The “Grounding book” is now out! Published as #OpenAccess by MIT Press. “Grounding Urban Natures”.*

by Henrik Ernstson

We won the MIT Press Library Award! Our recently published edited book Grounding Urban Natures: Histories and Futures of Urban Ecologies (2019, MIT Press) can now be downloaded #OpenAccess as a searchable PDF from The MIT-Press website (press link above).

For colleagues with permanent jobs or research funding, consider to (also) buy the real and heavy book because its so nice!

The book provides well-written chapters on urban natures, their social lives, their vibrant matters, and their politics across a varied geography, from the global South to North. Bringing together ethnography and environmental history in a comparative gesture, the chapters are great to teach from as students can trust experienced scholars to unpack the multiplicity of urban nature in narrative form that is kept free from jargon. Let me know if you teach from it through my twitter handle @rhizomia (Henrik Ernstson).

Back cover of Grounding Urban Nature

Front cover of Grounding Urban Nature

The book Grounding Urban Natures unpacks the multiplicity of urban natures across a wide geography, from global South to North. It opens a space to re-think how we think urban environmental politics for the 21st century. Written by leading scholars it is divided in three sections: Unexpected Natures, Popular Natures, and Technological Natures, couched within an Introduction and Conclusion written by the editors Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin.

The chapters are made for teaching as they contain no jargon. They effectively open up urban natures from a multiple of perspectives, and bring case studies from across the world—from new emergent forms of urbanism of the global South, to re-worked cities in the global North. Students will have a wealth of experience to rely on as urban natures are shown to be shaped in sometimes unexpected ways through:

  • a multiplicity of agencies;
  • the role of historical changes, from colonisation to industrialisation;
  • the impact of race and class structures—but also social movements;
  • the circulation of ideas, from Confucianism to neoliberalism; and
  • the heavy hand of expert models and engineering standards.

Constructive review of urban ecology as an interdisciplinary field from especially the 1990s onward is given in the Introduction. The shear explosion of exciting thinking that have emerged and pushed the humanities and the social and natural sciences to regard urban nature very differently today than simply 20 years back. The Introduction includes debates and tensions between different perspectives from socio-natures, more-than-human, urban political ecology, and social-ecological systems theory (including resilience), which is paired with a close reading of how postcolonial and Southern urbanism, which has grown strongly in urban studies in the last 15 years, can help to open up a space to think urban nature from a wider lens, from a “world of cities” (1).

The chapters are written by leading scholars in the field. This includes chapters from one of the true founders to think cities as socio-natures, Ann Whiston Spirn who wrote The Granite Garden-classic in 1984 and here contributes an intimate chapter on teaching high school kids about landscape literacy in Philadelphia and theorising democratic practices; to Lindsay Sawyer’s chapter on Lagosian’s mode of building auto constructed real-estate; to Martín Ávila (with Henrik Ernstson) on infrastructures and scorpions and the problem of co-habitation in Córdoba, Argentina; how a huge engineering lock made a river disappear in New Orleans by Joshua Lewis; “alien” plant clearing in Chinese Dalian by Lisa M HoffmanAmita Baviskar on parks, forests and couples falling in love in New Delhi; and how Chinese “eco-cities” is linked to massive dispossession of farmers from their land in China by Jia-Ching Chen; and several more chapters from Richard A. WalkerLance van SittertJens Lachmund and James Evans.

Chapters are placed between an Introduction and Conclusion that provides historical background and theory from an expanding field. These chapters opens up a space to re-think urban environments from new locations. With rapid urbanisation and radically new ways through which urban natures are shaped across global South and North, we cannot trust old models nor unreflectively reproduce global models such as “eco-cities,” “smart cities,” “resilience cities,” or a new “science of cities” without paying attention to how place matters. Through a critique of how global discourse tend to homogenise and universalise how we think about cities, the Introduction and Conclusion opens a space to re-think our urban environmental crisis.

This book provides a step to gather a more inclusive and generous practice for thinking and formulating urban environmental policy and activism in the Urban Age of the 21st century. Drawing on the strong resurgence of Southern and postcolonial perspectives in urban studies, we as editors argue for a “comparative urban environmentalism” to create this space of critique and dialogue. The Introduction argues for combining the “wild” libraries of urban socio-nature from the 1990s onward, with postcolonial or “Southern urbanism” from urban studies, to invigorate thinking while decentering the global North as the locus of thought. This opens the global phenomena of rapid urbanisation and environmental crisis to be theorised from more places and disciplines. In the tradition of William Cronon’s edited volume Uncommon Ground, a truly eclectic and somewhat boistorous collection of writers, our “Grounding-book” offers a strong contribution to urban ecology, to environmental humanities, to political ecology, and to environmental thought more generally.

We hope you like it!

Published by MIT Press in their series on Urban and Industrial Environments in August 2019. Made Open Access through the MIT Press Library Award on 7 October 2019.

Contributors: Martín Ávila, Amita Baviskar, Jia-Ching Chen, Henrik Ernstson, James Evans, Lisa M. Hoffman, Jens Lachmund, Joshua Lewis, Lindsay Sawyer, Anne Whiston Spirn, Lance van Sittert, Richard A. Walker.

Editors: Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin.

(1) The expression is taken from Jennifer Robinson, a founding and generous sister of Southern urbanism. More on that in the Introduction.

*Reprinted with permission from

Behind the scenes of European environmental history scholarship: An interview with publisher Sarah Johnson

by Roberta Biasillo, PhD

This year features two important landmarks for the community of European environmental historians: it marks the 20th anniversary of the European Society for Environmental History and the 25th volume of the journal Environment and History, established by British publisher The White Horse Press in 1995.

Cover of Environment and History, November 2019 issue

These two milestones are connected because when environmental history started to become institutionalised in Europe – a process that generally comes along with the establishment of specific journals and the publication of pioneering volumes in the field – Andrew and Alison Johnson were already running their family business, publishing the journal Environmental Values. Since its foundation, the attention to the present and future environment of human beings and other species has always been a key aspect of the WHP editorial line. In 1995, The White Horse Press released the first issue of Environment and History, now recognised as the European journal of the field.

WHP now counts among its publications four international journals and a long list of environmental history monographs and edited volumes. Sarah Johnson is now largely in charge of the publication process, namely all the operations that follow the comforting line, “Your manuscript has been accepted for publication.” Sarah kindly agreed to share her story and experience and to discuss with us what we hardly see or think about – the final stage of our accepted works.

RB: For historians stories matter, make the difference, establish connections and foster a sense of community. When I firstly met you at the dinner table, I asked you something about your past and you opened up a most-interesting set of personal and professional memories. Can you tell us your story and your background, the story of your family and WHP’s story?  

SJ: My parents, Andrew and Alison, met as postgraduates in Oxford in the early 1970s and decided to ‘drop out,’ to flee ‘civilisation.’ They moved to the remote Scottish island of Harris, and, after several years working as teachers, they bought a derelict manse (priest’s house) and began to renovate it. I was born at the beginning of their twelve years running it as a hotel, which gained a prestigious reputation. My childhood was spent with the fabulous Scarista beach as my playground (Fig. 2), free to roam around in nature; and when I was eight I acquired a feisty Eriskay pony called Erica (Fig. 3-4). The hotel was closed in the winter, and my parents devoted time in these months to animal welfare and environmental projects. My father wrote a book on factory farming in the late 1980s, and they were early Greenpeace supporters. So, the environment was both around me in its most elemental form (Harris is extremely beautiful but battered by ferocious weather) and in my consciousness from childhood as an ‘issue.’ We recently published a book (Peter Quigley’s The Forbidden Subject, 2019) on how cherishing natural beauty is often regarded as intellectually suspect, but I’d say that, because of my childhood in this very special landscape, it remains one of my core values and one that I’m proud now to be instilling in my daughter.

Sarah (in red) and her friend Tina, riding Erica circa 1989

Eventually my parents decided they would like to return to a more intellectual way of life and sold the hotel to found The White Horse Press. After a few artistic liberties, Erica the fat and recalcitrant pony was remodelled as a suitably grave and cerebral looking Assyrian-style White Horse. From the age of ten or eleven, I recall meetings at our home of the emerging environmental humanities (that term was a long way off!) community – the diffident philosopher Alan Holland, the ebullient and rather chaotic environmental historian Richard Grove, to name but two. I earned pocket money stuffing leaflets and early issues of journals in envelopes, and later by proofreading. My father traded up from an ancient Amstrad to one of the very first Apple Macs, and I was one of the only teenagers in the Hebrides with that amazing modern innovation – email – as early as 1994.

White Horse Press Logo
Logo for White Horse Press

The early days of the Press coincided with an epic conservation battle, to save a large portion of our island from being quarried away to provide road stone for more populous parts of the country and further afield – all the battle-lines of modern environmental campaigns were apparent on Harris in the early 1990s, not least the continuing intractable tensions between local and national/global as well as economic ‘progress’ (figured here as local jobs as well as national infrastructure) and ecological protection, regarded by many, then as now, as a form of elitist luxury. The campaign was long, legally complex and at times entertaining – once I gave evidence at the Public Inquiry into the application alongside a Mi’kmaq chief from Nova Scotia and the eccentric human ecologist Alistair MacIntosh. However, while the Press continued to thrive – and my later teenage years were peppered with diversions such as a pistol-toting Mongolian envoy turning up in a bulletproof car to collect a number of copies of the latest Inner Asian monograph and most politely consuming tea and cake – I was an average teenager, determined to get as far as possible physically and intellectually from my parents! (This culminated in a long Pacific sailing voyage when I was 16, as well as numerous other adventures on the waves.) I studied English at Balliol College, Oxford and followed this with a Ph.D. at St John’s College Cambridge, and it was in this period that the environment came creeping back in. My Ph.D. on Cook’s Pacific voyages was ostensibly under the banner of literary studies, but I found myself fascinated by explorers’ engagement with landscape, by how they positioned themselves and their cultures in relation to Nature. A few desultory years of university teaching and freelance editing, and the growing sense that most of what was interesting was tied up in this nexus of humanity and environment, saw me somewhat shamefacedly returning to the fold in 2010 just as my parents had given up any expectation of the Press continuing beyond their retirement, having already sold off a few journals and more or less stopped publishing books.

I was fortunate enough to come in at a time when new publishing technology such as “Print on Demand” was making it easier for small publishers to be very flexible in publication processes and gain a little more visibility through various online platforms. After a difficult decade, during which probably the majority of small publishers perished or were absorbed by larger ones (something WHP has always resisted), we were on the cusp of a more positive publishing climate for a Press that was prepared to work hard in a very defined niche. Coming in with some knowledge of publishing processes, absorbed around the breakfast table over the years, but little practical experience, I think I was well placed to take the press in slightly new directions, while my parents and all their accumulated knowledge kept common sense to the fore!

My daughter Miranda (aged 8) now likes to have a say in the cover designs of books and journals, so maybe the next generation of WHP is already beginning…

Sarah’s father, Andrew, co-founder of The White Horse Press, and granddaughter Miranda on Scarista beach, Isle of Harris, July 2019

RB: You are an academic yourself. You have published papers and earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, but I would like to pose this question to Sarah Johnson the publisher. What would you like academics to know or to consider more about the publication and distribution phases? My impression is that academics tend not to really be aware of what is behind and beyond the transformation of a manuscript into a paper or a book.

SJ: I suppose my main thoughts in relation to this are with regard to the contemporary clamour for everything to be Open Access. It makes me laugh, or sometimes nearly cry – I see dozens of manuscripts, often in very bad shape in terms of use of language, rigour of referencing or, simply, style; and my job is to expose the gold within, to tidy something whose raw content is good into something that is presented as well as possible. The notion that publishers simply take authors’ hard work and profit from it is delusional – a lot of effort goes into turning a raw manuscript into a book or even article that is a pleasure to read and truly reflects its author’s abilities. Even the most eminent scholars (perhaps especially they!) seem often to be incapable of getting their footnotes in order, seem often not to have thought that they can’t simply take an illustration from another article or book without considering the ownership of copyright, and seem often to prefer fifty words where ten would do! So, in general, I’d urge academics to think about what a publication forum is offering. If it simply gives a platform to unedited and possibly sloppy scholarship, will that really stand the test of time? Conversely, if it is asking money to publish (we don’t, except in the case of Open Access journal articles), what is it offering in return? We undertake rigorous editing, copyediting, proofreading and indexing (in the case of books); and this work has to be paid for, either through subscriptions / sales or payments for Open Access. The notion that no-one pays and no-one profits seems an obvious fairytale, but it’s one that holds more currency than I would like and perhaps encourages a climate of resentment against publishers. Having said that, we almost invariably have extremely positive relations with ‘our’ authors, and it is a joy to hear quite often how much they’ve enjoyed working with us. Another common issue is the expectation of large sales – most academic books published in Britain and Northern Europe are very expensive and sold mostly to libraries. US presses are often funded by their universities and deemed ‘not for profit,’ so their books can be much cheaper. I always tell authors, “We will get your book out there.” Due to Print On Demand technology, it will be available in perpetuity on Amazon and other large wholesale and retail platforms, but what a tiny Press can’t do is make anyone buy it. It’s a sad truth that our biggest ‘hits’ are where authors do a lot of word of mouth marketing themselves.

RB: You must have read hundreds of published and rejected papers, dozens of successful book projects and lots of never released manuscript proposals. What would you say about the development of the discipline? Can you share with us any anecdote or moment in which you have noticed disciplinary transformation (e.g. the emergence of a new topic; a change in the editorial board; an event or a major book that has affected methodologies and interests of environmental history)?

SJ: That’s an interesting question – environmental history is such a multifarious discipline – and what I’d call ‘traditional’ environmental history (case studies about water regimes and woods, for example) is alive and well. But I suppose what I’ve noticed in the last few years is an increasing interdisciplinarity, which I suspect comes to all disciplines or sub-disciplines when they ‘come of age’ and have gained the confidence to shake off traditionalist expectations. ‘Undisciplining’ the humanities is of course your aim at KTH! So there’s more engagement with politics and policy – perhaps unsurprisingly given the increasing urgency of the climate crisis and the advent of the discourse of the Anthropocene – but also more work at the boundaries of environmental humanities and the arts (I could probably frame my Ph.D. as environmental humanities these days!) and more longue durée work where environmental history is bringing archaeology to life. I also think that human actors are more prevalent – whether activists, victims of environmental issues, or ordinary people in relation to their environment. There’s more emphasis, perhaps, on the sorts of testimonies obscured by the more traditional forms of history.

RB: Conversely, what do you think has changed in your profession over the last decades in terms of technological and communication strategy? What are the strengths and challenges that a small, committed and sectorial publisher faces nowadays in respect a market dominated by global and multi-sector companies?

SJ: Well, I’ve outlined some of that above in terms of the conversations around Open Access, which are a major challenge to all publishers, big and small. It is difficult to ‘flip’ from a reader-pays to an author-pays model, and, of course, no publisher – however large or small, commercial or ‘committed’ – can survive with a no-one pays model! People are reading journals almost entirely online these days, and this has made us adjust how we do things, teaming up with aggregators like JSTOR, for example, and providing ‘online first’ publication, which has been very popular with our authors. I think as a small, niche publisher very much in touch with our public, we have managed to be quite ‘agile’ about adopting technology – printing books on demand massively reduces financial risk (there is no large print run to be stored and maybe one day pulped), and that allows us to offer to publish things that we find interesting without it being a dangerous financial gamble. This must be positive both for us and for authors. Communication strategy is a difficult one, and I’ll freely admit marketing is our Achilles heel – there are many consultants out there who offer to revolutionise marketing strategy, but at a cost that seems an excessive capital investment for us, given our small turnover and the indeterminacy of the returns. So, we do tend to rely on goodwill and word of mouth. Social media certainly helps, and I appreciate the increased personal connection this gives me with our publics. Of course, large publishers have economies of scale and so CAN employ marketing specialists, social media editors etc. Economies of scale are most apparent, of course, with the large journal publishers’ ‘bundles’: libraries have limited budgets and, of course, it seems more attractive to buy 30 journals for an amount that is far less than the cost of 30 individual publications than to buy individual ones. I’d argue that this is often a false economy – these companies put a big journal that everyone wants at the top of such bundles, and then throw in a number that probably wouldn’t be chosen, so there’s the illusion of a good deal but with little active consumer choice. It’s a sort of supermarketisation of publications. All we can do in the face of these really big companies is to try to forge ever stronger personal networks, to listen to our authors and readers, and to hope that they will make the case to librarians that our products are worth having. It is a great joy to me that we do manage to flourish in our small way by this kind of personal approach.

RB: Last questions, and I invite you to rely on all your sensibility. How would you define a good paper/volume? When you are about to open a new file or to browse the first pages of a newly submitted manuscript, what expectations do you generally have? 

SJ: That is another interesting question. It is so much about instinct. (And I’m very blessed to work in a context where I have huge autonomy.) We do have a formal proposal process for books, where we do ‘due diligence’ – asking certain key questions about originality, relationship to the rest of the field, etc. And after that, if  I think a proposal is attractive, I’ll always send it to referees – members of that wonderful environmental history community that I really feel a part of after all these years. Occasionally, I think a book is ‘necessary’ rather than just interesting or attractive, but most often it is the latter factors that have the most weight. And they are so nebulous. It is hard to explain what I am looking for, except to say that I know it when I see it. I like to witness the author’s personality and heritage come through (as with Leona Skelton’s Tyne after Tyne (2017). I copyedit almost all the articles for Environment and History myself (hence my irascibility about references above!) as well as a lot of our other journals, so I have a sense of what topics are flowing around. So, it does please me if proposals, without slavishly following, show awareness of current research directions. Sometimes a book will very obviously fill a gap that I’ve become aware of – as with the recent collection of essays on the environmental history of the Ottoman Empire edited by Onur Inal and Yavuz Köse, Seeds of Power (2019). The fact that I also have great personal love for Turkey, having visited the country regularly for 30 years, is a neat illustration of the different sorts of factors that play into a successful book proposal! There are certain subjects – landscape, vegetation, the ‘blue humanities’, eco-cultural networks – that I’m instinctively attracted to so I hope you don’t mind me abusing this forum you’ve given me to encourage proposals on these subjects!

Occasionally, while copyediting an article, perhaps by a younger scholar, I’ll ask the author if he or she has considered submitting a book – Giacomo Bonan’s The State in the Forest (2019) came out of this kind of interaction. I’m often engaged by the voice and style (which is absolutely not the same as linguistic or grammatical perfection – those are my job!) as much as the topic – after all, I started as a literary scholar. That’s why it’s important to check out my instincts with the real experts, though I’d say that, after ten years, most of them are reasonable. One thing that makes my heart sink is an author confidently claiming a book will be a ‘crossover hit.’ Sorry, it won’t. Not with WHP. You’ll have a really nice publication process. We’ll produce a book you can be proud of and that will be available widely. But you’re not going to be fronting a BBC documentary on the subject as a result. We really are strictly an academic press – we need to stick to our niche to survive in the modern publishing climate, and I’m always reluctant to start working with authors who are likely to get disappointed along the way. Having said that, I wouldn’t want authors to be afraid of showing enthusiasm and personality – that is really important.

I’m not so hands-on in the editorial choices made by our journals, as they all have autonomous editors, and I tend only to see articles once they have been accepted. But I’m certain that similar factors play into their decisions and that following the style guidelines for authors religiously will make editors so happy that they will accept anything. Joke, of course. But – boring but true – it really does help to generate a positive feeling if you show that you respect the journal enough to adhere to its guidance on things like formatting references (there I go again!) and word limits.

So… in summary, enthusiasm, awareness of what is going on in environmental history and perfect footnotes!


In the shadow of geopolitics: Notes from fieldwork in southern Greenland*

by Annika Nilsson, Researcher

As we returned to Narsarsuaq after a week of fieldwork in communities of southern Greenland, the outer world came charging in: planes arriving with tourists on their way to various local excursions and high-profile news stories about US president Trump wanting to buy Greenland, including the aftermath of political reactions of uncomfortable surprise at such an absurd idea.

What people living in the villages and towns of Greenland think about this diplomatic exchange, we can only guess as it has not been visible in the reporting in international media. However, after talking to people and visiting places in southern Greenland, we know that opportunities to take part in important decisions are often lacking and that living conditions in small communities are often shaped by the priorities of others. The communication network is just one example. The Narsarsuaq airport in is on a US air force base, established during World War II and still serves a major communication hub for travels anywhere outside the region. The priorities of others also relate to mining, where Greenland has a long history of outsider’s attention because of its unique geology with a wealth of minerals. Past interests in southern Greenland included establishing a mine of cryolite, which was used for aluminum processing, in the small town Ivittuut. Today, we found this mine and the town deserted and the building in decay, though memories of past activities and their links to people in nearby places remain.

Approaching Narsarsuaq IMG_3361 cropped
Approaching Narsarsuaq – Photo : Annika Nilsson


Today’s focus is on the strategically important rare earth minerals that occur in the same ore as uranium at Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld) by the small town of Narsaq. At the time of our visit, people were still waiting for a decision ‘from above’ about whether a mine would be opened. The discussion and the focus on mining had however already affected the town by creating social tensions between people who were either for or against this development. Some saw it as a source of new jobs as well as a base for a livelier service industry with restaurants, grocery stores and other facilities. As pointed out by one politician, it could also help pay for infrastructure in the form of roads that would connect nearby towns. For others, concerns about the impact of pollution raised major questions, especially if the mine would become detrimental to the rich fisheries in the area. A major hope was instead that the local fish processing plant would reopen. According to the local fishermen, shrimp was again abundant. The development of the local fish processing industry was however hampered by a changed structure of the Greenlandic fishery industry and what they saw as imposed bureaucracy and rules.

Some hopes were connected to increasing tourism but with a great concern that the transport infrastructure was insufficient. Most tourists appeared to stay around Narsarsuaq. To make tourism a viable industry also for other communities would require affordable and reasonably frequent boat transport or roads that connect at least some of the small towns in the area. The high cost of transport was a major concern for many people living in villages we visited.

Modern infrastructure is also about virtual communication routes. A visit to an internet café in Narsaq illustrated the cost of access to internet – a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin bought me 15 minutes of internet access. While some people have other access option, Greenland’s sea cable for internet was being repaired when we were visiting in August, limiting wire-carried internet access for private citizens in order to allow public institutions to continue to function. So, while international politicians and businesses discuss Greenland in ways that would have profound impact on the everyday lives in southern Greenland, people’s opportunities to get their own voices and priorities heard in the debate are circumscribed by costs and access to communication networks.


Earlier in the week, we visited the settlement of Arsuk. We heard proud stories about how this town once had one of the world’s highest per capita income, when the cod was still plentiful. However, since the crash of the cod stock that previously brought riches and job opportunities to many Greenlandic communities, the outlook for economic opportunities has been bleak. With only four children left in the local school, no nearby access to health care and a harbor that the big ships pass by but do not stop at, several people expressed concern about the future of the community. However, there were also hopes from new sources of income. They included the possibility of selling carefully hand processed wool from muskox, which two women entrepreneurs were developing as a business. Once the 15 kg of fine wool prepared, it would be sent to Denmark for spinning and later sold to others who would knit garment for the Greenlandic market and possibly also for tourists. Arsuk is also home to a fish factory, whose owner expressed hopes that fish would again become plentiful.

While fishery is still part of everyday life in Arsuk, as it has been since the small town was funded in 1805, fishing is also circumscribed by other activities. An elder fisherman described how he had been ordered by a Danish Arctic Command vessel to cut his long line and get out of the way because the military was about to start an exercise in the area. Arsuk fishing activities have previously been hampered by military and industrial activities in the Arsuk fjord, which was home both to the Ivittuut mine, which has left lead pollution in the fjord, and to the Danish Grønnedal military station, both of which were geopolitically important during World War II. Thus, when we visited Ivittutt, Grønnedal, Arsuk and Narsaq, we were at the same time at the periphery of transport infrastructure and at the center of geopolitics.

 Arsuk harbor
Arsuk harbor – Photo : Annika Nilsson

The Narsarsuaq airport may close in the future to be replaced by a regional airport near the town of Qaqortoq. However, the future is uncertain. It will depend not only on what might happen with the mine near Narsaq but also if climate change will have a positive impact on local fisheries. Indeed, in a scenario exercise with four young students, the military was highlighted as a major point of uncertainty when looking 20-30 years ahead in time. Although, when asked about what was most important, the focus was on education opportunities, the future of fisheries, and places to work. The voices of these young people and their peers need to be heard in the narratives about Greenland’s future.

*This post was initially published on the REXSAC blog. Many thanks to REXSAC for sharing this post with us.

From Sicily to Sweden: Lessons in History and Environmental Humanities

by Elisa Privitera (Lizzy), C. M. Lerici Foundation Fellow

My story with Sweden started around two years ago. It was a scorching and sunny summer. I had just gotten my Masters Degree that explored the creation of a community laboratory that sought to regenerate a historical and neglected district in Catania—my hometown in Sicily—when my supervisor said to me, “What do you think about Sweden?”

“Sweden, hmmm…” I hesitated, trying to take time in order to dig into my memory and knowledge, to collect ideas for a right answer.

Waiting patiently, my supervisor prompted me again, “So?”

I sighed, “Actually, not too much. Why do you ask?”

Two years later, at the end of January 2019, I landed in the evening at Stockholm’s Skavsta Airport in order to accomplish about 6 months of research as a visiting scholar at the Environmental Humanities Lab at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment here at KTH. Oh yeah, I was in Sweden!

But why did I come here? Tracing back the story, during the two years in between my masters degree and my arrival, I continued to work and do fieldwork concerning environmental and urban planning. I collaborated with some grassroots associations, which furthered my interests in the processes of reactivation of derelict spaces. And I started a PhD program where I’ve continued to explore the link between environmental issues and urban planning as a member of LabPEAT– an action-research lab of ecological and environmental design. Working on my PhD, “Evaluation and mitigation of urban and land risks”—begun in 2018 at the Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture at the University of Catania—I began to investigate the issues of community empowerment with environmental risks and the planning and regeneration of derelict areas.

Locations of LabPEAT in Catania and EHL in Stockholm

My thesis explores risky landscapes, such as all those post-industrial or in transition landscapes that have been deeply modified and contaminated due to the heavy human footprint. If the landscape can be conceived as the place of people and people’ point of view (Pizziolo and Micarelli, 2003), how can the local knowledge collected by the people’ stories influence the planning field? Or more generally, what can be the role of subaltern communities in the production of knowledge about risk in order to co-design neglected and contaminated areas? Starting from these research questions, my aim is to experiment an alternative approach to risk landscapes by investigating the issue of environmental risk from a qualitative and environmental justice point of view and by putting particular emphasis on storytelling. Since I believe that the industrial and contaminated areas represent a melting-pot of the inequalities as well as a prime example for debate on how to plan current and future risk landscapes, I have chosen to focus on Gela, a fishing village in the South of Sicily that has been converted into one of the main Italian petrochemical poles. In Gela, I had already started to collect stories about daily life from some inhabitants. But I understood that I still needed to deepen the theme of the potential role of the narrative.

That is why I came to the Environmental Humanities Lab (EHL) on a C. M. Lerici Foundation fellowship. Understanding the roles of narratives in order to tell the right story (Barca S., 2014) or to portray a more complex story of landscapes (Gravagno F., 2008) is an expertise of the EHL.  It combines research, training, and outreach to tackle crucial societal challenges, such as climate justice, migrations, environmental justice, and rights to the city. The EHL has driven several projects on environmental justice over the years, such as Toxic Bios.

This public environmental humanities project has assisted my research through its aims to co-produce, gather, and make visible stories of contamination and resistance, by using the methodology of storytelling, as also explained in a published article. The collection of oral stories can be a useful tool for many purposes:

  • for uncovering toxic narratives centered on structural environmental injustice;
  • for co-producing knowledge;
  • for increasing the empowerment and collective capabilities of local communities (community building);
  • and for triggering an action-research path in contaminated territories in order to co-design a different future.

So, by having in mind the purpose of deepening the potential role of the toxic biographies in the planning of contaminated areas, I landed in the darkness at the airport of Skavsta, covered by layers of white snow during that January night. The day after my arrival I moved to live into one of the student dormitories on KTH Campus—a newly erected building with an amazing view on the cityscape of Stockholm. The following months have been an intense flurry of learning, experiences, and challenges!

View from KTH dormitory

Upon my arrival, I began a literature review about environmental justice, political ecology, and environmental history, as suggested by my KTH supervisor: Prof. Marco Armiero. Stockholm was so cold, with iced lakes and fascinating snowscapes sprinkled with nightlights in front of windows to face the darkness. February passed in a jiffy, and in March I started to attend a course for the Ph.D. candidates in “Theory and Method in Historical Research” and a course for master students in “Environmental History.” Both the courses have been challenging. In the first course, “Theory and Method in Historical Research,” I had the possibility to study and debate on many current issues, from Bruno Latour’s books to the epistemological research of feminist theory, from materiality to STS studies. The array of themes has been quite varied and helped me to frame and address my own research questions from time to time in a new way, by enriching certain points of view about it. Meanwhile, thanks to the “Environmental History” course, I investigated the historical connections between migration flows and environmental pull and push factors. These experiences gave me some insights on how to frame my topic as well.

Until then, I have collaborated with the EHL on two running projects. Also, I have collaborated and participated in the lab meetings that take place more or less once a week. On the 21st of March, I also had the opportunity to present the activities and research carried out by LabPEAT of Catania during one of these lab meetings. Over the months, I got fully involved in Division life, for instance, by attending the Higher Seminars in which other scholars come from everywhere about present on current research topics.

Lizzy at the Lab. From left to right: Roberta Biasillo, Lizzy Privitera, and Marco Armiero

Also, frankly speaking, I have fallen in love with fika, an on-purpose-organized break with the aim of socialising among colleagues. The fika is sweetened by tea, coffee and a lot of sweets, typical from Sweden. Some of the main sweets are the “Princess cake,” the “kanelbullar” or “kardemummabulle”, and so on. In particular, the cinnamon bun can be considered the queen of Swedish cuisine! Thereby, in my opinion, among the key-words regarding Sweden, I would suggest FIKA! Between fika, readings, assignments and interesting discussions with colleagues, April arrived. It brought lighter hours, warmer weather, Easter and Walpurgis night, or Valborg. If the days of Easter have been characterised by the blooming of the trees at Kungsträdgården that attracted locals and tourists during several days, Valborg is one of these things about which I did not know about but that is a quite important event for Swedish society. In fact, it is a custom coming from northern Europe, and it consists of lighting bonfires in public spaces in order to celebrate the arrival of spring collectively. All throughout Sweden, there are bonfires with family and groups of friends who enjoy the flames. I got to enjoy Valborg from the seaside of Stockholm!

In the middle of May, the two courses ended. I started to draft a summary of the concepts learned about toxic autobiographies and environmental justice. In the meanwhile, nicer days came. When the sun arrives, it is a bursting event, a kind of explosion of joy and chilling out, and all Swedish (and not only!) people begin to scatter among the public places of the city: picnic on the parks, walks on the city, beers in terraces and gardens, events in the squares. A festive spirit rises. I started to stroll around the city in order to explore it. I visited Skansen park which gives lots of information about the history of Sweden and typical Nordic animals, some museums, such as the Nobel Prize Museum, and the park behind the KTH campus which is full of deer and forest animals.

At the beginning of June, I went back to Italy for a conference where I  presented work I developed based on what I learned in the “Theory and Method in Historical Research” course. The title of the work is “Contaminated Entanglements,” and it will be soon part of a publication. “Contaminated Entanglements” concerns the complex set of connections between environmental components. Things, matters, bodies, humans and not, all are part of this entanglement. Especially, according to Stacy Alaimo (2010) in the contamination of the human and non- (more than) human bodies can be read the transcorporeality of the toxicity.

Another first output of this period of research at the EHL has been the paper titled “The Toxic Biographies and the “Small Data” from an Italian petrochemical town (Gela, Sicily)” that I have presented at the City Futures IV Conference in Dublin. This paper is a first and embryonic fruit of the collaborative work between the two research laboratories, LabPEAT and the EHL. This collaboration has brought us to experiment and propose an ecological and relational community design that uses toxic biographies as tools for converting the personal stories of life into collective knowledge. In fact, through the collection of stories a shift occurs from an individual tragedy to a self-aware community which can embark upon the quest for justice. By doing so, toxic auto-biographies become also a way to re-politicize the embodied experience of injustice. Once a community—formed as the result of a struggle—becomes aware of the diffused injustices, an ecological community design path can be triggered.

As July arrived, the end of my experience drew near, and I returned home. A second intense year of Ph.D. is now in front of me. The future goals for this year will be to continue to carry out a full-immersion and fieldwork in Gela (Sicily). More and more auto-biographies will be collected, and I will try to trigger an action-research path by engaging inhabitants and grassroots movements in order to map the risk landscapes as they are perceived by citizens and also in order to co-design alternative futures for this contaminated area. For sure I will have to deal with doubts, readings, editing and so on, but I am also optimistic about the decisive turning points. I do believe that future meetings with some of the scholars I have met at this division during these past few months will be fruitful and inspiring for my ongoing research!

That’s why I am really looking forward to coming back to Sweden one day again, and at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in particular!

Tack and see you soon!

Why everyone should watch HBO’s “Chernobyl”

by: Achim Klüppelberg, Siegfried Evens, and Johan Gärdebo (Read in Russian: Клюппельберг, Ахим – Эвенс, Зигфрид – Гердебо, Йоган – Чернобыль)

25 meters below Stockholm’s solid bedrock, HBO’s Chernobyl is being screened inside a decommissioned reactor for nuclear weapons. It is dark, a little bit chilly, and the atmosphere is tense. The thrilling music ends, the screen goes black, and the crowd spontaneously starts applauding. Afterwards, the reactor hall became a place of discussion. Can we learn from this show? We, three nuclear historians, think we can. Even more so, we all should. Roughly 451 civil nuclear reactors are online world-wide and 54 are in construction. This concerns everybody.

Displays R1 Reaktor Hallen

Drama or reality?

Let’s be clear about one thing: Chernobyl is a cinematographical masterpiece. Yet, apart from the brilliant acting, production, and music, the merits for the show’s success might ultimately go to reality itself. The show depicts everything; from the apocalyptic specifics of the nuclear disaster to the everyday life in former state-socialist countries. And in the end, even the best screenwriters in the world could not have been able to invent such a tragic and unbelievable story like the Chernobyl disaster.

That being said, entertaining historical fiction does not necessarily mean ‘correct’ historical drama. Is the series realistic? Craig Mazin, the writer of the series, has done a lot of research on the catastrophe. His bibliography provides a sufficient overview of the ever-growing state of the art on Chernobyl. Many of the scenes also correspond to real testimonies.
Yet, the series is and remains a dramatisation of real events. Some characters are made up and act as compilations of different real-life actors. The character of Ulana Khomyuk, for instance, embodies and symbolises a whole army of scientists that travelled to the exclusion zone and surrounding areas. The trial scenes also did not happen in the way depicted. Neither Legasov nor Shcherbina were there, and they certainly did not give heroic, truth-revealing speeches there.

The series’ creators are conscious and honest about these dramatisations. Not only in the podcast, but also in the final scene of the final episode, they reveal honestly how they altered history for dramaturgical effects. But maybe the question of correctness of historical drama is not relevant. The question is rather whether the Chernobyl catastrophe is represented correctly. Or to be more specific, whether the analysis of the disaster is correct.

Unfortunately, the answer is: yes.

What is it about?

The main message of the Chernobyl series seems to be that the catastrophe was a human disaster. It was not only caused by defective technology or operator’s mistakes, but by society, politics and technocratic culture. Hence, Chernobyl was entrenched in the deeper societal structures and safety culture of the Soviet Union.

This renders the show’s message the same as the message we, as historians of (nuclear) technology, try to convey every day: technology is human. Both its benefits and flaws are created by humans and their organisations. And this, in turn, creates risks to human beings.

Managing nuclear risks is then not solved by mere “technofixes.” An extra pipe or another safety procedure may be necessary, but are in themselves not sufficient. If we want to prevent nuclear catastrophes in those plants, we have to look at the human beings operating them. We have to look at how they think, behave and perceive things. We have to look at how they organise, interact, and share information. The causes of nuclear accidents do not stop at the gated fence of a nuclear power plant. If we really want to understand a nuclear accident, we have to look at society in all its facets.
“What is the cost of lies?”

It is both the first and the last sentence in the series, articulated by Valery Legasov on his audiotapes in the series. “The cost of lies” is also Craig Mazin’s explanation for the Chernobyl catastrophe. When people start lying, when transparency is lacking, and when the political system hinders the prevention of risks, then catastrophes happen. Mazin also indicated multiple times that it was not his intention to tell an anti-Soviet story nor an anti-nuclear story. He simply wanted to show the specific contexts in which huge catastrophes happen. And those contexts are profoundly human.

A useful show?

Pro-nuclear voices have already criticised the HBO series. It would overdramatise the accident and overemphasise the dangers of radiation. However, their arguments do not seem to be sound. Furthermore, downplaying the seriousness of Chernobyl or radiation does not help pro-nuclear voices in any way. In fact, every proponent of nuclear energy should talk about the tragic events at Chernobyl and be utmost open about it. It is the demonstration of what happens when a powerful and promising technology gets mismanaged. If there is a lasting future for nuclear energy, then its experts need to speak about, even promote, also the legacy of its mishaps. That’s why we should all talk about Chernobyl.

However, anti-nuclear voices have also taken the opportunity to refer to the series as an argument against nuclear power. Even if Chernobyl shows the enormous risks that nuclear technologies entail, generalising the Soviet situation for the entire world would not be correct. Indeed, the Soviet-bashing claim that accidents like Chernobyl can only occur in state-socialist countries has become redundant after Fukushima-Daiichi in 2011. Once again, it became clear that the social, cultural and political contexts constitute as the true causes of a nuclear accident.

In fact, every national nuclear programme is different, with different safety cultures and contexts but also common characteristics, such as secrecy, dual-use possibilities and a sense of being at the helm of technological progress. A lot of safety standards are now produced on an international level, but countries can still decide on how they implement them. Nuclear accidents can happen and have happened elsewhere as well, also in the West. Why? Because, again, nuclear accidents are protracted by humans. And humans do not only live in the Soviet Union or Japan.

The verdict

Chernobyl is a series that everyone should watch. It teaches us the strong connection between technologies and humans and how that connection can backfire in the form of a catastrophe. It’s a series that teaches us not to make the same mistakes as in 1986.

In fact, it teaches us that Chernobyl is not yet finished. If our discussions in the reactor hall in Sweden have taught us one thing, then it is that the story of Chernobyl is still incomplete. There are still so many things that are unclear or left for debate. Yet, although incomplete, it remains a powerful story. And a story that has been told by HBO in a powerful way.