People in the Spotlight: Austrian Scientist of the Year 2013, Environmental Historian Verena Winiwarter

Bridges vol. 39, May 2014 / Feature Article

By Karolina Begusch Pfefferkorn

This January, Verena Winiwarter was named Austrian Scientist of the Year 2013. She is the first environmental historian to receive this award, given by the Austrian Club of Science and Education Journalists to honor Austrian scientists who put special effort into communicating with nonscientific audiences, thus contributing to a better public perception and understanding of scientific research. Since 1994, many outstanding scholars have received this award: Other well-known recipients include recently honored Georg Grabherr, a vegetation ecologist and mountain researcher, and Sabine Ladstädter, an archaeologist.

Bridging the gap in communication

Winiwarter very much appreciates the Austrian science journalists’ recognition of her efforts in communication. However, she does not believe in what is called the “dialogue of science and society,” focused on presenting scientific results to the public. Instead, she emphasizes transdisciplinary work, which to her means “working together with nonscientific experts in a respectful way, in the research process”. “Nonscientists provide knowledge that is vital to our ability to produce meaningful insights for them, asking us (the scientists) to support problem solving,” Winiwarter says. “Even though scholarly knowledge and practical knowledge are different, they have to be valued equally.”

Winiwarter is convinced that general education should include training to question what scholarly knowledge is able to deliver and questioning the limits of knowledge. She argues that nonscientists should actively engage with scientists. This, of course, depends on meaningful education, which should start at a very young age. She asks, “Why shouldn’t young people have access to 17th century agricultural books, study them, and try to come up with an idea how the 17th century Improvement Movement worked?”

The environmental historian

Winiwarter is not only the first environmental historian to be honored as Scientist of the Year; she was the first-ever Austrian environmental history professional! After having graduated from high school and having earned an engineer’s degree in technical chemistry, she gained experience in environmental analytics while working at the Technical University of Vienna. A few years later, while still in the lab, she started to study history at the University of Vienna, where she was the first person to write a doctoral dissertation on environmental history. In 2007, after 25 years of working on projects – which often happens to women in science, while their male colleagues gain tenure – she finally occupied a permanent professorship, becoming the first Austrian professor of environmental history.

Since 2010 Winiwarter has been dean of the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Alpe-Adria-Universitaet Klagenfurt. For her, breaking through the glass ceiling was only possible due to a very unique combination of factors. One was her interdisciplinary background. Another was her receiving the Firnberg scholarship – a program promoting women in science, launched by the Austrian Science Fund – which in the end enabled her habilitation. “I would appreciate it if the scholarly world didn’t need such programs any more but for the time being they are still necessary,” she says.

What Winiwarter loves about environmental history is the opportunity “to discover fascinating people from the past and, in general the experience of how the past can surprise you over and over again – something you can’t get from any other profession.”

Environmental history

Winiwarter is delighted that, due to her recent honor, public knowledge about environmental history has been boosted an extent that is quite unbelievable.

Environmental history deals with the connection between culture and nature over time. Humankind has always been interfering with nature, which has had impacts on nature itself and on society. Still, human efforts quite often result in additional unintentional impacts on the environment or on economic and social conditions.

The Environmental History of the Viennese Danube (ENVIEDAN), for instance, shows that without human intervention the Danube would be much further from Vienna than it is today. It would have meandered and moved northeast (whereas it actually moves southeast these days). Winiwarter claims that, “One of the most important outcomes of ENVIEDAN is to understand how profoundly important long-term human intervention, not in the 20th or 19th, but way back in the 16th century, was for keeping the river near the city. This insight can only be gained from a long-term perspective.” Today, for example, a major part of the Viennese population lives in low-lying parts of the (former) floodplain and depends on protective infrastructure.

ENVIEDAN focuses on the changing role of the Danube for the city of Vienna from 1500 to 1890. In particular, it analyzes interventions initiated by Viennese authorities and organizations to secure the functions of the river for the city, as well as to protect humans and infrastructure from the river’s threats. One publication, a thematic issue of the International Journal of Water History, describes the long-term legacies of human interventions into the riverine landscape.

In September 2013 Winiwarter, along with her team, was one of only a few groups to receive the honor of contributing their project ENVIEDAN to the brochure Humanities in the Societal Challenges. 12 Compelling Cases for Policymakers. This brochure is published by Science Europe, an association of major European Research Funding Organizations and Research Performing Organizations, and acknowledges how the humanities are actually contributing to tackling the societal challenges.

“They invited us because we do interdisciplinary work,” says Winiwarter, “so we are challenged to talk in a language that can be understood by different disciplines, and thus also by the public and politicians.” The project team also had to engage with the local stakeholders of the city of Vienna, who wanted to know how they could benefit from the project. “For them we have to identify a lesson,” Winiwarter continues, “whereas pure humanities’ projects often are reflexive and critical and don’t want to be shortened to one sentence, which actually is flawed and reductionist. However, if scholars give all the complexity they don’t offer support for decision making.”

Environmental history originated in the US

While interaction between nature and humans had long been studied as part of geography and within history, environmental history as a stand-alone discipline emerged in the 1970s, and had its origins in the United States. For Europeans this might seem rather surprising, since their common belief is that environmental issues barely receive attention in the US. However, looking back in history, one can see a fundamental difference between the American and certainly the German-speaking world. Several of the earliest German nature conservationists had promoted ideas eagerly taken up by National Socialists past or were directly involved, as Winiwarter says, whereas the Americans were completely devoid of any suspicious political history. Writers such as George Perkins Marsh, Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, not forgetting Rachel Carson with Silent Spring, inspired historians who enjoyed nature, saw its steady human-caused destruction, and started to seek explanations. Agent Orange, the dioxin-laced herbicide used during the Vietnam War as part of the aerial defoliation program, was an additional factor that triggered the Environmental Movement in the US. This was completed by large civil society organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, which gave environmental historians a societal context to work in. In addition, writers such as John Steinbeck – whose novel, The Grapes of Wrath,dealt with the exodus from the Great Plains to California because of soil degradation and erosion – raised issues that were taken up by environmental history in the US.

Evolving from studying nature conservation issues, environmental history has broadened in different areas – now covering various topics from climate history to the impacts of mining, from continental drift to urbanization – and has grown into an international, interdisciplinary full-fledged academic field. This is reflected in newly established academic institutions, scientific societies, and renowned scientific journals.

Society benefits from environmental history

One of the most important lessons from environmental historians is that nature does not return to a previous state. As an example, Winiwarter suggests looking at the Spanish colonial powers in Mexico.

“The Spanish denuded Mexico’s forests for silver mining from the 16th century onwards. By the middle of the 17th century, most of the forest near the mines, an area as big as Poland, was gone. This forest never grew back. Forests had started growing on the mountains under the different climatic conditions of the post-ice-age era. They could persist, because the forest itself created the microclimate needed to make trees grow even under hotter and drier conditions, but under such conditions, it cannot regrow now. Environmental history research can show this kind of irreversibility,” she says.

Another highly relevant topic Winiwarter deals with is soil history. While most environmentalists are talking about climate change, she feels that the problem of soil degradation – erosion, compaction, acidification, salinization – is neglected by the surrounding political debate. “This is probably due to the fact that soil is owned as territory and thus nobody wants to take up this matter,” Winiwarter assumes. Soils must be considered a non-renewable resource, which takes thousands of years to regenerate. The survival of human communities has always depended on soils, during the agricultural age more directly than today. Though people in the past didn’t know much about the function of soils, they had discovered ways to restore soil fertility, because it was essential to their survival. “We can learn from people who over hundreds of years learned how to restore soil fertility, be it with ashes from burnt weeds or dust from the street, burned soil of molehills or the remains of brewer’s yeast,” Winiwarter says. “In the post-fossil age, nutrients will become scarce again due to the high costs of producing (synthetic) fertilizer.”

Interdisciplinary work

Environmental history is an interdisciplinary research field practiced by historians, geographers, anthropologists, archaeologists, ecologists, agricultural and forest scientists, and many more – a total of about 3,000 people worldwide. Winiwarter even thinks that each individual discipline, from theology to particle physics, would be of interest and could open a whole world of new questions on environmental history.

Interdisciplinary work requires focused communication and thus needs attention to communicative settings. For the field of environmental history, it is important to start integrating views using a written source such as a monastic chronicle or a map or the landscape itself, something tangible for all to talk about and exchange their viewpoints. “To put it briefly, you need respect, courage, curiosity, and mutual trust,“ Winiwarter says, “whereas ontologies, structures for databases, and ways to combine quantitative and qualitative material are practical issues that can be solved once you know why you are doing it.”

Collaboration with North America 

Winiwarter and her students discussing a map of the Viennese Danubeand its tributaries, the focus of her new project URBWATER.When Winiwarter started her environmental history research in the 1990s, she was the only one in this disciplinary field in Austria. However, she was determined to continue her approach and to develop the field in Austria when, in 1999, she met a number of like-minded scientists at the American Society for Environmental History Conference in Baltimore. It was her third visit to the US since a 1989 trip with her husband, then a postdoc at Brigham Young University in Utah, and a visit to Hawaii in 1990. She has since collaborated with many institutions in North America, including Georgetown University, University of British Columbia in Vancouver, York University in Toronto, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and the University of Saskatoon.

The future

Talking about the future, Winiwarter does not hide her concern about general trends in the world of science and academia. It bothers her that a scholar’s quality is only measured by publication numbers and impact factors. “This is because nobody wants to take responsibility for the content and its quality, everything has to be cut up into pieces that can be measured – a countable number of publications – so that everybody can argue that they have met their quality-control obligations.”

Nonetheless, Winiwarter is looking forward to her new projects. She will investigate Jesuit sugar plantations in Ecuador and their transformation after the Jesuits were expelled. She expects to gain insights into why the environments they settled are different from the rest of the country today. Another planned project will deal with the environmental history of the rural periphery of Austria and the question of how it was transformed by the ERP (European Recovery Program), also known as the Marshall Plan.

“When I started to be an environmental historian, environmental history was nonexistent in this country. But it has gained a lot of popularity now, which makes me really happy,” she says.

Considering the “grand challenges,” be it climate change or the scarcity of resources, there is an important lesson to be learned from environmental history. Human interventions in nature and the over-exploitation of nature’s capacity are long-lasting and self-binding legacies, which have profound impacts on living conditions not only in the present, but also for generations to come. Winiwarter emphasizes, “Insights from environmental history research can help to reduce the risk of making errors, costly in terms of economic and social consequences, and guide us to more sustainability in the future.”

***

Karolina Begusch-Pfefferkorn is a Visiting Expert  at the Office of Science and Technology Austria.  She has worked for the Ministry of Science and Research since 2008 and is currently the head of Unit Ecology, Resource Management and Sustainability, being responsible for strategic development and coordination of the earth system sciences. Since 2013 she has been in charge of supervising the Austrian Geological Survey. In addition, she is an entrusted officer of gender and diversity.   Karolina holds a PhD. in biology from the University of Vienna. Over the years she has coordinated research programs for the Ministry of Science dealing with sustainable development of nature and society.