What are the most important events in the collective environmental memory of humanity? In the spring of 2013 a group of environmental historians from around the globe was confronted with this very question. They were asked to nominate one event that, in their opinion, should be part of this collective memory. This was part of a survey for a special issue of the journal Global Environment on environment and memory. The twenty-two entries that were returned provide an interesting window in what professional environmental historians regard as world changing environmental events that should be remembered by all of us. The events suggested are a colorful mix including animals and bombs, dust and climate, organic and mineral resources, the old conservation movement and the new post-1970 environmental movement. In spatial terms, events were scattered over all five continents as well as the entire globe.
The guest on this episode of the podcast is Frank Uekotter, the organiser of the collective environmental memory survey. He discusses what the spatial and temporal distribution of the entries as well as the obvious silences and omissions tells us about our historical imagination and the present direction and focus of the discipline of environmental history.
The Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud at 06:00 UTC on 17 April 2010. Source: Wikimedia Commons
On 14 April 2010 the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted for a second time in two month after having been dormant for just under 200 years. The second eruption caused an ash plume that was ejected into the stratosphere and transported by the wind to Northwest Europe and all air traffic was shut down. As a result the eruption became a major news story. A secondary reason why the eruption became a major news story is the fact that volcanic ash clouds have not affected Europe in such an immediate way in living memory. But looking at the historical record of volcanic eruptions it becomes clear that these events have affected Europe and other parts of the world in significant ways and sometimes even altered the course of history. This extra edition of the Exploring Environmental History podcast considers a small sample of such volcanic event events, including the 536 AD dust veil event, the Black Death and the Laki eruption of 1783.
Resources and further reading Nature as Historical Protagonist by Bruce M. S. Campbell, The Tawney Memorial Lecture 2008 Watch the lecture online
L. B. Larsen et.al., “New ice core evidence for a volcanic cause of the A.D. 536 dust veil”, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 35, L04708, 5 PP., 2008.
R. A. Dodgshon, D. D. Gilbertson & J. P. Grattan, “Endemic stress, farming communities and the influence of Icelandic volcanic eruptions in the Scottish Highlands”, Geological Society, London, Special Publications; 2000; v. 171; p. 267-280.
In this edition climatologist Dennis Wheeler talks about the use of 18th and 19th century ship logs for historical climate reconstruction. The main focus will be on the CLIWOC project. In the autumn of 2006 a second edition of the ground breaking global forest history A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization has been published. The author, John Perlin, will reflect in the latter part of this podcast on the importance of forest history and the current situation in which forests have become imperative for humanity’s survival.
The destruction of the world’s forests is a major concern in our age. According to the UN about 40 percent of Central America’s forests were destroyed between 1950 and 1980 and during the same period Africa lost about 23 percent of its forests. A whole range of environmental problems is associated with deforestation, among them severe flooding, accelerated loss of soil, encroaching deserts and declining soil productivity1. Sometimes we get the impression that these problems are unique to our time, but vast areas of surface of the earth were stripped of their tree cover well before the modern period.