CFP: "Knowledge production about planet earth and the global environment as indicators of social change" - 23-25 January 2013, University of Bern (Switzerland) - Deadline: April 30, 2012

Call for Papers

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

23–25 January 2013, University of Berne

Conveners: Prof. Dr. Christian Rohr (University of Berne), Dr. Andrea
Westermann (University of Zurich)

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

- 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

- 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, Dr. phil
Oberassistenz, Koordination Doktoratsstufe
Universität Zürich
Historisches Seminar
Karl Schmid-Strasse 4
CH-8006 Zürich
Tel. 0041(0)44 634 38 13