There is agrowing atmosphere of hatred in which anyone who opposes the current governmentis labeled the ‘worst sort’, or even ‘Soviet murderers’.
Thursday October, 19 at 16.30: An ordinary day, an ordinary man stands on the steps of the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science. He is reading something through a megaphone to inattentive passers by. Just another protesting voice in the Polish capital. Except, once finished, this 54 year old man, who would become known for some time simply as Piotr S., then sets himself ablaze, performing an act of self-immolation to the sound of a song by ‘Chłopcy Placu Broni’ coming from a tape-recorder.
‘Freedom. I love and understand freedom. I don’t know how to give it up…’ On the ground lie strewn the pieces of paper from which he had been reading – a manifesto outlining 15 points of protest against the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). Ten days later, on October 29, he dies in hospital. It begins to sink in that this was a decisive, considered and dramatic political act. Where at first the media and politicians stay largely silent, following his death they now rush to assess his sanity, his past and his intentions.
All this he foresaw. He openly admitted that he struggled with depression for eight years – but this was nothing to do with that, though he knew politicians would try to make it so. Depression does not equal derangement. So how should he be understood?
Can a forest be fascist? This may seem a facetious question, but it is one that Italians have been discussing of late due to a fire that occurred at the end of August.The fire, allegedly started accidentally by someone cooking tomato sauce, burned down part of a historic and controversial forest on the slopes of Mount Giano, about 100km north-east of Rome. The 20,000 fir trees here, spread over eight hectares, were planted between 1938 and 1939 by recruits studying at the academy of the forestry corps in the small town of Cittaducale. They were an homage to Mussolini: planted in such a way so that from afar, they read DUX, the fascist leader’s title in Latin. And some want to replant it.This story brings effectively together two major recent issues of debate: forest fires and the removal of inappropriate, “disturbing” monuments. In this instance a politically incorrect monument has been (partially) destroyed by one of the many forest fires that, every year, hit central and southern Italy. This past summer was particularly dramatic, with more than 70,000 hectares of Italian forest destroyed by fires.However, this forest is not just any forest, but a prime example of the fascist appropriation of landscapes to mark a regime’s domination on both the country and its nature. The fact that this forest survived decades of neglect and a first attempt at getting rid of it in the 1950s has allowed it to become a powerful symbol for neo-fascist groups, who gather publicity by defending its historic value.So should we see the forest first and foremost as a forest, a natural landscape that perhaps should be restored, or as a disturbing memory of Mussolini? Ought we to recreate the forest, as a preservation of the memory of the country’s history? Or should we leave it to its destiny and forget about it?
In a new book, Marco Armiero and Richard Tucker have edited together important contributions to the emerging field of the environmental history of modern migrations. Three main ‘styles’ of research delineate the contours of a timely research effort.
We are in the midst of a massive migration crisis when Europe is transforming itself into an impenetrable fortress. The times when walls were falling and barbed wires removed seem so far away. Everywhere rich nations are trying to isolate themselves from the waves of desperate people fleeing from wars, poverty, persecutions, and disruptive environmental changes. “A wall will save us!” this is the easy mantra repeated by the professionals of fear, the gardeners of the new and pernicious hate plantations.
Xenophobia, racism, and nationalism are gaining terrain, breeding on a toxic narrative which redirects class conflicts towards the “outside”. According to this narrative, if in the Global North the working class is becoming poorer, is because of immigrants and not for the unequal distribution of wealth, the attack against workers’ rights and the neo-liberal erosion of the welfare state. When hard times come, having an “other” to blame has always been a handy resource in order to preserve the privileges of the few.
The rise of terrorism has aggravated this situation with a continuous overlapping, in the public discourse, of migrants and terrorists. An exotic name does all the work here; the fact that often the terrorists were born and raised in the West is easily buried under the inflammatory rhetoric of the new right-wing nationalists.
Lampedusa, Idomeni and Ventimiglia are the centers of a new geography of Europe, places which embody the fact that migration, borders, and bodies intertwine, creating a political ecology of humans’ movement and state’s control (Turhan and Armiero 2017). Routes of hopes and desperation crisscross the Mediterranean; acts of violence and disobedience dot the fortified borders of Europe.
The situation is not different in the United States and in Australia, where similar fears are agitated in the public discourse deeply affecting the political agenda of those countries. A simple textual analysis of the 2016 American presidential campaign could prove beyond any reasonable doubt that migration is a keyword in the public discussion.
In the face of all this, it should be clear why an environmental history of migrations (hereafter EHM) is needed. Environmental History was born — at least as a self-conscious disciplinary field — with a strong connection to the ecological movement raising especially in the US society in the 1970s. As the New Social History, also Environmental History looked at what was happening outside the university’s walls, conceptualizing its function as the study of the past in order to address the challenges of the present. In this sense, dealing with migration means to go back to the very roots of Environmental History as an intellectual project, we might say that it implies to reinforce the political effort of a field which, while gaining academic prestige, sometimes seems to have lost its militant soul (Armiero 2016).
The connections between migration and the environment may not be self-evident; nonetheless, there is a growing body of literature as well as a wider narrative in the public discourse which are enhancing the reflection on this theme. The most fertile terrain where migration and environment have met is that of climate change induced migration. Scholars, policy-makers, journalists, the military complex, writers and artists, NGOs and the general public have engaged with the issue of the so-called climate refugees. From the IPCC reports to the biblical migrations of a catastrophe blockbuster movie as “The Day After Tomorrow,” and from the 2008 National Intelligence Council’s assessment to European Union-funded research programs, the idea that climate change will cause massive and ominous movement of people has increasingly gained authority (see for instance Bettini 2013; Baldwin 2014).
Although everyone would agree that significant climate change will imply the migration of the most vulnerable people, it is more controversial to establish a direct and unequivocal cause-effect connection between the two. In other words, defining climate change migrants might be a difficult task, especially since this is not only a matter of academic disquisitions and it might have a legal implication connected to the ongoing debate on the status of people seeking asylum in the Global North. The ghost of the climate refugee is haunting fortress Europe, and for what matters fortress Australia as well; it continuously reappears in the pages of scholarly works and policy briefings.
The temptation to reduce everything to some ecological truth might be strong among those who believe that nature matters in humans’ affairs. Wars and poverty, two crucial causes of migration, can also be explained as consequences of environmental — more specifically climate — change. Is this the task for environmental historians? Are we supposed to concur in demonstrating that migration is caused by environmental — better off climate — changes? Definitely, we need a wider and less deterministic research agenda. Rather than isolating the environmental, searching for the supposed clear ecological causes — or effects — of migration, the challenge is to think ecologically of the processes which have led to — or spring from — migration. Connecting rather than isolating should be our research mantra.
EHM: a Toolkit
How can an environmental history of modern migration be done? In which directions should this new field go? For the sake of clarity, in our volume we have proposed three possible paths, or styles: the assertive style, the constructivist style, and the embodied style. Those are ideal-types which, rather than being mutually exclusive, many times are blended in the empirical work of researchers.
The Assertive Style, or Strange Pioneers on the Frontier
EHM may aim to uncover the contribution of migrants in the making of the landscapes where they settled. The connection to the studies of empires and colonial expansion of Europe is evident. Since the beginning of the discipline, environmental historians have researched the ecological transformations imposed by the imperial arrangements of the world. Looking at migrations, especially in the age of mass migrations, means to enlarge that kind of studies beyond the limits of the colonial settings.
Those limits are not only chronological — mass migrations arrived later than the age of the first colonial expansion — but they are also inherent to the nature of Empire. The military support of the Fatherland, the expropriation of natives’ lands, and the construction of a legal and institutional system at the service of the colonizers’ interests were the basis of the imperial movement of people. The late 19th and early 20th century migrants did not have that kind of cargo and by and large did not have such a close encounter with natives, but rather with other ethnic groups or the descendants of the colonizers. The risk of celebration is rather strong in the assertive style; easily, EHM can embrace a research agenda aiming to prove that immigrants were also pioneers, contributing to the taming of “nature”.
The Constructivist Style, or Seeing the Environment through Others’ Eyes
Migrants not only shaped the environment where they settled; they also saw it in different ways, applying categories and visions which belonged to their own cultures or which emerged in the migratory experience. In many cases they were able to shape the environment because they saw it differently, recognizing in it things that others could not see.
In the very process of making sense of the environment, migrants transformed it, or at least affected it, and, as we will see later, changed themselves.
What were the Italian backyards, full of vegetables, rabbits and chickens, if not a different appreciation of land and natural resources and a porous space blending work, living and leisure times? Actually, it was precisely this porosity in immigrants’ practices of the environment what was intolerable for the Anglo-Saxon conservationists, who often blamed — and sometimes still do — foreigners for environmental problems (on this see Hartmann 2010; Rome 2008; Park and Pellow 2011).
The constructivist style can contribute to urban environmental history by rethinking ecologically the ethnic enclaves, exploring how immigrants understood and activated urban commons, including garbage, a space traditionally occupied by immigrant workers.
The Embodied Style, or the Nature of/in the Immigrant’s Body
Migrants are themselves nature on the move. This was true not only during the early years of the Columbian or Magellan exchange. People continued to cross the oceans bringing with them their bodies, their resistance or weakness to pathogenic agents, their ability to cope with different climate and food. EHM needs to break the boundaries between bodies and nature.
Thereby, EHM must join forces with those environmental historians who have contributed to renovating the field, calling for attention to the connections linking work, ecologies, and health (Barca 2014; Montrie 2008; Mitman 2005; Nash 2006; Sellers 1999). This is not only a movement inside the Environmental History field, but it also comes strongly from civil society organizations, and especially from the Environmental Justice Movement. In this sense, it is the right time to foster the EHM agenda.
Working on the environmental history of mass migrations might resemble the work of archaeologists. In both cases, the researcher is engaged in an excavation that aims to uncover what has been buried under layers of past epochs. However, when studying the landscape of migrations those layers are not so much arranged in strata but intertwined and blended with one another. They might look like the strange mix of Roman ruins and new buildings so common in many Italian cities.
In this sense the metaphor of the excavation might not work so well. While it does deliver the idea of making visible what has been hidden, it also implies a well delimited succession of strata which does not correspond to the reality of the hybrid landscapes created by immigrants. Actually, individuating an Italian, Chinese, or Serbian landscape might contradict the whole point of thinking in terms of metabolic relationships and socionatures.
How much were the vineyards Italian in California, in the face of the Phylloxera bio-invasion, or of the work of the Mexican laborers who prepared the land? Or how much was an immigrant landscape the coalfields of Colorado and Pennsylvania, where the hard work of miners, mostly immigrants, capital investments and interests, energy policies and technological shifts shaped the land and the bodies of people working and living there? The same could be asked for the urban environment where the marks of various ethnic communities — Little Italies or Chinatowns, for instance — spoke at the same time of immigrants’ agency in the city and their metabolic relationships with broader dynamics of urban political ecology as land rent, zoning, and gentrification. More than sealed layers in a succession, it seems a bricolage where what matters is the relationship among pieces, even more than the figure obtained through the assemblage. And, of course, the power and the resistance at play in the very making of that patchwork landscape.
Maybe the best metaphor to describe the kind of work the EHM should do comes from the experimental volume produced by Pulido, Barraclough and Cheng, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles. In the introduction they propose the image of the haunted landscape to describe the hybrid blend of invisible presences which peopled the places we live in: “Los Angeles is filled with ghosts—not only of people, but also of places and buildings and the ordinary and extraordinary events that once filled them” (4). This metaphor of the ghosts gives back the sense of the immigrants’ presence/absence into the landscape. As those ghosts, immigrants haunt the landscapes where they settled with traces which are embodied in the place even when they are completely gone. Many times, those traces are stories, because ghosts’ stories are what actually haunt the places.
Immigrants haunt as ghosts the landscapes where they settled. Their presence is in the shapes of the California farmlands, embedded into the energy systems fueling the industrial and post industrial societies, cooked with food, inscribed in the urban texture, mixed with blood, dust, and sick cells in the bodyscapes of exposures and exploitation which are also part of that history.
The figure of the ghost can also help us to overcome binary opposition between culture and nature or material and immaterial. Immigrants literally built the environment where they settled, making soil out of waste but also understanding the environment around them in ways that no one had done before. An environmental history of migrations and migrants should make peace with the fact that the environmental and the social are never apart. With the right jargon, one might say that they are mutually constituted in socionatural formations. But I prefer to say that they haunt each other, never leaving a place, a story, a landscape, a body alone.
A new reading group saw the daylight here at the Division just recently. The initiative was taken by a few people from the EHL and then spread to others interested at the Division. The aim of the group is to collectively read a book each month, discussing it and writing a short reflection piece. That short piece might eventually find its way to this blog, so be sure to check back here!
To prevent, as Ethemcan put it, the group from becoming rusty and not that attractive because it was left to brew for a long period of time, a list of proposed books was put together quite fast. Although every group member’s voice was heard in this, the group acknowledges the problem of lack of female and non-male representation on the list. Hence – the list might get revised in the future.
The reading group currently consists of Ethemcan Turhan, Ilenia Iengo, Daniele Valisena, Jesse Peterson, Dmitry Aryzuov and Jean-Sebastien Boutet, all from within the Division, and our fellow guests Giacomo Bonan, Sergio Ruiz and Stefano Morosini.
Behold the list of proposed books below! Click each cover to get to the books Amazon page. And as written above: don’t forget to check back here to get a piece from the discussions in the future.
Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (RJ) recently granted the Divisions Sabine Höhler’s application Life on Mars: The Science and Fiction of Terraforming and the Future of Planet Earth. The project will start in the beginnig of 2018 and run for three years.
A procjet page is coming up, but in the meantime please read the applicatoin abstract for more information on this project:
The Anthropocene, the geological age of humanity, is associated with a key feature: the power of technoscientific intervention into the Earth’s environment. This transformative potential became apparent in the second half of the twentieth century when the science and the fiction of “terraforming”, of turning extreme or extraterrestrial into Earth-like environments, gained traction. Hopes of venturing into Space became as pervasive as perceptions of humans overexploiting and polluting the Earth. The popular vision of settling sustainable communities on Mars saw an upswing in the recent decade of anthropogenic global environmental
This project explores the science and fiction of Mars settlement with the help of terraforming as a creation of new environments in Space as well as blueprints for the technological reconstruction of the Earth’s environment. The aim is to describe the Anthropocene not simply as an epoch that endangers the Earth but primarily as an epoch that essentially transformed the understanding of life to a minimalist principle of survival through infinite metabolic conversion and technological substitution. This understanding conjoined images of recreation and creation, of paradisiacal pasts and eco-technological futures. The question whether ‘postplanetary’ life, life that is not tied to a specific planet but transcends planetary boundaries, will be possible and desirable may become one of the most challenging questions of our future.
On Tuesday October 17 Peder Roberts held his docent lecture on the subject of “Polarforskningnens värde och berättigande: då och nu” (“The value of polar research: then and now”). Peder took the title from a 1932 article by the Swedish geographer Hans Ahlmann, in which Ahlmann defended polar research as a worthwhile endeavour characterised by commitment to scientific excellence and differentiated it from an earlier tradition of heroic, risky exploration.
How much has changed in the present? Peder’s answer was quite a lot — particularly in matters such as treating indigenous Arctic residents as collaborators rather than research subjects — but at the same time not as much as we might think, given that polar exploration continues to be a valued marker of a nation’s level of civilisation. Sabine Höhler presented Peder with his docent certificate at which point the audience moved back to the division for some excellent fika. In a fitting tribute to the diets of great polar explorers of the past, one cake featured dogs, though fortunately not in the manner of certain expeditions of days gone by.
"I am a historian with a particular interest in the science, politics, and the polar regions during the twentieth century. My research initially focused on science, whaling, and Antarctic politics in Norway, Sweden, and Britain, an area in which I still work. More recently I have investigated the history of science and environmental and natural resource regulation in Svalbard, Greenland, and northern Sweden."
Peder Roberts, https://www.kth.se/profile/pwrobert
The VR funded project Cosmopolitanism from the Margins, lead by Miyase Christensen and hosted by the Division, recently ended. The planned final product of the project was a guest-edited journal special issue “Postnormative Cosmopolitanism: Voice, Space and Politics” for the International Communication Gazette, which can be found here: http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/gazb/79/6-7
The journal includes an article written by Miyase together with doctoral student Tindra Thor, about street art and graffiti in Stockholm and London. The article is based on two case studies and discuss how graffiti and street art provide forms of expressive cosmopolitanism in reclaiming voice and reciprocity in the city.
The purpose of the Cosmopolitanism project was to bring together humanities and social sciences perspectives (from cultural cosmopolitanism, urban studies, visual geopolitics to political economy, queer theory, mediation, etc.) to address various political, social, cultural questions.
– Our conversations in the hallway, in the kitchen, and in gatherings outside the office; our chats over politics, life, media, Stockholm and more! during lunchtime have all been greatly inspiring throughout the life of this project in this international division, says Miyase
Welcome to the first step of the rest of this blog. Let´s kick this off with a quote from our Annual Report, which was released in June 2017:
We have called the report Transformative Humanities. This is to indicate that the humanities are undergoing major changes not just in Sweden but also in many countries in the world. The Division is very much part of these changes, and we have tried to influence them and give direction to them. These changes are also affecting us, we believe largely for the better. It is also to state that the humanities are in themselves transformative – they are part of changing the world we live in, hopefully also for the better. We are part of this transformative work and we embrace that, which is a seminal point of departure for our strategy and thinking as a Division. For us in the humanities, these are challenging times but also exciting times, when societal recognition and to some extent also support for the kind of humanities that we do seem to be on the rise.
Professor Sverker Sörlin, co-head of the Division,
Annual Report 2015 – 2016