Second World Congress of Environmental History, Guimarães, Portugal, 8-12 July 2014

GuimaraesIt is one of the real benefits of this line of employment that we can discover astonishing places that we would never otherwise have dreamed of visiting. My recent visit to the Second World Congress in Environmental History in Guimarães in Portugal definitely fits into that category. Recent urban redevelopment has transformed the city over the last few years, making it greener in both aesthetic and environmental senses, and turning the ‘birthplace’ of Portugal into a tourist hub, replete with the wonderful Santuário da Penha in a boulder-field overlooking the town. Appropriately enough, the conference itself was held in an old tannery reclaimed from pollution by the University of Minho.

Environmental history can be an eclectic topic, and panels ranged from retrospectives on George Perkins Marsh (his book, Man and Nature, celebrated its 150th anniversary this year), to economic analyses of the role of small countries in colonial resource extraction, and visitor flows in Alpine tourist ‘hubs’. Three papers on urban environments and environmentalism caught my attention on Thursday. Anastasia Day’s analysis of American ‘Victory Gardens’ during and after the Second World War revealed a refreshingly optimistic aspect of often-reviled US environmental culture. Christopher Miller demonstrated the environmental impact of abandoned plans, by examining the role of unintentional landlords in slow environmental despoliation, and Alexandro Solorzano examined the forest ‘islands’ of Rio de Janeiro as a ‘novel ecosystem’ – an ecosystem that develops when once-exploited land is simply left to its own devices. While the mystery disappearance of a fourth paper on Berlin was a little disappointing, it was a great panel that spoke of new forms of complexity in urban culture/nature relations.

Later the same day came my own panel. Paul Readman kicked off with a close analysis of the well-known mountaineer and mountain access campaigner James Bryce. He pointed to the intrinsic importance of Bryce’s mountaineering both to his politics and to his public persona. While Bryce might appear as a classic example of the sort of imperial manliness highlighted by Hansen so long ago, Paul argued that Bryce’s enthusiasm for mountain environments derived instead from close inspection and contemplation. Combined with a classically liberal sense that such auto-didactic experience could improve the population, this explained Bryce’s long-standing campaign for access to moorlands and mountains in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Then it was my turn to present a paper on the development of a little-known form of environmentalism known as Ödlandschutz – protection of the wasteland. Amongst a select group of male German mountaineers, mountains became a challenging terrain through which to move; the emphasis in mountaineering, for them, was a kinetic engagement with the terrain, rather than a visual engagement with the view. Consequently, they sought to ‘protect’ the terrain from ‘development’ – which in effect meant not building overly-comfortable huts and paths in the Alps. Yet, as my paper went on to discuss, these elite mountaineers could not escape the economic and cultural systems that had built up around hut and path construction in the late-nineteenth century, and, within a decade, they were manoeuvred into building a large, commercial hut of their own by a combination of local elites, national politics in Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the economics of tourist development.

All in all, an excellent conference – I for one cannot wait for the European Society for Environmental History Conference in Versailles next year!


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