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Sweden in World History

October 14, 2014

It comes to my mind that I haven’t reported here about two conferences I participated in this past summer, both of which had a “world history” or “global history” flair: the World Congress of Environmental History, held in Portugal in early July, and the US-based World History Association’s annual meeting, organized in Costa Rica a week later.

In Portugal I organized, together with Swedish and Swiss colleagues, a session on global resource colonialism from a small-country perspective. This related to a VR-funded project that I have written about here earlier. Both Sweden and Switzerland, it turns out, have played much more significant roles in colonial-style resource extraction in different parts of the world since the onset of the industrial age – and they continue to do so today. Lea Haller from Switzerland provided an intriguing analysis of her country’s national style in this respect, which shows both similarities and differences with the Swedish style. Publications will follow. As for the Swedish case, my colleague from KTH, David Nilsson, presented the overall scope of our project, whereas I attempted to scrutinize the intimate links between Sweden’s foreign natural resource interests and key changes in the country’s evolving foreign policy from the 1870s (with political “neutrality” as a key concept). We were fortunate to have Corey Ross from Birmingham as session chair and Paul Warde from the University of East Anglia as commentator.

In Costa Rica I presented our colonial project as a whole and was happily surprised to have several leading environmental historians in the audience, including Joachim Radkau, whose work I have long admired (and even written about both once and twice in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet), and John McNeill, who had come to Costa Rica partly to pick a prize awarded by the World History Association. The intellectual program of the conference turned out to be quite rewarding, including a meeting with Lincoln Paine, author of the much-publicized Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World, and some very thought-provoking discussions on the concept of “Big History” (which takes the Big Bang as the point of departure for history-writing). But why is the World History Association such a small organization? The atmosphere at the annual meeting was surprisingly intimate. I dare not speculate about the likely struggles and intrigues, of which I know nothing, when it comes to competing communities in this academic field. Yet I might well be going to the next WHA meeting.

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