Table-ronde. “De l’eau, du sel et des hommes (histoire – archéologie – environnement”. Université de Poitiers. 6-7 novembre 2014.

Cette table-ronde présente les travaux d’une équipe pluri-disciplinaire (archéologues, historiens, géographes, géophysiciens, paléo-environnementalistes) regroupée autour d’un projet collectif de recherche (PCR) soutenu par le Ministère de la Culture et le CESCM. Mis en place en 2011, ce PCR intitulé « les marais charentais du Moyen Âge à l’époque moderne : économie, peuplement, environnement » a pour objectif d’appréhender l’ancien golfe de Saintonge, plus communément appelé golfe de Brouage (Charente-Maritime).

Consulter le programme complet

Cette table-ronde se tiendra les 6-7 novembre au CESCM, Hôtel Bertelot, salle Crozet – 24 rue de la Chaîne.
Poitiers, France (86000)


Séminaire de Master 2 Archéologie de l’Antiquité et du Moyen Age. “La forêt et ses usages”. Université de Poitiers. 20 novembre 2014.

Ce séminaire de Master 2 “Archéologie de l’Antiquité et du Moyen Age” est ouvert à tous. Il est consacré à la “forêt et ses usages” et se tiendra à l’Hôtel Fumé (salle 115)

Consulter le programme complet


CfA: Doctoral Program “Environment and Society” at the LMU Munich, Germany

The doctoral program “Environment and Society” invites applications from graduates in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences who wish to research the complex relationships between environment and society on an interdisciplinary basis. Our program is based at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, a joint initiative of LMU Munich and the Deutsches Museum. Within the scope of the program, doctoral students acquire the ability to understand the emergence and interactions of natural and social processes. The stimulating research environment, intensive supervision, and opportunity to form international networks offer excellent conditions for doctoral students.

The program does not offer scholarships for doctoral candidates, but can assist students who apply for external funding: some funding is available for conference travel and archival or field research. Applicants wishing to be admitted to this doctoral program must hold a Master’s degree from a recognized university, show evidence of excellence in their field of study, and present a plan for a doctoral project in one of the following areas or combination of areas:

History: Environmental History, History of Science and Technology, Art History
Sociology: Environmental Sociology, Political Economy, Sociology of Economics
Energy and Resource Economics for Sustainability
Geography: Modeling Social-Ecological Relations and Systems, Historical Geography, Political Ecology
Biology: Paleoanatomy and Archaeology
Environmental Law
Environmental Policy: Comparative, International, or Politics of Ecological Transitions
Environmental Ethics
Anthropology: Environmental, Urban, or Political; especially Latin America and Pacific

Please submit your application by 1 December 2014 via the online portal of the LMU Munich Graduate Center. Only applications submitted through the portal will be considered. Successful candidates will be accepted into the program for the summer semester 2015 and notified in January 2015. You will need the following documents for your online application:

Documentation of university degree(s) held;
One copy of your Master’s thesis;
Your academic curriculum vitae (including details of publications, if applicable);
A statement of purpose for your application to the program (up to two pages);
An outline of your planned dissertation along with a timetable for completion (up to five pages);
The name of a member of the Academic Board who can supervise the dissertation;
The names and addresses of two academic referees able to give information about your suitability and academic potential.

For further information on the doctoral program Environment and Society, including application details and FAQ, please visit the Environment and Society homepage.

Please contact Dr. Robert Emmett, program coordinator (proenviron [at], for questions not covered in our FAQ pages.

— European Society for Environmental History

In honor of two 70th birthdays in climatology…

This past week saw two 70th birthday celebrations for two outstanding scholars and mentors in historical climatology and climate science, respectively.  On Saturday, colleagues in Switzerland celebrated the birthday of Christian Pfister.  With his permission, I attach Franz Mauelshagen’s panegyric for the occasion here.  On Monday students, collaborators, friends, and distinguished scholars (and unaccountably, me […]

— Climate History Network

Coal-Power with low Emissions: Is Boundary Dam a new Energy Paradigm

By Dr. David Zylberberg

Energy sources are interchangeable for many purposes. Pre-industrial people burned various woods, peat, coal, dung and straw for cooking and basic manufacturing. In such societies, fuels varied between communities depending upon local availability and cost in either money or labour. Pre-industrial people cooked with whatever fuel required the least of their effort.

Energy has never been free or unlimited as the availability of each energy source faces its own limitations. Wood, dung and straw growth are all limited by annual photosynthesis and the need to use land for growing food. Societies that rely upon these energy sources are often characterized as organic economies and had limited carrying capacities for human populations. One such example is England in 1600, when it had a population of 4.15 million but was self-sufficient in food, energy and raw materials. Most of the population lived in villages, where their houses were relatively small and made of wood. Brick was rarely used as the fuel to bake bricks made them prohibitively expensive. Although the country was self-sufficient in food and most people had enough, we generally teach that population growth in the preceding century increased poverty as the region was pushing its carrying capacity for humans. Sixteenth-century England had a fair bit of manufacturing compared to other parts of the world but this mostly involved hand-spun wool cloth. E.A. Wrigley famously captured the organic limitations on metal use when he observed that if all of England were turned over to growing wood for smelting iron, it could only produce 1.25 million tons of bar iron a year.

Since 1600, economic and population growth has been intimately tied to increasing energy consumption. Much of this has involved finding energy sources that don’t rely upon photosynthesis or directly compete with agricultural land use. The adoption of coal as a household and manufacturing fuel was uneven. If population grew beyond those 1600 levels in areas without access to coal or peat, they could not produce sufficient fuel for all households to cook. I have previously written about the limitations of local food sources for the English population as it rose over 6 million after 1763. In the same years that English and other Europeans were becoming shorter, rising fuel costs priced an ever-larger portion of them out of cooking their own food. Instead, such households came to rely upon purchased bread or cooking as little as once a year and eating stale biscuits for the rest of the time. Even in areas of relative fuel abundance, heating homes when not cooking was an unimaginable luxury for most 18th and 19th century Europeans. In short, compared to organic economies our mineral-fuelled world currently has many more people, who are better fed, live in larger, warmer homes and use previously unimaginable materials.

Another fundamental difference between organic and mineral economies is the rate of economic growth. Pre-industrial economies sometimes grew slowly but this was neither guaranteed nor expected. In fact, classical economists like Adam Smith don’t discuss economic growth because the concept was foreign to how they understood the world. Meanwhile, we expect our economy to grow by a few percent a year and plan many things around such growth. In the current world, an economy that only grows by 1% a year does not produce enough jobs for young people entering the workforce. In addition, such low growth probably increases income inequality as stock prices rise faster than incomes. Our society cannot function without the economic growth it has come to expect in a mineral economy. Any proposal to revert to entirely local, organic energy would require vastly reducing population and have disproportionately negative effects on those in their 20s.

Unfortunately, burning fossil fuels in large quantities often causes air pollution. This was historically a severe problem in Europe and North America, and is becoming an ever-larger one in Chinese cities. Fossil fuels also release carbon into the atmosphere, which is changing climates and acidifying oceans. These are serious problems that affect the long-term sustainability of our current population levels and bring us to the fundamental challenge of energy systems. As a global society, we need to emit substantially less carbon, while also producing enough energy to support an ever-more affluent 7 billion people. In the minds of many across the political spectrum, these imperatives are seen as conflicting. In recent years, it has seemed that people supported different energy sources by prioritising one of those concerns, with solar panels supported by those worried about climate change and coal-powered electricity favoured by those worried about growth.

This conflict between fossil fuels and carbon emissions may have fundamentally changed with last month’s developments at Boundary Dam, near Estevan, Saskatchewan. Saskpower has developed the world’s first large scale system to capture carbon emitted from a coal-fired power plant and store it underground. They have effectively managed to create coal-fired electricity that generates minimal carbon emissions and air pollutants. However, this project was expensive, as its $1.4 billion cost for the carbon-capture system works out at $12,727 for every kilowatt of electricity generation at the plant. This is in addition to the costs of building the plant or buying coal to burn. The first development of new technology is usually more expensive than later versions and prices will likely go down. If future carbon-capture is not cheaper, it will not be economical. This project is also uniquely suited to Boundary Dam, which sits on the Bakken Shale formation along the Saskatchewan/North Dakota border. This region is currently experiencing an economic boom as oil gets extracted from the Bakken Shale. Much of the carbon being sequestered will replace natural gas in shale oil production and the carbon will be stored between layers of the shale. This creates a market for carbon dioxide that subsidizes the plant and makes the area particularly well suited to storing carbon. There are many places with coal-fired power plants that are not on shale-oil formations and it is unclear whether carbon-capture and storage is feasible there.

If carbon-capture technology does not become cheaper in the future, Boundary Dam will prove to be an overpriced novelty feature on an existing plant. The money could have been spent on known low-emission energy sources. $1.4 billion would buy a lot of solar panels and these would thrive in Saskatchewan’s sunny climate. Meanwhile, at $12,727/kW of generating capacity, the Boundary Dam upgrades to an existing facility cost similar amounts to building new nuclear plants. Nuclear power would increase the amount of electricity in Saskatchewan without emitting carbon in the process. It would also use local resources and helped bring jobs back to far northern Saskatchewan. Once built, nuclear plants produce cheaper electricity than coal. If Boundary Dam does not ignite a rash of technological efficiencies, nuclear or solar power would have been a better solution to reduce emissions while increasing electrical capacity to deal with Saskatchewan’s growing population and the likely rise in electric car use.

If carbon-capture technology and electric cars become cheaper, we may be entering a fundamentally new paradigm in selecting energy sources. If coal can be burnt without emissions, it is no longer an impediment to environmental sustainability. Coal-fired electricity would become more expensive but should not turn off environmentalists. Such a world would return to the pre-industrial mentality where fuel sources were chosen based upon which was cheapest locally. In some places that would be coal with carbon capture, while in others it would be nuclear, solar, wind or hydro. If it becomes effective in many places, carbon-capture would remove the environmental value judgements from choices about energy sources and return them to cost-benefit analysis.


South African Historical Society 2015 conference

The Southern African Historical Society hosts its 25th Biennial Conference, in Stellenbosch, 1-3 July 2015, with the theme: “Unsettling Stories and Unstable Subjects”. The final deadline for submittal of panels and individual abstracts (and brief CVs) is 12 January 2015.  See the full Call for Papers.

— International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations

ICEHO Bulletin 2

— International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations

Otters then and now, north and south

The Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) is extremely widely distributed in Europe and Asia, but in spite of its huge range it is also linked historically to certain geographies.

The otter is not included in the medieval bestiary corpus, unlike many other European animals like the beaver which makes regular appearances. There is a bestiary animal called the ichneumon which some have identified as otter, but it is much closer in description to a mongoose (the ichneumon’s primary trait is its ferocity toward dragons, crocodiles and snakes). But otters do appear on premodern maps.

The otter on Olaus Magnus, Carta marina, 1539. Copy in Uppsala University Library.

The otter on Olaus Magnus, Carta marina, 1539. Copy in Uppsala University Library.

Olaus Magnus included an otter on his Carta marina from 1539. He places this otter in the region of Östrabottnia, Finland. The otter is shown bringing a fish to a man. In the text which accompanied the map (Opera Breve), Olaus Magnus explained the image as “the animal Lutherus, common in Finland and Bothnia, which sometimes can be domesticated to bring fish to the kitchen.” In his longer treatise Historia de genitbus septentrionalibus (Description of the Northern Peoples) from 1555 Olaus says that otter domestication of this type was practiced in Sweden “on the estates of some eminent citizens” where when a cook gave the otters a signal “they dive into a pool and catch a fish of the size he has indicated, returning for another and yet another until his instructions have been completely satisfied.” I can’t confirm that this is a true story. However, I’ve seen that otters in modern zoos and aquariums certainly like to play and they can do tricks, so maybe they were domesticated fishermen of the 16th century.

Later cartographers also included the otter and fish image. Liévin Algoet’s Terrarum septentriolium exacta novissimaque descriptio per Livinum Algoet (1562) has a similar image in almost the same geographical spot. Anders Bure included a otter carrying a fish in its mouth (although there is no human master to be seen) in Sweden north of Luleå on his map from 1626. At first I thought Bure’s map was showing a beaver, but after reading Olaus Magnus’s text and seeing his map, I realised that it was an otter.

Anders Bure, Orbis arctoi nova et accurata delineatio, 1626. Copy in National Library of Sweden.

Anders Bure, Orbis arctoi nova et accurata delineatio, 1626. Copy in National Library of Sweden.

In Olaus Magnus’s text account, otters are geographically situated:

They are to be found in northern waters, especially those of Upper Sweden Hälsingland, Medelpad, Ångermanland, Jämtland, and Eastern and Western Bothnia.

To Olaus in the Middle Ages, the north of the north is where these animals belonged.

What’s interesting then in contemporary conservation policy is how the otter has been envisioned as an animal that should be found throughout Sweden. Otter experienced a population decline in Sweden beginning in the 1950s. In addition to hunting (it was a popular pelt animal with around 1500 animals killed each year in the late 1940s), PCB contamination of its food sources was blamed for the decline. The otter was listed as a protected species in Sweden in 1968 in the face of dramatic declines. A WWF conservation project “Projekt Utter” started in 1975 to work toward conserving the species. The otter survey from 1975-77 indicated that there were probably 1000 to 1500 otters in Sweden. Most of the existing otters were in north. So the south became the conservation target. A reintroduction program run from 1987 to 1992 brought wild-caught otters from Norway (I love how Norway is the source of ‘Swedish’ reintroduced fauna – so ironic) and released 47 in Sodermanland and 7 in Uppland. Genetic tests show that apparently some of the reintroduced animals have entered into the reproductive pool. There are probably over 2000 otters in Sweden now.

The Conservation Plan for Otters in force through the Swedish EPA identifies the primary conservations actions as studying otters more (a common but not necessarily effective approach to a problem is to study it more),  disseminating information about otters, and building wildlife passages under roads (traffic accidents are now the single greatest cause of otter death — 12 of them from Jan to Sept 2014 according to the Swedish transport statistics). Again, most of the focus is on southern Sweden.

Shifting baseline syndrome often assumes that people will take a lower population of an animal species as the normal, accepting this reduced biodiversity. But I wonder if it sometimes works the other way. People assume that an animal has and should be in a place because of political borders that define units like a country or big scale range maps that shade an area as ‘suitable habitat’. I’m not saying that there haven’t been otters in southern Sweden in the past, but if take seriously the 16th and 17th century sources, otters were an animal that belonged in northern Sweden, not the south.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

New Study: The 1934 Dust Bowl was the worst drought of the last millennium in North America

A new study by Cook and collaborators at NASA and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has found that 1934, the start of the Dust Bowl, was the worst North American drought of the past millennium.  Using the updated tree-ring based North American Drought Atlas, the authors found that the drought was exceptionally intense and affected over […]

— Climate History Network

International Conference on Volcanoes, Climate, and Society

International Conference on Volcanoes, Climate, and Society, “Bicentenary of the great Tambora eruption”, 7 – 11 April 2015 at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Two hundred years after the eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815, an event that changed global climate, the University of Bern and the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research […]

— Climate History Network