People and Plants: Introducing Environmental Humanities of Plants in the Baltics and Beyond

By Brauckmann, Sabine; Jorgensen, Dolly | Estonian Journal of Ecology, March 2012 | Go to article overview

People and Plants: Introducing Environmental Humanities of Plants in the Baltics and Beyond


Brauckmann, Sabine, Jorgensen, Dolly, Estonian Journal of Ecology


In his most recent book, the American historian of biology Philip Pauly rewrote the history of American environment arguing that horticulture--quite contrary to being an ornamental leisure activity--influences the development of the USA because it is a massive industrial enterprise, which pushes technological progress. In his opinion, horticulture embodies the true global history: 'through it [horticulture] we can see together the histories of the environment, agriculture, science, arts, and national development' (Pauly, 2007: 8). Pauly points to the importance of studying plants and the ways that they have influenced culture, politics, and economics. Humans profoundly interact with vegetation--consuming it as food, using it as medicine, decorating their homes and cities with it, studying it, etc. While the science of ecology has long been interested in studying plants and plant communities, scholars in the environmental humanities bring the human interaction with plants into focus.

The study of the environment from humanistic perspectives offers the opportunity to cross disciplinary boundaries, opening up new and vital avenues for environmental research. The leading scholar of environmental literature analysis Lawrence Buell argued that although science, engineering, and public policy must be involved in addressing the pressing environmental issues of our times,

no less intrinsically important are the environmental humanities--history, philosophy, religion, cultural geography, literature, and other arts. For technological breakthroughs, legislative reforms, and paper covenants about environmental welfare to take effect, or even to be generated in the first place, requires a climate of transformed environmental values, perception, and will. To that end, the power of story, image, and artistic performance and the resources of aesthetics, ethics, and cultural theory are crucial. (Buell, 2005: vi)

Understanding human interaction with plants over time--both in terms of how the humans modified the plants and how the plants modified human culture and institutions--should therefore become an integral part of ecological research.

One of the primary fields of environmental humanities takes history as its core concern. The American environmental historian John R. McNeill has summed up environmental history as 'the history of the mutual relations between humankind and the rest of nature. There are three main varieties, one that is material in focus, one that is cultural/intellectual, and one that is political' (McNeill, 2003: 6). Environmental history can also be considered in a more material fashion as 'the reconstruction of environmental conditions of the past' and 'the reconstruction how these conditions were perceived and interpreted by the then living humans' (Winiwarter & Knoll, 2007). In other words, environmental history in general studies the interdependencies of human societies and our environment. Further, it traces the modes of how we humans confronted and/or perceived our natural world, exposing/revealing the norms that determine our attitudes towards the environment over time.

Linking both statements we argue here that the historical research into the relationship between human societies with the material aspects of nature, or the environment they occupy, shows that phenomena like climate change, species extinction, and natural disasters are not at all new incidents, even though these are perceived, particularly in popular debates, as novel situations. Against this misconception, environmental history points out that environmental risks, issues, and problems are to be understood first as a product of human agency by historical analyses. Actual environmental problems always have a historical dimension and the long-term consequences cannot be comprehended without a perspective that also includes the cultural and social dimension of our acting inside and against the environment. …

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