussion on “Climate in Context” theme” (https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/historicalstudies/news/annual-conference-examines-climate-crisis-through-lens-of-historical-scholarship-culminates-year-long-discussion-on-climate-in-context-theme)
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
Alina Scott: Dr Raby and Dr. Bsumek make are also the thematic coordinators for the climate and context, historical precedents and the unprecedented conference that will start this Thursday at the Institute for Historical Studies. And so I thought would be really great to have them on the podcast to talk about their work in environmental history, but also what we can expect this week at the conference that we’ve all been looking forward to for a year now. What drew you to Environmental History?
Megan Raby: Well, I can go ahead and start. I mean on one hand, I guess I’ve always been something of a nature person. I was always interested in nature. I wanted to be a scientist, a paleontologist as a kid. But you know, my primary training is in the history of science and I didn’t really think of myself as specifically environmental historian at first, but I happen to do my undergraduate and graduate study at places in programs where the history of science and environmental history were closer together than they are in a lot of places. And there were really some fantastic environmental historians at Montana State and at the University of Wisconsin. So I encountered environmental history through coursework in my training where it shows up in my own work is in dealing with the history of ideas about the environment, ideas about ecology and as that relates to kind of the field work that scientists do in places. And so understanding the places the nature that the scientists are in is just as important as understanding their social, political, cultural context. And I’d say also what interests me is a historian are the mythological questions that environmental history really presents. So how do you bring nature into the story as more than just like a passive setting or stage where human action occurs? And how does it interact with the history of science? Right, historians of science tend to historic highs and deconstruct scientific ideas. That is how scientists see nature. So how do we bring nature into the story when we’re also using scientists accounts to make nature kind of act in our histories? Um, and also just teaching environmental history is a lot of fun and I enjoy teaching it. It shakes up the question of what a primary sources it can get you outside, which history courses don’t often get you to do. So that’s kind of what drew me into environmental history and what keeps me there.
Erika Bsumek: Great. Thanks, Megan. This is Erika. It’s such a good question. What drew me to environmental history? Like Megan? I had some exposure to environmental issues in environmental history early in my career and training in graduate school, I had the opportunity to take some courses from some environmental historians, although it wasn’t my sort of key area of expertise. I studied material culture and my first book was on a small scale material culture, consumer goods. And when I started my second project, I was kind of scaling up through material sort of analysis of material culture. So I started looking at concrete as a material that is used widely across the american west in particular, and it’s kind of transformative aspects and you really can’t write about concrete or the dams or the highways without thinking about the places that they transform. And so that’s really sort of the way that I got into environmental history most recently. But like Megan, because I had some training in environmental history, I was teaching environmental history courses, which are really fun and students tend to be really engaged. I do place based Studies, one places the campus itself, we do undergrads every semester, undergrads and I like dig into the environmental history of campus, which is really fun. And then I worked on the transnational book Nation States and Global Environmental History, which made me think about those issues on a global scale. So it’s just been kind of moving forward with the environmental topics and themes.
AS: Every time I see climate or the environment is in the news, it associated with tragedy and really devastating consequences of human action or climate change and its also often really pessimistic, as if all the decisions have already been made. So how do you teach environmental history in a time where these conversations about climate and the environment are often so pessimistic?
EB: I’ll start with that one, in part because I have a kind of spearheaded a project to deal with that exact issue a few years ago, while I was a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center, which is a sort of environmental history um center in Munich, working with other scholars, that was a topic that came up a lot. So how do you not give in to despair when the things that you are studying kind of lead you to that place? One of my fellow scholars who was there, dr john Barry and I used to have this conversation a lot and he loved this book by Jonathan Lear called Radical Hope. I liked that book a little less than he likes it, but nonetheless, it’s kind of an interesting idea. And so we started having a conversation about can we take the sort of baseline of that book, which is this idea of radical hope and apply it to large scale climate change conversations in a way that is productive but not necessarily saccharine or overly sentimental. Can you face reality in a hopeful fashion? That is that can produce helpful conversations, productive conversations. And so we created the Radical Hope syllabus which is a crowd source uh syllabus, We had a conference on it. Anybody can access it at Radical Hope syllabus dot com. There are units on there. So that’s one of the things that I did to kind of approach the topic of climate change in a you know, not setting aside the horrors of climate change, but trying to be have productive conversations around the topic.
MR: Yeah, it’s a tough question. How to deal with a topic where a lot of students I know are feeling anxiety. Climate anxieties is a thing now. So the first thing I say is I think it really is important to acknowledge the emotions that are involved and to acknowledge that students, and even the professor may feel worried, feel anxious and sometimes feel pessimistic about things about our future, about the future of places and people and living things that we care about in the world. So that puts me a little out of my comfort zone. But one way I’ve approached this in teaching an upper level seminar on global environmental history that was really focused on different historical perspectives on climate change. Was to have the students do something a little experimental, which was to ask them to write a semi fictional essay that’s from the perspective of a future historians looking back on our past and present and an imagined future. Right? So they do have to ground it in real historical sources and present date sources, but also projections, you know, that they can treat sort of as if it’s a local source. And I really found that this allows students to explore their hopes and their fears. Like I let them write whatever they some of them wrote very dark things and some of them wrote very optimistic things. And some of them wrote, they really went, they got really into it. And what was useful about that was it allowed them to talk openly about their hopes and fears and basically what the limits of their or the lack of limits of their imagination about what could happen in the future, um, might be. And that was a way to kind of talk about things that we tend not to want to talk about. And that actually can keep us from even talking about climate change. I mean, it’s like we don’t even it’s like something that we avoid talking about. We talk all around it. Right? So that’s one assignment that maybe sounds a little weird to write fiction and history class, but really kind of broke up some of the conversations. And then the other thing I’d say, which is kind of fundamental about why historical perspectives on something that we think of as being in the present and future. And that is, you know, thinking about environmental problems including climate change historically is important because it really centers and exposes human agency and historical contingency and it helps us know that the future is not determined right? Because the past was not determined, studying history. Let’s just think about how change is possible and that things didn’t need to be the way that they are now, right. Things could have been a different way. So our dependence on fossil fuels, for example, is the product of specific human choices in particular places, by particular groups of people. So it brings it down to a human scale. This problem that seems too big, Too big to think about all at once. So we can think about really specific examples like cities and corporations pushing to shift away from streetcars and towards automobiles as something that got us in the mess that we’re in now, but that’s something that’s not necessarily forever, right? And also it can be empowering to look at histories of activism, including environmental activism, and situate things that we separate off as being environmental into bigger histories of collective action and things like that. So, so yeah, those are a couple of ways I think about it and I just acknowledge that I often have a hard time feeling optimistic, but I also think that it’s important two try and and to look at this in a balanced way.
EB: Can I just add something on there just because I loved what Megan said so much. Um and I think that one of the kind of interesting things that makes me sometimes feel optimistic about teaching about climate change is, you know, we’re around young people and they approach things really differently. Sometimes they see things differently. They’re not wedded to the decisions that were made before them. And so, you know, just like the kind of fresh perspectives that they sometimes bring to the classroom questions that they ask can be really be a generative way to begin to think through. And then as they learn environmental history, they actually see the decision makers in the past, making these decisions that kind of lock us into our current, our contemporary condition and to know that they’re going to go on and be decision makers, policymakers, engineers, sociologists, whatever they’re going to go on to be psychologists, um they can frame and forge new ways forward. And to me that is one thing that helps sort of keep the optimism going in the classroom. It’s a lot of pressure to put on them. But um it does actually help counter that.
MR: I just I totally have to say, yeah, I learned so much from my students uh in teaching that class, which was really an experiment for us all. And also because climate change is one of those Now, unfortunately, incredibly polarized questions they threw, getting some of the historical tools right of critical thinking and using evidence and weighing not just two sides, but multiple sides of different questions that they were much more open. And I think flexible then unfortunately the people who are in charge of things right now are, but that won’t be forever either. So yeah, give me a lot of hope just to work with them.
AS: To shift gears a little. You are both the thematic coordinators of the climate in context, historical precedence and the unprecedented conference that’s coming up this week. I’m really interested in why this theme title and what you think it contributes to the conversation about climate.
MR: Um, yeah, I can start. Yeah. So I would say maybe, um it’s worth saying that. I think both Erica and I came at this initially from teaching about climate change in our Environmental history courses and going from originally maybe teaching a day or two on this at the end and in my case and then feeling like maybe was to contemporary to devote a lot of how could I actually approach climate change and more than it had to be in the environmental history class, but didn’t seem historical enough. But I could tell that students wanted more. And so personally, I felt like I should try to do more in my classes. And I was feeling more and more that, me personally as a human being needed to do something to confront climate change. And how would, how was I just equipped to do that? Right? Um, probably my skills are in being a professor of being a teacher. And so I shifted to doing that whole seminar that was on perspective historical perspectives on climate change. And that changed. I learned from that right. And I’m going to do a signature course on that for freshman in the fall two. But in doing that, I learned about all the different historical perspectives that there are out there that are relevant to the current problem of climate change. I’ve learned about the cool things that fellow historians are working on. And I would say that I started to feel the historians in general needed to feel more ownership and responsibility about um teaching climate change or just incorporating it into our work in some way. It’s not that I my own research is anyway, obviously connected to climate change, although biodiversity and ecology are obviously connected, right? So somewhere along the way, I guess ERIC and I started talking about the possibility of proposing NHS conference and it just seemed like the obvious topic for us to do, to explore the broader range of ways that historical perspectives actually are relevant to the climate crisis. So that it’s not just the domain of people who scholars who traditionally see themselves as environmental historians. History, as it’s relevant to confronting the climate crisis, really. It’s political history of social history, cultural history is the history of colonialism and racism. You know, we all have some connection to this actually.
EB: Yeah, and I’ll jump in. I mean, Megan is right. We had a bunch of conversations about this and every year the HS has a theme. And before the pandemic climate change seemed like the obvious one. Like this is a big global pressing problem. Lots of people are talking about it around campus. We teach environmental history, our students are talking about it, and Megan and I had had a number of different conversations. How do you historicity eyes a topic as big as the climate? How can we contextualize, how are we in the profession or is it possible for us in the profession to kind of practice what we preach? And then finally, like there is a lot of research about climate change coming from different parts of environmental history where people are addressing it. How do we go public with that and show the public that we have a particular kind of expertise that they might benefit from, that would inform conversations that might even inform policy, that we can add something new. Besides this debate about is climate change real or unreal? The kind of like, you know, people get locked into arguing the facts. Are we going to call it global warming or climate change? Well, that’s there’s a whole history behind even concepts like that. So Megan and I, you know, we have these kind of conversations and then we realize those four themes that I just laid out would be excellent panels and so people can expect to hear conversations about what does climate mean? How do we contextualize this term? How do we contextualize the climate crisis historically? How has concepts of climate changed over time? You know, there’s a round table with people from not just historians, but people who are historically adjacent. So some kind of people who would be more we might consider more in the field of environmental humanities? Talk about how do we, in the academy practice what we preach? Is there a way we can use our public history institutes are public facing to really contribute to the conversation? So that’s that’s something that people can can kind of expect to experience over the course of the next two days and it starts on Earth Day, which make it and I both need to remark on. So it’s the 51st anniversary of Earth Day that the conference starts on. So Earth Day seems like the perfect day to say, let’s reflect birthday started as a teaching is Megan and I have discussed, and she pointed out recently, so this is kind of like our contribution to the idea of the teaching.
AS: What can people expect from this conference? I’ve looked at the lineup, there’s a bunch of incredible speakers as well as some amazing graduate students from U. T. So what are you most excited about for this conference and what can people expect?
MR: Well let me mention first of all that we have these two phenomenal keynote speakers, the opening keynote and the closing keynote, who both really I think embody the power of historical narrative beyond the academy. So Bathsheba on day one has her work in her book, The Floating Coast, but also in the atlantic and things like that. She’s she’s really helped to help us help her readers to understand the deep human and ecological histories of the arctic and why we should care about a place that seems pretty far off and people who seem very far off and distant from our everyday lives. But in her narrative power is just really phenomenal. So I’m really excited for that talk. And then on the closing, you know, we have Naomi a rescues who’s a historian of science and her work has been really inspirational, I think her work explains the nature of scientific consensus, tive consensus and has also exposed the roots of climate change denialism. Her work is important because it helps us see that it’s not just about believing the science, but also really understanding how science works within its complicated social context and that’s where historical perspectives can come in there. So those two keynote speakers I’m really excited about.
EB: In addition to the two keynotes we have to kind of traditional academic panels, people will present research on historical ways of knowing and responding to the climate. They’ll present research on social causes and consequences of the climate crisis that sort of emerging climate crisis, everything from coal to oil to water, sort of talking about traditional themes. And then we have to round table panels which are more discussions. So the scholars will present very short 5 to 7 minute presentations. So the first one is that really the practicing what we preach round table. It’s a conversation about making history sustainable and just our profession. How do we do this? How do we make it sustainable? And just and how can the profession and academia sort of a large really face the climate crisis. After that there’s another round table panelists will be having an interdisciplinary conversation about public history and climate. And so we’ll hear from people who have launched art exhibits and museum exhibits, who are working in the public with groups but all of them have a historical component. So it is really the sort of public history piece of that public facing discussion on climate change and where it intersects with our particular discipline.
MR: Well I’m excited about all the sessions and speakers but the fact that we paired those together those different forms of sessions I think is really important. And I hope it opens up kind of ongoing conversations about how historians can be more environmentally and community engaged and also that the whole conference, if you can’t make it to the whole thing or you can’t sit on zoom for two whole days away I will be doing the whole conference will be recorded, the video will be online on Not Even Past. And so we’re hoping that can continue the conversation and be a useful teaching resource again.
EB: And I just want to add you know we have a lot of graduate students at U. T. Working in desperate areas across you know space and time. And we invited a few of them who have particular environmental angles to their projects to reflect on climate change. So we have five young scholars who do not write about climate change per se but right environmental history who are going to be presenting their original thoughts on where how their projects kind of intersect with climate change. And I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for them to kind of get to reflect on that in this public sphere. So I’m super excited about the graduate student panel as well and how we get to promote the work of our young wonderful scholars here at UT.
AS: So my last question is how do people sign up for the conference?
MR: That’s an excellent question. You’ll be able to find the link to registration right on the Institute for Historical Studies website on the left. You’ll see the climate conference and if you click on that, you’ll find it. I think you can also navigate to registration from the Not Even Past site or from the social media for the Institute for Historical Studies and Not Even Past.
EB: And you can find if you’re looking for it on Twitter information about it on Twitter, we have a hashtag which is #climateincontext2021. If you just search for that hashtag on Twitter, you’ll find lots of information about the presenters about the panelists about the topics. And this is not just for people who are studying the 20th or 21st century. We have early modern Mexico to, you know, the history of course, typhoons. I mean like it we have weather modification to museum exhibits. So there’s a little bit of something for everyone in the panel in the conference.
MR: It’s not possible to cover everything with such an expansive topic but we have these sessions that are really cutting across geographic areas and time periods to explore these key themes and then questions for the first profession. It’s public engagement. So I really do think there’s something for everyone and can foster discussion among historians. Actually. One of the benefits for historians of this topic is that we are just in our little silo we can talk across the sub disciplines within history
EB: And you can see that because we have tons of cosponsors. So I think we might have the most co sponsors of any I. H. S. Conference ever um from all across campus um a whole bunch of different units. So we want to you can find all of those listed on the program as well.
AS Well, thank you Dr. Bsumek and Dr. Raby for joining us today on the podcast.