Students from a wide variety of disciplines are invited to participate in these workshops, where they will develop dissertation proposals in the field of ecological history. This field aims at a systematic understanding of the relationships between humans and natural processes over extended periods of time. It brings together a substantial literature on environmental history with theoretical insights and models from human ecology and social sciences to create productive cross-disciplinary perspectives, both grounding social science research in primary sources from the past, and connecting historical research with contemporary issues,  comparative perspectives, and field research methods. Two prominent concepts that inform this research are sustainability and resilience. Sustainability, or the ability of a human productive system to endure for extended periods of time, is an evaluation of how quickly resources are exhausted and replenished, the political institutions that protect the common good, and human consciousness of its vulnerability to natural crises. Resilience measures how well a system responds to disturbance, either adjusting in such a way as to continue functioning or transforming into an alternative state. One way to define sustainability is the maintenance of resilience. 

Based on these concepts developed in the scientific literature, we will encourage students to develop proposals that link these conceptual frameworks with concrete case studies. Specific research questions may center on the use, maintenance, degradation, and rehabilitation of resources such as land, water, or forest products; on landscape and ecosystem change and its relationship to political, economic, and ideational change; on climate change and its interaction with specific socio-ecosystems; on methodologies of historiography and ecology and how they can enrich each other; on ideas about nature, resources, landscapes, and species, and how these ideas evolve over time; on changing artistic or literary portrayal of human-landscape relations; or on related topics.  In addition to furthering our knowledge of the relationships between ecological and socio-political change, we will inevitably learn how to talk to each other across disciplinary boundaries, not only within the social sciences, but between the social sciences and the earth sciences, and between the social sciences and the humanities and arts. 

Although we expect a wide variety of projects from students in this field, all projects should include certain basic features.  They should  treat change in socio-ecosystems over relatively long periods of time.  They should employ theoretical approaches that  deal with the interrelationships and mutual causation between human, non-human biotic, and abiotic features of landscapes or environments. They should be interdisciplinary, crossing boundaries between history, social sciences, arts and literature, and earth sciences, and employing both written materials and field research. The spring workshop will also include sessions on how to be interdisciplinary. We welcome students eager to participate within these broad parameters, whether their primary disciplines are history, social sciences (anthropology, geography, political science, sociology, economics, area studies, ethnic studies, gender studies) humanities (literature or the arts) or earth sciences (ecology, geological sciences, or atmospheric sciences).

Spring workshop: May 30-June 3, 2012 in Chaska, Minnesota
Fall workshop: September 12-16, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


  • Paolo Bocci

    University of North Carolina / Chapel Hill, Anthropology

    Invasive Life: Chivos, Mora, and Humans in the Galapagos Islands
    Blackberries (Rubus niveus) and goats (Capra hircus) continue to spread on the Galapagos while the Park multiplies its attempts to control them. Chivos (goats) and mora (blackberry) were present in the human settlements at Darwin's visit in 1835, and have increasingly taken part in the dramatic changes of the islands' landscape ever since. Brought by humans and living both in and outside the Galapagos National Park, chivos and mora thrive across inhabited and protected, human-free areas, arguably posing the most complex challenge to conservation. I attend to them as a focal point of an ecological history of the islands. Through archival and ethnographic research, my project follows the life of chivos and mora since the establishment of permanent settlements in the early nineteenth century. Drawing on anthropology, ecological history, and science studies, my project will show their entanglements with people as a constitutive factor of the changes in the islands' landscapes that has affected past and current searches for sustainability.
  • Angelo Matteo Caglioti

    University of California / Berkeley, History

    What Ecology for Colonial Fascism?
    This project proposes to analyze the ecological research carried out during Italian colonialism by the fascist regime in Libya between 1922 and 1943. I aim to explore from an environmental perspective the history of colonization and in particular fascist agricultural plans that were meant to turn Libya into a settlement colony for Italian population through environmental management. Existing historiography has studied the connection between environmental history and colonialism but has never paid attention to particular fascist efforts to master humans and nature alike and the resistance that they entailed. The research intends to shed light through an interdisciplinary perspective on the ecological history of Libya, the relationship between fascism and the making of environmental knowledge, and the ecological hybridization between Italy and its Mediterranean empire. Is an ecological history of fascism possible?
  • Zachary Caple

    University of California / Santa Cruz, Anthropology

    Industrial Phosphorus and the Remaking of Florida’s Mosaic Landscapes
    My work examines anthropogenically altered phosphorus cycles and the social and material effects they have had on Florida's mosaic landscapes. While the geopolitics and cycling of carbon has been become a lively subject of social research, little attention has been paid to phosphorus. Phosphorus, unlike carbon, has no atmospheric component and, consequentially, must be understood with regard to its unique local forms and movements across industrial and ecological landscapes. Water bodies in Central Florida have been dramatically transformed by phosphorus pollution from agricultural and suburban land uses. Central Florida is also home to the world's largest phosphate mining and fertilizer companies. Both Florida's lakes, rivers, and wetlands and post-mining landscapes have been targeted for scientific study and ecological restoration. My research examines the linked histories of phosphate mining and industrial agriculture in Florida and the creative projects of restoration they have necessitated. My study is organized around two primary cases: Lake Apopka - a large shallow lake west of Orlando - and the Bone Valley mining region in southwest Polk county. In addition to studying the local effects of phosphorus in these landscapes, my work examines the politics of sewer, waste water treatment, and low-density development in the region.
  • Samuel R. Dolbee

    New York University (NYU), Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures

    Peasants, Pests, and Pine Trees: State Power and Environmental Control in Late Ottoman Syria
    By focusing on state management of three organisms – locusts, mosquitoes, and pine trees – I want to explore how agricultural pest control, disease eradication, and forestry led to state interventions into the lives of peasants in late Ottoman and French Mandate Syria (1876-1945), a geographic area comprising the Ottoman provinces of Adana, Aleppo, Beirut, and Damascus, roughly corresponding to today's Syria, Lebanon, southern Turkey, northern Jordan, and northern Israel. While the broader dissertation will span the late Ottoman and French Mandate periods, for the purposes of the DPDF I will focus on the Ottoman period by working in the Basbakanlik Archive in Istanbul. There, I would like to trace how state officials talked about peasants and notions of social order with respect to locusts, mosquitoes, and pine trees. Subsequently, I want to explore how the policies implemented often had unintended ecological and social consequences. In the process, I hope to shed light on some unresolved questions of periodization, actors, and place in the historiography of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Syria. Through closely following transformations in rural ecologies, I intend to provide a new perspective on Syrian history that spans the late Ottoman and French Mandate while also providing insight into the understudied lives of peasants and rural residents.
  • Nathan Ela

    University of Wisconsin / Madison, Sociology

    Toward a Political Economy of Resilience: A Comparative Study of Urban Farming Regimes in Chicago
    This dissertation project seeks to develop a better understanding of the role that conversion of vacant urban land into urban farms and gardens may play in processes of economic and ecological adaptation, transformation, and resilience in urban socio-ecological systems. Drawing on data collected through archival research, participant observation, and interviews, I will extend political-economic and complex-systems theories of urban development to identify, develop, and analyze historic and contemporary cases in which vacant lots have been used for food crop cultivation in Chicago since the end of the nineteenth century. By comparing ways in which instances of land conversion have altered social, economic, and ecological relations, the project will produce a systematic understanding of what if anything distinguishes the impact of the contemporary emergence of urban agriculture from past periods in which people have converted vacant land to agricultural use. The project will also provide an empirical basis for developing a theory that brings together political-economic and complex-systems perspectives to conceptualize the role played by urban farming in processes of adaptation, transformation, and resilience in urban socio-ecological systems.
  • David Fedman

    Stanford University, History

    Cultivating Colonialism: Japanese Forestry in Colonial Korea, 1900-1945
    Drawing from a range of archival materials in both Japanese and Korean (including forest surveys, maps, the bulletins of the Korean Forestry Association, and trade manuals), oral histories, and ecological fieldwork, this project explores the ways in which Korea's forests were transformed under Japanese colonialism from the years 1900-1945. Of central importance to this study is the rhetoric and reality of the colonial state's efforts to re-cast Korea's hinterlands to fit the mold of a productive, sustainably managed ecosystem. Among the other topics addressed are Korea's pre-colonial forest management, Japan's exposure to and appropriation of the methods of scientific forestry, the flow of seedlings, experts, and ideas about forestry between the archipelago and the peninsula, Japanese silviculture in Korea, local practice versus central planning, and the ecological legacies of Japanese colonialism. By maintaining a tight focus on the network of individuals charged with the management of Korea's forests, moreover, this project seeks to shed light on the interpersonal dynamics that shaped the colonial state and its posture towards the natural world.
  • Jennifer Elaine Goldstein

    University of California / Los Angeles, Geography

    Wasted, Now Wanted: Landscapes of Food Production, Degradation, and Carbon Commodification in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia
    Over the past two decades the "Mega Rice Project" site—located in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo—was envisioned first as a landscape for food production to feed the nation, then as a toxic, carbon-spewing catastrophe, and now as a resilient and restored ecosystem, as well as a hotspot for global climate change research and financial investment. Accompanying each of these land use interpretations has been large-scale, physical landscape change. What has caused these rapid transformations? I will conduct research on the region's socio-ecological history using remote sensing LANDSAT data, government and NGO discourses on pertinent policies and practices, and ethnographic interviews with climate scientists to answer three questions about the mechanisms of this transformation. One, how has the rise of climate science and an emerging global discourse on climate change contributed to landscape transformation in the Mega Rice Project site? Two, in what ways do climate change science and policy intersect, contest, and supplant discourses on food security and sovereignty, and at what scales does this occur? And three, how has imagining a landscape as "degraded" invited certain types of re-development schemes and ecological commodification throughout Kalimantan's history?
  • Timothy H. Johnson

    University of Georgia, History

    Growth Industry: Unearthing the Origins of Fertilizer-Fueled Agriculture
    Today we can scarcely imagine agriculture without commercial fertilizer. This has not always been the case. After the American Civil War, cotton and tobacco producers on the worn soils of the Southeast came to rely on this untested commodity on an unprecedented scale. By the end of the First World War, technical breakthroughs and a maturing agricultural bureaucracy helped satiate the countryside's newfound chemical dependence, which seemed to have no upper limit. At its most basic, however, a study of commercial fertilizer offers a chance to uncover a fundamental ecological shift: A transition away from local channels of nutrient cycling that pulled farmers—and then nations—into the widening gyre of a global nutrient economy. Census and industry data show that fertilizer use has grown steadily since this formative period, but documentary evidence will help untangle the economic, political, and environmental roots of this transformation by asking the following: What pressures led farmers onto the path of chemical-input agriculture? What did that path yield? How and why did fertilizer become a strategic concern of the growing administrative state in the era of the First World War? "Growth Industry" will unearth the origins of a dominant agricultural practice with ecological effects.
  • Laura J. Martin

    Cornell University, Natural Resources

    The Naturalization of Competition in the Ecological Sciences, 1945-1990
    My dissertation examines ideas about species and their interactions during the Cold War era. Through the lens of science studies, I explore processes through which competition came to be "naturalized" as the fundamental organizing force of ecological and social communities. In doing so I address broader questions of how scientific language reifies cultural norms, how scientific naturalism is used to legitimate prescriptive political views, and how capitalist ideas came to be entrenched in ecological theories, even as they themselves were the target of environmental reform. My focal studies include Robert MacArthur's diversity-stability hypothesis, G. Evelyn Hutchinson's idea of limiting competition, and Eugene Odum's work with the Atomic Energy Commission on the ecology of the Bikini Atolls. I contend that during this period, just as proponents of liberal capitalism took competition to increase diversity and stability of the political economy, ecologists took competition to increase the diversity and stability of life. Competition came to be considered generative of new species and economic innovations, a stabilizer of ecological and social communities. By the 1990s, the importance of competition to every level of ecological life was rarely contested, nor was the importance of competition to every level of human behavior. Ecologists instead sought to explain the seemingly paradoxical coexistence of similar species within communities and the threat of monoculture through non-native species, while they developed prescriptive conservation projects abroad.
  • Caterina Scaramelli

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), History, Anthropology, and Science Technology and Society

    Living Water: Environmental Expertise and Social Conflict in Turkey's Waterscapes
    I propose an anthropological study of conflict over waterscapes that are perceived to be ecologically and socially degraded, as they play out in Turkey. Disappearing rivers, drying lakes, and polluted basins are sites at which communities negotiate different interpretations of, and political claims over water, especially as they utilize different technologies of measurement and forms of scientific expertise to understand changing water ecologies. This research asks about the role of such expertise in environmental conflicts: How is hydrological and environmental expertise pertaining to water circulating among communities? In which diverse ways do different groups creatively and strategically appropriate such expertise to to sustain claims over livelihood as it intersects with lived experiences of water and place? In addition to being grounded in ethnography, this research addresses the expertise embedded in narratives of ecological history: How do different communities engage with the natural sciences to understand how environments have been changing, and how do they use them as political tools? Do these narratives change or displace lived experience and oral history? Or are they challenged by these modes? What are the nationalist and Islamist accounts of water, and do how communities that do not identify with Turkishness engage with ecological history?
  • Maria C. Taylor

    University of Michigan, Architecture

    Factories of the Wilderness: The Ideology and Materiality of Soviet Urbanism in Siberia
    Soviet urbanism is frequently used as a 'worst case' scenario. In part, commentators decry how the Soviets were blinded by a "mastery over nature" aesthetic into constructing hyper-industrial factory towns in Siberia, accompanied by immense hydro-electric projects and river diversion schemes. These designed environments are taken as an object lesson of the Soviet system's insensitivity to site conditions, social diversity and architectural quality. But was it really so simple? Such stark narratives of Siberian urbanism are often methodologically constrained, given the limited access granted foreign researchers at the time. More importantly, the underlying Man/Nature distinction, where modern humanity is dynamic and fundamentally alien to the passive natural environment, has been critiqued by theorists in multiple disciplines as an overly simplistic dichotomy. Instead, this dissertation considers these Siberian "contact zone" cities as more-than-human artifacts, where ecological and urban concerns were materially and discursively inseparable. Specifically, using archival records, oral history interviews, and site visits, I examine the post-Stalinist discourse and praxis of architects and urban planners in the provincial capital of Krasnoyarsk (pop. ~900,000) at three sites: the Divnogorsk Hydro-Electric Station (constructed 1956-1972), the Yenesei River embankment where hydrological and urban regimes converged, and the Khrushchevian mikroraions designed to provide the industrial workforce with "light, air, and greenery." The mutual constitution of landscape, hydrology, urbanism and industry at these sites represents a distinctively Siberian 'ecological urbanism,' complicating received notions of Soviet city-nature relations.
  • Gregory Thaler

    Cornell University, Government

    Explaining Divergent Patterns of Deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia
    In the effort to combat tropical deforestation, Brazil and Indonesia are of primary importance. Since the 1960s, deforestation in these countries has followed a similar pattern, driven largely by migration schemes through the 1980s, and by globalized agribusiness and logging since the 1990s. Since 2005, deforestation rates in these two countries have diverged, however, with deforestation slowing in Brazil and accelerating in Indonesia. What is causing this divergence? My project seeks an explanation by way of two questions. First, I explore whether and how macroeconomic, socio-political, and microeconomic variation produce changing patterns of deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil. Second, I ask why political-economic changes that might produce long-term declines in deforestation are occurring in Brazil at this particular historical moment, and why similar changes are not occurring in Indonesia. My methodology builds on subnational and cross-national comparisons using quantitative and geographical data, in combination with qualitative data from field sites on the deforestation frontier in each country and national-level interviews and records. My goal is to move from the Brazilian and Indonesian cases toward general statements about the global dynamics of deforestation. The results will have broader implications for the fields of ecological history, political ecology, and the political economy of development.