Knowledge production about planet earth and the global environment as indicators of social change

University of Berne
Prof. Dr. Christian Rohr, University of Berne; Dr. Andrea Westermann, University of Zurich
23.01.2013 - 25.01.2013
Andrea Westermann

Confirmed speakers: Prof. Naomi Oreskes (University of California, San Diego), Ass. Prof. Deborah Coen (Barnard College, New York)
Keynote speaker: Prof. Dr. em. Joachim Radkau (University of Bielefeld)

Our conference aims to explore the social, cultural and political changes induced by earth scientists and the knowledge and institutions they have created over the last two centuries. What do we learn about societies, their norms and collective mentalities by analyzing how people dealt with planet earth, its history, climate, surface patterns, or the mechanisms underlying its dynamic structure? In the 1960s, the «blue planet» became a powerful icon of environmental concern. As a consequence, earth sciences, environmental sciences and environmental activist groups became interlaced on many levels: Earth scientists’ assumptions about how a change in atmospheric carbon dioxide would alter the earth's mean temperature were taken up by a broad audience; activist groups all over the world cared about «spaceship earth» and committed to the slogan «think globally, act locally»; in 2006, the influential environmental scientist James Lovelock was awarded the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London, geology’s most prestigious prize. Arguably, mutual inspiration not only worked for the historical actors but might also pay off for historical scholarship: We invite historians of the earth sciences and environmental historians to identify starting points and ways of thinking about the issue of social change through the lens of earth matters.

Bringing together historians of the earth sciences and environmental historians: respective methodological inputs

Due to the work of Ludwik Fleck, Robert Merton and others, research in the history of science routinely involves society as an analytical category: Social factors have become a common explanatory resource in order to account for the production and validation of scientific knowledge. From early on, historians of geology and other earth sciences have contributed to this methodological trend (i.e. Roy Porter, Martin Rudwick or James Secord). It is still less common though to reverse the question and ask what the production of scientific knowledge tells us about the society pursuing this knowledge. This is particularly true for the history of the earth sciences (The history of techno-scientific enterprises is a strong exception to this rule, see for instance Barth, K.-H. (2003). The Politics of Seismology: Nuclear Testing, Arms Control, and the Transformation of a Discipline, in: Social Studies of Science 33(5): 743-781). A look at the neighboring discipline might be helpful in this regard: Many studies in environmental history deal with problems and objects of analysis similar to those of historians of the geosciences (e.g. the oceans, the mountains, climate, or nuclear waste storage). In so doing, they are very successful in extracting from a society’s relationship to its natural environment the tales and images the society has or makes of itself; they are able to show how regional economies developed or social inequalities were produced and substantiated (Nicolson, M. H. (1959). Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory. Ithaca; McNeill, J. (2000). Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the world in the 20th century. London; Coen, D. (2010). Climate and Circulation in Imperial Austria, in: The Journal of Modern History 82(4): 839-875; Braudel, F. (1992). The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II. New York; Mitman, G. et al. (2004). Landscapes of exposure: knowledge and illness in modern environments. Osiris 19).

Is it possible to explore similar phenomena and transformations when studying the concepts and practitioners of the earth sciences from a history of science perspective? Take, for instance, the emerging global tectonic research circa 1900: Tectonically-informed, geologists created new and lasting pictures of the «whole earth»: drifting continents, global earthquake belts, or the shell-like construction of the inner earth as suggested by seismological research. They arguably contributed to the ongoing economic and cultural processes of globalization at the turn of the 20th century.

Historians of the earth sciences can benefit from environmental history when it comes to the survey of the social terrain. In turn, history of science has provided environmental historians - having their roots in agricultural history and geography - with fresh sources, approaches, and topics regarding these and other fields of knowledge. Its dominant constructivist approach made environmental history cover new grounds and better unpack and explain the merits and pitfalls of, say, historical climatology or seismology.

Conference topics may include

- Both earth sciences history and environmental history analyze the geotechnical exploration of natural sites and resources. We are looking for case studies addressing interests and questions of both fields of research.

- The idea of natural disaster looms large in both historical disciplines (catastrophist theories in geology, the history of floods or earthquakes, apocalyptic ideas in environmentalism): What methodological function do the concepts of disaster have for our writing of history?

- Holistic approaches are common to the earth and environmental sciences. We invite contributions questioning, historicizing or comparing different assumptions about the global, interrelated or systemic character of earth and environmental matters.

- Some scientists have coined a new term, the Anthropocene, for our geological era because the impact of humans on the planet has become so great. In fact, both disciplines are interested in historicizing ideas of time, order and historical change, as any historical work is. We invite contributors to think about these historiographic categories while including planetary or environmental factors. Is it, for instance, useful to adopt and further develop Fernand Braudel’s different time scales according to specific questions such as the time needed for the natural making of resources, the time(s) of their use and the time to their depletion?

- What did society do with other geological and geotechnical concepts (continental drift, biosphere, strata, fossils, peak oil, mineral resources, Gondwana, Holocene, rift valleys, glacier melting, Ice Age) once these left the expert circles?

Organizational details

Please send abstracts (200 words) and a short CV to Andrea Westermann and Christian Rohr Deadline for submission is 30 April 2012. Pre-circulated papers are due in December 2012. Travel (economy class) and accommodation expenses (two nights, three nights for participants from Oversea) are covered.


Andrea Westermann

Universität Zürich
Historisches Seminar
Karl Schmid-Strasse 4
8006 Zürich
0041 (0)44 6345813

Knowledge production about planet earth and the global environment as indicators of social change, 23.01.2013 – 25.01.2013 Berne, in: H-Soz-Kult, 23.02.2012, <>.