Environment and Authoritarianism 2017

General project idea

The project offers a new and truly interdisciplinary initiative to study the evolution of authoritarian systems through the prism of how these regimes relate to their physical environment. It can be argued that there is a strong authoritarian tendency emerging in the Eastern members of the EU, Russia and Turkey, in addition to dictatorships (North Korea, Cuba, China) and other authoritarian state formations (Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Singapore, Venezuela) around the world. We take authoritarian regimes to be defined by their belief in absolute obedience or submission to the government it rules over.

There is a general assumption that, in comparison with ‘liberal’ democratic systems, authoritarian regimes have less concern for nature preservation as they have less apprehension about their citizens’ wellbeing. There is, however, a globally rising awareness of the declining state of the environment (climate change, pollution, resource depletion, overpopulation), that endangers the existence of any human political system. Authoritarian leaders have begun to show more and more interest in global discussions and processes aiming to find joint solutions to the fast deteriorating physical environment. Simultaneously, there is a growing social consciousness and flow of information increasingly generating civic activism with an environmental agenda. Taking into consideration this complex context, the project aims to investigate the nature-culture / nature-society relationship of any modern authoritarian regime. We argue that the basic juxtaposition, irrespective of the sometimes simplifying rhetoric, appears not between nature and humans (i.e. humans are always part of nature, while ‘human-nature relationship’ suggests two separate entities) but between how an authoritarian regime construct its culturally anchored stand to nature.

We approach this topic with the following questions in mind. How do contemporary authoritarian regimes’ attitudes to environment differ from any authoritarian states in the past? How do authoritarian regimes construct and modify their attitudes, rhetoric and policies towards nature and environment? What can a careful interdisciplinary and comparative analysis of the changes in culture-nature/ society-nature relations in an authoritarian regime reveal of the evolutionary phase of the authoritarian system itself?

A short description of the activity

The project brings together historians, scholars of other fields of humanities and social scientists in order to develop an innovative approach to the analysis of culture/society – nature relationship in authoritarian regimes. The project aims to follow a consistent roadmap where the first step is to organize an international seminar ‘Commanding the Environment or Green Dictatorships? in Helsinki. The purpose of this event is to bring together international and Finnish scholars form different networks that have an intersecting interest but represent diverse agendas. We engage some of the most prominent scholars in environmental policy and environmental history of authoritarian regimes: Marco Armiero (Director of the Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm), Stephen Brain (Department of History, Mississippi State University), Eagle Glassheim (Department of History, University of British Columbia), Richard P. Tucker (School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan), Douglas Weiner (Department of History, University of Arizona), Julija Lajus (Laboratory for Environmental and Technological History, St. Petersburg Campus of Higher School of Economics, Moscow), Jonathan Oldfield (School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham), Pepijn van Eeden (Université libre de Bruxelles). We intend to invite representatives of the Network for the Environmental History of Dictatorships (consisting of scholars from the Americas, the European Union, Russia, Tunisia, and Turkey), the Network of Political Ecology and Environmentalism (consisting of mostly from European scientists).

The second step will be to prepare two edited interdisciplinary international volumes (for the Routledge and Pittsburg University Press ) and a special issue on historical comparison for the Journal Environment and History (Impact factor: 0.811), based on the outcome of the workshop.

In the last step the project will produce a course for the University of Helsinki. In addition, together with our international and national partners we will publish a MOOC.


The project leader is Katalin Miklóssy who is leading also the Jean Monnet Module.  The project leader is in charge of the main activities of the project.

Members of the project are Doctoral Candidate Emma Hakala (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki) and Dr Viktor Pál (IEHG, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Tampere). They are responsible for the organization of the international workshop. Emma Hakala will lead the international network to be established by the project and will be the teacher-in-charge for the planned course. Emma Hakala will be the contact person towards the Historian without Borders –network in order to arrange a joint seminar. Viktor Pál will co-edit the international volume and take charge of the MOOC.