Skip to content

The effects of the humanities: Knowledge, collaboration, impact – new anthology with researchers from the Division

Several of the Division’s researchers have contributed to a new Swedish anthology: Humanvetenskapernas verkningar: Kunskap, samverkan, genomslag (The effects of the humanities: Knowledge, collaboration, impact). Editor, former Division postdoc, Linus Salö re-joined the Division again this year as the supervisor of Klara Müller and as researcher in the research platform Making Universities Matter. Other participating researchers from the Division in the anthology are Fredrik Bertilsson, Ulrika Bjare, and Sverker Sörlin as well as our former colleagues, with Lund University as base, Mats Benner and Eugenia Perez Vico.

The anthology is published by Dialogos Förlag, and translated from the Swedish backside of the book, this is what it is about:

In the discussion about how universities and colleges can better meet the great challenges of our time, the social sciences and humanities have begun to take an increasing place. This is not least due to the fact that a new line of research policy is taking shape, where the humanities are given greater weight than before.

This ongoing shift opens up new ideas about how academic knowledge is disseminated and used. Research collaboration is not limited to industry and business, but takes place and has always taken place with many parts of society. Innovations are not just technical or medical news and progress, but also social renewal that concerns language, media, culture, politics, economics, behavior, religion – yes, most things that people do, think and feel.

The humanities’ movements between academia and other spheres of society, not least politics, can be seen as passages through a cat door in an otherwise locked gate. This metaphor runs like a thread through the book. Who has moved through the cat door, and what kind of knowledge effects has it had? How is this activity mentioned and valued?

In the ten chapters of this anthology, a number of humanities seek to answer these questions. The participating authors are active in various fields of science at various Swedish universities. The purpose of the book is to give momentum and energy to the discussion about the effects of the humanities – and ask new questions about the universities’ goals and meaning.

You can order the anthology (in Swedish) from Dialogos homepage!

Podcasts – a Valuable Tool of Research Communication

Podcasts are great company for a lunch walk, a long commute or doing household chores. By now, a multitude covering all kinds of topics exist. But while some might associate this medium with leisure time, it is actually a great support for reading scientific complex texts. Eric Paglia, researcher in the project SPHERE, uses podcasts to communicate research to a wider audience. We have asked him a couple of questions on his work with podcasts, which he answers in the following.

Could you please tell us about your work with the medium of podcasts?

I actually started producing podcasts before the concept of “podcasts” even existed. I’ve worked with radio since the mid-1990s, initially as the music director and a DJ at a rock station in Stockholm. Then in 2002, directly after the Johannesburg sustainability summit, I launched the program Think Globally Radio to explore my interest in the environment and provide a media platform for sustainable development issues, which was lacking at the time. After each Sunday evening show, broadcast live on the local college radio station, I would upload the program to the website ThinkGloballyRadio.org as a downloadable MP3 file. Many of the hundreds of episodes I produced over the course of some 15 years are still available on that website, as well as on Apple Podcasts, constituting an audio archive that has proven to be very useful in my own academic research. It encompasses a wide range of interviews with leading environmental thinkers, including scientists, scholars, activists, ambassadors and other government officials.

As host of Think Globally Radio, I for example first learned of the concept of the Anthropocene in early 2004 when interviewing Earth System scientist Will Steffen, and in 2006 I discovered the discipline of environmental history during an interview with Prof. Sverker Sörlin. As it turned out, a few years later I began my PhD. training in environmental history with Prof. Sörlin as my supervisor, resulting in a dissertation entitled The Northward Course of the Anthropocene that encompassed research on climate change, the Arctic and the Anthropocene. While writing my dissertation, I often drew upon and even cited the interviews I conducted for Think Globally Radio. So it is safe to say that producing radio programs and podcasts has opened doors and had a profound effect on my career trajectory and intellectual development.

Please tell us about the podcasts you currently produce and why you started them.

The rise of podcasts as a popular form of media has allowed me to pursue and expand upon a range of my research interests. During my doctoral studies I became interested in Arctic issues, and with no other podcasts focused on the politics and science of the polar regions, I launched the Polar Geopolitics podcast. Then when the coronavirus struck Sweden in March 2020, I started the podcast Corona Crisis: Once Upon a Pandemic as a way to make sense of and engage in real time with what was certain to be a world-changing event. That podcast draws on my previous background in crisis management studies, and centers around interviews with leading scholars and practitioners ranging from political scientists, medical experts and others.

The intention behind SPHERE – a podcast on the evolution of global environmental governance is to create a platform to communicate research from the SPHERE project and to develop a free and widely accessible resource for anyone interested in learning about the history of environmental politics and the scientific ideas that structure our understanding of global environmental change. An important component of the SPHERE podcast as it continues to develop will be the oral histories of key actors who have contributed to the scientific, social and political processes that have made the environment and sustainability major international issues over the past half century. It will thus serve as a kind of living, oral history archive consisting of first-hand accounts and analyses from participants as well as historians and other scholars specializing in issues related to the environment and sustainable development.

What goes into producing your podcasts? And what do you, the guests and the listeners get out of them?

As all of the podcasts I currently produce are based on in-depth discussions with different types of experts, each episode generally requires a fair amount of preparation in terms of background research and planning the interview, as well as post-production editing and writing copy for the show notes. This is inevitably a great learning experience for me, and conducting the actual interview—a focused discussion with a leading expert on what is often a highly interesting and timely topic—can be exhilarating. For their part, guests on the podcast appreciate the opportunity to speak at some length about their research—not often the case in traditional media—and apply their expertise to current real-world affairs, while listeners learn a great deal about important contemporary issues that can be of both academic and practical interest. 

What makes podcasts useful for research communication to the academic community and in regards to public outreach? Do you recommend working with podcasts in academia more frequently and if so, why? 

From my perspective as a researcher with a background in radio, podcasts are an excellent research communication tool and an ideal complement to traditional academic work. Articles in peer-reviewed journals and chapters in edited volumes are often aimed at narrow specialist audiences and can take months or years from the initiation of research to the publication of results that are often behind expensive paywalls. Podcasts, by contrast, are available for free on established platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify, and can be produced relatively rapidly to communicate research at any point in the knowledge production cycle. Although academic peers are among the core listeners of my podcasts, I usually encourage guests to minimize the use of jargon and provide a more popular science-style presentation of their work that is more accessible to a broader audience. In this way podcasts can serve a pedagogical function and contribute to the academy’s third mission of engaging with society and sharing knowledge and expertise with a wide range of stakeholders—including policymakers, the media and the general public—to help address critical societal challenges. This mission is in my estimation more important than ever in such an extraordinary era of global crisis, uncertainty and disruption.

Thank you, Eric!

If you got interested in the aforementioned podcasts, feel free to listen in by clicking on the respective image:

The Afterlives of a Windowfarm

Anna Svensson was a doctoral student with the Division and the Environmental Humanities Laboratory, and successfully defended her thesis A Utopian Quest for Universal Knowledge – Diachronic Histories of Botanical Collections between the Sisteenth Century and the Present in 2017, when she left us for new flowers to pick. Anna was our unofficial florist, and could often be seen decorating even the darkest day with brilliant flowers and plants. One of her contributions during her time with us, other than being a wonderful colleague, was the window farm. Today’s blogpost is a text about the story of the Window Farm, written by Anna for the Stories of the Anthropocene Festival (26–29 October 2016).

This is the story of a window farm – the beginning, the end, and the afterlife.

This story begins with the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment (home of the Environmental Humanities Laboratory) moving to a newly built, climate controlled premises. It had a spacious kitchen and big windows. As these windows could not be opened, however, the air felt stale and dry. Building a windowfarm was a practical measure to improve our common working environment, improving the air quality and making ourselves feel more at home.

Over the past two years, these plants have breathed with us, and the humming of the pump and the dripping along the chains have filled the pauses in our conversations over lunch. The first attempt was a mediocre success: a few plants (basil and lemon balm) died almost immediately; the ivy and coffee plants fared much better, but eventually succumbed to systemic problems. The nutrient solution evaporated too quickly – we added plastic pipes along the chains to minimise splashing, but this did not fix the problem – eventually causing the system to clog up completely.

Learning from past mistakes, the next reincarnation of the windowfarm in the fall 2015 only contained plants that have robust root systems and survive for a long time in water without the addition of nutrient solution. The result was astonishing. The spider plants grew explosively, sending out shoot after shoot like a verdant fire-work show. (The pump died and was replaced.) Gradually, however, this enthusiastic growth became a cause for concern. The many shoots were thirsty, and eager roots began to seek their way through the water holes at the bottom of the bottles and creep along the chain. Several Monday mornings I was greeted by the silence of a system run dry. The roots and chains were so interlaced that replanting was not an option. We could either dismantle it or watch it wither.


Since taking it down, it has left an emptiness in the kitchen. I still register the silence that meant the tanks were empty or the system had clogged. In a concrete way, the windowfarm has played out like a pageant of the technofix, a microcosmic drama between the biosphere and technosphere that hovers between comedy and tragedy. Is this a story of survival? The windowfarm is itself a DIY innovation (and later corporate venture) encouraging a growing global community of windowfarmers to green the city beginning with each individual home, a promise towards self-sufficiency. What initially seemed so straightforward gave way to complication after complication, in which the very successful growth of the second planting required its destruction: there are limits to growth in the technosphere.

What, then, is the afterlife of the windowfarm? The shoots have been rooting in glass jars along the kitchen windowsill, with the main plants in pots of water. The torn bottles and rusty chains cannot be used again. While the windowfarm made the office kitchen more home-like for me, the university is not my home and with the migratory life of an academic I could not ensure its survival through the empty summer months. It became a burden.

Digitising Education – A Reflection

Our division is engaged in multiple forms of teaching. This did not change during the pandemic. The new reality, dominated by working from home and thus increasingly online, forced us to find new ways of teaching.

It was paramount to keep the same level of quality while moving whole courses online and dealing with the restrictions, such digitised interactions entail. By transferring courses online, which usually would include a mixture of lectures, small-group seminars and excursions, many challenges came up.

First of all, we needed to ensure that basic functions of our courses could be established online and that the continuation of our students’ education was ensured. During the first months of the pandemic, this was based a lot on improvisation and on an extensive usage of already existing infrastructure, such as Canvas, the course web and, especially, tons of emails. Luckily, IT-support made Zoom very quickly available. The initial transition happened surprisingly smooth.

Schüler, Eingabe, Tastatur, Text, Frau, Start, Geschäft

But, as the saying goes, at every level there is another devil: problems occurred, while time progressed and experiences in online teaching added up. How can you ensure that your students can learn in the best way possible if you lose to a big extent the direct contact with them? How can you keep concentration and interest levels high if zoom-fatigued individuals challenged with all kinds of non-education related issues were under more and more pressure? How could you, as a teacher or course administrator, deal with the unplanned extra work resulting from unforeseen additional tasks?

These were only some questions which came up during the last year. Our division was able to develop some strategies to cope and thus fared fairly well during this time. To communicate and discuss our experiences, four scholars of our division have taken part in this year’s KTH SoTL: Learning Spaces Conference. The following is a short report on their panel.

Decorative: KTH SOTL Logo, KTH SoTL 2021: Learning Spaces

Per Högselius (head of undergraduate teaching), Kati Lindström (course responsible in Energy Systems in Society and in History of Science and Technology, teacher in Perspectives on Science, Technology and Landscape in Time and Space), Katarina Larsen (Course responsible in Swedish Society and teacher in Gender and Technology) and Siegfried Evens (course coordinator in Swedish Society, Culture and Industry in Historical Perspective and teacher in Energy Systems in Society) presented together our experiences at the division.

Per began with an overview over our various courses we offered during the last year. It was a broad range, reaching from Swedish perspectives on progress, industrialisation and system-approaches, over energy and geopolitics, to political ecology, science fiction and gender in technology.

Kati followed with small meta-studies on our e-learning performance. One critical point was here the usage of Canvas, which as a course administrating tool, had maybe outlived itself in the current circumstances. It became important to use as much diversity as possible, by including audio, video, standard presentations and possibilities for interaction as well as discussions among the students. It became also clear that students were highly versed in digital tools but not necessarily in the humanities’ ways of reading and writing texts. This discrepancy needed to be bridged by teachers and used technology. There were already a lot of tools being used, some of which were Mentimeter, Kahoot and Padlet.

Katarina continued with introducing two innovative ways in teaching. One was the distance teaching walk done with small groups of students as replacement for a regularly scheduled excursion and the other a specific mapping exercise linked to this walk done in Nearpod. By working in our Swedish Society Course, Katarina introduced this new form of excursion by building upon smartphones’ ability to using geographic locating devices. In this way, students could walk across the area of Liljeholmen and get specific tasks and information at respective locations. Later on during the seminar, students could then draw their ideas for improved urban planning in this area on a map presented in Nearpod. Thus it was possible for students to experience this excursion and an important part of the course, even though big-group excursions had to be cancelled. It was on the outside and student groups did not exceed about 5 people at a time.

Siegfried rounded up the panel with the presentation of the interactive teaching tool Nearpod. This tool, which he introduced in our Swedish Society Course first, enables teachers and students to interact with each other during a presentation. In this way, the limitations of power point are easily overcome. We only got positive feedback from our students on this, so Siegfried went along and showed our experiences to colleagues from other schools. From my personal experience, Nearpod was very important in diversifying our ability as teachers in engaging with the students digitally. Its use should therefore be promoted.

In total, this panel was successful in showing innovative ways on how to improve our digitised forms of teaching. At this stage, it is important to have an ongoing dialogue with other departments to exchange ideas and reflections. This panel has been a great start for that. As the pandemic continues, digital teaching will stay with us. When eventually real-life teaching will become practice again, the experiences we are collecting right now will turn out very useful in the future. I am sure they will transform contemporary forms of teaching even in a long, and hopefully pandemic-free, perspective.

By Achim Klüppelberg

Is the self-read water meter a pro-poor innovation? Kenian experiences by Nilsson and Blomkvist

Just this February, KTH Water Centre director and division member David Nilsson has together with Pär Blomkvist (Mälardalen University, Division of Industrial Economics and Organisation) published a new article in Utilities Policy: “Is the self-read water meter a pro-poor innovation? Evidence from a low-income settlement in Nairobi”.

Profile picture of David NilssonIn this article, both authors engage the topic of access to one of the most critical resources, humans need. In a situation of climate emergency, the situation of access to clean and safe fresh water supply becomes even more difficult for people with low incomes living in regions strongly affected by changes in climatic conditions. Low-income areas in Kenya’s capital Nairobi are among those places.

Nilsson and Blomkvist investigate how the implementation of the Jisomee Mita, a self-reading metering tool initiative which in the eyes of the authors benefits mainly property owners, has been changing this situation. This introduction of a new tool notwithstanding, consumers still stay dependent on overpriced and unsafe water supply. It seems like it did not work as a technofix to increase water-related resilience among Nairobi’s poor population.

If you want to continue reading, you can find the article here.

Winter at Hope Bay, Antarctica

To Northern Europeans, Antarctica is still a place of wonder and mystery. This might even more so be the case in times of rapid climate change – for a plethora of reasons.

The following story happened at Hope Bay in Antarctica. In January 1902, Otto Nordenskjöld together with his Swedish Antarctic Expedition discovered the bay. Unfortunately, their boat sank due to collisions with floating ice and the expedition was forced to spent quite some time at land. The shipwrecked built a stone hut, which provided them with much-needed shelter against the elements. Ultimately, they were rescued by the Argentinian boat “ARA Uruguay” under the command of Julián Irízar and could return home.

The following text is a translation done by our division’s researcher Kati Lindström from Duse’s Amongst Penguins and Seals (Stockholm, Beijers Bokförlagsaktiebolag, 1905, pp. 178-181). Duse was a member of the stranded expedition. The translated text was originally published on the Melting History blog. This blog is part of the project evolving around CHAQ 2020 (Cultural Heritage Antarctica 2020), “an Argentinean-Swedish expedition to the historical remains of the First Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1901-1903 on the Antarctic Peninsula.” Researchers involved with ties to our division are Dag Avango (now Professor of History at Luleå University of Technology), Lize-Marié Hansen van der Watt and Kati Lindström.

Samuel Duse writes:

The worst was during the periods of rough weather when we were forced to stay inside the artificial polar darkness of the stone hut, not disturbed by a single ray of light – perhaps only when a heavier storm tore open the ice plaster in the roof. …

We soon learned to predict when the southern storms would hit. Usually, it first started with a quiet snowfall while the barometer sank. When the barometer started to raise again, it was not long before a gust of wind heralded that the dance is starting soon. The newly fallen snow would start to move and it was best to crawl into the stone hut while you could still see something. Here inside you could lay down now and listen to the wild play of the mighty storm. It whispered and roared, it whistled and squeaked, the roof pounded with flying ice bits and small stones. It sounded as if all hell’s demons were trying hard to lay their hands on us here inside.

But the stone hut was sturdy and no storm could pull it down. Despite the brutal cold inside, filthiness and darkness, we snugged into our sleeping bags with a feeling of gratitude and the feeling of triumph was not missing when we saw that wind was powerless against the creation of our hands.

The longer we laid captive there inside, the more desperately we desired to go back again towards the light, towards the blinding sun that gave warmth and life….

And then we finally got out again from the darkness, we felt like the sky shone lighter and bluer than ever before, that the glacier glittered in sunlight in richer colours, and that Mt Flora’s ridged hillsides rose skywards more majestically than ever. We filled our lungs with the clean fresh air and a feeling of freedom brimmed our hearts amidst our captivity.

For pictures of the stone hut remains check out the Melting History blog.

New PhD-student in the “Making Universities Matter”-project!

We have a new PhD-student at the division! While the pandemic is still disrupting usual work routines, we are very happy that new people can nevertheless join us. Starting a PhD under these conditions in a new work environment is all but easy. Therefore, the division’s blog wants to continue introducing new people to make them more visible and to facilitate collaborations. Thus, Klara Müller was so kind to answer the following questions to introduce herself.

 

Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and the field(s) you are working on? 

I am an historian of science and technology and started at KTH as a doctoral student in January 2021. I work within Making Universities Matter (MUM), a project devoted to studying how the blend of missions and tasks of universities has evolved over time.

I finished my Master’s degree in The History of Science and Ideas at Uppsala University in June 2020. Previous to my Master’s I did a dual Bachelor’s degree in Media History and The History of Science and Ideas at Lund University. I have also studied archival science and was an exchange student at Utrecht University in 2019. My broader research interests relate to the history of humanities, history of bureaucracy, university history and the history of computing. Besides my studies, I have a far-reaching interest in research- and education policy.

In my previous research, I have mainly focused on the history of the information infrastructure of hospitals, through studies on the media history of medical records and on computers in healthcare. My Master’s thesis “Computer Power and the Art of Medicine: The Introduction of Computer Technology in Swedish healthcare 1962 – 1968” examined how computers affected medical knowledge production. The study shows how physicians’ diagnostic assessment of patients was reformulated into binary language so that computers could interpret it, and discusses the implications this process had on which type of knowledge was created and used in medical practice.

My PhD project has a lot of similarities with my previous research interests, but focuses on a different topic – instead of medical knowledge, I am looking into knowledge created in humanities disciplines. This agenda can be grasped as research on the information infrastructure of knowledge in the humanities in Sweden from the latter half of the 20th century. Methodically, I will approach this object by studying how humanities research has been measured and valued, in relation to, for example, the introduction of bibliometrics. The overall purpose of the study is to investigate changes regarding what has been considered to be high-quality humanities research, in relation to processes such as digitalization, internationalization, bureaucratization and the expansion of higher education.

 

What do you work on right now? Is something in particular coming up?

I am currently working on my PhD project outline, trying to map out the field. I am also involved with the Division’s upcoming Biennial report, analysing publication data.

Since I am affiliated with the knowledge platform MUM, I get to participate in a lot of interesting research policy events. For example, MUM and Vinnova have organized a seminar on the latest research and innovation bill (more information can be found here).

 

Starting during the pandemic is challenging. What kind of impact do you feel that Covid-19 have on your work? 

Since I knew that I would begin during the pandemic I guess I was able to adapt my expectations. But of course, it is not easy to be new at a workplace without the possibility of being there physically, without meeting people in person. And the feeling of a fresh start is difficult to achieve when you have been in the exact same apartment every day of the work week since March 2020. And it is, of course, not easy to plan for future courses, conferences and potential archival work, because of the uncertain future. Covid-19 has also led me to think a lot about how crucial cultural and historical knowledge is to understand societal reactions to crisis.

 

Thank you, Klara! Let’s hope we can all soon meet in person again.

Profit from Sverker Sörlin’s book on crisis became new scholarships for even more books on crisis!

In early summer 2020, Sverker Sörlin published the book “Kris! Från Estonia till Corona” (Crisis! From Estonia to Corona) on Bokförlaget Atlas. Here he puts the Corona pandemic as a crisis in a historical perspective along with other big crises in our society. He also shares his own experience from being ill with Corona. The publisher together with Sverker decided early on that the income of the book would go to scholarships for those who writes about crises. Last week the two reciepients of the scholarship was announced: Rasmus Landström, who will write a book about the hidden solutions to the climate crisis, and Ingrid Eckerman, Jan Stattin, and Karin Fridell Anter that will write about the refugee crisis, civil society and the rule of law. The two projects will recieve a total of 25 000 sek each.

Read more about the project in a Swedish article from Arena Idé, or translated to English below: https://arenaide.se/stipendier-till-bocker-om-klimatkrisen-och-flyktingkrisen/

“Rasmus Landström’s project Ustopi: The Hidden Ways of the Climate Crisis will result in an essay and a subsequent book. Rasmus is a literary scholar, critic and author of the critically acclaimed book Arbetarlitteraturens återkomst (2020). In his application, he writes that utopias are often criticized for “advocating over-planned model societies. That critique is based on a misunderstanding of utopia as a literary genre. But also that the concept of ‘planning’ is in such a state of disrepute today. The climate crisis shows an enormous need for democratic planning of the economy. That we expand the welfare sector to more parts of society and disconnect parts of the economic life from the market’s chaotic price signals. ” Ustopia is a combination of utopia and dystopia, coined by author Margaret Atwood.

Jan Stattin, Ingrid Eckerman and Karin Fridell Anter’s project Flyktingkrisen – Civilsamhället, rättssäkerheten och de unga flyktingarna 2015–2020 (The refugee crisis – Civil society, the rule of law and the young refugees 2015–2020) will result in a book. A historian, a doctor and an architect have chosen to come together to critically examine one of the crisis understandings that have characterized our time most deeply. In the application, they write that “refugee crisis” is a word that has been used extensively in debate and the mass media since 2015, but which is rarely given a more precise meaning. “We who are involved in the civilian work of civil society see the crisis of asylum seekers and our own, when we try our best to support people whose lives are being torn apart. We also see an ever deeper social crisis where the handling of refugees exposes major shortcomings in what is claimed to be legal certainty, and where the public debate is based on untruths that are never questioned,” the authors write further.
Translation of the article: Intäkterna från Sverker Sörlins bok Kris räckte till två stipendier: Rasmus Landström ska skriva om klimatkrisens dolda utvägar. Ingrid Eckerman, Jan Stattin, och Karin Fridell Anter ska skriva om flyktingkrisen, civilsamhället och rättssäkerheten published in Arena Idé, February 2021.

 

On “Protection and Improvement of the Human Environment”

Eric Paglia has just now published a new article in Humanities and Social Sciences CommunicationsTopic is the 1972 United Nations Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. The conference was convened after the Swedish delegation’s intervention on behalf of environmental protection four to five years earlier. Happening within a framework determined by the goal of sustainable development, this event acted as an embryonic cornerstone of global environmental governance.

Profile picture of Eric Paglia

While working in our division’s project SPHERE (in partnership with the Universities of Cambridge, Berkeley and Sydney), Eric analyses this political milestone of environmental protection through the lens of science diplomacy. Among other things, the conference produced a joint declaration of principles, of which one small example can be seen here to illustrate the scope of the issues discussed:

Principle 2

The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural ecosystems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate. [UN Report, p. 4.]

How did Swedish diplomats leverage science for their objectives in negotiations to achieve this declaration? How was science used to (successfully) lobby for convening a guiding UN environmental conference? What was the role of science during the conference’s preparation process?

You can find the answers to these questions and a lot more in Eric’s article!

Something I Have Learned from COVID-19

The following text was published by Marco Armiero in Environment and History 26 (3), pp. 451-454, in August 2020. Marco writes as acting president of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH).

 

I hope I am not taking advantage of my position as the president of our society to write what might seem to be a quite personal text. Feminist practices and scholarship have taught me that the personal is never only personal but also political. In my own work I have always blended – someone less sympathetic would say mixed up – the personal, the scientific and the political, convinced, as I am, that we know the world not only through concepts and words but also through emotions and political passions. So, please bear with me in my perhaps inappropriate trespassing of those various realms.

I would like to start by thanking all of you for your caring and warm support during these difficult times. As many of you may already know, I have been seriously ill with COVID-19. I was hospitalised for almost one month, spending ten days in the Intensive Care Unit. My condition was critical. During that time, and in my convalescence, I felt the privilege of being part of such a loving community; my family and I never felt alone. In this weird time of quarantine, colleagues and friends  unleashed their creativity, overcoming geographical distance, my  difficulties in speaking, and the physical distancing that the virus has imposed upon us. I happily run the risk of sounding cheesy but I wish to say that so much love was an amazing therapy – together with all the antiviral drugs and assisted breathing tools I received from the hospital. An academic society is not a group of friends, I realise this very well. But friendship, caring, and love can make a difference also in an academic society.

I have often campaigned for a scholarship that has the ambition to contribute to changing the world; perhaps this experience has taught me that we need to also change the ecologies of our relationships and feelings, starting from where and who we are.

Someone told me, trying to cheer me up, that it must have been my  obsession with bottom-up research and empirical fieldwork that brought me into the eye of this epidemic: ‘It was not enough to read about COVID-19, you had to experience it first-hand.’ Jokes aside, I wonder what I have learned from that unplanned fieldwork. I should immediately confess that it is not easy for me to reflect on my experience because it is painful and very emotional. While writing these few lines, I feel inadequate for the task and I am struggling with myself over whether I have actually something to say that might be of general interest. Perhaps, this is lesson number one: being humble and not pretending always to have something smart to say.

When I arrived at the local hospital here in Sweden, nurses and doctors were sure I was coming from Italy, perhaps after a short visit to family or friends. Indeed, I am from Italy – if you have ever heard me speaking in English, you would have no doubt about it – but I was not coming from Italy. The need to track the contagion is often a relevant tool in the control of epidemics like the current one. In Italy, at least at the beginning of the pandemic, there was an attempt to follow the movement of the virus from one subject to another, aiming to stop the spread of the contagion. Even now, regional governments have the authority to declare a ‘red zone’ – that is, to lock down a specific area (a town, a neighbourhood or perhaps a hospital) where the virus is especially prevalent in order to end the contagion. I was also asking myself – at least when I was still conscious – how and where I got infected, revising in my mind the last two weeks of my existence. Isn’t this lesson number two?

I believe that, in general, people in the Global North do not think of their daily lives in those terms. We move in antiseptic, immunised  environments, assuming that the world around us is not affecting our bodies, at least not with such immediate consequences. Even fewer of us would routinely see other human beings as biological threats. COVID-19 reminds us of what Stacy Alaimo has defined as trans-corporeality– that is, the interconnectedness of all beings with the material world in a dialectic relationship which transforms both of them simultaneously.

Although not employing this post-humanist lexicon, Alfred Crosby was arguing something very similar to trans-corporeality in his volume on the history of the Hispanic Flu: ‘The human body is a collocation of wonders, and none is more wondrous than the lungs. Here, quite literally, the line dividing the body from its environment is thinnest. The embodied experience of trans-corporeality in the dramatic form of COVID-19 calls for rethinking our understanding of the daily, familiar environment and its invisible/invisibilised relationships to the wider world. Several scholars have stressed that the present pandemic is the result of the expansion of intensive animal farming and the impingement of market-oriented agriculture on the wild. The organisation of production and consumption makes invisible the links connecting our daily environments with these wider networks of exploitation, but the body is the middle ground where those connections can become visible again, sometimes in a spectacular form as with COVID-19. The illusion that we live in a completely isolated and immunised environment is shattered.

However, while revealing the interconnections of the world and the impossibility of preserving indefinitely the safety of a small portion of it alongside the ruin of the rest, my experience of COVID-19 also goes almost in the opposite direction, and here we come to lesson number three. I got the virus in its aggressive form, as did many others around the world, but this does not make all of us equal. Rob Nixon once wrote that we might all be in the Anthropocene but in different ways. Similarly, Robert Bullard wrote that not all communities are created equal. COVID-19 is not the biological equaliser reducing our socio-ecological structure to the bare strength of our bodies. Race, class, gender and history matter in this pandemic. Many countries impoverished by colonial and neoliberal extractivism and exploitation have extremely weak health infrastructures; plus, as Mike Davis has noted, epidemics do not occur in a void, acting instead in combination with lack of food, inefficient sanitisation and poverty. Several studies are pointing at the unequal distribution of the virus, which seems to hit already vulnerable people more severely, including ethnic minorities, migrants and prison inmates. Obviously, this is not because of inappropriate behaviours – blaming the victims is always an easy toxic narrative – but rather because the virus is completely embodied into the current socio-ecological relationships which reproduce inequalities and privileges.

Something I have learned from COVID-19 is that I survived because I live in the ‘right’ part of the world, I belong to the ‘right’ class and I am not an illegal immigrant. Even now, going through my convalescence/quarantine, it is clear to me that my privilege makes my experience bearable. The  appeal to social distancing and washing hands frequently are fantasies – perhaps insults – for most people who live in overcrowded environments, without services or are homeless. The very idea of home as a safe place denies the reality of domestic violence against women – and in fact several sources mention an increase of gender-based violence during the  quarantine. And apart from violence, for many women the pandemic has brought even more care work. No, through COVID-19 I have not discovered how much we are all the same, but, on the contrary, the extent to which inequalities are inscribed in our lives and deaths.

But the truth is that I did not think of any of those issues when I was in the hospital, when I was intubated or when I was struggling to breathe. I was instead thinking of my family, I was afraid of not seeing them again; I was wondering whether I would see my daughter getting older, if I had been a good father and partner. I was afraid to die and I did not think about the many deadlines I was missing, the grants I did not get and the books I did not write.

Perhaps, this is lesson number 4, but this lesson might be just for me.

 

MARCO ARMIERO
President of the European Society for Environmental History

%d bloggers like this: