Northern Nations, Northern Natures: Workshop Report

On November 9-11 the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH hosted a workshop titled ‘Northern Nations, Northern Natures’, funded by the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) and Formas. Eighteen scholars took part from Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway.

The aim of the workshop was to bring eight senior scholars working in northern environmental history – broadly construed – into conversation with ten graduate students and younger scholars, in order to share ideas and develop networks. Over the course of two and a half days the participants gave presentations on a range of topics, including the politics of fisheries management in the Barents Sea, the transplantation of muskoxen to Scandinavia, the commodification of iceberg water as a luxury product, the relationship of certain Inuit communities to forestry, and a great deal more.

In addition to provoking stimulating discussion (and not a few moments of genuine astonishment), the workshop raised some important questions about both the differences and similarities in various circumpolar environments. The diversity of experiences and opinions of indigenous peoples – as articulated by themselves as well as by others – was identified as an important issue, especially in relation to processes of modernization and industrialization. So too were the range of means by which states express claims to northern territories, from science to military occupation. Perhaps the most important theme running throughout the discussions was the breadth of material encompassed by the term ‘northern environmental history’, which participants agreed could function as a loose frame for all manner of interesting studies without the need to be exclusive or programmatic. The connections between polar and temperate regions (and even tropical regions, through the tentacles of the Danish colonial empire for instance) are clear from the age of European expansion right through to the concerns for global climate change in the present. Moreover, by emphasizing that nature can be constructed with particular national flavors – rather than being a foundational component of national identity – a more interesting take on the relationships between people and northern environments becomes possible.

The organizers of the workshop, Peder Roberts (KTH) and Tina Adcock (University of Maine), are extremely grateful to all the participants for a fascinating set of discussions and for an atmosphere of enthusiasm and goodwill throughout. Special thanks are also due to Sverker Sörlin, without whose guidance and efforts the workshop would not have been possible. A number of posts resulting from the workshop discussions will appear on The Otter, the NiCHE research blog and on the workshop’s website.

Science, geopolitics, and the global Cold War

Are you interested in the history of US nuclear testing in the Pacific? How about the Antarctic territorial dispute that once escalated into gunfire? The secret story of uranium prospecting in North Africa during the 1950s? Or the Cold War origins of the Global Environmental Monitoring Project? This coming Friday — July 26 — I’ll be part of the symposium Planet Earth, the Environment, and the Cold War, at the International Congress of History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Manchester. These and many other topics will be covered in what promises to be a fascinating day. Here’s a link to the program.

My partner in organizing the symposium, Simone Turchetti, is principal investigator for the European Research Council project The Earth Under Surveillance: Climate Change, Geophysics, and the Cold War Legacy. Over the past few years Simone and the team have looked at how the geosciences developed in Europe and beyond, as aids to statecraft (through surveillance or intelligence-gathering) but also as forums for regional and eventually global cooperation. Studying the earth and its systems, the basis of the modern environmental sciences, could also be a means of shoring up strategic resource supplies and even detecting enemy military capability. The symposium will showcase some of the work we’ve done in the past few years while bringing in scholars with expertise from Eastern Europe, the Pacific, and yes — even the Antarctic.

We’re fortunate to have Jake Hamblin as commentator for the symposium. (If you haven’t got a copy of his excellent new book Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism you can rectify that here.) Along with John Krige, Ron Doel, and many others, Jake has done pioneering work on the political dimensions of United States military support for science after 1945, including on the international stage. You might also have seen his recent op-ed in the New York Times.