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Memory and the environment


Admission requirements

Not applicable


Humans have been drastically affecting the planet’s ecosystems, biodiversity and climate for millenia. As human populations steadily increased in size, other species have been forced to change their habitats and behaviours. Some have become extinct, others have managed to co-evolve in successful ways. These changes have in turn significantly altered human life. Our memories of these changing ecosystems and species are unreliable and selective. Some changes, most notably in the form of extinctions, are remembered and commemorated, while others have been forgotten as a result of what is known as the shifting baseline syndrome: as our surroundings evolved, so did our perception of what is ‘normal’.

This course will look at the fragmented, selective and overall unreliable way humans remember environmental changes of which they themselves have been the cause. The two lecturers will discuss a range of cases, exploring the dynamics of forgetting and remembering changes to our environment, and the relationship between the two. We will address the consequences of the passive forgetting that lies at the basis of our shifting baselines, exploring how people have come to adapt their ideas of what is normal by forgetting earlier environmental states of normality. We will also study how environmental change is actively preserved in collective memory, for example in narratives about natural disasters like floods, droughts, or famines, or in national memory cultures that celebrate iconic landscapes as national heritage in which “imagined communities” can take shape (e.g. German woodlands, Hungarian plains, the Russian taiga, or the Gangetic plains). Extinction events will form another topic of study: we will look the active remembering of extinctions, in the form of monuments, museums and rituals – small islands of purposeful commemoration in a sea of forgotten events.

In addition to an individual research essay that explores the relationship between memory studies and evirnomental history using a self-chosen case study, students will work on a group assignment, concerning the perceived changes in the environment and the non-human world. This assignment will call for active collection of data, for instance in the form of interviews, museum visits, fieldwork or archival research. The collected information will be analysed within the theoretical frameworks of the course, resulting in a group essay and presentation.
Situated on the intersection between Memory Studies and Environmental Humanities, the course will offer theoretical tools in both fields and show how the fields can come together to help provide a better understanding of our relationship to the natural world around us.

Course objectives

After taking this course, students are

  • able to reflect on environmental change from a historical and theoretical perspective

  • aware of and able to apply a range of theoretical concepts and frameworks, essential to the fields of environmental humanities and memory studies

  • familiar with a range of case studies relevant to the field of environmental humanities as well as memory studies

  • able to collect and use data gathered as a basis for critical reflection and further research

  • able to initiate and execute an individual research project, in which they position themselves critically in contemporary scholarly debates, and in which they explicitly frame their own reading/approach


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

  • Research

  • Excursion

Assessment method

Assessment and weighing

  • Individual essay (60% of the final grade)

  • Group research project (40% of the final grade)


The weighted average of the assignments must be at least 5.6, which will be rounded off to a 6.0 (= a pass). A grade between 5.0 and 5.5 for either assignment can be compensated for by the other assignment. Grades below 5.0 for either assignment are not accepted and a resit is required.


In case one (or both) of the assignments receive a grade below 5, a resit is possible, in the form of an individual essay (either new or a rewrite of the original essay). This resit is for the course as a whole and the grade for this assignment comes to replace the two partial grades of the other assignments. The resit grade is therefore automatically the final grade for the course.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be discussed in class. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will be organized.

Reading list

The syllabus will be made available on Brightspace before the course and will contain the following titles, among others:

  • Pauly, Daniel. "Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries." Trends in ecology & evolution 10.10 (1995): 430.

  • Soga, Masashi, and Kevin J. Gaston. "Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences, and implications." Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 16.4 (2018): 222-230.

  • Buell, Lawrence. "Uses and abuses of environmental memory." Contesting Environmental Imaginaries. Brill, 2017. 93-116.

  • Rost, Dietmar. "Shifting baselines: interdisciplinary perspectives on long-term change perception and memory." (2018): 17.

  • excerpts from: Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. Vintage, 1995.

  • excerpts from: Pauly, Daniel. Vanishing Fish: Shifting Baselines and the Future of Global Fisheries. 2019.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.
General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.

Registration Exchange

For the registration of exchange students contact Humanities International Office.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Reuvensplaats


All other information.