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Environment and History

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Environment and History

The Challenge of Oral History to Environmental History

Brian Williams and Mark Riley

Environment and History 26 (2020): 207-231. doi: 10.3197/096734018X15254461646503

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Oral history has much to offer environmental history, yet the possibilities and promises of oral history remain underutilised in environmental history and environmental studies more broadly. Through a reflection on work in environmental history and associated disciplines, this paper presents a case for the strength and versatility of oral history as a key source for environmental history, while reflecting on questions of its reliability and scope. We identify three major insights provided by environmental oral history: into environmental knowledge, practices and power. We argue that, rather than being a weakness, the (inter)subjective and experiential dimensions of oral accounts provide a rich source for situating and interrogating environmental practices, meanings, and power relations. Oral history, moreover, provides a counterweight to a reliance on colonial archives and top-down environmental accounts, and can facilitate a renewal - and deepening - of the radical roots of environmental history. Furthermore, as a research practice, oral history is a promising means of expanding the participatory and grassroots engagement of environmental history. By decentring environmental expertise and eroding the boundaries (both fictive and real) of environmental knowledge production, oral environmental histories can provide key interventions in pursuit of a more just, sustainable world.

KEYWORDS: Oral history, environmental reconstruction, conservation, environmental degradation, traditional ecological knowledge, environmental knowledge, disasters, climate change, environmental change

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