A few years ago, when people still met in rooms, I was at an oral history conference. It was lunchtime and some meetings of ‘Special Interest Groups’ had been squashed in. I wasn’t sure what one of those was. But people turned up, sandwiches in one hand and juice in the other, and talked about how something needed to be done about climate change and the environment. I chipped in too.
And we all went away again and nothing much happened. Ah, that’s what a Special Interest Group is, I thought, if I thought about it at all.
But as still nothing much happened – except that the world carried on getting warmer and dirtier, of course – it occurred to me that maybe we were missing an opportunity. And around this time the idea that SIGs might actually be important was gaining traction, with the advocacy of Mary Stewart and Craig Fees in particular, and the LGBTQ SIG leading the way. So I got together with a few others – initially Shelley Trower and Padmini Broomfield – and we decided to resurrect the dormant Environment and Climate Change SIG.
I drew up a constitution. I was quickly told it was a mess, more appropriate for a local cricket club than a SIG. Duly and correctly humbled, I realized that a constitution – even a good one – may not be the right place to start. So instead, using a presentation from the King’s College London project Weathering Identity: Weather and Memory in England as bait, people were brought together to talk about ways forward. There seemed to be some interest.
Eventually we held an AGM and officers were elected. But once again I tried the formal route – No, I said, we didn’t need everyone present to introduce themselves and say what they were doing and why they were there, this was an AGM, not a coffee morning. But I was over-ruled by sheer weight of opinion, so people did say who they were and did say what they were doing and did say why they were there. And that was the best part of the meeting, because it threw up questions, people found commonalities, and at the same time was inspiring.
It was clear that climate change and environmental issues are not just matters of science. They are matters that affect every one of us, in our everyday lives, as farmers, office workers, tourists – whatever. So oral history clearly has to be a major tool in the exploration of the effects of changes in the environment and climate. People tell us how they have been forced to adapt, what they are trying to do, and how they feel about the changes over which they feel very little control. The role of oral history in this area, then, seemed clear. But the basic question remained: What is this SIG for?
So I brought in someone I’d worked with before, Kris De Meyer. Kris is a neuroscientist specialising in helping people to think together as effectively as possible (that’s my way of putting it, not his). He led 2 sessions for us, where we explored why we were oral historians in the first place, why we were involved in environmental issues and what we wanted to do. What emerged was that, while we would love to be activists – and, as environmentalists, we could be – as historians we are essentially documenters of the past and present. Of course we can then use what we collect in all sorts of dynamic ways, but still we are historians, so it is through our collecting, archiving and disseminating oral histories that we draw attention to the issues that we believe to be urgent.
But the SIG isn’t a historian, or even an oral history project. So the SIG’s job is different. Its main tasks are, we decided, (at least at this stage): to communicate, to inspire and to support. So we have started to hold webinars. The first one, with 3 presenters, was very successful, and another is now planned. People are excited to hear about the wide variety of oral history work in this area, and this in itself inspires further work. But still there was the question of finding out and communicating what is being done in the field of environmental and climate change oral history (ECC OH) more widely. The idea of ‘mapping’ had emerged from our previous sessions, so when Beth Thomas said she was working on the re-design of the website this seemed the perfect opportunity.
Over a period of months Beth and I had a whole series of Zoom meetings and emails, trying out this way and that way of presenting projects and archives of ECC OH in map form. I had at first thought our activities should be limited to the UK, but climate change doesn’t seem to care much about political borders, so it should have been obvious that we would have to think more widely. As a result we have found ourselves embarking on the somewhat ambitious project of mapping ECC OH work worldwide. To date, we have listed (mapped) 27 projects, from Alaska to the Home Counties to the Himalayas. We know there are hundreds more projects out there and we’re hoping to add them all, one by one. And every project added to the database/map is another project inspiring yet more oral history work in this field, bringing yet more attention to perhaps the most important issues in the world today – and in the world of tomorrow.