The green side of history: An interview with the EHC’s Petra van Dam

The student journal Skript recently interviewed Petra van Dam about her field of environmental history, and how it relates to Environmental Humanities. Petra is chair professor of Water and Environmental History and board member of the EHC. 

Environmental history, she says, demonstrates how important environment and climate are in the description and understanding of historical developments, in short, how nature is an agency in history.  Calling this the “greening” of history writing, Petra says:

“Historians can contribute to the current climate debate in several ways, as we can investigate how people dealt with changes in weather patterns. A great example is the book by Sam White, A Cold Welcome. The Little Ice Age and the European Encounter with North America (2017). It shows how lack of knowledge of the local climate and the confrontation with the onset of the Little Ice age, around the year 1600, were great obstacles to the European pioneers and directly contributed to starvation and even cannibalism.

Nature is an agency in history.

“A contrasting example is The Frigid Golden Age. Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic 1560-1729 (2018) by Dagomar Degroot. He describes how the Dutch Republic profited from bad weather and crop failure, by transporting huge amounts of grain from the Baltic to the Mediterranean region. Positioning Environmental history in academia, Petra van Dam remarks that essentially, it was interdisciplinary from the start in the 1970s, because it connected to fields like historical ecology, historical geography and archaeology.

“However, the communication with humanities fields such as literature, art, religion and philosophy stayed behind, possibly because of the intensive engagement with eco-sciences. By the establishment of the field of Environmental Humanities this has improved because here the conversation with the humanities fields is key, as in here at the ECH at the VU. New venues have opened up in how people experienced nature, how they gave meaning to it and what feelings they had about it. This approach is helpful to deal with climate change and other environmental issues.”

Read the full interview (in Dutch) by downloading the article here:

Skript can be ordered by emailing to: script-fgw@uva.nl.

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