Managing the Unknown: Natural Resources and Reserves in History

Feb 21, 2008 - Feb 23, 2008

Conference at the GHI | Convener: Uwe Lübken (GHI), Frank Uekötter (Deutsches Museum München)


Call for Papers

Since the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” resource problems have been a major focus of research among environmentalists. Conflicts over water and oil, over mineral deposits and timber reserves are familiar issues in environmental history as well as in ongoing political discussions. The debate over “peak oil” is only the most recent in a long series of debates over dwindling reserves. The underlying assumption in many of these debates is that we have a rough estimate of the size of the remaining material. But what if the situation is not so clear? What if the size of the reserve is difficult to quantify? If the uses are diverse and subject to change? If patterns of use change in the future in ways that cannot be predicted? 

Forests, for example, were open to a multitude of uses, and forest reserves were difficult to quantify far into the age of scientific forestry. Fishermen usually relied on little more than a vague estimate of available fishing stocks that often had more to do with wishful thinking than actual knowledge. Fertile soils allowed a wide array of agricultural uses; likewise, rivers could be sources of water for drinking and irrigation, sewers for human and industrial wastes, habitats for fish and aesthetic treasures all at once. In discussions of the Amazon rain forests, many environmentalists have pointed to the richness of the genetic pool and the possibility that species facing extinction may have undiscovered uses for humans. In short, ambiguities about natural reserves abound. It is equally clear that reserves play an important role for sustainable development. But given the importance of reserves for sustainability, humankind must address a fundamental question: How can we think clearly about reserves when they are so difficult to describe and quantify?

We invite participants to look at these reserves from multiple angles. One of them is the perspective of a person, group or institution making decisions on a certain reserve. To what extent do reserves of this kind allow a rational approach to resource use? How do people define criteria for rational use in the absence of clear parameters? How do they explain and legitimate decisions that are based on incomplete and deficient knowledge? To what extent does this situation encourage research, and how should we evaluate corresponding efforts? In short, to what extent were restrictions on the use of “unknown” reserves the result of a purposeful resource management, rather than arbitrary acts? Or does uncertainty about the extent of reserves inevitably provoke unsustainable use?

Another important perspective looks at the meaning of reserves for societies in general. The assumption is that reserves as described above frequently act as “buffer areas” that provide a kind of “insurance” for unexpected events. Forests provide a case in point. In the case of a severe winter or war, they can offer firewood in excess of sustainable yields, or large amounts of timber if a fire destroys a city. They store water, and they can be converted into agricultural land if need be. Rich soils and a wide array of domesticated species allow a shift to other modes of agriculture if the dominant crops run into trouble; water reserves act as a backup in case of drought. We are interested in historical case studies that emphasize this function.

Industrialization and globalization have created an unprecedented hunger for resources that seems to set the exploitation of reserves above all else. Are reserves in the modern world – whether known or unknown – therefore doomed to be used and consumed at some point? And what does that mean for the sustainability of modern societies? One of the arguments to be explored at this conference is that a society‘s degree of ecological stability depends to a notable extent on these “hidden” ecological reserves.

Finally, what cultural strategies can we detect in managing unknown reserves? Was the expected depletion of a major reserve perceived as a coming crisis and if so, how did societies react to this development? How has the scientific and popular discourse on natural reserves shaped the way they were used? The conference sees these approaches as complementary to each other, and encourages contributors to combine several perspectives. Since this is a pioneering project, methodological questions will have to be addressed. Theoretical approaches that apply to more than one type of resource are especially welcome. As the conference seeks to look at similarities across national, chronological and topical boundaries, contributions should be open for interdisciplinary communication.

Please send a proposal of no more than 500 words and a brief CV via email to Bärbel Thomas. The deadline for submission is July 15, 2007. Participants will be notified by mid-August. The conference will be held in English and focus on the discussion of precirculated papers of about 7,000 to 8,000 words (due by January 15, 2008). The GHI will cover the cost for travel and accommodations of participants. Please send inquiries to Uwe Lübken (e-mail).

Please send applications to:

Bärbel Thomas
Managing the Unknown
German Historical Institute
1607 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20009

Tel: +1-202.552.8931
Fax: +1.202.483.3430