Cycle de journées d’étude en histoire environnementale 2014-2015.

Le RUCHE a organisé un cycle de cinq journées d’études durant l’année universitaire 2014-2015 dans des domaines variés avec le soutien du R2DS.

Consulter le détail de la programmation


Intrepid German Explorers: Virtual Exhibitions and the Digital Revival of Scientists’ Papers

by Kimberly Coulter

Explorers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were typically men, often mavericks who elated in discovering something outside the ken of the European scientific establishment. Their career choice was a radical one. They were not always appreciated; they missed their loved ones; they ate unspeakable things. Sometimes, they never returned.

WegenerPipe2No one followed their adventures on Twitter, no Facebook friends “liked” their passionate descriptions of remote places. While their scientific contributions sometimes made their way into our corpus of knowledge, their triumphs and their grief had only the smallest audience. Their insights, methods, and observations are revealed in the personal papers they leave behind. These letters, diaries, or notes from the field describe technological achievements, difficulties with patrons and colleagues, daily challenges in extreme situations, even expressions of wonderment and awe. Finding their way to an archive, too often the papers remain there, occasionally unearthed by a doctoral student on her own expedition.

Virtual exhibitions can revive these documents from archival obscurity and make them visible to broader audiences. They can also make them relevant: revealing this “human” side of what we miss from the formal writings, they build a bridge to those researchers who came before us. Virtual exhibitions are the most popular feature of the Environment & Society Portal, a gateway to open access resources on the human-environment relationship. Addressing a community of teachers, researchers, and the public, it reaches more than 10,000 individuals each month. In addition to its Multimedia Library and other publications such as Arcadia, it has published eight exhibitions so far, based on the research themes of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, its fellows, and its institutional partners. These exhibitions include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a Book that Changed the World; A History of Water in 20th-Century Bogotá; and Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands.


Intrepid German explorers–one polar geologist, one natural historian–are the subject of two virtual exhibitions based on holdings of the Deutsches Museum, one of our parent institutions. The Wegener Diaries: Scientific Expeditions into the Eternal Ice and Ludwig Leichhardt: A German Explorer’s Letters Home from Australia are both based on newly digitized documents from the Deutsches Museum Archive, published for the first time on the Environment & Society Portal. The handwritten documents were digitized, transcribed, and translated into English. Now fully searchable, the texts are juxtaposed with digitized photographs, natural history specimens, films, and other archival materials. Commentaries put these objects into interpretive contexts; metadata connect them with related resources within the Portal and beyond. The Portal team tweets the most profound observations.


Showcased within an environmental humanities knowledge portal, the documents find visibility within an international academic community, and often with the public as well. They become accessible from any place in the world. Assigned an ISSN number and digitally archived and cataloged by the Bavarian State Library, we hope they will never be lost.


Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) is known for proposing in 1912 the idea of shifting continents; only after his death was his idea modified and accepted as theory of plate tectonics. The digitized diaries encompass the Danish Danmark Expedition (1906-1908), the Danish North Greenland Expedition (1912-1931) and offer detailed knowledge about Greenland’s extreme environments, the dynamics of its ice sheet and the local weather and climate conditions. The virtual exhibition The Wegener Diaries: Scientific Expeditions into the Eternal Ice was one of the Portal’s first virtual exhibitions in 2013.

Curator Christian Kehrt presents the complete digitized diaries, more than 400 excerpted pages that have been transcribed and translated into English, a film, photos, and commentary. He explains that the diaries “provide a detailed look at polar exploration in the first half of the twentieth century, illustrating the challenges of everyday life as well as the continuities and changes in exploration methods over the course of three decades.” A Google Analytics content drilldown reveals more than 40,000 pageviews in the last two years. Two years after its publication, it is still generating more than 800 views per month.

Natural historian Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848) earned his reputation as the “Prince of Explorers” for mapping a viable route between Australia’s east and north coasts during his first expedition. Everyone was surprised when he returned alive. In 1848 he set out to traverse the continent from east to west, but disappeared and was never found. LeichhardtportraitnewsLast week we launched the virtual exhibition Ludwig Leichhardt: A German Explorer’s Letters Home from Australia. Curated by historian Heike Hartmann, the exhibition offers a lively new English translation of 17 of Leichhardt’s richly detailed letters he sent to his relatives between 1842 and 1848. The letters vividly describe Australia’s natural landscape and document his relationships with colleagues and patrons. They offer insight into the natural history of Australia, Europeans’ encounters with its indigenous population, and international scientific networks at the time.

Leichhardt1The exhibition’s commentary contextualizes the letters together with other natural history objects, newspapers, drawings, maps, and photographs. Readers can view high-resolution scans of the original letters, and the new English translations, within an interactive timeline (created with the Drupal plugin JS Timeline).

TimelineLeichhardtEnvironment & Society Portal exhibitions coordinator Eliza Encheva explains, “by expanding, contracting, or scrolling through the timeline, a playful element is introduced, giving users an impression of the chronology of Leichhardt’s experiences.” It is also possible to zoom in on the digitized handwritten letters for a closer look.

As it hosts and connects several large projects, the Environment & Society Portal uses the open-source content management system Drupal, there are easier ways for even small cultural heritage institutions and individuals to showcase their collections with virtual exhibitions. The free and open-source software Omeka, from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, is an easy way to showcase small collections using Dublin Core metadata. The Deutsches Museum also highlights its collections using Google Cultural Institute slideshows.

By creating virtual exhibitions, even small cultural heritage institutions can win large audiences for their treasures and spread the word about their significance. Then anyone with an Internet connection can become an explorer–not only of far-away places, but of the past. And live to tell the story.

Kimberly Coulter directs the Environment & Society Portal in Munich. The Portal is the digital publication platform and archive of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC), a nonprofit joint initiative of the LMU (University of Munich) and the Deutsches Museum.

— Ant, Spider, Bee: Exploring Digital Environmental Humanities

CfP: Mobilising and Using Energy

RUCHE, the French Network of Environmental Historians, organizes an international conference, that will take place at Bordeaux-Montaigne University on 8-10 September 2016, titled ”Mobilising and Using Energy, from Antiquity to the Present Time.”

The deadline for proposals is 15 October 2015

Further details are available in the full call for papers.

— European Society for Environmental History

Winners of the 2014/2015 Nachhaltigkeitspreis Have been Announced

Sustainability Prize Recognizes the Research of Munich Students

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

The lady and the possum

In my search for an image for the previous post, I stumbled across this photographic treasure from 1957: a possum in the care of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Knowing what we know today about the destructive impact of these furry marsupials, it is easy to dismiss this image as a […]

— envirohistory NZ

Instagram Adds Trending Locations, Here’s How They Work

By Dave Gershgorn in Popular Science:

At first, Instagram was the app for picture people. Photographers who saw the app’s potential early on in its life cycle, like David Guttenfelder and Michael Christopher Brown, gained hundreds of thousands of followers. News organizations like National Geographic and Time jumped on, and brought millions more eyes to their photography. And, of course, there has always been a healthy amount of pictures from brunch.

Now, Instagram is trying to make the Explore page live up to its name, by adding trending locations and hashtags. The search feature has been expanded, so when you search “Grand Canyon,” you’re shown mix of popular tags and locations. Instagram will also curate “interesting accounts and places” and display them on the top of the Explore page. On Day 1 of the new update, they’ve featured “Towering Rocks” (photos from America’s various canyons) and “Extreme Athletes” (accounts of surfers and BMX bikers).

Read more: Instagram Adds Trending Locations, Here’s How They Work

— Ant, Spider, Bee: Exploring Digital Environmental Humanities

Nicole Seymour’s Book “Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination” Wins ASLE Ecocriticism Book Award

— Rachel Carson Centre LMU - News and Events

ESEH 2015 Final Programme

The final programme of the ESEH 2015 Biennial Conference Greening History, which will take place in Versailles, France, 30 June – 3 July 2015 is available. Below you may also find a map of the conference venue.

— European Society for Environmental History

Environmental relationships in the Laudato Si´encyclical

Pope Francis, Laudato Si', 2015.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 2015.

Pope Francis published his much anticipated encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si´, last week. Whether or not you are Catholic (I am not), you should read the document because it is an important contemporary statement about the past/present/possible future relationship between humans and the Earth. Although much of the press hype has portrayed the document as a position on climate change, if you take time to read the whole 180 page document (in English),  you realise that it is much more an environmental justice manifesto concerned about the intertwined fates of humans and non-humans. As an environmental historian working on extinction, conservation biology, and ideas of belonging, I read the encyclical with an eye toward the kind of environmental relationships it depicts. I have four major observations.

First, I was struck by Francis’s definition of environment:

When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. (§139)

This is very similar to the way that I and Sverker Sörlin delineated the difference between environment and nature in our introduction to Northscapes, which in turn built upon his work with Paul Warde in Nature’s End. Environment is the entanglement of nature and people, thus when we do environmental history, we have to examine interactions. This entanglement is the foundation of the Pope’s insistence that environmental protection must be coupled to social betterment:

Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. … We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (§139)

As an environmental historian, I think this emphasis on the coupling of socio-natural systems is critical. In my recent lecture for the Swedish title of docent, I said that environment exists at the centre of a triangle with nature, technology, and social systems on the sides. It is the interaction of all three that makes the thing we know as environment. Because of the connections between humans and nature, the Pope calls for “integral ecology” that combines environment, economic, and social elements (see Chapter 4), a call that I think many environmental humanities scholars would agree with.

Second, Francis has something to say about history and belongingness. He advocates the “need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place” because ecology for him is “the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense”. Culture is both what “we have inherited from the past” and “a living, dynamic and participatory present reality” that affects environmental relationships (§143).

As I have written before, thinking historically is critically important for understanding today, especially since sometimes we need reminding about things we have forgotten. History and culture have environmental implications. To understand why some people say the muskox belongs in Norway or Sweden and others say it doesn’t requires historical cultural analysis. To understand why the raccoon dog is hunted down in Sweden has as much to do with culture as it does nature. The same holds true for whether or not the starling is an American bird.

The subtitle of the encyclical is “on the care of our common home”, which is also a statement of belonging. Humans and non-humans belong on the Earth, sharing this home which Francis warns has become sick and “cries out to us” (§2). The Pope is using the sense of belongingness to position his encyclical within a framework of environmental care.

Third, the Pope writes a fair amount on species extinction. He notes that many extinctions take place unknown to us, yet humans are to blame:

Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right. (§33)

There is certainly an extinction ethics in Laudato Si’. In the passage above, there is an assignment of blame and a judgement of right/wrong at work in extinction.

According to the encyclical, all creatures, whether they are megafauna or microfauna have value (§34), and that value is defined intrinsically rather than only anthropocentrically by our “use” of the creature (§69). This does not mean that the Pope ignores the ecosystem service or value of biodiversity. Quite the contrary, he notes that the loss of species may result in losses of resources (food, medicine, etc) in the future, but he believes that thinking of species only as potential “resources” is not enough (§32-33).

On a practical note that speaks to the concerns of conservation biology, Francis advocates “developing programmes and strategies of protection with particular care for safeguarding species heading towards extinction” (§42). Biodiversity needs to be included in assessing the environmental impact of development, and steps taken to prevent species’ “depletion and the consequent imbalance of the ecosystem” (§35). These are calls to action about species and their potential loss.

Yet, Laudato Si’ cautions against thinking that environmental issues like species loss can be countered with technocratic, economically-dependent solutions. (As a side comment, more than anything, I think this encyclical was intended as a slap in the face of the capitalist system that favours the wealthy’s consumption over the poor and leads to environmental degradation.) Francis notes that “we seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” (§34). This statement could well apply to the deextinction efforts I have discussed in this project. Remaking a thing is never the same as the thing.

Finally, I want to note that Francis makes a statement that environmental humanities scholars need to latch onto and make our own:

We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment. There is an interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction, demonstrating yet again that “the whole is greater than the part”. (§141)

Those of us in environmental humanities fields have said and known this for a long time, but this kind of statement can help us as researchers to address the oft-dreaded ‘relevance’ question in our research proposals, interaction with the public, and making our findings count in politics.

While people may not agree with everything in Laudato Si´, as environmental historian I found it refreshing to have a major religious/political figure speaking out against the historical lack of political will to conserve resources and the modernist turn toward technological solutions to environmental problems, advocating a humanities-based approach to environmental issues, and pointing out the need to have all of us (regardless of religious beliefs) embrace our common home.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

Ecole d’été “Villes et montagnes: risques environnementaux et sanitaires au prisme de l’histoire et des sciences sociales”. Lyon-Yenne-Grenoble 26-29 juin 2015

A la veille de la conférence de l’ESEH à Versailles, une école d’été s’est tenue du 26 au 29 juin 2015. Organisée par deux membres du RUCHE, Stéphane Frioux (Université de Lyon-Saint-Etienne, LARHRA) et Anne Marie Granet-Abisset (Université Grenoble Alpes, LARHRA), soutenue par le CNRS, l’ESEH et les Labex IMU et ITEM,  elle avait pour thème “Villes et montagnes: risques environnementaux et sanitaires au prisme de l’histoire et des sciences sociales”.

Consulter le programme complet

Photo souvenir