Report on the Workshop "Environmental Narratives: Narrating Crisis—Imaging Disaster—Envisaging Future"
Joint Workshop between the Heidelberg project “Worldmaking from a Global Perspective: A Dialogue with China” and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich, July 8./9., 2023
News vom 01.08.2023
On July 8./9. around thirty scholars from around the world gathered at the premises of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC) in Munich to talk about the role of environmental narratives in narrating and imagining crises and disasters. Narratives, as Barbara Mittler pointed out in the introduction to the workshop, try to “make salient” a specific interpretation of events by packaging ideas around “symbolic devices” such as metaphors and phrases (Entman 1993; Gamson & Modigliani 1989). Narratives – defined broadly as including not only texts but also cultural products such as music or art and even climate data or statistics – can serve to crystalize opinion on a critical event but might also influence whether an event is conceived as a crisis at all. The workshop therefore tried to understand what makes “successful” narratives, those that raise awareness, draw attention and provide an impetus for action, stand out against others; and how may one such narrative supplant another in a different historical or cultural setting? These and other questions were addressed by fellows from both the RCC and the Worldmaking project in Heidelberg as well as external speakers from related fields and disciplines in an innovative format. Rather than having “traditional” presentations, the participants were asked to share and introduce selected sources from their own discipline to invite reflections on methodological and theoretical considerations and on which alternative views on these narrative sources may also be possible. Accordingly, much time was reserved for discussion, but sometimes still not enough to accommodate all of the stimulating ideas and thoughts that were shared during the workshop.
After a welcome and introduction by the three conveners Christof Mauch (RCC), Hans van Ess (LMU), and Barbara Mittler (Heidelberg), the workshop was opened by a keynote by eminent environmental historian Donald Worster who spoke about narratives of environmental disasters by revisiting his classic 1979 study Dust Bowl on the environmental deterioration of the Great Plains between 1929 and 1939, which forced many residents to flee, including his own parents. The narrative he had developed in his original book, he reminded us, was one about the consequences of capitalism and how it impacted local farmers whose environmental roles and attitude she did not sufficiently question back at the time. From his present-day point of view, Donald Worster called for an even deeper view of history in both human as well as planetary terms that takes into account not only the emergence of capitalism but also the development of agriculture itself which brought the shift from perennial to annual plants and had significant consequences for soil erosion. Giving an example from a recent research project, he illustrated these consequences by showing just how deeply rooted perennial grass species are in the local soil, quoting a research project from the Land Institute in Kansas. He thereby illustrated how important ecology and interdisciplinary cooperation are to tell an accurate “story” of environmental change.
A similar interdisciplinary perspective was offered by a roundtable that together climate historians and geographers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Gießen University as well as LMU Munich to discuss scientific climate narratives past and present. The speakers, while sidestepping the concept of narrative as such, impressively showed the importance of climate data, whether from historical sources or proxies such as sediments or dendrochronological data, for providing comprehensive accounts of past events such as the crisis that China underwent during the so-called “Little Ice Age.” They also made clear that, seen globally, China is a special case, due to the large amount of climate data that was systematically recorded and documented throughout the imperial period. Though varying across different periods and dynasties, it encompasses regular weather data rather than merely extreme weather events and thus enables a much more precise reconstruction of the past climate than in other regional contexts.
These formats were complemented by four panels that brought together three speakers each to shed light on different aspects of environmental and crisis narratives, drawing on many disciplinary and regional perspectives. The papers covered diverse topics and sparked a lively discussion. A few points will be mentioned here that resonated across several papers and/or panels. To answer why and how certain narratives become convincing and influential, some presentations stressed classic narrative elements, such as easy identification of the “villain” and the “hero,” as in the case of local beekeepers protesting Monsanto’s expansion of agroextractivism in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. This case also illustrated the importance of collective narratives, as formulated by Christof Mauch in the concluding discussion. Other presentations zoomed in on the specific media used to illustrate and popularize specific narratives and stressed the role of specific technologies for shifting perspectives – such as pictures taken by drone cameras that allow for a different view. In some cases, iconic images – of the “eugenic tree” or the “Beijing airpocalypse” – neatly encapsulated the underlying narrative/message and were thus broadly appropriated, copied and transmitted. Another element of many narratives is ideology. Some such narratives, such as those justifying colonial expansion, tried to project a message of scientific realism, civilizational progress, and technological optimism, which was often contrasted with the alleged insufficiency of indigenous knowledge systems. Similar ideological narratives about the ability to transform the natural landscape or at overcoming environmental problems through technological means also informed Fascist environmental policies in Italy and even narratives spread by international organizations during the 1950s, thus showing instructive similarities between highly diverse actors and contexts. Another characteristic emphasized by many presentations is the silencing of both alternative narratives as well as competing actors. This seems expectable in highly antagonistic contexts, such as colonial Hong Kong or fascist France, but the workshop brought to the fore that such issues also persist in present discourses of planetary health. Outwardly dedicated to a comprehensive and inclusive vision of environmental change, the visual narrative pushed by advocates of planetary health nevertheless casts indigenous actors in stereotyped and marginalized roles.
The workshop managed to draw attention to the variety of environmental narratives with a special focus on narrative media. It is hoped that the fruitful exchange between scholars from the associated institutes and projects can be continued next year.