From the Arctic to the Gulf: Davis and Demuth discuss environmental history

Lucy Peck, Staff Writer

Jack Davis and Bathsheba Demuth discussed the role of nature in history and the impact of climate change on disadvantaged regions during the third installment of the Environmental Issues Speaker Series this Wednesday. Ana Aguilar (11) and Bela Tinaj (11) served as student moderators for the event. 

Demuth is an assistant professor of History and Environment and Society at Brown University, according to the speaker series website. Her work focuses on exploring and analyzing the intersections of people, ideas, places, and non-human species in history. She has wrestled with questions such as, “what would it mean to give rights to entities that are not human?” and “how have we gained the right to ‘give’ rights?” according to the speaker series website. Specifically, she has focused on the Arctic and the key role indigenous groups have played in environmental history, which is the topic of her book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

Davis is an author and professor of Environmental History and Sustainability Studies at the University of Florida, according to the speaker series website. He has written multiple books including the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, which details the history of the Gulf of Mexico.

Upper Division (UD) history teacher Dr. Ellen Bales and Claire Goldberg (12), the creators of the Environmental Speaker Series, as well as UD Science Department chair Dr. Lisa Rosenblum invited Demuth to speak because of  her intelligence and youthful energy, Bales said. “We then asked Demuth if there was someone she would like to be in conversation with for the evening and she requested Jack Davis,” she said. “We got in touch with him then and he said he would do it too.” 

During the event, Demuth and Davis discussed their backgrounds in environmental history and the commonalities of their work. They discussed potential solutions to ameliorate the current carbon crisis and commented on the representation of the Arctic and Gulf in popular culture. 

Listening to the speakers discuss what it is like to be an environmental historian and hearing about their backgrounds in environmental history was very interesting, Tinaj said. “It’s a relatively new field, as sad as it is, and a lot more research and awareness has to be brought to it.” 

Daphne Tsai (10) was interested in attending the event because environmental issues are not a topic taught in any of her classes, she said. “Considering that I haven’t been in a class which has gone in depth about environmental issues, I was even more excited to hear what the speakers had to say,” she said. The series has given Tsai insight into the long-lasting effects of pollution, she said. This has made her more aware of her potential contributions to the crisis, Tsai said.

It was important to hear about the contrast between the Arctic and the Gulf, Tinaj said. “Both regions are extremely important to our earth and for keeping an equilibrium,” she said.

In Lauren Kim’s (11) Global Environmental History class, they had done some reading on the Gulf and the Arctic leading up to the event and discussed common misconceptions about the two places, she said. “People think the Arctic is a really barren landscape and the Gulf is untouched by humanity.” It is important for us to realize that we are more connected to these places than we might think, she said. 

Alara Yilmaz (10), a member of GreenHM, the school’s environmental club, attended the event to hear the speakers’ varying perspectives on the environment, she said. Before attending the event, she looked forward to seeing whether or not the information she learned from the speakers would contradict or overlap with what she had learned from GreenHM, she said. 

 Yilmaz has gained more insight into climate issues by attending the series because she has heard many new perspectives, she said. The events have taught her about the history of climate change and her own carbon footprint, she said. 

 Tinaj was excited when she first heard about the opportunity to moderate the event. “I feel that environmental activism and environmental history are very important, so when I learned that they were looking for moderators, I thought it would be a great opportunity to jump on,” she said. “I want to be part of the force that is driving environmental activism.”

Kim found the series to be helpful in allowing her to view nature as a historical actor as opposed to a background, she said. “We often view history with an anthropocentric lens because we only think about humans,” she said. “We should realize that humans are influenced by nature as much as nature influences us.” 

If humans cannot find and implement a solution for climate change, everything we know about how we live will have to be reconstructed, Bales said. “We can think about that now and start turning the ship or we can allow the catastrophe to happen and the people who still remain will have to pick up the pieces and reimagine life.”

One of Tinaj’s takeaways from the event was that climate change is not just a current problem, but that it has been ongoing, she said. Learning about the historical context from the speakers will give the student body a better lens to look through when approaching the climate crisis, she said.  

Bales hopes that students will take away that climate change is a big problem which requires something from all of us, she said. “We all have ways that we can positively contribute through our own talents and inclinations,” Bales said. “I don’t want anyone to have the mindset that if you aren’t inclined towards activism, there is nothing you can do.”