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The Challenge of Oral History to Environmental History

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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.
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Keywords: climate change; conservation; disasters; environmental change; environmental degradation; environmental knowledge; environmental reconstruction; oral history; traditional ecological knowledge

Appeared or available online: September 21, 2018

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