Same planet, different worlds: Environmental history conference comes to Bristol

By Professor Adrian Howkins, Department of History

In early July 2022, Bristol will play host to the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference. The conference – which usually takes place every two years – will have the overarching theme of ‘Same planet, different worlds: environmental histories imagining anew’.

This is only the second time the ESEH conference has taken place in Britain, and the first time it is happening in England – the first ever ESEH conference took place in St Andrews in Scotland in 2001. The decision to hold the conference in Bristol reflects the strength of environmental history research at the University of Bristol, as well as the city’s strong environmental reputation. More broadly, it reflects the strength of the University of Bristol in the wider field of environmental humanities, which includes environmental history research.

“Environmental humanities are interdisciplinary areas of research, combining the traditional humanities – such as literature, music, history and languages – with areas including science and technology to better understand the relationship between humans and their surrounding environment, both social and natural. Environmental humanities can help us learn about the environmental challenges of the past, address those of the present, and plan for the future.”

The University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities (CEH) in the Faculty of Arts is firmly established as one of the leading centres for environmental humanities research in the UK, and there is a wide range of exciting projects taking place. Do follow our CEH blog to keep up with everything that is going on.

Group of researchers look out across a waterway towards a stone bridge in the distance. The area is grassy with trees in full leaf.
Centre for Environmental Humanities field trip

In preparation for the ESEH coming to Bristol, Adrian Howkins – one of the co-directors of the CEH – spoke to Marianna Dudley and Andy Flack who are organising the conference.

What is the European Society for Environmental History?

[Marianna] The ESEH is the leading scholarly organisation for people interested in environmental issues from a humanities perspective. It is European, but that doesn’t exclude people in other parts of the world working on this topic. It is very inclusive, and has grown to include a wide range of scholars. It offers networking, mentorship, peer-to-peer support, and a discount on the Environment and History journal. It also has by far the best academic conference going, which moves around Europe and is coming to Bristol this summer!

Why is it important that the conference is coming to Bristol?

[Andy] It recognises Bristol’s status as an environmentally aware and activist city as well as recognising that the University is involved in environmental issues through the Centre for Environmental Humanities, the Cabot Institute, and other research centres and clusters. It is the first time the ESEH has been in the UK since the first meeting in 2001 (St Andrews), and the first time in England. The decision to come to Bristol shows that despite political developments like Brexit, the United Kingdom is still at the heart of the European scholarly community studying environmental change. We love living and working in Bristol – it’s a fun, vibrant, welcoming city and we want to show our colleagues from around the world what a great place Bristol is.

What impact do you hope to have as a result of the conference?

[Marianna] It felt more important than ever to have an in-person conference after such a long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re looking forward to bringing our scholarly community together and reforging the connections that are so important to our work. In terms of academic legacies, we want to spotlight Bristol as a place to study environmental history and environmental humanities. We hope that other scholars around Britain will seek us out for postgraduate research, postdoctoral fellowships, and academic collaborations, maintaining and building the exciting work that is already taking place.

What opportunities are there for our students to get involved in the Centre and/or the Conference?

[Andy] There will be opportunities for students to get involved in the running of the conference. This will put our students in touch with scholars from all around the world. Please get in touch if you might be interested in joining our conference team. If anyone would like to attend the conference to see what it’s all about, we’ll be offering day rates for University of Bristol staff and students to come to talks and meet with conference attendees. There will be interactive environmental art installations, a talk on wildlife film, science and humanities conversations, and a poet in residence.

If you would like to register for the conference, you can find further details here.

Redrawing our Environments

By Dr Paul Merchant, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture, School of Modern Languages

Can art change how we relate to the environment? Might the experience of watching a film, observing a drawing, or visiting an installation help us to understand the current ecological crisis in ways that scientific reports and data can’t? As the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow continues, these questions are taking on added urgency.

On Friday 5 November, visitors to the First Friday event at Watershed in Bristol will have the opportunity to explore these questions. They’ll be able to learn about some contemporary art initiatives from the UK and Chile, and take part in some drawing exercises led by the illustrator Jasmine Thompson (no prior experience required!).

Waves crashing on the Vina del Mar coast, Chile
Vina del Mar, Chile

The event draws on the work of the research project Reimagining the Pacific, which is led by Dr Paul Merchant and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores how artists in Chile and Peru are responding to environmental challenges on the Pacific coast.

One way in which contemporary artists are seeking to engage their audiences with environmental issues is by creating works that use a range of different media to create a multisensory experience. For example, Claudia González’s installation Hidroscopia / Loa (2018) uses drawings, videos, and electronic apparatus to present the effects of copper mining on the Loa river in unexpected ways.

Closer to home, the Bristol-based artist Dan Pollard’s Liquid Noise installation project creates a link between the movement of visitors’ bodies and the vibrations in pools of water to visualise the effect of underwater noise pollution on whales.

The value of projects like these is that they make issues that can seem distant or abstract (like marine noise pollution, or ocean acidification caused by uptake of carbon dioxide) feel present, by engaging our senses and our imaginations. It would be too simplistic to draw a straight line between an experience of an artwork and a specific political commitment. But if works like Hidroscopia / Loa and Liquid Noise, or even the simple act of drawing, can make us look again, listen again, and pay better attention to our environments, then there’s much to be said for them.