Breaking Fresh Ground: Environmental History Takes a New Direction

April 30, 2013

Breaking Fresh Ground: Environmental History Takes a New Direction

History Professor Nicholas Breyfogle is one of a team of transnational researchers about to embark on a challenging, far flung adventure.

Six top scholars in diverse fields—history, geography, environmental sciences, and economics— will push the boundaries of their disciplines, form a lasting collaborative network, and forge a new paradigm for understanding the work they undertake.

They represent six cooperating universities: Ohio State, Georgetown, the University of York, the University of Glasgow, the National Research University-Higher School of Economics (St. Petersburg), and the European University at St. Petersburg, and three countries: the United States, Great Britain, and Russia.

Their work, funded by Great Britain’s Leverhulme Trust, tackles a multidisciplinary project, officially named, “Exploring Russia’s Environmental History and Natural Resources.” They will carry out collaborative field work at three unique, ecologically significant sites in Russia (including Chernobyl) over a four-year period, beginning in August 2013.

“Ultimately, this is an effort to rethink how we understand the environmental history of Eurasia in a comparative context, and to do so in a way that will enhance our understandings of ecological changes today,” Breyfogle said.

“We each bring our own research specialties, mine is environmental history, along with very different academic traditions and approaches.

“You have an opportunity to explore more deeply when you think collaboratively. New windows and new pathways open up.

“This field-work component is unusual for historical work, which typically relies on the use of archives and libraries, but it is really important for environmental history.

“Being on site will give us a full sense of the meaning of space, place, and environment. The fieldwork process will embed us in the natural world and ensure that we embrace and experience these sites viscerally and physically as well as intellectually. It will change how we do our research and spur our development as scholars.“

Each site represents very distinct and important regions and presents a different set of questions that will challenge the team to apply new ways of thinking.

This August, they head to the Arctic and the White Sea’s Solovetskii Islands that have been inhabited fishing communities since pre-history and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the fifteenth century, they hosted an Orthodox Monastery, and from 1921-39, the first Soviet labor camp, or gulag.

“This site will offer us rich materials to investigate relationships among state, society, religion, resource extraction (especially fishing) and the nature of an Arctic climate and geology,” Breyfogle said.

During 2014-15, they travel to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine to work on the site of one of the great environmental disasters of the 20th century.

“By shutting off this area to human habitation, suddenly now more than 25 years later, this great laboratory exists, which may provide an opportunity to see and understand broader patterns of nature and the long-term impacts of such disasters,” Breyfogle said.

In 2015-16, Breyfogle will coordinate work on the third site: Lake Baikal, the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (more than a mile down) lake in the world and the topic of his forthcoming book, Baikal: the Great Lake and its People.

Lake Baikal—vast enough to be called a sea; indeed it is referred to by the Russian people as “the sacred sea”—holds one-fifth of all the surface, liquid freshwater on the planet. Its unique ecosystem contains more than 1,500 endemic species, including one of the few populations of enormous freshwater seals on earth; it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It has been an important religious center for millennia and since the seventeenth century has been a site for exploration and scientific research.

As one Russian has written, “It is hard to describe what Baikal means to people in my country. It is like a beautiful piece of music that everyone learned as a child.”

Baikal has for decades been the focal point in Russia for local environmental activism and conservation efforts.

Concern for Baikal is part of a long tradition of Russian conservation efforts, “something that surprises a lot of people,” Breyfogle said.

“But the Russians were among the first to set aside large areas to study and preserve as examples of their diverse habitat and—unlike many other places—were off limits to the public.

“This served as a model for others—New Zealand’s marine conservation work along its coasts and the UN’s Biosphere approach are just two examples. Many ideas regarding sustainability and conservation originated in Russia, such as V.I. Vernadsky’s popularizing the idea of the biosphere.”

Breyfogle hopes this project becomes a model for the way environmental history is studied.

“I am really grateful to the Leverhulme Trust, which is one of the very few granting agencies globally that funds this sort of international scholarly network,” Breyfogle said. “It is crucial to build international relationships and ties that connect scholars across boundaries to advance knowledge across the planet.

“One of the great things about this project is that the connections do not end when the grant ends—and it provides an opportunity to get students engaged internationally, especially our graduate students. It is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Breyfogle will be posting on the Arts and Sciences Tumblr site about his trips and uploading photos and commentary to share insights and progress.

Breyfogle is co-editor of the Department of History’s on-line magazine, Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective.

He has received several awards and honors; among them, Ohio State’s Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award, in 2011, given annually to the university’s most outstanding classroom teachers.

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