Environmental History deals with the historicity of human-environment relations. It focuses on the historical constitution of environmental thought, traces the relationship between environmental changes and political constellations over time, analyses how archival and memory practices shape how humans engage with the environment, and explores how the historical contingency of human-environment relations offer entry points for critique and societal change.
This project examines the history of Soviet glaciological research in the Pamir and Tian Shan mountain systems of Central Asia. Pamir and Tian Shan are part of the Earth’s third-largest ice store, next to the Arctic and Antarctic regions and Alaska, the Pamir-Karakoram-Hindukush-Himalayas. This designated Third Pole has an ice cover of over 100,000 km2. It plays a significant role in global environmental change and the Earth’s climate system. During recent decades, the Third Pole has experienced a general trend of deglaciation. Due to difficulties of access, there is a lack of systematic ground measurements on the Third Pole, particularly for changes in glacier volume (mass balance) over time. However, mass balance data are highly relevant for estimating the impacts of global sea-level rise or regional water availability. In order to estimate changes in ice cover, and their social and environmental consequences, scientists upscale the only available measurement data to regional and global levels. Yet little is known about why and how this data is available for upscaling today. This is problematic, as the upscaling of historical data has methodological, political and ethical implications.
This project examines the history of glacier measurement data. It focuses on the history of Soviet glacier measurements in Central Asia. Soviet scientists established some of the longest measurement series in time for mass balance for selected glaciers in the Pamir and Tian Shan. Their achievements gained relevance in recent research on mountain glaciers and climate change. However, little is known about the history of Soviet glaciology as the scientific discipline that produced this data. This project aims to research the historical practices, geopolitics and epistemology of Soviet glaciology. In particular, it examines how Soviet scientists established the relationship between glacier ice and time. Ice was a marker and icon in debates on climate change from very early on. Chronological glacier measurements established time series, which today inform our understanding of global environmental change related to the Third Pole. Researching the socio-historical formation of ice, or “cryo-history”, contributes to unravelling the ideas of time and history that currently inform scientific concepts of climate change and the Anthropocene.
Project funding: SNF
Prof. Christine Bichsel
Deconstructing steppe imaginaries in Russian and Soviet artistic and scientific literature from 1890 to 1960
The research project aims to deconstruct the notion of “steppe” in Russian and Soviet artistic and scientific literature (1890-1960). It starts from the assumption that “steppe” is not solely a term describing a particular environment, but rather a pivotal idea which has shaped and shapes identities, cultural assumptions, political reasoning and even geopolitical thought.
Existing research demonstrates the centrality of the steppe as a key symbolic figure for Russian history until the 19th century. So far, scholars have neglected to examine the importance of the steppe for the 20th century. Yet, it was during this period that the steppe environments underwent large-scale transformations through processes of land reclamation, irrigation development and industrial agriculture.
We address this gap in research and examine how steppe imaginaries have accompanied these large-scale environmental transformations in relation to state-building and national identity.
Project Funding: SNF, 10001A_162393 (2016-2019)
Dr. Ekaterina Filep
Prof. Christine Bichsel
This research centers on irrigation development on the Hungry Steppe. The designation “Hungry Steppe”, translated from Golodnaya step’ in Russian, refers to an area today shared by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The vast rolling plain of about 1 million hectares has been subject to large-scale land reclamation and irrigation development during the 20th century. For many centuries, prior to these changes induced during the Soviet period, the grasslands and shrubs of the steppe were used by nomadic pastoralists. The advent of irrigated agriculture profoundly transformed the steppe environment into large-scale plantations, with cotton being the predominant crop.
Moreover, resettlement of populations to the steppe, the industrial agriculture in the context of state and collective farms, the construction of new towns and villages, and the building of new transportation and communication facilities fundamentally altered human-environment relationships in this area. While significantly expanding the cultivated area, the campaign’s ambitious targets were never met though. Moreover, it led to great human suffering through forced resettlement as well as to adverse environmental consequences such as soil salinization and pollution, and the shrinking of the Aral Sea.
Prof. Christine Bichsel
This PhD dissertation explores the everyday water politics of rural Kyrgyzstan as they are developed and transformed through human-water relations. The research is located at the interface of environmental history and political geography and is based on three central objectives.
First, the dissertation aims to create a history of everyday water politics in the Chuy and Naryn regions of rural Kyrgyzstan from 1991 to the present. In this context, it examines the nature of the history of water as a form of the knowledge and social practices that have shaped human lives. The study also intends to investigate how humans engage with the range of technological developments in the water supply; thus, it contributes to historical understanding as well environmental and heritage studies. In doing so, there is a need for greater comprehension of narratives and a deep analysis of the historical data on the engagement of water users and their challenges with water in a rapidly changing environment. Furthermore, I call for more attention to socio-political processes and investigate all changes in water politics to enable the possibility of collectively thinking about the historical past, technological progress, innovations, and improvements in the water systems in post-Soviet rural Kyrgyzstan.
Second, the research ponders how water users cope with institutional arrangements. I wish to examine the immense human impact on all watery places in the region and reflect on the local use of water canals and the Soviet piped water system within the community. In doing so, I explore the communities in the districts of Kemin and At-Bashy as a source of opinions, views, and reflections on water usage without which further observations on collective rules and social relations cannot be made.
Third, the research focus is on the human perception of water. I question how modernity appeals to human sensibilities and what water users perceive as modern or traditional. Since I claim that water histories are of historical significance, I attempt to explore the plentiful range of collective memories of local water users. In this way, the project seeks to shed light on the complex geography of human-water interactions in which water users are embedded, with regard to reshaped examples for the diversity and the complexity of watery places in rural Kyrgyzstan.
PhD candidate: Katerina Zäch
Supervisor: Prof. Christine Bichsel
This short video about the dissertation project was created within the scope of a workshop at the University of Zürich, 2020