Saturday, April 12, 2008

What does public history have to do with climate change?

A lot, as it turns out. At an informal session designed to open a conversation among public historians about how our work does (or might) relate to growing concerns about climate change, peak oil, resource depletion, and related issues, participants teased out a range of ways that we could address these issues through our public historical practice. Some ideas and themes that emerged:

* Public historians have a unique set of talents (and perhaps then an actual obligation) to speak out in ways that encourage our various publics and colleagues to think about the historical processes relating to our current patterns of consumption and waste. How did we get here? And what can that tell us about how to get out of the problems looming on our environmental horizons? Public historians are good at posing those kinds of questions in engaging and inclusive ways.

* Historic sites are potentially powerful platforms for modeling as well as depicting less wasteful, more conscious consumption. Several participants commented that recycling is not new - it is disposability that is very recent. Showing other ways of living/producing/consuming is important, and we should take take our own interpretation to heart in the management and running of our own workplaces and historic properties.

* We should be linking with other historical/environmental organizations to find out what they are doing in this area.

* There is a tension between hope and despair when thinking about these issues. Looking at historical examples of other grass-roots movements (eg. abolition and suffrage movements) and paradigm shifts can help us lean toward the "hope" side of the equation on this one.

* Our conferences themselves can be places for us to change our consumption and energy use patterns, as NCPH has tried to do in many ways with our meeting in Louisville. But more clearly remains to be done, as session participant Harry Klinkhamer discovered when exiting the session room...

Posted by Cathy Stanton.


Kevin M. Bartoy said...

I wholeheartedly agree.

And, I think that it is of utmost importance that we live these ideas in our lives and our work.

I am reminded of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting a few years ago in San Francisco. The Meeting was scheduled at a hotel that was currently being picketed by its workers. Even though the organization could lose money, I would think it important for to stand on the principles that many of us talk about in our work.

Mary said...

Great picture! I'm pleased to be able to tell you that in Liverpool we had proper cups throughout, although I suspect this was just the standard policy of the venue rather than any sort of deliberate decision.

As someone who is trying to restrict flying to essential journeys only (I'm off to Italy on Friday by night-train!) I also find myself wondering about how sustainable international conferences are. I once attended an evening's seminar at UNESCO on 'the global museum' where I made myself dizzy trying to figure out the combined airmiles of the speakers (from New Zealand, Benin, St Petersburg and Australia on that occasion). Has anyone calculated the carbon footprint (or at least the emissions associated with travelling) from our conferences? Perhaps we need to keep finding more innovative ways to link up without putting in the airmiles unless absolutely necessary. This blog is a good example (although it's going to take a while before someone figures out a satisfying way to have a coffee and an informal chat, or dinner - the most important parts of conference in many ways - online...).

Cathy Stanton said...

Yes, drinking a solitary cup of (fair trade) coffee at the local Starbucks while reading blog entries from a remote conference just isn't the same as hanging out with friends at a great place like the Brown Hotel - that's part of the pleasure of conferences!

In our discussion in Louisville, one attendee mentioned that he always takes the train when he travels, even though it adds a lot of travel time. And he said he usually arrives less frazzled (and better-read) than other people.

We also talked about carbon offset programs. There are many problems with offsets as an actual solution (i.e. we need to be thinking of ways to consume less overall, rather than thinking we can buy/consume our way out of our sins by purchasing carbon offsets) but it is better than doing nothing in the short term, and there are some very reputable companies (likeNative Energy, which I use) that are doing good work. Another session participant told us about attending conferences where you could check off on your registration form whether you wanted to purchase carbon credits to offset your travel emissions.

Glad there are others thinking about these issues - we're going to try to follow up on this session with some proposals to NCPH for future conferences.

Kyle said...

I think historians, like other professions, spend too much time with one another and not interfacing with others. At the Oregon Heritage Conference next month, we're bringing together folks from safety and sustainability, historic preservation, historic cemeteries, and other fields to share information about sustainability (which includes climate change.) I suspect that there will be a lot of revelations among presenters and discussants about what each other is capable of doing.

The conference is trying to model its theme by discouraging handouts, providing recylcing bins and free bus passes, not using throwaways, etc.

This is a nationwide and worldwide issue. Not just a professional issue of public historians.