Environmental heritage, voicing our environment for posterity – Savitri Jetoo,PhD

What is environmental heritage and how is it different from environmental history? And how can this knowledge be used to help in society’s adaptation to climate change?

I will reflect upon these questions as part of this project blog for ‘Living with the Baltic Sea in a changing climate: Environmental heritage and the circulation of knowledge’. This is an Academy of Finland project awarded to lead PI Dr. Nina Tynkkynen and involving an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Turku and the Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. Team members for this project hail from a range of disciplines including environmental and cultural history, environmental social sciences, human animal studies, landscape studies, comparative religion, education, anthropology and future studies. Most team members worked together since 2016 as part of the research network ‘Marine Research Laboratory of Humanities and Social Sciences’ (AHA) at the University of Turku and have already published many articles on this topic. One of the key strengths of this team is that most team members wrote the project proposal together, pooling their diverse views to create a common understanding of the problem and the proposed research roadmap. They were able to incorporate their specialised concepts and articulate some of the diverse methodological perspectives in the grant application that led to this successful outcome.

So what is environmental heritage and how is it different from environmental history? I answer this question not as an expert historian, but from the perspective of the ‘ordinary person’ who has no academic grounding in history. I do this so that I can stimulate the reader to think about the topic some more and to motivate my colleagues to add more to this topic via this blog. I think the key difference between the two concepts is temporal. I feel that environmental history studies the relationship between people and nature in the past, whereas environmental heritage examines how people live with the gift of nature (the Baltic Sea in this case) that have been bequeathed from past generations. However, environmental heritage goes beyond just looking at how we live with this tangible gift from the past, in the present to include how we are looking after it so that it can be part of the future generations, not just our present. Environmental heritage has been defined by and for the purposes of this project as the ‘environmental experience, knowledge and skills that is constructed by living and acting in the Finnish Coastal area and archipelago of the Baltic Sea’. This project is visionary, as it recognises that adaptation to the biggest environmental challenge of our time, climate change, has thus far relied mainly on the natural and social sciences and has largely ignored the voices of people who are influencing and witnessing and adapting to changes in the environment. This project peers through the past, from the present and projects into the future in examining environmental heritage, looking to find useful knowledge and to put that knowledge into the hands of key decision makers, experts, local actors and the public at large.

This project examines the Baltic Sea environmental heritage using key cases: i. changes in flora and fauna of the Baltic Sea, ii. the livelihoods of coastal areas and archipelago, iii. sea and coastal areas as lived and experienced environments, and iv. scientific research on the effects of and adaptation to climate change in the context of the Baltic Sea environment. How would this be done in reality? Case one, for example, studies ways in which society has understood the changes in flora and fauna, such as the introduction of the invasive zebra mussel. How will this past be reconstructed for knowledge in the present? There is a range of tools available to decipher traditional documentary evidence such as old newspapers and books to convert them to formats that can be analysed by researchers. These tools are used in the academic field of digital humanities. Digital humanities and its tools, say what?! If I have wet your appetite for more, stay tuned to this blog to find out more from our researchers.

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