Adam Sundberg – Research Statement

I am first and foremost an environmental humanist. Many of the central ideas and core themes of this area of investigation inform my research and writing. The broad scope of environmental history in particular encourages me to think expansively about human interactions with non-human nature both conceptually and methodologically. This is evident in my choice of research topics, the range of my methodological training, and the importance I ascribe to interdisciplinarity. 

My research specializations in the early modern Netherlands and the history of disasters are intimately related. No western European country has been so completely transformed by human influence; an influence punctuated by disaster in the early modern period. My interests in the history of veterinary medicine, climate change, water engineering, and the cultural and religious dimensions of environmental change reflect the equal attention I give to the cultural, technological, physical, and medical dimensions of environmental history. These seemingly disparate research topics are in fact significantly related during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and I explore their connections in my dissertation Floods, Worms, and Cattle Plague: Natural Disaster at the Closing of the Dutch Golden Age. Employing diverse sources ranging from sermons, to medical texts, to maps, to artwork and surveyors sketches, I argue that these disasters were theologically, environmentally, and economically related; a condition that dictated complicated, and oftentimes contradictory responses. During an era of European history largely defined by drastic industrial, scientific, and political revolutions, this “period of disaster” in the Netherlands was as dependent upon tradition, memory, and custom as it was by innovation and adaptation. This “period of disaster” thesis makes significant contributions to environmental historiography, as well as early modern and especially Dutch history.

The eighteenth century in broader European scholarship is a both dynamic and contentious, an era traditionally defined by radical change. Recent work highlights the contested nature of expansive concepts like the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, re-situating them in space and challenging their uniformly dramatic character. Current historical interest in the Dutch eighteenth century, however, is more nascent, and until recently could be characterized as uniformly stale and reactive. The Dutch eighteenth century has always been eclipsed by the drama and efflorescence of the seventeenth century. My work highlights the uniqueness and complexity of a century, which in Dutch historiography is relatively underappreciated. While no longer a “Golden Age” of innovation in technology, scientific discovery, or cultural production, neither was the eighteenth century a dark age. Rapid and impressive innovations in the context of water management, animal medicine, and natural history accent the era, while at the same time, environmental pressures sometimes yielded surprising inactivity. Dutch reactions to invasive epizootics like cattle plague, for instance, demonstrate the continuity of governmental regulation across half a century, whereas a short-lived and demonstrably less threatening invasive (the shipworm) inspired a national panic and led to the largest redeveloping of water technology in centuries. Rather than an uninspiring and simplistic era of “decline,” this project integrates the Dutch eighteenth century into the dynamic historiography of eighteenth-century Europe.  

Second, my work highlights the importance of natural disasters as drivers of cultural, environmental, and economic change. Over the past twenty years, historical natural disaster research has deepened its analysis and expanded its influence in environmental, social, and cultural history. The influence of the social sciences have led to a distancing of the field from its positivistic roots in favor of a more socially constructivist approach. My work is grounded in this constructivist dialogue, recognizing the importance of perception, for instance, as a key to adaptation. It retains, however, some of the earlier interest in the environmental causation of disaster and the importance of risk as a unifying concept. My work on the shipworm epidemic of the 1730s, for instance, highlights disaster perception and interpretation as key determinants of institutional and technological response. Equally influential, however, were changes in the salinity and temperature of coastal waters that pre-conditioned the spread of this species. Climate and culture are equal actors in this drama. This dissertation’s contention that disasters are socially and materially constructed as well as culturally and economically significant is a middle ground increasingly sought in environmental history.

Third, my research works across spatial scales. Each of my case studies is grounded in local and provincial documentation, from family recipes for cattle remedies to provincial declarations of thanks, fasting, and prayer day to combat the spread of shipworms. Each of these disasters existed in an inter-regional or even global context. Cattle plague affected the ecologies and economies of the whole of Europe, large floods affected the entire North Sea basin during an era of weakening (albeit uneven) providential interpretation of disaster, and the concurrence of all of these events was possibly linked to global fluctuations in climate. None of my findings are complete outside these macro-environmental, intellectual, or economic contexts. Conversely, large-scale disasters also require finer spatial resolution to humanize their cultural relevance.    

Looking forward, my next project will expand on the interdisciplinary groundwork laid in my dissertation but take an even broader, global perspective. It will investigate the spread and development of Dutch water engineering abroad in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Dutch techniques of drainage, canalization, and peat excavation were famously imitated in Western Europe, but less is known about the expansion of Dutch engineering into Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Americas. This topic has the benefit of introducing a global, imperial perspective to Dutch environmental and technological history. Even more compelling are the possible transformative effects that new cultures and new environments may have played in creating new modes of transforming nature. This project will focus on examples of technological synthesis born out of the global exchange of information, environments, and culture.