History, Memory and Green Imaginaries Symposium reflections

 Just before attending this event [1] I remember questioning why I was going. Sure it sounded interesting, but I had umpteen assignments, marking, supervisions, all sorts that were looming, should I really be going to a conference that I’m not presenting at? Well, I’m really glad I did, it was an inspiring day full of interesting people and perspectives, lively cross-disciplinary discussions and I have to say I learnt a lot about what I need to learn more about! I won’t mention all the speakers, but here is a round up of the discussions and questions that sparked particular interest for me.

Thinking about temporality

The centre’s director, Graham Dawson got the day off to a good start by getting my brain ticking over the ways in which understandings of the past can be useful, not just interesting.  Apparently this quote’s famous, but it was a first hearing for me: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’  L. P Hartley:  The Go Between (1953) – into which he interjected that the same could be said of the future. But how to do we ‘go’ to the past or future? These are key ponderances for me as I am thinking through the different temporalities my proposed case study sites invoke. Indeed climate change as an entity has time woven into it in every strand.

Alastair Bonnet delivered a great keynote in which he questioned how we might be radical in the 21st century – do we need to always be looking forward into the future as Marx suggested? Modernity can be seen as a flight from the past, history, memories and in this context the past holds negative connotations, being against progress and for nostalgia. In an age of progress, doubt and loss, Alastair argued, are hard to express. Yet ‘green’ issues such as climate change and decreasing bio-diversity are characterised by narratives of loss, making coherent, radical, effective campaign messages around these issues are extremely tricky to say the least (I know from first-hand experience!). An acknowledgement of the emotional, psychological and cultural baggage which accompanies these issues is perhaps at least a step in the right direction.
_Forgotten Histories

Bonnet also introduced a few figures from the past, which he suggests can be used to inspire action for change, figures who did not shy away from using appeals to memory and myth in setting out progressive visions for the future. One such figure was Thomas Spence (1750-1814) whose ideas have been largely buried and ignored. Despite his poverty, he developed numerous manifestos for land reform, spelling English phonetically, human rights and utopian visions, spreading his ideas through pamphlets and coin tokens.


Spence token: Spences Plan…Or Starvation forever. http://thomas-spence-society.co.uk/3.html
Erin Gill’s talk picked up on the theme of forgotten environmental histories too, arguing that exploring and understanding them can lead to better responses to environmental issues. She pointed out that within the discourse of nuclear power development in the UK, disasters happen elsewhere. However, we have in fact had a nuclear accident that would have been rated  5/7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale: 1957 at Windscale. Not heard of Windscale? Nor me, it’s now called Sellafield. The impacts of this accident are still being investigated. Shouldn’t this figure in our current discussions of nuclear development, I wonder?

Nostalgia and Environmental Campaigning

Organiser of the symposium, Rebecca Bramell  started off a session focussing in on the nostalgic appeal of austerity from WW2; the ‘dig for victory’, ‘make do and mend’, ‘keep calm and carry on’ messages and their use today in calls to localism and sustainable transitions to lower carbon futures. She asked key interesting questions such as:

  • What limitations does using such a discourse bring with it?
  • Is it based on a history that is more myth than reality and does that matter?
  • Climate change and other environmental problems are different threats to a world war, does that matter?
  • How is its use changed and influenced by the government’s take-over of austerity – is it still radical?

Victoria Johnson of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) presented the reasoning behind using the WW2 analogy in a recent campaign. She observes that WW2 called for systemic change and rapid transition, it required people to take action, it was a ‘distant’ threat and that by sharing and rationing supplies there is enough to go around.  All of these features match up well with the idea of carbon rationing. In practice, they found that the ‘Ration me up’ New Home Front project received interest and resonated well with people already in ‘the movement’, but it was less good at engaging those outside. It is also relevant only to allied nations from the war perhaps and the issue of time scales comes up again – the war meant short term change after which normality would be re-instated, climate change offers no such promise.


Phil Wellington’s winning poster for the front cover of NEF’s second New Home Front report, September 2012 http://www.newhomefront.org/

Ration me Up Carbon Ration Books, NEF http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/ration-me-up
Tim Cooper then offered some interesting come backs on NEFs New Home Front. He questions how accurately it depicts the austerity narrative in WW2 and, an argument with a little more appeal to me: the WW2 campaigns are known to be top-down coercive propaganda. Should we not be taking a more critical approach to the past rather than re-constituting it in order to induce behaviour change? He suggests an approach which instead looks to the past for failures which we can learn from.

We discussed how the propaganda of rationing now doesn’t always match up with what we see – e.g. the shops are full of food, the lights are on… The aesthetics of such a campaign work, vintage IS undeniably fashionable. But we all know how fashions change: if I see one more ‘Keep calm and …’ poster I might go mad! Clothing and décor is one thing, but just how much do these trends (often newly produced to look the part) require us to think about the history behind their appeal?

Whilst environmental campaigning seems like more of an aspect of my past occupations, these discussions came at it from new angles completely and have challenged me to think more openly about how research and academic enquiry can play important roles in terms of creative and critical analysis of such issues. Indeed, that is something I hope my own research will contribute to.


Finally, Wendy Wheeler’s talk on biosemiotics brought me back firmly thinking about the relationships between humans, non-human life and the material world.  Though we grilled poor Wendy for quite a while at the end of the day, I’m still not sure enough of what she was arguing to recite it here, only that I intend to look into biosemiotics in more depth later on!

Thinking about how the past and memories will be involved in the PhD, there are quite a few avenues to explore here. The history of Arctic exploration, discourses of the frontier, masculine strength, competition and sublime nature is something which can still have relevance today in how politics and management of natural resources are approached [2]. Perhaps a critical approach to these pasts could be useful.

Thinking about seeds – they are at once a window to past agricultural practices, genetic manipulations, evolution, climate, and a potential future life form, food source, new breed for a changed climate. Whilst stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault right now, what are they?

The Russian coal mining communities, both active (Barentsburg) and abandoned (Pyramiden) can be seen as remnants of a past political era, yet are persistent in their presence. The haunting and decaying objects left in Pyramiden speak volumes. Having just read a fascinating book about this, I’ll leave that for now, until I write a review about it…

[1] Held 30th November 2012, University of Brighton, titles of the talks and full programme is available here: http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/research/centre-for-research-in-memory-narrative-and-histories/events/archive/symposium-history,-memory-and-green-imaginaries
[2] Weisburger, A. (2011) The Shadow of Historic Polar Exploration on Contemporary Arctic Affairs, The Arctic Institute – Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, available: http://www.thearcticinstitute.org/2011/12/shadow-of-historic-polar-exploration-on.html.

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