Reflections on European Society for Environmental History Bi-ennial Conference, Tallinn, 21-24 August, 2019

Back home after the conference, my mind flitting around memories including the stupendously impressive opening ceremony, the highlight of which was an Estonian choir serenading conference attendees from atop a submarine in Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour Museum – no really – and conversations with such a wide variety of attendees that it only serves to remind me what a broad church environmental history is – and ending up committing to do another book review as a result of a chance encounter with an envhist colleague/book review editor for a journal.

But uppermost in my thoughts is one of the keynote speeches, which I think was a masterclass in how to deliver a compelling narrative whilst relating it to relevant historiography and conceptual themes, using different sources of material to inform and balance judgements about conflicting information, and paying due attention to agreed conference themes.  To name just a few of its qualities.  The keynote was by Professor Kate Brown of MIT in the States, presenting on aspects of her most recent book, ‘Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future’.  Quite apart from the important factual content of direct relevance to us (blueberries and other fruit and vegetables from Ukraine and Poland are now off my shopping list probably permanently), Professor Brown critiqued the existing Chernobyl historiography and present mainstream mind-set as being limited both geographically and temporally, focused on the immediate geographical site around the nuclear plant, and also on an “accident” narrative which regards the disaster as a one-off event suspended in time, rather than an ongoing disaster with accelerating consequences.

Commenting also on the perspectives created by popular media/culture, Brown critiqued the (much-praised from a dramatic perspective) HBO ‘Chernobyl’ TV series as perpetuating a prejudice that a “Chernobyl” could only happen in an authoritarian regime such as the Soviet Union – whilst, as Brown asserts, the liberal democratic authorities in Japan took three months to acknowledge that there had been a nuclear disaster at Fukushima. 

Of greatest interest from a budding historian’s perspective however, was her analysis of the primary research material available, recognising that official documents from the period were more useful in illustrating the deleterious impact of Soviet bureaucracy and power structures on the capacity to provide accurate information about the health consequences of Chernobyl – than they were useful in terms of understanding the actual health consequences.  For the latter Brown undertook oral history research with workers who had been present in dealing with aspects of the aftermath, identifying what they had done, why, and what the consequences for their own health and that of their now deceased colleagues had been.  Professor Brown’s presentation was filmed by ESEH and is now available on:

Her presentation reminded me of some of the things I learned in my MRes in Historical Research at the Institute of Historical Research, that not all sources of material are accurate, that they may exist for a particular reason, and reflect the views/bias of the person and/or organisation responsible for their creation – not something I had exactly forgotten, but which had been pushed to the back of my mind in my rush to “do” the research for my ongoing PhD.

Elsewhere in my ESEH conference experience, I’m left reflecting on the value of making presentations, as opposed to just attending conferences to hear other people and “network”.  Although there were in total 500 ESEH conference attendees (although not all at the conference at the same time) there were in most segments of the timetable around ten parallel sessions, and for my ‘Landscapes of War’ session in which I presented there were just nine attendees, plus the three speakers, the chair, and a technician – spread out in an unfortunately quite large lecture room.  I had a similar experience at ASEH back in April – hundreds of conference attendees in all, lots of competing parallel sessions, and our five-strong panel nearly outnumbered the audience.  I know, I know, the contacts you make, the practice you get in public speaking, the opportunity to reshape your PhD material according to the themes of the conference, thereby broadening your perspective on your own material…but nevertheless I found all the empty seats quite dispiriting, and in stark contrast to the buzz I got from speaking at the Rural Modernism and British Agricultural History Society conferences earlier this year where, whilst there were only 30 or 40 attendees in total, there were no parallel sessions, so I had an audience of all the conference participants, and it really made me feel like it was worthwhile. 

I’m sure the issue of how many parallel sessions to have is a perennial tension for conference organisers, and I’m certainly not going to attempt to give advice – but only to say that I think, in deciding to participate in future conferences, I will just have to accept that as a landscape militarisation envhist, I will likely have to resign myself to speaking to small audiences for the larger international conferences, in order to benefit from the events’ scale and breadth in other ways – and wait for the smaller single-session conferences to give me the exciting and stimulating experience of presenting to a good-sized audience.

Gary Willis

Year Two PhD Student

Department of Historical Studies / Member of Centre for Environmental Humanities