30th Nov 2012 9:30am-5:00pm

Grand Parade

This symposium invites reflection on the ways in which history and memory inform and shape contemporary green imaginaries. It brings together cultural theorists, historians, cultural geographers, educators and policy actors.


9.15 – 9.45       Registration

9.45 – 10.00     Welcome to the Centre
Graham Dawson, Centre Director

10.00 – 11.15    Keynote: ‘The problem of the past’
Alastair Bonnett, Professor of Social Geography, Newcastle University.

11.15 – 11.30    Short break

11.30 – 13.00    Roundtable: ‘Austerity and sustainability’
The Home Front and ‘austerity Britain’ are significant points of reference in current debates about sustainability. What kinds of possibilities and limitations follow from the use of historical resources in public debate about environmental issues?

Tim Cooper, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Exeter.
Victoria Johnson, Head of Climate Change and Energy, New Economics Foundation.
James Piers Taylor, British Film Institute Documentation Editor and permaculture educator.

13.00 – 14.00    Lunch (provided)

14.00 – 15.30    Panel: ‘Ecological history’
How can historical research inform environmental thinking? Three historians discuss this question in relation to their research and other practices.

Vinita Damodaran, Senior Lecturer in South Asian History, University of Sussex.
Erin Gill, environmental journalist and historian.
Karin Jaschke, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, University of Brighton.

15.30 – 15.45     Tea/coffee (provided)
15.45 – 17.00     Closing remarks: ‘Culture is natural: biosemiotics, recycling, and the
evolutionary structurations of biological and cultural change’
Wendy Wheeler, Professor of English Literature and Cultural Inquiry,
London Metropolitan University.

Speaker biographies

Alastair Bonnett is a Professor in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. His most recent book is Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia (2010).Tim Cooper is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter (Cornwall Campus). He is interested in the relationships between the themes of environment, technology and everyday life, and in developing an approach to the teaching of history based on the insights of critical pedagogy.

Vinita Damodaran is a historian of modern India. Her work ranges from the social and political history of Bihar to the environmental history of South Asia. Her publications include Nature and the Orient: Essays on the Environmental History of South and South-East Asia(1998) and British Empire and the Natural World: Environmental Encounters in South Asia (2010). She is the director of the Centre for World Environmental History at Sussex.

Erin Gill is an environmental and energy journalist, employed by Haymarket Business Media. Erin has reported extensively on a range of environmental issues, including climate change, biodiversity, EU environmental policy, contaminated land and chemical regulation. She is also an environmental historian with an interest in environmental protest. Her doctoral thesis focuses on the early history of the British organic food and farming movement. Erin is a participant in the AHRC-funded network, Histories of Environmental Change.

Karin Jaschke teaches architectural history and theory at the University of Brighton. Her research interests include modern architecture’s links to ethnography, ludic environments, and ecological historiography. She is co-editor of Stripping Las Vegas: A Contextual Review of Casino Resort Architecture (2003), author of numerous essays, and is currently working on the publication of her doctoral thesis ‘Mythical Journeys: Ethnography, Archaeology and the Attraction of the Tribal in the Work of Aldo van Eyck and Herman Haan’.

Victoria Johnson is a senior researcher and head of climate change and energy at the New Economics Foundation. Victoria is working on a number of different projects that explore the interaction between climate change and social justice both in the UK and internationally. Her particular research interests include: the social impacts of technological ‘Magic Bullets’, energy equity, social justice and carbon trading, climate change and human rights, the feasibility of green/sustainable growth and potential changes to lifestyle, politics and economics in a post-carbon world in the context of climate change policy and peak oil.

James Piers Taylor is a curator of archival film and video and a permaculture educator. He co-edited Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain (2010 Palgrave MacMillan) and in 2009 submitted his dissertation ‘Mend & Make Do to Save Buying New; Decoding Messages of Austerity in a Consumer Culture’ for an MSc in Human Ecology at The Centre for Human Ecology/University of Strathclyde. Recently he has been developing the use of archival film in community education around sustainability and resilience.

Wendy Wheeler is Professor Emeritus of English Literature and Cultural inquiry at London Metropolitan University, and is Visiting Professor at The University of Oregon USA and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia. She is the author of A New Modernity? Change in Science, Literature and Politics (1999), The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture (2006), and many other essays on biological systems theory and biosemiotics. She has been Editor (jointly with Jeremy Gilbert) of New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, and remains on its editorial board. She also sits on the Editorial Board of Green Letters, the journal of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment UK and Ireland, and is a consulting editor for the journal Cybernetics and Human Knowing. Recent ecocritical work includes a special issue (co-edited with Hugh Dunkerley) of New Formations (64, Spring 2008) special issue ‘Earthographies: Ecocriticism and Culture’, a special issue (co-edited with Patrick Curry) of Green Letters 13 (Summer 2010) on Ecophenomenology and Practices of the Sacred, and a forthcoming special issue (co-edited with Linda Williams) of New Formations on ‘The Animals Turn’ (No. 76, Winter 2012). She is currently completing a new book on biosemiotics provisionally entitled Matter, Mind and the Carrying: Biosemiotic Investigations, due from Lawrence & Wishart in 2013.


Keynote and Closing Remarks:

Alastair Bonnett, ‘The problem of the past’
Progressive politics has often defined itself against the past. To be ‘forward looking’ has been cast as noble and muscular but being ‘backward looking’ seen as ‘misty eyed’ and feeble. Today these clichés are beginning to unravel. A new, less condensing, attitude to the past seems necessary. Greens, and environmentalists more generally, should be at the centre of the debate about the political role of memory and loss. This group – for years talked down to as nostalgically mourning the loss of a ‘balanced’ earth – has a vital role in explaining, as William Morris put it, that ‘the love of the past and the love of the day to be’ are interwoven.

Wendy Wheeler, ‘Culture is natural: biosemiotics, recycling, and the evolutionary structurations of biological and cultural change’
In the not too distant past, the word ‘radical’ implied a tearing up of the roots of the past in order to clear the ground for supposedly wholly new revolutionary practices. Ecological and evolutionary understandings of culture mean that this conception of change will no longer do; the past is never obliterated, only transformed. We must be able to account for continuities within change, system learning, and the repurposing and recycling of knowledge practices. But the understanding that culture is natural and evolutionary should not lead us to the mechanistic and reductionist accounts offered by sociobiology, or by the ‘just-so stories’ of evolutionary psychology. Biosemiotics gives us different tools for understanding the creative growth of dynamic and self-organising systems. Both nature and culture are full of meanings and purposes. Natural and cultural systems involve chance, creative responsiveness (at best) and formal constraints; they also involve interpretations and habits, even at the level of the cell, rather than simple deterministic mechanisms. Neither nihilistic convictions of meaninglessness nor utopian dreams of the mastery of nature will serve our growing understanding of the movements – genetic, epigenetic and cultural – between past, present and future. This talk will sketch out contemporary biosemiotic understandings of the structurations and patterns of change over time, as well as their philosophical and theoretical sources in the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, Jakob von Uexküll, Gregory Bateson, Tom Sebeok and Jesper Hoffmeyer, in order to clear a space for thinking about the multi-disciplinary implications of such views. These include, for example, living information and the reality of semiotic development as matter-dependent causal process which is itself relational and non-material; the developmental/evolutionary necessity of error and its pedagogical implications; freedom and creativity in individuals and systems, and the degenerative entropy of the modern disciplinary state.

Roundtable: ‘Austerity and sustainability’

Tim Cooper, ‘The limits of history in green imaginaries’
The attempt to appropriate historical narratives and popular memory for particular political objectives should be avoided. Rather than appealing to a desire to repeat idealised past moments, history should be seen as a ‘critical’ endeavour with ambitions to open up the space for radical alternatives to currently existing social organisation precisely by negating and refusing to repeat the past.

Victoria Johnson, ‘“Ration me up” and other nef projects’

James Piers Taylor, ‘Re-member, re-vision and re-claim: using archival film to facilitate local conversations about community resilience’
British non-fiction films of the first half of the 20th century display an apparently different country, one that is localised, less atomised, and more self-reliant. Propaganda films of the 1930s to 1950s, in particular, celebrate community and local resilience in a manner that appeals to the similar concerns of current social activists. What purpose might they serve now in kindling re-generative human habitats?

Panel: ‘Ecological history’

Vinita Damodaran, ‘“Primitive places” and “wild tribes”; colonial and indigenous understandings of nature in nineteenth century India’
The knowledges and institutions produced as a result of colonial environmental legislation encoded particular ideologies regarding the aesthetic valuing of natural landscapes and the placement of different indigenous people in a nature-culture continuum. The post colonial reincarnations of these ideas is also interesting and is indicative of the place of natural landscapes in postcolonial national iconographies. The particular significance of this paper is in its use of the legislative developments in natural heritage thinking to analyse broader colonial and post-colonial attitudes, ideologies and projects. As such, here we hope to make a significant contribution to literatures concerned with the culture of colonialism and with developing a broader critique that challenges earlier interpretations of colonialism as monolithically racist, exploitative and destructive and instead acknowledges that colonial ideologies may have been more variable, complex and ambivalent. The object is not to rehabilitate imperial efforts, so much as to examine how a seemingly benign scholarly appreciation of art, antiquities and indigenous cultures co-existed and articulated with the power imbalances of imperial domination.

Erin Gill, ‘“Lost” environmental histories: the stories we’ve forgotten’
One of the most significant weaknesses in the environment-related discussions – and outright disputes – that are taking place today within the UK is public ignorance about the historical context of each ‘issue’. My paper will look at several of the most contentious environmental topics of early twenty-first century Britain and ask what the public and our politicians have forgotten – or, perhaps, never fully understood – about their earlier history. I will argue that historical research has a crucial role to play in widening and deepening contemporary environmental discourse and, thus, indirectly in improving environmental governance at a national level.

Karin Jaschke, ‘Historiography as process: towards an ecological history of architecture’
The prominence given to historical projects at this year’s Venice Architectural Biennale suggests that there is a renewed belief that history can meaningfully contribute to contemporary debates. This paper discusses what architectural history’s role in the face of the present global-environmental crisis might be. It proposes that the broadly ecological models that have been developed as both realist ontologies (of material and living systems), human relations within those systems (political ecologies), and indeed human perception and experience (mental ecologies) may provide a useful framework for developing an ecological history of architecture. This would include the redefinition of the object of architectural history in relational terms – as vibrant matter, meshwork, process, and so on – and the deployment of a new kind of historiography: an operational history that is ‘processual’ or entwined with its object of study, rather than projective, and that enacts, rather than represents, an ecological model through its work.