Sea and Cities: Interdisciplinary Research in the Baltic

The Baltic Sea is one of the largest brackish water bodies in the world. It is an especially sensitive sea, because it is a shallow and semi-enclosed body of water that receives a considerable load of pollutants from the surrounding countries. The pollution of the sea has become one of the most important common environmental issues for countries in Northern Europe. Today's environmental problems are, however, the collective result of political decisions made in the past (not unlike the San Francisco Bay). Environmental historian Simo Laakkonen (Adjunct Professor of Social and Economic History, University of Helsinki) will draw from his experiences in directing multidisciplinary research networks in the Baltic Sea Region as he speaks about doing research on different spatial scales, time spans and with scholars representing science and technology. Maya Peterson (Assistant Professor of History, UCSC) will ask him to reflect upon his experiences of directing this interdisciplinary research group.

4:00-6:00pm | Engineering 2, 475 | October 15, 2014

"Sea and Cities: Interdisciplinary Research in the Baltic"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
15 October 2014
Rapporteur Report by Samuael Topiary
This presentation by environmental historian Simo Laakkonen provided an introduction to the
historical and political aspects of working and studying the ecological history and current state
of the Baltic Sea. One of the largest brackish water bodies in the world, the Baltic Sea is an
especially sensitive sea, because it is a shallow and semi-enclosed body of water that receives a
considerable load of pollutants from the surrounding countries, both western European and
former Soviet bloc countries.

The presentation began by distributing a map of the Baltic Sea region which illustrates the
Cold War divide established in 1945 between the three Socialist states: USSR, Poland and East
Germany, the western European countries of West Germany and Denmark and the supposedly
politically neutral Finland and Sweden. By orienting us geo-politically, Maya Peterson opened
the presentation by invoking the idea of the ecology of war in relation to environmental

Prof. Laakkonen began by explaining that the Baltic Sea is both the most polluted and the most
studied and protected sea in the world. Then, he corrected himself, to clarify that the Baltic is
no longer the most polluted sea; that dubious distinction belongs to the China Sea. He also
explained that the Baltic is a young sea, less than 10,000 years old, formed during the last Ice
Age. This semi-closed sea contains both salt water, in the areas close to the outlet to the ocean
near Denmark, and fresh water from melting glaciers and lakes, which tends to be concentrated
in the northern area between Finland and Sweden and further south and east. Because of this
unusual mix of two different ecosystems, there is a much smaller amount of marine species who
develop and can survive in this mixed habitat. There are very few places in the world which
have this kind of mix of salt and “sweet” water and this, coupled with the fact that the Baltic is a
very shallow sea which can freeze over easily, make the ecological issues with respect to habitat
restoration and pollution cleanup challenging.

The discussion turned to an exploration of the question: “How and why to study the
environmental history of the Baltic Sea?” Prof. Laakkonen outlined what he sees as the three
main challenges for his work: 1) the overall relations between humans and nature 2) the
environmental crisis in relationship to pollution, 3) the lack of a sense of the big picture of
what has happened in the sea as an international picture. He explained that he approaches
these challenges from a multitude of academic disciplinary perspectives. Beginning with a
history of science perspective, his international research team looks at how pollution has been
studied, the various political and cultural as well as scientific approaches to measuring and
understanding pollution and its causes. This approach also requires his team to gain an
understanding of the history of environmental technologies and agricultural technologies
which have been used or continue to be used. This includes an analysis, as much as is
possible, of the types and quantities of chemical fertilizers which different countries have used,
in order to be able to provide analyses of what types of pollution may have been coming from
what sources and when. Finally, Prof. Laakkonen spoke about the inclusion of a history of
policy making and the environmental media which was generated beginning in the 1960s and
70s. He explained that this research work starts at the local level exploring what municipalities
have done in terms of taking care of water treatment, especially in the Nordic countries. From
the local level, this work then expands out to consider any national projects and legal structures
that may influence the environmental management.

One aspect of this work that Prof Laakkonen highlighted was the history of radiation and
radioactive fallout from large Soviet bombs as well as oil spills. Because environmental
awareness and problems of toxicity only began to be studied in the 1960s, Prof Laakkonen
noted the difficulty in gathering data and information that predated the 60s. He also noted that
the development of international cooperation began around marine life protection.
The issues of scales, in terms of timescales, human and geographic scales were discussed in
relationship to understanding water as a crucial resource for people as well as various industries:
fishing, transportation, industry as well as a source for drinking water and recreational
swimming and boating. The potential for international conflict in the management of such an
important resource with so many competing interests is obvious. However, there is also quite a
bit of contention and competition between local and state interests, thus making the needs for
international coordination quite complicated. On the individual level, notions about identity in
relationship to the sea are diverse and encompass people with strong maritime identities who
live along the coastlines vs. urban dwellers who often don’t have the same appreciation or
values when it comes to protecting the maritime environment, and these differences are
politicized. Maya Peterson asked about how the different political histories and the potentials
for conflict between the Warsaw Pact countries and the NATO countries have played out. How
has resource use impacted cooperation and are some countries more responsible for pollution
than others? These questions did not elicit clear answers. Prof Laakkonen suggested, as he did
in answer to many other questions, that the data is as yet inconclusive. However, he did suggest
that our stereotypes of the East as polluters and the West as clean and more concerned with
environmental issues are not necessarily true. He pointed out that how information is framed to
be “policy relevant” and what motivations are in action “behind the scenes” makes the issue of
justice in relation to history difficult to parse.

Andrew Mathews asked about the most surprising pattern that has emerged and if this story has
an impact on scientific research being done today. Prof Laakkonen suggested that there were no
simple answers. He suggested that focusing on one thing means you neglect something else and
that the lure of the simple answer often obscures other truths. He invoked the example of the
disappearance of the crows from Helsinki in the 19th century, suggesting that often causes for
phenomenon are not known for 100 years or more.

Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, UCSC) asked
about the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in the 1950s in the wake of the conversion of
the chemistry industry from war to peacetime uses, tying the ecology of war to agriculture and
plant physiology. Prof Laakkonen said this has not been studied and therefore there is no data,
though he does want to find out how farmers got their information about what to use and he
added that Finnish farmers (unlike farmers elsewhere) were very suspicious of synthetic
fertilizers. A number of other participants asked questions, which were answered
inconclusively, stating that there was “lack of data.”

Maya Peterson closed the session by appreciating how difficult such interdisciplinary and
multinational historical perspectives can be to manage and marveling at the potential such a
study presents. The promise in bringing scientists and humanists together provides an
opportunity for us to learn to trust each other and work together.

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