Energy landscapes and the generative power of place

Spring 2020 will be remembered for the global Covid-19 pandemic. While in Britain people  were ordered to stay at home in a national lockdown, the nation also experienced its longest run of coal-free energy generation since the Industrial Revolution – 68 days of coal-free power. This wasn’t unconnected: as the economy shrunk almost overnight some of the major industrial energy uses stopped; steady low usage meant that the ‘back-up’ coal-fired generators of the national grid weren’t needed. Nor was this fossil-free: oil, alongside nuclear and gas, continued to fuel power plants. But, more than ever before, our energy was produced by renewable sources, and on 26 August 2020, the National Grid recorded the highest every contribution by wind to the national electricity mix: 59.9%.

This shift out of fossil dependence is both a historic moment, and the product of historical processes. The technological and scientific work that underpins the development of efficient turbines has taken decades – and it is what I’ve written about in my article, ‘When’s a gale a gale? Understanding wind as an energetic force in mid-twentieth century Britain’, out now in Environmental History. I look at how interest in the wind as a potential energy source (by the British state, and state scientists), generated the need for knowledge about how wind worked. Turbine technology needs airspace to operate, but it also needs land – to ground the turbines in, to connect to the grid by – and people to install and operate the devices. And so when looking at energy landscapes, we really need to think beyond the technology and consider the people and places with which it interacts,  to understand how energy is produced and used.

Hauling wind measuring equipment up Costa Hill, Orkney. In E.H. Golding and A.H. Stodhart, ‘The selection and characteristics of wind-power sites’ (The Electrical Research Association, 1952). Met Office Archive.

This was certainly the case for understanding wind energy. In 1940s and 50s Britain, scientists surveyed the wind regime at a national scale for the first time. They relied on the help and cooperation of local people to do this. In the brief mentions of this assistance in the archival record, we gain insight into the importance of embodied, localised knowledge in scientific processes which can at first seem detached from the actual landscapes of study.

The surveys determined Orkney as the best place to situate a test turbine. Embodied knowledge, knowledge that is learnt from being in place and from place, is very tangible in accounts of a hurricane which hit Orkney in 1952, during the turbine tests. By looking at how the islanders made sense of a disastrous wind, and brought the turbine technology into their narratives of the storm, we learn that it is not only electricity generated by the development of renewable energy, but also new dimensions to place-based knowledge and identities.

Seeing beyond the technology to consider its interactions with environments and societies is something that the energy humanities considers as essential. I’ll be working on this subject from this perspective for some time to come, and would love to hear your thoughts on the article.

Costa Hill from the coast path. Photograph by Marianna Dudley, 2017.


This blog has been reposted with kind permission from the Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities. View the original blog. This blog was written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Marianna Dudley. You can follow Marianna on Twitter @DudleyMarianna.

Frozen Empires revisited

Image taken from the front cover of Adrian Howkin’s book – Frozen Empires

The recent release of the paperback edition of Frozen Empires: An Environmental History of the Antarctic Peninsula, offers an opportunity to revisit the arguments I made in this book and reflect on how it continues to shape my work in Antarctica and thinking about environmental history.  The book sets out to frame the mid-twentieth century Antarctic sovereignty dispute among Argentina, Britain, and Chile as an environmental history of decolonization.  Through a strategy I refer to as asserting ‘environmental authority’, Britain used the performance of scientific research and the production of useful knowledge to support its imperial claims to the region as a territory known as the ‘Falkland Islands Dependencies’.  Argentina and Chile both contested Britain’s claim, and put forward their own assertations to sovereignty based on a sense that this was their environment as a result of proximity, geological contiguity, and shared climate and ecosystems. In the contest between British assertions of environmental authority and Argentine and Chilean ‘environmental nationalism’ it was the imperial, scientific vision of the environment that largely won out.  There was no genuine decolonization of the Antarctic Peninsula region, or the Antarctic continent more generally.  Instead, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which remains in force today, retains pre-existing sovereignty claims in a state of suspended animation (‘frozen’ in the pun of the treaty negotiators) and perpetuates the close connection between science and politics across the Antarctic Continent.

Much of my work since researching and writing Frozen Empires has focused on the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys on the opposite side of the Antarctic continent.  I am a co-PI on a US National Science Foundation funded Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project, collaborating with scientists to ask how historical research might inform our understanding of this unique place.  The McMurdo Dry Valleys are the largest predominantly ice-free region of Antarctica and since the late 1950s have become an important site of Antarctic science.  Geologists are attracted to the Dry Valleys by the exposed rock, geomorphologists by the opportunity to study the glaciological history of the continent, and ecologists by the presence of microscopic ecosystems.  The close connection between politics and science that I identified in the Antarctic Peninsula is also applicable to the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys.  The two most active countries in the region, New Zealand and the United States, can both be seen as making assertions of environmental authority to support their political position.  A major difference is that now I find myself on the inside of this system, working with scientists to help produce the ‘useful information’ that is being used for political purposes.

Working as more of an insider in a system I critiqued in Frozen Empires raises a number of awkward questions.  Can I retain a critical distance?  Am I contributing to the perpetuation of an unequal system?  What might the decolonization of Antarctic research look like?  These questions are not easy to answer.  Not infrequently I find myself looking back on the lack of inhibition I felt while researching and writing Frozen Empires and wishing for something similar in my current research.  Academic collaboration by definition leads to entanglements, and these entanglements increase complexity.  It is much easier, for example, to write critically about the imperial history of Antarctica than to convince scientific colleagues that this imperial history continues to have an impact on contemporary scientific research.

But for all the messiness and difficulties involved in collaboration, there are also tremendous opportunities.  I have learned a lot about how science gets done through working with the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER site, and I have learned about working as part of an academic team.  Place-based studies offers an ideal opportunity for interdisciplinary research, and I think it is vital to have humanities perspectives represented in these collaborations.  It takes time – often more time than expected – for effective collaborations to develop, and this process involves a significant degree of mutual learning.  Researching and writing Frozen Empires fundamentally shaped what I bring to the table as an environmental historian in the McMurdo Dry Valleys project, and I remain convinced by its argument for imperial continuity.  But the process of engaging in collaborative research has unsettled at least some of my earlier positions, and the book I’m writing on the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys will likely be quite different to Frozen Empires.


This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Adrian Howkins, Reader in Environmental History, University of Bristol.

It has been reposted with kind permission from the Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities. View the original blog.

Three history lessons to help reduce damage from earthquakes

Earthquakes don’t kill people,’ the saying goes. ‘Buildings do.’
There is truth in the adage: the majority of deaths during and just after earthquakes are due to the collapse of buildings. But the violence of great catastrophes is not confined to collapsed walls and falling roofs. Earthquakes also have broader effects on people, and the environments we live in.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)’s second Disaster Resilience Week starts in Bangkok on 26 August 2019. Practitioners and researchers have achieved great progress in reducing disaster risk over the past few decades, but we must do more to save lives and protect livelihoods.

Can history help?

Building against disaster

Buildings are a good, practical place to start.

Material cultures offer paths to resilience. A major example is traditional building styles that reduce the threat from seismic shaking. A building is not only a compilation of bricks and stones, but a social element that reflects the cultural life of a community. This is the powerful point made by the Kathmandu-based NGO, National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), in a recent report on traditional Nepalese building styles.

NSET, and others working in the field, have identified features of traditional building styles that limit damage during shaking. For example, diagonal struts distribute the load of a roof and limit damage during earthquake shaking.

Historic building with diagonal struts at Patan Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Daniel Haines, 2017

This is important because parts of falling buildings often kill people.

Nearby, in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the royal government is investigating the earthquake-resistant features of traditional rammed-earth buildings.

An old (c. 400 years?) rammed-earth residential building near Paro, Bhutan. Photo: Daniel Haines, 2017

In fact, seismically-appropriate building styles have evolved along similar lines across a huge Eurasian arc of tectonic unrest, from Italy to Kashmir.

But in most countries, population pressure and the use of cheap, unreinforced concrete construction in growing towns and cities has crowded out traditional construction methods.

Reducing disaster risk always means weighing costs in the present against potential protection in the future. Recovering or encouraging traditional methods is potentially cheaper than enforcing modern seismic engineering.

Long-term health impacts

Focusing only on buildings, though, neglects other important aspects of large earthquakes. These shocks do not only shake buildings down, but can dramatically re-shape landscapes by causing huge landslides, changing the level of water in rivers and leading to flooding.

History shows that these changes can hurt people for months or years after the rubble of buildings have been cleared and reconstruction has begun.

For example, a giant (8.4 Mw) earthquake struck northeast India in 1897. Its epicentre was near Shillong, in the borderlands between British India and China. Luckily, the quake happened in the afternoon, so most people were out of doors. The official death toll – the number of deaths that the colonial government attributed directly to the earthquake – was around 1,500.

Yet officials also thought the poor health conditions that followed the earthquake and the substantial floods that it caused were largely responsible for a major cholera epidemic which killed 33,000 people in the Brahmaputra Valley during the same year. That is twice as many as the previous year.

From the available evidence, it is not yet clear how directly the earthquake and the cholera deaths were linked, but other examples saw similar scenarios. In 1934, another major (8.0 Mw) quake devastated parts of Nepal and North India.

This time, the official death toll in India was around 7,500, but again many more people died from related health complications over the following years. In one district in northern Bihar province, an average of 55,000 people died of fever every year over the next decade. In other areas, malaria was unusually prevalent over the same period.

Government reports held secondary effects of the earthquake responsible for the high death rate.
Events that happened long ago therefore demonstrate the complexity of earthquakes’ impacts, even on the relatively straightforward question mortality. Studying them highlights the need to focus present-day disaster responses on long-term health implications.

Of course, this says nothing of earthquakes’ less concrete, but very important, impacts on social structures, community life, governance or the economy.

History in action

In some cases, historical researchers are contributing directly to initiatives to reduce risk from natural disasters.

Hurricane Katrina showed in 2005 that low-lying New Orleans is terribly vulnerable to storm surge and flooding. Craig Colten, a historical geographer at Louisiana State University, is working with a team of scientists to find solutions by raising the height of the ground in parts of the city while adding forested wetlands on its north shore. Colten is studying analogous historical efforts in other American cities – flood-control measures in nineteenth-century Chicago and responses to hurricanes in Galveston, Texas, around 1900 – as well as examining previous proposals for creating buffers between New Orleans and the sea.

These historical examples provide evidence of what works and what does not. They also highlight the politics of decision-making that help determine whether local communities will support landscape engineering projects.

The international frameworks governing disaster risk reduction such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Sustainable Development Goals understandably focus on the present, not the past. Historians need to join the conversation to show practitioners that lessons from the past can help build resilience in the future.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Daniel Haines, an environmental historian at the University of Bristol.

Dr Daniel Haines



Forest 404: A chilling vision of a future without nature

Binge-watching of boxsets on BBC iPlayer or Netflix is a growing habit. And binge-listening isn’t far behind. Podcast series downloadable through BBC Sounds are all the rage (with a little help from footballer Peter Crouch). Enter Radio 4’s ‘Forest 404’ – hot off the press as a 27-piece boxset on the fourth day of the fourth month (4 April 2019). This is something I’ve been involved in recently: an experimental BBC sci-fi podcast that’s a brand-new listening experience because of its three-tiered structure of drama, factual talk and accompanying soundscape (9 x 3 = 27).

Try to imagine a world in which not only forests but every last trace of the natural world as we know it has been erased (almost……). This eco-thriller by Timothy X. Atack (credits include ‘Dr Who’) is set in the 24th century following a data crash in the early 21st century called The Cataclysm (404 is also the error message you get when a website is unavailable). The action follows lead protagonist Pan (University of Bristol Drama alumna and ‘Doctor Who’ star Pearl Mackie), a sound archivist who archives recordings surviving from the early 21st century. These include items such as a speech by President Obama’s on climate change, Neil Armstrong’s remarks after landing on the moon and Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in love’. Pan is merrily deleting them all (useless and senseless). Until, one day, she stumbles upon a recording of birdsong in the Sumatran rainforest that inexplicably grabs her. In fact, she’s left intoxicated, almost falling in love with it. So begins Pan’s quest to understand its origin and purpose – not to mention her mission to reconstruct the meaning of an almost completely eradicated world of nature.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a project with the world-famous, Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), exploring wildlife filmmaking over the past quarter-century. We wanted to include and support a creative dimension going far beyond the project’s more strictly academic and historical elements. Something poetic and performative that could take the study of nature at the BBC into new territory, and away from the visual. But the core theme remains the same: the value of the natural world and its representation in cultural form. This haunting drama focuses on that cultural value very closely by exploring an alien and alienating future world without nature – a world where the only memory of its former existence is preserved in Pan’s sound archive.

This is a deeply historical approach that re-unites me with a piece of research I published some time in the journal Environmental History (2005) what I called the strange stillness of the past – how sounds, both human and non-human generated, were overlooked by most historians. ‘Forest 404’ also ties in with another recent AHRC activity led by my colleague, Dr Victoria Bates. The project was called ‘A Sense of Place: Exploring Nature and Wellbeing through the Non-Visual Senses,’ and I participated as a volunteer. It was about immersing people in natural sensescapes using 360-degree sound and smell technologies. The idea is that we can potentially ‘take nature’ to people who can’t go to it for a first-hand experience.

With my partners at the BBC and Arts and Humanities Research Council, I see ‘Forest 404’ as part of an emerging research area known as the environmental humanities. The starting point of ‘enviro-hums’ is the conviction that a scientific perspective, no matter how important, cannot do full justice to the complexity of our many layered relationships with nature.

The humanities and arts have a big contribution to make in helping us to appreciate the value of what ecosystem services researchers call cultural services. This denotes the so-called non-material benefits we derive from the natural world – its aesthetic value (beauty), how it inspires imaginative literature, painting and music, its spiritual significance, and its role in forming cultural identities and giving us a sense of place. Last spring, Radio 3 broadcast a week-long celebration of all things forest and trees, following it up with another week in the autumn. ‘Into the Forest’ was all about how forests have supplied an almost unlimited source of inspiration for creative activity. ‘Forest 404’ confronts us with the brutal possibility of a world not just without forests and trees but even lacking a conception of nature. And it makes us think about how that absence impoverishes us culturally and spiritually as well as the more obvious ecological dangers we face.

Accompanying the podcast is an ambitious online survey devised by environmental psychologists at the University of Exeter and operated by The Open University. Data on how we respond to nature has previously concentrated on the visual. This focus on natural soundscapes will add a fresh dimension to what we already know about how contact with nature benefits our physical and mental wellbeing. Give the podcast a listen. Then please do the survey – over 7,000 people have already done so. It takes less than 10 minutes.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member and environmental historian Professor Peter Coates.

Peter Coates

This blog has been republished with kind permission from the Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities. View the original blog.

Prospective postgraduate students interested in Peter
Coates’ work have the opportunity to apply for his research project on the
Cabot Institute MScR in Global Environmental Challenges, ‘Fishscapes
and fish as biocultural heritage.’
one year research master’s project spanning both humanities and natural
sciences investigates the status of fish as a cultural as well as an ecological
species, occupying individual and collective memory.  For more information
about the Cabot
Institute MScR
please contact Joanne Norris at