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Travelling along the Volga

Earlier this month I made a longer trip to Russia, where I travelled along the Volga upstreams from Astrakhan and the Caspian Sea to Volgograd, Samara, Kazan and Murom, before finally arriving in Moscow. The Volga region is certainly one of the most fascinating regions of Eurasia, featuring a multiplicity of languages, cultures and religions that make the traveller forget that he or she actually remains in one and the same country: Russia.

But the Volga itself is also an intriguing body of flowing water, with a mesmerizing history of its own. In the early 1870s Ilya Repin painted his famous “Barge haulers on the Volga”, which gives quite a good idea of how the river was used by humans for navigation at that time.

Barge haulers

Just a decade later, the barge haulers had become redundant, as the river barges were switching over from sails and oars to petroleum; the new fuel oil was becoming available in large quantities thanks to the Swedish brothers Ludvig and Robert Nobel, who led the explosive growth of the Russian oil industry down in Baku.

Zoroastr

The real transformation of the Volga as a river landscape shaped by humans, however, came in the Soviet era, when technological hubris led the country’s communist water wizards, championed by Sergei Zhuk, to dam the river at a number of places, creating the world’s largest hydropower plants and a number of huge artificial lakes that totally changed the Russian map. Meanwhile Gulag workers created a canal interconnecting the Volga with the Don, which I went to see in the outskirts of Volgograd (a city more known under its earlier name: Stalingrad).

Volga-Don-Canal

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Volga – as well as the Volga-Don Canal – became sites of nuclear construction. In Samara I spent a few days in the historical archives held by that city, which turned out to contain fascinating materials about Soviet water history, of relevance not least to our NUCLEARWATERS project.

Samara archive

“11. September, rue Toullier” (a keynote lecture)

My second trip to Germany this year took me to Darmstadt, where I had been invited to give a keynote lecture at a conference organized last week by my fellow historians at that city’s technical university: “Urban Infrastructures: Criticality, Vulnerability and Protection“. The event brought together historians, philosophers and social scientists with natural scientists, engineers and state agency representatives in a way I’ve rarely witnessed before. Presentations ranged from Timothy Moss’s sweeping history of Berlin as a vulnerable city in the 20th century, as seen through its infrastructural history, and Uwe Lübken’s interpretation of historical flood experiences in the Ohio River valley to Eva Stock’s report on the practices of actual disaster management efforts in Germany nowadays and Florian Steinke’s critique of the supposedly causal relationship between decentralization and resiliance.

My own keynote address took as its point of departure  the urban infrastructural landscape of early 20th-century Europe, as expressed in literary accounts such as Rilke’s “Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”, where the hero, upon his arrival in Paris, lies sleepless at night, overwhelmed by impressions of the city as an infrastructural space in which “people are running, overtaking one another” while “automobiles drive across me” and “the tram, mad with excitement, races up, and across, and away”. In one of those mysterious coincidences that make human history what it is, those notes are dated September 11, pointing directly, as it would seem, to a later era of anxiety, fear, madness and vulnerability in the world’s great cities.

Taking inspiration from Joseph Tainter’s theory of the “collapse of complex societies”, I explored the phenonemon that infrastructural development makes cities and societies complex, but that it also generates far-reaching vulnerabilities, and that cities and societies tend to cope with these vulnerabilities by adding new things to an already complex world, thus further increasing societal complexity in a way that produces new sets of risks, and so on in a spiralling development that would certainly have interested Hegel and other classical scholars, had they been alive.

Recently, however, one can also discern an arguably worrisome “cult of simplicity“, as I call it, reflecting a public desire to move away from things that are too complicated. Abandoning nation-wide and even transnational transmission systems in electricity (while favouring more local, decentralized solutions) is a case in point, along with the experiments in some urban environments to scrap all traffic lights and traffic signs. Unfortunately, this trend has also spilled over into the political field, where the quest for simplicity and simple solutions to complex problems must be understood as one of the major forces behind the success of populist political parties in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere.

Baltic Environmental Humanities

Earlier this month I went to Riga, just across the Baltic Sea, to participate in the First Baltic Conference on the Environmental Humanities (BALTEHUMS). The conference was originally planned as a small-scale event, as the initiators – a couple of (predominantly young) scholars at home in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – did not think there would be that many people in the Baltics identifying themselves as “environmental humanists”. But in the end nearly a hundred participants showed up, from 17 different countries. At first sight, the notion of a “Baltic” conference would seem to delimit its scope, but in fact it rather served to attract an extremely wide community of scholars who in one or the other way identified themselves with the Baltic region and with the environmental humanities.

During the 1990s and early 2000s I was almost always on my way somewhere in the Baltic Sea region and I wrote several books on various Baltic themes. Since then I have not been around much in the Baltics. With our Cold War Coasts project, however, which received generous funding from Formas in 2017, I am again approaching the region in my research and my writing. Having chaired a session called “Post-nuclear lives and narratives”, I was surprised to find out that my large reserach project on nuclear energy, NUCLEARWATERS, might also benefit from interaction across the Baltic’s waters.

BALTEHUMS offered a unique opportunity to link up with local researchers. The two strongest research environments in the field in the three Baltic countries are probably Tallinn University (which now hosts the Estonian Center for Environmental History, KAJAK) and Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania. Of the non-Baltic countries represented, the Finnish community was by far the largest, followed by the Swedish. It was a pity that so few Russians participated, although this was partly compensated for by the very strong contributions of those who did come to Riga: Alexei Kraikovsky and Julia Lajus, in particular, inspired me greatly through their vivid presentation of “The Baltic Sea in the environmental, technological and cultural history of St. Petersburg”.

However, there are still two huge academic divides between East and West in the Baltic Sea region. The first is intellectual: interdisciplinary and experimental approaches, especially in historical research, appear to have continued difficulties to be properly recognized on the Baltic’s eastern shores. The second is financial: “eastern” Baltic scholars still carry out their work under very difficult economic conditions – nearly three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

New research networks for European natural resource history

I am very happy to see how the Tensions of Europe (ToE) network expands its activities in teaching and researching the history of natural resources. We are a growing community of European scholars, of all generations and at home in a variety of countries, who have taken on the task of digging deeper into the paradoxical and often simply unbelievable past of European natural resource extraction.

In June I organized, together with European colleagues, a ToE workshop here in Stockholm under the heading “Challenging Europe: Technology, Environment and the Quest for Resource Security“, in which we discussed around 17 full-length papers dealing with everything from the fierce struggles for control over 19th-century Russian wood supplies and the Cold War visions of Czechoslovak water management to Germany’s Antarctic krill expeditions and Swedish nuclear fuel imports. The results will now be turned into joint publication projects, in the form of three tentative journal “special issues”. A follow-up will be organized by my colleague Jawad Daheur in Paris in November.

And last week we got to hear that two grants have been awarded for the continuation of our by now rather intense international networking activities in this field. One of the networks will have as its main base the Technical University of Eindhoven and is organized by ToE chairman Erik van der Vleuten. It is called “Global Resources and Sustainability of European Modernization, 1820-2020” (GREASE). The other is led by Matthias Heymann at the University of Århus and has the name of our recent Stockholm workshop: “Challenging Europe: Technology, Environment and the Quest for Resource Security” (EurReS). These new networking grants will allow us to scale up our joint activities and further intensify our cooperation – in a way that is still quite rare for a community of historians.

Why is this valuable? Some of us like to point at the “societal relevance” of our research and teaching activities. And yes, clearly, research and discourses about natural resource extraction is “timely” in the 21st century. But I cannot help feeling that an even greater value lies in the stories themselves that are coming out of what we are doing – and in how those stories force us to view the world in unexpected new ways. To work as an historian in this field is to discover, over and over again, that the past is not what yesterday’s historians thought it was.

Per Högselius gives keynote lecture at coal history conference

Last week I spent in the historical heartlands of the German coal and steel industry: the Ruhr district. As hard coal production in Germany is now coming to an end, historians in the region have increasingly started to reflect on what the long and dramatic age of coal in the Ruhr has meant. At the German Mining Museum (Deutsches Bergbau-Museum) in Bochum a major research project is just about to be finished, and I was invited to give the keynote lecture at the international conference organized in this connection, “Boom – Crisis – Heritage: King Coal and the Energy Revolutions after 1945“. In my talk I decided to reflect broadly on Europe’s energy history over the past 100-150 years, trying to discern, in particular, two major transnational dynamics that over the years have interacted with each other in highly interesting ways and increasingly so as Europe’s indigenous fuel reserves are depleted: on the one hand, internal European integration processes in energy (in material and political terms), and on the other, Europe’s growing entanglements with the rest of the world in energy. Have a look here at my lecture, entitled “The European Energy System in an Age of Globalization“.

Participating in the conference was rewarding. Especially the combined energy history and energy heritage perspectives offered a valuable setting for debate. Coal was, of course, at the centre here, but oil and nuclear power were also touched upon. As for coal, presentations featured studies of Germany, the Czech Republic, Britain, France, Belgium and even China. These all have something in common: coal production has now been totally phased out or, as in the Chinese case, is in a phase of decline. But the “after-lives” of coal mining varies a lot from place to place. Many earlier coal-mining regions are now facing hard times. But in the Ruhr area something very interesting is happening: the whole district is becoming a hugely popular tourist attraction, and the former coal-mining complex of Zollverein in Essen, which we visited as part of the conference, has been turned into a UN World Heritage site that attracts over a million tourists every year – more than any other tourist attraction in Nordrhein-Westfalen, apart from the famous cathedral in Cologne! There is a touristic “Route der Industrie-Kultur” that sweeps across the Ruhr district, and the change of perspective is truly striking. Yet the Ruhr district, once the engine of German industrialization, is still struggling with depopulation and a range of other social problems.

Per Högselius is awarded ERC Consolidator Grant

The contract for my new ERC Consolidator Grant has now been signed by KTH and the EU, and it comes to my mind that I have totally forgotten to write about it here in the blog, although it was announced already last December. The grant is worth €2 million or roughly 20 million SEK, and KTH co-funds it with another 4 million SEK. So from a financial point of view there is no excuse why this grant should not generate exciting new research results.

The project linked to the grant is called NUCLEARWATERS: Putting Water at the Centre of Nuclear Energy History and is set to start in May this year. The ambition is to revise, in a quite radical way, the history of nuclear energy as it has so far been narrated and analyzed. Instead of focusing on the history of nuclear physics, nuclear chemistry and nuclear reactors, I intend to place nuclear water supplies (for cooling the reactors) at the very centre of the story. There is good reason to do so, for example, because if you look into the reports about nuclear accidents and incidents worldwide, you will quickly find that most of them are related to failures of the water supply arrangements: a broken pipe, a valve that has been accidentally left open or closed, a dike that has collapsed, a pump that has stopped working and so on.

The radical implication, from a broader historiographical point of view, is that nuclear energy, seen from this perspective, is perhaps not as modern as it might seem. It is not a radical new technology. Rather, nuclear energy engineering builds on centuries and even millennia of earlier hydraulic-engineering efforts and, culturally speaking, on earlier “hydraulic civilizations” – from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern Netherlands. So the project will integrate the history of nuclear energy into a narrative about a much deeper human past.

Read more about the project here. See also my 2013 report from a seminar I gave at Renmin University in Beijing, in which I initially developed the ideas underlying this project.

The Specter of Scarcity: Hanna Vikström defends her PhD thesis

Last Friday my PhD student Hanna Vikström defended her PhD thesis, entitled “The Specter of Scarcity: Metal Shortages in Historical Perspective, 1870-2015“. Mats Ingulstad from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), a leading expert in the historical study of strategic natural resources, acted as opponent. The venue at KTH was filled to the brim of people eager to take part of this festive intellectual event. For two hours we could enjoy a marvellous discussion between the two, centering on questions such as: Can Sweden really be regarded as a “small nation” in the global world of natural resource extraction? Has Sweden behaved like a colonial power in the resource field, even though it has not had any former colonies? And: To what extent is it possible to draw on experiences from metals scarcity when seeking to understand resource scarcity more generally?

A diverse examination committee, consisting of Julia Lajus from St Petersburg, Anna Sténs from Umeå and Anders Hansson from Linköping, contributed with further questions, for example, about the temporal dimension in the historical study of natural resources: perhaps it is necessary to go back much further in time – at least 500 years? – if we want to fully grasp what hides behind the notion of “resource scarcity”?

Hanna Vikström’s PhD research has aroused a lot of attention already during her studies. She has written popular-science articles and given public lectures on the topic of metals scarcity. She also spent several months at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The five articles in her PhD thesis have all been either already published, or are accepted for publication – all in internationally renowned journals.

Hanna will now embark on the next stage in her academic career: a 2-year post-doc stay at Uppsala University.