Field Report: ESEH Graduate Student Summer School


I was lucky enough to spend four days this past July in sunny Porto, Portugal, where I participated in the European Society for Environmental History’s graduate student Summer School. The theme this year was “The Sea as a Whole: Ideological Resource and Environmental Concerns.” The conference brought together a truly fantastic group of young international scholars whose work all relates in some way to the ocean.  As an American, the school was particularly useful as a way to see how environmental history is defined and pursued in various academic and national settings. 
Summer School students and faculty on a field trip to the Maritime Museum of Ílhavo. (Photo courtesy Elke Ackermann.)

 The meeting kicked off with a plenary lecture by Dolly Jørgensen, current President of ESEH, on the politics behind “rigs-to-reefs” initiatives. Rigs-to-reefs are programs that turn decommissioned offshore oilrig structures into artificial coral reefs. Dolly examined the fate of these initiatives in three places: the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and off the coast of California. Drawing on the work of John Law and Annemarie Mol, Dolly looked for the enactment of nature in each case to show how the implementation or rejection of these initiatives was contingent, at least in part, on what the different actors involved (environmental groups, trawler fishermen, recreational fishermen, etc.) took as ‘natural.’* Dolly’s STS approach to ocean history was just one of many modes of analysis that emerged during the meeting and, taken as a whole, the scholarship presented at Summer School demonstrated the multiple analytic valences and registers that a field like ocean history affords scholars.

A rig-to-reef structure in the Gulf of Mexico (Times-Picayune Archives)

To explain, I’ll flag a few of the junior scholars’ presentations that I found particularly provocative.

The first was Anna Wilson of the University of Melbourne’s talk, “Uprooting Melbourne: A Story of a City as Revealed by Trees.” Anna’s project decenters the human side of Melbourne’s history to foreground the multiple cultural meanings that trees took on at different moments in the city’s past. Oceans make an appearance in her work as a mode of transport: in the nineteenth century, tree seeds and saplings destined for the burgeoning Melbourne timber trade were brought via ships from Britain. This manifestation of the ocean in Melbourne’s history is part of the larger motif of temporality that undergirds Anna’s scholarship. Though it may seem self-evident, transporting, growing, and harvesting trees take time. Anna’s scholarship reminds us that environmental change is always a process, and that attending to the temporalities of a landscape can often reveal surprising changes in the kinds of value ascribed to both built and natural environments.

 “The History of the Galapagos Islands as a World Heritage Site,” a project presented by Elke Ackermann of the Institute of European History Mainz / JGU Mainz, was particularly resonant with the historians of science in the room, as the campaign to designate the Galapagos as a World Heritage Site intersected with several key events in the history of the natural sciences: the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), the 1959 Darwin Centennial Celebration, and the nascent environmental movement of the early 1960s. In her talk, Elke explained how the Galapagos at this time were cast as a “laboratory for global concepts of nature protection,” as it became a site where a number of biodiversity protection initiatives were executed for the first time.** The case of the Galapagos is an early example of how local environmental politics in the twentieth century became deeply entwined in trans-local ideas not only about wilderness preservation, but about global cultural and historical heritage. (In this case, for example, Western science’s collective memory of Darwin’s relationship to the Galapagos lent a particular urgency to conservationists’ work there.)

Craig Venter, a polarizing figure in oceanic property debates. (
Finally, in “Anything under the Sea: The Ownership of Life in the Oceans” Alyssa Battistoni of Yale juxtaposed history of science with political theory to historicize recent intellectual and territorial property claims over living and natural resources of the sea. At the heart of these legal cases are differing notions of how to define the ocean: Should it be seen as a global commons or a place where the free market reigns? Alyssa’s scholarship demonstrates the multiple scalar levels that debates about oceanic territorial divisions can assume—from the oceans themselves to the seafloor to the natural objects that reside in the sea down to the very genomes of these creatures.

I left the meeting with the sense that it’s an exciting time to be working on ocean history. As Naomi Oreskes noted in her recent contribution to the Isis Focus section, “Knowing the Ocean,” ocean history has the potential to speak to a number of contemporary concerns: globalization, industrialization, climate change, human migration, etc. As evidenced by the scholarship presented in Porto, ocean history is also rife for engagement with the allied fields of anthropology, animal studies, political economy, and post-colonial studies, to name just a few. In short, ocean history promises to be a stimulating field to watch as historians of science continue to take it up. Congratulations to all the participants, and here’s to continuing the conversation! 

*I find this concept of ‘enactment’ useful as one way to move beyond debates about the nature/culture divide that so often arise in environmental history.

**As an aside, a recent RadioLab episode on contemporary biodiversity conservation debates in the Galapagos neatly complements Elke’s historical analysis.


Great post, Leah! I'm struck by some similarities - and differences - between this conference and a conference on the history of chemistry & global history that I participated in last April. (Program available here []; I wrote up a newsletter summary that I'll link to once it's published.)

One particularly interesting theme of that conference was the way in which the "global," "local," and "national" emerged as actors' categories in certain settings. Often, it seemed, the conception of a certain product or substance as "local" did not precede its "global" analogues (as a unidirectional globalization narrative might suggest) but emerged in response to them (for example, in import substitution programs).

What strikes me about ocean studies, of course, is that there's a material substrate for global/local talk, one in which the metaphors that show up in, say, economic and intellectual global histories - flows and circulation and whatnot - take on a more literal significance.

So I guess I'm interested in what locality is like on the ocean, and how it differs from the kind of local settings that historians of science and technology are used to talking about - laboratories, towns, field sites. The World Heritage site sounds like one answer; another is the "floating labs" that Warwick Anderson, former AmSciBlogger Joanna Radin, Nell Thomas, and Emma Zuroski discussed in a great HSS session from a few years ago. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a third; the Mariana Trench, which James Cameron recently James Cameron'ed ( is a fourth. I wonder whether these types might help us sharpen what we mean when we talk about "local" settings, on sea or on land. What other kinds of ocean locales might there be?

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

back to top