Global environmental images: history, politics, culture

We are happy to announce the publication of a special issue on global environmental images in the Open Collections of Geo: Geography and Environment. Sebastian Grevsmühl directed the special issue with papers by Birgit Schneider, Sabine Höhler, Hervé Regnauld and Patricia Limido, Martin Mahony, and Sebastian Grevsmühl. As the editorial introduction states, this issue was put together in order to stimulate a “sustained interdisciplinary inquiry into global environmental images, paying close attention to the nature of this new type of global knowledge, the imaginaries mobilised, as well as the politics, power struggles, asymmetries and marginalisation processes which are inevitably involved when talking about the global environment.”

Framed as an interdisciplinary endeavour, it is probably no surprise that authors come from various disciplinary backgrounds, including physical and cultural geography, art history and media studies, history of science and environmental history. Thus, the subjects, periods and geographical regions covered vary greatly.

In several essays, the nineteenth century plays a pivotal role, mainly because Humboldtian science introduced to the Earth sciences a uniquely holistic approach, the analysis of which is central to many contributions. For instance, geographer Regnauld and art historian Limido identify Humboldt’s work as the first serious investigation into the concept of a global ocean. And in a similar vein, both Sebastian Grevsmühl and Birgit Schneider read Humboldt’s innovative cartographic contributions to the Earth sciences as an important founding moment of modern climatology. In all three case studies, the visual is identified as playing a significant role in emerging notions of “whole earth” thinking. This development intensified of course during the second half of the twentieth century, and most contributions therefore discuss the historically diverse paths taken by these movements towards global and holistic views of the environment. All of the essays insist in one way or another on the complex relationships that exist between the ‘local’ and the ‘global,’ and argue that global environmental views have become a dominant, almost hegemonic trait within the climate sciences and physical geography.

Unsurprisingly, climate change and its consequences feature as a major topic of this special issue, with one aspect in particular deserving more scholarly attention: the politics of the visual. Indeed, one main aim of the special issue was to invite contributions exploring various ways in which images can become political agents. Grevsmühl, for instance, suggests future work might identify and chart out the political spaces of global environmental images: the changing perceptions of the various physical sites from which they emanate, or through analysing the actual technologies involved in creating global environmental knowledge. This may eventually lead to important new questions about who has access to the infrastructures that produce global environmental knowledge, who may speak on behalf of the global environment, or who has the right to control the future – all questions that are picked up by several contributions to this special issue.

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As each global environmental image participates in its own way in a certain mode of storytelling, the framing, the cultural forms mobilised, as well as the mediating technologies involved all play a major role in shaping our ways of knowing, highlighting for instance certain themes and topics whilst obscuring others. This is particularly true for the El Niño case discussed by historian of science Sabine Höhler, who convincingly argues that the nowadays omnipresent satellite framing introduced ideas of controllability and predictability, to the detriment of an ancient oral tradition which insisted rather on the local violence produced by extreme weather events. Other important political effects of the visual can be observed in climate change photography as human geographer Martin Mahony shows, where typification processes can lead to a “simplistic, racialised politics of place,” calling thus for a re-politisation of global environmental images.

As an interdisciplinary inquiry, all contributions to the special issue celebrate a methodological openness which may prove crucial in order to engage in a dialogue cutting across disciplinary boundaries, conceptual frameworks and institutional borders. We invite the reader to explore with open-mindedness some new methodological tools which enable us to engage in a historically informed, critical analysis of global environmental issues.

By Sebastian Grevsmühl (special issue guest editor) and Martin Mahony (Geo blog editor).

All papers are available, open access via the Geo website, and the links below:

Grevsmühl, S. V. (2017) Visualising the global environmental: new research directions. Geo: Geography and Environment, 4:1, e00035, doi: 10.1002/geo2.35.

Schneider, B. (2016) Burning worlds of cartography: a critical approach to climate cosmograms of the Anthropocene. Geo: Geography and Environment, 3:2, e00027, doi: 10.1002/geo2.27.

Höhler, S. (2017) Local disruption or global condition? El Niño as weather and as climate phenomenon. Geo: Geography and Environment, 4:1, e00034, doi: 10.1002/geo2.34.

Regnauld, H., and Limido, P. (2016) Coastal landscape as part of a global ocean: two shifts. Geo: Geography and Environment, 3:2, e00029, doi: 10.1002/geo2.29.

Grevsmühl, S. V. (2016) Images, imagination and the global environment: towards an interdisciplinary research agenda on global environmental images. Geo: Geography and Environment, 3:2, e00020, doi: 10.1002/geo2.20.

Mahony, M. (2016) Picturing the future-conditional: montage and the global geographies of climate change. Geo: Geography and Environment, 3:2, e00019, doi: 10.1002/geo2.19.







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