“We need the environmental humanities because we need new narratives to understand the present and imagine alternative futures”
Marco Armiero is Director of the Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. He obtained a Degree in Humanities at the Università di Napoli and his PhD in Economic History at the Università degli Studi di Bari. He has been a post-doctoral fellow and visiting scholar at the University of Kansas, Brown University, Yale University, University of California, Berkeley, Standford University, the UAB and the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra.
His main topics of research have been the history of environmental conflicts over property rights and access to common resources (forests and sea), the politization of nature and landscape in Italian-nation building, and the environmental effects of mass migrations. He is author, co-author and editor of numerous papers, special issues, books and book chapters, among which we can highlight Storia dell’ambiente. Una introduzione (2004, co-author Stefania Barca), A Rugged Nation. Mountains and the Making of Modern Italy, 1860-2000 (2011), The Last Days of Naples. Towards a Political Ecology of Garbage in Campania, Italy (under contract, co-author Giacomo d’Alisa), Environmental History of Modern Migrations (under contract, co-editor Richard Tucker), Teresa e le altre. Storie di donne nella Campania dei rifiuti (2014), and Views from the South. Environmental Stories from the Mediterranean World (19th-20th cent.) (2006).
1.- In June you participated in the International Workshop “At the Intersection of Disciplines: History of Science and Environmental History”, held at the UAB's CEHIC. What is environmental history and what questions does it aim to answer?
The workshop at CEHIC was extremely inspiring and timely. We live in times of post-facts, when science is challenged, especially in order to avoid any measure to tackle climate change. From religious fundamentalists to “merchants of doubts” - using here the wonderful expression proposed by Oreskes and Conway- there is a growing cohort of people ready to deny any scientific truth which can challenge their convictions and, even more, their wallets. Now, historians of science, environmental historians, STS (Science and Technology Studies) scholars have an important role to play. According to someone, we should rely on scientists’ discoveries, perhaps working as translators of complex scientific arguments in a language accessible to the general public. Indeed, as humanities scholars we know how to write in an understandable way. However, I am not convinced by this approach. I still believe that as scholars we can critically study the making of science and scientific truth without contributing to the dismissal of either of them. After all, without that kind of work, we would not be able to speak today of “merchants of doubts”. For me our workshop at CEHIC was going precisely in that direction. Against climate change denial and post-facts regime we need more, and not less, critical thinking. Within this research and I would dare to say political agenda, environmental history has a lot to offer. Environmental historians provide the critical understanding needed in order to historicize, or we can say de-naturalize, what we call “the environment”. Often, the discipline has been defined as the study of the relationships between societies and the environment through time. This is a poignant definition, with the merit of clarity, perhaps simplicity, however, it risks to reinforce the dichotomy between nature and society, culture and the environment. Instead, I have the feeling that we need to see that the two poles are intertwined, inextricably blended: capitalism enters into humans and non-humans’ bodies, into the composition of the atmosphere, into the strata of the earth.
For this reason, I have recently proposed to define environmental history as the study of socio-ecological formations in a historical perspective (Armiero 2017). I realize that speaking of “socio-ecological formations” looks extremely academic, typical social science jargon, nonetheless, I could not find a better expression to communicate the message that the object of environmental history is the hybrid formation of human societies and the environment. Furthermore, hybridity is not a matter of academic jargon, rather it is the very essence of our world, the matter of which it is made of.
2.- In 2004 you published, with Stefania Barca, the book La storia dell’ambiente. Una introduzione. What would you change or add if you reviewed it now?
That book was planned as in introduction to the discipline for Italian university students. I would say that the project worked quite well, since the volume was adopted as a textbook in so many and diverse university courses, from geography to history, from environmental politics to ecology. In thirteen years the discipline has developed and expanded and it would be even difficult just to design a book like that today. In a way I do believe that the book can still work today, considering that we relied mainly on what we might consider classics of the discipline, volumes and scholarly works which every student in environmental history should know. If I could make some revisions, I would like to reconsider the too strong Anglo-Saxon/Global North focus of the volume, aiming at including for instance more scholarship from Latin America or India. Another complicated matter in a volume like that was, and would remain, the relationships with cognate fields. In a dreamed revision of the volume, I would like to include a section on more-than-environmental history, reflecting, precisely as we have done at the CEHIC workshop, on cross-fertilization between diverse disciplines. In particular, today I would insist on the emergence of post-disciplinary arenas as political ecology and environmental humanities as an opportunity to go beyond disciplines and their intrinsic limitation in understanding the current socio-ecological crisis. Finally, I would like to include a few “hand on” addenda aiming to guide students and teachers in designing an environmental history project or a public environmental history intervention.
3.- Some years later you published A Rugged Nation. Mountains and the Making of Modern Italy, 1860-2000, in which you began explaining that nobody understood why you were talking about Italian mountains. However, you think mountains were very important in the making of modern Italy. Why?
Yes, in the introduction I described the surprise I met when I had tried to explain the object of my book. In the global imaginary Italy is not a country of mountains. Easier to speak of food, Mafia, or maybe historical cities. In the book, instead, I have tried to demonstrate that mountains were relevant in the construction of the national identity, analyzing the processes of appropriation of places and people, the contrast between local and national, the embodiment of a nationalistic – even racist – discourse in a celebration of mountaineers, which, nonetheless, did not spare them repression and forced subjugation to the superior interests of the nation. However, I have also tried to resist the idea that mine was a book about mountains. Of course, it is a book on the Alps and the Apennines, but it is also a book about wolves, forests, fascist rangers, hydroelectric corporations, tourists and rebels. I have tried to explain that this book is actually an experiment in environmental history. The mountains are a window, an opportunity to see how the history of a country, Italy in my case, looks like seen through the lens of environmental history. In A Rugged nation I have aimed to challenge the common idea that environmental history is, should be, about “the environment”; as I have mentioned earlier, nature and culture, history and landscape are blended. In this sense, the book is about the mountains as much as it is about the national state building, the Great War, capitalism, etc.
4.- In this book you also address two issues which are very interesting in our country, the relationship between nature and nation, and between nature and fascism. What can tell us about them?
Indeed nature and nation is one of the threads of A Rugged Nation, and perhaps of my entire scholarship. In the introduction to a special issue dedicated precisely to this theme, Wilko Graf von Hardenberg and I have tried to reflect on the conundrum of nation/nature dialectic in environmental history. In that piece we wrote:
“The point is not to try to compress nature into national borders but to explore how nation and nature have historically merged, producing natural/political hybrids. We might say that instead of a Russian doll model – with a hierarchical pattern of larger and smaller pieces – we rather envision a mosaic in which the way tiles are put together can offer various final products. Nature is not contained in nation and nor is nation a natural fact; the dialectic interactions between them are what we propose to research.” (Armiero & von Hardenberg 2014).
The Fascist regime, with all its totalitarian and repressive apparatus, was especially active in the construction of a national, and by default fascist, nature. It would be too long to delve here into the historiography about Nazi Germany and the debate on its alleged “green” component. My approach is rather different from this one. I am not interested in measuring how much “green” were the Italian fascists, because I am not convinced that there is a metahistorical thing called “to be green”. Rather I am interested in the relationships between the fascist political project and its making of specific socioecological formations. Planting trees –and we know that the fascist regime was keen to reforestation projects - does not mean to be green but it does produce specific socioecologies where the hydroelectric interests, exotic species, rangers and local people, water and soil interact both an a material as well as on a rhetoric level. And nothing better than a fascist regime can demonstrate how much discourses are always perfomative. Let me just conclude on this saying that we need more research on the environmental history of the fascist regimes, something has been produced recently (Gorostiza, Saraiva) but there is still too much work which can be done.
5.- The (not) management of waste in the Italian region of Campania has been one of the conflicts that has had more media coverage. Which was your approach in your research on this topic?
In 2009 I was in Naples with Donald Worster, one of the founding fathers of environmental history and my mentor since 1999, teaching at an intensive course for PhD students. Worster’s lecture was hard to follow for the students because of a massive and of course noise demonstration occurring in the street just outside the university. The people in the street were protesting against the governmental plan to deal with the so-called waste crisis in the region. While I was trying to close the windows and insulate the room, Worster, instead, proposed to actually open the windows widely and listen what was happening outside our classroom. As he said, environmental history was born precisely with the aim to look at the world beyond our academic walls and try to fix it. I took Don’s words, as always, very seriously, and prepared an application for a European Union grant in order to research the waste crisis in the Neapolitan region. The title of my project was Landscapes of Resistance. The struggles over waste and incinerators in Campania, Italy, and my aim was to excavate the ways in which those struggles have produced new communities and new knowledge. My approach was a political ecology one and my attempt was to explore the categories of environmental injustice, environmental racism, and street science in the European context (while they were created and tested mainly in the US and partially in the Global South). I was well aware that being a historian I lacked most of the methodologies and theories needed to tackle these themes, therefore, I planned my project as a blend of research and training, choosing as host institution the Institute for Environmental Sciences and Technologies at the Autonomous University in Barcelona, where Joan Martinez Alier has gathered one of the most advanced and creative groups working on political ecology. I won the grant, for once, and I hope that I have become myself a hybrid of an environmental historian and political ecologist. I believe that my work on the waste crisis in Naples has been rather influential, shifting the discourse, at least among activists and grassroots organizations, from a matter of corruption and inefficiency to that of environmental injustice and sacrifice zones.
6.- Among your research interests there is the relationship between migrations, a fully current topic, and environment.
Indeed, I have just edited a volume, together with Richard Tucker, on the environmental history of modern migrations (Routledge 2017). The volume offers a worldwide perspective on the history of migrations throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century and provides an opportunity to reflect on the global ecological transformations and developments which have occurred throughout the last few centuries. As you rightly said, we are in the midst of a massive migration crisis. Everywhere rich nations are trying to isolate themselves from the waves of desperate people fleeing from wars, poverty, persecutions, and disruptive environmental changes. “A wall will save us”; this is the easy mantra repeated by the professionals of fear, the gardeners of the new and pernicious hate plantations. Xenophobia, racism, and nationalism are gaining terrain, breeding on a toxic narrative which redirects class conflicts towards the “outside.” According to this narrative, if in the Global North the working class is becoming poorer, this is because of immigrants and not the unequal distribution of wealth, the attack against workers’ rights, and the neoliberal erosion of the welfare state. When hard times come, having an “other” to blame has always been a handy resource in order to preserve the privilege of the few. In proposing an environmental history of migrations, there is something more than a new theme for our research agenda. I would dare to say that there is an ambition to go back to the political aspiration which characterized environmental history at the beginning, when it was criticized because of its tension towards advocacy, for its ambition to change the world. Indeed, I do believe that there is nothing wrong in proposing a research agenda which wishes to contribute to an emancipatory and progressive collective project. In that volume, we indicate three different approaches to an environmental history of migrations: the assertive style, aiming to uncover the contribution of immigrant communities to the making of the environment where they arrived; the constructivist style, which explores how immigrants understood/read the new environment; and finally the embodied style, which, placing the immigrants’ body at the center, makes clear that there is no separation between nature/culture, society/environment. I would like to add a few points which I believe are crucial to my approach to the environmental history of migrations:
First of all, an environmental history of migrations should avoid any temptation of environmental determinism. The environment cannot be separated from society. Several historical cases demonstrate clearly that the people moved for a complex and intertwined networks of causes (think for instance of the Dust Bowl refugees, who were escaping from the drought and the sand as much as from the banks and the debts). Often focusing on the “environment” is a deliberate strategy in order to avoid to address the social problems: Angus Wright provides a very good example of this in our volume, when he explains that in Brazil was easier to think of change the local climate of the Nordeste rather than its plantation economy. Avoiding environmental determinism also implies to look at the relationships between immigrants and the environment in a more metabolic/dialectic sense. In the usual pioneers’ tale, the newcomers moved into a new environment, generally “virgin” or “wild”, and tamed it. Instead, I believe that it is more productive to see that environment not “natural” but as a socioecological formation made, just to exemplify, of soil and property rights, of racial stratification and hydrography. In this sense, rather than exploring how immigrants tamed/shaped the environment it seems more useful to see how they became part of those socioecologies through their work, culture, and bodies.
7.- In a paper, you argued that we can better see and understand the environment if we look at it through the lens of conflict. Can you give some examples?
In 2008 I published an article in Left History with the title Seeing like a protester. Nature, power, and environmental struggles in which I proposed the study of environmental conflicts as a methodological tool for a more accurate environmental history research agenda. In that article I argued that “we can better see and understand the environment if we look at it through the lens of conflict.” My argument is that a conflict based approach can reveal precisely the intertwined mess of power ecologies of which I have been talking more or less throughout all this interview. In the 2008 article I offered two examples in order to illustrate this argument. One was about a forest conflict occurred in Italy in the 1860s. Looking at that forest through the conflict did not only enlighten the usual social issues (class, gender, power, property etc.) but also the complex ecologies of that forest. Trees, pastures, water, game, wood, and wild fruits – the fact that a forest is all these things and much more becomes apparent when we look at it through the eyes of those who fought over it. However, even more than just this, environmental conflicts work as a litmus test, uncovering what is normally hidden in the landscape. And in exposing power in nature, conflicts are not only passive recording devices but they actually produce new landscapes and new socio-ecological relationships. The case of environmental justice struggles can be a good example here. The conflict reveals otherwise unnoticed ecological features (contamination, flows, metabolic relationships, biochemical transformations etc.), which are not independent from power relationships and social structures; but in the very enacting of the conflict new socioecologies can be produced aiming to redesign both the hierarchies of power and their ecological outputs.
8.- Since 2013, you are the director of the Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. What can you tell us about environmental humanities?
The environmental humanities is a growing field everywhere, but especially in the US and Australia. Since it is still a developing field, I am rather happy to say that there is no one, official, and definitive definition of it. As someone once said “Let a thousand flowers bloom”. My vision of the environmental humanities is that of a post disciplinary arena - not a discipline per se – where scholars, artists, practitioners, and activists can meet with the ambition to tackle societal problems, or, in other words, to practice societal relevant humanities. Compressed between climate change and post-fact society, the humanities can offer a crucial contribution to the present multifaceted crisis, not so much because they can translate science in a more pleasant language but because they can tackle the very core of this crisis, which is the Human. Science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin once said that the most dramatic crisis we are living in today is a crisis of imagination. Someone else said that today it is easier to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism. This is why we need the environmental humanities: because we need new narratives to understand the present and imagine alternative futures. What I love most of the environmental humanities is – and I am using the singular precisely because I see it as an arena – its experimental and creative character. As the director of the Environmental Humanities Laboratory I have enjoyed the possibility to experiment with unusual formats, pushing the boundaries of the academic discipline – meaning both the disciplinary fields of knowledge and the disciplined body of conventions which regulate and limit our work as scholars. I could mention here the amazing experience of the Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities Slam, which unleashed the creativity of scholars in thinking beyond their usual ways of producing and reproducing knowledge. We also host in Stockholm SAF, Stories of the Anthropocene Festival, where from a memorial for the extinct species to a theatrical travel from slavery to Black Lives Matter we explored the potential of sabotaging mainstream narratives with the power of counterhegemonic storytelling. In a few days – 2-6 October 2017 – we will host an intensive school in Public Environmental Humanities: 40 researchers, journalists, artists and activists, coming from all around the world, will meet in Stockholm to discuss about innovative and creative interventions which can transform society and provide new visions to face the present time environmental crisis. During the school we will have, for instance, an evening with a writer and a theater producer and actress who will present their work on workers’ toxic biographies and Indigenous resistance to repression and marginalization. Indeed, at the EHL we practice the environmental humanities as a liberation and emancipatory strategy. After all, our motto is Undisciplining Humanities since 2013.
Centre d'Història de la Ciència (CEHIC)
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Naomi Oreskes; Erik M Conway, Merchants of doubt: how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, London: Bloomsbury, 2012
Marco Armiero, A Rugged nation. Mountains and the Making of Modern Italy, Cambridge: White Horse Press, 2011
Marco Armiero; Stefania Barca, Storia dell’ambiente, Roma: Carocci, 2004
Marco Armiero, "Seeing like a protester: nature, power, and environmental struggles". Left History 13.1 (2008).
Marco Armiero, “Environmental History between institutionalization and revolution”. In Environmental Humanities. Voices from the Anthropocene, edited by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016
Marco Armiero and Richard Tucker, eds., Environmental History of Modern Migrations, London-New York: Routledge, 2017
Marco Armiero; Wilko Graf von Hardenberg. "Editorial introduction to special issue: Nature and Nation". Environment and History 20.1 (2014): 1-8.