One of my main organizational concerns over the last decade has been the institutionalization of environmental history and environmental humanities in the Nordic countries. How can we build both a discipline and a community in ways that provide not just institutional support but also long-term institutional homes to environmental history scholars? When I started the Nordic Environmental History Network (NEHN) in 2009, with generous funding from a Nordforsk network grant, NiCHE was the model for how a networked community of scholars could function – they demonstrated a level of community, professionalism, and entrepreneurship that few others could match and that we only could admire from afar.
This admiration was combined with a certain feeling of affinity between Canada and the Nordic countries, and perhaps in particular my home country Norway. At the risk of stating the obvious or verging on cliches, both are stretched-out countries with low population density and much nature, at the northern edge of a continent. Neither country can be said to be the center of the world, so we have to be concerned with connections. Both have fierce climates that change dramatically over the seasons. Both can be characterized as welfare states. We share an interest in cabins and cottages (which are one of my long-term research interests) as ways of being in nature. In short, both countries seem to be made for environmental history.
And yet, the Nordic countries – until recently particularly Norway – were lagging far behind Canada in terms of environmental history. There were no professorships in the field in Norway; in fact, there were no jobs at all with an environmental history focus. Collaboration between environmental history scholars in the different Nordic countries was also rare. NEHN aimed to change that, with NiCHE as a major inspiration.
When writing this post, I went back to my original grant proposal, written when I was a postdoc in Trondheim in 2009. Here I stated:
“The network and the workshop series will address a shared need among Nordic environmental historians. In the Nordic countries environmental history as a discipline has reached varying degrees of institutional support. Since the early 1990s, a series of researchers have initiated environmental history research projects, but few have been successful in developing long-term research groups. As in most European countries, environmental history is rarely formally represented in universities, research institutions or curricula. Research and teaching in the field of environmental history is done by individual scholars at various institutions and under different denotations.”
In short, there was a considerable lack of institutionalization. To begin working on these issues, we designed the network around four workshops over a three-year period, each dedicated to a particular theme: institutionalization, research, teaching, and project development. We wanted to strengthen our connections similarly to what we were seeing our Canadian colleagues doing.
Rather than a workshop series set up to produce publications – the “hard currency” of academia – NEHN was explicitly designed to start conversations, to enable collaboration and exchange, to sow the seeds of what could later grow into something more. At the time, I was uncertain about that strategy – both I and my collaborators needed to build our publication track records, but the workshops of NEHN were loose and “soft”. But over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that this strategy was a good one. Bringing people together, forging connections that can develop into something more over time, pays off. Some of those connections took the shape of joint publications, such as the Northscapes book edited by Dolly Jørgensen and Sverker Sörlin, with several Canadian contributions. Others became Nordic research and teaching grant proposals, some of which even succeeded.
Throughout the funded period of NEHN, we worked hard to forge strong connections to NiCHE. For example, I invited Alan MacEachern and Claire Campbell to the final NEHN workshop in Helsinki in 2011. Claire later invited me to a workshop on “Sustainable Energy in Atlantic Canada” at Dalhousie University in 2013, my first visit to Nova Scotia, and one that I enjoyed tremendously. NiCHE also supported our workshop Bringing STS into Environmental History in Trondheim in 2010, which led to the highly successful book New Natures. Michael Egan and Anya Zilberstein participated through the NiCHE support. Later, we applied for a research grant and a teaching exchange grant with Michael, though they were not funded.
Environmental history is no longer a niche activity in the Nordic countries. There is no doubt that NiCHE has been important for Canadian environmental history – but NiCHE has also influenced other regions, including the Nordic countries. NiCHE has shown how having a strong community in one region also strengthens others.
Originally published at NiCHE Canada on 10 December 2020.